Greta Bellamacina featured in Hunger Magazine- photographed by Fenton Bailey all clothing is by John Smedley celebrating her feminist collection "Undammable".
Greta Bellamacina + Lorca in new AW17 Shrimps campaign, images by Oliver Hadlee Pearch
Obsessed with poetry as a young girl and encouraged to put pen to paper by her musician father, it wasn't long before Greta Bellamacina started writing poetry of her own. In 2011, the ex-RADA student released a limited edition collection of poetry entitled Kaleidoscope,and was shortlisted for the Young Poet Laureate of London two years later. Since then her work has been featured in numerous magazines, from Vogue to Interview, Lula to Harper's Bazaar, while in 2013 she edited a collection of poetry called Nature's Jewels, in collaboration with MACK publishers. Presently poetry editor of Champ magazine, Greta has just finished editing A Collection of Contemporary British Love Poetry, in collaboration with Fortnum & Mason, a comprehensive study of the many facets of love, and the feelings we associate with it, featuring work from Wendy Cope, Amy Blakemore and Annie Freud. She is currently working on a collection of poetry with artist/poet Robert Montgomery as well as a project she holds very dear to her heart: saving Britain's libraries. Introducing Greta Bellamacina.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Camden - I think there was a kind of madness of soul growing up around that area.
When did you first become interested in poetry?
My father is a musician and would endlessly play melodies on the piano and encourage me to write the lyrics, but they were always more like poems. I don't think I really became interested in it properly until I was at school - I remember being really drawn to Lord Byron's epic poem Don Juan.
Was there a standout poem or poet that made you want to write your own?
Growing up I read a lot of poets like Anne Sexton, Phillip Larkin, and Ted Hughes. I think I was drawn to their open despair, humanity and unapologetic verse. I would also buy CDs just to read the lyrics in the jacket cover - a sort of talking word poetry. But I now feel connected to more metaphysical poets like Alice Oswald and Octavio Paz who have a way of looking at landscape as a continuous home - I am interested in this idea more and more.
Where do you get your inspiration from?
Drifting. I interviewed John Cooper Clarke last week for the documentary I am currently making and he mentioned that the "point of a poet is to be idle." I think just kicking things around and being unknowing leads to great inspiration.
What poem do you read when you feel sad?
Over the summer I was shown the poem Free Union, by Surrealist poet André Breton. It starts "My wife whose hair is a brush fire / whose thoughts are summer lighting..."
What's the greatest love poem of all time?
Lovesong, by Ted Hughes. The idea of love being a ghost, which haunts us all to our bones and dreams without a face. I also think Stag's Leap by Sharon Old is an epic love poem to her ex-husband. A brave and muffled account of love - truly beautiful.
How did the Collection of Contemporary British Love Poetry come about?
I was performing at various literary festivals last summer. I ended up ranting about wanting to edit a collection of contemporary British love poems at Port Eliot festival to Ewan Venters one night, as I'd noticed there weren't any. I think we should support and promote contemporary poetry, it seems absurd not too.
Tell me a bit about the Save the British Libraries initiative, how you got involved with it and what it means to you?
Growing up I would always use the local library to study and escape, with its kind of gentle safety. Over the past few years I have been deeply saddened by the cuts that are causing some libraries to shut down. I decided I wanted to make a 30-minute documentary about why we should keep the local British library - and offer some solutions. I have had some amazing support from Stephen Fry to William Sieghart.
Tell me a bit about the poetry book you're doing with Robert Montgomery? Do you write together? If so, how did you reconcile your styles of writing, thinking and working?
We started writing together a while ago and decided our styles seemed to compliment each other. The poems all come back round to the idea of being British, the night buses going round the circus squares of London, the left-over mornings of the week, and the BT privatisation.
What advice would you give to aspiring poets?
I would say, you've got to be self-published. I think the internet has helped to make poetry more democratic with an open audience. Also I think poetry exists in many different mediums and it's about finding your authentic voice through any one of them.
Do you use the publicity you get from being a model to promote your poetry or do you see both modelling and writing poetry as part of the same creative outlet?
I think fashion, like art and music, are connected to statements. I think you should use all forms of creativity to say something and connect them as much as possible because it challenges the medium.
What are you working on at the moment?
Finishing the documentary. I am about to go up to Scotland to film the first library built in Britain by Scottish miners. Libraries are like churches for people, in all seasons of hell.
Greta Bellamacina began writing poems as an outlet for the quietly raging world inside her head. "As I've gotten older, I feel more compelled to write about the world we live in," she says. "It's a writer's responsibility." The unfair representation of power and a distorted media is something Greta writes about often, notably in the collaborative collection she wrote with her husband, the artist and poet Robert Montgomery, Points For Time In the Sky.
Her most recent book Perishing Tame questions identity: "What it means to be female, to live in a world that still uses the terms like 'others'. I wrote a lot of poems about the refugee crisis."
As a means of supporting and nurturing other poets Robert and Greta set up New River Press. All poets receive 50% of profits from their sales. Both naturally drawn to the unheard and surreal, they wanted to celebrate those who "weren't being published, like our literary hero Heathcote Williams, because their work was considered too political, too irreverent."
Afterlight, Greta's forthcoming collection due for release next year, sets about rejecting conventional ideas of aspiration in favour of regaining an adolescent sense of love, mystery and place.
2016 has been another strong year for women crafting poetry that infiltrates the mainstream culture psyche. We heard Warsan Shire, the Somali poet, on Beyonce’s Lemonade, Instapoet Rupi Kaur, Ashlee Haze’s evocative stanzas on Blood Orange’s Freetown Sound and Siana Bangura’s Elephant came out of London’s DIY scene to illustrate the ins and outs of black womanhood. Now poet, filmmaker and model Greta Bellamacina’s SMEAR is platforming the poetic works of women, exploring everything from self-image to relationships, the shaky framework of beauty ideals and bodily autonomy.
SMEAR, the name of the collection, recalls an aspect of many women’s lives that’s quote confronting – the smear test. “It’s one of those words that tends to make you shudder,” says Bellamacina, but it’s frank and unapologetic in its examination of elements of womanhood.
“There doesn’t seem to be anything quite comparable in the poetry world,” Bellamacina says when discussing SMEAR. “I didn’t feel there was a comfortable place for young women in their teens and early twenties to voice their thoughts, their politics, their emotions through poetry. I found it frustrating myself growing up and I know a lot of poets who get disheartened early on. I wanted this collection to be open to first-time poets.”
Bellamacina put out a call on her New River Press Instagram, whittling down hundreds of submissions to 20, alongside some established artists. Primarily though, SMEAR is for first-time, emerging poets.
As well as Lisa Luxx, Katherine Vermillion and Afshan Shafi, the collection includes more emerging voices. “Sarah Roselle, Luisa Le Voguer Couyet (of Hate zine) and the young Russian poet Galina Rymbu, who I believe we’re the first to publish in English – she’s something like the poetry equivalent of Pussy Riot,” Bellamacina explains.
The poetry in this particular collection is world-spanning, uncovering the familiar, the light, the dark enclaves of womanhood. “I wanted SMEAR to be a collection of poems a mother might buy her daughter,” she says. “But also a collection of poems a daughter might buy her mother – poems that speak honestly about growing up.”
As poetry envelops Instagram pages and some of the year’s biggest album releases, it may seem like poetry is, at times, stepping away from its original origins of pen and paper, but Bellamacina sees it as an opportunity to carve another new space. She explains: “I think as screens take us over more and more the quiet space of books becomes even more valuable and more important. I feel like digital screens keep us in a slightly frantic mental space – and with a book in your hand you can go off-grid and be in your right mind.”
“I think the quiet space of books is more important than ever. Also, for the new poets we have in this book, I think it gives you confidence to see your work on the page.”
The sentiment for SMEAR, and New River Press, is that poetry is about honesty in the imperfections. “It is one of the rare art forms which mirrors human consciousness, there is a complexity to it which is comforting, because life is complex,” says Bellamacina. In a year of political and social turmoil, poetry is grounded and democratic in its emotion.
SMEAR is available from December 16 from New River Press here.
“I think poetry is so innate within us,” preaches Greta Bellamacina. “Why do we write poetry? We’ve been doing it for years. Why is poetry read at both funerals and weddings? It’s quite a profound language because it’s such a complex thing, it holds so many emotions. It has so much light and shade and I think that if it can touch you in a 100 years, and touch someone else in a 1000 years, I think that it’s doing a good job.”
The London-born actor, filmmaker, model and—you guessed it—poet tells me she can’t even remember when she began to compose her own works. Having grown up with a musician for a father, there was a lyrical quality instilled into Bellamacina from near enough birth (she’s wearing a Blondie pin on her leather jacket when we meet in Peckham). “Cleaning out my flat recently, I’ve come across some really old books,” she half laughs, half grimaces, “bad poems, stuff I probably wrote when I was 10.”
All that practise was worth it, Bellamacina was shortlisted as the Young Poet Laureate in 2014 after publishing her first collection, Kaleidoscope in 2011. Her signature is her penchant for social commentary, which led to her appointment as brand ambassador for knitwear label, John Smedley this season. She looks to the world around her not only when penning her own verses, but also when compiling the work of her peers. “I just published a book called SMEAR,” she explains, having set up New River Press with her partner, Robert Montgomery last year as a “fuck you” to the elitist club of publishing. “It’s a feminist, quite punk collection of 30 different female poets, all different ages, which I edited,” she explains proudly, and deservedly so.
A vital and eclectic anthology, SMEAR combines the work of emerging and established poets. Curated from an Instagram call-out, the collection centres on the joys and trials of womanhood “from abortion, to first kisses, to body image” and most personally for Bellamacina, becoming a mother. “I was really aware when I was given traditional motherhood literature, it was really patronising,” she scoffs with an eye roll under her post-shoot wisps of tousled blonde hair. “For me, writing poetry about that experience, it’s about the emotive side, nothing’s right or wrong, it’s not so binary, it’s more of a centralised place of emotion.”
After deciding to make her first documentary last year, Bellamacina offers an alternative perspective through not only her words, but her newest venture, filmmaking. The Safe House: A Decline of Ideas inspects the devastating closure of British libraries, sparked by the departure of Bellamacina’s local and supported by the likes of Stephen Fry, John Cooper Clarke and Irvine Welsh.
“I mean, libraries are how Britain became modern,” she reasons, explaining that the first public libraries were built by Scottish lead miners in the 17th century, and were undeniably a product of the working class. “It was an amazing symbol for the rest of the documentary… You realise when you travel through Britain how taking away just one library, and replacing it with luxury flats or a gym, it stagnates a place.”
After the success of The Safe House – entered into the long list for the BAFTAs – this year, Bellamacina has set to work on her first (semi- autobiographical) feature, Hurt By Paradise. Co-created with actress and writer Sadie Brown, the film follows “two unconventional women who don’t fit into society”, a struggling poet and a failed actress who strike up an “unexpected friendship”.
“My aim was to have complex female roles in it. I really love the style of Frances Ha, the way she talks about the same conversational things as you would with your friends. I guess it’s like that,” Bellamacina pauses. “But more of a London version! It’s about their story and struggling to find a voice in society. One of the characters decides one day to meet her online lover that she’s been talking to for three years, and she goes to Margate on a Megabus and it all goes terribly wrong.” Keeping schtum but promising me “big actors” all Bellamacina can tell me is that the film’s set right where we’re sat, south of the river. I was sold at the mention of Margate on a Megabus.
Taken from the Summer 17 Issue of Wonderland; out now and available to buy here.
Black Under Heaven-By Greta Bellamacina
Everything lives unnerved
Tiny cups and scissors hungover
Lilies in heaven marching in glass on the table
Our child arranging the sky, sleeping between the doorway
blue garments an ocean on the bedroom floor
Your scent a kind of black under heaven
all raging and soft,
Breaking the tracks of summer
a chapel in the fourth wall
always lit up and nursing
I have become larger in it
a new kind of warm ash
burning up the edges
and bathing out the reality TV government
I have become more winged
We barely notice the ceiling falling onto our bed
Emptying out the ariel stars
that have tracked our whole lives til now
walked with us through hysteria
And trees made into empty houses
We live in one room
The BT Tower our lighthouse,
we have become two mothers
we are unearthed, dosing in the scent
that is an eternal morning.
We can't lose public libraries – they're as crucial for students as ever
Article By Greta Bellamacina for The Guardian.
The 6 February is National Libraries Day, instigated in 2012 by campaigners hoping to avoid further library closures, and to celebrate these temples of learning across the country.
Growing up, libraries played a huge part in helping me to establish myself as a poet. I discovered works by Anne Sexton and TS Eliot in a public library. I spent hours unpicking their lines and making my own interpretations. The library was a truly reflective space for me, away from school and away from home, where I began to form my own voice as a poet. There was the sense of excitement when finding something new on the same shelf a week later and taking it home at no expense. I absorbed a canon of books I could never have afforded to buy.
There was a staggering £50m cut from library budgets across Britain in 2014-15 and 106 libraries closed in the same year, according to the latest Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy annual survey of libraries in Great Britain.
The thought of a future without libraries compelled me to make a documentary addressing their decline. I wanted to show that libraries are symbols of social equality that were built initially by the working class to educate and improve their children’s lives and the country as a whole.
Author Jeanette Winterson says that “libraries are doing more education work than ever. Libraries and literacy cannot be separated”. She protests strongly against libraries being classed as “leisure”, alongside sports centres, and says they should instead be part of the national education budget.
The increasing, though almost silent, decline of public libraries in the UK means we have entered an incredibly worrying time for students. We are not only undermining the 1964 Public Library and Museum Act by cutting the opening hours and staff, but also forcing them to be run by local volunteers which seems to be an even more direct road to their deaths. Even in wealthy areas, volunteer-run libraries are struggling to pay for big expenses such as maintenance and uphold their library status.
William Sieghart’s independent report on England’s public library service, which was first published in 2014, revealed that libraries ensure that children from the poorest backgrounds are not left behind and give us the best possible chance to address the poor literacy standards in the UK. The most recent OECD report rated English 16- to 19-year-olds the worst of 23 developed nations in literacy and 22 of 23 in numeracy. Public libraries also play a crucial role in making sure everyone has the opportunity to fulfil their potential and play a role in levelling out the class divide.
I’ve seen a number of public libraries in London close down in the last few years and have been alarmed by the lack of outrage. I’ve heard people say that the threat to close Belsize Park Library, in north London, doesn’t matter because “kids these days research on their laptops and buy books on Amazon”. This is a middle-class perspective and it ignores the hundreds of kids in social housing in the Belsize Park area who do not necessarily have laptops or one-click Amazon accounts.
The uni application system is failing poorer students like me
By eroding the free and equal access for all to books, which was long-struggled for in the UK, we are undermining the intellectual wealth of the country for the next generation – something we may not realise it until it’s a generation too late.
I recently went back to Swiss Cottage Central Library, where I studied in the evenings for my A-levels, which I knew would be bursting with current sixth-formers, gathered quietly and working hard.
Noah Perez, 17, a student at Camden School for Girls sixth form, told me: “I always get to the library early as it’s almost impossible to get a seat, especially as everyone is revising at the moment”; highlighting the fact that libraries remain indispensable to many students.
Yasmin Abdelrahman, 17, a student at Quintin Kynaston Community Academy, said: “This is the only place where people know not to distract you – it worries me to think that libraries might get wiped out as my school doesn’t even have a library or a printer.” Nina Lucas, 18, a student at Woodhouse College, added: “I’ve been going to the library every day and I feel a lot less stressed by the exam pressure – I know lots of my friends feel the same.”
It seems impossible to imagine education without libraries. The library is not an idea, it is not an archetype, it is not endowment. Libraries are rooms. Rooms of hope, rooms of concentration, rooms of dreams and study. They remain the last public spaces reserved for the free and equal learning
Greta Bellamacina is the 27-year-old poet who has caught the eye of the fashion world (she's now the face of Ghost). The mother, documentary film-maker and actress spoke to us about deciding to have a child and writing as a woman today.
'I became a mother last year, while still in my early twenties, and was overwhelmed by how many people suddenly have an opinion on your body.
'There are so many expectations to being a female. If you wear pink, you can't be a feminist. If you speak out, you're too pushy, too ambitious.
'But the experience of motherhood presented a whole array of taboo subjects which don't often get spoken about in the media, but which women face every day, such as IVF, sex and pregnancy, fear, depression, abortion, and age.
'Luckily, I surround myself with incredible powerful women who I can call my sisters. I recently did a reading for International Women's Day with Salena Godden, Lisa Luxx and Joelle Taylor - there was so much love and respect in the room. I felt so privileged to be female.
'As a young poet I always struggled with how to make any kind of living from my work. Now I'm older, I realise there were so many other poets in the same boat. Someone once said to me that poetry is the last 'incorruptible art form' because there is no money in it.
'It wasn't until I met the love of my life and partner, Robert Montgomery, and started working together that we started to make some progress. Robert makes his living as an artist, and together we run New River Press to publish other poets we love and our own books. New River is like our own poetry 'indie label'.
'What makes me despair is the increasing capitalist society we live in. It seems in many ways that we are moving backwards. Public libraries are being made into luxury flats and gyms, universities fees keep going up, working class kids can't afford to be artists. So many people I know can barely pay their rent.
'The media puts too much emphasis on reality TV-style celebrities, famous people's children and pointless news - I find it sickening. We have become removed from our emotions.
The Revolution- By Greta Bellamacina
The revolution has mid-heaven eyes
they have been staring down and blinking up
clusters of women holding hands,
their voices black, apocalyptic violet black
dropping land from their bibles.
they are part of an unremembered walk walking
that moves closer and closer to new ghosts,
new buildings in new rain, new languages
holding stories of abandoned bones
recording the last of the treeecho parts
the last of the exhausted red shadows
the last of suppression
seasons, animals, mothers
blowing out low soliloquies of love
they have nothing to do with money.
a whole carpark of lights inside water
a whole heart of blood
resting on a whole heart of blood.
They have seen the naming of and renaming
of breathing earth that never leaves
but pulls at you harvesting
through the slipping dawn of daffodils
in prayers of freedom replacements wings
Geranium lungs ringing behind
classroom bedsheets of daytime
carried in the backs of vans
from one weather to another
the revolution is growing in your kitchen by the sink
crashing sky in the drains,
a throat of haloing eyes in the wind.