If in doubt, breathe, I kept telling myself. Why? You might ask. Well, the stakes were so high, that breathing was easy to overlook, while I was putting together my bird of winter set for Outspoken London’s final live show of 2021 at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on the Southbank. It wasn’t just that, as a fifty-seven year old relative novice, I was appearing alongside hardcore poetry legends Nick Makoha and Wayne Holloway-Smith, whose work I have loved for a long time. Also, in Wayne’s case, I was taught by him at The Poetry School. The bill for Outspoken’s season finale included Simeon Hammond Dallas and Kyra – two shape-shifting, misrule-working singers and musicians, able to transform the darkened space of the Purcell Room into sonic kaleidoscopes where time changed its pace, and moods slow-danced across the stage and out into the crowd.
Beyond that, the gig was a huge one for me – because the Southbank was sacred ground when I was teenager in the late 1970s. Specifically the National Theatre. It became one of the first places I experienced my potential for a creative identity, beyond the sexual abuse to which I was subjected between 8 and 13. Living with a relative in Victoria, and going to school in London, I used to buy tickets to Ibsen plays. Seeing Hedda Gabler and The Wild Duck, in the darkened theatre space, I was somehow able to connect the secrets and silences surrounding Ibsen’s characters with those around the sexual abuse to which I had been subjected, and my breakdown that followed aged thirteen. Like letting the pus from a wound, to see Ibsen’s dramas played out gave me a sense of both recognition and release, years before I would be able to talk directly about my own experiences.
Forty years later, I still remember the spaciousness of the peace, and possibility, that I experienced alone, aged fifteen and sixteen, eating my interval ice cream on one of the National Theatre’s balconies, before taking my seat again with all the other ‘sophisticated’ theatre goers. Many of the experiences that came upon me as a post-abuse teenager were neither nurturing nor kind – as is very often the case for those of us who were groomed and sexually abused as children. That summer balcony, with the Thames below, and the skateboarders ricocheting to and fro, is by contrast a blissful memory, and a foretaste of what I hoped my future might hold, even if I didn’t know quite how.
I wanted therefore to make my Outspoken performance of the bird of winter poems a homage to my brave, hope-filled, fighting teenage self, and the tough freedom trail that those years represented – as they do for all teenagers making new, uncertain lives beyond being sexually abused as children. The only homage that felt meaningful to me was by telling her/our story, from being abused aged 12, through treatment for anorexia in a psychiatric unit, to the complex years that followed, before she/we finally began to arrive towards a place of healing.
Whatever the event, in order to perform with my whole self – body, mind and spirit – I learn each poem individually for a live performance, building one onto another, making sure the fit and flow are right. I aim to create a cascading revelation of sensations through the set, that lets the audience feel into the experiences alongside me, and form their own responses to them.
Learning and performing the poems means I have to open myself to them again, however. In this instance it wasn’t always easy, particularly for poems remembering my treatment aged 13 in a psychiatric unit, or what it was like to come ‘home’ to my abuser after my time in hospital. I also needed to give witness to how, unable to speak about what had been done to me, I locked pretty much everything down – only to create a troubled, wounded second self who kept bursting up disruptively.
Other poems, such as remembering dancing alone aged fourteen, watching The Lace-Maker with my French grandmother when I was 15, or my first deep love affair with a girl my own age at sixteen, and discovering my bodily self beyond abuse, felt like digging into old strongholds that I hardly remembered existed. Learning those poems filled me with hope and my fierce teenage hunger for life all over again.
When it came to step through the heavy black curtains on 25 November, onto the Purcell Room’s stage, with the spots turning the audience into a dark sea of expectant beings, and the mic ready and waiting to carry my voice to them, I did remember to breathe. With that breath, the energy of the auditorium entered not just me, but my silenced, unheard teenage self. Vibrating with an invisible energy, that seemed to rise up from all the people who had trod that stage before me, we opened ourselves to the light of creative witness, encouraged by Joelle Taylor’s introduction to speak out and up – in order that the space, and the world beyond, might see and know itself differently.
Afterwards, many people were kind enough to seek me out and say how my words had touched and resonated with them. For all of you who were not able to be there, I have put a recording of my set, together with the poem title and links, below. If you face hearing challenges, and would like to read the full script, including the text of the poems, please get in touch with me through the contact box.
Text of alice hiller’s performance at Outspoken on 25/11 – links with poem titles from bird of winter.
Please note : I have included ‘sagittae’ and ‘snowfall’ in full within the text, as they have already been reproduced outside of bird of winter. I have also included ‘ULTRAMARINE’ as it’s part of a new project I’m working on and can’t be read anywhere else.
alice hiller at Outspoken London on 25/11.21 : Thank you for that wonderful welcome Joelle and to Outspoken for giving me this chance to speak out about a difficult, but necessary, subject. As some of you know, bird of winter gives creative witness to my childhood experience of being groomed and then sexually abused by my mother. It also enacts healing beyond this crime, which impacts millions of us globally. My teenage years were my freedom trail and I’d like to invite you to travel them with me tonight. ‘sagittae’, meaning arrows, sets our course.
The split arose because my mother forced my body to do things which my mind couldn’t bear. I was twelve in December 1976. The penetrative abuse had been ongoing for four years.
december 1976 [performed]
The following Easter I stopped eating. I no longer wanted to live in my body. Come autumn, aged thirteen, I was hospitalised weighing 28.5kg. Unfortunately, eating disorders weren’t linked to sexual abuse in the 1970s.
primary or classical anorexia 
After I left the hospital, I wasn’t allowed to live full-time at home. I still spent holidays and weekends there.
wall painting removed from the house of the surgeon [performed]
For long years, I carried what had happened locked inside myself.
cold is over everything
people scoop and throw handfuls
the sun is slipping
down over the edge of the earth
cold has stolen all the colour
and stripped the trees
birds have nowhere to shelter
small ones fall off branches
and lie without moving
you are not loved
you are not wanted
I am the tower and the tower is my silence
I am the cold and the cold is all over
speak winter – inhabit me
I first heard myself speak through the voices of other people. Here I am at fourteen, dancing alone.
Like many teenagers, I discovered myself through my body.
love me [performed ]
When I was fifteen, my French grandmother, or bonne maman, invited me to watch The Lace Maker. Isabelle Huppert is a young hairdresser who has a breakdown after being groomed into a predatory relationship. The film felt like a door opening.
My teenage path remained far from easy. The trauma I carried created a troubled, second self. She kept bursting up disrupting my life.
At sixteen, I entered into a tender, transformative love affair with a girl my own age.
imprint of a young woman [performed]
When I was just eighteen, instead of taking my place at university, my first son was born. Creating a loving, stable family, with their dad for him and then his brother, opened me to life. I did study later and ended up with a PhD. For now, I’m going to leave you with the final poem from bird of winter.
o goddess isis [performed]
Anyone looking to buy a copy of my bird of winter, from which these poems are taken, it’s currently available with 50% off – £4.99 plus postage – from Liverpool University Press as part of their December sale. You need to enter the code WINTER21.
This will also give you 50% off most of their other books, including forthcoming ones, among them the full Pavilion Poetry list. If you have difficulties buying bird of winter from abroad please contact me through the contact box. I have some copies I can mail directly.
In closing, I’d like to thank the Outspoken crew and the Southbank Literature team for making this brilliant event possible. The next Outspoken London event will be kicking off in January 2022. If you sign up to their mailing list here you’ll be sent details of their live events and masterclasses.