It comprises poems that were short- and long-listed in this year's Live Canon poetry competition judged by Liz Berry.
Live Canon are an ensemble performing poetry from memory at theatres, festivals and various other events, as well as recording poems for radio and CDs, creating poetry installations and digital projects, publishing poetry and working with young people to promote the enjoyment and creation of poetry and the spoken word. This makes their annual competition particularly interesting to enter, as every poem is read aloud as part of the judging process. Poems have to work both on and off the page, which means that a poet might enter something a bit different from the more usual 'competition-style' poem. They can also be any length, rather than the more standard 40 lines beloved of most competition organisers.
I decided to enter a 56-line poem written in the decidedly unfashionable style of a traditional ballad, on the grounds that if you've got the metre right, and the repetition right, a ballad can sound fabulous read aloud. My punt paid off because the poem was long-listed and is published in the anthology.
This scary-looking women is Amelia Dyer, the subject of my ballad. Dyer was born at Pile Marsh in my home city of Bristol in 1837. She was by trade a foster mother, and by her actions, quite possibly the most prolific serial killer in British history.
A quick bit about baby-farming: The Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 contained a bastardy clause, which absolved fathers of any responsibility for their illegitimate offspring. This was an attempt to restore female morality, the thinking being that if unmarried women who became pregnant faced losing their jobs and ending up on the streets, they’d keep their legs together and the cost of supporting single-parent families would cease to exist. (I'm surprised the current government hasn't yet introduced similar legislation.)
Anyway, all this did was create thousands of unregulated 'baby farmers', who’d charge considerable sums of money, and sometimes blackmail, desperate single mothers who had no means of support for themselves or their babies. Amelia Dyer was one such custodian, but instead of caring for the infants she took on, she drugged and strangled them. She was ‘the angel-maker’, as she once explained to her own daughter, Polly, who was curious about the babies that kept appearing in the household and then disappearing.
When arrested by the police on a charge of murder, Dyer admitted her guilt, saying ‘You’ll know all mine by the tapes around their necks.’ She was tried and hanged in 1896.
Model not included