Perhaps because of its brevity and immediacy, poetry often feels like the most intuitive literary response to one’s environment. This certainly seems to be the case for Alicia Hayden, a final-year student at Lady Margaret Hall who has just published her first poetry collection, Rain before Rainbows, with Oxford’s very own Holywell Press.
The book consists of twenty-six short poems Alicia composed over the years and compiled this September, all of them with a strong environmental focus. She’s donating 50% of the sales profits to Tiggywinkles, a wildlife hospital based in Buckinghamshire that cares for over 12,000 animals every year, from owls to hedgehogs, as its Beatrix-Potter-inspired name suggests. “The reason I put the book together was because of the David Attenborough documentary on extinction that came out in September,” Alicia tells me over a Teams call. “It made me consider what I could do to make a difference, and I thought, well, I’ve got this, so I’ll try to do something with it.”
A few of her poems have involved various collaborations of sorts. “I sometimes like to ask people to give me prompts and then I just write off that,” Alicia says. Her writing process feels incredibly organic, based on interactions with people and the natural world. One of the later poems in this collection, ‘The Child of a Lion is a Lion’, was written when she was sixteen as part of her GCSE art final piece, but it found a second life just this year. For her art project, the poem was meant to accompany her painting of a woman and a lion, with the words written in English on one side, and in Yorùbá on the other. “I didn’t have someone to properly translate it at the time,” she says, “but recently I posted on my JCR saying I needed help, and after a couple of hops, we found Toluwalase, who translated it through me.” Because of the pandemic, they haven’t had the chance to meet in person, but it’s cheering and quite extraordinary to see how another version of the poem came into being from their email correspondence. Tolu’s translation, ‘Ọmọ kìnìuń ni kìnìuń n jo’, is included in the collection alongside Alicia’s, in a lovely moment of creative synthesis.
In 2011, Alicia won the WWF My True Nature poetry competition with her poem ‘Leopard’, which she admits is probably her favourite poem in this collection. “I think that’s probably what cemented my interest in poetry,” she tells me, “I just kind of kept going after that.” It’s clear from the very start of the book that nature has always been a point of keen interest for her. Rain before Rainbows opens with one of her earliest poems, ‘Where is the sun?’, which she wrote when she was eight years old. The simple straightforwardness of her younger self urging her readers to recycle feels like a lovely way to begin. “I’ve always liked wildlife, maybe because I’m from North Yorkshire,” she smiles. “I live in quite a wild part of the country.”
‘Rain’, the first part of the collection, contends with some of the more poignant realities of our negative effects on the natural world. In the first few poems, climate change is narrated through the watchful eyes of an ancient stone, extinction finds a voice in the mournful song of a solitary whale, and the melting ice-caps are likened soberingly to sugar disappearing in a cup of tea. Striking black and white illustrations accompany each piece, all drawn by Alicia. “I might have a poem and then forget about it,” she says, “and then I have an illustration I’ve done randomly, and sometimes they just fit.”
The latter part of the collection is, as the title ‘Rainbows’ suggests, more optimistic. It’s a paean to wildlife and all the wonders it has to offer, but there are also some flights of fancy, with poems like ‘Circus’ and ‘Oasis’ harnessing the natural world in more whimsical and idiosyncratic ways. If ‘Rain’ is a lament for the ways in which the natural world has been destroyed, ‘Rainbows’ points pleasingly to all the beauty that still remains, and that warrants preservation. Without inciting fear or panic, her poems gracefully demonstrate what we are at risk of losing if things don’t change. Alicia tells me that one of her friends remarked on this when she saw an early version of the book. “One of the things she said was that it made her want to conserve nature not because of how it’s been destroyed, but from showing how beautiful and wonderful it all is.”