Back in March, when spring was only beginning in the UK, Dr Pragya Suman asked me if I would contribute a short essay and three poems to Arc Magazine. I chose to explore what working experimentally can bring to those of us whose work responds to complex materials, and was given permission by Pavilion to reproduce ‘her door is missing’, ‘and now came the ashes’, and ‘tessellation’ to evidence what I was saying in practice. Pragya and I also explored the topic further in a mini interview. The beginning of the essay is quoted below, and you will be able to read it in full, along with the other powerful material featured in Arc’s spring 22 issue if you follow the link at the end of the excerpt or here:
alice hiller in Arc Magazine: When I was growing up during the 1970s, England experienced intensely cold winters. Walking through the graveyard of the parish church with my mother, I would sometimes find small birds lying curled in the snow. Seeking shelter within yew bushes, they had frozen to death overnight, then fallen from their perches. Although I could not articulate why at the time, the hunched shapes of their still, undefended bodies resonated with me.
During those same years of unlocking the church, polishing its brasses, singing hymns on Sundays beside my mother, I was also being subjected to penetrative sexual abuse by her. We had moved together to Wiltshire from Brussels when my father died, the year I turned eight. In the English countryside, surrounded by darkness and silence, my mother took me into her bed. I was not able to tell anyone what came to pass between us for two decades beyond the physical abuse ceasing.
Writing bird of winter in my fifties, which gives creative witness to this crime, also on behalf of the millions who are subjected to childhood sexual abuse around the world, I knew the poems needed to exist in relation to the white spaces around them. I wanted them to communicate at a somatic and an instinctive level, through the shapes they made on the page, as the birds’ hunched outlines in the snow connected with me to suggest my own body when I was word-less. I wanted the freedoms of more experimental poetry to open pathways to healing.
Working visually as well as texually in bird of winter, I invite the reader’s conscious and subconscious selves to collaborate dynamically in the work of ‘reading’, conferring upon them an agency that the abuse denied me. Through this they become discoverers, rather than recipients of this complex material, and participate in the collection’s journey into meaning and resolution. They can also calibrate their depth of engagement, as I hope these three featured poems reflect.
If you would like to keep reading, please follow the link below.
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
When I think of adolescence, the unruly rush of spring growth, that transforms woodlands after winter comes to mind. Trees burst their buds into leaf, and plants grow towards the light following months of dormancy. Walking with my dog Ithaca in Shotover woods, above Oxford, as the seasons changed this year, I observed and photographed this almost ecstatic transition close up. I saw it with senses made more acutely responsive by the restrictions of lockdown. Like everyone, my daily life through the winter was defined by ‘sameness’ – without access to the visual stimuli of museums and films in cinemas and the different landscapes that travel and social contacts can open.
At the time, I was getting ready to launch bird of winter with my brilliant fellow Pavilion Poets Alice Miller and Sarah Westcott in May. The collection responds to my childhood experiences of being groomed, and then sexually abused, by my mother. It also documents the difficult teenage years beyond this as I found my uncertain way towards reclaiming myself and living again. When I was writing the individual poems, I would necessarily be in a single emotional space or remembered time. It might be reconnecting with my late father and grandmother, whose love helped me come through, or finding ways to bring much more complex memories of the grooming and the abuse, and their aftermaths, to the page.
With the poems orchestrated into their structure by my brilliant poet-editor at Pavilion, Deryn Rees-Jones, what became uppermost in my mind was the movements between them. Divided into three parts, the collection flows together like waves rising up a beach to lift their tide of moods and images into the shore of creative witness. Then it rallies its forces to carry the darkness of the abuse far out to sea – revealing the gleaming seaweed and new sands of the healing with which the final poems close.
Holding the sea-coloured book in my hands, turning its pages, I saw, and felt, how the way I was groomed set up and fed into the abuse, making it impossible to refuse. I also recognised with a new clarity how even when it was over, the abuse left me acutely vulnerable as a teenager, through having broken down any boundaries I might have had. But reading over bird of winter’s teenage poems, I also re-experienced the ferocious life force that puberty awakened in me, along with a hunger for the world beyond what I had known. This helped me reach towards my future like a plant towards the sun, in many different ways. These included forming new friendships, deepening my interest in books and the arts more generally, and beginning to travel alone. Adolescence also gave me the confidence to experiment, however awkwardly, with my reclaimed sexuality, and through this begin to separate myself emotionally from my abuser.
Once bird of winter was launched and out in the world, with many warmly generous responses from readers and people who watched the launch online, my thoughts kept going to my teenage self, surrounded by danger and possibility both at once. On my woodland walks with Ithaca, the foxgloves we spotted seemed like young girls, flamboyantly delicate, standing out from the foliage around them, but also susceptible to injury – as a flower can be picked and broken because it is not able to defend itself. When I turned sixteen, in the summer of 1980, I had a short white playsuit that I wore all the time. The bells of the white foxgloves in particular, cupped one on top of the other, brought back to me my own young body within that light cotton, and my unawareness of how I might be perceived.
During those teenage years, I faltered in my education, and was harshly judged by those around me as the impact of the abuse started to shape my behaviours and choices, as many young people are still today. Reconnecting with those times made me realise that it was not enough only to publish poems. I also needed to write and speak directly about the experiences held within them to expand the discussion. Children and teenagers who have been subjected to this crime deserve to be understood compassionately and respectfully as they work to reclaim their lives. Creative witness, and the discussion it engenders, are powerful tools for supporting this. Even, and especially, if recovery is necessarily messy and stumbling at times.
To further the work of changing awareness around sexual abuse in childhood, and help generate engagement, I wrote a performance text for Neptune’s Glitter House, which I also recorded as a podcast, exploring adolescence as a time of reclamation for those of us who have been subjected to sexual abuse in childhood. It features live readings of nine of my poems including ‘sea level’, ‘tessellation’, ‘wall painting removed from the house of the surgeon’, ‘mirror’, ‘when they begin to have feathers’, ‘sagittae’, ‘becoming your channel of pearl’ and ‘quadrant’. In addition to the poems themselves, I speak about their contexts, and the subject more generally. These words which are lifted from my introduction to the podcast:
As a bi-queer woman, club culture is something that resonates with me. I love its strobed shadowiness, and potential for transformations, and discovering new selves through playing with refractions of your identity. And of course all that glitter, ironic and otherwise. When I was a teenager in the late 1970s and early 80s, the time I’m going to explore, punk and two tone gave way to the ruffles and swags of the new romantics, and glitter balls were mainly synonymous with low-fi seaside discos in unfashionable towns, often along hot European coastlines. There time slowed to a trickle. Adventures could open into the night like strange flowers.
If you would like to listen to the full podcast, please follow the link below. In terms of safeguarding, be aware that it contains references to the aftermaths of sexual abuse, but opens and closes with poems of healing. If you need support with anything the podcast touches on, the Mind website has valuable links.
Following up from recording this podcast, I also wrote a memoir-essay for The Friday Poem website, published in August, which looks closely at four of the teenage poems in bird of winter. Titled ‘I think she is beginning’, (from a comment in my medical notes by the psychiatrist who treated me for anorexia when I was thirteen), this tracks how the poems enact my journey from the darkness of abuse towards the new light of healing. Again, it’s a journey that millions of people around the world are making every day. The essay begins:
Adolescence is seldom tidy or straightforward. Trying to locate ourselves beyond the lives we knew and lived as children gives rise to exploratory behaviours that outsiders can be quick to condemn. For those of us subjected to the crime of sexual abuse in childhood, the challenges and potential dangers are inevitably greater. This was my own experience. My abuser was my mother. Without appropriate support, the changes of puberty may push us back towards our places of injury, and emotional disassociation. If we have not been able to articulate or process the original trauma, there is also often little to mitigate the destabilising impact of reconnection with complex energies.
If you would like to read on, the full article can be found here. As before, I refer to the aftermath of sexual abuse in childhood, and the Mind website is a valuable source of support should you need any.
While I write these words in London, beyond the city the woods are moving from the heavy, green vegetation of high summer, towards the very first intimations of autumn. In the next months, leaf fall will reveal the bones of the trees, and the shapes their branches print onto the sky, as their roots co-link underground. Working alone, but with Ithaca close by, I hope what I say here may speak to all of us making strong lives beyond sexual abuse in childhood, and give support to the larger societies within which these works of reclamation and transformation take place, as communities of trees share their resources in order to grow and flourish.
I will be reading from bird of winter online on 9 September at 7PM UK time with Alice Miller and Sarah Westcott for Chener books. Tickets are free, but you need to email Chener Books in advance at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.
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.
Troy Cabida is the first poet I have had the privilege of interviewing about ‘saying the difficult thing’ in their work during lockdown, and the second librarian poet in this spot, following on from Karen Smith last year. Troy tuned into poetry while still at school (further details below) and has shared with us a live recording of his poem ‘In Conversation with Past Troy’ to a backing track by Gabriel Jones of Bump Kin, from which the title quote is taken. If you want to carry Troy’s live voice in your ears alongside our conversation about War Dove, Troy’s debut with Bad Betty Press, published on 2 May 2020, click on the link here now.
Like Romalyn Ante, who also spoke with me, Tagalog was Troy’s first language. Romalyn and Troy both choose to write in English at present. Troy is originally from Las Piñas City, Metro Manila, but is currently based close to me in southwest London, which makes us both neighbours of the magnificent Brompton Cemetery. Built as a Victorian burial ground, with flamboyant avenues of tombs, it has over time also become an impromptu nature reserve, and was a legendary queer hang-out in the 1970s and early 1980s before HIV/AIDS took hold, which works for us both as out bi-queer poets. Had social distancing not been in force, we would might well have hung out in its café for the interview.
Widely published in Bukambibig, harana, TAYO Literary, Ink, Sweat and Tears, Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, and Macmillan, Troy was a member of two legendary London co-operatives, the Barbican Young Poets, and Roundhouse Poetry Collective, which previously nurtured Belinda Zhawi and Dean Atta, amongst other distinguished poets. Belinda’s and Dean’s interviews also feature in this series and tutor and poet Rachel Long’s is also available.
While he has not neglected his own career, Troy has also been generous to other emerging and established talents, editing The Murmur House and Síblíni Journal as senior editor and Issues 3-7 of the Thought Notebook by Thought Collection Publishing.He is also editor for 30 Days Dry by Chicago poet-playwright Robert Eric Shoemaker. A notable and powerful live performer, as a producer, Troy’s projects include London open mic night Poetry and Shaah, his debut headline show Overture: An Evening with Troy Cabida, Poems for Boys, a night that gives space for male-identifying poets to talk about their relationships with masculinity and Liwayway, an open mic nightand art collective bringing together UK-based Filipinx creatives spearheaded by Jessica Manuelfor British-Filipinx poets, singers and rappers.
As a fellow poet who, like Troy, identifies as bi and queer, and also carries two languages in my psychic toolkit, not to mention a whole load of supplementary musical and other inspirations, it was really powerful for me to hear what Troy had to say about his own experiences of realising these doubled aspects of his identity, and negotiating them relative to his private, public and creative selves. I was also really drawn to hearing how the extraordinary poems in War Dove, his debut pamphlet just launched with Bad Betty, found their voices and forms, within the context of both London, and the wider world, including through some targeted “binge-watching’ of the series Sorry For Your Loss,and how the poems fuse the multiple languages and registers through which Troy speaks to us all.
AH: Can you tell me about your path into poems Troy? When and why did you start writing and performing?
TC: I was introduced to poetry back in 2010, through a blue GCSE English anthology everyone in my generation will probably remember with utmost emotion. We studied Derek Walcott, John Agard, Carol Ann Duffy and I remember specifically a worksheet highlighting poetry techniques like the simile and the enjambment and how they work within a poem. I experimented writing when I got home that same day and fell in love. I started submitting my poems for publication after I left sixth form, around 2013,and started doing working as an editor for several journals and manuscripts to get myself acquainted with how poetry works as a collaboration rather than something purely solitary. It’s great because turns out, there were people that liked my work and accepted them into their publications, many of which I highly regard.My first experience performing was at the open mic night BoxedIn back in 2016. I remember my performance was so stiff, but I just knew where to go from there to become a better reader, and I owe that confidence to the hosts Sean Mahoney, Amina Jama and Yomi Ṣode, who have and continue to curate a night that listens to poets but also challenges them to be better. I initially found performing to be daunting because I didn’t know how to place myself within it but then found it fun and a way to get an immediate response for your poems. An audience can be a very good sounding board.
AH: Were there any poets, songwriters or other creative figures who made this seem more possible? I know you have been part of the Barbican Poets and Roundhouse collective.
TC: I’m lucky to call the Barbican Young Poets and Roundhouse Poetry Collective strong support systems in this crazy poetry scene. Being a member of both programmes taught me about community and knowing how to work and give parts of yourself to create a tight unit. I have to shout out Jacob Sam-La Rose, Rachel Long, Bridget Minamore and Cecilia Knapp, who are all amazing. I get a dopamine rush every time they say something nice about my work. In terms of poets, I really admire Joseph Legaspi, Pascale Petit, Richard Scott, Amina Jama, Victoria Adukwei Bulley, Natalie Linh Bolderston, Helen Bowell, Andrew McMillan, R.A. Villanueva, Romalyn Ante, Kayo Chingonyi, Terrance Hayes and Chen Chen. I always find myself going back to their work. Then musicians like Karylle, (((O))), Curtismith, Janelle Monáe, Bamboo, The Corrs, She’s Only Sixteen and Yolanda Moon. I’m a huge fan of BTS. “Interlude: Calico” is written after their song “Serendipity”.
I binged on a Facebook Watch series called “Sorry For Your Loss” starring Elizabeth Olsen when I was drafting the poems, and I loved and studied the show so much that it ended up being a huge influence on the overall manuscript. Its execution of someone’s emotional journey from a major event, in this case the death of the lead’s husband, was handled with both logic and heart that I was inspired to follow that route with this pamphlet.
AH: Your epigraph is in Tagalog, from a song by the indie folk Filipino band Ben&Ben, whose debut was out in May 2019. What made you choose this as the launch pad for your work?
TC: Thank you for catching that! It’s from their song “Lucena”, which I first heard around October 2019, around the time I was going through the manuscript by myself before Amy began working on it. Through that time, I couldn’t help but feel an emotional distance between myself and the poems as majority of them were written in 2017 and 2018 and studying them from that perspective dawned to me how different I am now from the person who wrote those poems. I chose “Lucena” because it sings about the joy in letting go, in hitting the ground running after a long time of hurt, which I felt would work as the epigraph as it reflects where I was emotionally at the time of the pamphlet’s release.
AH: As a dual language speaker, I don’t translate or italicise the French words I use in my work because I want to reflect the way that my mind doesn’t give primacy to
any single language.L. Kiew, who I have also interviewed for this series, follows the same approach. What was your thinking around this decision for the epigraph?
TC: I chose “Lucena” because it does so many things at the same time. I have this fantasy in my mind that when people read the lyrics, they’ll get curious and check the song out and then get a feel of its message and sound, which is anthem-like, like feet stamping and voices cheering. Starting the pamphlet in Tagalog is my way of letting the reader know that although the poems are in English, it’s still a second language to me, and that my relationship with Tagalog heavily informs my relationship with English. I often call English my “work language” and that I get tired of speaking it after 11pm. True story. Also, R.A. Villanueva was once asked how his readers will understand his work if he doesn’t translate his Tagalog into English and he answered with a picture of Chewbacca. Now, I may not be the most prolific of Star Wars fans, but I share the exact sentiment.
AH: The title of the opening poem, ‘Ladlad’ is glossed as “From Tagalog – unfolded; spreading out on a surface; to expose;” .To the English ear, it reads initially as a twinned or dual male identity, like a doubled lad. The poem refracts a shifting expression of identities:
out of yourself, your wrists bending
at the sides of a box struggling to contain you,
translates to you falling from somewhere high,
reminder that you are unpolished quartz,
your sense of a man cracked for wanting man
as if to say:
you deserve all that is twisting your heart,
all that is crushing your torso.
It has an almost biblical feel – as if a new definition of masculinity, in a different shape to what has gone before, is being formed through and claimed in words, albeit not without great struggle, reflected in the stone imageries. Was that process in your mind while you were writing?
TC: I was speaking to my dad about a friend who had come out publicly which I admired. We were speaking about it purely in Tagalog and it took me a second after we finished to realise that the word we used for “coming out” can be interpreted as derogatory. When taken out of the LGBTQ+ context, “ladlad” means to spread an item so it is entirely visible, or to force the truth out of someone. To constantly use this word to describe that process made me feel uncomfortable, and then realising how it can even parallel with how Filipino culture perceives being gay: an immoral truth that can’t help but be a truth, but something others have the freedom to punish you for. ‘Ladlad’ chews and squeezes the juice out of that word, uncovering any silenced or repressed emotions and associations that it passes down to people. In the context of the pamphlet, it being the first poem takes the reader straight into the psyche of the narrator, who is in the middle of this ocean of confusion and isolation that they have grown to believe that they deserve.
AH: That’s a really moving explanation Troy. Thank you. Mary Jean Chan, Norman Erikson Pasaribu and Jay G. Ying are other poets who are currently making work that explores the negative impacts of societal hostility on the queer identity. They
also claim the idea of the queer self as a place of cultural regeneration and onward transmission of new and different possibilities. Is that a project that also speaks to you?
TC: I believe it’s really important for artists to create work that is true to themselves, as well as it is important to consume art made by those who live those experiences.Too many times I’ve read poems about the queer experience written by straight poets as a prompt for them to experiment with and it doesn’t sit well with me. I used to have this idea that I shouldn’t be writing about my experiences of being bisexual because, for some reason, I didn’t think they’d fit the mould of what can pass as bisexual narrative. But then you try to ignore that thought and hope that someone reads your work and feel a little less alone.
AH: Speaking from my own experience, I know that bisexual self can be a scary one to claim, not least because you fear hostility and negative judgements from all quarters! I was terrified, joining Mary Jean Chan’s Queer Studio online course with the Poetry School, in case I would be rejected by more ‘purely queer’ poets. But in fact the space was intensely freeing and supportive, and gave me an audience for whom I could write first drafts of poems about a relationship I had with a girl my own age when we were both teenagers – which was a seminal and reclamatory experience for me after I experienced same sex abuse in childhood.
Turning back to your work Troy, the poem ‘Hawk and dove’ continues a work of re-forming. It fuses poetry and martial arts, remembering “when I tried to punch you/ with a hand boxed like a rock/ only to see it crack open on impact.” Where there could have been harm, there is instead transformation and co-existence – “Fist bouncing from chest/ feather meeting concrete”. Do you envisage language as having the capacity to operate in this fluid, shifting way?
TC: I think poetry can break rules that other forms of language can’t. Poetry is often an artform where you can do that and then the craft reverts to freshness rather that disrespecting it. Jacob would always teach us to know the rules of a specific form, and then he’ll encourage us to break it apart if it serves the poem. I imagined “Hawk and dove” to be about the playing of foils and how opposites can melt into one another. For me, it’s a nostalgic look into a relationship between polar opposites: where the first stanza focuses on a dominant and physical figure, the second stanza is about the more pensive counterpart. Having both stanzas hold six lines each, to me, meant that they were still standing on equal grounds even though they were different. In a normal situation, the “fist bouncing from chest” would have resulted in pain and then a cue to retreat, but in this instance, this clash becomes a gateway into a deeper relationship, where you can see “flickers of your eyes from mine to the ground”, and then the two personalities mix and learn from one another.
AH: ‘The Afters of After’ is a coming out poem, which called to mind Norman Erikson Pasaribu’s voice, albeit that the outcome is very different. Here the kitchen is homely – “moist from steam and cigarette smoke and white wine” – and the parents appear to be understanding:
They refer to a friend’s son, whose name was meant for me. Paul.
Remember him? He works in Malta now. He’s bisexual too!
As the bisexual mum of a queer son, I had my own experience of this, when he came out to me in his teens, only for me to come out back to him. It was a very emotional but very beautiful experience for us both, that continues to inform our adult relationship. It seems to me that this is a very important exchange to record for other young LGBTQ+ people – to give them hope and confidence about revealing themselves to their families. Was this part of your intention within the poem?
TC: That’s such a beautiful anecdote that you’ve shared. Thank you for sharing that, Alice. When I was editing “War Dove”, I knew that I would be dealing with personal themes, and thankfully I’ve been able to add in experiences of levity into my poems because while there has been negative aspects to my process of coming out, there has been lighter stories that I can share, which I think should be celebrated. Coming out is an experience that has facets of both good and bad, and poetry has the ability to narrate all of that. One of the stanzas in “Makeup and heels and Reece King” came about because the first thing my friend Idil asked me upon finding out I’m bisexual, was my opinion on this model named Reece King. It was in an escalator in Debenhams.
In terms of my parents, I’m also so thankful that they’ve been supportive. It wasn’t always the case with them growing up, but it’s definitely something that’s changed. The moment I captured in my poem is my parents grasping the fact that their son has finally come out, after years of holding his breath, and they’re getting used to the idea that they finally can talk about this thing in front of them and the first story they manage to bring to the table is how their high school friend’s son is also bisexual, which I found so awkward then but really funny looking back now. From then on, our relationship has relaxed, my parents have spoken more and more, and I’ve felt comfortable working on becoming more open with them.
However, I understand that coming out to family, or anyone for that matter, is a concept that shouldn’t be taken lightly, and I totally see my privilege in having an accepting inner circle. Coming out or voicing out this aspect of your identity should be done whenever you are most emotionally ready. Do it for yourself and do it in service of your growth and healing.
AH: Poems including ‘Buddy’, ‘Bonds’ and ‘Interlude: Calico’ give witness to the complexity of inhabiting a queer identity in a predominantly heterosexual world, and also to the sense of alienation and separation which can sometimes arise even when seeking to form queer relationships or simply enjoy more casual connections. In ‘Bonds’ the speaker uses the disjunct of a stanza break to state “Man, I have a feeling // we’re not watching the same thing.” Was this an area that you felt drawn to exploring?
TC: I once heard someone say that poems about sex shouldn’t just talk about sex as it can become one dimensional, and I took that in, when drafting ‘Buddy’. I wanted it to be about the defence mechanisms we’re not aware of creating, due to loneliness. Oftentimes toxic relationships are born out of the desire to shut out parts of ourselves that we don’t want to deal with. Sometimes those kinds of relationships exacerbate those exact parts and when they come out, it’s in ways that they shouldn’t, which causes more damage. ‘Bonds’ is a poem that I took the longest to edit because of the ending, where the poem jumps from the narrator to the subject, the person that the voice is sitting next to. It’s about dynamics in a relationship can develop because of unrequited love and an inability to heal past that. Where “Buddy” uses couplets to indicate two people’s close connection, the subjects in “Bonds” have a barrier that keeps them from fully connecting, which I wanted to highlight through the three-line stanzas. The sudden shift is abrupt and uncomfortable because that’s another voice altogether and it’s a wakeup call back into reality, one that’s hard to accept because it’s not the reality that you want to be in.
AH: Romalyn Ante writes in her poems of the sense of unreality which can arise from her Filipino heritage and identity being portrayed in crassly simplified terms by the European and American media. The opening stanza of ‘Examples of Confusion’ suggests the danger of becoming party to a news and entertainment media which marginalises and diminishes non-white experiences:
You can laugh through floods and earthquakes and dictators
but your heart cracks easy for emotions? You’re losing colour.
The action cuts between the speaker and his friend in a UK Costa, a vignette of family life in Manila, and a close up of the American actor Timothée Chalamet, when the camera is “romancing yet another scrunched up white boy forehead.” Chalamet made his name in Call Me by Your Name, but could be one of many young white male pin ups. Would you like to say something about this poem?
TC: Oftentimes, being Filipino means carrying a certain pressure to uphold a stereotype that we’re the happiest culture in the world, something that American media has perpetuated for so long. And to criticise that means I’m ungrateful for having what has been called a “positive stereotype”. It’s ridiculous because the conversation about mental health issues has been deeply vilified and buried in taboo, leaving many people confused and in need of a professional, which should be a solution as logical as seeing a doctor for a physical illness.
‘Examples of Confusion’ tackles my unrest about this situation of growing up in a culture that teaches us that it’s better to sweep things under a rug and weather the storm with a smile than admit that we’re actually struggling, which denies us human substance and depth. It’s really dangerous because it does get to the point where Filipinos grow up thinking we don’t even get mental health problems, that things like anxiety and depression are just for white people, which is far from the truth. The stanza about Timothée Chalamet’s performance came about because I had reached a point where I was able to feel more heard through art produced by non-Filipinos, which bothered me because I know I can’t say that that story is truly mine to compare with. It’s funny becausedigging deep, deep into Filipino art and media outside of the mainstream circuit that encourages these stereotypes rather than challenging them, I managed to find like-minded artists who make work that I can 100% empathise with. And the biggest criticism they get is that they’re too radical or that they’re too ungrateful to appreciate what we already have.
AH: ‘War Dove’, the title poem, draws many of your pamphlet’s themes together:
I’ve come to know the kind of tender
that packs muscle, that doesn’t cower
even to my own desires.
In front of the face that profits from my labour
but doesn’t know how to give back,
the doves around me fought to remain.
You express a form of reclamation enacted in the teeth of harsh treatment and continuing adversity – “the understanding of the apology, / the need for it to be verbalised and accepted/ to release the victim of their past”. What was in your mind when you were writing and revising this?
TC: Whenever I read this poem out to an audience, I always mention how much of this poem isn’t trying to solve the problem against violence or toxic masculinity, but it’s rather thinking through those things and wondering what it can do internally to stop becoming a part of the problem, if such an act can ever be truly done. The first stanza is after “Trevor” by Ocean Vuong, where he says that “tenderness depends on how little the world touches you”. I agreed with that for a long time until I started to realise that when you’re put in a situation where you can retaliate after being wronged, it’s actually perfectly okay to ignore the voices that push you to fight back and just remain still.Practicing compassion after being punched in the face. The idea that the world can beat you up and your response to that is to accept and find strength in the tender state that you’re left in makes as much sense to me as Ocean Vuong’s line does. And then tenderness becomes a strength, which defies the idea that the two can’t be synonymous with one another. The third stanza was very fun to write because it was my attempt in understanding the concept of forgiveness, an action that hasn’t been truly perfected yet, in my opinion. It puts something so emotionally driven in a logical perspective because it’s looking for something that can’t be found through that emotional route. I grew up in a community where forgiveness is a hazy and mystical thing that you must experience and to give it concreteness, reasoning for its validity and actual steps to follow is somehow taboo and disrespectful, which I find so interesting.
AH: As someone who was subject to sustained sexual abuse by a family member in childhood, forgivenesss and compassion are things about which I have thought often – though without yet fully reaching resolution, I must admit. I really value the subtlety and rigour of your thought in this respect Troy, particularly because I try to follow a daily Buddhist meditation practice which can generate a freedom to renegotiate my relationship with my past, without surrendering agency. Your idea of how we can allow tenderness to become strength is very powerful and beautiful.
I’d like to close our page conversation by asking how it feels to launch your debut in lockdown? Will you be doing some live events to share the work when it becomes possible for venues to open again?
TC: So I’m launching the pamphlet online on Bad Betty Press’ Instagram Live and I’m sharing it with an amazing poet named Gabriel Akamọ with his own debut pamphlet called At The Speed of Dark. We joked about how our pamphlets will make poetry history by being one of the publications released during the lockdown. I was having a conversation with another poet friend about how the lockdown has affected the poetry scene and he said that despite not being together physically, the support between us have only gone stronger and have adapted to the tides. Moving our launch into the digital space is still as exciting as it would be on a venue because it means more people can watch alongside our community, watching at the comfort of their own homes. I’ve been contacting nights for a possible feature slot with them at the start of the year so I hope we can get those off the ground when it’s safe to do so. I’m a co-producer for an open mic night called Poetry and Shaah with Neimo Askar, Fahima Hersi, Abdullahi Mohammed, Ayaan Abdullahi and Idil Abdullahi and when we’re all able to resume our normal shows, we’ll only go upwards from there. I’m asking them for a feature spot to help promote the pamphlet, so fingers crossed they say yes!
AH: Thank you very much for talking to me so generously, and so insightfully, Troy Cabida. We’re launching this interview after your launch, the thinking being that readers would already have joined you, Gabriel Akamọ, and your brilliant support acts, in the live event, the facebook link for which is here. I’m also placing links to the publications and live videos we’ve discussed below this for our readers to follow, and most importantly, the buy button link to Bad Betty so they can get themselves their own copy of War Dove through the mail, and bring it along for you to sign when performances are able to take place in shared physical spaces again.
A child of the upper Midwest, and descendent of Norwegian farming stock, Linda Gregerson is a poet of winter, able to bring snow, and the lives shaped by its rigours, to the page. She is also a poet of time – and of the bodily selves in which our identities are vested. Awarded fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, amongst other distinguished accolades, she came to writing poetry through renaissance studies, and theatre making. We met last summer, under the plane trees of Russell Square in Bloomsbury, to discuss Prodigal, her collection of new and selected poems from 1976 to 2014. Gregerson was over from University of Michigan where she teaches, and has previously directed the MFA Program. Our conversation explored how Gregerson came to enter the worlds of ‘high’ culture, and academia, and claim herself creatively, while also remaining connected with the more visceral and direct voices of her upbringing. I asked her about the challenges of giving witness to the violent murder of a close friend, and exploring the sustained childhood sexual abuse of her own sister – without exploiting or diminishing these two women. We discussed how her poems work with contemporary scientific research, and what it can mean, as a woman, to write about blood. We also talked about writing towards lost fathers. Overall, it was one of the most deeply nourishing conversations I had in 2019, and one which has stayed with me. We opened with the multiple registers which her poems contain, and the gifts of open-ness, and possibility, which writing in ‘American English’ can confer. Please note that the poems quoted are in a different font, as it was the only way to preserve the formatting.
AH: Can we begin with how you work with words, Linda Gregerson? You write of our “fractious, healing, double-dealing on-the-make vernacular” in your review of John Ashbery and Heather McHugh. Within your own work as a poet, and a critic, language is capable of sliding between registers with muscled suppleness, but also of breaking down into a naked vulnerability. Would you say something about this?
LG: Thank you for the question. When I was writing about Ashbery and Heather McHugh, I was talking specifically about American English and the way these poets ride and celebrate it. I write like neither of them, but I think of myself as a very American poet too. I want American English, American idiom, American momentums – and stalled momentums – to be a legible part of the music. I commute among registers. Syntax is also really important to me. I want the poems to be hospitable to multiple voices. I want them to be porous – a kind of listening device, as well as a speaking device.
AH: As a reader, your poetry has the quality of a fairground ride. We plunge. We judder. It’s really visceral. And startling. I never see it coming. The syntax and variations keep me on the edge of my seat.
LG: I take that as a high compliment.
AH: It is. The saltiness of everyday language is also arresting.
LG: It would be affectation for me not to have that. I need that everyday register, I love it, it’s an essential part of the music available all around me. Also, some of the people I love and have loved most deeply in my life, spoke and speak a very particular idiomatic English, they’re upper Midwestern country people. My father never finished high school. He didn’t use what we would call standard grammar – and his voice was very important to me. I didn’t find enough space for it in my world when he was alive, so I need some space for it now.
AH: Only time lets us see some relationships more clearly. Turning to your career, you have won numerous distinguished awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship. I wondered if you would say something about how, where and why you got started with poetry? I know you were part of the Iowa Writers Workshop for your MFA. What got you to that point?
LG: A very specific gift from a very specific friend. I did not write poetry when I was young. I still shudder at the memory of a poem I had to write for school when I was eleven years old. An impossible time of life in any case, and a dreadful poem. I spent each and every minute of each and every day trying not to be stupid, and here was a thing that made me stupider than I actually was. So I fled. The other arts were safer: visual arts and theatre, I had some wherewithal.
Years later, a poet friend and I had offices across the hall from one another, and we would simply talk. He’d say: These are poems. You’ve got to write them down. And me: You don’t understand. I have no idea how to make a poem. I have no idea how to read contemporary poetry. I can read Donne. I can read Shakespeare. I can read parts of Eliot – but I don’t have a clue when I open a journal of contemporary poetry. But he insisted; it was his way of making friends, and it wound up changing my life. So I staggered around trying to make poems of my own for a while, and it was a great piece of good luck that I was admitted to the workshop at all. They gave me financial aid! I was stunned. And the time there was transformative. I learned to read work in progress; I learned to read more broadly in contemporary poetry. The learning to write came in fits and starts, but the reading could be steady. It was like learning to breathe.
AH: And they are languages, they are specific languages – that cannot in general simply be walked into.
LG: I made all the mistakes one makes. At first I thought Ah – the key to this is compression. So it got over-elliptical. I made all the mistakes.
AH:But that’s the only way that any of us learn to write – by getting it wrong so thoroughly that only the ‘right’ path is left.
LG:Maybe it’s about exhausting all of the possibilities of wrongness.
AHVery often you don’t like how you write. Your own voice is something that you resist. When you find that place of fit with your voice, it can feel dangerous. It can feel exposing. There is a lot of resistance to inhabiting your voice – as well as a sense of relief at finally getting there.
LG: For me, the key was finding that syntax was my real vehicle for thought.
AH: For me it was imagery, and sound play. Once you have got your tools, the process feels slightly less dangerous.
LG: I knew what would tell me how to go forward.
AH: Were there any particular poets, on the page, or in person, who spoke to you, or helped you when you were setting out?
LG: That’s hard to say. The aesthetic that was dominant in the 70’s at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop was of the school of James Wright. I adore James Wright, but I couldn’t pretend to the coherent voice I heard in him – which might well be a misreading, by the way. I had to learn to allow for interruptions and shifts of gear. And in terms of individual poets – Stanley Plumly and Bill [William] Matthews, Sandra McPherson, Louise Glück and Donald Justice were on the faculty when I was there. I learned from all of them, but as to “voice,” I’m afraid it was rather clumsily patched together.
AH: A voice has to be. Elizabeth Bishop resonates with me, but I could never write like her. I read a lot of different materials right across the board, outside of poetry. I read fiction. I read non-fiction. You read science.
LG: Yes, I far as I can – or I try to persuade scientists to talk to me. There is a great kinship between what we do as poets, and what my friends the research physiologists do. There are the combinations you were describing earlier of intuition and pragmatics and technique – and being open to being discovered by one’s own mistakes. This is what experimental models do. The object of study is this exquisite, complex, brilliant language of the body, which constitutes us but is also beyond us. The devotion to something that is already articulate, that we are simply trying to catch on to, that’s what joins the two enterprises. I worship the laboratory scientists.
AH: I’m interested in writing on the brain and the brain/body interaction. It’s something I am trying to read more about. I feel that poetry is also writing about this in another language.
LG: We know better than to talk about inside and out, or body and mind, yet there’s a reason we default to such dualisms. All we can hope to access are these small portals. The sixteenth and seventeenth century poets I study believed that both science and poetry were acts of praise. A tribute to creation.
AH: In a wonderful way, that leads into ‘And Sometimes’ which is the opening poem in Prodigal, the selection you have made of your own poems from 1976-2014 which will be the focus of this conversation. Many of the poems we’ll be talking about walk with darkness. I’ll begin, though, with one of the poems from the ‘New Poems’ section at the front of the book. ‘And Sometimes’ continues right after this title
thank heaven, the question includes
of real delight.
The poem contrasts a chimp, who goes straight for the solution within an experiment, with a human child who continues to follow a more ritualized, multi-stage taught route to “this happy accession of/ able-to-make-the-whole-thing-work”, ignoring the shortcut. You go to asking how we find meaning in our lives, and suggest that it derives from different ways of “letting the outside in” – which may include the forms, and rituals, of poetry, and art. You end:
a single path but many,
the forms of devotion, I mean.
The part that makes us human more
than we'd thought.
Could you say something about ‘And Sometimes’?
LG: Certainly! For context, let me say that I have two very good friends and readers. One is the poet David Baker. One is my husband Steven. David had kindly looked at the manuscript of the new poems section in Prodigal and he said Linda, could we have something a little happier? And Steven said Could there be a little light? It was also Steven who told me about that particular experiment. It just seemed to me so joyfully to put us in our place.
AH: Yes, the chimp could just take the lid off!
LG: So much for the superiority of human cognition, right? There is a fabulous poem inChristian Wiman’s most recent book. ‘From a Window’ is actually written from a very bleak place within his own cancer diagnosis, “Incurable and unbelieving/ in any truth but the truth of grieving.” It begins with a visual misperception, and finds its way to a renewed embrace of the life that’s behind that misperception. In the end, this releases the self from the self: “that life is not the life of men./ And that is where the joy came in.” It’s a ravishing moment; it makes me weep. We are not the measure of the universe.
AH: I practice Buddhist meditation, which is about dissolving the self. It brings relief to let go of who you are, and step beyond this narrow prism into the light which passes through it – as happens also at the end of ‘And Sometimes’.
LG: It’s also about affection for our limits, true affection. Mastery is an insufficient value.
AH: When we were talking about limits, and Christian Wiman, I thought how, when my first husband was dying of cancer, in some ways, paradoxically, as a couple we were happier then we had ever been. Obviously not when he was in acute pain. But simply, because we knew his illness was terminal, without discussing it, we got down to just enjoying being together in the day, in the moment, in the time that was good. There was this extraordinary happiness. Falcon had a metatastic adenocarcinoma spreading everywhere – and yet a friend of mine said, I saw you two driving in the car and you looked like a pair of 20 year olds. We were let go from all the complex life structures that we built around ourselves – and into simply being.
LG: Oh that makes sense – it sounds like a great blessing.
AH:It was. The strangest thing is that life, when it takes most away, sometimes also gives most back. Art can be a form of algebra that expresses that equation – because it’s unquantifiable in more straightforward terms.
LG: I think that is very wise. It says a lot about this whole dilemma of how can we find consolation, or how does poetry provide consolation in the midst of darkness. It’s not by euphemizing or evading. On the contrary, it’s by engaging in such a way that somehow it won’t have been lost on us – and so much is lost on us.
AH: The earliest poems in Prodigal are from Fire in the Conservatory, published in 1982. The first poem ‘How Love, When It Has Been Acquired/ May Be Kept’, alludes to The Art of Courtly Love – De Arte Honeste Amandi – by Andreas Capellanus. It begins:
That was when the war was on, the one we felt good
to hate, so of course I thought he’d come from there.
It was June. The light grown long again.
She’d roll his chair to the window
and back. But no, you said, it was love.
They were getting it wrong.
A leg. A leg. An arm to the elbow.
Like the man who burned his daughter to get
I know you are also a Renaissance scholar. Could you say something about the energy your work derives from refracting between past and present times, and in conversation with works made by other artists, often in visual media. It seems to me that this can form a means of gaining a purchase – a kind of coming in close, through coming in slant?
LG: So if I follow the gist of your question, you’re asking about the route that takes me from a medieval handbook to a Vietnam era clinic to Agamemnon and Iphigenia? This is always a bit of a conundrum. If I let myself, I’d be constantly trailing tag lines of Shakespeare and Milton, and this has nothing to do with systematic thought or “bookishness” in the narrow sense. Quite the opposite. A chunk of something stuck in my heart or head insists on being allowed into the poem; it might as well be a stone through the window. It’s very like the ambush to my senses when I’m walking past the linden trees just east of SOAS: suddenly they’re in blossom, and that scent! That’s how bits of these poets and writers and painters and theatre-makers, who mean so much to me, it’s how they enter– it’s that quotidian. It’s like the smell of bread baking. It’s just another thing.
AH: Like a kind of loop that plays in your head almost. It’s not a matter of I’m going to sit myself in front of this picture and write something.
LG:Now I’m going to be allusive. God forbid! But then, the question is to make sure there is enough of a talking voice around it that it’s convincing. That it feels ordinary, and everyday, instead of deliberately . . .
LG: Exactly. “The man who burned his daughter” is Agamemnon, but that particular section of the poem was based on something quite immediate. I was 21, my then partner had had back surgery, and I was visiting him in hospital. And in the hallway I passed a young couple: the man in wheelchair had lost an arm and both of his legs. All I could imagine, because we were in the midst of that horrible war, was that he had been terribly wounded in Vietnam. But no. He had metastatic cancer; the couple were newly married; they kept cutting off parts of his body in an effort to keep him alive. It broke my heart, and made me know my own utter incapacity. What would it mean to do things right in such circumstances? How do you love wisely when you’re terrified and very young? I started thinking about the bargains we try to make with fate. The trivial: I’ve lost my keys, please please please let me find them before I’m late for work. And the not trivial: I make the same panicked begging sounds when I’m praying for the well-being of one of my daughters. What am I thinking? Maybe if I offer the right thing in exchange, I can have some leverage here? It’s a human instinct, I suppose, when something of utmost importance is utterly beyond our control.
AH: It’s a sort of gaining of imaginative agency.
LG: The foundational human dynamics are not new. Others have known them before. Which gives us, well, not consolation exactly, but some small shelter against the descent into chaos – others have been here before.
AH: And we can find our way through somehow. ‘Geometry’ is another of your earliest poems – spoken in the voice of a snowplow driver, which seems to enact a process of creative making, through its making visible of a specific, cold, snowy terrain, to which many of your poems about your family return. It begins:
What I like best about the snowplow is morning
then night, but anyway without sun.
I drive from town to old 16 and back again, wider.
The sound I make’s all mine, like the tunnel from the
mine. First I plow with light and then with the plow
The best part closes up behind. I could tell you but I
how the farms separate, each one parked around a single
for prowlers or company. The light that’s modern and
stops further out and sharper than the yellow kind.
Would you say something about ‘Geometry’ and its landscape?
LG: Sure. The landscape is a very particular one in central Wisconsin. I wasn’t doing many persona poems at that point, but I guess I have always been attracted to what Stevens calls a mind of winter – that wanting to be rid of the clutter and noise of life with other humans. I am not particularly proud of that impulse, but it’s one I have felt. It’s one I saw quite often in my father.
AH: It seemed to me it was also an artist’s poem. It’s talking about an artist taking a space in which to be alone and carve shapes.
LG: There’s the snow’s cleanliness – the white canvas.
AH: And the making lines in geometry. It is poem about form and beauty. It really seemed to be an artist’s manifesto.
LG: It also winds up being a kind of love letter to that landscape – the upper midwest in America. Settlement pattern there is very different than in Europe. The particular beauty of European settlement is village life with its intricate patterns and then the fields beyond. In vast stretches of America, white settlement followed the logic of government survey: square-mile sections carved out, north, south, east, west. As a child, of course, I had no sense of political geography. I chiefly remember being driven through darkness when we went to see my grandparents. My father’s notion of travel was: if we can’t get there by breakfast time, it’s not worth going, so we’d leave at four in the morning. Wisconsin farms in the darkness: a single yard light, and clustered around it the house, the barn, some animal sheds, a silo, and then the unpaved turnaround for tractors and cars. There is a rhythm to that visually, when you are driving on a country road. Darkness and then this gathering of light, and darkness within the gathering. That did seem to me really beautiful. So I suppose the poem is not entirely antisocial: it’s about that space where, family by family, people would make a light.
AH:It’s also about separation and relationship – because the seeing eye needs the separation to function. When you are in a farm, you can’t see the rhythm, the visual music of the passing in and out of light. It’s only when you are alone and separate that you can see.
LG: Yes, thank you! And it’s distance that allows us to see pattern, to take it in somatically.
AH: I love that poem.
LG: I’m so glad! I have ambivalent feelings about that book. I mean – it was my first. I hadn’t found a way of lineating my poems. I hadn’t found a way of generating something whose rhythms, the rhythms I intended, were accessible to a reader. The subjects of those poems are still my subjects, but the prosody wasn’t there yet so I am of two minds, two hearts.
AH: I’m glad you put the early poems in. Your second collection, The Woman Who Died in Her Sleep, from 1996, makes extensive use of the off-set tercets in which much of your work is realized, including ‘And Sometimes’. Among other things, it’s a collection about families, and a collection about harm. They sometimes join together – within the same family, and the same poem. The first poem, ‘For My Father, Who Would Rather Stay Home’, suggests a man who comes from, and is himself, a hard place. The three line form makes the relationship of the father to his surroundings, and the speaker’s relationship to him, appear to be both holding together, and coming apart. It begins:
No deadfall in these woods of yours.
hanging on, as puts
a man with a chainsaw
Could you say something about how you came to use this three-line form within the poem, and more generally?
LG: Absolutely. The tercet felt like a lifeline to me. I wasn’t imitating anything. I don’t know how much I had even read of William Carlos Williams at that point. His tercets are extremely different. I just basically messed around the way we play with clay, or in a sandbox. I messed around, and messed around, and then finally I thought, Oh this really helps. The tercets with their indents gave me a way to register syncopation, and the multiple tracks that I think consciousness is always going on. It was also a way of launching a sweeping trajectory of syntax without allowing it to look or feel like prose. It literally has to do with letting in light and air – white space – and also allows for the stop, and start, and stumble that seems to me to constitute consciousness.
AH: When I was looking at the construction of your work, I saw these long shapes, but I didn’t feel crushed or oppressed by them. They were giving me space to take them in, and sort of live with them, and sit with them, and then move on a little bit, and it was really wonderful.
LG: One thing that I love about long, dependent clauses is that I don’t really know where I am going when I’m inside them. I need to be rescued. I’m walking in the dark, or I’m running forward in the dark, and I find that very very helpful – because then I am required to discover something, rather than paraphrasing something I think I already understand, or formulating some deliberate image, or analogy, which is deadly for me.
AH: ‘For My Father, Who Would Rather Stay Home’, is seen from the point of view of the
who haven’t struck your bargain
with the pure hard edge
Would you like to say something about choosing to identify this perspective, and also the larger concept of “luck”, which is something many of your poems investigate?
LG: I think that is a very good question. It’s not something I have thought of from that angle. My first impulse is to say well, it’s hard luck that I mostly mean to be trying to accommodate in my vision of the world – and the profound injustice of it all, the arbitrariness:Why is one child born deprived of oxygen? Why is one child born to a mother who is starving or drug-addicted, while someone else sails through with every advantage in the world? Why is someone who works hard all his life suddenly deprived of a pension because some business goes bust? And this is not to mention the spectacles of larger violence on every side. This is the problem that all theologies have tried to manage – to build into some form of meaning. ‘Luck’ is a shorthand, of course. Its very insufficiency as a shorthand is part of the point.
AH: It’s such a scary word. You can be lucky at the game tables – or you might lose everything. ‘Luck’ is the knife-edge word. It can tip you into desolation. It has this bright sparkle of hope. This my lucky token. This is my lucky Shamrock. It’s very a plain word, – but it holds both sides the coin.
LG: Even the brighter side is one that seems actually rather dark to me because of the helplessness it proposes – the disconnect between one thing and another is really hard to bear as we make our way through the world.
AH:Some people have had a relatively protected experience of life. It doesn’t occur to them what it might be like for everybody else. If you are not of that protected group, you have a clear idea of what goes wrong. Right now, some children are dying of dirty water, of malaria, while other children are buying drinks from vending machines. How do we square that?
Another kind of desperately hard ‘luck’ is witnessed in ‘Safe’ dedicated to “K.M.S. 1948-1986”. ‘Safe’ addresses the larger topic of violence through the specific example of a friend, who died after an intruder broke into her house and attacked her murderously.You have previously written “When poetry taps and exploits the charged realms of human extremity and public opinion, without taking on the real burden of history and choice, it willy-nilly evolves a politics of its own, and one that can only be called exploitative.” It seems to me that you not only avoided that danger here, but also managed to make a form of language which can hold deep horror – in a way that enables the reader to see it, without flinching away. You write about the hurt, by imagining undoing it:
point of the kitchen knife – and here
let the surgeon be gentle – removed and the skull
and the blood lifted out of the carpet and washed
from the stairs. And the nineteen-year-old burglar
to the cradle
The long, almost languorous sentence structure, the ‘rests’ generated by the line-breaks, and repeated use of “and’, brings a quality of ceremony and graciousness to the devastating depiction, that enables us absorb it, in a way which a more violent wording might not have. Your words are also suffused with evident love for the attacked woman – which only makes her fate more personal, as each act of violence is to those impacted by it. Could you say something about how you came to write ‘Safe’?
LG:First of all – let me say a little more about that danger, the danger of exploiting tragedy, and harm that comes to others especially – however close we may be to them. I think it is very important to write with a continual awareness of that danger. Especially when I am writing about such subjects, I am walking a razor’s edge. If I go an inch in either direction, I am trespassing. I came to write ‘Safe’ because a friend of mine was murdered. We had been in graduate school together. The house in which she was attacked was one she was living in alone because her marriage had recently ended. To her a house meant a lot by way of psychological safety – to own one, to have it painted, to put her things in it, to cook there. Horribly ironically – to invest in good kitchenware, including a good set of knives. I mean it’s just unbearable, and this was a complex poem to write. I didn’t deliberately plan, I will go in and reverse time here, but I didn’t want simply to narrate the story – what would be the point? The point isn’t the story. One has to feel first and foremost the voice telling it – and the voice’s need to say these words, to speak these words, to write these words. That kind of wish – contrary to fact – to be able to undo the harm was a way forward. It also then enabled me to select certain details and to leave out many, many others. The leaving out was the crucial part. So I had that first section – the essence gives the basics of my friend’s death. But that wasn’t the poem. I think this was one of the earliest poems I wrote in sections, of the sort where the sections are not schematic. They are actually ways of trying to continue to feel my way through the challenge.
AH:As a reader, the great gift was the humanity. You dis-assembled her – and she re-emerged whole. That was the achievement of ‘Safe’ – that you witnessed to what your friend had been through and what came back was her whole self, her humanity, her life. By acknowledging her death, you could lay it on the page, and let her rise up.
LG: It so happened that my first child was very young at the time, and my friend Karin had sent her a gift of a silver spoon – a highly symbolic gift. Karin did not have it easy in life. It was hard for her to afford such a gift – which it made it all the more meaningful. The side that actually had to remain unspoken in this poem is that the young man who knifed her to death had been apparently stalking her. I fibbed. He wasn’t there to steal anything, he just wanted to cut her apart. I know nothing about him. I never knew his name. I didn’t go to the trial, none of that. But it made me think about that razor edge of luck — and I don’t want to trivialise it in some awful platitudinous way – the sort of ‘there but for the grace of God go I.’ The woman in the bedroom, the boy on the stairs. There are imbedded, complex, heart-breaking stories that are part of this event that I will never know anything about.
AH: We were talking about people who had more straightforward lives and people who have less straightforward lives. As poets, we have to narrate the whole spectrum. We can’t say we will leave this difficult area in prison, or bury it underneath the earth with a nice gravestone. We can’t do that. We need to draw it into the whole story – because if we are also talking about a more equal distribution of resources, we have to know there is a kind of payback. If you withhold mental health care, if you withhold education, if you withhold adequate housing, if you withhold adequate employment opportunities to generations of people – it will produce casualties.
LG: I was thinking a lot about such things. Nobody wants to hear a sermon, and I don’t know the solutions, I have nothing more than common wisdom and common feeling to offer.
AH:I think by witnessing to the murder, saying this spiritually beautiful person was alive, and then ceased to be alive, through a violent act, you did your work. You showed what lies under the ‘woman murdered’ headline with a blurry picture and one paragraph of story. That’s the work the poem performs. It’s an almost impossible subject to write about – to tread the line, to find the line – and it seemed to me you did it.
LG: It was as important to me to convey the part where she actually didn’t die immediately. I wanted to convey what the paramedics reported to her family, that when they arrived, she couldn’t remember the attack but was worried about the blood on the stairs, was trying to clean it – and herself all covered in blood. That sense that the decencies of housekeeping were somehow something to hold onto.
AH: That was her identity. It was her sense of self. She was claiming herself notwithstanding her injury. I think in extreme trauma the brain can sometimes misinform the individual about what has happened – whether it is on the battlefield or in a traffic accident. It’s only after that connections get made again. There is a sort of mercy there. The subject of the next poem I wanted to ask you about is no less essential. This same collection also contains ‘For the Taking’. “Luck” is again at issue in this poem about the sexual abuse of a young child. You describe your sister’s “damp blond curls”, and her “o-/bedience”, and then, with a shimmer of a nod to Nabokov’s Lolita, continue to:
the peeling brown shoulders–
she was always
a child of the sun. . .This
was his sweet piece of luck, his
his renewable turn-on,
and my brown and golden sister and eight
and a half
took to hating her body and cried
in her bath, and this was years,
my bad uncle did it
for years, in the back of the car,
in the basement where he kept his guns,
who could have saved her, who knew
what it was in the best of time
the bridge of shame, from the body un-
encumbered to the body on the
we would be somewhere mowing the lawn
or basting the spareribs right
outside, and – how
many times have you heard this? – we
were deaf and blind
ever since required of her that she
take care of us, and she has,
the worst, she does it for love.
In the UK at least, the widespread nature of the sexual abuse of children was only beginning to be known during the 1990s. You were giving witness to a very difficult, and tragic, family experience, relatively early on in your career as a poet. I wondered if this was an important thing for you to do creatively, as well as politically, and personally?
LG:This was a poem that truly ambushed me. I sincerely thought I was simply writing about my sister and how lovely she was as a child. It’s a subject I’ve returned to recently. My sister died five years ago and the poem you have seen recently (‘Love Poem’ in The New Yorker) returns to those curls. The reason I must have been writing it in the first instance, that poem I thought I was writing so long ago, is because I’d failed to see it at the time, her loveliness. She was my little sister. She didn’t sit up straight. She was messy. I couldn’t stand it. So at first the poem was an attempt to recover joy in her loveliness – to properly take it in for the first time in my life – but very very quickly the act of describing began to feel predatory. There’s a dangerous terrain between appreciating the particular beauty of children and preying upon it. And for all our talk, all our efforts at enforcement, I don’t believe we have ever come fully to terms with this. We speak as though there were two worlds: the world of paedophiles and the world of others, the good people, utterly distinct. In fact, I think one of the things that humans find so lovely about young children is precisely their ignorance of their own beauty: a sort of inadvertency, the not-yet-risen-to-consciousness aspect. It’s enchanting, and not just to villains. And it is flatly not to be messed with.
When I wrote “For the Taking,” feminist film criticism had begun to establish a vocabulary about the violence of the male gaze, but the poem didn’t come to me through that lens. It didn’t live in the realm of ideology, or intellection. It hit me from behind, or within, the subject of my sister’s sexual abuse. I asked her permission before I published the poem, but what was she supposed to say? Silence – the enforced silence and the protecting everybody’s feelings – is part of the vicious damage that child abuse visits upon humans. It’s part of the cycle. Speaking out was important, is important, as you know in your own work. And still. To ask her permission was another way of making my sister responsible. More of the dreadful cycle. What the poem tries to acknowledge is the alchemy with which that beautiful child, and that beautiful woman, turned suffering into an aptitude for love. The fact that the poem could find its way to become tribute to her – that’s what finally allows me to tell myself it was ok to write it.
AH:As someone who was sexually abused in childhood, when the crime is witnessed in words, it becomes more possible for other people to acknowledge what has happened to them. Witness confers on the child who was subjected to the abuse, a kind of retrospective, and self-redemptive, agency. The patterns of grooming, and the abuses of power, implicit in facilitating the abuse – like your uncle taking your sister down to the basement where he kept his guns – become apparent.When the mechanisms by which the child was coerced and controlled are evident, then the impossibility of the child resisting become comprehensible. I resist ever using the word “victim” in that context – because that is actually a victimising act. I also resist “survivor” – because again that implies that you are always living in the aftermath of that experience, and whereas actually it is only one of the many events of your life.
LG: It implies a tidiness and a wrapping up to the narrative.
AH: Every life has many defining actions, and experiences. For me, aside from the sexual abuse in childhood, they include being able to love, being able to be intellectually interested and committed, being able to form relationships. Those were some of your sister’s other defining experiences, too. It seems to me that when we ‘say the difficult thing’, we can also then begin to say the whole thing. ‘For the Taking’ is a stunning poem. It works because it gives witness – but it also gives agency. And it doesn’t skimp on the crime. The physical actions of the mowing and the basting, cited earlier, carry the searing repetitions of sustained sexual abuse in childhood, without giving any details that would arouse a paedophile. As someone with this history, this reticence is crucial. Was this something to which you also gave consideration?
LG: Thank you for that reading — the “mowing the lawn//or basting the spareribs” – I hadn’t thought about their power to suggest somatic intrusion, to tell the truth. Certainly the need for reticence-with-clarity was something I felt throughout. But that pairing, well, it’s an example of how poems stumble toward themselves. Because the abuse was so dreadfully prolonged – it was years and years – and would happen most often when the family was together for holidays, I had inadvertently conflated seasons: at one point I had us mowing the lawn and basting the turkey, which would have made it another season altogether. So I had to do a little fixing. That’s the scotch-tape-and-scissors part of making poems.
AH:Also, just organising your materials – so they can move in a clear stream towards your reader. All the rape in is there. It suggested to me an almost somatic transfer of knowledge between your sister and yourself – an unspoken somatic transfer – which I think can happen. Like how trees communicate by their roots, I think sometimes in families, people who are close to each other almost can absorb understanding from each other, without having to get out the pencil and draw the diagram. You empathetically absorb it – and that also acts as a tempering device for how you write about it. It gives you an unconscious frame of protecting the person you absorb the information from. That was how it came to me anyway.
LG: I love that reading.
AH:You write about your sister again in ‘Salt’, which starts out with your father sending her to bed with a broken collar bone, but then moves into the harshness of his own childhood, and specifically when he was taken, aged 6, by his tough, Norwegian father “Ole (like ‘holy’// without the h)”, in Ole’s capacity as JP, to cut down a body after a botched suicide.
Rather in the way that water condenses on a colder surface, you precipitate the mental pain leading to the suicide, and refracting out from it, into the description of how the subject “thrashed// for a while, and the northeast wall of the barn –/ the near wall –/ was everywhere harrows and scythes.” As before, the language is mellifluous and decorous, addressing the reader in the second person, in long, carefully punctuated sentences, and using predominantly formal language, but then just occasionally dropping us down a mineshaft into the every day, to evoke the enduring impact of the scene on your father aged 6:
It wasn’t – I hope you can understand –
blood or the blackening face,
as fearful as those were to a boy, that, forty
had drowned our days in whiskey and dis-
gust; it was just that the world had no
once life with the old man was
gone. It’s common as dirt, the story
once in the father’s fair
lost field, even the cycles of darkness cohered.
in the granular light, Ole as solid
as heartwood, and tall...
Could you say something about the thought behind this poem – relative to the long burn of trauma?
LG:I suppose it is also about, once again, the long burn of love. My father was a difficult man. He was an alcoholic. Nowadays we would say he clearly suffered from chemical depression. His anger was frightening. He was also marvellous. He was a real presence, as his father had been. That was true for a whole extended family. My sister and I went off to University, had our families late – but the other side of the family did things properly. They got married early, had children and grandchildren, lots of boys. I have seen those sons of cousins worship at my father’s feet. There was an energy there when he was around. He had wherewithal. He had a shop full of lathes and drills and table saws and tools of every imaginable sort, some of them homemade. With the boys, he had a lot of patience. They would come with whatever needed fixing: their trucks, their chainsaws, a part for the sink. But this was all after he’d retired. Before that was really a life in exile from the life he loved – which was his life on the farm. There were six children…
AH: Not enough farm to go around?
LG: Exactly. He was born in 1912. During the depression, when the entire world seemed to be falling apart, that farm sustained a lot of people. My grandfather was formidable – I think he seemed to anchor the world. Even taking a child to see this aftermath of suicide – which was worse than my grandfather, to be fair, had expected – the sense was ‘better for him to see the world as it is early’.
AH: There is a truthfulness to it.
LG:We might call it trauma, but that’s never a word my father would have used. He was actually proud of his father for doing that. He was proud of himself for having taken it.
AH: He stepped up to the mark, even if the mark marked him.
LG: My mother suffered because of the drink and the anger – but not because he was ever vicious to her or us. He never harmed us ever. What has come to define him for me is the love he felt for his parents, and their way of life. It wasn’t that he was indifferent to us. I think his afterlife was just that. It was a kind of afterlife – it was a slightly lesser life.
AH: If you are out in the elements, there is almost a benediction – if you are someone who enjoys that expansive life, that very acute link to the changing seasons –
LG: And physical work.
AH: That sense of potency. You put crops into the land and – weather permitting – they come up and become food. We were wired to do that. Admittedly, many of us have no desire to now. I think for some, though, it’s a calling. Why do people keep farming with very poor returns? With the isolation, all those things? It answers to a deep need.
LG: In the part of the country where members of my family still farm, if a family does farm, it has to be way we write poetry. They have to have day jobs. They plow at night. You see the tractors with their headlights in the field. And no health benefits unless they come with the day job.
AH: With the National Health in the UK, we forget how exposed life can be.
LG: Farming that way is what one does for love now.
AH: What you do for love is what keeps your spirit alight. I think lots of people have that double-self. Better to have a double self than an extinguished self.
LG: And here’s that word again, lucky – we are the blessed of the earth to have leeway for such a thing.
AH: I was talking to a tuk-tuk driver in India around 2000. There were women outside our hotel, all day in the pre-monsoon sun, breaking stones that go on railroads. I said This really makes me feel sad. He said it shouldn’t. That was how he afforded his tuk- tuk. He said Those women are buying their children food and education. For them it’s a really good thing.
For all this darkness, you are also a poet of light. ‘Salt’ records your sister’s pleasure in using the hammock as a swing, before she broke her collar bone. ‘Bleedthrough’, takes as its starting point a Helen Frankenthaler’s painting (‘Sunset Corner’), with its layered and saturated cohesion of reds, within a framing of black. The poem responds in waves to an explicitly female sense of self – that “world of women with its four fleshed walls/ of love” – and questions how it speaks through and into art, but also how it makes art of the lived female life. Honouring your mother’s ability to “turn the most unlikely// raw materials to gladness”, you also acknowledge the fierce energy of fertility and menstruation – “the body/ in even its / flourishing seethes and cramps” – from which you move to the “labor-in-the-flesh” of painting – “the wash/ of acrylic, / the retinal flare”.
The closing image in ‘Bleedthrough’ is of a “just pubescent” girl washing out cloth stained with what appears to be blood, and suggests that our ability to see, to make art, to have a sense of identity, all derive from the totality of our life-experiences:
The fretted cloth on the third or fourth rinsing goes
yellow, goes brown, the young
– she’s just pubescent – ache
with cold. Some parts –
bare memory now – were never bad. The sound
of the water, for instance, the smell,
of the stain that’s last to go.
Although it’s a homely image, I wondered whether it might be fair to understand within this a refraction of your own transmuting of life into art, and a reflection of the way that working with even the most difficult materials, and making them over into a secondary medium, can contain its own healing and reconciliation? I’m thinking again of your recent ‘Love Poem’, in The New Yorker.
LG: I’m not from that generation of women poets who found it inherently compelling to write about menstruation But the beautifully saturated colours in the Helen Frankenthaler painting did make me think about my mother when she was growing up: there were no such things as disposable sanitary products; they used cloth which had to be washed. There is a way in which the body comes, the senses come, to claim things.
AH: Every woman has had to wash stained underwear.
LG: And deal with the sanitary pads.
AH: Yes! The giant, bulky things.
LG: I didn’t dislike that smell. I was in horror at the thought that someone else might smell it of course, but I rather liked it. I guess it’s just the blessing of the physical. When you are trying to wash blood out of things, you have to use very, very cold water lest you set the stain, and the coldness hurts your hands. It’s not about anything else. It’s just itself.
AH: It’s wonderful.
LG: At some point in my life I’m going to write an ode to lochia.
AH: That would be a really strong project. I think also, in a way blood is our ink, the ink our bodies make. It’s what literally connects all our parts. It’s the liquid in which we write the experience of our lives internally, but is made manifest externally – either through trauma, or through this natural process of menstruation. It can feel very delicate to approach – trying to reclaim a bodily part of ourselves, that is symbolic of our fertility – of our still livingness – of our aliveness, so we can write into our larger place of being. It’s a mysterious poem – but it’s also an anchored poem, in the physical self.
LG: And maybe it’s just that very particular combination of centring experiences.
AH: Also, as you say, just thinking about that sense that when you wash something – whatever the cause of the stain – you are transposing it, you are creating a ritual of transformation to arrive in another place. In the same way, when we make art, we are also engaging in a sustained ritual of transformation that takes us to another place, that engages this other material – but also in some ways releases us from it so we get that distance which allows us to make and to invent rather than just be a kind of straight newspaper reporter.
LG: That is very well put.
AH: Thank you. ‘Still Life’ closes Prodigal. Structured as couplets, the poem moves through deaths further afield – photographed in Qaa, and in Krakow during World War II – to a father dying from cancer. You allude in the final section to images derived from still lives, known in French as ‘nature morte’, whereby the marks of beginning death – “The lemon,/ for example, where the knife has been;” are what enable us paradoxically to recognize the “luminescent heart” of life. The poem, and the collection, end:
I see you in the mirror every morning
where you wait for me. The linen,
Father, lemon, knife,
the pewter with its lovely
reluctance to shine. As though
the given world had given us
a second chance.
Would you like to say something about this ending?
LG:I come back again and again to writing to and about my father – when he was alive, we didn’t have a sufficient language together. I was more or less useless in his world. He never gave me that impression, never said such a thing, but all the things he did in the world, I just no good at. I was sickly. I was bookish. If I ventured into the garden, I succumbed to hay fever. Useless. And later, I was simply flailing about, trying to find a life of my own –
AH: That was so different from anyone your family had yet made?
LG: Different, yes. I never had the wherewithal or the presence of mind to ask him more about his life. When my father was older we – my husband and I and our two children – would visit my parents twice a year. Once in the summer, and once at Christmas. Each time we left — car packed to the gills, kids in their car seats, a mountain of snow on either side of the drive at Christmas time or summer heat and the corn getting high — I remember looking back, my parents on the porch outside the kitchen waving goodbye to us, and I would be seized with grief. We never found a way of being together, my father and I, so every time I left and knew it was that much closer to the end, I was simply seized with grief. I haven’t felt that way about any other loss. I suppose I keep trying to find my way to him by writing.
AH: He lives through your words, for us. He is a very powerful presence. While you don’t deny his complexity – you allow it with a sort of generosity. You allow it its strength, through your own tenderness and compassion. Your father’s seems to be a life that is very valuable to be able to speak of at firsthand. These complex male lives, which are not spoken by themselves beyond their circle, can be otherwise lives that people don’t have imaginative access to, even though they are lived by millions of people. I think it’s a really meaningful project, and a deep creative spur. It is a wonderful place to end the collection – with that sense of him appearing to you in the mirror. That sense of his presence, which is present in your own reflection. Thank you so much Linda Gregerson.
Photograph of Linda Gregerson by Nina Subin
Prodigal: New and Selected Poems, 1976-2014 (Mariner Books, 2015) The Selvage (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012) Magnetic North (Houghton Mifflin, 2007) Waterborne (Houghton Mifflin, 2002) The Woman Who Died in Her Sleep (Houghton Mifflin, 1996) Fire in the Conservatory (Dragon Gate Press, 1982)
Negative Capability: Contemporary American Poetry (University of Michigan Press, 2001) The Reformation of the Subject: Spenser, Milton and the English Protestant Epic (Cambridge University Press, 1995)