'We're bombarded by reasons to be really ashamed of ageing'
Helena Bonham Carter and Allie Esiri have united to take poetry out of the hands of 'dead white men', says Katie Law
Helena Bonham Carter and Allie Esiri have been best friends since they were schoolgirls. We've met at Soho House to talk about friendship, the power of poetry and Esiri's new poetry anthology, which Bonham Carter and Simon Russell Beale have recorded for the audiobook version, to be released on Boxing Day.
But the Planet of the Apes and Harry Potter star is "stuck in traffic", so Esiri whisks me through her own career to date. A degree in modern languages at Cambridge, a brief acting stint, marriage to venture capitalist Mark Esiri, three children, and then a new career: to make poetry accessible to as many people as possible. As well as a previous poetry anthology, she has also launched successful poetry apps, including iF Poems, which beat Angry Birds on the bestseller lists the year it was released.
When Bonham Carter joins us, she is flustered but friendly. "I'm so sorry I'm late, I always miscalculate how long it takes." "You're barely late," replies Esiri, kissing her.
It turns out that Bonham Carter (51) and Esiri (50) were sat at adjacent desks on their first day at South Hampstead High School, aged 11 and 10. "It was done alphabetically because I'm Bonham and her maiden name was Byrnes."
They have remained close ever since, Bonham Carter later persuading Byrnes, as she then was, to join her at Westminster sixth form for the Oxbridge entrance exams because she didn't want to be the only girl applying to read French and Spanish. "And then I failed to turn up for the exams," she says, because she had got the part to play Lady Jane Grey in Trevor Nunn's film Lady Jane. "Allie did turn up and went off and got educated."
They were at each other's weddings. "I read a poem at yours, didn't I? Was it Shakespeare?" asks Bonham Carter. "No, it was The Velveteen Rabbit," replies Esiri. Every Christmas there's a joint family outing ice skating to Somerset House - "we're all terrible" says Bonham Carter - and they are godmothers to each other's eldest children, Eliza, now 15, and Billy (14). "Then, as Allie had already had two girls and I'd had a boy, I really wanted a girl and she wanted a boy, so I did some research and I did the vinegar thing," says Bonham Carter. They both hoot with laughter.
The only subject Bonham Carter says she is not prepared to talk about is her relationship with Tim Burton, from whom she finally split in 2014 after their unconventional, 13-year relationship.
Producing a well-thumbed copy of A Poem for Every Day of the Year, Bonham Carter then asks if I'd like to hear her read aloud "as a little pressie". She and Russell Beale split the workload of who would read what pretty evenly, she says, although "when we got to ones I couldn't do, like Chaucer, I said, could you just give that to Simon?"
As well as classics that we all know and love, the anthology includes a decent proportion of poems by women and BAME writers, and Esiri has written a short introduction to every single one. "I wasn't doing positive discrimination but there are so many anthologies made up of 99% dead, white, male poets and it's just not necessary," says Esiri.
Pulling on thick reading spectacles - her recent lens-replacement surgery hasn't worked - Bonham Carter begins with a poem called Thumbprint by Eve Merriam. "It's a bit like getting CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) via a poem," she says. "It encourages us to take responsibility for ourselves and make our own interior weather." As she reads, her perfectly pitched voice is calm and utterly captivating, bringing the short poem vividly to life.
"I'm currently single, which is sometimes fun and sometimes not. When not, there's another poem I've fallen for, Morning Song by Sara Teasdale, which reaches an outstretched hand from the page and guides me to a different view of things. In this case it points to the moon and the freedom that comes with being unattached. I also love Warning by Jenny Joseph because of its 'f*** it' attitude and reasons to look forward to growing old. We live in an age when we're constantly bombarded by reasons to dread and to be really ashamed of ageing."
Esiri and Bonham Carter agree that hearing a poem read aloud, especially in times of trouble - a bereavement, a break-up or insomnia - can be especially soothing. "It's such a balm to listen to something at four in the morning. Maybe it goes back to being read bedtime stories," says Bonham Carter. "When we grow up we shouldn't forget that inside we still have a child who might need a good bedtime or middle-of-the-night poem to help. Especially when there ain't someone around, like a mum or a friend."
Esiri says this partly explains the rise of the audiobook in the past couple of years. "It's massive; whether it's at night, going for a run, in the car or going for a walk. You see people with earphones in and they're not necessarily listening to music; it's podcasts and audiobooks."
The other big game-changers, says Bonham Carter, are poetry slams, which have become mainstream now "because rap these days is also poetry", and the show that is on every Londoner's lips, namely Hamilton. She has already seen the sell-out musical in the US and in dress rehearsal here.
"It's extraordinary and brilliant, written in this pyrotechnical, acrobatic language that makes it accessible to everyone. My nine-year-old daughter has learned the opening lines off by heart. When you hear the way the words are put together, you're like, God that's genius. It's taking some part of the human condition and bottling it in a sentence. There are so many lines I kept on writing down, even though I know them by heart. It's fantastic - and it's pure rap."
While Bonham Carter's next project is appearing in the comedy heist Ocean's Eight, an all-female sequel to the Ocean's trilogy, due out next summer, Esiri's next poetry anthology will focus entirely on women poets. "I think it'll be badass, rebel women," she muses. Her best friend thinks that's a great idea and an even better title. "Yeah, it's our time."
A Poem for Every Day of the Year is out in hardback now, and the audiobook version is released on December 26