‘What we cannot say and how we say it’ – giving transformative, creative witness to historic crimes at StAnza Festival 2022 at St Andrews from 7-13 March with Maria Stadnicka and Annemarie Ní Churreáin and celebrating a brilliant bill of fellow performers and artists on Scotland’s East Coast. 

Warning: this essay includes brief, non-explicit references to child sexual abuse in a context of healing and reclamation.

Next Friday 11 March, all being well, I’ll set off on my first extended journey in two and a half years – from London to St Andrews in Scotland for the StAnza Festival. As well as hearing brilliant performers, artists and film-makers sharing their work, I’ll be taking part in ‘Erasures: what we cannot say and how we say it’  with poets Maria Stadnicka and Annemarie Ní Churreáin. Involving a tube ride, two trains, and a taxi, my route will be incomparably easier than the dangerous and traumatising journeys currently being undertaken across and out of Ukraine by refugees fleeing the Russian invasion. But the performance and discussion Maria, Annemarie and I are travelling to be part of is, in its own much smaller way, also an act of courage and testimony to historic atrocities perpetrated both by state institutions and private individuals.  

Together the three of us will be giving creative witness to historic crimes which were denied and concealed at the time at which they took place, and which have lost none of their power to traumatise and injure, partly because of the silencing which continues to surround them.  Our intention is to bring these darknesses towards a place of light, through the agency that making and sharing artworks confers on both creators and recipients. 

To this end, Maria Stadnicka will be performing work from her extraordinary debut, Buried Gods Metal Prophets, exploring the lived experiences of children in care during the Romanian communist dictatorship which ended in 1989. Incorporating legal documents, medical records, religious materials and visual artworks, it speaks for mothers who lost the right to choose whether or not to carry pregnancies to term, for children who were removed from their parents, and for the mass of trauma that Romanian Communist Party inflicted on a nation between 1965 and 1989.

Alongside Maria, Annemarie Ní Churreáin will join us from Ireland via Zoom to read from and speak about The Poison Glen, a collection at whose heart sits the story of the stolen or missing child, including work responding to a long-gone Foundling Hospital in Dublin and bearing witness to family loss and cultures of silence in Ireland.  Finally, I will be reading the full sequence of the hand-drawn erasure poems from bird of winter. Their white islands of words make up the stepping stones of a fragmentary, uncertain narrative path through the thorny woods of my childhood and beyond.  During those years I was groomed and then sexually abused by my mother – but began to reclaim life as a teenager. 

Within the performance, I’ll be talking strategies for witness that help keep both creator and audience safer, and exploring why the bird of winter erasures or black out poems use factual materials relating to Pompeii and Herculaneum as the basis for their creative improvisations.  These range from Classical texts to nineteenth century newspaper reports, and more recent work. Incorporating this material was a way for me to register the physical process of unearthing my own traumatic buried history – as Herculaneum and Pompeii had to be dug out from hardened rock and volcanic ash respectively.  But it also built a space of play and discovery for the reader, who has to hopscotch between the islands of words to put the poem together. 

Developing this theme, I’ll also speak about how the ‘black out’ process formed a sort of ‘scratch card’ through to my unconscious, where memories lie which are harder to access or voice. This connection came about as I worked intensively on each erasure poem over the course of a single day, circling key phrases in successive copies of the original text, while blocking out the words between them with a thick black pen, until I reached the final version. ‘Doing’, and being guided by my hand, rather than ‘thinking’, allowed me to let up phrases that my eye identified and recognised as speaking to my bodily experiences before my mind had fully processed them. Repeating the process over and over opened channels through which words could emerge to describe events and experiences which I wasn’t able to speak of more directly.

One of these poems is ‘and now came the ashes’, which emerged from Pliny the Younger’s account of the eruption of Vesuvius. Pliny writes of the ashes showering down, threatening to extinguish all life. His experience of being entirely overwhelmed gave me a way of understanding through feeling how my mother overpowered me in the manner of a cataclysmic force the first time she took me into her bed after my father died when I was eight. Radically unstable, with a midpoint that breaks down into no clear way forward, the erasure finally allowed me to frame the narrative of that single terrible night. The later erasures in bird of winter carry the reader forwards into the light again, so my reading at StAnza will end in a place of healing and reclamation. 

‘and now came the ashes’ by alice hiller from bird of winter

To maximise access, many of the StAnza Festival 2022 events are also available online, and prices start from £3.00. The range of writers, poets, musicians, artists, composers and performers is exhilarating in its breadth and scope, as you’ll be able to see if you click on the link here: https://stanzapoetry.org/festival/

Like a number of other participants, including Kayo Chingonyi, Jack Underwood, Judith Wilson and Luke Kennard, I will be running a practical workshop that extends the themes of my performances and uses them hopefully to support people in making their own new work. 

The online workshop I’ll be offering from 2-4pm on Monday 3 March, is about exploring writing the ‘felt self’ and takes as its starting point the idea of the body as stronghold.  Breath by breath, our bodies keep us in the world. Within them, we experience some of our sweetest pleasures, our most tender joys, and our most exhilarating adventures. But for many of us, of course, our bodies can also be the repositories of difficult experiences – whether through trauma, illness, or injury. 

Working together, with a series of prompts, we will develop our confidence in bringing our bodily selves into our creative practices.  Participants will have the chance to make their own erasure or alternatively a shape poem from unfinished work if they prefer.  Incorporating our fingers, and hands, our ears and eyes – along with our bodily senses – can anchor and strengthen our creative practices. Simultaneously, we can create safer and more stable environments to allow complex ideas and experiences onto the page and into our performed work.

Prices start from £4.00 for the workshop. For more information or to book please follow this link.

If anything I have mentioned has been difficult for you, the Mind website offers valuable links and lines to call.

Published by

Alice Hiller

Activist writer and poet working with words to change awareness around sexual abuse in childhood while writing 'aperture' and 'album without photos'.

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