Introducing the bird of winter podcast series: exploring working safely and creatively with difficult materials through discussion and prompts.

cover of bird of winter

Link to bird of winter podcast no 1: finding words to hold things that can be hard to say : https://youtu.be/wnVHd5JR3cQ  It’s part of my commitment to changing awareness through working creatively beyond our places of silence.

How much does it matter what a work of art is ‘about’?  Do we only watch a film to find out what happens at the end?  Or is it to see the actors look towards each other, then drop their gazes? Do we also want to discover how they inhabit the skins of their characters, what landscapes are revealed by the bends in the road, how the mood changes when darkness falls?  All these elements are also the story.  They let us absorb the process of the film, and make us care about its outcome, because they involve us in what happens and why.  By engaging with them, we feel and think along with what we’re watching.  We bring our own imaginations, our own understandings, our own experiences into the mix.  

The same is true for poems.  Although their format is more compressed, it’s not only what the poem ‘says’ that catches us.  Of course that central energy matters.  But also how it is said – and why.  I believe the how and the why are particularly important when we write about our difficult things.  If we’re going to ask a reader, or a listener, to come on board with a complex or challenging topic, we need to help them engage actively, and with imaginative agency.  That way the material is not simply inflicted on them.  They can choose what to make of what rises from the page – and through this exercise a measure of control and safety.   

I founded, and have been facilitating a workshop for poets working with difficult materials since 2017.  It now has over fifty members, and has expanded into the Voicing our Silences website with dynamic sections run by different poets including Maia Elsner, Tamsin Hopkins, Rachel Lewis and Mary Mulholland. Others among our poets also include Romalyn Ante, Isabelle Baafi, Natalie Linh Bolderston, S. Niroshini, Natalie Whittaker,  Arji Manuelpillai, Jeffery Sugarman, Kostya Tsolakis, Joanna Ingham, Julie Irigaray, Wendy Allen, Patrizia Longhitano, Chaucer Cameron, Rochelle Roberts, Dan Fitt-Palmer, Holly Conant and SK Grout – to name but a few. 

As a group, we’ve had many conversations over the years, which have informed and shaped my own poems in bird of winter.  A considerable part of my collection passed through our workshop feedbacks at different stages.  I therefore wanted to use bird of winter’s publication this May by Pavilion Poetry, part of Liverpool University Press, to take some of our group’s and my own thinking around working with difficult materials out into the wider world. As with the Voicing Our Silences website, I hope we can support other people bringing their creative voices into the larger conversation. 

To facilitate this process, I’m launching the bird of winter podcast series. Each podcast includes a discussion and prompt, plus a performance of the poem I explore.  The first podcast is about working with things that live in the gaps and shadows of our lives, and finding words to hold things we find difficult to say. This is something which I know many of us face.  I investigate this theme relative to my title poem, (also called ‘bird of winter’), and specifically the creative strategies I came up with.  Because the poem looks at my experience of being treated in hospital for anorexia aged thirteen, and includes references to psychological vulnerability after sexual abuse in childhood, I have included the full text of the discussion and performance of the poem ‘bird of winter’ below the photo of the seagull. People who have concerns can read it first if they are concerned about being triggered.

If you would rather jump straight in and listen, the podcast is here. It’s auto-captioned and takes 10 minutes : https://youtu.be/wnVHd5JR3cQ

Text of bird of winter podcast no 1: finding words for things we find difficult to say. 

Hello I’m alice hiller, bringing you the bird of winter podcast series. The podcasts explore ways to be playful and adventurous with language, and share strategies for staying safe if you work with difficult materials, like I do.   A a word of warning – this episode mentions sexual abuse briefly, in the context of living beyond this crime as a teenager.  

What I’m going to explore today is finding words to hold things which can be hard to say – because they exist in the gaps and shadows of our lives.  To do this, I’m going to talk about the title poem of my collection.  It centres around meetings with the psychiatrist who admitted me to hospital in 1977, when I was thirteen.  I’d stopped eating, after being subjected to sexual abuse, and needed treatment for anorexia.  When I look back,  these conversations bring together silence and speaking – through the body, as well as with words. 

In 1977, sexual abuse in childhood wasn’t widely recognised, or discussed.  There was no framework for me to say or even think about what my abuser had done.  Aged thirteen, I weighed 28.5 kg, or 4.5 stone.  That’s the average weight for an eight or nine year old.  Seeing me,  the psychiatrist understood that something had gone very wrong.  She began the process of turning my life around, by giving me appropriate care.  

I needed ‘bird of winter’  to communicate her care, but also my experience of not being able to communicate fully with her, and the vulnerability that arose from this.  I also wanted to record what it feels like if your home is not a safe place to live in, when you haven’t yet finished growing up, something many young people face for various reasons.  

After trying out different approaches, I ended up setting short comments and questions from the psychiatrist down one side of the poem. I butted these into silent, unspoken thoughts from my teenage self, taking up the second half of the line. Because we were connected to each other within the therapeutic process, I then moulded our shared lines into an oval or pill shape that held our exchanges in its single, joined space. 

The pill shape made a record on the page of how talking was a key part of the treatment.  It also registered how I couldn’t really speak at the time, partly due to the drugs that were prescribed to help me to eat and sleep. The voice of the poem is fairly flat, almost muffled, suggesting how the drugs numbed my experience of the world while I was in hospital.

bird of winter

This is the text of the poem bird of winter which you can hear read on the podcast link

‘bird of winter’ is also a poem about healing. Seen another way, the oval looks like an egg. This extra layer of meaning matters.  It reflects how being in hospital put a safe shell around me.  Inside this shell, I could start to recover and grow beyond the abuse.  The new alice hatches out  in the poems about my teenage and then adult selves in bird of winter. 

The photo I chose for this podcast is of a gull flying alongside the cross-Channel ferry to Dieppe.  The way the bird stays close to the boat – while remaining free to tilt its wings and lift with the wind, or dive down into the green waves – made me think of how a teenager will progressively claim their independence, until they are strong enough and confident enough to take to the skies of their adult life.

Unlike the 1970s,  there are now positive options in the UK for young people who have been subjected to sexual abuse, to help them recover and feel strong and well. Support is also there for people seeking help in later life, as I did.  The Mind website has valuable links and phone numbers and your doctor can also give you advice. 

If you’d like to try writing something of your own based on how I put the poem together, I’ve created a three stage writing exercise which will come after this. Otherwise, thanks for listening. I’m alice hiller, speaking about my collection bird of winter which is published by Pavilion Poetry and I really appreciate you checking in with this project. 

You can buy bird of winter here, or read more about the project in the side bar.

shadow of alice hiller photographed falling on the sand through a small wave.

Finding out that ‘bird of winter’ has been chosen as one of the 10 books recommended by the Poetry Book Society for Mental Health Awareness Week – and launching difficult materials live online with safeguarding in mind.

Trigger warning: reference to grooming and sexual abuse in childhood. Also to healing and reclamation.

Finding out that bird of winter has been chosen by the Poetry Book Society as one of the 10 books they recommend for Mental Health Awareness Week came as a huge boost to me this week, in addition to being chosen as their Summer Special Commendation. In amongst other themes, my collection explores the impacts of sexual abuse in childhood – on the mental health of the child, the adolescent they become, and their adult self. It also traces paths towards self-reclamation and healing in the aftermath of this crime, which I believe should be integral to any discussion around the topic. By focusing on both injury and restitution, and the importance of witness, and listening, we can honour the selfhood and agency of people making meaningful lives beyond this assault, as I try to do myself. We can also change awareness around the value of the voluntary support services, whose impacts can be transformative for peoples of all ages. You can find a very helpful list on the Mind website. Barnardos and the NSPCC are amongst charities who provide specialised help for children and adolescents. Their services are usually accessed through referral.

You can read more about the other books on the Poetry Book Society list, and the challenges they respond to, on the PBS website. These include brilliant titles by Kaveh Akvah, Fiona Benson, Emma Jeremy, Niall Campbell, Hollie McNish, Ben Wilkinson and Helen Calcutt. The link is here.


Like many of us with complex histories, the pandemic has made my own mental health feel more fragile at times, not least because I lived with only my excellent dog Ithaca for company during long sections of the lockdowns. I would normally counterbalance working from home with communal activities including family contact, swimming, attending arts events, Buddhist learning, and seeing people socially. Until very recently, all of these have been off the menu other than via a screen. Meditation, meeting with fellow dog walkers outdoors, walking with Ithaca, and collaborating with the collective of Voicing our Silences poets have all been valuable sustenance in this time of absence.

Editing the poems in bird of winter which respond to my own experiences of being groomed and sexually abused in childhood, and then finding my way through a tricky adolescence towards healing in adult life, without my usual resources, made me realise last autumn that I needed to check in with some support again. I went back to see the counsellor I have worked with previously, weekly on zoom, which undoubtedly helped me get through the long winter lockdown. I know many other people who have similarly realised they needed more support than they could generate on their own over the past year. In his recent interview for the Society of Authors, I was grateful to hear Kayo Chingonyi speak of the difficulties he experienced as a result of separation from cherished family members and friends over the lockdowns, and to hear him say that he was working with a therapist. This kind of matter of fact open-ness helps us all feel that the challenges we face are shared by many, and that to seek solutions to them is a reflection of strength.


My own vulnerability has also made me aware of the need to keep safe-guarding in mind during online live performances, while also honouring my commitment to witnessing and speaking out. When you perform to a room full of people, you can ‘take the temperature’ of the collective mood, and adjust your set accordingly. You also know that the audience members have each other for grounding and support, along with the possibility of a drink and chat afterwards. They can equally come and talk to you, as people often do when I read. At physical live events, there is also the journey home, which has the effect of placing a degree of separation between the content of the evening, and the rest of your life.

Beaming into people’s homes is of course entirely different. Not only do you, the performer, have no idea of who is out there (other of course than friends whose names flash by as the audience file in, if it’s an interactive format), but you have no sense of how they are feeling, whether they are alone, how long it might be since the last saw anyone, and a host of other questions which can significantly influence the reception of more challenging materials.

I have therefore sifted my poems to set aside some which I feel can only be shared either via the printed page, or carefully in a live context, and with appropriate safeguarding measures. I am also taking time to write short scripts linking the poems, and contextualising the subject matter, so the listener can feel invited in as an active participant in a process of transformation. This was absolutely my intention for the live launch of bird of winter, on 5 May, which was recorded by Liverpool University Press, and can be watched here, along with wonderful performances by my fellow Pavilion Poets of 2021, Sarah Westcott and Alice Miller. You will need to scroll down to the video of 5 May, which shows Mona Arshi introducing us as the identifying image. All the other videos are absolutely worth watching as well.

There is a trigger warning for my performance within the launch, which begins at 33.40, in case anyone wants to switch off. The recording has captioning available, but I decided to publish the words I wrote to link the poems below, to give a fuller understanding of the bird of winter project of changing awareness around sexual abuse in childhood through art-making and art-sharing.

For copyright reasons, I can’t include all the poems, but I have dropped in the image for ‘sagittae’, as it is difficult to visualise it from the reading. ‘elegy for an eight year old’ and ‘bird of winter’ are also available elsewhere on this blog. If you watch the video, there is also a really powerful Q&A at the end, when Mona Arshi talks to us about our collections. The link to the launch again is here.

Mona Arshi, alice hiller, Sarah Westcott and Alice Miller at the Pavilion Launch

alice hiller: words and poems to launch bird of winter on 5/5/21

As some of you will know, bird of winter responds to my own experience of being groomed and then sexually abused as a child, but also of finding my way towards healing.  Sadly, it’s a crime which is being perpetrated day and night around the world.  Millions of teenagers and adults like me make their lives in its aftermath. 

One of the difficulties we face in reclaiming ourselves is that the trauma and perceived shamefulness of the experience can make sexual abuse hard to talk about.  Many people wait decades to be able to say what was done to them as undefended children or teenagers. 

 My poems in bird of winter seek to create a language, through made artworks, that can help people explore this complex topic safely, and with agency.  I’ve been careful about what I’ve chosen to read tonight.

The first poem I’m going to share is called ‘the needle’s eye sews red silk.’  It sets out the legal penalties for what was done to me in childhood, as defined by the UK criminal justice act of 2003, with the 2007 sentencing guidelines. The legal quotes are interspersed with my own ‘impact statement’.

reading of ‘the needle’s eye sews red silk’

My abuser was unfortunately my mother. The grooming began in my earliest life. I was, however, blessed by a good French grandmother, or bonne maman, and diplomat father. They both loved me.   Thanks to my father’s posting to Singapore, I was looked after from birth by a Chinese amah called Ah Loh. This next poem is for her. It honours how the good that we are given strengthens our whole being, and gives us a better chance of coming through difficult times. 

reading of ‘my amah   my armour

Once Ah Loh had returned to Singapore, my life became less safe, as ‘pistil’ records.  It’s named for the female reproductive parts of the flower and the first section quotes from my GP’s notes when I was two. They record the troubled behaviours my abuser’s actions were already precipitating. 

reading of ‘pistil’

The French buttercups in the third section of ‘pistil’ grew in the field adjacent to my bonne maman’s clifftop house in Normandy, where I went every summer of my childhood.  I could hear the lighthouse when I lay in bed, and see its fingers of light sweeping the sky. ‘bains de mer’ or ‘sea-swimming’ was written after visiting the area again a few years ago, when I was beginning these poems.

reading of ‘bains de mer’ or ‘sea-swimming’

What my abuser was doing remained  profoundly damaging.  In bird of winter, Pompeii and  Herculaneum form shadow worlds in which the injuries and silencings of my childhood play out.  They are also where the excavations and reclamations of my story are enacted. The next poem is titled for two tiny gladiators who were dug up in Pompeii and shows my abuser and I side by side. 

reading of ‘terracotta figurines’

‘terracotta figurines’ is set in the flat Brussels, where my father was posted after Paris. Here he became ill with motor neurone disease, and died when I was eight.  My abuser and I then moved to Wiltshire, away from the protection of my French bonne maman. I had never lived full-time in England, and no one really knew me there. I see what happened next in terms of the eruption of Vesuvius. 

reading of ‘on the shoreline’

In the early 1970s, the sexual abuse of children was not widely recognised, or discussed. No one suspected that the studious little girl in glasses, who worked so hard at school, but didn’t seem to have many friends, had something very wrong at home.

reading of ‘cyclical’ which will be reproduced in PN Review.

One of the most damaging aspects of sexual abuse is how the child is made to feel complicit with, and implicated in, the forced intimacy that is imposed on them as part of the abuse. ‘joujou’ takes its title from the eighteenth century French word for a yoyo, based on the verb jouer, to play.  

reading of ‘joujou

For many of us who are abused in childhood, the changes of puberty can bring the possibility of agency.  Christmas eve when I was twelve proved a turning point. 

reading of ‘december 1976’

The following Easter, of 1977, I decided to stop eating. I was hospitalised for anorexia that autumn.  Now began the long, sometimes uncertain, journey towards healing.  The next two poems give snapshots of me at eight and thirteen, at school and then in hospital respectively. They book-end the years of penetrative abuse. 

reading of ‘elegy for an eight year old followed by ‘bird of winter’ these can both be found on the blog in the sidebar about ‘bird of winter’.

Aged thirteen,  I had no words to tell the psychiatrist who treated me in hospital what my abuser had done. Inevitably, my teenage years proved turbulent, as they are for everyone with my history. Like many, I was left vulnerable to further predation, and psychological distress.  

Forming a loving relationship, and becoming a mother, along with meaningful study and work, gradually led me towards firmer ground.  I only became strong enough to begin to speak to a counsellor of what had happened to me as a child when I was  in my early thirties.  I started to try and write about it in my forties. I’m now 56. 

My poem ‘sagittae’, or ‘arrows’ uses the processes of how arrows are made, then fired,  to explore the transformations that healing can bring about if you have a history of having been sexually abused.  As you will see, it’s repeated across the page to become a collective act of resistance and reclamation.

I’m going to end this reading with the final poem of bird of winter.  ‘o goddess isis’ takes its details from the excavation of the Temple of Isis at Pompeii and the rituals performed there as part of the worship.   With her son Horus, and her partner Osiris, the Egyptian goddess Isis watches over death and loss –  but also birth and regeneration.  I dedicate the poem to all of us who seek to live facing into the light.

reading of ‘o goddess isis’

Thank you all for listening, and Deryn and LUP for publishing bird of winter.

Please see the link to the Mind website if you need help or support with anything I have talked about. 

I am going to be publishing a series of short podcasts looking at the ideas behind individual poems on this blog.

If anyone is d/Deaf and needs a transcript of the full reading please connect with me through the contact section of the blog.

You can buy ‘bird of winter’ here.

If you’re a member of the Poetry Book Society, bird of winter and their other selected books are available at a 25% discount here.

Voicing Our Silences : a free writing website combining interviews, performances and live prompts to connect and recharge us all through the last months of lockdown.

Maia Elsner with Arji Maneuelpillai from our first workshop

By the nature of how life is, sadly many of us will have been through difficult times – whether or not we work in creative fields.  While these experiences stay with us, they are seldom easy to talk about, as a number of the poets I have interviewed on this blog reveal.   Screenwriter Russell T. Davies, who wrote the landmark series Queer as Folk in 1999, and has just premiered It’s a Sin, remembers how when the first HIV/Aids infections were happening, and he was in his early 20s: 

“I looked away. Oh, I went on marches, and gave a bit of money and said how sad it was, but really, I couldn’t quite look at it.  This impossible thing.  There are boys whose funerals I didn’t attend.  Letters I didn’t write.  Parents I didn’t see.” [Observer 3/1/21]. 

Reasons for our silences around our difficult experiences may include that we lack the words with which to say what happened, or feel shame, or fear how others may react.  As time passes, these places of silence can lie within us like ice, or rock.  They may be heavy, unwieldy and painful to carry –  as if they were obstructing part of our growth, or even the evolution of our lives. But nothing is ever fixed, and change can always come.

In the same Observer article, Davies reveals how as the years went by: “I stayed busy, looking away, but I suppose I also looked down.  At the keyboard.  And stories began to emerge in my work.  Rising up.  Bleeding through the page. In 1994, I created a 15-year-old HIV+ teenager for Children’s Ward.”  [Observer, 3/1/21].  Queer as Folk then followed five years later. 

Having been groomed and sexually abused by a close family member in childhood, I recognise both that looking away that Davies describes, and the rising up that can follow.  From my 20s onwards, what had happened to me as a child and a teenager came into my dreams and nightmares – and then into my waking conversations in my 30s. 

At last, in my 40s and 50s, I began to voice my silences around the crime to which I had been subjected, within creative work.  Also in his 50s, Davis reveals of It’s a Sin, “Finally, I came to write a show with Aids centre stage.  I think I had to wait till now, to find what I wanted to say.” 

One of the processes that has helped me become strong enough to stay with writing bird of winter, my debut collection with Pavilion Poetry, has been the workshop community which formed with other poets saying ‘the difficult thing’ in their work.  This started life as a Poetry Society Stanza three years ago, and shifted to meeting online during the pandemic.

Collectively, we realised that there would be value in sharing the insights we are able to give each other, beyond our own group.  We wanted to support and connect with a wider community of people also trying to voice their own silences – whether on the page, or in their own lives. 

Our format has been to create a series of free, hour-long workshops available through our Voicing Our Silences website.  Two of our poets speak to each other about their work and perform it.  They also set live writing exercises for the audience to follow, to help spark new creative strands.  We have four workshops up so far, featuring Arji Maneulpillai, Maia Elsner, Isabelle Baafi, Romalyn Ante, Rachel Lewis, Kostya Tsolakis, Joanna Ingham and myself.  They are available as podcasts, or captioned videos. More recordings will be coming over the next months, with Chaucer Cameron and Jeffery Sugarman in March. 

While in-person meetings for live events are still a way off, we hope our website will offer a proxy community.  We aim for it to generate a creative boost to help get people through the last months of lockdown.  We also want it to make new connections between writers and readers, that we can follow up together into actual meetings, over the summer and beyond. To find out more, please click the link to go through to http://www.voicingoursilences.com

Isabelle Baafi.

‘What is ever easy to write? I’m interested in what gets lost in memory, where it goes – how the body holds’: Rachel Long talks to alice hiller about the power of ‘girl-speak’ and art as transfiguration in ‘My Darling from the Lions’.

Photo of Rachel Long by Amaal Said.

Sometimes distance generates its own form of closeness.  Or at least that was our experience, when Rachel Long and I connected through zoom to go deep with her debut, My Darling from the Lions, which was shortlisted for both the Forwards and Costa prizes in 2020. Each of us had instinctively positioned ourselves by a window – as if to share the same autumn afternoon light, notwithstanding being on opposite sides of London.  Over the course of the two hours which followed, we talked about what it means to create as women, where we find the spaces and energies to nurture ourselves as artists, and why poetry is sideways-thinking.  We asked how someone accesses their own ‘true’ perspective or ‘spirit level’; we agreed on the generative nature of play, and why translating another poet’s work can lead your own into new dimensions. Specifically, in Rachel Long’s case – that working with Adelaide Ivánova fed into her own poems of witness around the subject of sexual predation and assault. We then moved into a closer discussion of the extraordinary sequence of poems in which Rachel Long responds creatively to the challenging subject of sexual abuse in childhood – about which I also write.  Together we explored language as reclamation, and how the process of articulating, and shaping, may enact a form of restitution and healing.  Reviewing the transcript, we both felt that this second half of the conversation formed its own unit.   I have therefore divided the interview into two segments, so that our readers have the option of either reading it right through, or in two halves as feels right to them. At the close of that tough year, I had no doubt that this was one of the most nourishing, but also radical conversations, I had in the whole of 2020.  It’s the greatest honour to be able to share Rachel Long’s words with you, as we go forward as readers and writers into 2021 together. 

AH: Can I start by asking about how My Darling from the Lions came into being Rachel Long?  When, and how, did you start writing?

RL:     I feel that in many ways I was maybe always writing it.  I loved writing even as a child.  I didn’t know what I was writing for a long time, in terms of subject or form.  I return to the subjects that I have long been fascinated with – the lives of the people around me.  The complexity of people’s stories, of how appearances are not necessarily the reality of what is going on inside.  My mother came to the UK from Sierra Leone when she was eight. So many of her stories of growing up are holey snippets.  The older I get, the more I realise they might actually be some kind of fiction or poetry.  If you question something in one of my mother’s ‘origin stories’, she gets almost confused, or contradictory very quickly. The stories become murky, vague, abstract. 

AH:     I love that idea of murkiness. It’s full of possibility, and also really honest. In the collection, you explore everything from the harm caused by racism and sexual predation, all the way to what it’s like to grow up in the UK of dual heritage, this can’t have been an easy collection to write – at a creative as well as on a personal level? 

RL:    What is ever easy to write? I’m interested in what gets lost in memory, where it goes – how the body holds it. Being of dual heritage… I grew up in a white working-class area on the outskirts of London. My schools were majoritively white, my friends, half my family. I’m not sure that I thought of myself as Black for a long time. Mixed, half-caste, (dark-)light-skinned, all the rest of it, but not Black particularly. That was an understanding, a knowledge and an acceptance of a self that I had to carve out later, as I grew up, as left that estate, as I read, spoke and understood myself within a much wider context.  When I was a girl, I thought that you had to choose what colour you were.  I remember sitting in the back seat of my dad’s car, Dad driving, Mum in the passenger seat, and suddenly thinking, you must choose, now, whether you want to be white like Dad or black like Mum – isn’t that… disturbing? And as if I thought that I get to choose how the world perceives me.

AH: Picking up on what you were saying about claiming your Black identity as you grew older, certainly in decades past in England, the dominant culture wasn’t respectful of different identities. There was a pressure to only tick one box or feel of less worth if you didn’t tick that box.  I knew Poly Styrene, of X-Ray Spex. She used to pretend to be Greek as a teenager in the 70’s.  Once she became an artist, she was able to claim her dual heritage identity more fully. 

RL: I understand that.  It’s interesting that she could become closer to herself through her art. 

AH: Poly was freed to claim her identity partly by working with live theatre as a teenager. Were there people who made becoming a writer more possible for you?

RL: What a beautiful question. Yes. I loved school. Primary school particularly, I felt so much freer at school than at home, and I loved learning, like very honestly loved it. My formidable headmistress, Mrs Wiley loved literature. She would make us recite poetry.  Her favourite poem was WB Yeats’ ‘Aedh Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven’, (with the line “Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.”).  Our morning assemblies consisted of who could get through the poem. I became good at reciting and at being shy, but showing off. Because of my love of English and of reading, she recommended me for some residential creative writing courses. On the weekends, and during the holidays, from when I was about 10 to 17, I spent time in the Essex countryside, which I loved, reading under trees, and watching Man Ray films at ten, or discussing silent French movies before sneaking off to play spin the bottle. As I got older obviously, that crux of being 14 and ashamed of everything, I completely hid what I had ‘got up to at the weekend’ from my friends – except perhaps my best friend.  It’s good to be able to trust one person at least in life…. Anyway, my 10 year-old brain is going whish whish whish whish, just totally like woah, this is… beautiful, I feel like this is what I’m here for.  We did things like creative dreaming – all of us, a gaggle of geeky ‘chosen children’ from all over the country, laying down in the grounds listening to what the grass was telling us.  What a radical side-education! Without those easters and summers away, I hate to think where all my dreaming or talking to grass would have been wasted. On boys probably, in phone boxes, at the bottom of bottles. My childminder Barbara was also an amazing education for me. My mum and dad both worked so I would go to Barbara’s after school. Barbara loved sewing and knitting.  She taught me to sew (I was never great at knitting). She taught me to draw and paint too, how to look after flowers. I feel very blessed to have had this creative education, to have learnt what I love from others, particularly from women seeing and encouraging me.  

AH: At such a young age, that forms you as an artist. It’s letting you know that this is the way to be.  

RL: Absolutely.  If I didn’t have those people then, I would have had a different path, one I suspect I would not be happy in at all right now. I can’t think about the ‘other path’ for too long, I always well up very quickly, as if the possibility of it is still uncomfortably close. I suspect that is the same for most children, that they’ll thrive if opened up to what is possible. 

AH: For sure. And there is the simplicity of playfulness. When I was pregnant with my second son, I did a playing course.  There were no children there. It was for parents to enjoy playing.  I built bricks and did all those things.  That really was a brilliant thing to take back into my parenting.  I connected with my joy and playfulness.  

RL: I love that! What we do as poets is sort of play. Serious play. 

AH: Yes, exactly.  When it stops being play, it stops working.  Being exposed to poetry early, you learnt how to tell without telling, because poetry works with a backward logic.  You don’t just state a sequential narrative.  You let it ooze out.  It’s like sideways thinking.  To develop your ability to sideways-think young, has to be a fantastic thing. 

RL: I think you just nailed something for me Alice – or kind of opened something up for me – about sideways thinking.  I don’t usually credit my parents for making me very creative, but I think the ways they are as people, people who don’t hide, but also don’t necessarily access or communicate how they more deeply feel, has influenced my work. 

Mum will tell you exactly how she is feeling, but I think what she says is the surface, a lot of her anger and worry is fear.  I think that underneath she is a lot quieter, shy, strange and dangerous, but she would never absolutely communicate that.  My Dad says nothing about anything. So maybe as a child I watched them and understood something essential about what is said and unsaid, about how much you can communicate in your not-saying, in your subtle showing.

AH: To be able to connect the surface and the depth requires opening the channels in the way that you did as a child through creative play.  For a lot of people, knowing how they feel isn’t easy.  Connecting what they are experiencing on the surface with what’s driving it down below is tricky.   Somehow art communicates this, even if it doesn’t do so explicitly.  It lets it be understood. 

RL:      Definitely. 

AH:      Nowadays, as a poet and a teacher, you work with language to expand and change awareness, and make the new.  Were there artists who enabled you to see that your voice, as a women of colour, needed to be realized in a way that did not try to erase the contexts from which it took its shapes?  Specifically, the female and the domestic, including the shadowed hinterlands between adolescence and adulthood, which are vulnerable times for many of us? Asking this question, I had in mind your poem ‘Apples’. It starts with the speaker running for a train –  “tits play-doughing/ out of a shit bra” – then slides through an admission of  her being “magazine educated” into a childhood memory of :

When the mum of my then-best friend said
her daughter wasn’t allowed to play with me 
because I was another N-word – meaning
Mum went round in her dressing-gown to slap her silly
with her tongue, then returned to scatter the kitchen 
and shred Dad’s Guardian for not sticking up for us,
for never saying anything – 

RL: The person who comes to mind most is Caroline Bird, who was my Jerwood-Arvon mentor in 2015-16.  Working with Caroline completely accelerated my work. I felt seen and heard and ‘good’, like I could do this, that it wasn’t all rubbish and a waste of time. Caroline was the first person to read my work and really see and hear me. Not in a weird tokenistic or racialized or classist way, as sometimes is ‘the way’. She read me un-bemused, nonjudgmentally, deadly seriously; essentially. That was radicalising for my poetry, for my practice, and for my personhood. Over that year I was able to let go of a lot of shame and therefore I could begin writing it. That came from finally not being or feeling judged, or boxed, or expected of. I realise that you’ve asked me about women of colour influencing me specifically and I have immediately offered Caroline, who is not a woman of colour – how can I phrase this so that it doesn’t sound ‘colour blind’ – let me access my own perspective… I don’t write (or read, or sleep or dream any of those essential, private, self-onto-self things) as a ‘woman of colour’. I write as myself — by that I mean, I don’t think our truest, deepest selves, at spirit level, register or identify with concepts of race, gender ecterea, the spirit doesn’t need these codes I don’t think, they aren’t necessary, and if the spirit level is also likely where the writing is from, then essentially do any of us write as our society-necessary, society-inflicted, society-worn labels?   It is only later, when another person reads the work, that certain societal lenses may be worn to read and interpret the work.  For example, in my poem, ‘Jail Letter’, I sit between my mother’s legs getting my hair plaited for what feels like all of Saturday. Only to go to school on Monday and be laughed at because my hair ‘looked like spiders’, but also because I had a Wednesday clip in and it was Friday or something. Sitting there as a girl, I did not realise the racial politics of hair, its implications, the perceptions of beauty and the precedence of European ideals, none of that, at least not consciously.  I might have felt, suspected, some of it. I was just sitting there, bored out of my mind, in some discomfort.  I wanted the poem to reflect that. I didn’t want the poems to have a knowledge of a context that is implausible for the little (mixed-race black) girl in it to reach yet. I badly want to leave the brackets out there because to constantly be a bracketed girl is not the girlhood I wanted, nor should any girl be bracketed, does this make any sense? 

AH: Yes it does.

RL:     Anyway, I wanted the poem to stay true to her authentic universe rather than be unhonestly aware of her place within the wider context, or indeed other people’s perceptions and dictations of it. And I think, I hope, that by doing that it makes the poem sad and funny, because she doesn’t realise, as she’s sitting there getting her hair plaited, what the reader might think about who she is and what she means, or what her hair means in the world, to others. I was supposed to be talking about Caroline and other influential women and I’m talking about authentic poetic universes!  

AH:   I was reading Toni Morrison in the 80’s.  I felt understood by her writing, and I felt I understood myself. I was born in 1964 and sexual abuse in terms of children wasn’t discussed much until the 80s, by which time I was in my 20’s. It was to do with finding myself in her work as someone who was living a life, carrying a history, that most of society denied and excluded, before I could even articulate my own experience coherently.  

RL: Morrison is one of the best writers that we have had on this planet.  The fact that you feel personally understood and encompassed by that work, and that it also speaks to a universal experience – maybe it’s to do with identity, but also bloody good writing.  

AH: Also, being formally inventive, because you need to make a language to say something that hasn’t been said and isn’t being said.  You have to find a language that will actually do that. We both saw the Faith Ringgold Exhibition at the Serpentine.  I feel that about her work.  And in terms of our work as artists, that is a fantastic challenge to be set – because you know you really have to rise to it.  That creates newness, originality, invention. 

RL:  ‘Apples’ is partly inspired by the experience of reading Morgan Parker’s collection, Other People’s Comfort Keeps Me Up at Night.  Parker really harnesses a multiplicity in her work. She has all of these apparent contradictions and juxtaposition, all going on at once, which is, of course, most like life. One particular poem of Morgan’s is ‘How to Piss in Public and Maintain Femininity.’  Just the way it runs, it switches up, it is sliding-doory. This being of multiple things all at once inspired  ‘Apples’.  I think I have long felt lots of different things at once, sometimes contradictory, and sometimes only things other people said or thought were contradictory, but I knew them intimately to be one. I realized when writing ‘Apples’ that I had long felt like lots of apparently-different selves presenting as a single person.

AH:  I love her work, and the way it takes from daily life, and makes it strange and powerful.  In his memoir The Beautiful Struggle, Ta-Nihisi Coates makes a point of recording complex situations in direct, accessible language. Was that part of your intention for My Darling from the Lions?

RL: It’s the way I speak. It’s uncomfortably pronouncing words I confidently but silently read, it’s mispronouncing the same words my mum does, the dreaming holidays in the countryside talking to grass.  It’s the mediocre comprehensive secondary school, using a flirtier voice to convince the bus driver to let me on without a ticket, and that voice sticking.  It’s the sudden grammar school sixth form,  University upt North, and only just now realising that I speak in about five different registers.  Sometimes I am very aware and ashamed of it, and others I’m like, well, I start sentences with ‘I’m like’.  I want to write in a way that feels true. Poetry is opening up a little in terms of reflecting a plethora of different voices and moving away from having one overarching voice that we must all listen very carefully and above all others to.  My poem, ‘Helena’ was written after a conversation I had with a poet, who is from Peckham — not so far from where I grew up in south east London also.  He was like, no you don’t talk like you are from South London, and sort of laughed at me for even thinking that I did/still did (did I ever?).   So, then I went away and thought, OK, how did we used to speak when we were at school? –and or just after, at like 20, 21. As I was writing ‘Helena’ I realised that it is starkly different to how I speak now, even the pace of it is different, we spoke all in a rush to each other, all the time – and we swore a hell of a lot more. What I found interesting to was recalling old sayings, old ways of using language, ‘swear down’, ‘I’m not being funny, mate’, ‘at the end of the day’ (not all of these made the final edit, but at one point they were all in there). The poem is not a pretty poem, but it was liberating to write in a vernacular that was so essentially us, ours, that felt so much like I was speaking to Helena again, like, really.  Our kind of ‘girl-speak’ was so rooted in a specific place and time. 

AH: I love that. Going further with the idea of ‘girl-speak’, and the collective, you work with experiences you identify as not having happened to you personally, but that open to larger themes.  In ‘Helena’, the speaker is witness to Helena coming round to their mutual friend Tiff’s flat, after being attacked by the bouncer at the nightclub where she worked. The language is raucous, high-energy girl-talk, that takes a turn for the nasty.  Helena is speaking.  Scarlett is Tiff’s daughter

The er/a and i/e/y rhymes punctuate the sonic patterning of this section with groan and cry sounds, without compromising the spoken feel of the language, or the heartbreak-humour with which Helena creates a retrospective shield for herself against the rape, which the reader is left to imagine.  You translated the Brazilian poet and artist Adelaide Ivánova for a chapbook with the PTC last year, whose work denounces crimes of sexual violence.   I wondered if this collaboration informed your work of witness in ‘Helena’, and if you could say something about the poem?

RL:   I don’t think until I read your question that I truly understood how influential actually translating Adelaide Ivánova’s work was for me.  In being invited by The Poetry Translation Centre to translate Adelaide’s work from the literals, and in being introduced to her when she came to the UK to launch and tour the collection, I was influenced, massively. I was moved by her activism, in life and on the page. You’ve made me think about what the act of translation does spiritually; to read someone else’s work, to be deep inside it, to experience and walk around in it.  When I’m translating, I always feel like I’m in somebody else’s room.  I look around this room trying to work out who this is, essentially, where things go, trying to understand why things are placed where they are placed, and I can, as the translator, move some things around, ask questions, understand.  But it’s Adelaide’s room, her creation and design.  When translating I aim not to rearrange too heavily, small touches, to extend my room metaphor, I suppose quarter-turn certain plants towards the window, smooth the covers, plump some pillows.  Being in Adelaide’s room, the rooms of her poems and experiencing each of them was a joy and a challenge and a privilege.

AH: And they have incredibly tough subject matters. 

RL: Incredibly tough, incredibly brave and dangerous too.  Working with Adelaide probably did give me the permission, however subconsciously, to write ‘Helena.’  

AH: Because it is a very tough poem.  You give the story of the rape very clearly.  It’s a horrible rape.  We know it wasn’t the narrator’s experience.  That’s made quite clear.  It seemed to me something that was very important to get on the page.  Rape is something that people do to each other, and the person to whom it’s done often feels so bad that they tend not to talk about it.  That silence makes it more possible for the crime to continue. 

RL: Absolutely.  It was a tough poem to write – alleviated only by the fact that I kept going back to writing in our voices, and that did alleviate it in a way, because the way we used to speak, in a rush, all at once, angry and sad and laughing at once felt true, and like taking something back, her voice, her clear-as-a-bell voice.  That’s what I think I wanted to get to with ‘Helena’.  When things happened like that, we didn’t have the exact language, but we knew how to speak to each other, we knew how to tell each other things – but no power to actually help each other.  Now, god forbid, if a friend of mine came and said something like this to me, I would be so better equipped, even in terms of language, and then other things thereafter, to be able to offer assistance to that friend if she wanted it. We didn’t, as girls.  We glossed it over, at least in terms of what we said aloud, because we all knew that it was bad, but it was so bad the consequences of doing ‘nothing’ always seemed better than the repercussions of saying ‘something’ to people outside of our circle, outside of our experience and language. 

AH: As human beings, when tough things happen to us, sometimes we shut them down to some extent, because we are at a point in our life when that’s the only safe thing to do.  Helena said what happened, and then she took the shower.  She was supported, and she took the shower, and washed it away.  That’s an honest account of how we cope with very difficult things.  

RL: I think about being that age again, with my girls, my sisters, my old friends or just other girls I went to school with.  Really horrific things happened. Regularly.  You’d come back to school on a Monday morning and each Monday there would be some standardly horrific story of what had happened at one party or another at the weekend, or at a bus stop, or in a local park.  The frequency of these violences done unto us girls almost normalized it. It’s so heartbreaking to remember. 

AH: I grew up in the late 70’s, early 80’s.  I was reading Rebecca Solnit’s memoir, Recollections of my Non-Existence, which has just come out.  She describes that omnipresent violence and threat of violence so strongly.  I thought It wasn’t only me.   She was having that experience on the West Coast of the US, in San Francisco. She described that predatory environment, being followed home, feeling that she was permanently on verge of being raped.  She managed to escape rape, but some of her friends didn’t.

RL: This is not even a long time ago.  So, it makes me glad to measure at least how far we’ve come in terms of speaking out about these.  I think we have to be careful, or I do, not to be angry with our previous selves, because that was the world only moments ago, and it was the world that made those conditions, not us.  

AH: Often when I have written about something difficult, I do a short Buddhist meditation around self-compassion. I never think I need to.  But then I do it – and I feel so much less bad.  I have to keep going back and being kind to that girl who I was.   

RL:    We had to survive in the only ways we thought were available and possible, right? 

AH:    I think a lot of tough things that happen to us as children, as adolescents, as young women, we seal away inside ourselves.  We build protective tissue around them.  At a later point, we often have to deal with them.  When you’re young, you’ve got such a strong instinct just to survive, that you keep going through it somehow. I think you have a different level of life energy at that point, that drives you forward. It changes as we get older.  That’s my sense of looking back on the hair-raising escapades of my teenage self, operating in a menacing world. 

RL:  Definitely. 

This is the point at which Rachel Long and I felt there was a natural break.   In the conversation that follows, which was all part of our single meeting, we talk about how you can respond with agency and creativity to very difficult experiences, and the ways in which this process of articulation can become of itself reclamatory and healing. 

AH: This seems the right place to ask you about the sequence of five or so poems within My Darling from the Lions, recording the sexual abuse of a young girl child by one of the minsters in the church she attends with her family, and the aftermath of this crime in her subsequent life.  Because of my own background of having been sexually abused as a child, these made a great impression on me from when I first heard you perform them live.  The first of these is ‘Night Vigil’, which is the third poem in the collection. It begins in a child-adult voice “I was a choir-girl. Real angel/ – lightning faced and giant for my age.”  There is tongue in cheek wonder at its midnight start – “a time too exciting to fathom. / How the minute and the hour stood to attention!”   The miracle stops there, however, as the rest of the poem falls down through time, to an ending its beginning could never have anticipated: 

During the Three Members’ Prayer, my sister fell asleep
under a chair, so she never knew

how I sang.  Or how I fell silent
when the evangelist with smiling eyes said in his pulpit voice,

Here, child. 
Had she woken, I would have told her Sleep, sleep!

so, she’d never know Smiling Eyes
also meant teeth,

or that he had blown candles for hands,
with which he led me down an incensed corridor,

and I followed. 

           While this is a very difficult experience to take on board, you generate protection for the reader and creator alike through the child’s desire to shelter her sister, and through the way the imagery lets what happened be apprehended step by step.  The “blown candles” and “incensed corridor” are simultaneously sacred and penetrative.  We have in that moment the choice to understand the simultaneous desecration of an act of faith, and a child’s body.  

       Workshops I have taken with you instigate an alchemy of deep, internal self-liberation. ‘Free-writing’, along with engaging with secondary sources, such as dreams or artworks, help generate less ‘managed’ creative responses?  Was that how you put ‘Night Vigil’ together? How did it come into being kind of creatively?

RL: Maybe I should keep a kind of diary or a log of how each poem was written because I find it really hard to remember them.  

AH: Like dreams. 

RL: They are like dreams, that’s perfect Alice. Yeah, they are like my dreams. I can’t remember how I got there.  Even sometimes with the edits, if I was to go back and find a real old version of that poem, I wouldn’t remember it.  The only thing I do remember is that this poem was much longer.  At that time, I was on the Jerwood-Arvon mentoring scheme with Caroline Bird.  She was the first person to read that poem.  As I said, I was grateful for the way Caroline read me.  I had never written like this before. I had never framed such a peak experience. She didn’t do that awkward thing that people do, she read it as an artwork, or a draft of a work of art, and did not focus on the ‘apparently personal’ experience in the poem, but the poem as an experience itself. I’m trying to recall now, and I think part of what made the early draft longer is that it continued with the girl down the corridor. Caroline asked, why don’t you end it here?” — end at the girl following the man down the corridor, the poem becoming the corridor. In this way, the reader experiences it as the little girl, and becomes the girl, walking, ever-walking down that corridor with that man.  The corridor then also becomes a metaphor for how the experience goes on, haunts you in many ways, forever. 

AH: Exactly, and it’s much scarier. 

RL: Much scarier, yes.   And then she went “whoosh” with the pen, and she was like What do you think? And it kind of made me go eurgh like in my stomach.   I was like yes; this is what it felt like.  As a poem that was the closest and most fitting frame for it.   If you end a poem in a place where you have refrained from summing it up or allowing your older voice to come in and intercept it – you leave the reader in freefall.  

AH: That is an amazing answer.  It’s just a stunning, stunning poem.  I heard you perform it live, and really longed for the time it would be published, and I could read it on the page because it felt so important to me personally.

RL: Is that when we met that night, was that in the Poetry Cafe with Kaveh Akbah?

AH: I think so, yeah. 

RL: It was so beautiful, and you were so generous afterwards, thank you. 

AH: It was just so impactful for me.  I had a hunger to be able to have those poems on the page.  I knew they would make my life feel different – and they did.  I’m really serious about that.  There are many reasons why this collection has been important to me, but I hungered to be able to read those poems.  

The next poem but one after ‘Night Vigil’ is ‘The Clean’.  It starts out sounding like it’s ‘about’ bulimia – “Imagine/ eating all the snow/ you’ve ever wanted/ in one sitting, / not having to pay for it.”  But then, after adding in “avocado”, “toast butter/ cascading your fingers” and “pink prosecco”, it morphs into something sadder.  Or maybe just more specific, if you take the view that many eating disorders stem from something the individual cannot stomach. The second stanza reveals:

I know a place 
that is snow falling
from the Artex ceiling
into a room 
you will never return to.
A promise 
piling like cable knit.
4-ply snow-day snow. 

Some of the biggest things I write about are things which I had the least control over, but which have impacted me very deeply.   Following on from ‘Night Vigil’, this room full of falling snow feels like a frozen, traumatic moment which is continuously happening, but cannot at the same time be properly felt.  Does that seem like a fair reading to you, and would you be able to say something about these first two stanzas?  

RL: I think it’s a stunning reading.  What I wanted to do with ‘The Clean’ was to write about a woman with bulimia, and then in the second stanza, perhaps trace through the colour as it was, through this whiteness.  But then in the same sense, trying to walk through the colour into why this woman is kneeling at this bowl of whiteness and expelling.  Without wanting to say explicitly, because I don’t even know if that is necessarily explicit even to my understanding, but to wonder whether that because of sexual abuse, in childhood in that snow room, as in that frozen room, whether that is the reason, or a contributing reason, to why she has bulimia. 

Is there something about her body that would be less, have been less desirable to someone else had she looked different? Had she been in a different body, if her body did something different, would that be able to change the outcome? This is what you said about lack of control. Bulimia is very much about what can and cannot be controlled.  

AH: This is a generalization, but ever since the sexual abuse began when I was a child, I have always struggled with IBS.  It is as if my body wants to throw things out.  The snow room isn’t the end of ‘The Clean’, though.  The final verse begins “I know a place where/ the sad can’t go.” Now, expulsion becomes a political act as the speaker instructs the protagonist “Go on, baby, give it back/ to whence it came. / Dispel three dinosaur dinners/ like forgiveness, / like it never happened.” The subject is told “Girl, you can be new, / surrender it all/ into one bowl. This, / your hollow.”   The suggestion is that voiding, and expelling, are also creative acts, because resisting and rejecting what was forced in without consent.  In this context, is it fair to think the holding pages of the collection make a kind of bowl, and create opportunities for restitution?  Not just by vomiting forth, but by expressing things that were silenced at lots of levels.  

RL: Yes.

AH: It seems to me that the turn in the poem was crucial.  That’s why I wanted to put the question into two halves, that turn into restitution and beauty, without denying.

RL:  Thank you, Alice. An act of restitution and freedom from your own body. You can be free of it.  An action can be erased.  You can float above it.

AH: Speaking it and putting it in words is part of that process of creative expulsion.

RL: Yeah, absolutely.  You have reminded me. I always did feel like that –   free and light.

AH: I am really interested in how we make it through and how we make it through partly creatively as well.  Rather than just casting people as being without agency, also looking at the ways in which we claim ourselves.  Bulimia is widespread through society.  Many people experience who are not necessarily artists.  There is a sort of restitutory justice in the body somehow.  

Suggesting that maybe something has shifted, and become freer as a result of this act of voiding and voicing, the next poem, ‘Open’, moves from a place of potential trauma to one of freedom:

Open

This morning, she told me
I sleep with my mouth open
and my hands in my hair.
I say, What, Tiff, like screaming?
She says, No, Rach, like abandon.

It is one of a sequence of poems, all titled ‘Open’, that link and orchestrate the collection, changing small but significant details with each iteration.   You said in your Forwards interview with Kim Moore that Don Patterson encouraged you to develop this strand.  I wondered if you could say something more about it?

RL: I was speaking to the brilliant Nuar Alsadir about dreams for a radio programme.  She said something like, I liked the ‘Open’ sequence, I liked how they show these flashes of awakenings, these flashes of desire. She thought that they showed the waker’s unconscious desires.  More and more with this book, post-publication, I discover new things in it. Oftentimes by readers – who have far more insight than me into what I have apparently ‘done’.  Don Paterson really did encourage them significantly, I think originally there were three, but he suggested weaving them throughout the whole first section of the book. As soon as he suggested it, I was like, of course! It made poetic sense, narrative sense. Don is an extraordinary editor. I think that increasing my explorations into that ‘Open’ sequence opened up what the whole book concerns and interrogates, intimacy, desire, dreams, the material and immaterial, appearance and reality. 

AH: I make all my work completely blind like a mole digging for the surface, with no clue really as to what I am doing.   You find out later.  The news catches up with you.

RL: I like that, like moles.  

AH: We have very, very powerful paddles for digging up through the earth, as far I’m concerned. I have to work blind.  I can’t just sit down and do it.  It has to come to me. 

RL: Same.

AH:  ‘8’ is another poem which continues ‘The Clean’s’ process of marking the white page.  Its act of witnessing is also the relocation of a moment of private, concealed horror to a public externalized space.  As with ‘Night Vigil’, the speaker moves back and forward between being a bewildered, uncomprehending child to a more knowing adult.   So, readers can have a sense of how the poem works, I’m going to quote the first section in full:

8

‘Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean:
wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.’
– Psalm 51:7

this memory can’t skip       it hops
on one leg     the other     making
the buckles on my mary janes
bounce then clang      cute shackles     my feet
will hopscotch-land on 8       wash me 
at 8 I can’t tell time      i’m led
through school and play      tea then bed at
8      i can’t read faces       tell hands
to stop      unfreeze my grin      that room
his weight       wash me and I shall be 
the girls at school call that place mini
but mum says it’s a front bottom

Later “time decides itself   till i’m pressed/ apple    against that wall   that sunday/ that school”. The voice of the poem is somewhere between a playground skipping song and a crime scene report, with “wash me” breaking through over and over again like a child’s plea to undo the moment when “touched/ by the hand of his clock i am/ instantly older”. 

While the narrative is devastating, sonically, this is a very lovely poem, especially when you perform it live, partly because of the way the rhymes and half-rhymes dance through the lines.  I wondered whether choosing to tell ‘8’ in this way – weaving the everyday words the child might have used into the story it is suggested that she was unable to tell – is a form of restitution and reclamation of the child’s self and innocence, conferring a retrospective agency through beauty, and as well as through witness?

RL: The language had to be the language of the girl at eight. The lines all being of eight syllables was because I had the image of the girl  playing hopscotch, the beat, the rhythm, the form came from that.  Even like the lower-casing of the letters.  I wanted it to look and feel on the page as if she is writing and/or telling it.

AH: Because it is the only lower case i/ first person in the collection?

RL: It felt right for this poem. She has been made less of a capital I, rendered less of a person by another, a big I. 

AH: But it’s also like a sort of crime scene report.  I mean we get what went on.  She speaks, but she is also spoken for by the poem.  That to me is its power.  She stays small but the poem is actually pretty hardcore in what it delivers.  That’s an amazing achievement that you can do both at the same time.  

RL: Thank you Alice.  Do you know, it also came out of, Kathryn Maris’s brilliant Poetry School class which we were both students of at the same time  One week she set us an assignment to write in the intonation or rhythm of a prayer.  What I handed in the week after was not very good, but with much longer to think about it and let it ruminate and ‘come out’ in its own time, I do think that exercise was the catalyst for ‘8’  

AH: Some of her prompts were very valuable to me.  I did a really good Poetry School workshop with Shivanee Ramlochan online at the end of 2019. There are some poems that I very very definitely have no intention of ever writing.  Those are the ones that it is useful to have prompts for –  because otherwise  I will strenuously protect myself from writing them for decades.  A prompt can knock out that  little peg that you have blocked into the hole.  Then the poem pops out.  

    Thinking about healing, wholeness, and restitution, are central to the beginning of the second section, titled ‘A Lineage of Wigs’. The first poem, ‘Orb’, floats like a rainbow soap bubble of a praise poem.  It calls to mind some of Selima Hill’s brevity, but takes it to new places:

Orb

Mum combs her auburn ‘fro up high.
So high it’s an orb. 
Everyone wants to – but cannot – touch it. 

The “auburn ‘fro” is an angel’s halo vested in human form, and an emblem of unbroken-ness.  Is that ‘perfection’ something you wanted to assert and reclaim?

RL: Yes, absolutely.  The word orb changed.   It was crown at first, because in that sequence there is the image of the queen arrowed on a sofa.

AH: Yeah, I remember that. 

RL: It did sort of look like that. I think to me when I was younger, looking up at my mother .  I’m really enjoying the way that you have read and seen the poem.  That was exactly what I wanted to do with it.  I’m so glad you have read and seen it like that. 

AH: It felt like a really important reset point.  We go from a tough poem to a place of wholeness and beauty and unbrokenness. The last question I’d like to ask you is about the title and the cover, which shows a young Black girl in a candy striped dress, with her back to the reader, looking inwards towards the poems that lie ahead.  Can I just ask you about the title?

RL: My Darling from the Lions is taken from Psalm 35. ‘Rescue my soul from their destruction, my darling from the lions.’  It is a ’ Psalm that  I heard a lot growing up, either hearing it recited in church, or by my mother from her bedroom, or we were instructed to say it, for protection or for strength.   The collection wasn’t always called My Darling…  Even up to a year before publication it had a different working title. But, for some reason, I must have read Psalm 35 again or seen something of it, or was reminded of it, and by this verse particularly and it was as if it was the first time I’d read it,    I was like that’s so beautiful.  A darling for a soul. There is so much rich and stunning language in the Bible,  the poetry of it all. .   When I read that verse again, I thought, this is what I am trying to get to with the collection.  The girls and the women particularly are threatened by different  lions.   I wanted it to be a sort of a call for help and protection from something higher, whether that be God, or art. I wanted the collection to pose the question: can the spirit survive life intact? I also love the idea of referring to oneself as a darling.  You can,  even when something ugly has happened to you,   begin to love yourself enough to refer to yourself as you would another woman or another girl. I would call Tiff or Helena darlings. Hey, my loves, my darlings. 

AH: That’s absolutely beautiful.   I think that’s the perfect place at which to end.  It’s been an amazing privilege to talk about this extraordinary book.   I have waited a long time to be able to hold these poems.  I’m so grateful that they are out in the world – and that they will be coming out in America as well with Tin House.  My Darling from the Lions is a wonderful book to read – and will  change how people think.  Thank you Rachel Long. 

RL: Thank you so very much, Alice. 

Rachel is at @rachelnalong on twitter.

Rachel Long’s debut collection, My Darling from the Lions was published by Picador in August 2020. It was shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection, and The Costa Book Award 2020. Rachel is the founder of Octavia Poetry Collective for women of colour. 

You can order My Darling from the Lions https://www.waterstones.com/book/my-darling-from-the-lions/rachel-long/9781529045161

Rachel Long will be appearing with Amima Jama and Sarah Lasoye as part of Octavia Collective : Creativity in Solitude on 25 February 7-8pm at Goldsmiths CCA. Tickets are here https://goldsmithscca.art/event/octavia-collective-x-goldsmiths-cca-creativity-in-solitude-a-reading/

‘Unfamiliarity, the state of being unknown, is not the same as non-existence. Migrant nurses exist. We do exist in this world. But somehow we are not known.’ –Romalyn Ante and Pascale Petit perform and speak with alice hiller about the work witness in their new collections, Antiemetic for Homesickness and Tiger Girl.

Romalyn Ante by S. Chadawong.

Poet Andrea Gorman spoke out at Joe Biden’s inauguration against the force in America that would rather ‘shatter our nation rather than share it’.  In her stunning poem, ‘The Hill We Climb’, she stated instead ‘there is always light…./If only we’re brave enough to be it.’ Anyone listening will have felt the restitutionary power of her words, written and delivered, as she stated, by “a skinny Black girl, descended from slaves and raised by a single mother.’ 

Globally, one of the most necessary questions today is around who gets heard – and who does not.  It has been at the heart of the Black Lives Matter movement.  It is equally central to the legacies of empires round the world, as Satham Sanghera argues in his powerful new study, Empireland, and to our relationship to our environment and the fair distribution of its resources.

Being heard is also crucial in poetry, as two new collections by Pascale Petit and Romalyn Ante remind us. Pascale Petit’s Tiger Girl draws the life of her half-Indian grandmother, born in secret to her great-grandfather’s serving maid, together with conditions in and around the Tiger reserves of Central India.  Romalyn Ante’s Antiemetic for Homesickness explores more recent experiences of migration to the UK, and working within the NHS, against the healing, nurturing background of the Filipino culture which her family brought with them, and which continues to shape their understanding of themselves in the world. 

I had the great privilege of hosting a performance and conversation between Pascale Petit and Romalyn Ante, towards the end of 2021, with a very enthusiastic live audience.  Immediately afterwards, coming up to the holiday period, with infection levels rising steeply, and restrictions changing all the time, was not the right time to share the recording.

But now, with the UK, Europe, and much of the rest of the world, in varying degrees of lockdown, and everyone still separated in physical terms from each other, co-experiencing resources such as this conversation seem to be of the utmost importance in maintaining our sense of connectedness with each other as fellow human beings, and as creative artists. 

To maximise accessibility, I have transcribed both my own introduction, and the conversation between the three of us.  To experience the full event, specifically and crucially, Pascale Petit’s and Romalyn Ante’s readings of their poems, please click on either the video or audio links below.  The video link has close captions enabled via Youtube, although you will need to turn these on in the control bar at the bottom right of the screen. Apologies for the occasional surreal spellings.

If you would like to see the texts of the poems, they are available in Tiger Girl and Antiemetic for Homesickness through the buy buttons below. There are also links to some of the published poems on Romalyn Ante’s and Pascale Petit’s websites.

Photo by Brian Fraser

Romalyn Ante Antiemetic for Homesickness

Pascale Petit Tiger Girl

https://youtu.be/V57ZxGbGAQc

Audio Link

alice hiller’s introduction to Pascale Petit and Romalyn Ante, 26 November 2020:

After a rough year and a tough November, it’s a real pleasure to welcome you to this act of creative community.  We’re here to celebrate the deep, healing play of Pascale Petit’s and Romalyn Ante’s brilliant new collections, Tiger Girl and Antiemetic for Homesickness.  Both Pascale and Romalyn are poets of courage, as well as of distinction.  

In a week when we learnt that the UK’s foreign aid budget commitment will be broken, and while so many vulnerable voices are being excluded from the global conversation, Pascale and Romalyn give witness to a wider range of experiences than many poets.  They also help us ask ourselves and our governments, whose foot is being kept on whose head?

Writing about life in the Philippines, Welsh gardens, and the stunning nature reserves of central India, Pascale and Romalyn move our minds to places of delight – even as they remind us that the world is still far from being a fair or kind place for many human and creaturely lives, and the fragile ecosystems and economies which sustain them. 

Our format tonight will be that Romalyn will read from Antiemetic for Homesickness, published by Chatto, followed by Pascale from Tiger Girl, published by Bloodaxe. Afterwards, I’ll open  a conversation between them.  

Before the readings, I’d like to say a few words about Pascale and Romalyn. Winner of the Ondaatje Prize, and inaugural Laurel Prize for Mama Amazonica, amongst very many other distinguished awards, Pascale Petit is also a radically empowering supporter of new voices in poetry  through her mentoring, teaching and judging, as Romalyn and I can both testify.  

Over eight collections, Pascale’s poems have brought an artist’s eye to the Amazon river and its rainforest, the arid landscapes of the Languedoc, and the markets and historic sites of Paris including her beloved Jardin des Plantes.  Tiger Girl, from which she’ll be reading shortly, gives us one of the most life-filled portraits of a woman of colour, and of mature years, that I have read in a long time.  It should be bought for that reason alone, aside from its many other treasures. 

Moving between between continents, Tiger Girl documents Pascale’s time growing up in Wales with her fierce half-Indian grandmother – who took in washing, told fortunes and made her garden a canvas equal to any artist’s.   The poems also respond to Pascale’s experiences on recent trips to nature reserves in Central India.  Celebrating the magnificent wild creatures who inhabit those parks, Pascale also registers the damage to them by poverty-stricken poachers, from whose social class her Indian great-grandmother, her great-grandfather’s maid, would have come. 

Mentored like me by Pascale under the Jerwood Arvon scheme, which brought the three of us together, Romalyn shares with Pascale an intuitive sense of the mythic residing within the everyday.  She is similarly the recipient of many distinguished awards, including the Poetry London Prize, the Manchester Poetry Prize, the Primers Prize, and the Creative Futures Platinum Award. 

Having grown up in the Philippines until she was sixteen, before coming to Wolverhampton, and subsequently training as a NHS nurse and then counsellor, Romalyn conveys how “the wind has the ears of a wild boar” and explains why you have to turn your shirt inside out to find your way home, whether that home is warmed by the “smoke of a Brummie accent”, or cooled by the night breeze.  

Antiemetic for Homesickness moves compellingly between the landscapes, and foods, and folklore of the Philippines – and life as a nurse within the NHS, while living in the Black Country.  Exploring what it can mean to make the UK your home,  Romalyn also witnesses the racism to which so many people who come here have been subjected, and how they have made strong, creative lives notwithstanding the challenges faced. 

The co-founder of  the wonderful harana poetry, for poets working with English as a parallel or additional language, like Pascale, Romalyn is both an outstanding poet, and  a key figure for the expansion of the possible in poetry, both through her own work, and her support for others.  She also gives us life from a nurse’s point of view, as never before, another reason to buy her essential Antiemetic for Homesickness. It’s my great pleasure now to hand over to Romalyn Ante.

[Romalyn Ante and Pascale Petit introduce and read their poems, available via the Youtube or Audio links.]

AH: That was fantastic Pascale.  Thank you so much.  It’s amazing to hear the two of you reading together. I’m going to ask you a few questions because I’ve lived with, loved and thought about your collections since they were published.   The first question is about making  worlds visible that are known to you, but not to your readers?  Pascale, I’m thinking both about your poems about wildlife in Indian National Parks, but also about your poems about life in rural Wales? Romalyn, I’m thinking about your poems about rural life in the Philippines, but also about the day to day life of a nurse in the NHS?  We can really feel the worlds you both have made in your poems.  I wondered if that was an  important part of making them?

RA: Thank you Alice. That’s a very important question. In the UK Filipinos are the second highest immigrant NHS staff, next to Indians. In the US the highest number of immigrant nurses are Filipinos. Most recently, specially during this pandemic, the West has been really dependent on migrant nurses but little is known about us, our own narratives, our own lives.  I feel that mostly people only see us on the surface without knowing our pasts and our own tales, why we came here.   I have people commenting to me ‘So you’re Filipino.  If you’re Filipino, where are you from?  Are you from Korea then?’  They don’t even know what a Filipino is.  There are also some readers’ comments.  You shouldn’t really read GoodReads comments.  But I do.  I read my reviews because I want to improve. There are some comments, ‘I don’t know.  I can’t relate.’ But for me the truth is unfamiliarity, the state of being unknown, is not the same as non-existence.  Migrant nurses exist. We do exist in this world. But somehow we are not known and what puzzles me is why is the United Kingdom or the West so dependent on a sector of people that has so little voice, and that has never been heard of.  And this is the reason why I wrote this.  To really show them not only the physical place we came from, but also to show them our narrative, what propels us to do this. 

AH: That’s a fantastic answer. Thank you so much. 

PP. Thank you. Roma that was fantastic. With Tiger Girl, I wanted to honour my grandmother, and write a book almost of love poems, you know, and acknowledge that she was the daughter of a maid and she was taken in by her father’s white family and she was very poor when I lived with her in Wales.  We didn’t have indoor toilets or running water.  Really quite poor.  Children don’t notice that. What I did notice was an enormous garden and lots of animals, and the incredible world of the garden which she worked in all the time, and which I worked in for her as well. That’s one half of the book. The other is where she came from. The story of the tiger, and my wanting to see tigers, and to see this wildness that she came from, that she’d encountered as a baby, and the terrible realisation that that wildness is so so threatened and endangered.  Even the tigers that are safe are fighting each other. Daughters kill mothers and so on because the forests are too small for them. Even though the tourists are only allowed in 20% of the National Parks. There’s still not enough space. They have enormous territories.  Having seen the tigers, and seen how – I’ve seen wild jaguars as well in the Amazon rainforest – to see what they are like, in their territories in the wild, is so different from seeing them in zoos.  Of course there are far more tigers in zoos than there are in India.  There’s about 2,800 in India, and only a handful elsewhere. So that was the world I was trying to bring forward.  

AH:  Most of us never get to those reserves, to see them through someone’s eyes, to see them emotionally, rather than just on a wildlife documentary, is incredibly powerful. I really appreciated that. My next question is  you both work within your collections with a powerful and healing female figure.   For Pascale, it is your grandmother. For Romalyn, it is your nurse mother.  Did it feel important to honour the ways in which we as women can nurture each other?

RA: Yes, definitely.  In Antiemetic for Homesickness the mother is the one who leaves to provide a better life for her family.  So if you think about it, the mother is away from the very essence of being a mother, which is to take care of her own children. And I think by shedding light on that fact, I also needed to shed light on the fact that in leaving there could also be healing. So even though the mother has left, as a sacrifice almost, she still heals the socio-economic problems that her family has.  She still heals people abroad. She heals people where she works.  That’s incredibly important for me, not only as a nurse, but also as a daughter of a migrant nurse.  I feel very similar to Pascale, writing about the voicing of the poet is really healing the world that is full of annihilation.  

PP: When I wasn’t with my grandmother, I was in various homes and things in France.  If I was with my parents, it was a bad experience. I eventually went to live with my mother when I was a teenager, when my grandmother kind of threw me out, which she had to do, she was tired, she had a teenager on her hands.  But my mother was severely mentally ill, and couldn’t really look after me, and was a malevolent force for me. I had a malevolent maternal figure there, so it was wonderful for me to have a chance in this book to write about a really benevolent figure, who not only was benevolent, but was a very powerful person. She was known as the local witch where we lived. As a good witch, but she was. And she also had an extraordinary second sight. I did have the experience of being with her and her telling me about ghosts.  For example she saw the postman who lived down our lane.  For example she said ‘I’ve just seen him walking down our lane and he said hello to me as if everything was normal but his feet were floating off, weren’t touching the ground, so I knew he was a ghost.  I knew he had just died.’ And he had. So there were always those kind of experiences going on. She also used to tell fortunes.  People in the village used to come.  The vicar and the doctor would come to have their fortunes told. I would go with her as well to fairs to see her tell fortunes. 

AH: Looking back, women have been disempowered for centuries. It’s really important that we make work than honours female power, female goodness.  It seems to me a very positive thing to do. But at the same time these healing figures work within very injurious and injured societies and you both show them as being capable of deeply wounding those who are dependent on their care and provision.    Pascale, you explore your grandmother returning you to your mother.    Romalyn, you look at the impacts on you of being separated from your mother when she goes to nurse abroad, and not seeing her for several years.   In each case, the wounding behaviour is driven by larger socio-economic pressures, and the vulnerable positions which these women occupy.  The fact that your mother left the Philippines to give you and your siblings a better life, Romalyn.  It was the only way she could materially improve your lives.  Your grandmother had very limited resources Pascale. We’re now talking in the pandemic about the impact of material strain, of poverty, on families.  Was it also important to show that in difficult circumstances even loving people can in injurious ways, through no real volition of their own.  Or does that feel too challenging?  

PP: It can’t be challenging. You need to write the truth.  For me, I was thirteen. So the injury wasn’t being moved from my grandmother. I was still a child.  She was still the best thing that ever happened.  The real wound was not being allowed to grieve her loss, when I lived with my mother.  That was the wound.  I never realised that I wasn’t allowed to grieve.  I just knew it was a subject that mustn’t be mentioned.  I wasn’t allowed to grieve for my grandmother, who I saw as my mother, because my mother couldn’t bear that. 

RA:  I think what you said a while ago Alice really resonated with me, when you said we left because we were propelled by socio-economic circumstances.  See, even though in Antiemetic for Homesickness, the left-behind-child was left by her nurse mother, this story is not unique to me. It happens to a lot of children, millions of children around the world. Your parents don’t even need to go abroad for you to be a left-behind-child.  In China, parents go to richer cities to help financially with the family.  My mother left because she really had no choice. But then again, she made a choice.  Her only choice was not having any choice.  She left knowing that the people she would leave behind would be hurt.  That knowledge hurt her, I’m sure, in return.  For me it’s not just me who is wounded, it’s the mother who is wounded. It’s very timely and relevant to this day, especially when I see my colleagues, or my mother even, who has been going all around the country helping in the pandemic front line, my other Filipino colleagues who could choose not to go home, as their homes across the street, so they don’t put their children at risk of Covid. So mothers have always been leaving their children, and this story has always been happening. But then again, it’s not the children who get hurt. The wounded one is also the mother.  And I think that’s what Antiemetic for Homesickness is also about. 

AH:  That really comes across. It’s very important.  I see we’re coming to the end of the time.  I have one final question.  While neither of you holds back from speaking about difficult subjects, both collections give the gift to their readers of being able to abide in beauty.   Romalyn, you let us glimpse the pre-colonised life, and warmth of community, in the Philippines.  Pascale, your work gives itself deeply to the natural world.  Was that an important thing to do, to give the gift of beauty, when the world is facing so much difficulty?

PP:  Absolutely.  You can’t write about the threats to the natural world without showing why, without trying to show – it’s a real challenge – the awe and the wonder of it. That’s something I’ve always felt.   You have to show what it is you’re trying to protect.  What the non-human world is.  I keep getting these flashes which are images of the planet without one human life on it, without animals, and that’s like hell.  I don’t want that to happen.  But I need to show the beauty and the awe. The wonder of tigers. 

AH: Absolutely.  Stay with the programme Pascale! Romalyn?

RA:  I echo what Pascale has said.  It’s very true to me.  It’s also one of the reasons, when Chatto asked me what kind of cover I wanted, I really wanted it to be colourful, with some kind of insignias of the Philippines, the sun bird, the abaniko flower.  For me these beautiful images serve as anchors, and guides, that will lead us back to healing, and perhaps to hope.  It’s very similar to what we hope for now. We look for that beauty. When we can go again to our favourite coffee shops again, or we can hug our parents again, or meet up with our friends.  I think that’s very important to look for beauty, because beauty gives hope. 

AH: I think that’s the perfect note on which to end.  I’m going to thank everyone who’s joined us. I’m going to especially thank Pascale and Romalyn for these two brilliant books. The season of gifting is coming upon us. These have to be top of your list. This has been a stunning evening.  Thank you so much.  Everybody, buy the books. Thank you so much. 

Romalyn Ante’s website is here.

Pascale Petit’s website is here.

Romalyn Ante Antiemetic for Homesickness

Pascale Petit Tiger Girl

my debut ‘bird of winter’ – published by Pavilion in May 2021

When I was first experimenting with poems, five years ago,  I was working blind, like a mole digging upwards. Coming from a prose background, all I knew was that I had to find words able to hold what I needed to write. 

Like millions of other people around the world, I was groomed, and then sexually abused as a young child.  In my case, this took place in the late 1960s and 1970s. I then stumbled through the messy teenage aftermath as Punk gave way to Two Tone and Margaret Thatcher took power.  Nearly forty years later, memories of what happened can still flood my dreams.  Physical symptoms replay old injuries. 

Nowadays, sexual abuse is discussed extensively in the media.   Measures are in place to identify, make safe and support children who have been subjected to predation of this sort, even if these have been compromised during the recent lockdowns.  But there is still limited comprehension of what the crime entails, and how it impacts people, not least because it is so difficult, and painful, to think or talk about.  

Changing awareness, and giving witness, were two things I had in mind as I shaped my fledgling poems.  I wanted to make compact pieces of art.  They needed to contain and express what had happened to me, but do so with a degree of agency and protection for both writer and reader.  Like seashells found on a beach, they had to be small, beautiful fragments that you could pick up and hold to the light – while thinking of the depths in which they grew. 

Aside from a transformative Jerwood Arvon mentorship by Pascale Petit, and generous insights and readings from other poets along the way, three key elements fed into the poems that will be published by Pavilion as bird of winter in April 2021.  The first was my own long-standing fascination with Pompeii and Herculaneum.  I visited the two sites in the summer of 2000, along with the Naples Museum which holds many of the key finds.  I also subsequently saw, and bought the catalogues of, exhibitions at the British Museum and the Ashmolean. From the plaster dog, cast out from the void left in the ash by his evaporated body, to wall paintings and brothel graffiti testifying to lost lives, the findings gave forms to my excavations of my own past.  

bird of winter was also shaped by the notes I salvaged from my childhood and adolescent medical records. They corroborated my hospital stay as a teenager.  They additionally reflected how doctors saw children like me, at a time when sexual abuse was almost always missed. Finally, two trips to Dieppe in the summer and autumn of 2019 let me reconnect with what had sustained me through those very difficult years – namely the love I received from my French grandmother, and my father until his death when I was eight.

When bad things happen to you growing up, they can choke and pollute the waters of your life like an oil slick, and cause immense local damage. But they are not the whole story, any more than an oil slick is the whole surface of the sea.  Healing comes through cleaning up the damage, and then moving beyond it, to clearer waters and moments of love and joy, which more truthfully define us and let us know who we are.  I wanted bird of winter to honour these good elements, which enabled me to resist, and ultimately reclaim myself. 

First in the July sunshine, and then in October rain, I travelled across from Newhaven on the ferries like those I used to sail on to see my grandmother. I stood outside the gates of what had been her clifftop house, along the coast from Dieppe. I climbed down to the beach where I paddled and swum with her and my father.  To be there again, to know the movement of the sea, to hear the waves ringing through the shingle, was to feel a tide of strength flowing through me, as I worked on what proved to be some of the core poems of bird of winter

When I was asked by Pavilion to choose the cover colours, I knew immediately that they had to be from the Channel off Normandy.  They needed to wrap the darkness which the collection addresses in a transformative mantle of light. Some of them can be seen in the photos that run alongside these words, which were taken on those two trips in 2019. 

In the months to come, I will be writing more about bird of winter, and the real, and imagined, birds which take flight from its pages, alongside the objects excavated from Pompeii and Herculaneum which inspired some of the poems.  I will also write about what it is like to take back your medical notes, and see how you were seen, when you could not see yourself.

For now, I want to thank Deryn Rees-Jones, currently recovering from Long Covid, for making me a Pavilion poet, on a list which includes many writers who speak to my heart. Nuar Alsadir, Mona Arshi and Bhanu Kapil, to name only some, occupy sacred spaces on my shelves. I am honoured to be appearing alongside Alice Miller and Sarah Westcott in 2021 and hope we will be able to read together. 

In closing, I express solidarity with all of us who have been impacted by sexual abuse in childhood – whether at firsthand, or because it has come into the lives of those who matter to us.  By giving witness, by supporting each other, by making art that reclaims agency and beauty, we can work together across our communities.  We can help the world to see and think differently. 

If you would like to order a copy of bird of winter please follow this link.

To find more about the other amazing Pavilion Poets please follow this link.

Of dumplings, magnolias and pomelos: Alice Hiller on travelling in the imagination with Nina Mingya Powles.

This spring and summer, when travel of any distance has been more or less impossible for most of us, I have consoled myself with words that do the journeying for me.  Two books which have drawn me back again and again are Nina Mingya Powles’ debut collection, Magnolia, published by Nine Arches Press, and her collection of essays, Tiny Moons, which move between Shanghai and Wellington and Malaysia, published by the Emma Press.   Within their pages I can cycle through the swamp-hot summer nights of the deserted student campus in Shaghai, or climb into rain forests, or swim in the freezing, exhilarating Southern Ocean and warm myself afterwards with a bowl of dumplings. 

Nina’s description of tearing the papery inner skin from the pink flesh of a pomelo, and the sweet sting of the flesh inside, encouraged me to buy my first fruit, in a beautiful printed wrapper which felt like a journey of its own even before I peeled open the yellow globe of the fruit. 

As an act of thanks for this, I’m reprinting the review I wrote in harana poetry for Nina’s now sold out pamphlet, field notes on a downpour. This is one of the segments of her debut Magnolia, currently on the Forwards prize shortlist. I’ve included a photo I took of a magnolia in Golders Green just before lockdown last spring. For all of us with dual or multiple heritages Nina’s work is a place where we can find and understand ourselves, and know that being made from many places can gift us with a richness that is also strength. 

From harana poetry, issue 1. 

For her pamphlet field notes on a downpour, self-proclaimed “mudblood” Nina Mingya Powles travels out of English back towards her mother’s Chinese mother-tongue.  Powles previously wrote about this process in prose about living in Shanghai. Neither the narrator, nor the city, of this eight page pamphlet are directly named, however.  Instead, their identities accrete over time within the pages, like the Chinese characters whose processes of formation and signifying Powles explores. She begins:

The first character of my mother’s name, 雯 wen, is made of rain 雨 and language 文. 
According to my dictionary, together they mean “multi-coloured clouds” or “cloud tints.”

Mouthfuls of rain, the blue undersides of clouds, her hydrangeas in the dark.  To stop them from slipping I write them down. 

By hearing, and seeing, the sound “wen” transliterated into English, followed by its Chinese character, and then the two characters from which this is made up – rain and language – the process of signing simultaneously enacts and undoes itself.  We recognise the dashes which mark the rain within the ‘rain’ character.  We then experience the “mouthfuls of rain” which the words become as they enter mouths that speak them, and minds that think them, before mutating through the cloud imagery into “her hydrangeas in the dark”.   

This could be Katherine Mansfield territory, about whom Powles has previously written – except that everything is taking place in a city where “old/ buildings are crushed to pieces” and “the subway map rewrites/ itself each night”.  The second page introduces a second unnamed character, whom the speaker connects with a modern form of illumination – and also something rooted in the past: “Not long after we met I learnt the word [ ] neon, which is both a type of light, and a/ type of memory.”  Attempting to come closer to each other through language on the third page, the pair find it multiplying and sliding away from them, towards the bodies in which we imagine they may also meet: 

One night you said my name in the dark and it came out like a ghost 鬼 from between two trees 林.  A ghost that rhymes with a path between rice fields which rhymes with a piece of steamed bread which rhymes with paralysis of one side of the body which rhymes with thin blood vessels.  

The fourth page opens itself onto watermelons and rain, and the complexities of a tonal language where “More than a hundred characters share the same sound.  //  ‘zong.’”  Their meanings include a variety of mark-makings – “footprint, trace” and “the uneven flight of a bird”.   The fifth page uses the gaze of the “the lady at the fruit shop” to let us see the poet’s “half Chinese” face – “(She points to my hair).  We come up against a word I don’t know.  She draws a character in/ the air with one finger and it hangs there between us.”

“zong”:
总  assemble, put together / always
踪  footprint, trace
翪  the uneven flight of a bird

The sixth page runs into cracks in the ceiling – not unlike the strokes for characters – through which rain water drops onto the “you” and the “I”.  Afterwards the poet notes that “two hundred white tundra swans were found dead beside a lake in Inner/ Mongolia.”   Doubling the hundred-plus meanings of “zong” – the rupture which this collective swan death entails also visits itself on a jar of honey which “shattered softly, the/ pieces melting apart in my hands.”

On the seventh page, the differences between animate and inanimate dissolve, within “ming”’s refractions of meaning and sound, all rhyming with “the first part of my Chinese name”.  Powles, who has through this part-named herself, discovers  “I am a tooth-/like thing.  I am half sun half moon, and the scissors used to cut away the steamed lotus/ leaves.   I am honey strokes spreading over the tiles.”

On the luckiest eighth and final page the word “honey” migrates into a “honey pomelo” being sliced by a man with “a faded tattoo of a knife on the back of his hand,/ the blade adjacent to his thumb” – as if he were the human equivalent of a written character, with his meaning marked onto him.   Building and collapsing houses of word cards, field notes on a downpour reaches through language towards the images which it evokes in our minds to ask how we exist to ourselves and others, within and beyond the ways in which we communicate. 

To read the whole review, which also talks about works by Belinda Zhawi, Raymond Antrobus, Mary Jean Chan and Lila Matsumoto, please follow this link to harana 1: 

You can buy Tiny Moons: A Year of Eating in Shaghai here: https: //theemmapress.com/shop/tiny-moons/

You can buy Magnolia here: https://ninearchespress.com/publications/poetry-collections/magnolia.html

You can buy pomelos in specialist grocery stores and greengrocers. 

Marking the Spaces of our Silences : alice hiller on art as activism in the aftermaths of trauma.

Trigger warning: references to sexual abuse in childhood.

In common with others who were sexually abused in childhood, I have been haunted by the awareness that millions of children round the world are potentially being locked in with sexual predators, as a consequence of measures necessary to limit the spread of COVID 19. I am also deeply concerned for the psychological health of adults living with their memories of having been subjected to this crime, without the normal range of social interactions and support, which would usually help them to cope and hold the past at bay.

While art and activism can be awkward bedfellows, the current crisis has made me think how I can use the body of work I am making around my own history of being groomed and then sexually abused as a child, to bring awareness of this crime to a wider audience. My intention is part of an ongoing project aimed at finding ways to counter the devastating impacts when children are sexually abused.  I also want to make the subject more comprehensible to those whose lives it has not touched directly, in order that we may work collectively for change.

One of the first challenges I faced in writing about sexual abuse was how to find a form of language which respects the inarticulacy of the child’s experience. This arises from the dissociative pressures of shock and shame, in combination with the intimidation and concealment perpetrated by the adult abuser. In her brilliant study, Minor Feelings, Cathy Park Hong cites the poet Myung Mi Kim telling her that “attention to silence is in itself an interrogation” [p139]. This chimes both with my own practice, and that of my late father-in-law, the sculptor Oscar Nemon, whose work has been part of my life since I was sixteen.

Together with millions of Europeans of Jewish heritage, Nemon and his sister Bella lost almost their entire family to the Holocaust. In their case, the twenty-three murdered relatives included their mother, brother and grandmother. Like many who suffer loss on this scale, aside from one interview at the end of his life, Nemon does not seem to have been able to speak out loud about this tragedy, not even to his children, nor to his close friends.

Better known for his portraits from life of Sigmund Freud and Winston Churchill, Nemon did however respond to the Shoah in his art, which also addresses wider questions of the impacts of genocide on surviving communities. Titled Humanity, his memorial to those killed was unveiled in 1965 in his home town of Osijek, now in Croatia (see below). Emerging from on sketches stretching back to the second world war, the composition shows a mother lifting her child to the future in defiance of annihilation.

Heredity in park

While there is no direct allusion to genocide, it is a composition of the utmost vulnerability. Reaching out and up, neither mother nor child have any form of protection, silently reminding us of the undefendedness of the millions of civilians whose lives were taken both in the concentration camps, and en route for them. The model for the baby was Nemon’s son Falcon, born in 1941 as Yugoslavia was invaded, signalling the likely end of Nemon’s family of origin. Falcon later became my husband.

Nemon only completed two Shoah sculptures, but from 1945 onwards he made sketches exploring living in the aftermath of this loss. They often feature groups of mourning figures, standing together in solidarity, or holding one another. I first discovered them within his papers after Falcon died in 2002. Nemon had previously died in 1985. Recently bereaved, they moved me deeply. When I look through these drawings now, I am additionally struck by their relationships to silences, and silencings, and how they build bodies of gestural language from not speaking. Below is the rapidly drawn Don’t Forget, whose title and injunction come from the page of the memo pad on which it was executed in black felt tip pen.

Don't Forget

Turned away from the viewer, the two figures hold each other, and possibly a child each, in a wordless enactment of grief. They make their loss palpable, but decline to let us into their closed circle, which is a place we can imagine, but not know. By existing, Don’t Forget gives witness, and forms a concrete place of testimony to a crime whose perpetrators attempted to deny it, and to destroy all evidence of what was done. This witnessing is an ambition I also have for the body of work I am making, as I hope to show in the discussion which follows of five poems published since the start of the pandemic in the Cambridge Literary Review and One Hand Clapping.

As a reviewer, and former features journalist, my intention is to use the additional resource of my prose to open up the context of these poems during these uniquely difficult times, to support children and adults with experiences of sexual abuse, whether current or historic. With funding for programmes to heal the aftermaths of this crime  being cut, I also wanted to throw light on the nature of what happens when a child is sexually abused, to make it easier to understand why the damage, though often invisible, can be so profound.

‘twice told’ and ‘quadrant’, the first two poems I will discuss, were published in the full UK lockdown within the ‘script as identity’ issue of the Cambridge Literary Review. There is a clip of me reading them for the online launch available here. Looking back to the autumn of 1977, ‘twice told’ documents the immediate aftermath of the sexual abuse when I was just thirteen. At this point, the physical element had been stopped, but I had no means or opportunity of saying what had been done to me.

Set in a hospital room, the poem remembers the tone of the many conversations I had with Ann Dally, the psychiatrist who admitted me. I weighed 4 and a half stone, and had stopped eating in order to be able to die, but anorexia was still largely regarded as the disease of over-ambitious, perfectionist middle class girls. While Ann Dally rapidly became aware that my relationship with my abuser was not what it should be, it never occurred to her to ask about the possibility of sexual abuse.

‘twice told’ lies in a lozenge on the page, forming the shape of one the many sedating pills I was given. It alternates the psychiatrist’s questions with the child patient’s thoughts about a chaffinch she sees, who is neither able to sing nor fly. Working through the image of a flightless bird, with a grotesquely swollen beak, the poem catches both the impossibility of speaking, and the resulting weight of not being able to do to so.

Photo 05-08-2020, 15 11 29

‘quadrant’, moves beyond this to register the silences surrounding sexual abuse being being enforced, endured, and finally negotiated. It suggests that we may not have to remain in a place of injury forever. The word quadrant initially meant a quarter of a day, or six hours. This led to the name being given to an instrument, shaped like a quarter circle, used to measure altitudes in astronomy and navigation.

The poem is built from four quadrants. The first imagines a little girl’s words as “soft pink kissing” spread onto “iced cakes” and then fed back into her own mouth. The “steel hooves” of ‘intimidation’ follow, and lead to the exile of ‘exclusion’ when “lies puff out on/ washing lines” and “because/ she will not wear them/ the young woman must/ walk out naked.” This image to calls to mind the unprotected state of the adolescent who has suffered sexual abuse, and her vulnerability in the aftermath of the crime when she is trying to reclaim herself.

‘quadrant’ ends in a place of ‘redemption’, however. Finally, “open sky and water/ wind-blink a clear pool of June silver – washing/ her skin with spangled/ rings of joy.” Swimming, and particularly swimming in open air municipal pools in summer, has always been one of the most restorative areas of my life. I honour the transformative gift water represents for so many of us with histories of trauma, and the ways it may enable us to reclaim our bodies.

Photo 05-08-2020, 15 12 28

The three poems published in One Hand Clapping engage with different aspects of living with and in the aftermath of sexual abuse in childhood. ‘embedded’ is already available on this blog in the poems section. It was a poem that came alive for me again during the first phase of the full UK lockdown. The isolation I was experiencing through living alone, combined with the lack of social contact that many of us rely upon to manage our mental health, caused me to re-somatise the injury the poem responds to.

At the time of the poem, I was a pupil in a small village primary in Wiltshire. I worked among other children on shared tables, with papier maché animal masks looking down on us from the walls. Writing ‘embedded’, the soreness of those childhood mornings seemed to materialise within the roughness of the sacking tacked to the underside of my bed, the splinteriness of the wood, the sharpness of the rusty nails – in the same way that water vapour may be precipitated onto a cold surface. The word ‘backdoor’ is embedded centrally in the poem as an act of witness.

Photo 05-08-2020, 15 39 21

One Hand Clapping is also publishing two new poems of mine. They respond to how traumatic memories persist, but also how they may be represented and to some extent transformed. I first experienced penetrative abuse aged eight and a half, in December 1972. Ever since, that month has been difficult for me. Whenever I can afford to, I travel. It helps to be in a different light to that in England, and to open myself to new experiences, rather than being pulled backwards by the ghosts which return each year to claim me.

‘performance’ came out of a late December trip to Sicily in 2017. I wanted to see the island’s landscapes, and understand more of its multi-stranded history. A few days short of the end of the year, I was standing in the ruins of an almost vanished Roman amphitheatre at Eraclea within sight of the sea. Two thousand years ago there would have been crowds, and blood, and gladiators, and wild animals. Now broken rows of stones emerged from the dry grasses to mark where the benches would have stood. More or less the whole town had been carried away over the centuries to build houses nearby – as is the case with many classical ruins.

IMG-3515

My own vanished, but present, past was within my thoughts as I walked around, trying to figure out the layout of the site from the notices and my guidebook, and imagine how everything had been. In their liminality, and near erasure, the ghosted forms of the seating and stage suggested the presences of memory, but also the way time erodes and changes. I was struck by how, although it was impossible, without additional information, to read the site fully, you could not ignore that something had once stood there.

A salt breeze was blowing in off the sea, like it had on the clifftop by my French grandmother’s house in Normandy. This was always my place of safety as a child, where I was usually more protected from my abuser. Feeling it on my face, the phrase “amphitheatres are carved from bones and stagger into stone” slipped into my consciousness. Then I heard “have traps in their floors troughs to drain blood.”

Those two phrases, arriving on the wind, turned my eight year old body into the amphitheatre, and stage for my own attack. Like a looping echo, as I thought about the gladiators forced to fight each other, and the animals they killed for public amusement, I also held somewhere in my mind my own powerlessness to resist my abuser, and the sense of unwitting complicity that the sexually abused child experiences. But, in the historical fact of the “troughs to drain blood”, the imagery also offered the possibility of some form of easing or relief, through draining away. As the poem took shape, I understood it could give a measure of moving beyond the eternal recurrence of what was done to me night after night in the dark, because refusing the silence that my abuser had required and enforced through my childhood and well into adult life, as is the case for many of us with this history.

performance

amphitheatres carved from
bone stagger into stone

traps in floors
troughs to drain blood

bars protect the watchers
from the creature

when attacked
leaves marks

as rain drunk
by growing grass

‘performance’ stayed short – only six more lines came. Sexual abuse is not something that can be fully communicated. Reticence is moreover a retrospective form of redress – clothing the child in a measure of dignity that was denied to her while the abuse was ongoing, and gifting the reader the option to engage only insofar as is safe and comfortable for them. As I worked on the poem, I understood that it needed to be tiny, and tight, and partly folded in on itself like a child’s body – but with a mysterious, felt possibility of growth and healing. The blood at the end is also just rain, in the same way that when we speak the difficult things that happen to us, they may be in some measure transfigured by the act of documenting.

The title was the last element to arrive. For a long time I called the poem ‘evidence’. Then I realised that it was more than that, because not static, but moving. ‘performance’ holds for me how, when we make works of art, whatever their starting point or destination, we construct them in such a way that they enact themselves within the viewer’s or reader’s mind, and then fold away again at the end, like the curtain going down on a stage. In that retelling, and closing down, we also exert our agency as the co-creators of our own life experiences, and give a degree of creative agency to our audience. Together – as artists and audiences, as past and present selves – we may discover the power to see and relate in new ways, as we move forwards through time, and gain different understandings of our own histories, and those of others.

‘papyri’, the final poem appearing in One Hand Clapping, responds to the difficulties inherent to making aesthetic performances from charged materials, and more generally to opening up traumatic memories to allow their energies to be present within a creative work. The starting point was my own reading about the ancient city of Herculaneum, which, like nearby Pompeii, was overwhelmed when Vesuvius erupted. Rather than ash, however, Herculaneum was covered with a hardened shroud of volcanic stone, up to 40 metres thick in places. This has not yet been fully excavated, and may never be, as the modern town of Ercolano stands above much of the ancient city.

Digging down along narrow, vertical shafts, the early excavators discovered among other finds the complex of a magnificent villa, complete with extraordinary mosaics and statues. There was also an area containing blackened, contorted log-like objects. These were originally disregarded as rubbish, or burnt to keep warm – until it was realised that they were in fact tightly rolled papyrus scrolls from the villa’s library. They had been carbonised and crushed during the eruption, and are the only surviving examples of this kind.

Even when the papyri were recognised for what they were, they remained almost impossible to unroll or decipher. The writing is black on black, and the carbonised sheets crumble entirely to dust unless treated with the utmost care. Many techniques were tried for deciphering them, including fixing to a silk background and unrolling by fractional amounts each day. The breakthrough only came in recent years, however, when medical diagnostic technology was brought into play. It was realised the papyri could be read through a combination of using a CT scanner to unroll them virtually, and an infrared scanner to distinguish the letters from the paper.

A CT scanner is of course more usually used to see inside the human body without surgical intervention. For those of us whose bodies have been attacked or invaded, the ability to see within their closed surfaces, to discover the evidence of what took place, is at once an impossible dream, and a potential nightmare. My poem ‘conjugation’, also on this blog, explores this idea, in the context of an MRI scan which I was given in 2014 to assess internal damage following cancer surgery.

While ‘conjugation’ speaks directly to my abuser, ‘papyri’ asks the reader to become a form of CT scanner, calling upon the magical powers of an empathetic imagination in bringing the processes of art into play. Because the sexual abuse of a child very often entails a measure of societal or familial complicity, I wanted to build the poem from phrases already in the public domain to enact a wider engagement. For this reason, the poem uses only ‘found language’ taken from an academic article published by the University of Kentucky about using CT scanners to read two unopened Herculaneum scrolls.

The borrowed and rearranged phrases request the scanner/reader to “distinguish bodily tissue/ detail a human’s organs/ reveal internal surfaces.” The poem accepts, sorrowfully, but also respectfully, “the task immensely difficult/ the scrolls so tightly/ wound and creased”. It allows the resistance to opening and disambiguating of such materials. But it also suggests that when you are able to “unwrap sections/ flatten them” they may gift you the ability to “see clearly” the constituent elements of “papyrus/ fibres/ sand” contained within the seemingly incomprehensible scrolls.

In the context of ‘papyri’, the final word, “sand”, is the saddest, and the most hopeful. It embodies the grit, and abrasion, caught between the soft surfaces of the historic Herculaneum papyri before carbonisation. Through this it looks back to the soreness of ‘embedded’. But it also honours the persistence of selfhood even under the most extreme adversity and fragmentation. Sand is made from minute particles of rock – most commonly granite, quartz or mica, or marine life forms – which still retain their original identities. In the same way, children subjected to sexual abuse retain their original selves, however dissipated and broken up by the trauma to which they have been subjected, as ‘two unopened scrolls’ asks the reader/scanner to recognise:

Photo 05-08-2020, 15 38 53

My late father-in-law, Oscar Nemon, also has a sketch which works with and transforms ‘found’ materials. It is a tender, grieving group, composed of three visible figures. More are implied behind them, completing the circle. With their backs to the viewer, refusing to speak directly out of the frame of the page, the figures cluster together and hold each other close. Their bodies, which form a trunk-like column, are made up of vertical, striped lines, like the striped clothes that the prisoners in the Lagers were required to wear, and which the world saw on newsreels of the liberation of the camps. The base on which they stand is a crosshatch of vertical and horizontal lines – echoing the barbed wire which contained the prisoners, and prevented their escape, also visible in contemporary news reportage.

Mourning group stripes

But extraordinarily, and almost unbelievably, while the figures’ heads bow in sorrow, as grapes on a vine, awaiting harvest, their holding arms form two victory ‘V’s. This was another archetypal image of the second world war, implying resilience, and determination to resist. An additional V has been added below them, in a different pen, at a later date. The resulting shape, made by the interlocking Vs, calls to mind both a diamond – an emblem of light – and an open mouth at the heart of the composition. Made from the raw horror of war, the untitled sketch forms an act of articulation. Loss is made manifest through unflinching, empathetic, witness – without surrendering its final unspeakability. I hope my own poems will be able to work in this way for the global community of those of us living with, and making our lives and arts in the aftermath of, sexual abuse in childhood.

Falcon & Oscar & bust
Oscar Nemon with his baby son Falcon in 1941

One Hand Clapping can be found here.

The Cambridge Literary Review can be found here.

‘I’m trying to write the stories not only of how my family suffered, but also how they survived’: Natalie Linh Bolderston on witnessing and healing in ‘The Protection of Ghosts’.

Natalie Linh Bolderston author photograph

@NatBolderston

Natalie Linh Bolderston has just published her brilliant, moving debut, The Protection of Ghosts, with V.Press, exploring life before, and after, her family’s departure from Vietnam as refugees in 1978 through three generations of women. The first time we met, I was struck by Natalie’s observant, centred quietness, and natural generosity. As I got to know her work, I came to understand how these qualities have been nourished by the multiple heritages which her poems honour. Together, in our conversation, we explored creativity, trauma, and healing – and the poets whose works have helped Natalie find her path. Still only in her mid twenties, while a student at Liverpool University, Natalie copy-edited Nuar Alsadir, under Pavilion’s internship programme, and was encouraged to develop her own poems by Deryn Rhys-Jones. Now working as an editor, Natalie Linh Bolderston has already been the Silver Winner for the Creative Future Writers’ Award 2018, come second in the Timothy Corsellis Prize 2018, been placed as a runner up in the Bi’an Award 2019 – and most recently won the Young Poets Network’s 2019 Golden Shovel Competition.   As key new voice in poetry, I’m honoured to be able to share Natalie Linh Bolderston’s first in-depth interview.

AH: Can I ask when and why you started experimenting with poetry? Were there any mentors, or teachers, who encouraged you, or was it more DIY?

NLB: In my second year at university, I took a creative writing class with Deryn Rees-Jones. I hadn’t written seriously before, and just wanted to see if I could. At the time, I didn’t know what form my writing would take, but I had mainly read fantasy and literary fiction by women. My experience of contemporary poetry was limited: in my previous education, a lot of emphasis had been placed on the canon – specifically the white, male, British canon – which didn’t resonate with me.

Early on, Deryn introduced us to the work of Mona Arshi and Sarah Howe. I felt an immediate connection to both poets: I loved the vibrancy of their images, their use of myth and narrative, and their explorations of family and cultural heritage. I was interested in contemplating family history, traditional stories, and cultural identity in my own work, and reading their poems made me feel more able to do so. As a young woman of colour, it meant so much to me to have two modern female writers of colour to look up to – and to know that there were so many more to discover.

Since my ideas seemed to come to me in intense moments, images, and fragmented lines, poetry felt like the right form to express them. Deryn was very encouraging from the beginning, as well as being very generous with feedback – I owe a lot to her.

AH: Were there any other writers who helped call forth your voice? I know you connect imaginatively with poets outside the UK.

NLB: My two ‘gateway’ poets were Mona Arshi and Sarah Howe. But once I started following poetry accounts on Twitter, I found so many other brilliant poets – the ones I return to most are probably Ocean Vuong, K Ming Chang, Warsan Shire and Romalyn Ante. All four write about migration, sense of place, cultural identity, family, trauma and survival in very different ways, and have made me think about how I can approach these themes and other difficult subject matter in my poems.

I’m also in awe of them from a technical perspective – I find their images particularly astonishing. For example, one of my favourites by Ocean Vuong is: ‘one spring / I crushed a monarch midflight / just to know how it felt / to have something change / in my hands’ (from ‘My Father Writes From Prison’). I love the eerie, tactile beauty, and the emotions captured in that one moment: namely isolation, aggression, and longing. Reading work like this showed me the beautiful and extraordinary possibilities of poetry, and encouraged me to keep going.

AH: How did it feel when you heard that V. Press had accepted your first pamphlet, The Protection of Ghosts, published on 23 April 2019?

NLB: It was a mix of disbelief, joy, and gratitude! As a young, emerging poet, I was prepared to wait many more years to get to the pamphlet stage, so I felt very fortunate and very grateful to V. Press (especially to Sarah Leavesley and Carrie Etter) for their belief in my work.

I was also excited for my poems to appear together, as a lot were written in conversation with each other and form a sort of fragmented arc. Gathering them into pamphlet form made me feel more able to provide a ‘fuller picture’, as the narrative threads that have been passed on to me by my family began to join.

AH: The poems in The Protection of Ghosts speak from your own position and generation, but also through your mother’s and grandmother’s voices.   They both lived in Vietnam until 1978. Did you always plan to have a chorus of mainly female voices speaking in and out of each other, ghosted by the past?

NLB: I don’t think it was a conscious plan at first, but when I started setting down my family’s stories the multiple voices came quite organically. Anything that I create is a collaborative effort, because so much of what I write is inspired by what my family have told me – particularly Mum and Bá Ngoại. I think that highlighting this through the chorus of voices enhances the emotional truth of what they have said, and gives me space to consider how I interact with that. For example, in ‘When Bá Ngoại tells stories’, I list quotes from her alongside my own interpretations and contemplations of these.

AH: How do your family feel about featuring in your work?

NLB: My mum is very supportive, and reads everything I write. She’s one of the first people who I send new poems to – so many stem from her stories, and I want to do them justice emotionally. A lot of poets mention having an ‘imagined reader’ when writing: for me, my mum is always the reader I have in mind. She’s told me that it moves her to see how much I’ve held on to her words and experiences over the years – she actually sent me a message about it, which I keep with me:

Untitled

Bá Ngoại is the same, although she sometimes needs help from me and Mum to fully understand my poems (my mum provides Vietnamese translations for some parts).

I’ve only recently felt brave enough to start showing my work to the rest of my family. The response has been very kind – like Mum, they’ve been interested to see how I’ve interpreted, interacted with and reproduced their stories.

AH: The opening poem, ‘I watch my mother peel longan fruits –’ is both a beginning, and an ending. It slides in a series of present tense scenes from your personal experience in England, to Saigon. On “a long-ago rooftop” for your mother “longans taste like sour rain/ and street dust.” The action then moves to leaving Vietnam: “The family drives through back roads // dark as the mouths of dogs.” You embed thought and memory into taste and texture so the reader also lives the experience.   Did recreating these scenes from the past also help you to inhabit them for yourself?

NLB: Yes – I think that poems like this help me get to know a version of my mother who I have never met: a young girl growing up in extraordinary circumstances, uncertain of her future. Starting with an image of food felt like a good way to conjure this part of her life, as tastes – and other sensory experiences – have a way of making the spectral very vivid.

I don’t hold these memories first hand, but do I have the fragments that my mother has shared with me over the years – memories of memories. Therefore, my piecing them together in my poems always feels like an act of ‘recreation’, rather than setting down verbatim fact. I think that that would be impossible. So poems like the one above are visualisations of the past: collaborations between my mother’s stories and my internal lens, with a shared emotional truth at their core.

Nat readingAH: The second poem, ‘Divinations on Survival’, uses the I-Ching form, devised by K Ming Chang. Each of the stanzas takes the form of an I-Ching hexagram, and can be read top to bottom, or bottom to top, always from left to right.   One of the images is of the speaker’s “body/ like a cooked fruit unravelling across the sea. in sagging boats.” It is a really powerful way of responding to the dislocations of exile, and forced migration. Did you experiment with any other forms first – or was it always going to be this one?

NLB: The poem came after the form. After I read K Ming Chang’s poem, I was first of all awestruck by what she had created with such imaginative self-imposed restraints, and by the very contemporary way in which she had honoured an old tradition (I-Ching is a Chinese method of divination). I then realised that the sense of enigma and fragmentation created by the form would work well as a way to express certain moments in my family’s history. The stanzas in ‘Divinations on Survival’ alternate between the voices of Bá Ngoại and my mother. They are moments of fear and uncertainty, when they had to put their faith in fate and their own courage in order to survive. I think the content also references the original basis of the form – divinations give a glimpse into the future, but the readings can be unclear and open to interpretation. Likewise, my poem depicts two women facing a precarious and unpredictable future, and trying to keep going long enough to see a better life.

AH: Did you grow up speaking Vietnamese as well as English? I think your family heritage is also partly Chinese?

NLB: I didn’t grow up bilingual, which is one of my biggest regrets. I treasure the fragments of Vietnamese that I do pick up from Mum and Bá Ngoại – my mum helps me record them, which is why they end up in my poems. I feel nourished by the sounds and conversations I grew up listening to, even if I didn’t understand them. My mum taught me a little bit when I was young, but she worked full time as a nurse so it was difficult. Now, I’m making more of a DIY effort to learn, which I think will be a lifelong process.

Ông Ngoại grew up in Xiamen in South China. He could speak Mandarin and Hokkien – as well as English and some French – and so can Bá Ngoại. Ông Ngoại died when I was very young, so I don’t have many memories of hearing him speak. But my mum has told me that he and Bá Ngoại mostly spoke Hokkien together. They didn’t teach my mum or her siblings any varieties of Chinese, so speaking Hokkien was their way of keeping things private.

 AH: Like many of your poems, ‘Divinations on Survival’ uses both Chinese characters, and transliterated Vietnamese words. You also had multi-lingual work published in the inaugural issue of harana poetry . Can you say something about using these linguistic markers to evidence your multiple cultural heritages?

NLB: When writing about things that my family have said in Vietnamese (or in a mix of Vietnamese and English), I never like to translate them fully – it would feel wrong, like leaving out an important part of who they are. Mum had to leave so much behind when she fled Vietnam, but she never forgot her Vietnamese. At family gatherings – and when Mum meets up with her Vietnamese friends – most of her conversations are held in her mother tongue. And that’s so beautiful to hear and witness, which is why I want to celebrate this multi-lingual environment in my poems.

Bá Ngoại can speak Mandarin and Hokkien (in addition to Vietnamese and English) but I hardly ever hear her speak any variety of Chinese while in the UK. When we visited Ông Ngoại’s side of the family in China, she spoke with them in Hokkien. She had not seen them for many years, but they were conversing and laughing so easily. It was like the revival of another self, which again was beautiful to see.

We’ve been finding out more and more about Ông Ngoại’s and his family’s life in China from letters and photographs, so this aspect of our family history has also started to feature in my poems. For example, one of my harana poems – ‘Photograph’ – is based on a picture of Ông Ngoại as a baby, sitting on his mother’s lap. It’s actually part of a sequence of poems I’ve been writing, exploring his mother’s life and his early life. This was a time before he learned Vietnamese or English or French, so it feels right to use Chinese linguistic markers when writing about this part of his history. Chinese was part of his identity, and I want to acknowledge and commemorate this.

AH: Your poems never shy away from recording the challenging experiences which your family went through in occupied Vietnam, and then travelling to the UK as refugees. They also acknowledge the lingering impact of trauma. But the people you describe are always presented with dignity and agency.   I’m thinking about your poem ‘Bá Ngoại’, about your grandmother, who teaches you to crochet, and “fastens gold” around your wrist. Could you say something about this resilience and life force?

NLB: When writing about trauma and resilience in my family, I keep in mind this quote from Ocean Vuong:

I’m trying to preserve the acts that made us possible. And so for a poet writing out of violence, it is on one point a moment of creation like the word poet from the Greek says, but also a point of preservation – you’re doing both at once. […] To honour their survival is to record it, and keep it from being obliterated.

This is something that has stayed with me, and helps me situate my writing. I’m also trying to write the stories not only of how my family suffered, but also how they survived. I want to record what they overcame to make a better life possible – for both themselves and the next generation of children.

I think intimate moments like the one you mention show the shadows of that survival instinct: my family’s impulse to pass on their knowledge, beliefs, traditions and heirlooms (physical or otherwise) to the next generation. By doing that, they pass on something of themselves: their strength and history. In ‘Bá Ngoại’, the gold bracelet holds a lot of memories – in Vietnam, my grandparents once owned a jewellery business, and Bá Ngoại was able to make chains herself. So it felt as if she was symbolically sharing that aspect of her past with me.

AH: Buddhist practices, along with the rituals to celebrate key festivals, and the offerings made on the family shrine at different times, are all lovingly recorded. Do they feel like places of strength for you?

NLB: Yes – I would say our shrines are places of strength, preservation, peace and comfort. I was thinking about them a lot when choosing the title for my pamphlet. When we pray, we are asking for the protection of ghosts – that is, guidance and protection from our ancestors. However, by keeping their stories, traditions and rituals alive, we are also protecting those ghosts by preserving and honouring their memory.

The shrines are also places of unity and celebration – some of my earliest memories are of my family coming together and leaving food at the shrine in Bá Ngoại’s house for Lunar New Year or Ông Ngoại’s remembrance day. Those are always special and loving times.

AH: ‘Typhoon in Xiamen’ and ‘Hạ Long Bay’ both refer to a visit you made with your family members to Vietnam and China a couple of years ago, which I believe was your mother’s first visit back since 1978. Would you like to say something about the experience of that trip, for you, and for her?

NLB: We visited Vietnam for the first time in 2014. For me, it was strange and wonderful to finally experience a place that I’ve held in my head for so long. Of course, it has changed so much since my mum left, but I could see shadows of her stories in the streets, markets, cafés, and food. It was also lovely to finally meet the members of my family who stayed in Saigon – they were so kind and welcoming.

For my mum, there were a lot of feelings. Mostly, she was so happy to spend time with extended family who she hadn’t seen for thirty years, and to meet the new generation. However, she was also a little sad – she didn’t feel like she belonged there anymore. In many ways, Vietnam isn’t the same place she remembers: she told me that it sometimes felt like her life there had been erased, or like it had never existed at all.

We visited my grandparents’ old jewellery shop in Bạc Liêu, which was a bittersweet experience for Mum. It was still a jewellery shop, but it had new owners – they turned out to be the people who used to live a few doors away from her, on the same street. They were friendly, and actually remembered my grandmother. Mum was happy to see that the place had been taken care of after so long, but I think it was hard to return to a place where she made so many memories, and where her life changed so suddenly and irrevocably.

We visited China (Beijing and then Xiamen) in 2016. That was a very new experience for both of us. Again, it was wonderful to meet more family, and find out a little more about my grandfather’s early life there. Xiamen has never been a physical home for me or my mum, but it did feel a little like an ancestral home – especially when we visited one of the family shrines, and the mausoleum where my great-grandmother’s ashes are kept. We burned joss paper in a barrel and prayed for her and my grandfather.  

AH: The way you describe it in ‘Ha Long Bay’ suggests Vietnam woke something new in your own voice? You write:

 Mangroves lean in,
knotted to the rockface
with swollen roots –

their rings, I think,
as many as our fingerprints.
A black kite springs alive
from the mist,
its call in my throat.

NLB: The details I included in ‘Hạ Long Bay’ give voice to my astonishment – it is a very beautiful and peaceful place. However, I think that there is also a sense of distance there. It was my first trip to Vietnam, and I was very aware that I was there as visitor rather than a former resident. So, in a way, everything was unfamiliar and astonishing to me. Despite that, it is still a place I feel deeply connected to. That’s why I tried to allude to the relationship between place and identity by linking the landscape to our bodies, as shown in the lines you mentioned.

 H Long Bay is also a site of historical violence: during the Vietnam War, the US Navy placed mines in many areas between the islands. So I also wanted to allude to the lingering presence of that violence beneath the beauty, with lines like: ‘Children wave / from wicker coracles / like upturned shields.’

AH: ‘Operation Ranch Hand’ won the Silver Award in the 2018 Creative Futures competition, and is named for the codename “for a chemical warfare campaign carried out by the US in the Vietnam War” according to the note below the title. It begins:

And just like that, the trees fold around them.
Gas snarls at a woman’s shoulders,
presses her belly to dirt.

She does not know about the scar
that is forming inside, that her daughter
will be born wordless on a stretcher.
That she will carry the smell
of dead leaves on her skin,
her name already cremated.

I think that this poem steps out of your family’s direct history, into the wider experience of the war, and I wondered how you researched it, and the impact on you of doing so?

IMG_0348NLB: When reading about Operation Ranch Hand, I concentrated on civilian accounts – from both victims and witnesses. I think that the methods behind military atrocities are often designed to feel very removed or distant, so that it’s easier for the perpetrators not to hold themselves accountable. So I wanted to show the painful impact of this particular cruelty by removing that distance and focusing in on one life. Even now, it’s hard to know the full extent of the damage caused by the US’ chemical weapons in Vietnam, but the health effects include death by agent orange poisoning, birth defects, and various cancers. Stories like this can be harrowing to read, but I think it’s very important to acknowledge that this happened, confront the impact, and not to forget the harm and destruction that chemical weapons cause.

AH: ‘Triệu Thị Trinh, or the Lady General Clad in Golden Robe’ and ‘Jingwei’ are two poems which both speak through legendary and mythical women.   Did you find that this opened a new dimension for you within your work?

NLB: Yes: I’ve become interested in poetic ‘resurrection’ – researching and amplifying the voices of historical, legendary and mythical women from Vietnam and China. In this way, I want to find my own wider lineage of women to look up to, as well as those in my family.

In the cases of Triệu Thị Trinh and Jingwei, I was interested in the multiplicity of their identities. A lot of the accounts of Triệu Thị Trinh focus on her as a military leader, and as a woman who was desirable to men. But I wanted to get to know her other selves: her identity as an orphan, as a girl coming of age under extreme conditions, and as a protector of other women. So while my poem does depict her legendary battle persona, I also tried to show a layer of vulnerability, expressed through her sorrow over the absence of her mother. I’ve since decided that I would like to write a sequence of poems about her. I’ve already written the next poem, which focuses on a particular coming-of-age moment: her period. The third poem is as yet unwritten, but I’d like this to detail her visits to the graves of and shrines to women who were lost in the war she fought, and the conflicting emotions attached to this.

In Chinese mythology, Jingwei is a bird reborn from the Emperor’s daughter, who drowned in the Eastern Sea. In my poem about her, I wanted to zero in on the process of transformation – the phasing of one self into another – and the sense of loss and estrangement associated with this. I think that I’d also like to return to her story in the future.

AH: ‘My mother’s nightmares’ begins describing how they “taste like seawater and vomit, handfuls of spat blood. The sky is a paper/ bruise, and it is always 1978.” The poem is in three sections. The second is the daughter’s dreams – “There is a garden where her skin is drying on the line.” The third draws mother and daughter together – “We both know there are some things we can only/ consider with our eyes closed.” Was it important for you to explore, and record, how trauma can speak through generations, even within the context of the very warm, and nurturing, connection between yourself and your mother, which shades so many of these poems with a movingly deep love, and tenderness?

NLB: Yes: I think that in this poem, I wanted to show one of the many ways in which my mother has taught me how to love. Although my mother has always been a figure of strength in my life, one of the ways we express our love and trust is through our mutual willingness to share our vulnerabilities with each other – and her willingness to share even the most painful aspects of her past. I think that trauma can manifest in very intimate moments, when you are allowing yourself to be most open. That’s probably why these recollections sometimes come at times of particular closeness, like the one described in the poem.

More generally, I also think that the stories my mother tells me are testaments to the strength and solace of familial love: it is her family’s love for and their determination to protect each other that kept them going through impossible circumstances.

AH: ‘Reflection’ is another poem which enters difficult spaces, describing a time when your mother apparently revolted against her own body while still in Vietnam by trying to stop eating, and then later sought to rub out visual traces of herself in you:

Asks if I remembered to pinch

my nose that morning,
as if I could exile her
from my face.

It suggests that one of the after-effects of trauma can be to alienate people from themselves, and their own bodies. I wondered if that was something which you wanted to draw attention to?

NLB: Yes: when my mum told me the story, it seemed like an expression of pain at a time when she felt voiceless. When your voice starts to disappear, I think that there’s an impulse to attempt to make the rest of your body disappear too. I wanted to show that feeling of powerlessness and isolation can manifest in the silence.

In the section you mention, I was contemplating the effects of intergenerational trauma, and how that feeling of self-alienation can be passed on. It was as if my mum thought that I’d be better off if I looked less like her – that I wouldn’t experience the same level of estrangement from my body if I could somehow assimilate with exclusionary western beauty standards. But of course there was no way to truly erase our internal and external similarities, and I’m grateful for that. She has always been someone who I look up to for her strength and kindness, and who I seek to emulate. I allude to this in the final line of the poem, when I ‘begin to stitch her skin over mine.’

AH: Questions for My Mother’ identifies the racism which she faced within her nursing career in the UK on occasion, but also the danger which originally “chased” the family from Vietnam, after first “lining their clothes with the family gold” to travel. You draw together both the lack of choice which makes people refugees, alongside the hostility which their need for refuge can engender. Do you feel a sense of connection to the current generation of people obliged to flee their countries?

NLB: I think that everyone should: it’s a matter of empathy and compassion. Unfortunately, a lot of people fail to extend that. Everyone’s story is different, but I do see some parallels between my mother’s experiences of coming to the UK and the experiences of refugees now, especially in terms of the way they are treated as ‘other’.

My mum was generally expected to take this racist treatment in silence – especially in her profession – and in this poem I wanted to break that silence. I used multiple scenarios to emphasise that such acts of discrimination are not isolated incidents – they are incessant and exhausting. They make your everyday environment a more dangerous and terrifying place, and solidify the feeling that you don’t belong.

I know that this is the reality for so many current refugees – both in everyday interactions and at a governmental level. I think it’s important to listen to their stories and to think about what it’s like to be forced into that position. Warsan Shire bears witness to this kind of trauma in much of her work – for example, in her poem ‘Conversations About Home (at the Deportation Centre)’ – which I find so powerful.

 AH: The final poem, ‘Aubade’, is a healing dawn song, addressed to your grandmother. It shows her surrounded by her generations of children and grandchildren, who have made full, loving, nurturing, valued lives in the UK.

Let your daughters cook stick rice, egg rolls, soup,
thirteen cups of jasmine.   Notice how they look less alike these days:

some lipsticked, grey-flecked, others ageless. See the chrysanthemums,
lilies, wild roses awaken at their silk shirts, the gold peeking

from beneath their sleeves.

The Asian American ceramicist and writer, Jade Snow Wong, made food one of the symbols of her creative, cultural and intellectual identities, writing in America in 1950, and I wondered if it was similarly resonant for you?

NLB: Yes – I think that food is so central to ceremony, unity and nourishment across generations. When we leave food at the shrine, we are inviting ancestors – both distant and recent – to share in our celebrations. It’s a way of remembering who we are, and honouring who came before us.

‘Aubade’ is about my grandfather’s death anniversary, which we observe every year – so in this poem it is mainly his memory that is being honoured. The anaphora was intended to sound both prayer-like and ritualistic. Grief can be a chaotic and disorienting experience, so I think that some comfort can be found in following set ceremonial practices. Ritual restores some measure of order, if only for a short period of time. Preparing and sharing food is part of this: it’s a practical, necessary task that you can get on with when you don’t know what else to do or say. In this poem, it felt like a very active way of processing loss.

Food is also tied to love. My mum is very openly affectionate anyway, but one of the ways in which she expresses her love is by constantly checking if I’m hungry, if I’ve eaten enough, if I’m eating well. It’s the same throughout my family – I allude to this towards the end of ‘Aubade’, when Bà Ngoại is being encouraged to eat: ‘Surrender to a bowl, / a fork.’ I think of this as my family’s way of strengthening and restoring each other.

AH: You have recently spent a week on an Arvon retreat with Bi’an, the UK Chinese Writers’ Network. How was that as an experience?

NLB: It was lovely and inspiring to meet so many Chinese-heritage writers creating work across so many genres. It felt like a very warm and supportive community, and the tutors – Jeremy Tiang and Yan Ge – were very inclusive and encouraging. Jeremy held a poetry translation workshop, where we translated an old Chinese poem as a group – Jeremy provided the literal translation, and we came up with variations on this. It was a great experience – I hadn’t considered trying translations before, but now I’d like to try translating some Vietnamese poems with my mum.

We were also fortunate enough to have Sarah Howe there as a guest tutor for one evening. It was wonderful to have the opportunity to watch her read and to chat to her afterwards – I told her that she was one of the first poets who made me want to write.

AH: Have you made any contacts with contemporary Vietnamese or Chinese poets outside of the UK?

NLB: I managed to meet Ocean Vuong at his Forward Prizes reading in 2017, which was a very special moment for me. I don’t think I’ve met any others personally, but I follow and have briefly interacted with several on Twitter. These include Đỗ Nguyên Mai and Cathy Linh Che, both of whom I admire very much. In an interview, Đỗ Nguyên Mai said that many of her literary heroines are ancient Vietnamese female writers and political figures. I love how this manifests in her work, especially in her poem ‘From Phùng Thị Chính to Her Child’.

AH: Where to next? I know that as I write these questions, you’re currently travelling in Vietnam again?   Is this somewhere you would like to spend a more extended period of time?

I think that my next creative destination will be an eventual full collection, but I think that this will be quite a gradual process. Poems come to me in lines, fragments, and images, which I then gather, edit and fit together. So I tend to write quite slowly.

I’m not sure what my next physical destination will be, but I’ll definitely go back to Vietnam and China at some point in the future. My April 2019 trip was my second visit to Vietnam. I tried to be more observant this time around – the first time, I think it was all so new to me that I struggled to take everything in. But this time I asked my family a lot of questions and made notes wherever I went, so I feel like I managed to learn even more about old stories, legends and traditions as well as our family history.

Because I didn’t grow up there, I don’t know if Vietnam would ever feel like home – although I know that we can have many kinds of home. I think of both Vietnam and China – specifically Bạc Liêu, Sóc Trăng, Saigon, and Xiamen – as ancestral homes, and so I’ll always feel very connected to both countries in that way.

Natalie Linh Bolderston’s ‘Middle Name with Diacritics’ came third in the National Poetry Competition, and is on the shortlist for best single poems in the 2021 Forwards Prize Awards.  You can read it here. 

The Protection of Ghosts can be ordered through V. Press here.

pamphlet pic