Born in Glasgow, and raised for the first years of her life in Scotland, the poet Yvonne Reddick has always had a profound affinity for wild, and mountainous landscapes. Her work explores the relationships between the natural world, and its human and animal inhabitants – within the dual frameworks of eco-poetics, and her own Swiss-French heritage. These deep interests have informed her three pamphlets – Deerhart, Translating Mountains, and Spikenard – and her academic research and publications on Ted Hughes. Meeting in Liverpool’s Bluecoats building, where she was due to read with Deryn Rees Jones at the conclusion of a year of mentoring under the inaugural Peggy Poole award, Yvonne and I began our interview among a clatter of teacups in the Bluecoats café, and finished it rattling back to Manchester on a late night train. We talked about writing in response to the loss of her father, and the creative workshops which Yvonne has led, drawing on making work from this experience. We also compared notes on the ways in which Brexit has impacted us as dual language women of joint English and European heritages. In conclusion, Yvonne previewed the forthcoming Loss issue of Magma, for which she and her fellow editor Adam Lowe received over 8000 submissions. Most recently, Yvonne has just won first prize in the 2019 Ambit Magazine poetry competition, judged by Liz Berry, for her poem ‘In the Burning Season’.
AH: Can I begin by asking about your journey into poetry, Yvonne?
YR: I started with things that everyone is exposed to in childhood – songs and rhymes. The breakthrough moment for me was reading Al Alvarez’s The New Poetry Anthology. My Dad had a copy. It was full of scribbled schoolboy notes – amazingly insightful things that were probably his English teacher’s words. There was work in that anthology that really stood out for me, like Ted Hughes’s work. I knew I was interested in what he was writing. I liked Seamus Heaney, and Peter Porter. I liked Sylvia Plath’s work. There were two women added as an afterthought to the second edition. It was still very white and very male – but it was an anthology of newer poetry than what we normally got at school.
AH: What sort of age were you when you came across the anthology?
YR: Ten or eleven. I can’t pretend that I understood all of it. I certainly wouldn’t have got the full meaning of all the poems.
AH: Was that when you were living in the Middle East?
YR: We had just come back.
AH: Were there any particular writers or teachers who encouraged you to think about becoming a poet yourself? Your first pamphlet, Deerhart, has poems about both Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes.
YR: Lots of writers’ groups were popping up when I was at university. Everyone seemed to go to poetry readings. My work was probably pretty rubbish at that stage, but we could still go to writing groups and have work critiqued, and share poems. That was a lovely thing. There was a writer-in-residence at the college I went to. He was Peter Manson. I’ve met him since. A lovely fellow – very humorous, very experimental, some incredible play with language in his work, and yet my poems are very different from his. He helped me to critique some of my early work. I was still sounding as though the New Poetry hadn’t happened. I was probably stuck at about 1900 with my diction. It was good to have feedback from somebody contemporary. My PhD at Warwick University was when I got some really fantastic encouragement for my poetry. Jonathan Bate supervised the first two years, and the last year was supervised by Emma Francis and David Morley. David Morley is like a Romani showman among poetry professors. All kinds of things would happen. A Painted Lady butterfly hatched out of his bookshelf. He had a bird feeder right outside his office. He’d encourage his student poets – tell them to send their poems out to magazines, tell them that they should go to open mics, tell them to get pamphlets out. He gave us the practical nuts and bolts of a publishing career. To have that kind of structured advice was really helpful.
AH: When I did my PhD at UCL during the 1990s, I felt that poetry was a space that I could only respond to critically, not enter creatively. To have someone saying poetry was yours to claim, and move within, was presumably energising?
YR: It was a wonderful thing. I studied a bit later, at a time when creative writing was expanding. There were lots of visiting writers, and writers employed there, and writers finishing up their PhDs. It was an exciting time. If you are in that kind of environment, where you feel you are tripping over other writers, it’s lovely because you can support each other and it doesn’t feel like you are stuck by yourself – with no idea of whether your work is good. If you have a bad writing day, then people can encourage you. There is something lovely about that situation. I have it now with my poet friends.
AH: And did Deerhart come out of that period?
YR: No, Deerhart emerged when I was being mentored by Zaffar Kunial, the poet-in-residence at the Wordsworth Trust. He had a year-long residency. Everyone in the village recognises the poet-in-residence. There’d be events happening all the time. It was a bit of a trek from where I lived in Preston – but there was that sense of a community for writers.
AH: There is a poem about Ted Hughes in Deerhart which contains the line “you write yourself into the river”. You are talking to Hughes, but it seemed to me that you also have a project of writing yourself into the river – as an environmentalist and an eco-poet. Was always part of your intention or has it developed later?
YR: I think eco-awareness has always been part of my make up as a human being. I share it with our joint Jerwood Arvon mentor, Pascale Petit, whose poems are always an inspiration for me. I believe we are an integral part of this very sprawling, messy web of living things, human-made artefacts, non-human things. We depend on agriculture, the oceans, and everything else – just for our existence. I haven’t ever really seen myself as set apart. My sense of connection comes from doing things like catching newts in a pond when I was a kid. I always put them back! I used to know the calls of birds singing and I would respond to them. It sounds very idyllic – but it was only in a suburban garden that had slug pellets. I have always had a sense of environmental connection. The person to blame for that is Richard Adams. Watership Down was formative. I can’t have been much more than eight when I read it. I re-read it and re-read and re-read it as I grew up.
AH: I read Watership Down around eight or nine and it hugely impacted me too. It was in the early 1970s, and I had just moved to Wiltshire from Brussels. Being driven to and from school, we would go past blind rabbits, dying from myxomatosis beside the road, not able to get out of the way of the car. My father had just died and I found Watership Down almost unbearable. We are super-impressionable at that age. Very deep influences enter us, and then somehow they grow with us. We respond to them in more complex ways as our intellectual apparatus develops. They are the seeds that are sown early on. Your second pamphlet, Translating Mountains, is also connected to the natural landscape. It won the Mslexia competition in 2017-8. It responds closely to the mountainous landscape around Ben Nevis, and also to the death of your father while hill-walking alone during a family holiday with you, your mother and sister. The opening poem begins with what is a suggestion of search party, and immediately gives us its terrain:
At the Corrie of the Birds
two figures emerge from lightless spruces
one wraps a delicate arm around the other.
They scan a map of densely-contoured crags
for a chance that is becoming remote.
I wondered to what extent focusing on recording the close details of mountains which you and your father both loved, helped not only to bring a degree of creative agency to your project, but also created a physical space, and spaciousness, in which to explore the constricting experience of grief and loss?
YR: I think the space, or at least the physical landscape, was key. It had been part of my life since I was very young. When I was very, very small, before I started school, I would be taken up to the top of the Cairngorms in the chair lift on family walks. Initially, I suppose that I would have seen those landscapes as very suffused with grief and loss about my Dad’s death. They would probably have seemed overlaid with memories. There’s that quite vulnerable stage that you go through in the immediate aftermath of bereavement – where everything reminds you of the person you have lost. What I have always been aware of, though, is that those hills were there before I was, and are going to be there when I am gone. We are making a fair bit of a mess of the planet in many ways, but the hills aren’t going to disappear. They are enduring. But they are also in the flux of being eroded. They are moving. Ground in Scotland is actually rising compared to England – after the weight of the ice from the last Ice Age was lifted. If you write elegy, it’s very traditional to return the beloved to the landscape. What I am doing is maybe a little bit different than that. I suppose it is envisaging how humans are very, very small compared to massive earth systems. That brings me comfort now – although perhaps in the immediate months and years after my father died, it didn’t.
AH: I felt that there was a dialogue between you and the mountains – and a process. As a reader, I had a sense of space, and of being able, through this, to be present within the writing, and also with the views. They made a loss, which was huge, become more bearable – almost as the air moved over it, and the landscape moved with it.
YR: I think that’s fair to say. There are interesting histories there as well. Most of the west Highlands peaks have Gaelic names. This is a language and a culture that has been extirpated and sort of pushed to the margins of the Scottish Highlands. I was always aware that I was surrounded by a landscape that I did not have the skill to name. I was curious about who had been before me. If you read translated elegies by the Gaelic poets – Sorley Maclean’s ‘Hallaig’ chokes me up every time I read it – there is a very acute sense of what history had done in these places as well. I was born in Glasgow. I moved to Aberdeen when I was small. Growing up, I went back to Scotland almost every single year of my life, at least once. That was where we spent our holidays. My
parents wanted to relocate there in retirement. I wanted to work there. I’m in Manchester and Preston, so I have not quite managed, yet. I don’t really know if Scotland’s become a country of the mind for me – because I have been away for so long, but I always felt I missed something when I first arrived in England.
AH: It sounds like another strata of deep loss – which is also for all of us, the loss of the country of childhood, and of our parents as we knew them, then. While Translating Mountains responds to the practical realities of you father’s death – the search helicopter, the choice of urns, the inquest – it is ‘Risk’ in which you remember “The way he carried two compasses/ in case one failed, spare batteries for the GPS.” Was it important to you to use direct, everyday memories, and language, to keep his memory anchored, and is that a larger part of your elegiac project?
YR: I suppose so. I always think that the things of this world have a huge amount to tell poets. I believe in anchoring a poem in everyday objects. You give it a tighter focus than if you try to tackle massive abstract concepts straight out. It’s probably evidence of influence as well actually. One of my favourite elegaic poems is Mona Arshi’s ‘Phone Call on a Train Journey’. There is a list of things that are in the speaker’s brother’s rucksack. At the end of the poem, the rucksack, when handed back, becomes “(without the perishables)/ lighter than she had imagined.” It is just devastating. There is such economy, such skill and it’s so moving at the same time. There are other elegies by women poets that I have really enjoyed. Karen McCarthy Woolf uses objects to bring together some sense of focus, in the aftermath of the shattering loss of her baby son. Equally, I wanted to get at least some sense of a kind of person my Dad was. In that poem, ‘Risk’, there is a great deal of humour. Ironically, he was incredibly well prepared, whenever he went off walking, but he kept his ancient maps in feet and inches, even though everything had changed and the car park was in a different place. It was really quite funny. You would see scrawly hand writing on an old survey map and think he was calculating and how long was going take him to get from A to B. There is something very endearing in that methodical approach. I have some very, very fond memories of him.
AH: That really comes across in the poem. I definitely had an anchored sense of your dad. And it is lovely to hear you laughing as you talk about him. We think of elegy as the great Tennysonian weep, and so a memory can actually bring back the joy of the life that has been lost is a fantastic achievement.
YR: It is lovely to hear, thank you.
AH: I know you teach elegy. Would you like to say something about the workshops you run?
YR: The workshops take different forms. I like to take people outside and get them to work in a nature reserve if possible. You can also do very powerful, transformative work indoors as well. I have found helping other people to write about loss quite challenging myself. I have learned about what psychologists have to say about grief, also about expressive writing, and writing as a form of emotional release, to reflect the processes in your own mind. I have run workshops for the Harris Museum Gallery in Preston. A curator gave us objects that she owned, including a Victorian mourning brooch for us to write about. There is something quite comforting about seeing how other societies have dealt with grief. In Britain you get a certain amount of compassionate leave. Your friends and family will be phenomenally supportive at first – and then suddenly everything has to snap back to normal. That can be very disorienting. I think it’s not necessarily healthy. A friend of mine said how in villages in Ireland when she was a child the entire village would shut for a few days. And everybody would turn up for the service and the wake. It’s not necessarily the stereotype of the incredibly boozy Irish wake. It’s that people will cook for you or come round to your house and look after you. We have a bit less of that in Britain. I think people are very reluctant to say anything about loss. The Victorians would wear mourning suits as a sign that something, something was out of the ordinary, and they would treat people differently as a result.I have also run workshops to write a poem that could go in a memory box, using the idea of a smooth river and this whirlpool of bereavement – then using metaphors and images and voice to describe your state of mind. It’s about re-ordering experiences to enable healing.
AH: I know people who have done your bereavement workshops and found them transformative. Several poets said how helpful the one you ran at the Aldeburgh Festival was, last year. Translating Mountains also engages with your Lausanne French-Swiss heritage, and the grandmother who willed you the crystals collected by her grandfather in the Alps. ‘Cristaux de Roche’ begins “their gleam haunts my sleep.” Did it help you creatively – to call on this lineage, and vest your identity symbolically in these fragments of the mountains?
YR: I’ve walked around Mont Blanc. I used to go walking around a place Samoëns where my grandmother took us on holiday with my Dad as well. The Swiss have a tremendous attachment to some of their mountains. You would expect that. They have this fascination with the Salève which is Geneva’s mountain. I think technically it’s in France. My grandmother used to tell me the same and I would find it very funny. Just above Lausanne is Mont Tendre – Mount Tender is lovely. They have gorgeous names. One that I write about in the pamphlet is Lac de Folly. I suppose I wanted to bring out my connection to a place that was not in Britain, wasn’t in England, wasn’t in Scotland.
AH: I know you have recently returned from a residency in the Chateau de Lavigny courtesy of the Fondation Ledig-Rowohlt, which let you revisit places connected to your grandmother, and also make new work arising from the wild life and mountain landscapes. Could you tell me a little more about this? I gather it was a really amazing experience?
YR: It was fantastic: I was really grateful to have time away from all the things I have to do, and which I use as excuses for not writing! The other writers in residence there were super – great company, and full of ideas and encouragement. I went to visit the flat where my grandmother lived in Lausanne. All the local shops she used to go to were still there. I completed some poems that I’d been storing up in my mind for a long time. One of them features the invisible border between France and Switzerland, under Lake Léman. I even tried my hand at prose nature-writing as well, which was good – a different craft from the technical business of fretting over line-breaks! Lavigny is a small village surrounded by vineyards. They specialise in growing Chasselas grapes. There’s an old tale that Joyce was partial to a glass or two of Chasselas wine, and the result was Finnegans Wake!
AH: Europe, and our relationship to it, is a constant presence within your most recent pamphlet, Spikenard, published by smith/doorstop in 2019 as one of Carol Ann Duffy’s four final Laureate’s Choices. Is she a poet for whose work you have always felt a creative affinity?
YR: I’d admired her work since we read Mean Time at school. I think it was my first experience of poetry that was truly contemporary: from the 1990s, not the 1950s. I admire her for her fearless exploration of women’s experiences, and her affinity with nature. She’s been wonderfully kind to me.
AH: Spikenard returns to the themes of family history, and your father, but also explores the relationship between two lovers, set against a series of landscapes whose changes, and degradations, witness to your environmental concerns. Spikenard’s opening poem, ‘Desire Path’ – in which a young woman addresses her lover – is a hymn to life, and sensuality, written with open-ness, and courage. It begins “Once, we thought we’d find a route around the borders/ and feel the bounds dissolve”. The second stanza continues:
I’d flash you the glance you called that French look
as you traced the curve of my back, the contours of my flank,
then I slid my Genevan tongue in your ear: Je t’aime, moi non plus,
as if I’d become two speakers who split and merged
as tides braid, then loose, the waters of the Channel.
Did you want to foreground the female body, physically and emotionally, as the starting point for the pamphlet? I know there are other themes also alive within this work.
YR: I hadn’t really intended to focus on the female body. In a veiled form, that is one of my Brexit poems. There is the kind of line, the fracture line of the English Channel. Brexit is one of the biggest political issues that the UK is facing. It is huge deal for Europe. It feels almost as if the UK has decided to drift off across the Atlantic and I am getting further and further away from the the people I knew and loved who lived in Switzerland. It’s almost as if I’ve had my roots and connections to Europe cut, or weakened. That that for me is very scary and strange.
AH: I had a French Grandmother. Yours was French Swiss. Brexit was really personally traumatic for me. I am European, not English – if I have to choose.
YR: The morning after the referendum results, I was talking to a Polish academic, who had come over with a lucrative European Research Council grant. I got coffee with her. There were hardly any people in the café. We were shell-shocked. She couldn’t believe it. I was absolutely stunned. I had watched the news first thing that morning and I felt ashamed meeting with her. I thought it was a disgrace.
AH: I remember the whole of that day being as if someone had punched me. I had been punched by that news. Where I live in London, there are people of many nationalities. Everyone was reeling. We are an integrated community. I know French people who are moving back to Europe, because they don’t want to risk bringing up their children feeling that they are foreigners in England. Brexit has been like a form of bereavement for me.
AH: Spikenard also includes the sorrow that comes with the end of a relationship. ‘Firesetter’, which won the Platinum prize in the 2018 Creative Futures Award, translates a break-up into a forest fire. The poem is realised through a fierce, tense, shorthand of visual images – flaring successively up off the page. You write “Three months of drought; those trees were jackstraws. A flicker in the tinder, bird-call panic.” Would you like to say something about how the poem came into being, and the terrains, and fires, which inform it?
YR: My friend told me about the Swinley forest fires which are not far from my Mum still lives. They took place in a pine forest that is a nature reserve. I used to go off on kids’ nature walks with rangers there, when I was young. As in the poem, there was a severe forest fire, that did actually burn underground. The soil is peat, and flammable. I found the idea that fire could spread under the earth, in rainy Britain, incredibly sinister. Whenever I am writing about fires, I am writing about climate change. Those fires are linked to the oil fires and the fires of industry and of combustion. In a sense it’s part of the same body of work for me.
AH: Fires are very frightening, but they are also a visible manifestation of something growing rapidly out of control – when you think of forest fires in California, or in Greece. A lot of environmental change happens slightly more slowly, and then catches up with us, whereas the fires are a visible experience of catastrophe. It’s very potent – not a metaphor, but an actualisation. This is another form of mourning, for the earth and its losses?
YR: I finished ‘Firesetter’ at the very beginning of a summer of terrible droughts of 2018. In some ways, I felt a bit guilty about having written that poem when there were far worse forest fires happening, say in California. But that summer there was a forest fire on Skye actually caused by somebody burning litter. It destroyed a plantation and some areas of grass and that was Skye – the rainy west coast. It seems absurd.
AH: You’ve also written directly about the fossil fuel industry. ‘In Oils’, in the Laureate’s Choice Anthology, explores your father’s life as a petroleum engineer, and remembers your own experience of living in the Middle East as a child while he was working out there, and the devastated landscapes after the first Iraq war. It’s called ‘Light, Sweet Crude’ in Spikenard. You describe how he “drilled an emirate with straight-ruled borders”, and how, before your time, during the war:
‘The burning pipeline howled–
Sara said like a jet engine.
Fire-trenches and oil-lakes under a sky dark at midday’
What made you want to write about this topic?
YR: When I realised that commercial, printed ink was made of burnt oil, it was a light bulb moment for me. It made me feel very conflicted because my family’s living has been made from this volatile viscous substance, that is a cause of wars. Writing anything verging on the confessional – that makes me squeamish. I will pour it into some kind of poetic form generally – to get some kind of distance, and to let the artistic process take effect, and let me let me mould the raw material. Otherwise it is too it’s too intense.
AH: That absolutely makes sense. ‘In Oils’/Light, Sweet Crude’ ends with memories of your father returning, “jet-lagged and running fumes,/ to plant English lavender on Texan time”, and then gives us the moment of his death, realised with an engineered precision that perfectly holds its grief:
A two-stroke heart has steely valves and chambers
but frail fuel-lines. He’d said he’d hike the path
above the falls, but dusk failed to bring him home –
The theme of fire returns in ‘Muirburn’, which was commended in the 2018 National Poetry Competition. It describes returning your father’s ashes to the earth in the Highlands. The scattering brings back the memory of him teaching you to lay a fire in the hearth at home – “how he taught me to breathe on the steeple of logs” – and then leads into a dream about a heath fire which beautifully concludes the poem:
A voice at my shoulder said, ‘You’ll inherit fire.”
And through the smoke I glimpsed a line of figure
on the hillside, beating and beating the heather,
as the fire-front roared towards them.
A volley of shouts: ‘Keep the wind at your back!’
My grandmother threshing with a fire-broom
Dad hacking a firebreak. My stillborn brother, now grown
sprinting for the hollow where the spring once flowed
the whole hill flaring in the updraft.
And there: a girl, running for the riverside –
she wore my face, the shade of ash.
Would you be able to say something about “inheriting fire”, as a woman, and a writer?
YR: Fire, and the use of fire are the only things that actually separate human beings quite decisively from other creatures. We are the only species to have domesticated fire. Loads of other animals – tusk fish, crows – they can use tools. Many other creatures have language as well. Fire is something that is unique to us. It has tremendous potential for good, with the fire of the hearth that is warming. Needless to say fires can be profoundly destructive. For me, that inheritance of fire is the inheritance of the age of fire. What was at the forefront of my mind was that my Dad had been cremated, and again this was another source of combustion. It’s like, you know how much more can we put into the atmosphere?
AH: The final poem, ‘Spikenard’, returns to the theme of breaking-up, and separation, exploring a woman who traces her former lover by following the scent the cologne she bought him – right up to the doorway behind which he is now – with someone else. I had to look up Spikenard. I was really interested to see that it is an essential oil, from a plant that was used in incense as well as perfume. It goes back hundreds, if not thousands of years, so ties in with the idea of oil, which runs into the other poems.
YR: I think that is a really wonderful interpretation.
AH: I know you have just been mentored for a year by Deryn Rees Jones, under the inaugural Peggy Poole award. Would you like to say something about that experience?
YR: It was Deryn who helped me shape the oil poems. I don’t think I would really have had the courage to tackle that material if it hadn’t been for her encouragement. It’s a topic that I think I will run with. Going further back in my family tree, my grandmother’s father distilled oil from coal.
AH: Was this your father’s side?
YR: Yes, yes it was my Dad’s side. There was this family legend that my Grandmother was related to George Stephenson, the railway engineer. My Grandmother was a Yorkshire woman. She’d sit there on the phone with a Silk Cut cigarette in her hands – this plume of smoke. I have tremendously fond memories of her as a very strong minded matriarch. She is a link to an industry in the past that was coal capitalism.
AH: I trust there will be a poem about her, if only to capture those plumes of smoke. Just before we finish, I know you have just been editing the ‘Loss’ edition of Magma, which will be out in October 2019. Could you say something about how this came about, and what it was like to select and edit so many poems responding to this theme?
YR: I’m delighted to be helping Magma out as an associate editor, although I feel a bit like the proverbial poacher turned gamekeeper! It’s fascinating to be the one selecting poems – I’m usually the one sending work out for selection. It’s also a really difficult process, as you’ve got a limited amount of space and you wish you could take twice as many poems as you have room for. I’m working on the Loss Issue with author and editor Adam Lowe. People submitted over 8,000 poems – more than any issue of Magma had ever attracted before! Loss touches so many people, and it was amazing to have that kind of response. However, it meant we had to turn down some superb poems. I work as an academic, and universities are expected to make an ‘impact’: to run projects benefiting society, business or policymakers. I want to do what I can to support poetry and writing. Because I’d been writing about my Dad, a colleague suggested running writing workshops for people who had been bereaved, but the Magma issue is designed to expand the idea of loss a bit. Adam and I invited poets to submit work about anything from Brexit to losing a homeland to the loss of extinct animals – even beneficial losses, such as losing a gender label. We were lucky enough to get Arts Council funding, and with that, we paired poets with psychologists so that they could exchange ideas and write commissioned poems. We’ve commissioned reviews of books that resonate with the theme. I’m excited about launching the issue of the magazine later this year, with readings from some wonderful poets.
Yvonne Reddick’s editorial introduction to Magma 75 is here.
You can buy the Magma Loss Issue here.
You can find more about Yvonne via her website YvonneReddick here.
You can buy Translating Mountains for a special offer price of £2.50 here.
You can buy Spikenard for £7.50 here.
Details of Ted Hughes Environmentalist and Eco-Poet are available through Yvonne’s website.
You can buy Poetry, Grief and Healing here. The book combines poems and writing exercises for people to develop their own creative responses to grief and loss.
All photos by Alice Hiller unless otherwise credited.