"Listening to her talent blossom:"
feature article on Beata Duncan
by Catherine Etoe (2001), reprinted by kind permission of Camden New Journal
When the likes of poet Hugo Williams and composer Richard Arnell start raving about your work, you know you must be doing something right.
And since she first started writing poems in the early 1970s, lecturer and researcher Beata Duncan, who lives in Belsize Park, has certainly found her mark.
The London Magazine, New Statesman, The Observer, The Spectator and The Express, have all published her work, and now a compilation has hit the streets.
But the career of this much-lauded poet, who is also a committee member of Belsize Public Library Users Group, began in the most unusual of circumstances — amid the weeds and flowers of her home in Fellows Road. After being made redundant from her job as researcher at the Encyclopaedia Britannica, Ms Duncan decided to spend the summer tending her garden while she pondered her next move. But before she had a chance to wheel out her barrow, she suddenly found her head filled with flowing verse.
"I was doing the garden and suddenly these poems started to come," she says. "My job had been quite demanding and when the pressure came off those poems started happening. I didn't expect to write poems, I had wanted to be a novelist."
The poems came thick and fast, and while they may have changed in form and content , they have never dried up. "I think perhaps the early ones were a little bit superficial," she admits. "But they just came and I could put them down and not even change a word. I found I had to work on the later ones much more."
The extra attention has definitely paid off. In the intervening years, her verses have won prizes at a national poetry competition [ 'The' National Poetry Competition — ed.] and Hampstead-born composer, poet and conductor Richard Arnell liked them so much he set some of them to music.
"I think she's a good poet and I've heard quite a lot in my time," Mr Arnell told the New Journal.
One, Anne Frank's Pin-Ups, appeared alongside Thomas Hardy's poems on Mr Arnell's collaborative CD Arnell and Hoffman, which is soon to be released in Britain.
"I was very pleased with that, and I would very much like more of my poems set to music," says Ms Duncan, who has lectured on the work of late 19th and early 20th century authors at London University and the Workers' Educational Association.
Now, Torriano Meeting House poetry organiser John Rety has published a compilation of 21 of her poems after hearing her read at Torriano's Sunday poetry night two years ago. Based on a mixture of imagination, observation and personal experience, the humourous but gritty poems are the work of more than 20 years. And according to Times columnist and poet Hugo Williams, her "stylish modern fables" were well worth waiting for. "Razor-sharp irony and a taste for the surreal are counter-balanced by a tender moral sense in the poems," he says in the introduction to Apple Harvest. "Her voice, which bears traces of the best and worst of life's experiences, lends her work an authority we can trust."
Ms Duncan is now researching early 20th century literature which she hopes to make into a book. "I hope to write more and better poems, and move into new areas of subject matter," she says. "I would still write them if nothing was ever published, because I need to do it."
Mothers and Fathers
Andy was jubilant about the baby,
'I'm going to have a brother!'
he told his friends
and put some soldiers
in a Smartie Box.
Mum did her best to make him accept
that it could be a girl,
she grew bigger and rounder.
Andy hugged the warm globe
and heard the heartbeat,
felt the kicks.
Soon his sister would come
and they'd play mothers and fathers.
Dad pointed out that it might,
after all, be a boy.
Andy was unperturbed:
'That's alright' he said,
'we'll dress him up in a skirt.'
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