Poet Greta Bellamacina is a stealth cultural crusader. An enigmatic beauty – part English rose, part vamp – with a mind to match, she steps into the fashion pages of magazines, films and collaborations for luxury brands including Chanel, Burberry, Fortnums and Mulberry and, once there, brings her poetry into play. Fashion and art are long-time bedfellows, but poetry is a more-tricky-to-please lover. Yet Bellamacina, who has been compared to women as diverse as the confessional American poet Anne Sexton and singer Adele, seems to be able to play her hand so it works for both parties. “Tomorrow, true glamour is kindness,” she says in one poem, read while modelling a collection for Mulberry.
Tomorrow’s Woman, Bellamacina’s beguiling, urgent, beautiful, lamenting, tender and powerful ode to the complexities of contemporary womanhood, has had several colourful incarnations before becoming the title poem of her new anthology, published this month. In 2017 it featured in a windswept online video campaign for cashmere brand John Smedley, while its key words and lines were embroidered on a collaborative capsule collection. Other poems from the collection appeared in her beautiful, touching and unexpectedly funny feature film, Hurt by Paradise, which she directed and starred in, and which was nominated for the Michael Powell Award at the Edinburgh Film Festival. Alongside the print publication, indie band Khartoum have set an audio recording of poems from Tomorrow’s Woman in a “musical landscape”. “With poetry, it can be nice reading it to yourself, but sometimes when you hear it or you put it to music, or in a film, it can elevate it quickly and unexpectedly,” says Bellamacina. “For me, poetry has always been about finding a way to be honest and change people’s minds in the shortest time you can, on whatever platform you can get.”
It’s perhaps surprising to see some of the haunting poems from the anthology, which address pregnancy, ocean pollution, homelessness and ending period poverty, appearing in polished brand campaigns, but it’s a cultural Trojan horse. For many 21st-century poets, new and unconventional platforms are key to power – take Instagram, where bite-sized morsels by the likes of Canadian Rupi Kaur (@rupikaur: four million followers) are dubbed “Instapoetry”, or Beyoncé’s Lemonade, which featured extracts from work by Somali-British poet Warsan Shire (@wu_shire).
Bellamacina, the second eldest of five children raised in a creatively chaotic London home by her songwriter father and academic mother, and in whose circles she counts singer Florence Welch and The Vampire’s Wife’s Susie Cave, has also been poet-in-residence at LA hotel Chateau Marmont, performed at Naomi Campbell’s Fashion Relief philanthropic event, and woven her poems into the fabric of couture in Valentino’s fall 2019 collection. For the latter, Pierpaolo Piccioli commissioned a collection of love poems from various writers, which he both incorporated into designs and bound into a book for guests at the catwalk show. “I was blown away by the show. It was theatre, it was poetry – and it was such a pleasure to see what someone had spent hours creating,” says Bellamacina. “Putting poetry into places you wouldn’t ordinarily find it” is part of her modus operandi, to draw more people into sharing her passion.
In 2016, with her husband, the conceptual artist and poet Robert Montgomery, Bellamacina launched New River Press. “Our mission statement is poetry for sad times; I think we desperately need optimism and hope – and to be fearless with that optimism, because that will help real change,” she enthuses. Romantically, Bellamacina says the couple were inspired by Leonard and Virginia Woolf: “We started New River Press in one room, under the shadow of the BT Tower – we were sad that there wasn’t a space that was publishing contemporary paid poetry, and every day we’d walk past the plaque where they started the Hogarth Press, in their living room, and ended up publishing books like Mrs Dalloway… and we were, like, maybe we should do that too.”
They now publish work by writers including Barbara Polla, “a poet in her 60s who talks about her second life and her sexual liberation”, and Robert Lundquist, “who had lots of work published in the ’70s, but became homeless and a drug addict, and then had nothing published. But his writing is so inventive – and poetry has to reinvent language and find the magic in the mundane…” The germination and nurturing of the press has been in parallel with the birth of her two sons Lorca, four, and Lucian, one.
Following on from more than a decade of performing in poetry cafés and a nomination for Young Poet Laureate in 2014, Tomorrow’s Woman is Bellamacina’s third published collection – but the first under the auspices of US publisher Andrews McMeel Universal. A stateside platform, a new audience base and a new mouthpiece for the work feel significant. “It’s a coming-of-age work, a philosophical collection about time and an exploration of what it is to be a woman today,” she says of the book, which touches upon such subjects as “leaving home and not coming back, changing but not really changing, becoming a mother, loves you leave behind, and loss. And how life and death are closely connected.” She pauses, then adds: “Being a mother, when you give birth, you almost give death as well.”
During the edit of the collection, it also became apparent that “it was a portrait not just of myself, but also of now.” So there are beautiful, heartbreaking musings on Brexit (in Missing Europe, the continent is a lover, missing from the bed); on Calais and the Jungle, and the homeless crisis.
The publisher is also re-releasing Smear, the collection of poems Bellamacina edited by female writers she admires and performs with, including Lisa Luxx and Joelle Taylor; women who are “breaking boundaries and being so honest… talking about abortion, body image and sexuality – and using poetry as a space to be candid.”
“It is an exciting time to be a poet, because there are so many opportunities,” she concludes. “So many of the books I love were published after the poet had died, so the people today who are being radical, and breaking new platforms, and putting poetry in unexpected places, are all helping a new generation of writers and poets feel that there is a place for them.”
Greta Bellamacina’s poetry recommendations:
Crow, Ted Hughes
This is, for me, the best thing Ted Hughes ever wrote, and is filled with dark humour and surrealist imaginings – told through the eyes of a crow. The collection questions the power of hope in the world, and is about the crow’s odyssey in search of its female creator – it’s very forward-thinking. And it has my favourite love poem, called Lovesong; a beautifully complicated poem filled with equal measures of light and darkness.
Howl, Allen Ginsberg
This is Ginsberg’s masterpiece, his spiritual rallying cry. When I was 18, I made a pilgrimage to the City Lights bookshop in San Francisco, where Lawrence Ferlinghetti first published the collection, to buy a copy. For me, and many people, Howl is one of the most important Beat poems – Ginsberg’s remedy for the spiritual crisis of the modern world. One of the first works in the collection is Footnote to Howl, aka Holy, and one of my poems, Church, pays homage to it, as it tries to find the sacred in the everyday.
After Mozart (Heroin on 5th Street), Robert Lundquist
Lundquist is one of the great lost poets of our time. We met once in San Diego, when he came to one of Rob’s shows and said he liked our work. He showed us his poems, some of which he had published when he was about 20 – but then he became homeless and a drug addict and didn’t publish anything for 50 years or so. This collection is everything he has ever written and is his first book. It is a really beautiful underground depiction of Los Angeles, filled with existential noir melancholy, stories of him meeting Charles Bukowski and Raymond Carver, and his meditations on alcoholism and recovery.
Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth, Warsan Shire
I came across Warsan’s work when I was shortlisted for Young Poet Laureate in 2014, which she won. There is a raging truth to everything she says. I love her line: “No one leaves home unless home is in the mouth of a shark.” She makes you question, as a reader, your own sense of security, and is brilliant at writing about her experiences and her family’s experience of being a refugee.
The Awful Rowing Toward God, Anne Sexton
Published after Anne Sexton died, this collection is a dark foreboding of her own death, filled with confessional musings on her place in the world, the place of death in the world and her questioning of religion and God. The title came from a Catholic priest who said that God was in her typewriter.