Back in March, when spring was only beginning in the UK, Dr Pragya Suman asked me if I would contribute a short essay and three poems to Arc Magazine. I chose to explore what working experimentally can bring to those of us whose work responds to complex materials, and was given permission by Pavilion to reproduce ‘her door is missing’, ‘and now came the ashes’, and ‘tessellation’ to evidence what I was saying in practice. Pragya and I also explored the topic further in a mini interview. The beginning of the essay is quoted below, and you will be able to read it in full, along with the other powerful material featured in Arc’s spring 22 issue if you follow the link at the end of the excerpt or here:
alice hiller in Arc Magazine: When I was growing up during the 1970s, England experienced intensely cold winters. Walking through the graveyard of the parish church with my mother, I would sometimes find small birds lying curled in the snow. Seeking shelter within yew bushes, they had frozen to death overnight, then fallen from their perches. Although I could not articulate why at the time, the hunched shapes of their still, undefended bodies resonated with me.
During those same years of unlocking the church, polishing its brasses, singing hymns on Sundays beside my mother, I was also being subjected to penetrative sexual abuse by her. We had moved together to Wiltshire from Brussels when my father died, the year I turned eight. In the English countryside, surrounded by darkness and silence, my mother took me into her bed. I was not able to tell anyone what came to pass between us for two decades beyond the physical abuse ceasing.
Writing bird of winter in my fifties, which gives creative witness to this crime, also on behalf of the millions who are subjected to childhood sexual abuse around the world, I knew the poems needed to exist in relation to the white spaces around them. I wanted them to communicate at a somatic and an instinctive level, through the shapes they made on the page, as the birds’ hunched outlines in the snow connected with me to suggest my own body when I was word-less. I wanted the freedoms of more experimental poetry to open pathways to healing.
Working visually as well as texually in bird of winter, I invite the reader’s conscious and subconscious selves to collaborate dynamically in the work of ‘reading’, conferring upon them an agency that the abuse denied me. Through this they become discoverers, rather than recipients of this complex material, and participate in the collection’s journey into meaning and resolution. They can also calibrate their depth of engagement, as I hope these three featured poems reflect.
If you would like to keep reading, please follow the link below.
Note: this blog contains non-explicit references to childhood sexual abuse in a context of witness and healing.
Preparing to travel to St Andrews, in Scotland, for the StAnza Poetry Festival 2022, I flickered between nervousness and excitement. It was my first long trip since October 2019. The traveller in me was thrilled to be seeing new places after so long. But I was going there to speak about ‘Erasure – what cannot be said and how we say it’, alongside Annemarie Ní Churreáin and Maria Stadnicka. Writing respectively about Ireland’s foundling homes, and Romania’s orphanages, and my own childhood experience of being sexually abused, our work does not hesitate to enter complex areas, while being strongly committed to healing through creative witness. I knew the event would be a powerful one, and would need to be approached carefully. I spent the days leading up to departure working on my talk and performance, which you can read at the end of this blog or watch via the video link on the StAnza website which includes Annemarie and Maria’s readings as well.
To reach St Andrews from London meant five and a half hours of constantly changing landscapes, and a succession of passengers sharing the communal table where I was working. Around York, three generations of women settled in beside me, the same beautiful bone structure playing like variations in music across their faces as they laughed and chatted. Later, a mother came with a toddler, who rode firmly standing. He was mainly eating crunchy snacks or wailing the extremely convincing siren on his police car. This repeatedly turned heads down the carriage as we sped through roadless fields. Finally, from Newcastle, a woman whose hair made a waterfall over her face as she fell into peaceful sleep. So many strangers in close proximity, after months of limited contact, felt bewildering – but wonderful.
Towards Berwick upon Tweed, the sea became the train’s companion. Winds had blown away the grey that we left London under, and the waves were turquoise under a blue sky. Beyond Edinburgh, as we sailed through the air over the Forth Bridge, the clouds returned and the sea became shades of pewter and silver. This same wind was blowing hard as we disembarked at Leuchars, then travelled onto St Andrews. It was whipping up the waves as I followed the street on which my guest house stood, down to the sea which lay beyond a fence and low granite cliffs.
After watching events on zoom from London, the live festival began for me with fellow Pavilion poet and former civil rights lawyer, Mona Arshi’s, inaugural address in the auditorium of the Byre Theatre in the centre of town. Mona’s subject was the Nationalities and Borders Bill currently passing through the UK Parliament. If passed into law, it will reverse many of the key tenets of the 1951 agreement on refugee rights. These were put into law following the genocides of the second world war. With examples from poets, and guidance from a barrister who has written on the proposed changes, Mona left her live and online audience in no doubt about the urgent need to protest the bill. She explained that it seeks to criminalise and penalise the seeking of refuge in all but the most narrow and restrictive of circumstances, and make it impossible for people to arrive in England without prior approval, even when the channels for this approval are largely absent.
Why our cultures are so deeply enriched by travel and migration was borne out by the headline event for Friday evening. Kayo Chingonyi, who came to the UK as a child from Gambia, and now lives and teaches in Leeds, and Safiya Sinclair, who originated in Jamaica, but now works and teaches in the USA, shared the stage with the Syrian poet Nouri Al-Jarrah, reading from A Boat to Lesbos. As an audience, we were on the edges of our seats for nearly two hours with a short interval, as you can see if you view the recording via the StAnza website, where Mona’s is also available. At other events, brilliant Irish poets included my fellow Forwards judge Stephen Sexton, Gail McConnell, whose The Sun is Open, was one of my most compelling reads of 2021, and Padraig Regan, whose Some Intensity has just come out with Carcanet.
The following morning the clouds were gone and the skies were blue again. From my room, I could hear the wind was still blowing hard, feathering the sea with a lace of frothed foam. I’d come down to breakfast shaken by the news from Ukraine, and nervous about my own reading. I found Stephanie Sy-Quia already in place, having travelled from France to read from her debut Amnion, which responds to her families’ multiple heritages, reaching around the world from the Philippines through Europe and beyond. Stephanie was followed in short order by the Latinx-British poet Leo Boix, who was performing both his own poems and those he had translated. We were then joined by Saturday and Sunday nights’ headliners, Holly Pester and Luke Kennard. To breakfast amid so much kindness and friendliness was the best possible start to the day.
Then it was time to thread through the streets of granite houses back to the Byre theatre again, to catch Pascale Petit and George Szirtes talking with Yang Lian’s translator about rendering Chinese poetry into English. They discussed the very different structures of the two languages, and also the implications in Yang’s poems of working within a literary tradition that extends back 3000 years. As a bonus, Yian Lian was on hand to comment, and read one of his poems in Mandarin before a Saturday evening showcase. For the travel-starved among us, Pascale and George remembered their own journeys to China to meet Lian, and visit the Forbidden City and Shanghai.
Pascale had mentored me very generously under the Jerwood Arvon scheme when I was finding my feet as a poet. Afterwards, we caught up as we walked her back to her room through sunny St Andrews. Saturday morning shoppers and university students were beginning to head out into the town’s coffee shops, boutiques and ice cream parlours. Next it was back to my room to run through my own reading which was due to begin at 2.00.
To steady myself, I practised my set for an audience of seagulls, who were more interested in launching themselves into the gusting wind from the chimney pots of the rooftops opposite. Within the performance, the poems fall down into my personal underworld of being groomed and then sexually abused as a child, before climbing back up into the light of witness and healing. Reading what I was going to say to a sky of rushing clouds helped anchor what I was going to share into light and life. I wanted to absorb and transmit that energy. I had read, and loved both Annemarie Ní Churreáin and Maria Stadnicka’s work, but finding Annemarie waiting in the auditorium by stage, and Maria guarding us from the screen like an angelic presence, further strengthened my hope that we would be able to create something of value together.
Annemarie opened with the foundling hospitals and mother and baby homes of the Irish state, remembering those who had brought their babies there because they had no other options. Helping us feel their great loss, and the loss also for Ireland as a nation, Annemarie set it within the larger wound of the country’s forcible colonisation. She also reached back into an early, mythological past to create songs of healing. Maria Stadnicka’s work is likewise a place where institutional and state actions are examined – through the impacts on Romania’s population of Ceausescu’s and the Communist party’s rule. Specifically the ban on abortions, and the resultant filling of state orphanages, where over 10,000 children would contract HIV Aids. Like Annemarie, her work engages with great compassion, as well as creative strength, in bringing neglected experiences to the page and through this into our lives.
And then it was my turn, to introduce and then perform the full sequence of the erasure poems in bird of winter. As I mentioned, you can see the video of us all, on the Stanza Poetry website until 31 March. To speak out of my childhood darkness into the light and warmth of the Byre Theatre felt like an act of profound transformation. Closing, I led a safeguarding exercise where we could join together, to honour the space we had made between us by our co-participation in the works shared by Annemarie, Maria and I.
Once the event was over, and the book signings and warm conversations with the audience were all done, Annemarie and I realised how very urgently we needed coffee and cake to put ourselves back together. Heading out with our StAnza chair Robyn Marsack, we were stopped short by a broad rainbow. `It was rising like a realised wish up over the blue sea, that lay at the end of the street down which we were heading. In that moment, it seemed as if the light we had created together through our readings had assumed a visible form.
Annemarie’s and my conversation was as warm as it was nurturing. After, I wanted to get myself out into the sea air and feel the hugeness of the beach backed by dunes. Walking across the sands, lit by runnels of water holding the last of the light, that sense of being supported by the living world stayed with me as the sun dropped and the sky dimmed to the glimmering purples and greys of a Scots mid March dusk. The following morning, before and after seeing Emily Berry and Fiona Benson perform for the Poetry Book Society showcase, I discovered the ruined cathedral and stone-walled harbour, and climbed down onto the small enclosed beach below the ruins of the castle, where the water swirled in over the coarse granite sand and luxuriant seaweed.
I had slept fitfully, still caught up in the energies of the places my poems had opened, but being out in the North Sea air dissipated those memories and helped me re-enter the present more fully. Boarding the train south again, albeit with considerable regret, I took with me the certain knowledge that, through the sharing of our work, Annemarie NíáChurreáin, Maria Stadnicka and I had brought about an alchemical transformation that we and our audience would carry forward into new adventures.
Erasure: what we cannot say and how we say it : text of performance by alice hiller
Is it possible to translate silencing back into sound? To voice complex experiences, we need first to access them. As some of you know, bird of winter, offers creative witness to my childhood experience of being groomed and then sexually abused by my mother, but also of finding healing beyond this crime. Like many, who share my history, the impact of what was done to me meant I wasn’t able to talk about the abuse until my thirties.
When I came to write about it in my fifties, through bird of winter, I found that making hand erasures created scratch cards through to my unconscious, and allowed some of the toughest, but also most needed, poemsonto the page. The erasures also generated the fractured narrative spine of the collection, as I’m going to show you, by reading them in sequence.
Before that, I’ll say briefly how they came into being. All bird of winter’s erasures grow from texts about Pompeii and Herculaneum, which have absorbed me since childhood. As an adult, the eruption of Vesuvius, and subsequent, laborious excavations of materials buried under the volcanic rock and ash, became central to how I understand the slow, often dangerous, recovery of my buried past.
Each of the erasures I’ll read was generated over a day, circling words and phrases, and blacking out, allowing the poem to emerge. I was letting my eye see, my hand move – before my mind could censor. Working through texts read by many people, over the centuries, also gives communal witness to this global crime, which impacts millions of us.
Visually, the erasures in bird of winter ask the reader to hopscotch from phrase to phrase. But even as the islands of words travel towards revelation and reclamation, they co-exist with the blacked out passages witnessing the unarticulated materials which are also present. Reading today, I’ll tread carefully, to keep us all safe. If anything I speak about is difficult for you, the Mind website is a good place to go. I’ll close with a short, grounding exercise, to bring us all securely back into the present. In the meantime, if in doubt, keep breathing!
Erasure is of course a function of trauma. Our brains conceal or remove what is too dangerous for us to bear, especially when traumatic events occur when there is no support, as happens in the poem, ‘black river’, remembering my childhood.
when the fingers came at night your weeds rose up
when the rocks arrived you rushed my brain’s sluices
when the day returned no hurt could surface
‘the stupendous task’, my first erasure in bird of winter, directly answers ‘black river’.From Herculaneum, Past Present and Future, it takes Charles Waldenstein’s demand for excavation of the site as the collection’s manifesto and call to arms:
The second erasure, ‘destruction impact landscape’ grew from the poet Martial’s account of the eruption of Vesuvius. As it took shape, I realised the poem held its own before and after, divided at a midpoint, like mirrored reflections. Taken together they signal that something is not destroyed merely because it is attacked.
The next erasure, ‘gardens fountains’, combines Columella’s and Flores’ descriptions of Pompeii and Herculaneum before the eruption. Explorations of trauma often focus on the aftermath of the crime. It was important also to witness the unhurt place, or indeed the innocence of a child’s body, where ‘spring flowers blossom twice’:
From this stronghold of beauty, we drop hard down into an underworld of darkness. The next erasure, ‘eyewitness’ emerges out of a Times article from 1863. Describing two figures revealed by pouring plaster into the voids left in the ash that fell over Pompeii, it also gave me a way to show my mother and I in her bed. Like the excavations, these plaster casts are central to bird of winter’s understanding of how artworks manifest out of voids or absences, and make visible what otherwise remains unseen.
Coming next, ‘remove the solidified mix’, responds to the difficulties of creating bird of winter. It began as a description of tunnelling down to the Villa dei Papyri during the eighteenth century in Herculaneum: Italy’s Buried Treasure. This work was often undertaken by convicts and forced labourers because of its risk.
What happened down one of those eight hundred dark tunnels is documented in ‘and now came the ashes’, erased from a letter by Pliny the Younger. His description of Vesuvius erupting becomes also my mother and my eight year old self in a cottage in Wiltshire. I was given permission by Pavilion to reproduce this erasure which you can see and then hear below:
As you’ll see, the lineation of the poem breaks down at its centre point, as my own life did following my father’s death in 1972. Indeed, beyond the word “death”, there is no single or clear path forward, playing out how trauma refuses a conclusive act of narration but in its fragmentation draws us back and back.
‘and now came the ashes’ is spoken by my child self, but bird of winter is in fact a dialogue between past and present. Immediately afterwards, the sexual abuse I experienced is revisited in ‘this happened during winter’, erased from Seneca the Younger’s Natural Questions. Here, my adult self asks the reader for their empathetic engagement within a process of transformation:
From this shared, mutually supported place, reader or listener and speaker can take their final steps down into the darkness of the repeated rape of a child by an adult, which is at the heart of bird of winter. ‘Gladiatorial training school’ works through an excavation report from 1766 to open a pathway to the deepest substrate of memory.
In “the hole/ the/ bolt/ passed” the secret assault by which my abuser controlled and subjugated me is finally out on the page. From there, only one more erasure is needed to guide us together, back up into the light. It’s from Fiorelli’s 1830 account of entering the ‘House of the Faun’, with additional words by classicists Alison E. Cooley, and M.G.L. Cooley.
As I end, I would like you all to place your feet firmly on the ground. Take some slow, comfortable breaths, in and out, holding in mind that “decoration/ in the shape of dogs/ gilded protecting deities/ with various colours and with gold leaf.” Breathing comfortably, we are passing together up from the underworld. Greeting us is “a large festoon of flowers and fruit” created by our mutual solidarity – online and in this physical space.
Where silence is refused, healing can come. Thank you all for travelling with me today. When we stand together, we stand strong.
The full source details of the erasures are credited in bird of winter. My deepest thanks to those writers whose works I have used.
Trigger warning: non-explicit references to childhood sexual abuse.
This has not been an easy blog to put together. I have written, and redrafted its plain sentences, bare as winter branches, but like winter branches, holding within them the promise of spring. For those of you who are thinking of reading further, I should warn you that I write honestly about the challenge of living with a complex history, and the fact that resolution can seem hard to find. But I work my way through these hard places, to arrive at a point of hopefulness, which you will hopefully also reach if you stay with me and with these words.
In life, as in art, we’re encouraged to think in terms of beginnings, middles and endings. Progression and resolution give structure to stories. When an artwork responds to trauma, the requirements change. Anyone who has experienced, or observed the impacts of traumatic events, knows that they continue to resonate and replay themselves for many years. To generate a truthful creative transaction between a traumatic subject matter, and the work into which it is translated, calls for forms of expression which can suggest recurrences and hauntings. Through this act of creative witness, we may begin to change their power and reposition our relationships to them.
Living beyond, and making art that responds to, my own experience of childhood sexual abuse, amongst other subjects, I face this challenge myself. As the light dims towards the end of November, and the days grow shorter and darker, child ghosts walk again for me. They remember and re-live my father’s death in hospital when I was eight, in 1972. These ghost-selves also re-experience the beginning of the penetrative sexual abuse to which I was subjected, very shortly after, when my mother, who was my abuser, and I moved from Brussels to Wiltshire.
Impacting both my physical and mental health, these hauntings can lead me to feel as if I am sinking down through waves of old sadness. Like heavy black sump oil, they seep into my thoughts and bodily movements. When things get really bad, they can make it hard to move – or even think. Because this has happened every November and December since I was a teenager, over the years, I’ve developed resources to keep myself going. I work beside my SAD light. I try to be kinder to myself and organise my working life so that I am not too pressured. I meditate, swim and walk my dog Ithaca, noticing the natural world around us. I connect with people who love me.
But all these strategies only ever mitigate the after-effects of the dreams which rise up at night. In my sleep, I become again a scared, hurt child, taken back to a place between life and death by my mother. This was the case – very brutally – in November and December of 2021, as it had been in 2020, and all the years before that.
None of us likes to speak of what we perceive as our vulnerabilities, for fear people will think less of us, or feel we are ‘seeking attention’ in some way. But in 2020, working on bird of winter‘s final manuscript alone with my dog Ithaca in lockdown, I decided to make an artwork that could enact being haunted by a traumatic past, and reaching beyond this towards a form of resolution. At the time, I was following an online workshop with Nina Mingya Powles around multiple language heritages with the Poetry School, which my fellow Forwards Shortlistee, Cynthia Miller, was also part of. I was also experiencing difficult dreams. They shaped what I wrote.
What emerged is called ‘je suis son petit chat il est mon papa 1972/ I am his little cat he is my daddy 2020’. It’s a multi-form piece which exists simultaneously as a conventional poem, a visual work, a sound experience and a performance. It was published this January 22 in bath magg no 8, as you’ll be able to see and hear by following this link.
When I performed it at bath magg’s online launch, I began by saying a few words about the poem. The response I received made me feel there would be a value in expanding them into this blog, however inelegantly. Opening up the deliberately smudgy, troubled layers of the poem up in this way also gives me the opportunity to separate the two overlaid texts, and look at each one in isolation. In the final print they are blurred across each other to play out how traumatic stories repeat and recur, as you’ll have seen from the fragment above, and the link to the full work at bath magg.
‘je suis son petit chat/ I am his little cat’ begins in French and English, the two languages of my childhood. They refract and translate each other, but the work also makes complete sense in either language. In the first two lines, I’m waking up from a nightmare in 2020, aged fifty-six. I’m also myself in bed, aged eight, in 1972, as my father lies dying in intensive care. From there it is back to 1972 and my eight year old self returning home to our flat:
Describing my life before my father died as if it was still simultaneously present, including my grandmother taking me to the hospital, and my father sending me drawings home, the narrative enacts how, in dissolving the boundaries of time, these dark hauntings also open opportunities for healing, by re-accessing a fuller range of memory. Next in the underlay text comes the nightmare at the heart of the poem, which invaded my sleep in the early hours of 22 November, replaying the sexual abuse to which I was subjected as a child by my mother. As the poem reports, the terror of the dream induced vomiting and diarrhoea in my fifty-something year old self:
Tough though it was to experience in reality, this act of voiding is also a release, which opens up ‘je suis son petit chat/ I am his little cat’ to new energies – whereby the recurrence of the trauma becomes an opportunity to reset my relationship to the original events. Resetting happens through a short poem in both French and then English, which is overlaid on the looping narrative beneath it in larger font and bolder text, as the extract at the top of the blog shows.
Within its overlaid phrases, my adult self summarises the impacts of my childhood sexual abuse, including how it continues to haunt me. Speaking directly to my abuser, I refuse the silence which she imposed on me throughout my childhood and adolescence, and for long years beyond that. This frees the underlying narrative to begin to move towards the light of a different ending, where the recurrences of physical voiding can finally come to a stop:
The account of the nightmare, and falling “down a black tunnel” is repeated below the overlaid text, as when in nursery rhymes like ‘Oranges and lemons’, or ‘Frère Jacques’ in French, the verses come round again. Following the earlier shift, the act of voiding is once again purgative, letting go of some of the blackness and shame held inside me, and allowing gentler and more nurturing memories of my loving engagement with my father to continue to surface in the segment which follows:
Like many others with my history, for long years the trauma of the penetrative abuse in childhood separated me from being able to feel my own feelings, or know my own wants. Here, they begin to return to the child who lives within and alongside the adult. She can say once again “I want my daddy” and by expressing this longing re-form a more authentic connection with herself. My grandmother’s phrase translated means “let her through, let her through, she’s his daughter”. She was trying to get me allowed into the intensive care unit, but the phrase also acts out the way I am asking for my child self to be allowed back through, to speak and know herself, and how she was once loved.
‘Je suis son petit chat/I am his little cat’ ends in a place of quietness, with the possibility of integrating my separated selves more fully. Translating the “petit chat” nickname my father gave me into the English “little cat”, and laying it down on the page, the poem performs an act of witness to the co-presence of my child and adult selves. It also documents how, by reconnecting more fully with child-alice, adult-alice is able to begin to make a new relationship what made us who we now:
Walking in Shotover County Park near Oxford in the last days of 2021, after some very tough weeks, I saw trees and misty light that reminded me of Wiltshire, and felt unkind old ghosts crowd around me. But breath by breath, I drew the damp, cold air of the present into my body, and with it new energy. With each out-breath, I tried to let what I no longer needed pass from me. As I did this, the pearlescence of the fields and clouds became a wilderness of beauty, and the black branches of the trees uplifted themselves into acts of elemental resistance. With my dog Ithaca scenting the damp leaves, and pulling us forwards, and the landscape saying that life would return, I felt how this difficult annual recurrence was also a gateway to transformation – that each year I must find the way through.
Further exploration: four books and StAnza Festival
I often set a creative prompt after exploring one of my own poems for people to explore in their own practice. In this case the subject material is too dangerous. Instead, for anyone wanting to work creatively with complex materials, or look at other examples of this practice, I would recommend four books which open pathways to new understandings, and new creative forms of expression, from the breakages and fractures of trauma. I would also recommend the other brilliant poems in bath magg no 8, many which respond to complex subject matters – and make from them acts of beauty and reclamation.
In terms of books, Bloodroot, by Annemarie Ní Churreáin creates provisional, shifting structures to hold the lives and reposition the representations of Irish women whose lives were appropriated by the Irish State and Church. Documenting how the State invaded every corner of life in Romania under Romania, under Ceausescu and the Romanian Communist Party, for Buried Gods Metal Prophets Maria Stadnicka and Antonia Glűcksman assemble a living memorial that incorporates diary entries, photos, erasures, quotes from statutes, and building plans, as well as more conventional ‘poems’. In Things I have Forgotten Before Tanatsei Gambura speaks through radical formal innovation of what it can mean to have grown up as a “Black Girl” in Zimbabwe during the 1980s – and how losing a country can form you as much as having one. Sasha Dugdale’s extraordinary collection Deformationsexplores trauma and PTSD, through fragments composed around Homer’s Odyssey. A separate long sequence responds to the sculptor Eric Gill’s work and life, within the framework of his recorded sexual abuse of his daughters. Sasha and I spoke about our work in Volume 48 of PN Review. Sasha has a hugely impactful new poem in bath magg 8 which you can read here.
Annemarie Ní Churreáin, Maria Stadnicka and I will be appearing at the StAnza festival on 12 March both live and online with many other brilliant poets in St Andrews. You can find more details here. Prices start from £3.00. Booking opens on 21 January. For people not able to travel to Scotland, many of the events are online and very reasonably priced. As well as performing, I’m going to be sure to pack out my schedule with hearing other poets and it’s a great way to check in with a huge range of voices and perspectives.
How can we resource our work in lean times? Where does inspiration come from when travel and and a wide range of live experiences are significantly curtailed, whether for financial, health or other restrictions? My steadfast belief is that we hold our own deepest and richest reserves within ourselves, accumulated through our lived experiences and interactions with the world at multiple levels. When more expansive possibilities are denied to us, to keep working, and generating new material, we therefore need to find ways to tune into this, both by nurturing ourselves, and also by finding new sources of ‘strangeness’ and intellectual and creative adventures to act as stimuli.
Working with my fellow poet and cherished friend, Julie Irigaray, I set out to devise a solstice workshop, performance and conversation for the Voicing Our Silences collective that I founded. We wanted to deliver both these aims – of self-nurture and adventure. Core to the process were the two prompts we developed, which were designed to complement each other. Mine is a two-part process for setting your creative compass, which begins with a gentle breathing exercise, to clear your creative space, and then builds up your individual compass on the page – through a five stage guided prompt, which I lead participants through. There’s then a follow-up to be completed two or more days later. People who did it on the night we recorded the event have said how valuable they found it to be. This compass process can be used for a specific piece of work such as a poem or prose work you are developing, or would like to start. It works equally well for people looking to explore a new project, or simply to check in with themselves. Julie’s explores ways to expand your work dynamically through different forms of research and I found it gave me a breakthrough into a poem which had been hovering half-realised since the summer, so I warmly recommend trying it for yourself.
In addition to these prompts, we both performed two short sets of poems, and spoke to each other between them about how they came into being, going deep with where we resourced our work – whether from online resources including YouTube, books, museum catalogues, or other starting points. My poems came from my collection, bird of winter, and Julie’s from her pamphlet, Whalers, Witches and Gauchos. Because we were recording in the run up to the winter solstice, we structured our sets to rise from darkness into light, and both kept lit candles burning beside us as symbols of inspiration and resilience. The aim was also to share how although our poems appear to journey huge distances through time and space on the page, much of this travel is in fact realised without ever leaving home, whether we’re writing about Pompeii and Herculaneum in my case, or in Julie’s about the Basque heritage she explores in Whalers, Witches and Gauchos, which she published this year with Nine Pens.
Julie also asked me about my practice of working with my childhood and adolescent medical notes, which have been crucial to my collection bird of winter, as with the poem ‘pistil’, given above. The poem is named for the female reproductive parts of the flower. It juxtaposes a quote from my medical notes when I was two, with a direct memory, which reflects how the grooming to which my abuser was subjecting me was already impacting my behaviour, and a photo I recall of myself at that age which my grandmother loved. I was very glad to have the opportunity speak about both the risk, and benefit, of working with documentary evidence such as medical notes if you have a complex history, as I do, arising from my experience of being groomed and then sexually abused as a child, and finding my way towards healing beyond this.
As you will be able to hear if you check in with the video, I said how valuable, and painful it was in equal measure, to have factual corroboration of events that lived inside my memory. I explained how I had felt very apprehensive about engaging with my medical notes, for what I might find there, but was very grateful to see that events which my abuser had tried to deny, were in fact recorded in sober black and white. I also told Julie that reading these same notes had in fact provided a core source of motivation for my ongoing activism around changing awareness with regard to childhood sexual abuse. Driving this was how harshly the medical profession had judged my troubled teenage behaviours once the abuse had stopped. I wanted people to understand this adolescent acting out of harm done differently and more compassionately. In the questions which followed, Chaucer Cameron raised the query about notes being redacted, that is having sections blanked out, which has been her experience.
Normally, when I record a Voicing Our Silences performance and workshop, I pause the recording at the prompt stops, and cut the audience participation, to keep the event around an hour. This time, however, we wanted to create an immersive experience for everyone who was joining us, and give the feeling of how the Voicing our Silences collective operates as a place of mutual creative nurture and adventure. Given that it’s a longer watch, I’ve therefore noted the minute timings of the different elements within the YouTube video, (which is captioned for accessibility), for ease of location. While they are managed safely, and there are no explicit references, this video includes discussion of grooming and childhood sexual abuse. If you need support with anything raised the Mind website is very helpful.
Please note, you will need a piece of paper and something to write with for each prompt.
0.00 alice hiller introduces 4.00 Julie Irigaray set 1: ‘The Basque Whaler’, ‘Six War Letters’, ‘Kreig’ 12.00 alice hiller set 1 ‘bains de mer’, ‘pistil’, ‘three small shrines’, ‘in the vineyard’, ‘circular’, ‘joujou’, ‘libation’ 21.20 Julie & alice discussion 1 including use of medical notes in poems 39.32alice hiller prompt : setting your creative compass 1.00 audience feedback. 1.05.50 julie irigaray set 2 : ‘Red Card’, ‘Divine Seraphine’, ‘Via Domitia’ 1.12.30 alice hiller set 2 : ‘the holly tree’, ‘vesuvius’, ‘benediction’, ‘o goddess isis’ 1.20 Julie & alice discussion 1.35 Julie Irigaray prompt turbocharging your creative explorations final questions from Voicing Our Silences collective
Julie’s poems include references to her Basque heritage, which is at the heart of her debut Whalers, Witches and Gauchos,published by Nine Pens earlier in 2021. In the spirit of expanding our horizons, Julie was kind enough to answer a few questions about Basque culture and history, which you can read below.
AH: Whalers, Witches and Gauchos opens with an epigraph from Thomas Jefferson about Basque fishing in the Atlantic. From what he said, Basque sailors and whalers were clearly active off Newfoundland and further south from the 1400s onwards. Could you (briefly) tell us something of the history of Basque involvement in whaling? It is partly the subject of the poem ‘The Basque Whaler’, which you perform on the video, but it clearly has deep roots.
JI: The Basques started hunting whales in the 11th century because whales were used to create a wide range of products: candles, soap, cosmetics, to fuel lamps. In the early modern period, Basque whalers spent between six and nine months per year fishing cod and hunting whales near the coasts of Canada and Iceland, in dreary living conditions.
AH: I know the Basque territory is currently ‘divided’ between France and Spain, and there has been political and other forms of activism, including formerly armed conflict, to reclaim and redefine this cultural, geographical and linguistic identity. Would you be able to outline this for us?
JI: The Basque Country is divided between seven provinces: four of them are in Spain, three in France. It has never been a unified country because it was always split up between the kingdoms of France, Navarre and Spain. The Basque language is not related to any other existing language, so some academics theorised the Basques were part of the first wave of human migration in Europe. The pronunciation and dialects of Basque are different from one province to another, although a unified Basque has been created by scholars. The armed Basque nationalist and separatist organization ETA emerged in the Spanish Basque Country in the late 1950s, mainly as a reaction to Franco’s dictatorship. But they kept on carrying out terrorist attacks well after Franco’s death, especially in the 1980s. I think it was particularly difficult to be young in the Basque Country at that time. But this is my parents’ story, not mine. I’ll probably write about it one day after doing more research. When I went on holiday to England fifteen years ago, there were still some people telling me “Oh! You come from the terrorists’ place!”
AH: Am I right in thinking that both your parents’ families are of Basque heritage? Your surname, Irigaray, has a sound which stands outside what I know of both French and Spanish, and I know the final poem ‘Exte’, in Whalers, Witches and Gauchos addresses this? Note – you can read ‘Exte’ at the end of this interview.
JI: You’re absolutely right – and that’s why nobody outside the Basque Country apart from you knows how to pronounce my name! Three of my grandparents are Basque, and the final one comes from les Landes, which is still in the south-west of France. My maternal grandmother comes from the coast and a different province from my father’s family, so there are differences of pronunciation and vocabulary between their Basque. My paternal grandparents used to speak Basque to each other or with their neighbours, and my father has a good grasp of it as well.
AH: One of the ideas that our Voicing Our Silences collective works with is how our difficult histories and experiences can be creatively fruitful, because asking us to find new forms of language to respond to them. ‘Krieg’ in an incredibly vivid, and subtle poem, imagining two former combatants from World War I meeting high in a Basque mountain pass, and reaching a form of understanding which hinges on the title word, which only the German officer understands initially. Could you say something about this poem and the idea of how poetry can open spaces for things we might not otherwise be able to say and also comprehend?
JI: I always knew I was going to write about this family anecdote one day, but I wanted to avoid certain pitfalls, like making it too overly emotional, or depicting my French great-grandfather as the good guy and the German soldier as the villain. These two men cannot communicate because they do not speak the same language, but also because they were conditioned to think of themselves as enemies for seventy years, and fought against each other during World War I. The memory of World War II in occupied countries like France is still sensitive since so many unspeakable things happened. My family did not suffer more than average, but a variety of things happened to them which are difficult to talk about or even taboo, like a great-aunt who fell in love with a German soldier, or a great-grandfather sent to Czechoslovakia to work as forced labour for the German war effort – which was seen as treason by some. During lockdown, I have written a few poems about World War II from the point of view of several family members. I hate black and white pictures of a character, or moralistic views, so what I try to achieve with my poems is a sense of balance. I want to give a voice to both sides of the story without judging, as I did in ‘Krieg’.
AH: ‘Their Common language’ addresses your great-grandparents’ migration to Argentina, and subsequent return to France. Could you say something about the Basque relationship to South America and how that came about?
JI: On my father’s side of the family, several great-grandparents emigrated to Argentina with their parents or siblings because they came from a rural area with little prospects. As I explain in ‘Etxe’, in the Basque tradition, the eldest child (either girl or boy) inherited the family house while the other siblings were left with nothing. One of my great-grandfathers who emigrated to Argentina had thirteen siblings: three sisters ended up nuns, one brother a missionary in Madagascar. Back then, there were not many opportunities to earn a living apart from entering the Church or emigrating to America… In the late nineteenth-century, many Basques moved to Uruguay or Argentina to work as gauchos, others chose the USA to become shepherds in Nevada, California or Florida. The great-grandmother from “Their Common Language” worked in an hotel in Buenos Aires, like the great-grand-uncle who inspired the poem ‘Amerikanoa’. Some of them stayed in Argentina, but many Basques have a sense of nostalgia and preferred moving back to the Basque Country after a few years.
AH: A number of your other poems also lean into this Basque restlessness, and sense of not-belonging to any single place, which I know you and I both share for different reasons, as do millions of people around the world, who have left their places of birth to migrate for economic, political or other reasons. Would you like to say something about this experience of becoming un-rooted, but also of carrying your roots with you?
JI: Since I was a teenager, I dreamed of living abroad. Either for my studies or for professional reasons, I moved back and forth between the Basque Country, Paris, Ireland, Britain and Italy seven times in seven years, which had its toll on my mental and physical health. When I moved back to the UK for my first job, I felt terribly homesick, and for the first time. I started a series of Basque poems that made up the greater part of Whalers, Witches and Gauchos, probably because I felt completely unrooted. I found it more difficult than the first time I lived in England to study to fit in. I think it was because I had lived in so many countries, and picked up some bits of each of their cultures, that I didn’t belong anywhere anymore. I’m still processing this. My poems interrogate cultural differences because it is a subject that I constantly think of.
AH: I know you have been back in the Basque region of France during the lockdown, able to travel both to the Atlantic and the Pyrenees, when free of restrictions. How has it impacted your work being back in these landscapes?
JI: Unfortunately, few good poems came out of my lockdown writing, precisely because of the anxiety generated by the closing of all borders. The border between France and Spain remained shut for almost four months, and I have spent a day in Spain since Christmas 2019 because things are still not back to normal. Even during World War II or under Francoism, the border could be crossed, albeit illegally. I wrote a poem about a friend being in lockdown in San Sebastian (where the lockdown was extremely restrictive) and my panic at the idea that I could not see him for months because the border was shut. I wanted to capture this claustrophobic feeling. It’s difficult to explain this to people who live on an island, but sharing a border with another country is for us a natural right and a source of enrichment. I have also written a poem from the point of view of the border, and all the historical events it witnessed through millennia. But in the end, I did not write much about the Basque Country. I write better about a place when I see it from a distance, ideally when I live in another country. I wrote almost all my Basque poems while living in the UK, and during lockdown I wrote many poems about Italy because I felt extremely upset about not being allowed to travel back there.
AH: Some of your newest poems are following your interest in military history, addressed in a number of the poems in WWG, including the ways in which countries who have denied citizens their rights nonetheless require them to die in their wars. This was the the case for many soldiers brought in from Britain’s colonised countries during the first and second world wars, as Sathnam Sanghera has explored in Empireland. It was also the case for Basque citizens resident in France. Could you say something about these poems, and the new ones which are forthcoming?
JI: I was looking for books on this subject, so thank you for recommending Sanghera’s! I would like to address the subject of the soldiers who fought for the French and British colonies one day as they were completely written out of history, but I need to find the right approach. I normally write a lot about women, but these days I am interested in the values conveyed by the army, especially with regard to masculinity. France is still a very militarised country. With the rise of the right and the French presidential elections taking place in five months’ time, some politicians have suggested the return of the military service for both men and women, and I don’t see it in a good light. There was also the bicentenary of Napoléon’s death this year, and I’m not fond of the idea of promoting the legacy of a man who invaded and subjected a whole continent and killed around three million European soldiers (and God knows how many civilians) for his campaigns. I am writing a couple of poems about these themes and the toxic myths surrounding masculinity. My poem ‘Six War Letters’ tells the story of an underaged young man who is enrolled in World War I in spite of all and stops idealising war as a way to prove his manhood. One English teacher told me she’d taught this poem to her boys-only class and that one pupil said it made him reconsider masculinity. I couldn’t be prouder! I also recently talked to my parents about my father’s and uncle’s experiences of military service or hazing when they entered their engineering school, and I found these testimonies deeply disturbing. As someone who was bullied in school, I can imagine the psychological impact of hazing in elite schools and universities, and I am outraged by the mechanisms used by the bullies to make their victims believe this is perfectly normal, and even desirable.
AH: Finally, I know you are also working on a PhD about Sylvia Plath and her relationship with England and Europe at Huddersfield. What does 2022 hold for you Julie Irigaray, in so much as it is possible for any of us to answer this question?
JI: A lot of travelling, I hope! If Covid does not come on the way, I should attend several conferences in France and the UK. I am co-organising an online conference on Sylvia Plath (https://bit.ly/3yHGIW0) on 11th and 12th March 2022, and I will be a volunteer for The Sylvia Plath Literary Festival that should take place in Hebden Bridge at the end of October. I also need to write a couple of academic articles, so 2022 will be more PhD-oriented. But I will try to assemble a poetry collection as I have enough poems that satisfy me to create one now.
If you would like to read more of Julie Irigaray’s work please visit her brilliant website.
On Saturday 6 November, I was asked to read and speak at an event on Poetry and Trauma at Poetry in Aldeburgh 2021 with brilliant, radical poets Chaucer Cameron, Day Mattar and Tessay Foley, introduced by poet and academic Patricia Debney. We have in common a background of having been subjected to predation and sexual abuse, in childhood or afterwards. Our shared experience, and the fact that we have all made artworks which begin in this harsh place, set the stakes very high in terms of creating an event which could speak collectively to people with similar experience in their own histories. The link to the podcast follows further down.
Sixty-five people tuned in to join us mid-afternoon. I don’t think anyone who was there will ever forget what was said and read. Both Chaucer and Day touched on their experiences of sex work or prostitution. Chaucer’s pamphlet In an Ideal World I’d Not be Murdered is part memoir/part fiction. It explores the impact of sex work on body, mind and spirit – through the voices of characters speaking to and with each other, while also questioning what it takes to leave this profession. Speaking of one of the female characters, who in real life was murdered, Chaucer said : “In my version she has her own voice, she sings her own song…and this is what it looks like.” The same could be true of her performance of those extraordinary poems on 6 November.
With real poignancy, and an ability to enter a child’s perspective, Day’s debut Springing from the Pews, with Broken Sleep Books, documents a six year old boy being groomed and then abused. Interweaving confessions, journal entries, and multiple voices into a verse play, the poems follow this little boy into adult life, asking how we may live with, and beyond, this very difficult legacy. He explained “I struggled for a long time to write these poems… I had multiple voices in my head…responding each as loud as each other… contradictory, loving, manipulative.” The results are astonishing.
Tessa Foley’s poems live in rooms where shadows rise up from the corners, even when the lights are on, and follow people down the streets at high noon. Drawing both on family history, and her own experience of volunteering for three years at Portsmouth Rape and Abuse Counselling Centre, the poems of What Sort of Bird Are You? witness the greatest difficulties, but also document moving beyond them into a more hopeful and resilient spaces, engendered in part through acts of mutual solidarity and community. Her line “Just because there’s a fence, the garden don’t stop growing” could speak for us all.
My own text is given in full below, exploring the idea of trauma as a wound, and how we may heal beyond it. I chose poems relating to water, to honour Aldeburgh’s seaside setting. To hear Chaucer’s, Day’s and Tessa’s voices testifying to experiences which I felt in my own body and spirit, had my heart rushing before I ever got to my own set. I was hugely honoured to perform with them. Inevitably, I needed to rebalance myself afterwards. Walking by the Thames later that afternoon, allowing the present world back into me as dusk deepened, I saw a footbridge lit up over the dark water. Watching it, I felt as if I had been given a visual representation of how we had, through our works, lit safe passages over places where we had once known great suffering.
As the set was an hour long, and very intense, I decided to record the audio of my poems and words separately as well – for people who wanted a shorter listen, or who might be hesitant around exposing themselves to the longer experience of the full set. The performance and comments from the audience set twitter alight for hours and days afterwards. My individual recording is 15 minutes long. I have put the linking text I wrote below it as a guide to what to expect.
To give a flavour of my approach, the words I wrote to link the poems are reproduced below in italics, interspersed by the poem titles. ‘phare d’ailly’ is reproduced as a sample of my work, because it has appeared in PN Review, along with a description of discovering ancient Herculaneum by Scipio Maffei. You can hear all the poems in full on the recording. If you face hearing challenges please contact me through the blog and I can send you a full text of words and poems.
If you would like to buy bird of winter, it’s available here.
alice hiller words and water poems on healing beyond trauma at Poetry in Aldeburgh:
As many of you know, trauma means wound in ancient Greek. My own collection, bird of winter, is partly about the childhood wound of being groomed and sexually abused by my mother. But it’s also about healing, and opening our wings into wider, freer skies. I’ll alternate poems which explore my difficult early years with others honouring experiences that helped me reclaim life. Celebrating Aldeburgh, many of the poems include water. First up is ‘bains de mer’ or ‘sea swimming’, remembering my beloved French bonne maman or grandmother.
bains de mer [performed]
Bonne maman represented a space of safety and unconditional love. Because my mother was my abuser, danger remained omnipresent. Normandie is the backdrop to a photo taken by my father in ‘pistil’. Named for the female reproductive parts of a flower, the poem combines words from my childhood medical notes with direct memories.
In addition to my medical notes, bird of winter is framed by Pompeii and Herculaneum. Both were harbour towns, but water is not a place of refuge or safety in the abuse poems. ‘let none of this enter you’ is spoken to my four or five year old self – with extra lines by Pliny the Younger describing the eruption of Vesuvius, which shapes bird of winter.
let none of this enter you [performed]
Even though he worked long hours, my diplomat father had been my protector. Once he was diagnosed with motor neurone disease when I was six, power shifted. I was eight when he died and my mother and I moved from Brussels, to England. I saw my father as the lighthouse whose beams lit my bedroom in Normandie.
papa the tide at vasterival was going out when you were carried from our flat as I slept
your jaw swung open like a latchless door
the sea is now 1km from the site of pompeii
The penetrative abuse began in England. My erasure ‘and now came the ashes’ is from Pliny the Younger’s account of Vesuvius :
and now came the ashes [performed]
Traumatic events such as rape fracture our consciousness. Scipio Maffei’s 1747 account of excavating Herculaneum offered a way of suggesting the injuries arising from raping a child, along with the difficulties of voicing this. The reader gets to puzzle out the imagery. They can determine how far to engage.
proceeding blindly through tunnels and through narrow passages much will be broken much will be destroyed nor will it ever be possible to see the noble buildings in their entirety
Scipio Maffei 1747
Even in very difficult times, the memory of my father, and my bonne maman’s love, gave my spirit a space of nurture. This is critical for all of us who are subjected to wounding experiences. ‘Rue de l’aurore’ was my grandmother’s address in Brussels. It means street of the dawn.
rue de l’aurore [performed]
I escaped the physical element of the abuse when I was thirteen by stopping eating. I was admitted to hospital – but this was 1977. Eating disorders were not recognised as a possible indicators of childhood sexual abuse. I wasn’t asked about, or able to speak directly of, what my mother had done. The psychiatrist who saw me understood something terrible had happened. Writing ‘tesselation’, I instinctively sited myself between worlds, like water becoming vapour.
My mother ended all contact with this psychiatrist when I was released from hospital. I was left very vulnerable. With time, I reconnected with life and love again and began to reclaim my body. My final poem moves between capture and release, remembering when I was seventeen.
becoming your channel of pearl [performed]
I dedicate it to all of us who turn our faces to the light, no matter what darkness we have come through [end of set].
The Festival brought together a rainbow of poets from Andrew McMillan, Sean Hewitt, Kim Moore, Victoria Kenneflick, Dom Bury, Colette Bryce, Rachel Long, Vidyan Ravinthiran, Momtaza Mehri and Sarah Westcott, to name but a few. The podcasts will be up on the Poetry in Aldeburgh website over the next days. I really recommend checking in with them.
If you live in or near London, I’ll be performing live for Outspoken at the Southbank with Nick Mahona and Wayne Holloway-Smith on Thursday 25 November at 7.45 pm. I’ll be sharing poems about the bumpy teenage years that follow grooming and childhood sexual abuse, but also how these are the freedom trail that leads to reclamation and healing.
When you’re a debut poet, aged 57, you don’t necessarily expect to find your name on a prize list. I certainly didn’t. I was overwhelmed when I discovered my bird of winter had made the first collection shortlist for the Felix Dennis Award of the Forwards Prizes. Even more so when I found out that I had been selected alongside Caleb Femi, Cynthia Miller, Holly Pester, and Ralf Webb. They are all poet-heroes of mine, whose work I had loved, and followed live, and online. We have all been interviewed on the Forwards Prizes website, where you can also read about the poets selected for Best Poem, and Best Collection. The Best Poem list includes Natalie Linh Bolderston, who I interviewed on this blog talking about the family heritages and creative influences which shape her art-making.
Over the last week, in the run up to the Forwards Prizes Ceremony at the Southbank on Sunday 24 October, WasafiriMagazineand The Poetry School have both published work about our Debut Collection shortlist as a group. I wanted to take the opportunity to share it here, to celebrate us together as the shortlist of 2021. I also wanted to reflect my sense of how crucial Caleb’s, Cynthia’s, Holly’s and Ralf’s collections are, and how much they mean to me personally, as someone who has read and re-read them over the summer. No five poets can ever say everything, but between us we have a wide reach – geographically, creatively, and in terms of our subject matters – and share a commitment to making new work that speaks from deep places in ourselves and lives.
To read what Caleb, Cynthia, Holly, Ralf and I have to say about our work, please follow this link to the poet Shash Trevett’s insightful interview with us for Wasafiri Magazine.
By way of a taster, Shash’s questions throw light on how each of us wrote, and where we wrote from, amongst other topics. Physically – Holly Pester said in the bath, as well as elsewhere, and also from “My small intestine. My dreams. My lunch breaks.” She also came up with a definition of making work which captures the experimental, provisional force of this adventure.
Holly: “‘Tussle’ is a very good word for describing what writing poetry is; words, idea, time, speech, language, text, hormones, affections, all moving towards the recovery of a new thought in a barely held communion. It is a tussle! (It grew over about three years). “
Cynthia Miller spoke of writing from her mother’s Chinese Malaysian heritages – “I think of the long tradition of fortune tellers at temples. Star-charts and fortune sticks and divining the placement of the heavens.” She explained how this fed into work about displacements and migrations: “all the poems in my collection about stars are really poems about family, longing and displacement (such as ‘Scheherezade’, ‘Summer Preserves Haibun’, ‘Proxima b’), and how acute and destabilizing that feeling of disorientation can be.”
Caleb Femi’s words bring out how his debut, like his film-making, speaks from a place of multiplicity and open-hearing:
Shash – “In ‘Barter’ you write ‘I was reaching for my voice box / I rarely use it to its full potential’. Can you talk about lending your voice to those who cannot speak anymore, or who are voiceless?”
Caleb: “My voice is one of many that exists in my community. Each as intriguing as the other, we should all be heard. ”
Ralf Webb made his explanation of the colour pink expressive of the range of tones and moods and slip-sliding transitions that his work encompasses – always with an eye to how our lives stack up ,and the social and political constructs which inform the shapes they take and make.
Ralf: “When I think of the colour pink I think of carnations, earthworms, anemic-looking plums; I think of the huge rose quartz crystals on my childhood bedroom windowsill; I think of pink moons and Nick Drake’s Pink Moon; I think of hematology and bone marrow biopsies; I think of Pepto-Bismol, pills, the skin under the nail; I think of how the sunrise would have looked to my parents, alone, driving to or back from work at dawn.”
Finally, I added some thoughts on “form” in its wider sense:
alice: “I use form to confer agency, even while navigating danger. I drop the reader down, somatically, into the terror of my childhood, but offer ladders out… Form also embodies childish play and mess. Some poems circle round. Within the erasures, white tunnels of words are dug out from smudgy, hand-blacked rectangles. Elsewhere you have to puzzle out the links between the historical fragments as you jump from one to another – like stepping stones or hopscotch. Those sorts of engagements help generate active, empathetic readings.”
Ralf, Holly and I also each wrote a ‘how we did it’ blog for the Poetry School, where I’ve taken many classes as my collection bird of winter found its wings.
‘We know that the year – and more – of the pandemic was also the year of reading. And that means poetry as well as prose. It was a time when everyone was reminded how much we need to be exposed to the power of the imagination. And the short lists for the Forward Prizes 2021 are a reminder that the poetic imagination isn’t wholly introspective, although it cuts deep. It’s bold, limitless in ambition and it touches every part of our lives – our own hopes and fears, our communities, and the wider world that so often seems bewildering and over-powering. These poets find pathways into the deepest feelings and discover vantage points that take a reader (or a listener) to another place. In their hands we look at the world differently. This is a moment for poetry; and all these poets deliver. Read them, and take off.’
– James Naughtie, The chair of the 2021 Forward Prizes jury
Like miniature tornados rising up off the page, poems move energy. Working with words and sounds, they carry their readers, or listeners, into spaces which are new to us – hopefully without inflicting damage. By involving us imaginatively, and creatively, they open our consciousnesses to transformative alchemies. Or that’s the aim. For those of us who work with difficult materials, the reader or listener can of course decide how far ‘in’ they want to go, and how much of the created world they allow to come alive. When a poem has an element of catharsis, they can also choose if they want to become part of the shift this precipitates.
To explore how this poem/tornado process might take place, my second bird of winter podcast rides the energy flow of ‘sea level’, which came together on a winter trip to Naples. Specifically, I engage with how the poem imagines worlds to generate forward and upward movement. In this case, it’s from a place of suppression and denial towards a place of comprehension and healing, and from underground darkness up towards the light of day. If you’d like to listen to this as a podcast, with an optional prompt at the end for your own art-making, the link is here: https://youtu.be/pJLPHD5A2sE
If you’d prefer to check it out, developed for the page as an essay, please keep reading. The photographs are ones I took in Naples. As a word of warning – this episode mentions sexual abuse briefly, in the context of the weight of silencing that can arise from this crime, and its potential for continued resonance in our adult lives. I also explore how we can move beyond its heavy legacy towards reclamation. While I’ll be tracking the energy flow through the individual lines of ‘sea level’, to hear the poem from start to finish please follow this link to my recording:
For ‘sea level’s tornado to lift off, it needed both darkness and light. Real tornadoes require warm humid air, and cold dry air, to create the rotating updraft that leads to the formation of the funnel cloud. In this case, I wanted readers to feel the oppressiveness of the silence and denial that abusers, including my own, force onto children. These weights are carried by many of us whose experiences have been denied or dismissed. Having encountered them within the physical landscape of the poem, we can enter into the relief that arises when they are released, collectively, into an act of witness and reclamation.
Back in December 2018, the day before I wrote the first draft of ‘sea level’, (when I still had no idea it was coming to me), I’d visited the palatial Archaeological Museum, in the grimy heart of Naples. The city’s soundtrack is a symphony of car horns but the tight street grid in the old town dates back to Roman times. Extraordinary finds, from statues, to frescoes, to objects from daily life including a charred cradle, were excavated from the volcanic rock that covered the ancient city of Herculaneum. Key items are displayed in room after room, alongside equally dazzling, moving, and mundane, treasures from the neighbouring city of Pompeii. They make you feel as if time is melting and you no longer know quite where you stand.
While Pompeii was covered with ash that was relatively easy to shift when Vesuvius erupted, four metres of molten volcanic materials settled into solid rock over ancient Herculaneum. To rediscover the city, the original excavators had to tunnel down, partly below the modern town of Ercolano, at great personal risk from poisonous gases and cave-ins, beginning during the eighteenth century. Reading about them, and seeing old illustrations in my guide book, called to mind my own painful, stumbling, sometimes dangerous and destabilising, process of excavating my childhood memories. I embarked on this in my thirties, during the 1990s, with the support of a skilled psychotherapist.
Those same childhood memories were moving in the shadowed corners of my thoughts as I walked around the museum, trying to take in as much as possible, and then explored the tiny shops and tight backstreets of Naples while dusk came and people started to congregate in bars and cafes after work. While most people think of December in terms of holidays and celebrations, for me it marks the anniversary of when the penetrative sexual abuse began during my childhood, in 1972. I was eight and a half. With my abuser, who was my mother, I’d just moved to a small village in Wiltshire following the death of my diplomat father. Even decades later, whenever I can, I go abroad briefly at that time of year, to reset the light in England, which can intensify the return of flashbacks and nightmares.
Despite the Southern Italian location, the night after I visited the Archaeological Museum, I woke in the early hours from a dream of being held down in the darkness, as had happened when I was a child. Lying in the dark hotel room, cold and scared, the feeling the dream left me with, after a day of imagining the still largely buried ancient city of Herculaneum, and then walking Naples’ shadowy, narrow twisting back streets, somehow led to the phrase “there will always be the city/ beneath this city charted by no one” dictating itself. This became the first two lines of ‘sea level’. I was thinking of Herculaneum. I was also articulating my own underground memories, nestled beneath the surface of my daily life, but swimming up to its surface again in the crack in time that the December anniversary had opened.
Jotting the words down, on a bedside scrap of paper, but also opening myself to the energy I could feel rising up, I next heard “where column of stone tears/ cling to the ceilings.” As a child, I could neither cry, nor cry out, in bed beside my abuser. When you visit underground cave systems, the stalactites and stalagmites can seem like frozen ghosts, caught momentarily in the electric lights of the present. I knew these stone columns were my own emotions, unarticulated and unacknowledged, until my thirties – when I first started to thaw and allow myself to re-experience them with professional support. Brittle and dangerous until that point, they had hung within me like unwieldy stone daggers, triggering panic attacks and flashbacks, as is the case for many peoples who have experienced trauma. But the image was by no means exclusively sad. Stalactites are also objects of great beauty. Crystalline structures, created from dripping water, they sparkle when illuminated, and make visible the accretions of time.
Seeing the lines on the hotel notepad, I felt again that tornado of energy rising within them, driving the narrative forwards. What came to me next was an image that called back the lost inhabitants of my imagined underground city “whose people were once/ lost or vaporised/ their houses and temples/ buried and forgotten”. This of course happened historically to the citizens of Pompeii and Herculaneum – whose lives we now know in considerable detail thanks to the works of recovery undertaken by archeologists, and scholars. Within the carbonised cradle, the feather-light residue of a baby testified to his or her former presence. In Pompeii, archeologists pour plaster into voids left in the ash where bodies decomposed, to cast out the shapes of the people who fell trying to escape Vesuvius.
By the end of 2018, when I visited Naples, I had begun to share the poems which were my own creative acts of recovery. I was also being mentored by Pascale Petit under the Jerwood Arvon scheme. Through the responses I was receiving from her and other people, I knew that by writing about my childhood, the spell of denial thrown over my own life was being undone. This also happens when other denied and buried histories – including those of enslavement, persecution, and genocide – are recovered and documented.
Carried forward by so many powerful examples, scribbling in bad handwriting by the streetlight coming through the gap in the curtains, I felt myself caught up into the process of collective reclamation and voicing. This was the journey of the poem, from darkness to light, from silence to noise. As it took hold of me, with the Bay of Naples moving as a wash of liquid blackness beyond the town, I heard “let these people who are my people/ enter your lives again”. What had been denied and pushed down was rising up now in a way that made me think of a different set of tunnels altogether.
These were the tunnels under the Sicilian town of Ortigia, that I had previously visited with Pen, the younger of my two adult sons. The town has existed since classical times, and its main church is made from a former Greek temple, whose columns are still visible within the walls. Ortigia’s deep network of tunnels were used over the centuries for rituals, burials and shelter, including from bombing during the second world war. They formed places of safety, as we discovered during a guided tour. Going underground in the town square, the musty, twisting passages emerge from darkness into the light of day at sea level, where the white gold rock of the island meets the turquoise waves. It was this memory which informed the next lines – “and hope will shaft passages/ up through the bedrock”. The photograph I chose for the YouTube podcast was taken on that holiday. Being with my own son, by the iridescent waters of the Mediterranean, was in my mind as the last lines of the poem came to me, as you will be able to hear again.
‘sea level’ moves from suppression and denial, into life and community, ending “until we swim free/ within the breathing harbour of morning”. The double sound meaning of its final word – morning – holds within it an echo of the sorrow and loss which is also part of the process of the poem. It gives the journey into the light an element of circularity, echoing the circling of energy which is also integral to the formation of a tornado. Those of us who have known difficult times will recognise how this circling can be manifested in the return of memories and anniversaries of the sort which kicked off the poem for me. While such a legacy is not easy to carry, I understand that it forms the foundation of who I am as a person, and as an artist, and has become one of the deep energy sources that fuel my work and my political consciousness.
If anything in this blog has been difficult, the Mind website has valuable links.
If you would like to read more about bird of winter please go to the page in this blog, where I explain its background, or follow this link to Pavilion Poetry’s website: http://bit.ly/birdhiller.
If you would like to try out putting your own journey poem or artwork together, the following prompt may give you a few ideas.
The first stage of putting your own journey poem or artwork together will be to think of an experience, feeling or memory which will be your starting point. It doesn’t have to be taken from your own life, but it should be something that you can potentially travel beyond to a new place, physically, emotionally, geographically or conceptually. This is what will give your work its forward motion and form its primary energy source.
In my case, the journey was from my child to my adult self, from a crime taking place to its anniversary many decades later, and from an individual, silenced position, to a collective act of witness. Be careful if your explorations start to feel upsetting for any reason, and plan beforehand how to stay emotionally safe. You might want to have a friend you can connect with, or a helpline you can call, or another form of support.
The next stage is to select your recording materials. You might want to write on a sheet of paper or in a notebook, or type into a new document on your computer, or speak into your phone using a voice memo app. All are equally good. Once you’re ready, set a timer for five minutes, and then write, or speak freely, and without censuring yourself, about the starting point of your experience. What you’re looking to capture is the emotional mood and colour of the subject, rather than any formal description. Rough jottings, phrases, and images are great.
The next step will be to repeat this writing or recording process for another five minutes, envisaging and describing the place where the journey travels to. You could do this straight after, or you might want to leave it until another day, week, or even month. Sometimes poems and artworks come quickly, but other times they reveal themselves to us more slowly and gradually. When you’ve got the two sets of material, combine them into a single document, so you can see how they sit together.
Beyond this, or alongside the process, you want to start thinking about a physical terrain across which the emotional journey of your poem or artwork can realise itself. In my case, it was the double set of tunnels in Herculaneum and Ortigia, which became a single joined underground landscape. They could be landscapes you know personally, or ones you have experienced either online or via film or television or books. They could be from the past, or the present.
Once you have identified your landscape, or landscapes, you want to generate some words around them. If they are nearby, maybe visit them with your phone to speak into, or paper to write on. Otherwise, spend some time just looking at them online or in books. As you’re engaging with the landscapes, notice the feelings and ideas that come up, and again jot down phrases and images. Do it as a timed session if that’s feasible and helpful. As before, be careful if this starts to feel upsetting for any reason, and plan beforehand how to stay emotionally safe.
The final step will be to bring together your two sets of words and images – about the experience, and the landscape – in a way that makes the journey of your poem or artwork travel forward through time and across geography to its place of arrival.
Good creating – and thank you for reading. Please sign up to the blog if you would like to be notified of other bird of winter podcasts and materials, and writing and interviews more generally on the topic of working creatively and transformatively with difficult materials.
When I think of adolescence, the unruly rush of spring growth, that transforms woodlands after winter comes to mind. Trees burst their buds into leaf, and plants grow towards the light following months of dormancy. Walking with my dog Ithaca in Shotover woods, above Oxford, as the seasons changed this year, I observed and photographed this almost ecstatic transition close up. I saw it with senses made more acutely responsive by the restrictions of lockdown. Like everyone, my daily life through the winter was defined by ‘sameness’ – without access to the visual stimuli of museums and films in cinemas and the different landscapes that travel and social contacts can open.
At the time, I was getting ready to launch bird of winter with my brilliant fellow Pavilion Poets Alice Miller and Sarah Westcott in May. The collection responds to my childhood experiences of being groomed, and then sexually abused, by my mother. It also documents the difficult teenage years beyond this as I found my uncertain way towards reclaiming myself and living again. When I was writing the individual poems, I would necessarily be in a single emotional space or remembered time. It might be reconnecting with my late father and grandmother, whose love helped me come through, or finding ways to bring much more complex memories of the grooming and the abuse, and their aftermaths, to the page.
With the poems orchestrated into their structure by my brilliant poet-editor at Pavilion, Deryn Rees-Jones, what became uppermost in my mind was the movements between them. Divided into three parts, the collection flows together like waves rising up a beach to lift their tide of moods and images into the shore of creative witness. Then it rallies its forces to carry the darkness of the abuse far out to sea – revealing the gleaming seaweed and new sands of the healing with which the final poems close.
Holding the sea-coloured book in my hands, turning its pages, I saw, and felt, how the way I was groomed set up and fed into the abuse, making it impossible to refuse. I also recognised with a new clarity how even when it was over, the abuse left me acutely vulnerable as a teenager, through having broken down any boundaries I might have had. But reading over bird of winter’s teenage poems, I also re-experienced the ferocious life force that puberty awakened in me, along with a hunger for the world beyond what I had known. This helped me reach towards my future like a plant towards the sun, in many different ways. These included forming new friendships, deepening my interest in books and the arts more generally, and beginning to travel alone. Adolescence also gave me the confidence to experiment, however awkwardly, with my reclaimed sexuality, and through this begin to separate myself emotionally from my abuser.
Once bird of winter was launched and out in the world, with many warmly generous responses from readers and people who watched the launch online, my thoughts kept going to my teenage self, surrounded by danger and possibility both at once. On my woodland walks with Ithaca, the foxgloves we spotted seemed like young girls, flamboyantly delicate, standing out from the foliage around them, but also susceptible to injury – as a flower can be picked and broken because it is not able to defend itself. When I turned sixteen, in the summer of 1980, I had a short white playsuit that I wore all the time. The bells of the white foxgloves in particular, cupped one on top of the other, brought back to me my own young body within that light cotton, and my unawareness of how I might be perceived.
During those teenage years, I faltered in my education, and was harshly judged by those around me as the impact of the abuse started to shape my behaviours and choices, as many young people are still today. Reconnecting with those times made me realise that it was not enough only to publish poems. I also needed to write and speak directly about the experiences held within them to expand the discussion. Children and teenagers who have been subjected to this crime deserve to be understood compassionately and respectfully as they work to reclaim their lives. Creative witness, and the discussion it engenders, are powerful tools for supporting this. Even, and especially, if recovery is necessarily messy and stumbling at times.
To further the work of changing awareness around sexual abuse in childhood, and help generate engagement, I wrote a performance text for Neptune’s Glitter House, which I also recorded as a podcast, exploring adolescence as a time of reclamation for those of us who have been subjected to sexual abuse in childhood. It features live readings of nine of my poems including ‘sea level’, ‘tessellation’, ‘wall painting removed from the house of the surgeon’, ‘mirror’, ‘when they begin to have feathers’, ‘sagittae’, ‘becoming your channel of pearl’ and ‘quadrant’. In addition to the poems themselves, I speak about their contexts, and the subject more generally. These words which are lifted from my introduction to the podcast:
As a bi-queer woman, club culture is something that resonates with me. I love its strobed shadowiness, and potential for transformations, and discovering new selves through playing with refractions of your identity. And of course all that glitter, ironic and otherwise. When I was a teenager in the late 1970s and early 80s, the time I’m going to explore, punk and two tone gave way to the ruffles and swags of the new romantics, and glitter balls were mainly synonymous with low-fi seaside discos in unfashionable towns, often along hot European coastlines. There time slowed to a trickle. Adventures could open into the night like strange flowers.
If you would like to listen to the full podcast, please follow the link below. In terms of safeguarding, be aware that it contains references to the aftermaths of sexual abuse, but opens and closes with poems of healing. If you need support with anything the podcast touches on, the Mind website has valuable links.
Following up from recording this podcast, I also wrote a memoir-essay for The Friday Poem website, published in August, which looks closely at four of the teenage poems in bird of winter. Titled ‘I think she is beginning’, (from a comment in my medical notes by the psychiatrist who treated me for anorexia when I was thirteen), this tracks how the poems enact my journey from the darkness of abuse towards the new light of healing. Again, it’s a journey that millions of people around the world are making every day. The essay begins:
Adolescence is seldom tidy or straightforward. Trying to locate ourselves beyond the lives we knew and lived as children gives rise to exploratory behaviours that outsiders can be quick to condemn. For those of us subjected to the crime of sexual abuse in childhood, the challenges and potential dangers are inevitably greater. This was my own experience. My abuser was my mother. Without appropriate support, the changes of puberty may push us back towards our places of injury, and emotional disassociation. If we have not been able to articulate or process the original trauma, there is also often little to mitigate the destabilising impact of reconnection with complex energies.
If you would like to read on, the full article can be found here. As before, I refer to the aftermath of sexual abuse in childhood, and the Mind website is a valuable source of support should you need any.
While I write these words in London, beyond the city the woods are moving from the heavy, green vegetation of high summer, towards the very first intimations of autumn. In the next months, leaf fall will reveal the bones of the trees, and the shapes their branches print onto the sky, as their roots co-link underground. Working alone, but with Ithaca close by, I hope what I say here may speak to all of us making strong lives beyond sexual abuse in childhood, and give support to the larger societies within which these works of reclamation and transformation take place, as communities of trees share their resources in order to grow and flourish.
I will be reading from bird of winter online on 9 September at 7PM UK time with Alice Miller and Sarah Westcott for Chener books. Tickets are free, but you need to email Chener Books in advance at email@example.com.
Link to bird of winter podcast no 1: finding words to hold things that can be hard to say :https://youtu.be/wnVHd5JR3cQIt’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 thebird 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
‘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.
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.
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.