Few journeys are ever single or simple. Whatever we leave behind often moves alongside us – whether as a source of harm, or healing. In ways that feel radical, and necessary, Sarala Estruch’s revelatory debut poetry collection, After All We Have Travelled, invites us to look with new eyes at the complexity of diaspora, and how the violences implicit in empire may impact successive generations. The poems also reflect strong energies that arise in speaking beyond the silencings of history – as Estruch does here, through fragmentation and uncertainty.
Published by Nine Arches, and edited with great thoughtfulness and care by Jane Commane, After All We Have Travelled is a collection which speaks additionally to me as someone who lost their father in childhood, as Sarala did. This is something about which Sarala and I have talked about briefly in person, and in more depth within the interview which follows this review. Because I feel that both her poems, and the themes she explores, will speak to many of us with multiple heritages or languages, and complex histories, in addition to reviewing her collection in this blog, I wanted to offer Sarala a space to talk about how about how the collection came together, and the thinking, and reading, and living which informs the poems.
Review of After All We Have Travelled by alice hiller:
After All We have Travelled’s prefatory poem, ‘On Sound’, notices how it remains at a “frequency / our ears // cannot touch/ but // the body / hears”. In the speaker’s history, this reverberation is true of the separation before she was born (at the insistence of his family), of her Indian father and European mother. ‘Starting from a Dream, 1983’ observes the speaker’s pregnant “mother-to-be” waking at night in a separate room, in his family’s home. By day the family appear “as though they are // already / watching her leave”. At the close of the poem the speaker’s unborn self rises up into an act of self-claiming that fuses separate perspectives into a voice that is simultaneously scattered, and whole:
All too soon, the “single star” of the speaker’s father has been extinguished by his early death. Elegising his gifts to her, and honouring the inarticulacy of childhood bereavement, ‘the things that remain’ is made up of fourteen tiny couplets, laid out as seven pairs, with a central dividing space running between them. Enacting smallness, the worn objects hold a potent residue of love alongside the grief through which they have been cherished:
Speaking to a theme to which Will Harris, Sarah Howe, L.Kiew,Rowan Hisayo Buchanan, Nina Mingya Powles and others respond, this second section also documents the complexity of growing up of mixed cultural heritage, and the fragmentations and dispossessions of self that can ensue. In ‘Freight’, these include “believing people/ were praising the whiteness/ in me when they called // me ‘pretty’.” Set alongside this is the confusion of travelling alone to India to meet the plethora of loving relatives who nonetheless chose to be strangers during her father’s lifetime. ‘Home/Home’ begins “It is hard to feel Indian when this country is as unknown to you/ as you are to her.”
Like a tide flowing back, from the midpoint, the poems shift towards reclamation as the speaker understands what she has lived without, and becomes more able to heal. ‘how to talk about loss’ reflects “for // decades i’ve been a river-bed/ bereft ~ not a drop of// what i was made to hold ~ ”. Responding, ‘To leap’ is one in a sequence of passionately alive love poems encompassing an energy of deep regeneration. Opening with an epigraph from Toni Morrison, ‘I didn’t fall in love, I rose in it.’ this honours “pitching your strength/ at every atom that has pressed// you down & soaring”, then ultimately “learning to live// with doubt, learning to rise in it;/ learning to love like that.”
The collection closes with multiple reintegrations. Arriving at “Indira Gandhi International Airport” in ‘Return’, the speaker and her Jamaican husband are told by the immigration officer that their children are “universal.” ‘Dear Father’ records a sense of homecoming in India when the grandfather, who originally refused her and her mother, now welcomes her husband and children, making her lost father also present again with them: “These rooms pulse with you, motes/ of thought and feeling still in motion.”
Three powerful poems directly address the harm resulting from the British Empire. ‘The Residency, Lucknow’, documents “crumbling walls pierced with exit wounds.” ‘Vaisakhi, Vaisakhi’ contrasts the speaker’s family observance of the Spring Festival in 2019 with the 1919 Jallianwala Bagh Massacre, when the British Army killed somewhere between 400 and 1500 of the people who had gathered peacefully in Amritsar to celebrate, wounding many more. ‘Grandfather Speaks (Via Audio Recording)’ documents how the family dispossession of their home, in the Punjab during Partition, remains unspeakable by him even in the present day:
The final poem, ‘Ghazal:Say/ After Will Harris’, centres around a memory of the speaker running to meet her father in a “garden”, and cutting her knee. Her spilt blood is both historical fact, and a metaphor for the redemptive interpersonal transactions that occur through the reactions of art-making and art-sharing, and the energies that they confer on those who create and receive them. In a way that encapsulates both personal experience and the reverberations of history, the speaker realises: “All I know is you’ve been gone these long years and, at the same time, you haven’t,/ you’ve been right here.” The collection ends with loss and connection inseparable from each other, remembering a father and daughter who have moved beyond fixed time into the resonant indeterminacy of art and memory:
Interview between Sarala Estruch and alice hiller
alice: We both started out trying to write novels – then found our projects translating themselves into poems. I found the wildcards, and subconscious dark woods of poetry helped hold spaces in bird of winterthat simultaneously required, and denied, language. What led you into poetry from prose, Sarala, and how did writing in this form help you realise After All We Have Travelled?
Sarala: Yes, ever since my late teens, I had been wanting to write about my parents’ story – how they met, loved, and separated. I kept trying to find ways into writing it. For years, I thought the book would be a sort of historical novel set in London in the 1970s and early 80s (where my parents met and then lived together for several years). Then, in 2016, after reading Bhanu Kapil’sThe Vertical Interrogation of Strangers, I tried to write the story as an experimental novel or a hybrid work of prose/poetry, but eventually realised that what interested me most – where the energy really resided – was in the poetry.
I came to see that I was less interested in narrative progression and more interested in language, specifically language’s ability and inability to explore the complexities of human psychology and emotion. Saying that, narrative is still important to me, and, in some ways, my collection could be described as a novel-in-verse, but the experience of feeling and thinking beyond the ordinary day-to-day parameters is more important, if that makes sense.
And yes, as you’ve said, poetry is a place where it is possible to attempt to speak about things for which ordinary language doesn’t suffice – inexplicable loss, complicated and prolonged grief, devastating personal, communal and/or intergenerational trauma. Poetry helps us in our attempts to articulate that which cannot be articulated, to create a language (or a non-language) of the unspeakable.
alice: That’s such a beautiful and thoughtful answer. I love the idea of the ‘language (or a non-language)! Following in that train, during your launch with Nine Arches Press, you referred to the voices of the poems in After All We Have Travelled as coming from their ‘speakers’, rather than necessarily articulating your single experience. I see my poems as speaking through and with me, but coming from a larger hinterland. Would you be able to say something about how your poems are voiced?
Sarala: I think when I insist that the voices in After All We Have Travelled are those of ‘speakers’, I am trying to draw attention to the fact that, while I have drawn on personal experience and family history, these poems are not purely works of autobiography or biography. The poems are works of invention and craft; throughout the writing of AAWHT, factual accuracy was less important to me than emotional and imaginative truth.
In addition, a huge source of inspiration for my work, beyond my personal experience, is the work of other poets. The poems in AAWHT were created in conversation with the works of writers including Bhanu Kapil, Marie Howe, Emily Berry, Sarah Howe, Sandeep Parmar, Kayo Chingonyi, Ocean Vuong, Will Harris, and many others.
alice: Those are all poets whose work has also been crucial to me in different ways. Some of them, like you and I, also operate in more than one language. ‘Bouchon’, meaning stopper, explores your work’s relationship to language, and to the blockages which also shape it, but moves beyond them towards a space of freedom and speaking. The poem ends ‘There are no stoppers –’ How has this journey come about in your own work and life as an artist?
Sarala: These are all such excellent questions – thanks so much for your care and attention to the work, alice. I think, in terms of ‘Bouchon’, the poem is speaking about how language can get in the way of experiencing things, how language can sometimes ‘stopper’ the world by making us see things in a habitual way, rather than allowing us to experience things afresh, as children do, without language. This poem is about having a complicated relationship with language, fearing how language can ‘hold things down. Its false claim / to ownership’ (which, of course, can also refer to the colonial impulse of ‘naming’ that which is ‘unknown’, but which may already have a name). I think this poem is about embracing the joy of not knowing; how there can be real joy in being in a place where you don’t have the language to describe the things around you, which takes you back to experiencing the world in a sensory, pre-verbal way. I suppose, in my work, I am interested in exploring ‘the nameless / things, a poet spends her life chasing and / never quite arriving at’. It’s a way of accepting that we can’t know or control everything; that it’s OK to ‘just be’ – this is also a form of belonging. You don’t need to know everything in order to belong.
This was a new way, for me, of writing about unknowing, which is a strong theme of the book and of my life, if I’m honest. There is a lot about my family history and about my parent’s countries and cultures that I don’t know and that I often feel shut out or apart from, since both my mother and father immigrated to England before I was born (from France and India, respectively) and, also, as a result of the difficult, painful things that families avoid speaking about and which are enveloped in shame, such as my paternal relatives preventing my parents from marrying and being together. However, in this poem, the speaker is embracing the state of ‘unknowing’, how it can be a fertile and joyful ground to stand on.
Of course, another important theme of the book (and one that is even more significant in my pamphlet Say), is the journey of moving from being unable to speak (about trauma, childhood bereavement, and complicated grief) to finally finding a language and the courage to be able to voice these experiences and emotional states, so yes, that is also another possible reading of the poem – thank you.
alice: Developing what you say here, poems including ‘The Residency, Lucknow’, ‘Vaisakhi, Vaisakhi’ and ‘Grandfather Speaks (via Audio Recording)’ address the ingrowing silences and shames that living beyond catastrophic loss may precipitate for some individuals, and considers the ways that art-making can offer spaces of communication, as well as commemoration and witness, which confer agency on both creator and recipient. Was that something which was important to you?
Sarala: Yes, very much so – thank you for putting it so beautifully. Attempts at communication and connection are central to my work, as are attempts to create poetry of commemoration and witness. Trauma is carried in the body and passed down through generations, so speaking about and sharing our experiences of trauma, in a safe way and in a safe environment, can create space for reparation and healing, which is so important – otherwise we become stuck in cycles of suffering.
Thank you for everything you’ve said here, particularly about the poems’ attempts to confer agency on both creator and recipient – this is such a vital component of the work.
alice: It is a collection which means a lot to me Sarala. I feel changed by reading it, which was part of why I wanted to share my response to the poems and ask you more about them. In reviewing After All We Have Travelled, I was strongly drawn to your experiments with form, and the freedoms these gave you, which of course generate agency for both reader and writer. Would you like to say something about this space of deep play, perhaps with reference to ‘Camera Lucida/ After Roland Barthes’?
Sarala: Yes, I consciously wanted to include a wide variety of forms in this collection, having been inspired by Sarah Howe’s Loop of Jade, in this regard – Howe’s use of multiple poetic forms really highlights and illustrates the points she is making about the instabilities and multiple possibilities of language/meaning, and also in terms of shaking up the English canon and creating a space where multiple poetic forms (originating from various countries and cultures), languages, cultural myths and histories can sit side-by-side and be enriched by one another. Howe’s work also creates a fruitful space to think about the many possibilities inherent in cross-cultural and mixed-race relationships, and mixed-race identities. I was drawing on all of this while writing AAWHT.
It was also, as you say, a space for deep play – a liberating and (mostly) joyful (although, of course, at times highly challenging) experience to write these poems in the forms they asked to be in.
‘Camera Lucida’ was strongly inspired by Barthes’ eponymous text on photography and mourning. The poem began because I had a memory of seeing a photograph in my father’s photo album which carried a lot of significance to me. I told Sarah Howe (who worked with me as a mentor on these poems) I wanted to write about this photograph but I wasn’t sure how. She suggested that I read Camera Lucida. As soon as I began to read Barthes’ text, I very quickly felt the urge to replace the word ‘photography’ with the word ‘father’ or ‘lost father’. Barthes seemed to be, from the very start, speaking directly to my experience of losing a parent, while, at the same time, speaking very intelligently about photography. I, therefore, played with Barthes’ words and incorporated many of them into the poem (the words in italics are direct quotations lifted from Camera Lucida) – so this poem is, in part, a found-poem.
Early drafts of the poem included several parts, which were short and fragmentary, like discrete photographs. Then my editor at Nine Arches Press, Jane Commane, had the wonderful idea of drawing faint boxes around the separate parts of the poem, so that they would visually appear to be photographs in a photo album. In addition, I asked Jane to typeset the poem so that ‘the photographs’ slowly fade over the course of the poem, so that the final ‘photograph’ is only faintly visible, evoking how memory (like photographs) fades over time. At least, that is my reading of the poem. I am open to other interpretations; I don’t think an author has absolute authority over the meaning of their work, and, in fact, there is often a lot in a work which the author does not know is there, since it is as a result of the work of the unconscious mind.
alice: I agree very strongly with what you say about the role of the unconscious mind in generating and shaping the work we make. Continuing with the theme of the deep experiences which inform our beings, I wondered if we might think alongside each other about early childhood bereavement, which I touch on in my review also, and is something my own work addresses. One of the most moving and profound journeys of After All We Have Travelled is towards finding forms of words to hold this succession of losses, which travel alongside a child as they grow towards adulthood and find their parent is absent also from the new places that are opening in their lives. Could you say something about the process of creative reclamation which your collection performs, and the sense of nurturing presence it generates?
Sarala: Wow, alice, I can’t quite express how very grateful I am for your careful, close reading of AAWHT and what the work is trying to do.
Yes, the central journey of the collection is the process of moving through life as a child who lost a parent, then as an adult and, finally, as a parent oneself, and all of the different and cumulative losses of growing up and living without a parent throughout the various stages of one’s life. However, as the closing poem ‘Ghazal: Say’ suggests, even while the person who was bereaved in childhood has keenly felt the loss of their parent throughout their life, they have also, at the same time, keenly felt their parent’s presence: ‘All I know is you’ve been gone these long years and, at the same time you haven’t, / you’ve been right here’.
The creative reclamation of After All We Have Travelled is the acknowledgement and expression of what bereaved persons know to be true: when you lose someone important to you, at whatever stage of your life, the person never fully leaves you; they are still always here, with you, within you – in your mind and in your heart. They are always present in your life, just as the loss of that person is also, simultaneously, always present. Expressing this perplexing, contradictory, and yet strangely beautiful truth gave me much solace, and I hope that readers of these poems will find a similar solace.
alice: I personally felt that beautifully realised, complex, tender solace Sarala, and it is one of the many elements of your work that I wanted to bring to others. Finally, and to close, can I thank you again for the gift of your poems, and ask what you are working on now, and where we may hear you read from After All We Have Travelled in the months to come?
Sarala: Yes, I am currently working towards a second collection of poetry, as well as a work of creative non-fiction. Both continue to explore and develop themes of identity, (un)belonging, and loss, which are so central to AAWHT, although in new and different ways.
Back in 2022, for Fatima, Nadine, Rishi, Stephen and I, the impact of all those books arriving was something like a lifelong chocolate lover finding themselves suddenly swimming in a chocolate fountain. How to take it in the richness we were offered, without becoming overwhelmed and losing our powers of discrimination, was the challenge we faced. In my own case, to fit in the reading, overnight everything became book-shaped. If I was making a meal, I was reading a book on the side. If I was eating a meal, I was reading a book on the side. If I was travelling on the tube, I was reading a book standing, or sitting. When we met for the short-listing meeting, one of my fellow judges said that they were reading anything between two and ten books a day once the numbers of submissions ramped up. The rest of us simply agreed.
Because the books followed me everywhere, wherever I happened to be, I was constantly reminding myself not to let go of, lose, mislay or forget the collection which was my companion of the moment. For all I knew, it might prove to be one of the ones which made the prestigious Forwards Shortlists for Best Poem, Best First Collection, or Best Collection, or indeed ultimately won one of the big prizes. Respectively worth £1,000, £5000 and £10,000, they offer an incalculable and enduring career uplift to the poet concerned, beyond their already significant cash value.
To make it more interesting, I’d never formally judged anything before. I have a PhD from UCL. And I’ve done a lot of reviewing over the years, everywhere from the TLS to the Poetry Review and Poetry London. So the tools were in place. Would I know how to use them to winnow down such a huge mass of material? The first test would be creating our individual shortlists, ahead of the formal shortlisting meeting. Building up to it, I found myself waking in the night with the weight of responsibility. I was comforted by knowing this was a shared endeavour. Up and down the country, and across Scottish borders and over the Irish sea, and further afield too, Fatima, Nadine, Rishi and Stephen also had their shoulders to the wheel. We were carrying the decision-making collectively.
Fortunately, as I read steadily onwards, in my book-shaped world, a sense of the material began to emerge. We were sent many outstanding poems, but certain collections had a coherence, as well as newness and difference, that made them stand out. Their parts held together and were of a consistently high standard. As Rishi Dastidar observed, they often also made our pulses race with excitement. These books, and individual poems, also gave us a sense of entering new worlds – defined by the language through which they were realised, the shapes they made on the page. In my own case, this was the work which began to make its way onto my longlist. Or rather into the set of four stacked plastic drawers into which I was posting my serious contenders, for further consideration.
When we came to swap longlists, ahead of our first meeting, our intersection points became the roadmaps which led to the eventual nominations. The judging meeting to decide the shortlist took place over many zoomed hours, on a hot, late spring day. It was exhausting and wonderful in equal measure, generating deep conversations around the works under consideration with other people who had thought about them as intensely as we each had. At the end of the day, we all felt that the shortlists that we arrived at were genuinely communal decisions.
We chose poems written on front lines, responding to climate change, exploring migration, queerness, illness, identity, questioning, affirmation, faith, shame, desire, sexual predation, and sexual reclamation. They went into the woods, and into stinky kitchens, peered back at us out of buckets. Our non-human species included crows, butterflies, hyenas, cats, dogs, seagulls, and fungi, to name but a few. Mothers were sometimes wrecked, sometimes wrecking. Other times sources of profound nurture. Fathers might, or might not be, not terrorists. We were there as life began, and ended, with Nobel prize winners, and poets who had yet to publish their first full work.
There was humour and anger, play of all sorts, a relentless inventiveness and above all a sense of the sheer magnificence, and courage of the creative process, on page after page. It felt extraordinary, and deeply heartening, in a year when hope and joy often seemed in short supply. You can read excerpts from all the 2022 shortlisted collections, and the single poems in full, on the Forwards website, and find them, along with all the Highly Commended Poems, all in the Forwards Anthology for 2022.
Over the summer and autumn, we then had the task of winnowing down the five shortlists to a single winner. Every shortlisted poet had a compelling case for being chosen as the winner of their category, so it was a hard call. Because I knew how much I’d valued hearing from Stephen, Fatima, Nadine and Rishi, there was less anxiety this time around. We were a good team, who had found our collective process and identity through the first sets of strong choices. But we were going to need all those skills to come to the best decision we could make.
The days were shortening by the time we met again, and the conversations were engaged and warm, but also searching. We had had the summer to live with our fifteen shortlisted books and poems, to think about them from different angles, to respond to them in more open and relaxed ways than had been possible in the frantic read-to-the-finish-line of the first judging meeting. Once again we gathered on our zooms, with companion animals appearing in the background, or sometimes foreground, and occasionally barking their comments. And the winners that we arrived at were, miraculously, all ones we believed in, and stood behind wholeheartedly.
That knowledge made the awards ceremony in Manchester’s Contact Theatre a genuinely joyous event. The event format celebrates the entire shortlist, with each poet reading, before the final decision is announced. This was also the Forwards Thirtieth Year, and its first Award taking place outside of London, which added to the edgy, vibrant excitement. Despite the chilly weather, there was a real buzz in the theatre even before the sold out audience took their seats, with many more joining from around the world via streaming. Reflecting the Northern location, poets within reach of Manchester were packing in, including Malika Booker, Jason Allen-Paisant, Andrew Macmillan, Simon Armitage, Kayo Chingonyi, Natalie Linh Bolderston, and many more.
The readings were mesmerising, and moving, bringing out the value in each work. Together we cheered Stephania Sy-Quia, Padraig Regan, Warsan Shire, Holly Hopkins and Mohammed El-Kurd for the best debut, with Kim Moore, Anthony Joseph, Kaveh Akbar, Shane McCrae and Helen Mort for Best Collection, and Nick Laird, Cecilia Knapp, Louisa Campbell, Clare Pollard and Carl Phillips for Best Single Poem. You can read more from each of them on the Forwards website, and I would warmly recommend this. Kim Moore, Stephanie Sy-Quia and Nick Laird were then announced as the winners.
Because the word ‘winner’ can have an almost obliterating quality, as if that achievement becomes the defining quality of the work, I wanted to finish this blog by sharing something of what I felt gives so much to readers in the Kim Moore’s and Stephanie Sy-Quia’s collections, and why the work of the Forwards Prizes has so much value in supporting artists whose work will make a lasting difference to the world at many levels. Nick Laird’s extraordinary poem, ‘Up Late’, can be read in its entirety via the Forwards website, and speaks for itself, but it can be a big investment for many people to buy a book at the moment. Here are some pointers towards what lies between the covers of Amnion and All the Men I Never Married, for those considering taking the plunge and buying these two brilliant collections.
Turning first to Stephanie Sy-Quia, who won the Felix Dennis prize for best debut for Amnion,from the first time I heard from her read from the book, at the online launch, and well before I ever saw a printed copy, I had the sense that she was working into crucial new territory around questions of migrations and gendered identity, both thematically, and in terms of delivery. I was also struck by how she was able to embed a very young woman’s voice into the poem, including sections which were first drafted while she was still at school.
Through the extended, fragmented form, Amnion builds an organically alive structure which is simultaneously open and connected, able to interlink multiple generations and diverse identities, always questioning how the individual narratives are sited relative to the dominant power structures and historical realities shaping their outcomes. Part of this arises from Sy-Quia’s ability to find language and imagery that locates the individual as a moment in time, and a product of their histories and migrations, but also of the languages which have determined the apprehension and transmission of their cultures, and the experience of their gendered bodies.
Re-reading Amnion for the second Forwards judging meeting, I found the idea of the family or social group as an externalised amnion – that is a symbolic version of the membrane that protects the growing foetus – interesting to explore. It made me think about how groups can shelter and contain growing, evolving beings, but can also generate their own forms of harm through the holding-in of intergenerational and other traumas, especially ones that lead to, or result from, displacement. My own father-in-law, Oscar Nemon, came to the UK as a refugee, and lost 22 members of his family to the Holocaust. Sy-Quia’s ability to invoke and create imaginative empathy for the impacts on psychological health (including depression), of feelings of un-rootedness arising from cultural displacement therefore resonated with me, as it will potentially with many readers.
Writing about adolescence and young womanhood, Sy-Quia also places the female body centrally within the narrative, as a unit of reception, and perception. She explores teenage desire and vulnerability, and the loss or confusion of self which can come about as a result of predation, and exploitation during those vulnerable, hope-filled, urgent years, in a way which felt radical. There is a degree of privilege in the boarding school segments, but they butt the narrative up against the gender and class monopolies which Amnion interrogates, while also reflecting how ‘history’ and myth may be manipulated to shore up existing power structures, including those of empires and their toxic, ruinous aftermaths. All these questions come together towards the end in the final ‘Epilogue: Epithalamion’, which merges the political and the personal with immense power:
I AM WRITING NOW from the inky heart of empire, its assonance no more unknown to me. I shall knock the pillars out from under you and label you up in room upon room of Wedgwood blue.
I HAVE SHUFFLED ALL THE SHARDS of what came to me broken and I have not pried, for dealing in shards is what I wanted; these being my inheritance.
THESE BEING my demands my thanks my by rights
I USED TO WORRY that the performance was never quite for my own benefit; that I owed it to others, that without me they might never apprehend and therefore I was duty-bound to make the point again and again with the quiet militancy of washing rice before cooking it in a saucepan. This has been the extent of it: cooking rice. But it is possible, as I have found, to delineate blood-bearings to each their own. My brother, for instance, is less interested in this quandary. My father, for instance, professes to be half, which would make me a quarter. I reserve his right to do so; but my claim is my own.
Ultimately, Amnion left me with a feeling of making a path out of darkness and displacement towards claiming and belonging, which was powerful and real, and to which I think many will relate. Kim Moore’s second collection, All the Men I Never Married, also works with the gendered body as a political, as well as an intimate space, engaging with and articulating some of the forces and constraints which inform how women, and men, move in the world – both as living beings and as artists. It is the interplay between these two strands – of the lived experience and the creative response – which gives the collection much of its uniqueness.
As I read, and re-read Moore’s collection, it became a hauntingly ‘big’ book. Its surface ‘accessibility’, arising from a string of ‘anecdotal’ poems in a variety of registers and forms, builds a navigable causeway leading the reader out into deeper waters. Moving through them, we explore desire, and its consequences, and the complex societal and cultural forces that form and give rise to this force within individuals, whether they are predatory, or subjected to predation. The poems also allow us to question from whose perspective the narratives under scrutiny are, and have historically been, represented.
Moore is writing in conversation with Rachael Allen, Rachel Long, Olivia Laing, Maggie Nelson, Katherine Angel, Fiona Benson, Helen Mort, also on this list, and many others, giving a porousness and permeability to the poems within a larger discourse – which enhances their resonance. Her building block is the individual self, and the individual body, and how these tessellate either lastingly and fleetingly to those around them. The prefatory, un-numbered poem begins, ‘We stand at the base of our own spines/ and watch tree turn to bone and climb/ each vertebra to crawl back into our minds,/we’ve been out of our minds all this time’.
A stand-out poem is 7, which Moore read at the Forwards ceremony. Beginning “Imagine you’re me, fifteen, the summer of 95” it remembers the “stranger” at the end of a log flume ride who reaches out to brush a drop of water from the speaker’s thigh. The work of the poem takes place in the doubled perspectives of the account, moving from the second person address to the teenage girl – “And you are not innocent, you’re fifteen,/ something in you likes that you were chosen./ It feels like power, though you were only/ the one who was touched, who was acted upon.” – to the third person, seen as if from the man’s point of view. Now she becomes “A girl… with hair to her waist/ and he’s close enough to smell the cream/ lifting in waves from her skin…/ and why should he tell himself no, hold himself back?” The poem closes “You remember this lesson your whole life,/ That sliver/shiver of time, that moment in the sun./ What am I saying? Nothing. Nothing happened.”
There’s a blend of delicacy, quietness, and horror, and a sense of this transgressive action echoing down through the years because not called out or defined as wrong, that is potent, partly in its restraint. Other poems aren’t afraid of exploring rawness, and a compulsive, propulsive sexualised intoxication, as with 15, when the speaker writes of a relationship where: “I thought love was a knife/ pressed to the throat, I thought there was a blade/ in each of our hands. I am telling this now so he appears/ as real as that first night when we didn’t sleep./ The slight red stubble of his beard, the freckles/ covering his arms – his gaze, his attention all mine –”.
From fumbling teenage confusion, to disturbing encounters in hotel corridors, or on trains or in taxis, while including also support from mentors and others who positively expand the sense of being differently, the collection makes the reader part of its own process of investigation and discovery. Through this, we share in the work of progressive redefinition and reclamation, from the starting point of being “a stone pretending to be a woman/ in the dark or like someone returning/ from a land nobody else could see.”
This trajectory generates a sense of arrival upon reaching 48, the concluding poem. Here, Moore’s voice recalls being told by an established, canonical, male poet, at the start of her writing life, that she should not speak of straightening her mother’s hair as a child. We, the readers, feel why she has come to understand that as a result of this “I have held my tongue for many years.” Evidence of the journey travelled, away from that silencing, lives within the poem. Moore has formed language and imagery that enables what was not allowed to be said to resonate with the reader in all its subtle complexity and vivid life:
My father elsewhere, and part of me still there, part of me in the library with the man who told me not to speak about such things. The lawn. The drifting dusk. The bats. My mother’s hair. My hands. That house. The shudder of a horse’s flank.
As I publish this, the 2023 Forwards judges will be receiving their last boxes of books, and print-outs of poems. This year’s judges are Kate Fox, Karen McCarthy Woolf, Andrés N. Ordórica, and Jessica Traynor, coming together within two separate panels, being chaired respectively by the legendary Bernardine Evaristo for the Best Collections, and Joelle Taylor for the Best Single Poems. Along with many others I will be waiting, when summer comes, to hear the results of their hours of careful reading and thought, and to investigating the recommendations of the 2023 shortlists.
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.
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
By the nature of how life is, sadly many of us will have been through difficult times – whether or not we work in creative fields. While these experiences stay with us, they are seldom easy to talk about, as a number of the poets I have interviewed on this blog reveal. Screenwriter Russell T. Davies, who wrote the landmark series Queer as Folk in 1999, and has just premiered It’s a Sin, remembers how when the first HIV/Aids infections were happening, and he was in his early 20s:
“I looked away. Oh, I went on marches, and gave a bit of money and said how sad it was, but really, I couldn’t quite look at it. This impossible thing. There are boys whose funerals I didn’t attend. Letters I didn’t write. Parents I didn’t see.” [Observer 3/1/21].
Reasons for our silences around our difficult experiences may include that we lack the words with which to say what happened, or feel shame, or fear how others may react. As time passes, these places of silence can lie within us like ice, or rock. They may be heavy, unwieldy and painful to carry – as if they were obstructing part of our growth, or even the evolution of our lives. But nothing is ever fixed, and change can always come.
In the same Observer article, Davies reveals how as the years went by: “I stayed busy, looking away, but I suppose I also looked down. At the keyboard. And stories began to emerge in my work. Rising up. Bleeding through the page. In 1994, I created a 15-year-old HIV+ teenager for Children’s Ward.” [Observer, 3/1/21]. Queer as Folk then followed five years later.
Having been groomed and sexually abused by a close family member in childhood, I recognise both that looking away that Davies describes, and the rising up that can follow. From my 20s onwards, what had happened to me as a child and a teenager came into my dreams and nightmares – and then into my waking conversations in my 30s.
At last, in my 40s and 50s, I began to voice my silences around the crime to which I had been subjected, within creative work. Also in his 50s, Davis reveals of It’s a Sin, “Finally, I came to write a show with Aids centre stage. I think I had to wait till now, to find what I wanted to say.”
One of the processes that has helped me become strong enough to stay with writing bird of winter, my debut collection with Pavilion Poetry, has been the workshop community which formed with other poets saying ‘the difficult thing’ in their work. This started life as a Poetry Society Stanza three years ago, and shifted to meeting online during the pandemic.
Collectively, we realised that there would be value in sharing the insights we are able to give each other, beyond our own group. We wanted to support and connect with a wider community of people also trying to voice their own silences – whether on the page, or in their own lives.
Our format has been to create a series of free, hour-long workshops available through our Voicing Our Silences website. Two of our poets speak to each other about their work and perform it. They also set live writing exercises for the audience to follow, to help spark new creative strands. We have four workshops up so far, featuring Arji Maneulpillai, Maia Elsner, Isabelle Baafi, Romalyn Ante, Rachel Lewis, Kostya Tsolakis, Joanna Ingham and myself. They are available as podcasts, or captioned videos. More recordings will be coming over the next months, with Chaucer Cameron and Jeffery Sugarman in March.
While in-person meetings for live events are still a way off, we hope our website will offer a proxy community. We aim for it to generate a creative boost to help get people through the last months of lockdown. We also want it to make new connections between writers and readers, that we can follow up together into actual meetings, over the summer and beyond. To find out more, please click the link to go through to http://www.voicingoursilences.com
Sometimes distance generates its own form of closeness. Or at least that was our experience, when Rachel Long and I connected through zoom to go deep with her debut, My Darling from the Lions, which was shortlisted for both the Forwards and Costa prizes in 2020. Each of us had instinctively positioned ourselves by a window – as if to share the same autumn afternoon light, notwithstanding being on opposite sides of London. Over the course of the two hours which followed, we talked about what it means to create as women, where we find the spaces and energies to nurture ourselves as artists, and why poetry is sideways-thinking. We asked how someone accesses their own ‘true’ perspective or ‘spirit level’; we agreed on the generative nature of play, and why translating another poet’s work can lead your own into new dimensions. Specifically, in Rachel Long’s case – that working with Adelaide Ivánova fed into her own poems of witness around the subject of sexual predation and assault. We then moved into a closer discussion of the extraordinary sequence of poems in which Rachel Long responds creatively to the challenging subject of sexual abuse in childhood – about which I also write. Together we explored language as reclamation, and how the process of articulating, and shaping, may enact a form of restitution and healing. Reviewing the transcript, we both felt that this second half of the conversation formed its own unit. I have therefore divided the interview into two segments, so that our readers have the option of either reading it right through, or in two halves as feels right to them. At the close of that tough year, I had no doubt that this was one of the most nourishing, but also radical conversations, I had in the whole of 2020. It’s the greatest honour to be able to share Rachel Long’s words with you, as we go forward as readers and writers into 2021 together.
AH: Can I start by asking about how My Darling from the Lions came into being Rachel Long? When, and how, did you start writing?
RL: I feel that in many ways I was maybe always writing it. I loved writing even as a child. I didn’t know what I was writing for a long time, in terms of subject or form. I return to the subjects that I have long been fascinated with – the lives of the people around me. The complexity of people’s stories, of how appearances are not necessarily the reality of what is going on inside. My mother came to the UK from Sierra Leone when she was eight. So many of her stories of growing up are holey snippets. The older I get, the more I realise they might actually be some kind of fiction or poetry. If you question something in one of my mother’s ‘origin stories’, she gets almost confused, or contradictory very quickly. The stories become murky, vague, abstract.
AH: I love that idea of murkiness. It’s full of possibility, and also really honest. In the collection, you explore everything from the harm caused by racism and sexual predation, all the way to what it’s like to grow up in the UK of dual heritage, this can’t have been an easy collection to write – at a creative as well as on a personal level?
RL: What is ever easy to write? I’m interested in what gets lost in memory, where it goes – how the body holds it. Being of dual heritage… I grew up in a white working-class area on the outskirts of London. My schools were majoritively white, my friends, half my family. I’m not sure that I thought of myself as Black for a long time. Mixed, half-caste, (dark-)light-skinned, all the rest of it, but not Black particularly. That was an understanding, a knowledge and an acceptance of a self that I had to carve out later, as I grew up, as left that estate, as I read, spoke and understood myself within a much wider context. When I was a girl, I thought that you had to choose what colour you were. I remember sitting in the back seat of my dad’s car, Dad driving, Mum in the passenger seat, and suddenly thinking, you must choose, now, whether you want to be white like Dad or black like Mum – isn’t that… disturbing? And as if I thought that I get to choose how the world perceives me.
AH: Picking up on what you were saying about claiming your Black identity as you grew older, certainly in decades past in England, the dominant culture wasn’t respectful of different identities. There was a pressure to only tick one box or feel of less worth if you didn’t tick that box. I knew Poly Styrene, of X-Ray Spex. She used to pretend to be Greek as a teenager in the 70’s. Once she became an artist, she was able to claim her dual heritage identity more fully.
RL: I understand that. It’s interesting that she could become closer to herself through her art.
AH: Poly was freed to claim her identity partly by working with live theatre as a teenager. Were there people who made becoming a writer more possible for you?
RL: What a beautiful question. Yes. I loved school. Primary school particularly, I felt so much freer at school than at home, and I loved learning, like very honestly loved it. My formidable headmistress, Mrs Wiley loved literature. She would make us recite poetry. Her favourite poem was WB Yeats’ ‘Aedh Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven’, (with the line “Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.”). Our morning assemblies consisted of who could get through the poem. I became good at reciting and at being shy, but showing off. Because of my love of English and of reading, she recommended me for some residential creative writing courses. On the weekends, and during the holidays, from when I was about 10 to 17, I spent time in the Essex countryside, which I loved, reading under trees, and watching Man Ray films at ten, or discussing silent French movies before sneaking off to play spin the bottle. As I got older obviously, that crux of being 14 and ashamed of everything, I completely hid what I had ‘got up to at the weekend’ from my friends – except perhaps my best friend. It’s good to be able to trust one person at least in life…. Anyway, my 10 year-old brain is going whish whish whish whish, just totally like woah, this is… beautiful, I feel like this is what I’m here for. We did things like creative dreaming – all of us, a gaggle of geeky ‘chosen children’ from all over the country, laying down in the grounds listening to what the grass was telling us. What a radical side-education! Without those easters and summers away, I hate to think where all my dreaming or talking to grass would have been wasted. On boys probably, in phone boxes, at the bottom of bottles. My childminder Barbara was also an amazing education for me. My mum and dad both worked so I would go to Barbara’s after school. Barbara loved sewing and knitting. She taught me to sew (I was never great at knitting). She taught me to draw and paint too, how to look after flowers. I feel very blessed to have had this creative education, to have learnt what I love from others, particularly from women seeing and encouraging me.
AH: At such a young age, that forms you as an artist. It’s letting you know that this is the way to be.
RL: Absolutely. If I didn’t have those people then, I would have had a different path, one I suspect I would not be happy in at all right now. I can’t think about the ‘other path’ for too long, I always well up very quickly, as if the possibility of it is still uncomfortably close. I suspect that is the same for most children, that they’ll thrive if opened up to what is possible.
AH: For sure. And there is the simplicity of playfulness. When I was pregnant with my second son, I did a playing course. There were no children there. It was for parents to enjoy playing. I built bricks and did all those things. That really was a brilliant thing to take back into my parenting. I connected with my joy and playfulness.
RL: I love that! What we do as poets is sort of play. Serious play.
AH: Yes, exactly. When it stops being play, it stops working. Being exposed to poetry early, you learnt how to tell without telling, because poetry works with a backward logic. You don’t just state a sequential narrative. You let it ooze out. It’s like sideways thinking. To develop your ability to sideways-think young, has to be a fantastic thing.
RL: I think you just nailed something for me Alice – or kind of opened something up for me – about sideways thinking. I don’t usually credit my parents for making me very creative, but I think the ways they are as people, people who don’t hide, but also don’t necessarily access or communicate how they more deeply feel, has influenced my work.
Mum will tell you exactly how she is feeling, but I think what she says is the surface, a lot of her anger and worry is fear. I think that underneath she is a lot quieter, shy, strange and dangerous, but she would never absolutely communicate that. My Dad says nothing about anything. So maybe as a child I watched them and understood something essential about what is said and unsaid, about how much you can communicate in your not-saying, in your subtle showing.
AH: To be able to connect the surface and the depth requires opening the channels in the way that you did as a child through creative play. For a lot of people, knowing how they feel isn’t easy. Connecting what they are experiencing on the surface with what’s driving it down below is tricky. Somehow art communicates this, even if it doesn’t do so explicitly. It lets it be understood.
AH: Nowadays, as a poet and a teacher, you work with language to expand and change awareness, and make the new. Were there artists who enabled you to see that your voice, as a women of colour, needed to be realized in a way that did not try to erase the contexts from which it took its shapes? Specifically, the female and the domestic, including the shadowed hinterlands between adolescence and adulthood, which are vulnerable times for many of us? Asking this question, I had in mind your poem ‘Apples’. It starts with the speaker running for a train – “tits play-doughing/ out of a shit bra” – then slides through an admission of her being “magazine educated” into a childhood memory of :
When the mum of my then-best friend said her daughter wasn’t allowed to play with me because I was another N-word – meaning Mum went round in her dressing-gown to slap her silly with her tongue, then returned to scatter the kitchen and shred Dad’s Guardian for not sticking up for us, for never saying anything –
RL: The person who comes to mind most is Caroline Bird, who was my Jerwood-Arvon mentor in 2015-16. Working with Caroline completely accelerated my work. I felt seen and heard and ‘good’, like I could do this, that it wasn’t all rubbish and a waste of time. Caroline was the first person to read my work and really see and hear me. Not in a weird tokenistic or racialized or classist way, as sometimes is ‘the way’. She read me un-bemused, nonjudgmentally, deadly seriously; essentially. That was radicalising for my poetry, for my practice, and for my personhood. Over that year I was able to let go of a lot of shame and therefore I could begin writing it. That came from finally not being or feeling judged, or boxed, or expected of. I realise that you’ve asked me about women of colour influencing me specifically and I have immediately offered Caroline, who is not a woman of colour – how can I phrase this so that it doesn’t sound ‘colour blind’ – let me access my own perspective… I don’t write (or read, or sleep or dream any of those essential, private, self-onto-self things) as a ‘woman of colour’. I write as myself — by that I mean, I don’t think our truest, deepest selves, at spirit level, register or identify with concepts of race, gender ecterea, the spirit doesn’t need these codes I don’t think, they aren’t necessary, and if the spirit level is also likely where the writing is from, then essentially do any of us write as our society-necessary, society-inflicted, society-worn labels? It is only later, when another person reads the work, that certain societal lenses may be worn to read and interpret the work. For example, in my poem, ‘Jail Letter’, I sit between my mother’s legs getting my hair plaited for what feels like all of Saturday. Only to go to school on Monday and be laughed at because my hair ‘looked like spiders’, but also because I had a Wednesday clip in and it was Friday or something. Sitting there as a girl, I did not realise the racial politics of hair, its implications, the perceptions of beauty and the precedence of European ideals, none of that, at least not consciously. I might have felt, suspected, some of it. I was just sitting there, bored out of my mind, in some discomfort. I wanted the poem to reflect that. I didn’t want the poems to have a knowledge of a context that is implausible for the little (mixed-race black) girl in it to reach yet. I badly want to leave the brackets out there because to constantly be a bracketed girl is not the girlhood I wanted, nor should any girl be bracketed, does this make any sense?
AH: Yes it does.
RL: Anyway, I wanted the poem to stay true to her authentic universe rather than be unhonestly aware of her place within the wider context, or indeed other people’s perceptions and dictations of it. And I think, I hope, that by doing that it makes the poem sad and funny, because she doesn’t realise, as she’s sitting there getting her hair plaited, what the reader might think about who she is and what she means, or what her hair means in the world, to others. I was supposed to be talking about Caroline and other influential women and I’m talking about authentic poetic universes!
AH: I was reading Toni Morrison in the 80’s. I felt understood by her writing, and I felt I understood myself. I was born in 1964 and sexual abuse in terms of children wasn’t discussed much until the 80s, by which time I was in my 20’s. It was to do with finding myself in her work as someone who was living a life, carrying a history, that most of society denied and excluded, before I could even articulate my own experience coherently.
RL: Morrison is one of the best writers that we have had on this planet. The fact that you feel personally understood and encompassed by that work, and that it also speaks to a universal experience – maybe it’s to do with identity, but also bloody good writing.
AH: Also, being formally inventive, because you need to make a language to say something that hasn’t been said and isn’t being said. You have to find a language that will actually do that. We both saw the Faith Ringgold Exhibition at the Serpentine. I feel that about her work. And in terms of our work as artists, that is a fantastic challenge to be set – because you know you really have to rise to it. That creates newness, originality, invention.
RL: ‘Apples’ is partly inspired by the experience of reading Morgan Parker’s collection, Other People’s Comfort Keeps Me Up at Night.Parker really harnesses a multiplicity in her work. She has all of these apparent contradictions and juxtaposition, allgoing on at once, which is, of course, most like life. One particular poem of Morgan’s is ‘How to Piss in Public and Maintain Femininity.’ Just the way it runs, it switches up, it is sliding-doory. This being of multiple things all at once inspired ‘Apples’. I think I have long felt lots of different things at once, sometimes contradictory, and sometimes only things other people said or thought were contradictory, but I knew them intimately to be one. I realized when writing ‘Apples’ that I had long felt like lots of apparently-different selves presenting as a single person.
AH: I love her work, and the way it takes from daily life, and makes it strange and powerful. In his memoir The Beautiful Struggle, Ta-Nihisi Coates makes a point of recording complex situations in direct, accessible language. Was that part of your intention for My Darling from the Lions?
RL: It’s the way I speak. It’s uncomfortably pronouncing words I confidently but silently read, it’s mispronouncing the same words my mum does, the dreaming holidays in the countryside talking to grass. It’s the mediocre comprehensive secondary school, using a flirtier voice to convince the bus driver to let me on without a ticket, and that voice sticking. It’s the sudden grammar school sixth form, University upt North, and only just now realising that I speak in about five different registers. Sometimes I am very aware and ashamed of it, and others I’m like, well, I start sentences with ‘I’m like’. I want to write in a way that feels true. Poetry is opening up a little in terms of reflecting a plethora of different voices and moving away from having one overarching voice that we must all listen very carefully and above all others to. My poem, ‘Helena’ was written after a conversation I had with a poet, who is from Peckham — not so far from where I grew up in south east London also. He was like, no you don’t talk like you are from South London, and sort of laughed at me for even thinking that I did/still did (did I ever?). So, then I went away and thought, OK, how did we used to speak when we were at school? –and or just after, at like 20, 21. As I was writing ‘Helena’ I realised that it is starkly different to how I speak now, even the pace of it is different, we spoke all in a rush to each other, all the time – and we swore a hell of a lot more. What I found interesting to was recalling old sayings, old ways of using language, ‘swear down’, ‘I’m not being funny, mate’, ‘at the end of the day’ (not all of these made the final edit, but at one point they were all in there). The poem is not a pretty poem, but it was liberating to write in a vernacular that was so essentially us, ours, that felt so much like I was speaking to Helena again, like, really. Our kind of ‘girl-speak’ was so rooted in a specific place and time.
AH: I love that. Going further with the idea of ‘girl-speak’, and the collective, you work with experiences you identify as not having happened to you personally, but that open to larger themes. In ‘Helena’, the speaker is witness to Helena coming round to their mutual friend Tiff’s flat, after being attacked by the bouncer at the nightclub where she worked. The language is raucous, high-energy girl-talk, that takes a turn for the nasty. Helena is speaking. Scarlett is Tiff’s daughter
The er/a and i/e/y rhymes punctuate the sonic patterning of this section with groan and cry sounds, without compromising the spoken feel of the language, or the heartbreak-humour with which Helena creates a retrospective shield for herself against the rape, which the reader is left to imagine. You translated the Brazilian poet and artist Adelaide Ivánova for a chapbook with the PTC last year, whose work denounces crimes of sexual violence. I wondered if this collaboration informed your work of witness in ‘Helena’, and if you could say something about the poem?
RL: I don’t think until I read your question that I truly understood how influential actually translating Adelaide Ivánova’s work was for me. In being invited by The Poetry Translation Centre to translate Adelaide’s work from the literals, and in being introduced to her when she came to the UK to launch and tour the collection, I was influenced, massively. I was moved by her activism, in life and on the page. You’ve made me think about what the act of translation does spiritually; to read someone else’s work, to be deep inside it, to experience and walk around in it. When I’m translating, I always feel like I’m in somebody else’s room. I look around this room trying to work out who this is, essentially, where things go, trying to understand why things are placed where they are placed, and I can, as the translator, move some things around, ask questions, understand. But it’s Adelaide’s room, her creation and design. When translating I aim not to rearrange too heavily, small touches, to extend my room metaphor, I suppose quarter-turn certain plants towards the window, smooth the covers, plump some pillows. Being in Adelaide’s room, the rooms of her poems and experiencing each of them was a joy and a challenge and a privilege.
AH: And they have incredibly tough subject matters.
RL: Incredibly tough, incredibly brave and dangerous too. Working with Adelaide probably did give me the permission, however subconsciously, to write ‘Helena.’
AH: Because it is a very tough poem. You give the story of the rape very clearly. It’s a horrible rape. We know it wasn’t the narrator’s experience. That’s made quite clear. It seemed to me something that was very important to get on the page. Rape is something that people do to each other, and the person to whom it’s done often feels so bad that they tend not to talk about it. That silence makes it more possible for the crime to continue.
RL: Absolutely. It was a tough poem to write – alleviated only by the fact that I kept going back to writing in our voices, and that did alleviate it in a way, because the way we used to speak, in a rush, all at once, angry and sad and laughing at once felt true, and like taking something back, her voice, her clear-as-a-bell voice. That’s what I think I wanted to get to with ‘Helena’. When things happened like that, we didn’t have the exact language, but we knew how to speak to each other, we knew how to tell each other things – but no power to actually help each other. Now, god forbid, if a friend of mine came and said something like this to me, I would be so better equipped, even in terms of language, and then other things thereafter, to be able to offer assistance to that friend if she wanted it. We didn’t, as girls. We glossed it over, at least in terms of what we said aloud, because we all knew that it was bad, but it was so bad the consequences of doing ‘nothing’ always seemed better than the repercussions of saying ‘something’ to people outside of our circle, outside of our experience and language.
AH: As human beings, when tough things happen to us, sometimes we shut them down to some extent, because we are at a point in our life when that’s the only safe thing to do. Helena said what happened, and then she took the shower. She was supported, and she took the shower, and washed it away. That’s an honest account of how we cope with very difficult things.
RL: I think about being that age again, with my girls, my sisters, my old friends or just other girls I went to school with. Really horrific things happened. Regularly. You’d come back to school on a Monday morning and each Monday there would be some standardly horrific story of what had happened at one party or another at the weekend, or at a bus stop, or in a local park. The frequency of these violences done unto us girls almost normalized it. It’s so heartbreaking to remember.
AH: I grew up in the late 70’s, early 80’s. I was reading Rebecca Solnit’s memoir, Recollections of my Non-Existence, which has just come out. She describes that omnipresent violence and threat of violence so strongly. I thought It wasn’t only me. She was having that experience on the West Coast of the US, in San Francisco. She described that predatory environment, being followed home, feeling that she was permanently on verge of being raped. She managed to escape rape, but some of her friends didn’t.
RL: This is not even a long time ago. So, it makes me glad to measure at least how far we’ve come in terms of speaking out about these. I think we have to be careful, or I do, not to be angry with our previous selves, because that was the world only moments ago, and it was the world that made those conditions, not us.
AH: Often when I have written about something difficult, I do a short Buddhist meditation around self-compassion. I never think I need to. But then I do it – and I feel so much less bad. I have to keep going back and being kind to that girl who I was.
RL: We had to survive in the only ways we thought were available and possible, right?
AH: I think a lot of tough things that happen to us as children, as adolescents, as young women, we seal away inside ourselves. We build protective tissue around them. At a later point, we often have to deal with them. When you’re young, you’ve got such a strong instinct just to survive, that you keep going through it somehow. I think you have a different level of life energy at that point, that drives you forward. It changes as we get older. That’s my sense of looking back on the hair-raising escapades of my teenage self, operating in a menacing world.
This is the point at which Rachel Long and I felt there was a natural break. In the conversation that follows, which was all part of our single meeting, we talk about how you can respond with agency and creativity to very difficult experiences, and the ways in which this process of articulation can become of itself reclamatory and healing.
AH: This seems the right place to ask you about the sequence of five or so poems within My Darling from the Lions, recording the sexual abuse of a young girl child by one of the minsters in the church she attends with her family, and the aftermath of this crime in her subsequent life. Because of my own background of having been sexually abused as a child, these made a great impression on me from when I first heard you perform them live. The first of these is ‘Night Vigil’, which is the third poem in the collection. It begins in a child-adult voice “I was a choir-girl. Real angel/ – lightning faced and giant for my age.” There is tongue in cheek wonder at its midnight start – “a time too exciting to fathom. / How the minute and the hour stood to attention!” The miracle stops there, however, as the rest of the poem falls down through time, to an ending its beginning could never have anticipated:
During the Three Members’ Prayer, my sister fell asleep under a chair, so she never knew
how I sang. Or how I fell silent when the evangelist with smiling eyes said in his pulpit voice,
Here, child. Had she woken, I would have told her Sleep, sleep!
so, she’d never know Smiling Eyes also meant teeth,
or that he had blown candles for hands, with which he led me down an incensed corridor,
and I followed.
While this is a very difficult experience to take on board, you generate protection for the reader and creator alike through the child’s desire to shelter her sister, and through the way the imagery lets what happened be apprehended step by step. The “blown candles” and “incensed corridor” are simultaneously sacred and penetrative. We have in that moment the choice to understand the simultaneous desecration of an act of faith, and a child’s body.
Workshops I have taken with you instigate an alchemy of deep, internal self-liberation. ‘Free-writing’, along with engaging with secondary sources, such as dreams or artworks, help generate less ‘managed’ creative responses? Was that how you put ‘Night Vigil’ together? How did it come into being kind of creatively?
RL: Maybe I should keep a kind of diary or a log of how each poem was written because I find it really hard to remember them.
AH: Like dreams.
RL: They are like dreams, that’s perfect Alice. Yeah, they are like my dreams. I can’t remember how I got there. Even sometimes with the edits, if I was to go back and find a real old version of that poem, I wouldn’t remember it. The only thing I do remember is that this poem was much longer. At that time, I was on the Jerwood-Arvon mentoring scheme with Caroline Bird. She was the first person to read that poem. As I said, I was grateful for the way Caroline read me. I had never written like this before. I had never framed such a peak experience. She didn’t do that awkward thing that people do, she read it as an artwork, or a draft of a work of art, and did not focus on the ‘apparently personal’ experience in the poem, but the poem as an experience itself. I’m trying to recall now, and I think part of what made the early draft longer is that it continued with the girl down the corridor. Caroline asked, why don’t you end it here?” — end at the girl following the man down the corridor, the poem becoming the corridor. In this way, the reader experiences it as the little girl, and becomes the girl, walking, ever-walking down that corridor with that man. The corridor then also becomes a metaphor for how the experience goes on, haunts you in many ways, forever.
AH: Exactly, and it’s much scarier.
RL: Much scarier, yes. And then she went “whoosh” with the pen, and she was like What do you think? And it kind of made me go eurgh like in my stomach. I was like yes; this is what it felt like. As a poem that was the closest and most fitting frame for it. If you end a poem in a place where you have refrained from summing it up or allowing your older voice to come in and intercept it – you leave the reader in freefall.
AH: That is an amazing answer. It’s just a stunning, stunning poem. I heard you perform it live, and really longed for the time it would be published, and I could read it on the page because it felt so important to me personally.
RL: Is that when we met that night, was that in the Poetry Cafe with Kaveh Akbah?
AH: I think so, yeah.
RL: It was so beautiful, and you were so generous afterwards, thank you.
AH: It was just so impactful for me. I had a hunger to be able to have those poems on the page. I knew they would make my life feel different – and they did. I’m really serious about that. There are many reasons why this collection has been important to me, but I hungered to be able to read those poems.
The next poem but one after ‘Night Vigil’ is ‘The Clean’. It starts out sounding like it’s ‘about’ bulimia – “Imagine/ eating all the snow/ you’ve ever wanted/ in one sitting, / not having to pay for it.” But then, after adding in “avocado”, “toast butter/ cascading your fingers” and “pink prosecco”, it morphs into something sadder. Or maybe just more specific, if you take the view that many eating disorders stem from something the individual cannot stomach. The second stanza reveals:
I know a place that is snow falling from the Artex ceiling into a room you will never return to. A promise piling like cable knit. 4-ply snow-day snow.
Some of the biggest things I write about are things which I had the least control over, but which have impacted me very deeply. Following on from ‘Night Vigil’, this room full of falling snow feels like a frozen, traumatic moment which is continuously happening, but cannot at the same time be properly felt. Does that seem like a fair reading to you, and would you be able to say something about these first two stanzas?
RL: I think it’s a stunning reading. What I wanted to do with ‘The Clean’ was to write about a woman with bulimia, and then in the second stanza, perhaps trace through the colour as it was, through this whiteness. But then in the same sense, trying to walk through the colour into why this woman is kneeling at this bowl of whiteness and expelling. Without wanting to say explicitly, because I don’t even know if that is necessarily explicit even to my understanding, but to wonder whether that because of sexual abuse, in childhood in that snow room, as in that frozen room, whether that is the reason, or a contributing reason, to why she has bulimia.
Is there something about her body that would be less, have been less desirable to someone else had she looked different? Had she been in a different body, if her body did something different, would that be able to change the outcome? This is what you said about lack of control. Bulimia is very much about what can and cannot be controlled.
AH: This is a generalization, but ever since the sexual abuse began when I was a child, I have always struggled with IBS. It is as if my body wants to throw things out. The snow room isn’t the end of ‘The Clean’, though. The final verse begins “I know a place where/ the sad can’t go.” Now, expulsion becomes a political act as the speaker instructs the protagonist “Go on, baby, give it back/ to whence it came. / Dispel three dinosaur dinners/ like forgiveness, / like it never happened.” The subject is told “Girl, you can be new, / surrender it all/ into one bowl. This, / your hollow.” The suggestion is that voiding, and expelling, are also creative acts, because resisting and rejecting what was forced in without consent. In this context, is it fair to think the holding pages of the collection make a kind of bowl, and create opportunities for restitution? Not just by vomiting forth, but by expressing things that were silenced at lots of levels.
AH: It seems to me that the turn in the poem was crucial. That’s why I wanted to put the question into two halves, that turn into restitution and beauty, without denying.
RL: Thank you, Alice. An act of restitution and freedom from your own body. You can be free of it. An action can be erased. You can float above it.
AH: Speaking it and putting it in words is part of that process of creative expulsion.
RL: Yeah, absolutely. You have reminded me. I always did feel like that – free and light.
AH: I am really interested in how we make it through and how we make it through partly creatively as well. Rather than just casting people as being without agency, also looking at the ways in which we claim ourselves. Bulimia is widespread through society. Many people experience who are not necessarily artists. There is a sort of restitutory justice in the body somehow.
Suggesting that maybe something has shifted, and become freer as a result of this act of voiding and voicing, the next poem, ‘Open’, moves from a place of potential trauma to one of freedom:
This morning, she told me I sleep with my mouth open and my hands in my hair. I say, What, Tiff, like screaming? She says, No, Rach, like abandon.
It is one of a sequence of poems, all titled ‘Open’, that link and orchestrate the collection, changing small but significant details with each iteration. You said in your Forwards interview with Kim Moore that Don Patterson encouraged you to develop this strand. I wondered if you could say something more about it?
RL: I was speaking to the brilliant Nuar Alsadir about dreams for a radio programme. She said something like, I liked the ‘Open’ sequence, I liked how they show these flashes of awakenings, these flashes of desire. She thought that they showed the waker’s unconscious desires. More and more with this book, post-publication, I discover new things in it. Oftentimes by readers – who have far more insight than me into what I have apparently ‘done’. Don Paterson really did encourage them significantly, I think originally there were three, but he suggested weaving them throughout the whole first section of the book. As soon as he suggested it, I was like, of course! It made poetic sense, narrative sense. Don is an extraordinary editor. I think that increasing my explorations into that ‘Open’ sequence opened up what the whole book concerns and interrogates, intimacy, desire, dreams, the material and immaterial, appearance and reality.
AH: I make all my work completely blind like a mole digging for the surface, with no clue really as to what I am doing. You find out later. The news catches up with you.
RL: I like that, like moles.
AH: We have very, very powerful paddles for digging up through the earth, as far I’m concerned. I have to work blind. I can’t just sit down and do it. It has to come to me.
AH: ‘8’ is another poem which continues ‘The Clean’s’ process of marking the white page. Its act of witnessing is also the relocation of a moment of private, concealed horror to a public externalized space. As with ‘Night Vigil’, the speaker moves back and forward between being a bewildered, uncomprehending child to a more knowing adult. So, readers can have a sense of how the poem works, I’m going to quote the first section in full:
‘Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean: wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.’ – Psalm 51:7
this memory can’t skip it hops on one leg the other making the buckles on my mary janes bounce then clang cute shackles my feet will hopscotch-land on 8 wash me at 8 I can’t tell time i’m led through school and play tea then bed at 8 i can’t read faces tell hands to stop unfreeze my grin that room his weight wash me and I shall be the girls at school call that place mini but mum says it’s a front bottom
Later “time decides itself till i’m pressed/ apple against that wall that sunday/ that school”. The voice of the poem is somewhere between a playground skipping song and a crime scene report, with “wash me” breaking through over and over again like a child’s plea to undo the moment when “touched/ by the hand of his clock i am/ instantly older”.
While the narrative is devastating, sonically, this is a very lovely poem, especially when you perform it live, partly because of the way the rhymes and half-rhymes dance through the lines. I wondered whether choosing to tell ‘8’ in this way – weaving the everyday words the child might have used into the story it is suggested that she was unable to tell – is a form of restitution and reclamation of the child’s self and innocence, conferring a retrospective agency through beauty, and as well as through witness?
RL: The language had to be the language of the girl at eight. The lines all being of eight syllables was because I had the image of the girl playing hopscotch, the beat, the rhythm, the form came from that. Even like the lower-casing of the letters. I wanted it to look and feel on the page as if she is writing and/or telling it.
AH: Because it is the only lower case i/ first person in the collection?
RL: It felt right for this poem. She has been made less of a capital I, rendered less of a person by another, a big I.
AH: But it’s also like a sort of crime scene report. I mean we get what went on. She speaks, but she is also spoken for by the poem. That to me is its power. She stays small but the poem is actually pretty hardcore in what it delivers. That’s an amazing achievement that you can do both at the same time.
RL: Thank you Alice. Do you know, it also came out of, Kathryn Maris’s brilliant Poetry School class which we were both students of at the same time One week she set us an assignment to write in the intonation or rhythm of a prayer. What I handed in the week after was not very good, but with much longer to think about it and let it ruminate and ‘come out’ in its own time, I do think that exercise was the catalyst for ‘8’
AH: Some of her prompts were very valuable to me. I did a really good Poetry School workshop with Shivanee Ramlochan online at the end of 2019. There are some poems that I very very definitely have no intention of ever writing. Those are the ones that it is useful to have prompts for – because otherwise I will strenuously protect myself from writing them for decades. A prompt can knock out that little peg that you have blocked into the hole. Then the poem pops out.
Thinking about healing, wholeness, and restitution, are central to the beginning of the second section, titled ‘A Lineage of Wigs’. The first poem, ‘Orb’, floats like a rainbow soap bubble of a praise poem. It calls to mind some of Selima Hill’s brevity, but takes it to new places:
Mum combs her auburn ‘fro up high. So high it’s an orb. Everyone wants to – but cannot – touch it.
The “auburn ‘fro” is an angel’s halo vested in human form, and an emblem of unbroken-ness. Is that ‘perfection’ something you wanted to assert and reclaim?
RL: Yes, absolutely. The word orb changed. It was crown at first, because in that sequence there is the image of the queen arrowed on a sofa.
AH: Yeah, I remember that.
RL: It did sort of look like that. I think to me when I was younger, looking up at my mother . I’m really enjoying the way that you have read and seen the poem. That was exactly what I wanted to do with it. I’m so glad you have read and seen it like that.
AH: It felt like a really important reset point. We go from a tough poem to a place of wholeness and beauty and unbrokenness. The last question I’d like to ask you is about the title and the cover, which shows a young Black girl in a candy striped dress, with her back to the reader, looking inwards towards the poems that lie ahead. Can I just ask you about the title?
RL: My Darling from the Lions is taken from Psalm 35. ‘Rescue my soul from their destruction, my darling from the lions.’ It is a ’ Psalm that I heard a lot growing up, either hearing it recited in church, or by my mother from her bedroom, or we were instructed to say it, for protection or for strength. The collection wasn’t always called My Darling… Even up to a year before publication it had a different working title. But, for some reason, I must have read Psalm 35 again or seen something of it, or was reminded of it, and by this verse particularly and it was as if it was the first time I’d read it, I was like that’s so beautiful. A darling for a soul. There is so much rich and stunning language in the Bible, the poetry of it all. . When I read that verse again, I thought, this is what I am trying to get to with the collection. The girls and the women particularly are threatened by different lions. I wanted it to be a sort of a call for help and protection from something higher, whether that be God, or art. I wanted the collection to pose the question: can the spirit survive life intact? I also love the idea of referring to oneself as a darling. You can, even when something ugly has happened to you, begin to love yourself enough to refer to yourself as you would another woman or another girl. I would call Tiff or Helena darlings. Hey, my loves, my darlings.
AH: That’s absolutely beautiful. I think that’s the perfect place at which to end. It’s been an amazing privilege to talk about this extraordinary book. I have waited a long time to be able to hold these poems. I’m so grateful that they are out in the world – and that they will be coming out in America as well with Tin House. My Darling from the Lions is a wonderful book to read – and will change how people think. Thank you Rachel Long.
RL: Thank you so very much, Alice.
Rachel is at @rachelnalong on twitter.
Rachel Long’s debut collection, My Darling from the Lions was published by Picador in August 2020. It was shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection, and The Costa Book Award 2020. Rachel is the founder of Octavia Poetry Collective for women of colour.
Poet Andrea Gorman spoke out at Joe Biden’s inauguration against the force in America that would rather ‘shatter our nation rather than share it’. In her stunning poem, ‘The Hill We Climb’, she stated instead ‘there is always light…./If only we’re brave enough to be it.’ Anyone listening will have felt the restitutionary power of her words, written and delivered, as she stated, by “a skinny Black girl, descended from slaves and raised by a single mother.’
Globally, one of the most necessary questions today is around who gets heard – and who does not. It has been at the heart of the Black Lives Matter movement. It is equally central to the legacies of empires round the world, as Satham Sanghera argues in his powerful new study, Empireland, and to our relationship to our environment and the fair distribution of its resources.
Being heard is also crucial in poetry, as two new collections by Pascale Petit and Romalyn Ante remind us. Pascale Petit’s Tiger Girl draws the life of her half-Indian grandmother, born in secret to her great-grandfather’s serving maid, together with conditions in and around the Tiger reserves of Central India. Romalyn Ante’s Antiemetic for Homesickness explores more recent experiences of migration to the UK, and working within the NHS, against the healing, nurturing background of the Filipino culture which her family brought with them, and which continues to shape their understanding of themselves in the world.
I had the great privilege of hosting a performance and conversation between Pascale Petit and Romalyn Ante, towards the end of 2021, with a very enthusiastic live audience. Immediately afterwards, coming up to the holiday period, with infection levels rising steeply, and restrictions changing all the time, was not the right time to share the recording.
But now, with the UK, Europe, and much of the rest of the world, in varying degrees of lockdown, and everyone still separated in physical terms from each other, co-experiencing resources such as this conversation seem to be of the utmost importance in maintaining our sense of connectedness with each other as fellow human beings, and as creative artists.
To maximise accessibility, I have transcribed both my own introduction, and the conversation between the three of us. To experience the full event, specifically and crucially, Pascale Petit’s and Romalyn Ante’s readings of their poems, please click on either the video or audio links below. The video link has close captions enabled via Youtube, although you will need to turn these on in the control bar at the bottom right of the screen. Apologies for the occasional surreal spellings.
If you would like to see the texts of the poems, they are available in Tiger Girl and Antiemetic for Homesickness through the buy buttons below. There are also links to some of the published poems on Romalyn Ante’s and Pascale Petit’s websites.
alice hiller’s introduction to Pascale Petit and Romalyn Ante, 26 November 2020:
After a rough year and a tough November, it’s a real pleasure to welcome you to this act of creative community. We’re here to celebrate the deep, healing play of Pascale Petit’s and Romalyn Ante’s brilliant new collections, Tiger Girl and Antiemetic for Homesickness. Both Pascale and Romalyn are poets of courage, as well as of distinction.
In a week when we learnt that the UK’s foreign aid budget commitment will be broken, and while so many vulnerable voices are being excluded from the global conversation, Pascale and Romalyn give witness to a wider range of experiences than many poets. They also help us ask ourselves and our governments, whose foot is being kept on whose head?
Writing about life in the Philippines, Welsh gardens, and the stunning nature reserves of central India, Pascale and Romalyn move our minds to places of delight – even as they remind us that the world is still far from being a fair or kind place for many human and creaturely lives, and the fragile ecosystems and economies which sustain them.
Our format tonight will be that Romalyn will read from Antiemetic for Homesickness, published by Chatto, followed by Pascale from Tiger Girl, published by Bloodaxe. Afterwards, I’ll open a conversation between them.
Before the readings, I’d like to say a few words about Pascale and Romalyn. Winner of the Ondaatje Prize, and inaugural Laurel Prize for Mama Amazonica, amongst very many other distinguished awards, Pascale Petit is also a radically empowering supporter of new voices in poetry through her mentoring, teaching and judging, as Romalyn and I can both testify.
Over eight collections, Pascale’s poems have brought an artist’s eye to the Amazon river and its rainforest, the arid landscapes of the Languedoc, and the markets and historic sites of Paris including her beloved Jardin des Plantes. Tiger Girl, from which she’ll be reading shortly, gives us one of the most life-filled portraits of a woman of colour, and of mature years, that I have read in a long time. It should be bought for that reason alone, aside from its many other treasures.
Moving between between continents, Tiger Girl documents Pascale’s time growing up in Wales with her fierce half-Indian grandmother – who took in washing, told fortunes and made her garden a canvas equal to any artist’s. The poems also respond to Pascale’s experiences on recent trips to nature reserves in Central India. Celebrating the magnificent wild creatures who inhabit those parks, Pascale also registers the damage to them by poverty-stricken poachers, from whose social class her Indian great-grandmother, her great-grandfather’s maid, would have come.
Mentored like me by Pascale under the Jerwood Arvon scheme, which brought the three of us together, Romalyn shares with Pascale an intuitive sense of the mythic residing within the everyday. She is similarly the recipient of many distinguished awards, including the Poetry London Prize, the Manchester Poetry Prize, the Primers Prize, and the Creative Futures Platinum Award.
Having grown up in the Philippines until she was sixteen, before coming to Wolverhampton, and subsequently training as a NHS nurse and then counsellor, Romalyn conveys how “the wind has the ears of a wild boar” and explains why you have to turn your shirt inside out to find your way home, whether that home is warmed by the “smoke of a Brummie accent”, or cooled by the night breeze.
Antiemetic for Homesickness moves compellingly between the landscapes, and foods, and folklore of the Philippines – and life as a nurse within the NHS, while living in the Black Country. Exploring what it can mean to make the UK your home, Romalyn also witnesses the racism to which so many people who come here have been subjected, and how they have made strong, creative lives notwithstanding the challenges faced.
The co-founder of the wonderful harana poetry, for poets working with English as a parallel or additional language, like Pascale, Romalyn is both an outstanding poet, and a key figure for the expansion of the possible in poetry, both through her own work, and her support for others. She also gives us life from a nurse’s point of view, as never before, another reason to buy her essential Antiemetic for Homesickness. It’s my great pleasure now to hand over to Romalyn Ante.
[Romalyn Ante and Pascale Petit introduce and read their poems, available via the Youtube or Audio links.]
AH: That was fantastic Pascale. Thank you so much. It’s amazing to hear the two of you reading together. I’m going to ask you a few questions because I’ve lived with, loved and thought about your collections since they were published. The first question is about making worlds visible that are known to you, but not to your readers? Pascale, I’m thinking both about your poems about wildlife in Indian National Parks, but also about your poems about life in rural Wales? Romalyn, I’m thinking about your poems about rural life in the Philippines, but also about the day to day life of a nurse in the NHS? We can really feel the worlds you both have made in your poems. I wondered if that was an important part of making them?
RA: Thank you Alice. That’s a very important question. In the UK Filipinos are the second highest immigrant NHS staff, next to Indians. In the US the highest number of immigrant nurses are Filipinos. Most recently, specially during this pandemic, the West has been really dependent on migrant nurses but little is known about us, our own narratives, our own lives. I feel that mostly people only see us on the surface without knowing our pasts and our own tales, why we came here. I have people commenting to me ‘So you’re Filipino. If you’re Filipino, where are you from? Are you from Korea then?’ They don’t even know what a Filipino is. There are also some readers’ comments. You shouldn’t really read GoodReads comments. But I do. I read my reviews because I want to improve. There are some comments, ‘I don’t know. I can’t relate.’ But for me the truth is unfamiliarity, the state of being unknown, is not the same as non-existence. Migrant nurses exist. We do exist in this world. But somehow we are not known and what puzzles me is why is the United Kingdom or the West so dependent on a sector of people that has so little voice, and that has never been heard of. And this is the reason why I wrote this. To really show them not only the physical place we came from, but also to show them our narrative, what propels us to do this.
AH: That’s a fantastic answer. Thank you so much.
PP. Thank you. Roma that was fantastic. With Tiger Girl, I wanted to honour my grandmother, and write a book almost of love poems, you know, and acknowledge that she was the daughter of a maid and she was taken in by her father’s white family and she was very poor when I lived with her in Wales. We didn’t have indoor toilets or running water. Really quite poor. Children don’t notice that. What I did notice was an enormous garden and lots of animals, and the incredible world of the garden which she worked in all the time, and which I worked in for her as well. That’s one half of the book. The other is where she came from. The story of the tiger, and my wanting to see tigers, and to see this wildness that she came from, that she’d encountered as a baby, and the terrible realisation that that wildness is so so threatened and endangered. Even the tigers that are safe are fighting each other. Daughters kill mothers and so on because the forests are too small for them. Even though the tourists are only allowed in 20% of the National Parks. There’s still not enough space. They have enormous territories. Having seen the tigers, and seen how – I’ve seen wild jaguars as well in the Amazon rainforest – to see what they are like, in their territories in the wild, is so different from seeing them in zoos. Of course there are far more tigers in zoos than there are in India. There’s about 2,800 in India, and only a handful elsewhere. So that was the world I was trying to bring forward.
AH: Most of us never get to those reserves, to see them through someone’s eyes, to see them emotionally, rather than just on a wildlife documentary, is incredibly powerful. I really appreciated that. My next question is you both work within your collections with a powerful and healing female figure. For Pascale, it is your grandmother. For Romalyn, it is your nurse mother. Did it feel important to honour the ways in which we as women can nurture each other?
RA: Yes, definitely. In Antiemetic for Homesickness the mother is the one who leaves to provide a better life for her family. So if you think about it, the mother is away from the very essence of being a mother, which is to take care of her own children. And I think by shedding light on that fact, I also needed to shed light on the fact that in leaving there could also be healing. So even though the mother has left, as a sacrifice almost, she still heals the socio-economic problems that her family has. She still heals people abroad. She heals people where she works. That’s incredibly important for me, not only as a nurse, but also as a daughter of a migrant nurse. I feel very similar to Pascale, writing about the voicing of the poet is really healing the world that is full of annihilation.
PP: When I wasn’t with my grandmother, I was in various homes and things in France. If I was with my parents, it was a bad experience. I eventually went to live with my mother when I was a teenager, when my grandmother kind of threw me out, which she had to do, she was tired, she had a teenager on her hands. But my mother was severely mentally ill, and couldn’t really look after me, and was a malevolent force for me. I had a malevolent maternal figure there, so it was wonderful for me to have a chance in this book to write about a really benevolent figure, who not only was benevolent, but was a very powerful person. She was known as the local witch where we lived. As a good witch, but she was. And she also had an extraordinary second sight. I did have the experience of being with her and her telling me about ghosts. For example she saw the postman who lived down our lane. For example she said ‘I’ve just seen him walking down our lane and he said hello to me as if everything was normal but his feet were floating off, weren’t touching the ground, so I knew he was a ghost. I knew he had just died.’ And he had. So there were always those kind of experiences going on. She also used to tell fortunes. People in the village used to come. The vicar and the doctor would come to have their fortunes told. I would go with her as well to fairs to see her tell fortunes.
AH: Looking back, women have been disempowered for centuries. It’s really important that we make work than honours female power, female goodness. It seems to me a very positive thing to do. But at the same time these healing figures work within very injurious and injured societies and you both show them as being capable of deeply wounding those who are dependent on their care and provision. Pascale, you explore your grandmother returning you to your mother. Romalyn, you look at the impacts on you of being separated from your mother when she goes to nurse abroad, and not seeing her for several years. In each case, the wounding behaviour is driven by larger socio-economic pressures, and the vulnerable positions which these women occupy. The fact that your mother left the Philippines to give you and your siblings a better life, Romalyn. It was the only way she could materially improve your lives. Your grandmother had very limited resources Pascale. We’re now talking in the pandemic about the impact of material strain, of poverty, on families. Was it also important to show that in difficult circumstances even loving people can in injurious ways, through no real volition of their own. Or does that feel too challenging?
PP: It can’t be challenging. You need to write the truth. For me, I was thirteen. So the injury wasn’t being moved from my grandmother. I was still a child. She was still the best thing that ever happened. The real wound was not being allowed to grieve her loss, when I lived with my mother. That was the wound. I never realised that I wasn’t allowed to grieve. I just knew it was a subject that mustn’t be mentioned. I wasn’t allowed to grieve for my grandmother, who I saw as my mother, because my mother couldn’t bear that.
RA: I think what you said a while ago Alice really resonated with me, when you said we left because we were propelled by socio-economic circumstances. See, even though in Antiemetic for Homesickness, the left-behind-child was left by her nurse mother, this story is not unique to me. It happens to a lot of children, millions of children around the world. Your parents don’t even need to go abroad for you to be a left-behind-child. In China, parents go to richer cities to help financially with the family. My mother left because she really had no choice. But then again, she made a choice. Her only choice was not having any choice. She left knowing that the people she would leave behind would be hurt. That knowledge hurt her, I’m sure, in return. For me it’s not just me who is wounded, it’s the mother who is wounded. It’s very timely and relevant to this day, especially when I see my colleagues, or my mother even, who has been going all around the country helping in the pandemic front line, my other Filipino colleagues who could choose not to go home, as their homes across the street, so they don’t put their children at risk of Covid. So mothers have always been leaving their children, and this story has always been happening. But then again, it’s not the children who get hurt. The wounded one is also the mother. And I think that’s what Antiemetic for Homesickness is also about.
AH: That really comes across. It’s very important. I see we’re coming to the end of the time. I have one final question. While neither of you holds back from speaking about difficult subjects, both collections give the gift to their readers of being able to abide in beauty. Romalyn, you let us glimpse the pre-colonised life, and warmth of community, in the Philippines. Pascale, your work gives itself deeply to the natural world. Was that an important thing to do, to give the gift of beauty, when the world is facing so much difficulty?
PP: Absolutely. You can’t write about the threats to the natural world without showing why, without trying to show – it’s a real challenge – the awe and the wonder of it. That’s something I’ve always felt. You have to show what it is you’re trying to protect. What the non-human world is. I keep getting these flashes which are images of the planet without one human life on it, without animals, and that’s like hell. I don’t want that to happen. But I need to show the beauty and the awe. The wonder of tigers.
AH: Absolutely. Stay with the programme Pascale! Romalyn?
RA: I echo what Pascale has said. It’s very true to me. It’s also one of the reasons, when Chatto asked me what kind of cover I wanted, I really wanted it to be colourful, with some kind of insignias of the Philippines, the sun bird, the abaniko flower. For me these beautiful images serve as anchors, and guides, that will lead us back to healing, and perhaps to hope. It’s very similar to what we hope for now. We look for that beauty. When we can go again to our favourite coffee shops again, or we can hug our parents again, or meet up with our friends. I think that’s very important to look for beauty, because beauty gives hope.
AH: I think that’s the perfect note on which to end. I’m going to thank everyone who’s joined us. I’m going to especially thank Pascale and Romalyn for these two brilliant books. The season of gifting is coming upon us. These have to be top of your list. This has been a stunning evening. Thank you so much. Everybody, buy the books. Thank you so much.
This spring and summer, when travel of any distance has been more or less impossible for most of us, I have consoled myself with words that do the journeying for me. Two books which have drawn me back again and again are Nina Mingya Powles’ debut collection, Magnolia, published by Nine Arches Press, and her collection of essays, Tiny Moons, which move between Shanghai and Wellington and Malaysia, published by the Emma Press. Within their pages I can cycle through the swamp-hot summer nights of the deserted student campus in Shaghai, or climb into rain forests, or swim in the freezing, exhilarating Southern Ocean and warm myself afterwards with a bowl of dumplings.
Nina’s description of tearing the papery inner skin from the pink flesh of a pomelo, and the sweet sting of the flesh inside, encouraged me to buy my first fruit, in a beautiful printed wrapper which felt like a journey of its own even before I peeled open the yellow globe of the fruit.
As an act of thanks for this, I’m reprinting the review I wrote in harana poetry for Nina’s now sold out pamphlet, field notes on a downpour. This is one of the segments of her debut Magnolia, currently on the Forwards prize shortlist. I’ve included a photo I took of a magnolia in Golders Green just before lockdown last spring. For all of us with dual or multiple heritages Nina’s work is a place where we can find and understand ourselves, and know that being made from many places can gift us with a richness that is also strength.
From harana poetry, issue 1.
For her pamphlet field notes on a downpour, self-proclaimed“mudblood” Nina Mingya Powles travels out of English back towards her mother’s Chinese mother-tongue. Powles previously wrote about this process in prose about living in Shanghai. Neither the narrator, nor the city, of this eight page pamphlet are directly named, however. Instead, their identities accrete over time within the pages, like the Chinese characters whose processes of formation and signifying Powles explores. She begins:
The first character of my mother’s name, 雯 wen, is made of rain 雨 and language 文. According to my dictionary, together they mean “multi-coloured clouds” or “cloud tints.”
Mouthfuls of rain, the blue undersides of clouds, her hydrangeas in the dark. To stop them from slipping I write them down.
By hearing, and seeing, the sound “wen” transliterated into English, followed by its Chinese character, and then the two characters from which this is made up – rain and language – the process of signing simultaneously enacts and undoes itself. We recognise the dashes which mark the rain within the ‘rain’ character. We then experience the “mouthfuls of rain” which the words become as they enter mouths that speak them, and minds that think them, before mutating through the cloud imagery into “her hydrangeas in the dark”.
This could be Katherine Mansfield territory, about whom Powles has previously written – except that everything is taking place in a city where “old/ buildings are crushed to pieces” and “the subway map rewrites/ itself each night”. The second page introduces a second unnamed character, whom the speaker connects with a modern form of illumination – and also something rooted in the past: “Not long after we met I learnt the word [ ] neon, which is both a type of light, and a/ type of memory.” Attempting to come closer to each other through language on the third page, the pair find it multiplying and sliding away from them, towards the bodies in which we imagine they may also meet:
One night you said my name in the dark and it came out like a ghost 鬼 from between two trees 林. A ghost that rhymes with apath between rice fields which rhymes with a piece of steamed bread which rhymes with paralysis of one side of the body which rhymes with thin blood vessels.
The fourth page opens itself onto watermelons and rain, and the complexities of a tonal language where “More than a hundred characters share the same sound. // ‘zong.’” Their meanings include a variety of mark-makings – “footprint, trace” and “the uneven flight of a bird”. The fifth page uses the gaze of the “the lady at the fruit shop” to let us see the poet’s “half Chinese” face – “(She points to my hair). We come up against a word I don’t know. She draws a character in/ the air with one finger and it hangs there between us.”
“zong”: 总 assemble, put together / always 踪 footprint, trace 翪 the uneven flight of a bird
The sixth page runs into cracks in the ceiling – not unlike the strokes for characters – through which rain water drops onto the “you” and the “I”. Afterwards the poet notes that “two hundred white tundra swans were found dead beside a lake in Inner/ Mongolia.” Doubling the hundred-plus meanings of “zong” – the rupture which this collective swan death entails also visits itself on a jar of honey which “shattered softly, the/ pieces melting apart in my hands.”
On the seventh page, the differences between animate and inanimate dissolve, within “ming”’s refractions of meaning and sound, all rhyming with “the first part of my Chinese name”. Powles, who has through this part-named herself, discovers “I am a tooth-/like thing. I am half sun half moon, and the scissors used to cut away the steamed lotus/ leaves. I am honey strokes spreading over the tiles.”
On the luckiest eighth and final page the word “honey” migrates into a “honey pomelo” being sliced by a man with “a faded tattoo of a knife on the back of his hand,/ the blade adjacent to his thumb” – as if he were the human equivalent of a written character, with his meaning marked onto him. Building and collapsing houses of word cards, field notes on a downpour reaches through language towards the images which it evokes in our minds to ask how we exist to ourselves and others, within and beyond the ways in which we communicate.
To read the whole review, which also talks about works by Belinda Zhawi, Raymond Antrobus, Mary Jean Chan and Lila Matsumoto, please follow this link to harana 1:
Trigger warning: references to sexual abuse in childhood.
In common with others who were sexually abused in childhood, I have been haunted by the awareness that millions of children round the world are potentially being locked in with sexual predators, as a consequence of measures necessary to limit the spread of COVID 19. I am also deeply concerned for the psychological health of adults living with their memories of having been subjected to this crime, without the normal range of social interactions and support, which would usually help them to cope and hold the past at bay.
While art and activism can be awkward bedfellows, the current crisis has made me think how I can use the body of work I am making around my own history of being groomed and then sexually abused as a child, to bring awareness of this crime to a wider audience. My intention is part of an ongoing project aimed at finding ways to counter the devastating impacts when children are sexually abused. I also want to make the subject more comprehensible to those whose lives it has not touched directly, in order that we may work collectively for change.
One of the first challenges I faced in writing about sexual abuse was how to find a form of language which respects the inarticulacy of the child’s experience. This arises from the dissociative pressures of shock and shame, in combination with the intimidation and concealment perpetrated by the adult abuser. In her brilliant study, Minor Feelings, Cathy Park Hong cites the poet Myung Mi Kim telling her that “attention to silence is in itself an interrogation” [p139]. This chimes both with my own practice, and that of my late father-in-law, the sculptor Oscar Nemon, whose work has been part of my life since I was sixteen.
Together with millions of Europeans of Jewish heritage, Nemon and his sister Bella lost almost their entire family to the Holocaust. In their case, the twenty-three murdered relatives included their mother, brother and grandmother. Like many who suffer loss on this scale, aside from one interview at the end of his life, Nemon does not seem to have been able to speak out loud about this tragedy, not even to his children, nor to his close friends.
Better known for his portraits from life of Sigmund Freud and Winston Churchill, Nemon did however respond to the Shoah in his art, which also addresses wider questions of the impacts of genocide on surviving communities. Titled Humanity, his memorial to those killed was unveiled in 1965 in his home town of Osijek, now in Croatia (see below). Emerging from on sketches stretching back to the second world war, the composition shows a mother lifting her child to the future in defiance of annihilation.
While there is no direct allusion to genocide, it is a composition of the utmost vulnerability. Reaching out and up, neither mother nor child have any form of protection, silently reminding us of the undefendedness of the millions of civilians whose lives were taken both in the concentration camps, and en route for them. The model for the baby was Nemon’s son Falcon, born in 1941 as Yugoslavia was invaded, signalling the likely end of Nemon’s family of origin. Falcon later became my husband.
Nemon only completed two Shoah sculptures, but from 1945 onwards he made sketches exploring living in the aftermath of this loss. They often feature groups of mourning figures, standing together in solidarity, or holding one another. I first discovered them within his papers after Falcon died in 2002. Nemon had previously died in 1985. Recently bereaved, they moved me deeply. When I look through these drawings now, I am additionally struck by their relationships to silences, and silencings, and how they build bodies of gestural language from not speaking. Below is the rapidly drawn Don’t Forget, whose title and injunction come from the page of the memo pad on which it was executed in black felt tip pen.
Turned away from the viewer, the two figures hold each other, and possibly a child each, in a wordless enactment of grief. They make their loss palpable, but decline to let us into their closed circle, which is a place we can imagine, but not know. By existing, Don’t Forget gives witness, and forms a concrete place of testimony to a crime whose perpetrators attempted to deny it, and to destroy all evidence of what was done. This witnessing is an ambition I also have for the body of work I am making, as I hope to show in the discussion which follows of five poems published since the start of the pandemic in the Cambridge Literary Review and One Hand Clapping.
As a reviewer, and former features journalist, my intention is to use the additional resource of my prose to open up the context of these poems during these uniquely difficult times, to support children and adults with experiences of sexual abuse, whether current or historic. With funding for programmes to heal the aftermaths of this crime being cut, I also wanted to throw light on the nature of what happens when a child is sexually abused, to make it easier to understand why the damage, though often invisible, can be so profound.
‘twice told’ and ‘quadrant’, the first two poems I will discuss, were published in the full UK lockdown within the ‘script as identity’ issue of the Cambridge Literary Review. There is a clip of me reading them for the online launchavailable here. Looking back to the autumn of 1977, ‘twice told’ documents the immediate aftermath of the sexual abuse when I was just thirteen. At this point, the physical element had been stopped, but I had no means or opportunity of saying what had been done to me.
Set in a hospital room, the poem remembers the tone of the many conversations I had with Ann Dally, the psychiatrist who admitted me. I weighed 4 and a half stone, and had stopped eating in order to be able to die, but anorexia was still largely regarded as the disease of over-ambitious, perfectionist middle class girls. While Ann Dally rapidly became aware that my relationship with my abuser was not what it should be, it never occurred to her to ask about the possibility of sexual abuse.
‘twice told’ lies in a lozenge on the page, forming the shape of one the many sedating pills I was given. It alternates the psychiatrist’s questions with the child patient’s thoughts about a chaffinch she sees, who is neither able to sing nor fly. Working through the image of a flightless bird, with a grotesquely swollen beak, the poem catches both the impossibility of speaking, and the resulting weight of not being able to do to so.
‘quadrant’, moves beyond this to register the silences surrounding sexual abuse being being enforced, endured, and finally negotiated. It suggests that we may not have to remain in a place of injury forever. The word quadrant initially meant a quarter of a day, or six hours. This led to the name being given to an instrument, shaped like a quarter circle, used to measure altitudes in astronomy and navigation.
The poem is built from four quadrants. The first imagines a little girl’s words as “soft pink kissing” spread onto “iced cakes” and then fed back into her own mouth. The “steel hooves” of ‘intimidation’ follow, and lead to the exile of ‘exclusion’ when “lies puff out on/ washing lines” and “because/ she will not wear them/ the young woman must/ walk out naked.” This image to calls to mind the unprotected state of the adolescent who has suffered sexual abuse, and her vulnerability in the aftermath of the crime when she is trying to reclaim herself.
‘quadrant’ ends in a place of ‘redemption’, however. Finally, “open sky and water/ wind-blink a clear pool of June silver – washing/ her skin with spangled/ rings of joy.” Swimming, and particularly swimming in open air municipal pools in summer, has always been one of the most restorative areas of my life. I honour the transformative gift water represents for so many of us with histories of trauma, and the ways it may enable us to reclaim our bodies.
The three poems published in One Hand Clapping engage with different aspects of living with and in the aftermath of sexual abuse in childhood. ‘embedded’ is already available on this blog in the poems section. It was a poem that came alive for me again during the first phase of the full UK lockdown. The isolation I was experiencing through living alone, combined with the lack of social contact that many of us rely upon to manage our mental health, caused me to re-somatise the injury the poem responds to.
At the time of the poem, I was a pupil in a small village primary in Wiltshire. I worked among other children on shared tables, with papier maché animal masks looking down on us from the walls. Writing ‘embedded’, the soreness of those childhood mornings seemed to materialise within the roughness of the sacking tacked to the underside of my bed, the splinteriness of the wood, the sharpness of the rusty nails – in the same way that water vapour may be precipitated onto a cold surface. The word ‘backdoor’ is embedded centrally in the poem as an act of witness.
One Hand Clapping is also publishing two new poems of mine. They respond to how traumatic memories persist, but also how they may be represented and to some extent transformed. I first experienced penetrative abuse aged eight and a half, in December 1972. Ever since, that month has been difficult for me. Whenever I can afford to, I travel. It helps to be in a different light to that in England, and to open myself to new experiences, rather than being pulled backwards by the ghosts which return each year to claim me.
‘performance’ came out of a late December trip to Sicily in 2017. I wanted to see the island’s landscapes, and understand more of its multi-stranded history. A few days short of the end of the year, I was standing in the ruins of an almost vanished Roman amphitheatre at Eraclea within sight of the sea. Two thousand years ago there would have been crowds, and blood, and gladiators, and wild animals. Now broken rows of stones emerged from the dry grasses to mark where the benches would have stood. More or less the whole town had been carried away over the centuries to build houses nearby – as is the case with many classical ruins.
My own vanished, but present, past was within my thoughts as I walked around, trying to figure out the layout of the site from the notices and my guidebook, and imagine how everything had been. In their liminality, and near erasure, the ghosted forms of the seating and stage suggested the presences of memory, but also the way time erodes and changes. I was struck by how, although it was impossible, without additional information, to read the site fully, you could not ignore that something had once stood there.
A salt breeze was blowing in off the sea, like it had on the clifftop by my French grandmother’s house in Normandy. This was always my place of safety as a child, where I was usually more protected from my abuser. Feeling it on my face, the phrase “amphitheatres are carved from bones and stagger into stone” slipped into my consciousness. Then I heard “have traps in their floors troughs to drain blood.”
Those two phrases, arriving on the wind, turned my eight year old body into the amphitheatre, and stage for my own attack. Like a looping echo, as I thought about the gladiators forced to fight each other, and the animals they killed for public amusement, I also held somewhere in my mind my own powerlessness to resist my abuser, and the sense of unwitting complicity that the sexually abused child experiences. But, in the historical fact of the “troughs to drain blood”, the imagery also offered the possibility of some form of easing or relief, through draining away. As the poem took shape, I understood it could give a measure of moving beyond the eternal recurrence of what was done to me night after night in the dark, because refusing the silence that my abuser had required and enforced through my childhood and well into adult life, as is the case for many of us with this history.
amphitheatres carved from
bone stagger into stone
traps in floors
troughs to drain blood
bars protect the watchers
from the creature
as rain drunk
by growing grass
‘performance’ stayed short – only six more lines came. Sexual abuse is not something that can be fully communicated. Reticence is moreover a retrospective form of redress – clothing the child in a measure of dignity that was denied to her while the abuse was ongoing, and gifting the reader the option to engage only insofar as is safe and comfortable for them. As I worked on the poem, I understood that it needed to be tiny, and tight, and partly folded in on itself like a child’s body – but with a mysterious, felt possibility of growth and healing. The blood at the end is also just rain, in the same way that when we speak the difficult things that happen to us, they may be in some measure transfigured by the act of documenting.
The title was the last element to arrive. For a long time I called the poem ‘evidence’. Then I realised that it was more than that, because not static, but moving. ‘performance’ holds for me how, when we make works of art, whatever their starting point or destination, we construct them in such a way that they enact themselves within the viewer’s or reader’s mind, and then fold away again at the end, like the curtain going down on a stage. In that retelling, and closing down, we also exert our agency as the co-creators of our own life experiences, and give a degree of creative agency to our audience. Together – as artists and audiences, as past and present selves – we may discover the power to see and relate in new ways, as we move forwards through time, and gain different understandings of our own histories, and those of others.
‘papyri’, the final poem appearing in One Hand Clapping, responds to the difficulties inherent to making aesthetic performances from charged materials, and more generally to opening up traumatic memories to allow their energies to be present within a creative work. The starting point was my own reading about the ancient city of Herculaneum, which, like nearby Pompeii, was overwhelmed when Vesuvius erupted. Rather than ash, however, Herculaneum was covered with a hardened shroud of volcanic stone, up to 40 metres thick in places. This has not yet been fully excavated, and may never be, as the modern town of Ercolano stands above much of the ancient city.
Digging down along narrow, vertical shafts, the early excavators discovered among other finds the complex of a magnificent villa, complete with extraordinary mosaics and statues. There was also an area containing blackened, contorted log-like objects. These were originally disregarded as rubbish, or burnt to keep warm – until it was realised that they were in fact tightly rolled papyrus scrolls from the villa’s library. They had been carbonised and crushed during the eruption, and are the only surviving examples of this kind.
Even when the papyri were recognised for what they were, they remained almost impossible to unroll or decipher. The writing is black on black, and the carbonised sheets crumble entirely to dust unless treated with the utmost care. Many techniques were tried for deciphering them, including fixing to a silk background and unrolling by fractional amounts each day. The breakthrough only came in recent years, however, when medical diagnostic technology was brought into play. It was realised the papyri could be read through a combination of using a CT scanner to unroll them virtually, and an infrared scanner to distinguish the letters from the paper.
A CT scanner is of course more usually used to see inside the human body without surgical intervention. For those of us whose bodies have been attacked or invaded, the ability to see within their closed surfaces, to discover the evidence of what took place, is at once an impossible dream, and a potential nightmare. My poem ‘conjugation’, also on this blog, explores this idea, in the context of an MRI scan which I was given in 2014 to assess internal damage following cancer surgery.
While ‘conjugation’ speaks directly to my abuser, ‘papyri’ asks the reader to become a form of CT scanner, calling upon the magical powers of an empathetic imagination in bringing the processes of art into play. Because the sexual abuse of a child very often entails a measure of societal or familial complicity, I wanted to build the poem from phrases already in the public domain to enact a wider engagement. For this reason, the poem uses only ‘found language’ taken from an academic article published by the University of Kentucky about using CT scanners to read two unopened Herculaneum scrolls.
The borrowed and rearranged phrases request the scanner/reader to “distinguish bodily tissue/ detail a human’s organs/ reveal internal surfaces.” The poem accepts, sorrowfully, but also respectfully, “the task immensely difficult/ the scrolls so tightly/ wound and creased”. It allows the resistance to opening and disambiguating of such materials. But it also suggests that when you are able to “unwrap sections/ flatten them” they may gift you the ability to “see clearly” the constituent elements of “papyrus/ fibres/ sand” contained within the seemingly incomprehensible scrolls.
In the context of ‘papyri’, the final word, “sand”, is the saddest, and the most hopeful. It embodies the grit, and abrasion, caught between the soft surfaces of the historic Herculaneum papyri before carbonisation. Through this it looks back to the soreness of ‘embedded’. But it also honours the persistence of selfhood even under the most extreme adversity and fragmentation. Sand is made from minute particles of rock – most commonly granite, quartz or mica, or marine life forms – which still retain their original identities. In the same way, children subjected to sexual abuse retain their original selves, however dissipated and broken up by the trauma to which they have been subjected, as ‘two unopened scrolls’ asks the reader/scanner to recognise:
My late father-in-law, Oscar Nemon, also has a sketch which works with and transforms ‘found’ materials. It is a tender, grieving group, composed of three visible figures. More are implied behind them, completing the circle. With their backs to the viewer, refusing to speak directly out of the frame of the page, the figures cluster together and hold each other close. Their bodies, which form a trunk-like column, are made up of vertical, striped lines, like the striped clothes that the prisoners in the Lagers were required to wear, and which the world saw on newsreels of the liberation of the camps. The base on which they stand is a crosshatch of vertical and horizontal lines – echoing the barbed wire which contained the prisoners, and prevented their escape, also visible in contemporary news reportage.
But extraordinarily, and almost unbelievably, while the figures’ heads bow in sorrow, as grapes on a vine, awaiting harvest, their holding arms form two victory ‘V’s. This was another archetypal image of the second world war, implying resilience, and determination to resist. An additional V has been added below them, in a different pen, at a later date. The resulting shape, made by the interlocking Vs, calls to mind both a diamond – an emblem of light – and an open mouth at the heart of the composition. Made from the raw horror of war, the untitled sketch forms an act of articulation. Loss is made manifest through unflinching, empathetic, witness – without surrendering its final unspeakability. I hope my own poems will be able to work in this way for the global community of those of us living with, and making our lives and arts in the aftermath of, sexual abuse in childhood.
Traveller, writer, theatre-maker, and freestyler, Arji Manuelpillai is a poet whose work has always derived energy and resonance from its live components. While Mutton Rolls, his debut pamphlet from Out-Spoken, was launched online from his living room in lockdown, this in no way diminished audience numbers, or the warmth of their appreciation. Mutton Rolls’ poems find their subjects in UK raves and garage forecourt shops, but also on Sri Lankan beaches and in the aftermath of bombings and tsunamis. Like strobe lights flashing moments of visibility, they illuminate growing up in Britain with the double consciousness that derives from knowing your parents and family once lived somewhere else, and explore what it means not always to be made to feel welcome. Witty, joyous, and irreverent, the poems we talk about do not hesitate to call out the unacceptable. They can spin in a second to catch your heart – and hold it in a net of words that makes it beat differently when let go again.
AH: I’d like to start by asking you about your experience of the last few months Arji. You launched Mutton Rolls within the full UK lockdown. You also ran free poetry workshops with special guests on zoom which attracted huge attendances during the months when we were largely unable to meet in the physical world. How has this been for you?
AM: Such a pleasure to be here with you Alice and thanks so much for taking the time to chat to me. It has been a whirlwind few months. With so much of our collective futures turned upside down, I’ve found it difficult to manage my own expectations and keep the positivity up. However, in another way I have lived my whole life as a freelancer and with that sort of lifestyle comes an ability to adapt to the challenges with innovation and creativity. I can think of nothing worse than being furloughed at home being unable to work on new projects. So I was thankful for the opportunity to start Arji’s Poetry Jam, to continue with workshops with young people, help create a Refugee Week education resource for Kazzum Arts, and to plan and deliver a great release party for the pamphlet. It has been interesting as I feel like the online thing has provided people with greater accessibility in many ways. It creates a global playing field with fans for the workshops appearing in NZ, Finland, Canada and New York. It also made me feel like anything is possible with a little creativity. Right now, I’m spending a whole lot of time on Zoom but I’m really missing the real life groups, the community and the love of people connecting and creating together. I’m praying for the future, that we will return and still create wonderful work someday.
AH: I understand that. I feel the same way. It’s really fantastic that you have been able to continue to reach out and deliver to so many different groups against all the odds. People who want to find out more about these projects can check out the links on www.arji.org. Coming back to the current situation, you tweeted your uncle was one of the first doctors to die from COVID 19. The poem ‘after being called a paki’ confronts the racism which your father and his generation were met with on arrival in the UK. I wondered what it’s been like to publish a pamphlet which calls out UK racism past and present, and then have the #BlackLivesMatter movement rise up so powerfully here and round the world, speaking to and with so many of your themes?
AM: It has been so interesting to see how people respond to the poems about race. I’ve been surprised by some animosity towards poems like ‘white people’ and thenI’ve had some really heartfelt messages from other South Asian people who connect with the work. I hadn’t really realised how important it was to speak to my community and capture those feelings until it was actually out there. This was highlighted by a good friend of mine who doesn’t ‘do poems’, (those are the people I really love to reach). He told me how he had never found the words to say how he felt growing up as a British Asian but now suddenly the book had captured them. I felt moved by that. As the BLM thing started to rise I was fully engrossed, angry, unsurprised, pretty much like most of the minority communities – but as it moved forward I started to unpack some of the racism within the South Asian community. I think we have to remember that the racism that black people feel in this country is unique to this country and the people within it. Black people deserve this space for discussion and the recognition of the racism they face and it is up to us all to face that head on and bring sustainable change. That’s not to say the South Asian experience isn’t important or valid. It is just accepting that the grouping together of races doesn’t help any of us. I am fortunate to have worked with inspiring black men and women and will continue to fight for change and equality. I believe that this is a movement of hope and change is possible if we are willing to keep trying.
AH: I absolutely agree with you, and I think your work is unquestionably part of that larger movement, and has been for many years. Calling into question the stability and integrity of contemporary identities, and the pressures to which people can be subjected, your opening poem, ‘credit card’, begins “someone pretended to be me/ filled my details out online”. The intercepted card is imagined/described as being used to facilitate an impeccably ‘middle class’ spending spree which includes “crème fraiche” for leek and potato soup, and ends up funding a seat at a shared table in a café “on the white side of Peckham” where the thief is supposed to have:
had a tea and carrot cake read the paper, lent back in their seat
so their hands fell to their sides and the lady to the right casual as breathing pulled her handbag close
The only skin tone that is mentioned is “white”, but the “casual as breathing” action of the woman has the effect of putting the “someone” under suspicion for no reason that can be deduced from their tea drinking, paper reading or carrot cake eating. Would you be able to say something about the relationship between the speaking “me” and the observed “someone” in ‘credit card’, and why you chose to open Mutton Rolls with this poem?
AM: This poem is one of those poems that fell out of my head on a long walk. Someone actually did fraud my debit card and went to Morrisons and spent a small amount of money on groceries. I couldn’t get this idea out of my head, that someone was just hungry, no drugs, no alcohol, just hungry. All of those preconceived prejudice I had were thrown away. Almost in the same week I was in a theatre show, it was a play set in South Africa. In the middle of the piece I sat back in my seat and the lady beside me suddenly reached to her side, grabbed her bag and put it in her lap in the most awkward position. I sat there for 2 hours wanting to ask her why she had done that but I didn’t have the guts and it probably would have seemed over-the-top. As with many of my poems, it is the coming together of two contrasting ideas that gives birth to a real ‘charged’ feeling. So, let’s go back to the debit card thief. I started imagining a whole world for this thief, I created short vignettes of them all round town and the question kept coming up as to why they might have stolen the card. I was moving towards the ‘someone’ wanting to feel like they were part of the elitist class, like they could dine in the places the middle class dine but at the bottom of all that, they never truly belong. I combined that idea with the concept that no matter how well the thief works, he can never shake his class away. Hence the lady pulling her bag in at the end. I love that poem as it is all about wanting to belong and that’s the reason I put it at the opening of the pamphlet.
AH: Wanting to belong gets imagined in a different way in ‘brown boys in Kavos.’ The poem begins among a “tulip-topped spliffs” and “the backwash of cheap vodka” at “4am in a balmy Greek heat.” A hymn to the hedonism of “rumbling dance floors”, its heroes are “four brown corduroy-coloured boys” who are “failing to get laid/ in the ‘getting laid’ capital of Greece.” Their charms are coming off worse to “sweaty charisma and beautiful blackness” on the one hand, and “glitter soaked torsos/ all fearless and normal and slavemastery.” Against this temporarily disheartening outcome, their salvation, and reclamation of themselves comes in their solidarity, as the sun calls into life a new day:
brown boys think themselves ugly
but not yet ugly because they are brown the sun is reaching over the rooftops brown boys light cigs and laugh an orgasm is caught in the breeze
I wondered if the idea of working collectively, and in concert with others, resonated with you, as part of a creative and transformative process?
AM: Everyone who knows me knows that I believe creativity is best enjoyed together. The camaraderie, the sharing of ideas, the spontaneity, I believe it is at the centre of a healthy mind and spirit. I have spent most of the last 15 years in participation arts because I truly believe making art together is integral to a happy society. In other parts of the world participatory arts is just art, by which I mean, everything is focussed around making art together. This is really true when we think about poetry.Poetry communities are integral to the scene, taking a poem to a group and sharing process is everything. Without it I really feel I would not be half the poet I am. This is one of the reasons why I feel there needs to be more mentorships for minority groups to encourage collaboration and connection. It is these communities that will nurture and grow Britain’s best new poems. Many publishers at the moment are asking for BAME poets to come forward but we need ‘quality’ – and to make ‘quality’ poets you need quality mentoring spread over long periods of time.
If you are interested in finding yourself a group perhaps start at The Poetry School where regular bursaries are available. Alternative options are Malika’s Kitchen and Covent Garden Stanza (run of course by you Alice). These are free groups but you will probably be asked to send samples. Loneliness is affecting us all at the moment so don’t sit in silence, connect with others and use art as a vehicle for transformation.
AH: Again, I can only agree. The Poetry Society co-ordinates Stanza groups up and down the UK, with further groups available in a few other countries, or with online membership. I’ll put details at the end of the interview. I know that the support of our stanza group really helped me personally during a very difficult few weeks in lockdown, It’s also been a fantastic place for me to try out new work in a safe place. Going back to Mutton Rolls, while ‘brown boys’ has a sunrise ending, ‘half catholic’ strikes a more sombre note. The first person speaker reveals himself to be a man who, while attracted to women, also responds to men with desire. As a woman who is drawn to both women, and men, this is a duality which I recognise. Reflecting how Catholicism can become a force which risks alienating people from themselves, the speaker remembers how:
at fifteen I touch a man in a way that makes me wish God didn’t exist
throw up behind a Ford Fiesta brush my teeth till the toothbrush snaps
“in Lourdes years later” he promises “not to want/ a man again” and prays for this to happen. Returning to the motif of theft, also present within ‘credit card’, the poem ends:
after the tsunami I watch a man
pickpocket a corpse quietly as though hiding it from the sky
The pickpocketing is presumably a matter of economic necessity, in order to ensure survival. I wondered if you could say something about why you chose to set those two narratives consecutively, and whether the reader was being asked to think about the historic thefts and appropriations of colonialism, and their enduring impacts through time?
AM: This poem is the coming together of a series of moments in my life. All of them are strung together through a feeling of humiliation and shame, a sense of not belonging and being unable to conform to a system that didn’t necessarily fit me both religiously, ideologically and spiritually. Landing in Sri Lanka during the Tsunami was one of the most pivotal moments of my life. It came at a time when I was turning to activism and God, observing the situation unravel was painful. I was amazed by the level of blind faith that many of the victims had, even after they had often lost their family, friends and livelihoods. Their faith gave them strength, it was something I envied but also something I ridiculed. This for me, connected the two parts of my upbringing. One side of me is always in awe of my heritage as a Sri Lankan Tamil, half Catholic and half Hindu. With that side comes all of the myths and stories and the rich cultural history of tradition and ritual. But the other British side was often disillusioned, faithless and sceptical of it all. That dichotomy is at the centre of the poem and a great deal of my work. I dabbled with the ending for a long, long time. Finally I came to this idea of a man stealing money while only caring about God watching. It seemed to connect to the British impact in Sri Lanka, it shows the power of capitalism and it also illustrates shame and it also connected with the desperation to survive.
AH: That’s an incredibly rich explanation Arji. It really captures how poems can hold multiplicities without forcing a single or simple resolution. Belinda Zhawi talked to me earlier in this series about the impacts of colonialism in Zimbabwe which was similarly powerful. There is an ongoing, and fruitful, tension in your work between narrating your experiences as a person, not least in several powerful break-up poems, and as a person of colour. Many writers are responding to this, not least the poet Cathy Park Hong in her study Minor Feelings, whose work speaks to many of us. ‘nominated for a BAME prize’ tackles this complexity head on, beginning “it’s always in capitals/ like someone is shouting it.” The speaker states “I feel almost unBAME// in my M&S shirt and trousers”, and seems to position the BAME branding as something which risks diminishing and ghettoising artists, and over-simplifying complex, nuanced narratives. Is that a fair reading?
AM: I think that is an extremely astute reading. I feel like BAME as a title has a truckload of problems associated with it. It boxes us all together, which dilutes the differentiation of culture between countries and religious groups. It gives people the perception that we are ‘all the same’ when in actual fact the continent of Asia is as diverse as you can get and Sri Lanka is a place made up of so many different minority groups. I totally sympathise with those that have tried to champion the representation of minorities in the arts but BAME is starting to feel a little dated. On top of this I’ve seen the term become quite divisive within the arts sector. Artists like me get a role or new project but it feels rather shadowed by the idea that ‘I only got it because I’m brown’. Often other artists may think me not deserving of the opportunity and that hurts. By segmenting us off, and doing call outs and competitions just for specific groups, it ends up feeling like we are in some way not applicable to the same rules of quality as our white counterparts. This is the opposite of what we as a society are trying to achieve. The funding and grant system in this country is creating divisions amongst artists, from those that do or don’t get funded, to those that can or can’t write an application form. Sometimes it feels like we spend so much of our time divided instead of innovating together.
I’m not sure what the answers are, but I believe the start is to have a universally clearer understanding of the differentiation between countries, cultures and traditions. When we begin to accept our own ignorance we will begin to move into a space where we are ready to grow and learn. This space is a position of true power.
AH: Undoubtedly your work is helping this transformation. The back cover of Mutton Rolls says you , like the speaker of ‘nominated for a BAME prize’, were “shortlisted for the Burning Eye BAME Pamphlet Prize 2018.” I wondered if I could ask you here something about the first person “I” of your poems? Do you see it as primarily specific, that is linking the work with you, Arji Manuelpillai, as a series of statements of witness? Or is it more a ‘first personal universal’, so that the I becomes a portal through which the reader can look with a greater degree of empathy and understanding? Or both?
AM: You are the first person to call this out. Yes, much as I love and respect Burning Eye, they did inspire that poem. After I was shortlisted I found it interesting how I didn’t tell my parents it was a BAME prize. I was almost embarrassed by it. So I create vehicles for the personal messages to travel through. I do feel like the work is reflective of where I was at during that time. I wanted it to be like a calling card for my style and voice. The voice is very much me, the situations (though not always completely true) are very much like me and I’m proud of that. I hope that they will provide a greater understanding and empathy from the reader but I also feel they are fragments of myself and not designed to lead or coax the reader into any set reaction. I think in the newer work I am creating I am more interested in the ‘I’ taking a back seat, perhaps even disappearing and allowing the reader space to walk around, wander and discover. I hope that doesn’t sound too over-the-top. I feel like my new work is going to discuss life in a whole new nuanced way and I’m super excited about it.
AH: I really look forward to those poems Arji. Many of your Mutton Rolls poems explore the emotional lives of men. ‘Cecilia says we’re all fucked up’ is an unpunctuated prose poem that explores the conversations between a psychotherapist and her client. There is a surface play of humour and irony, riffing on the neutral décor and demeanour of the therapist. This anodyne professional setting elicits the revelation “my friend died when I was 24 I never got to say goodbye.” After the apparently desultory meandering leading up to this, however, the closing lines have all the impact of being dropped down through a trap door
I was busy being strong that’s why abstract paintings work so well she’s leaning back must be time wipe the tears away like face paint how long before I’m wandering drunk down the Old Kent Road not knowing how I got there
Could you say something about the poem’s ending, and what it means to you to find forms through which to speak of things which can’t easily be said, but are powerful forces within our lives?
AM: This poem was a real turning point to me. The Cecilia in the poem is actually Cecilia Knapp and the poem came out of a need to connect many opposing internal dialogues with the running dialogue with a therapist. After I finished it I took it to a feedback session and I literally wasn’t sure whether it was good or really rubbish. I think the poem began to unpack a need I have to move towards reflecting the way the mind moves without the need for set narrative. My favourite poets are doing this currently, the work of poets like Jericho Brown, Chen Chen and Morgan Parker have led the way in this, but poets like Wayne Holloway Smith and Emily Berry have paved the way in England too. I feel that this poem was the start of that hunger and movement. The final lines took a lot to muster, the balance was integral and it was discussed over many a cup of tea with Hannah Lowe, who helped me learn about the soft step off. She always says ‘go in hard and get off lightly’ (or something like that). Finding this form and flipping the camera upside down allows us to capture the intricacies of this complex world that we live in. During this answer I’ve name-dropped a bit. I am doing this because it is important to remember that these poems are the product of many discussions, feedback sessions and books by other poets.
AH: You mentioned Wayne Holloway-Smith in the roll call. I know you’ve taken workshops with him. Wayne is concerned to investigate and call out how the complexities of masculinities are represented, and to challenge cultural and class stereotyping. To what extent do you feel your work is in conversation with his poems?
AM: Wow, I never thought of it like that. I’d be honoured for people to even consider them in connection with Wayne’s work. He has been a real inspiration to me. His work unpicks so much about being a man and growing up but it also deals with emotions in an incomplete and broken linear. The real admiration I have for Wayne is his attitude to poetry itself. His mindset is settled around feeling, process and freedom, not necessarily making sense or clarity of narrative. He isn’t bothered whether things look or sound like a poem, he is just about how it makes an audience squeal or turn in their seat. He has taught me to be the sort of poet that doesn’t give a f-ck, to innovate, challenge preconception and industry notions of acceptance, to dig into process, to grow, discover, play with it all and take nothing for granted. Everything we read in the Monday night class we question, poke fun at, pick apart, no one is on a pedestal, everything isn’t about what’s happening but what is ‘working’. Some people say ‘oh it doesn’t seem much like a poem’ and that really doesn’t bother us, I want to make people think and Wayne has taught me that. Thematically, any connections between our work is simply because I have spent too many Monday nights in his group.
AH: I’m sure Wayne will be happy to read that. Your wonderful poem ‘regret’ was placed in last year’s Oxford Poetry Prize. It offers a vignette of “my mum chatting in Tamil to the boy at the petrol station counter.” Snatches of their conversation are represented in Tamil, and the mum is shown as being completely at ease and lost in this moment:
she is Aunty, he is Thamby and the queue behind us can wait
The speaker, however, is excluded, catching only snatches of the conversation, “plucking subtitles from their eyebrows”. Yet it is from this sense of not-fitting that the poem’s voice and consciousness grow. I wondered if you would like to say something about the creative potential of dislocation and exclusion as a generative force for you as an artist, in this poem and more generally?
AM: I feel like not belonging drives the majority of my work. We spend most our years growing up hoping to fit into the system only to realise our uniqueness is what makes us special. In my workshops with young people I’m always encouraging people to think about their exclusion as a force of creativity. Ask yourself, what makes you unique, different and amazing. This poem is a very truthful representation of my mother and I in a petrol station. My Mum is an amazing conversationalist. Whenever we go anywhere she is talking to the cashier or catching up with someone in the queue. In England, India or Sri Lanka she’s always speaking to people and often I wish so much I could join in. I mastered the English language but perhaps in doing so sacrificed my Tamil heritage. This poem isn’t just about language though, it is also about the love I have for my Mum.
AH: Another important woman in your life has been the poet Hannah Lowe, who was your mentor on the Jerwood Arvon Scheme, and who, like so many of us, works from a place of cultural multiplicities. I was massively helped by having Pascale Petit as my mentor on the same scheme. Could you say something about your experience of being mentored by Hannah?
AM: Getting the Jerwood Arvon mentorship was probably one of the biggest achievements of my writing life. It provided me (and you too) with a community of artists, a space to create and a mentor who really believed in me. Hannah has been completely instrumental to my growth as a poet and artist. Her work transcends cultures and backgrounds, her control of narrative is second to none and her ability to mentor is truly masterful. Hannah is always focussed on clarity of image, constantly pushing me to make even the abstract hold true conceit and is always encouraging me to take the reader by the hand and lead them from line to line. This has been so influential to me. When I’m lost, I often see her on my shoulder asking ‘I don’t really get this bit’ or it’s not really clear enough’. She is also a poet who believes in accessibility of the work, so she pushed me to make sure the poems reached the readership I wanted to reach instead of tumbling into abstraction. In many ways Hannah and Wayne sit on opposite ends of a poetry spectrum. This was a wonderful thing to experience, it allowed me to see how poetry could pull and shift in different directions, it allowed me to ride a very thin line between being abstract and being very clear and it also showed me that finally my own choices had to be made. As Hannah once said to me ‘just be confident with what you’re trying to do’. Hannah’s passionate, down to earth, giving nature is something that I will always be thankful for.
AH: ‘after the Sri Lankan bombing that kills 360 (after the 20 year more than killed significantly more)’ uses the powers of miniaturisation deployed by Elizabeth Bishop in her poem ‘Brazil, January 1 1502’, and by Rachael Allen in her poem ‘Banshee’ – to name but two other poets of the tiny. Elizabeth Bishop is describing the rapist-conquistadors who are “hard as nails/ tiny as nails, and glinting, in creaking armour.” Rachael Allen (interviewed last year in this series) is reanimating the murder of a woman whose aggressor works “like a small model forester/ axing up plastic logs.”
Your poem begins “after the news my skin feels darker”, and uses responses to the bombing in the Grand Cinnamon Hotel as a prism to make more visible the complexities of only being “Sri Lankan / at weddings and funerals or for inquisitive white people”. The poem ends by distilling its contradictions into three singing lines:
from here (on the toilet) it’s all just a cluster of tiny red faces wailing in a language I don’t understand in a country I can’t oh look! that’s where Mama and Appa first met
I wanted to ask you to what extent the miniaturised space of the poem – which takes huge subjects and telescopes them down – creates a measure of safety for dealing with difficult or otherwise unmanageable materials?
AM: I think you’re really onto something there. I’m really interested in pulling big political constructs into my poems and sometimes that can be a very daunting thing. Finding methods to do this is tricky. I’ve found that keeping the subject of the poem down-to-earth and ‘local’ allows the overriding message to have its own open plain. In this poem it all centres around the speaker watching a video online yet the focus is bigger. All political problems have a microscopic impact on our lives, that means taking a subject like war and persecution and asking yourself where does that sit on a local level. This can be a very fruitful task and I feel it allows you an ability to not seem ‘over-the-top’ or ‘self-righteous’ which is always the problem of political poetry. I want to take risks and over the last year since the pamphlet has been released I have been researching political poets. Most of them from USA. Tracy K Smith creates letters charting the journey of black slaves from varying people in history. Patricia Smith tells the story through accounts from victims and family members of violence. These poets are a real inspiration to me, they take the human, local situations and show how they are the repercussions of larger political problems. I believe poetry needs to reflect our politics and begin to unpack some of the complexities of our political system. Often these systems seem too much to deal with, too complicated and too daunting but it is important we find ways to do it, it’s important we do not turn away, but instead create vehicles to promote discussion.
AH: I can relate to that, albeit in a slightly different field. As you know, in my current work I am trying to use my own direct experiences of being abused as a child to give witness to, and change awareness around, the global crime of the grooming and sexual abuse of children, and look at its aftermath for vulnerable teenagers. To make the poems, I have to find or open myself to imageries and forms that can hold the materials so they become accessible to, and safe for, the reader, notwithstanding their potentially very difficult subject matters.
More generally, poetry is about control, but it’s also about the reverse – abandoning and opening yourself to let complex things enact a form of authentic aesthetic identity in language. Could you say something about how, when, and where your poems come into being, and your process of working with them to their published forms? I know you also freestyle, where improvisation and being able to trust yourself and go with the energy, is a key?
AM: I am a true believer in play as a means to creation. I believe that being playful will allow us to open ourselves up and throw away the inner voice obsessed with judging our success. Freestyling is the epitome of this. A rapper freestyling is a magical, spontaneous force of creativity. For me, I freestyle best when I am relaxed, when the audience lack judgement, I can move into a space where my brain seems to work outside of itself, where I don’t think of the words, the words just fall together like bubbles pulling together in a bath.This feeling is as much about the people around me as it is about my presence in the moment. I believe that workshops and feedback groups should adopt this way of thinking. The workshops should initially focus on connecting people, creating a relaxed and free space full of love, while allowing people to express and discover themselves in a wholly present way. After this, the poems will simply flow naturally. I chase the feeling of freestyle when I am creating poems. I’m always looking for experiences that bring the playful from me, that pull me out of my usual surroundings and throw me into a space where I must be fully present. I’m all about the process, the feeling of building a poem like a house, and living in it, taking risks and pushing it to see how far it can go. In terms of practise, I try to wake up each day and put something into being. Anything, just accepting whatever comes out can be really rubbish or be the start of something really good. Recently I have read more as this has been a weakness for me.
AH: I wanted to ask about your brilliant final poem, ‘because it’s in the Lonely Planet top five places to visit’. The poem intercuts a couple telling the speaker about how the husband proposed “as the sun / licked the sea red and birds punched shrapnel in the sky”, on the sand outside their beach hut, with the speaker’s account (thought, not spoken within the live conversation) of the island’s recent bloody history, to which they appear oblivious or indifferent :
will you – I used to march to make change but since then I march just to sleep at night that country changed me she says the bars the sea-views biryani kothu roti plus the people are so generous they don’t hassle like Indians they’d drop a bomb wait five minutes drop another to kill the rescue party they spent the whole evening staring out to sea she says it’s their paradise they made a pact to go back there every ten years to that bar in that country where bombs rained into no fire zones where bodies are hidden sixty to a hole it’s hard to put into words he says as their fingers weave together it’s somewhere we could call our second home the soldiers were spread across Tamil land few tried for war crimes I don’t know why you don’t move back there
In your opening poem, ‘credit card’, identity is precarious, deniable, steal-able. Here the only two points at which the speaker uses the “I” pronoun come around his attempt to assert a contradictory narrative, as quoted above. The reader is given the sense of a narrative about Sri Lanka which is being repeatedly drowned out by the denials of history and blithe rewritings of the tourist industry. The final phrase first person phrase, spoken by one of the members of the couple, – “I don’t know why you don’t move back there” – is moreover one used by people challenging migrations globally. Would you be able to say something about this poem and its ending?
AM: The poem was originally built in a train in India. Remember when I talked about the local situation being used to talk about global issues? In this poem the local situation is a Californian couple. Yes, they did indeed speak in detail about how they loved Sri Lanka. I actually spent a little while explaining my mixed feelings about the place but it didn’t seem to faze them. The recent groom said ‘well you could say that about a lot of places’ and that message stuck with me. I wanted the poem to capture this conversation in a new way with multiple perspectives. To create a range of conversations happening simultaneously. That is the spoken words, the internal dialogue, as well as the dialogue to the reader. There is a line that I really battled with ‘I used to march to make change…’ that line is a clinical line for me as it is the speaker’s internal dialogue, it comes from a different place. The ending has gone through many different stages, it used to have more of a back and forth but I found that pulling it back left the reader on more of an edge and let the poem live on after the poem was finished. This is a real life situation for a lot of second generation migrants. There is conflict between our own feelings and those that go there, there is a conflict between the politics of oppressors and the politics of our supposed mother land. I attempted to capture this conflict in the use of this cut and splice form.
AH : It really works for me, Arji. Can I end by asking where to next? What are your plans for 2020, and beyond?
AM: I’ve been really productive since lockdown from writing to workshopping and I’m looking forward to an August break in Wales. I’m also about to become writer in residence for a pub in Dorset where I will be writing a series of poems in conjunction with local patrons of the pub. I’m also currently commissioned by Stockton Council to write 40 poems for isolated people across the North East so I’ve been writing poems and ringing people up out the blue to share them. I love that so much.
In terms of poetry I want to be pushing my process and work as far as it can go. I feel like I’m only just reaching my stride and I have a whole lot left to give. I am really excited about the new work I’m writing connected to race and hate crime. I’m messing with the ‘i’, writing from a range of perspectives and most importantly, still enjoying it. It’s a risky, deep vat of possibilities so at the exciting part of the process. I want to be more political in my poems and create work for those without a voice. I want to push the boundaries of what we can say and how we say it with regards to race, it’s a dicey game but also very exciting. There’s a lot to keep an eye out for, you can follow me at @theleano, or Arji Manuelpillai on insta or you can join the mailing list at www.arji.org. Thank you so much for having me on here Alice, you are an inspiration to so many of us poets.
AH: Thank you so much for such an amazing set of answers Arji. As always with these interviews around the idea of ‘saying the difficult thing’, I feel I have gained so much by being given an insight into to the workings behind your poems. I’m really excited for your new work and so happy to have had the chance to share the poems in Mutton Rolls with our readers.