Jay Bernard was born in London in 1988. She was a winner of the Poetry Society’s Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award in 2005, and of the Respect Slam in 2004. Her poetry has appeared in Poetry London, Chroma, The Guardian, The Independent, and in several anthologies. The Guardian named Bernard as one of the UK’s most inspirational 16-year-olds in 2004. Her first collection of poems, Your Sign is Cuckoo, Girl (tall-lighthouse) was published in 2008 and was selected as the Poetry Book Society’s pamphlet choice.
Bernard has read her work at Buckingham Palace, the Globe Theatre, London, and at the Royal Shakespeare Company’s inaugural event at the newly refurbished Swan Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon. She has written for the Royal Opera House and has read on a number of BBC radio and television shows, including The Verb and The Culture Show.
In 2008, Bernard was poet in residence at a north London allotment, writing on the theme of place as part of the Apples & Snakes project My Place or Yours. She was also a poet in residence at the StAnza Poetry Festival, St Andrews, in 2010, and has acted as a mentor for younger poets taking part in SLAMbassadors UK.
She is a graphic artist as well as a poet. Her work has appeared on the cover of Wasifiri, and in Chroma, Diva and Litro.
Bernard took the title of her collection from Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time: “In retrospect, I think I was looking to explore a similar kind of womanly introspection – full of nightmares, infatuation and lunacy.”
Many of the poems in Your Sign is Cuckoo, Girl chart both physical and emotional growing pains. “Lingerie was not on the shopping list . . . It is why, at twelve, I had sagging breasts,” declares the narrator of ‘Lingerie’, where the discomfort of her changing pubertal body and the subsequent introduction to the confusing adult world of brassieres is humorously analysed:
. . . polyester wakens the rage of
the most patient saint and it chafes
the petalled skin of tiny
an imperious trot punishing
fun with excruciating pain.
Bernard delves into the corporeal with both rawness and delicacy. ‘Eight’ describes female genitalia in intimate detail as “something slick, curled suspended” and “familiar and untouchable; distant,/ downed, exceptionally there; lithe origami/ of moisture and hair.” She delivers insights from the murkier side of love and desire in ‘Tongues in Velvet’ (“I’ve met those who’ve left their faces/ on the lonely floor of marriage/ I’ve met boys who stand in fishnets/ on the corner dressed as women”), to the touching yearning for the beloved in ‘News’:
If I could translate the sound of those
thoughts to the language of touch –
. . . then my arm could hang
loose around your shoulders –
my body in the evening city,
my breath in the inlet of your ear.
Bernard’s verse is carefully paced, as in ‘Souvenir’ – a story of a relationship that has come to an end – in which the dramatic subject matter is contained in precisely measured metre and the microscopic description of a discarded heart sitting “unbeating in the bin” amongst “the teabags and the melon rinds./ I could just see the tapered end ripped/ through with black veins and slightly/ shaded with white fat.”
Her poems are often set against an urban backdrop, and in ‘Migration’ she imagines London’s tube system as a human body – “The tunnels were arterial,/ the intermittent lamps like a spinal constellation/ and each station was a throbbing heart” – and its buildings linked to human history, as in “the blank menace of so many windows,/ imagine the fear of the first people huddled, haunted/ one hundred, thousand years ago.”
Pascale Petit has said: “One of our most promising young talents, Jay Bernard writes powerful and sensuous scenes from the metropolis: a teenager flies like a moth, a woman with scissors sings bees. Disturbing, joyous and always surprising.”
Your Sign is Cuckoo, Girl, tall-lighthouse, London, 2008
Jay Bernard’s poems have appeared in:
Voice Recognition: 21 Poets for the 21st Century, Bloodaxe, Tarset, 2009
City State: New London Poetry, Penned in the Margins, London, 2009
Salt Book of Younger Poets, Salt Publishing, Cambridge, 2011
Jay Bernard’s blog
Bernard’s poetry publisher, tall-lighthouse
An interview with Jay Bernard
Jay Bernard talks to Dominic O’Rourke about her time as poet in residence at a north London allotment. Read the resulting poems and see the drawings and pictures from Bernard’s residency on the My Place or Yours website.