Sometimes I read a book which will change lives. The Black Flamingo by Dean Atta is one. A novel in verse, interspersed with stand-alone poems, it follows Michael, also Mikey, and Mike, and later The Black Flamingo, from his first hatching at the crack of the new millennium, through the multiple twists and turns, and fully-fledged transformations, that finally lead to his glorious coming out in full drag at university. Written for the YA market, but equally resonant for adult readers, it showcases the spare, intimate voice which led to Dean Atta’s debut collection, I Am Nobody’s Nigger, being shortlisted for the Polari First Book Prize, and saw him named as one of the most influential LGBT people in the UK by the Independent on Sunday. Dean’s poems have been featured widely on radio and tv, as well as on social media, which he works with as powerful channel of communication, using his facebook page to be open about intermittent negotiations with depression, as well as his writing, and performing, and political activism. The Black Flamingo is already picking up rave reviews and fan letters. As the bi-queer mum of an adult queer son, who rocks a mean line in drag himself, I connected with The Black Flamingo at many levels, and valued being able to ask Dean how the project came together and what his intentions were in writing a queer coming of age story that begins in very early childhood and encompasses the black British experience. We also discussed being emotionally truthful, how it felt to speak to a YA readership, at a potentially key moment in their lives – and whether a gender-liberated identity is possible.
AH: There is a scene about three quarters of the way through The Black Flamingo when your teen narrator, Michael, is asked in a barbershop, what he writes about. He replies:
I don’t say Coming out as gay. I don’t say Sleeping with men. I say ‘Identity and stuff.’
He doesn’t ask me anything else.
Have you sometimes felt that Michael’s story, of growing up Black-Greek-Cypriot-British, and finding and claiming a Drag identity, is one that people have resisted, or felt uncomfortable, about hearing? If so, did this contribute to your impulse to write?
DA: I judged it in terms of Michael’s feelings of comfort and safety with whomever he is talking to. There is an earlier part of the book when Michael takes his time to figure out if he wants to tell his school friend Daisy that he is gay. I think I come from the school of thought that you’re sexuality is not necessarily everyone’s business, and it’s up to each person to decide if they want to come out and who they want to come out to. Coming out isn’t something you just do once and it’s over and done with. Michael finds himself coming out over and over again. By this point in the book Michael has come out to many people including his extremely supportive mother. I wanted to show him having lots of positive coming out experiences, throughout the book. However, the barbershop isn’t a place I could in good conscience locate one of these positive coming out moments. I would not feel comfortable to talk about my sexuality in a barbershop. There’s a lot said in barbershops that makes them feel unsafe in many ways.
AH: You begin, in the Prologue:
Throughout, your narrative combines teenage and child selves, and flamingo and human selves. Was it a challenge to create a structure to hold so many intertwining strands? How did you set about it?
DA: Everything about writing this book was a challenge. The only easy part was getting the publishing deal because I didn’t do that, my agent Becky Thomas did. Once I was under contract to write the book the logistics of writing a verse-novel immediately became very daunting. I was very unsure how I was going to pull it off. The flamingo metaphor was central to the book and had to appear from the beginning and so the idea of the egg came to me quite early. There’s repetition of eggs, feathers and flight imagery throughout the book. Some were written into the very first draft of the book but many were added when I was redrafting. I initially wrote the whole book with Michael as a teenager starting when he sees The Black Flamingo when he’s on holiday in Cyprus, with all the earlier childhood stuff in flashbacks. However my editor Polly Lyall-Grant suggested that we could start with his early childhood and tell it chronologically. When I had moved everything into a chronological sequence we found it flowed much better as a story.
AH:The Black Flamingo is told in the first person, beginning with Michael’s parallel egg and millennium births, and his human parents’ separation. It then cuts straight to his sixth birthday – for which he has asked for a Barbie. Michael’s words have complete clarity and believability, which comes across compellingly when you perform them. I wondered if you were you interested in capturing the voice of early childhood, for personal as well as political reasons? The early ‘chapters’ have great titles – ‘Barbies and Belonging’, ‘Sandcastles’.
DA: Michael’s childhood was initially written from the perspective of a teenager looking back knowingly on these younger memories. However when we changed this to have Michael’s narration start at six years old and age through the book I had to go back and rework these scenes to be more naive and less knowing. Capturing the voice of a six, seven, eight year old was really fun in terms of limiting the vocabulary and knowledge of the narrator without losing any of the emotional truth or poignancy of the poems. I had to take care not to put adult intentions, motivations or interpretations onto the actions of Michael in his childhood.
AH: At a time when education about identity and orientation is being challenged in some schools, did you feel that giving witness to the formation and articulation of a queer identity from when it starts to have consciousness of itself, was an important act, politically?
DA: It’s an authentic story that is similar to my own in many ways so it just felt like I was telling the truth. In the sense that there was an emotional truth to the book, even though it is a work of fiction. It can be viewed as a political statement but it was just the best way to tell Michael’s story. Meeting Michael as a child makes the story somewhat similar a firework with a long fuse; a slow burn and big bang. What was most important for me about writing this book is that I wanted it to be full of love and optimism, I wanted Michael to have a loving family and friends that he could fall back on when he encountered more hostile and negative forces in the world.
AH: I read The Black Flamingo as bi-queer woman, and the mother of a queer adult son. It is incredibly moving, and totally gripping, partly because Michael/Mike and his mum are so warm, and human and believable, and involving. It is also really powerful because of the ways it shows his identity forming itself, relative to the world in which he moves, and the friendships he makes – and the challenges he faces through school, and then into university. It’s been published by Hodder Children’s Books, and is aimed at YA readers. I wondered what led you and your publishers to position it in this way? Your debut, I Am Nobody’s Nigger, was an adult publication. The Black Flamingo felt to me like a book I will be giving to both adults, and teenagers.
DA: Polly at Hodder is a children’s book editor so Young Adult fiction was the only option if I was to publish with her. I also had interest from a poetry publisher to do The Black Flamingo as a straightforward poetry collection and a non-fiction editor at another publisher to rewrite it as a memoir but I wasn’t so interested in writing about myself, I wanted to try something else. So creating a character seemed more appealing to me and writing a verse-novel seemed like an exciting challenge.Polly gave me lots of editorial support along the way to make sure the story was appropriate for teenagers and I arranged a number of readings with school groups and university students whilst working on the book to check we were getting it right.
AH: Was there a reason for Michael to be born in 1999, which I believe makes him a little younger than you are?
DA: Michael is much younger than me, I was born in 1984. I was sure that I didn’t want to make the book a throwback to the 90s and noughties. I wanted to use contemporary references and deal with the concerns of teenagers today. I wanted Michael to be a teenager today, so I worked backwards from there to pick his year of birth. Some pop culture references got confusing because certain movies have been remade from the 80s and 90s, and some music artists have been around for ages so I had to ask myself, Which version of the movie would Michael have seen and would he actually be into that singer or is that just my own childhood seeping out through him?
AH: Your text combines the ongoing narrative of the novel-in-verse with shorter inset poems, laid out on lightly lined pages, as if taken from a notebook, and text messages in rectangular bubbles. Was it important to you to embrace multiple forms of typography, as well as different forms of poetry-making, within the project to create a more open, possible feeing?
DA: I just wrote the words. In some cases I specified that this would be written in his notebook or this would be on a mobile phone screen. But the design elements of the book are down to the designer Alice Duggan and illustrator Anshika Khullar. It turned out even more beautiful than I could have imagined.
AH: Anshika Khullar’s graphics and layout – with its flowing illustrations all over the pages of flamingos, and seagulls, and drag queens, and feathers, and aeroplanes, and stars, and landscape features – is integral to the way the text performs itself. How did your collaboration come about, and what did it feel like to work together? When did Anshika come on board?
DA: We didn’t collaborate directly, Anshika was picked by my publisher on the strength of their work on Instagram. I was focused on writing the words. They were sent a brief for designing the cover before the book was even written. We were working simultaneously on the insides but never met or communicated directly, it went via Polly and Alice. Our publisher had a big summer party and this was the first time all four of us were together. This was after a year of working on the book. By this point the it had already been sent off to the printers.
AH: Malika Booker was another creative force within The Black Flamingo’s realisation. Could you say something about her role? I know you go back a long way with her through Malika’s Kitchen.
DA: Malika Booker spent a few days working on it towards the end. She spent a day reading and making notes on the manuscript, then we had a meeting where we discussed her feedback. I took a day or two to digest it all and then we had a follow up phone call so I could ask her any further questions. Malika’s feedback was very tough but necessary. She was focused on the poetry. I had already put a lot of work into the manuscript and received countless rounds of notes from my editor and a proofreader on the storytelling, grammar and punctuation. Malika was looking for music, metaphor and striking images. She didn’t refrain from telling me all the places in the manuscript where these were lacking. To use Malika’s own words: “where it flatlines.” With her feedback I went back over the manuscript to revive the poetry. I believe that having Malika as a critical friend was crucial to the book working so well.
AH: Brighton, where Michael goes to university, also has a key role role. I know you wrote segments of the work on location by the sea. Did you already have connections with the city, and how did living there work out? The poem ‘On Brighton Beach’ speaks with great strength from and to the Greek Cypriot and Caribbean parts of Michael’s identity, as well as the traditional ‘island nation’ idea attached to Britain. It ends:
I need to breathe
on Brighton Beach.
I love to know
I live on an island.
I know my people
are island people.
DA: I think anyone who has lived or spent time by the sea will know how calming it is. I spent a week in Brighton at the University of Sussex working on the book but the bigger amount of time was spent in Southend-on-Sea at a place called Metal that hosts artist residencies. I went on three occasion for a total of six weeks. From my room at Metal I could see the sea/Thames Estuary and I found it so beautiful and calming. There is a part in The Black Flamingo when Michael goes to Brighton Beach when he needs to calm down after an upsetting incident. This has always been the case for me. If I can get out of the city and to the coast I’m happy. Brighton & Hove has the best of both worlds being a lively city and seaside resort. It’s a great place to be a student. I’m an alumni of the University of Sussex and they’ve continued to be really supportive of me and my books. I go back often to give poetry readings and workshops.
AH: Michael is Black-British-Greek-Cypriot, and part of The Black Flamingo is set in Cyprus, when he visits his mum’s family. He can follow Greek, but not speak it with any confidence. Not being able to speak your parent’s first language, as a result of growing up in the UK yourself, is something that Nat Linh Bolderston and Arjunan Manuelpillai are also exploring in their work. Was it a topic that you wanted to give space to?
DA: I have already touched on this in my collection I Am Nobody’s Nigger in the poem “Mother Tongue” but in The Black Flamingo I get to give more space to it throughout the story, when Michael visits his family in Cyprus, when he has a phone call with his grandfather, when he meets a Greek guy at university, you get so many occasions where he is at a loss for words.
AH: The Black Flamingo gives witness to the ways in which sections of UK society assault and challenge the Black British, and specifically Black British male identity, whether through unwarranted police harassment, or crassly stereotypical and inappropriate assumptions within daily life. Did you want to put that out there for teenagers, as well as adults, to think about, from within the empathetic point of view of the first person? This is a moment from just after Michael and Uncle B have been pulled over by the police for no reason whatsoever, driving to university, at the start of his first term. Uncle B says:
‘I always thought education
and money was going
to earn me respect,
but a successful black man
is a threat. Pulling me over
for driving a nice car. This isn’t what I wanted for your moving day
but this is what it’s like
to be black in this country
or anywhere in the world.
They interrupt our joy.
Our history. Our progress.
They know they can’t
stop us unless they kill us
but they can’t kill us all,
so you’re living your life
and suddenly interrupted
by white fear or suspicion.
They fear sharing anything.
Our success is a threat.’
DA: I guess there are many ways one could approach this, I like how Claudia Rankine in the book Citizen places the reader in the shoes of the black person experiencing microaggressions – small acts of racism – by addressing them as ‘you’ because it allows any reader to imagine themselves as that person in that moment. I didn’t necessarily write The Black Flamingo as a call for empathy, I think the ‘I’ first person point of view serves the book in that you can see how Michael realises things, and changes his mind about things, and sometimes misses things that might be obvious to the reader. He sometimes gets things wrong and misinterprets them. When Michael and his uncle have a run in with the police, Michael finds out for the first time that his uncle has quite strong views about the police and about white people, the reader finds this out at the same time as Michael. I wanted Michael to begin innocent and unencumbered and slowly learn what the world is really like. I think there are white people who still don’t realise these things, so they may begin reading the book as innocent as six-year-old Michael.
AH: As someone who loves, and respects drag performances for their transformative, and radical possibilities, I found it really interesting to read how Michael puts his Black Drag Self together with the support of other members of the Drag Soc at university. Was that a narrative that you wanted to chart and share, at a practical level of wardrobe and make up, as well as through the larger philosophical questions that inform a performed gender-liberated identity? There’s a conversation with the Drag King David/Katy, who channels David Beckham, which goes as follows:
‘You don’t seem to want to change
much about yourself for the show,’ she says. ‘You want to keep the beard but still pretend to be Beyoncé?’
‘That’s not it,’ I reply. ‘I don’t want to
pretend to be anyone, not any more.’
‘So who is The Black Flamingo?’
asks Katy, with genuine curiosity.
I reply ‘He is me, who I have been,
who I am, who I hope to become.
Someone fabulous, wild and strong.
With or without a costume on.’
DA:I think drag is about intention, it’s about character, it’s about costume and make up too. There’s just so much going on when you decide to do drag, whether you’re cis, trans or non-binary it will raise questions around gender identity, for yourself and for those who see you perform. I’m not sure if a gender-liberated identity can yet exist in a society like ours that is still so heavily gendered but I would like this book to show people some of the many ways you can fuck with gender rather than always being fucked over by it.
AH: It surely does that, Dean. I know you have been staging shows with other Black queer writers and performers in the run up to publication. Would you like to give us some other names to look out for?
DA: Keith Jarret, Lasana Shabazz, Caroline Teague, Olivia Klevorn, Travis Alabanza and Sea the Poet are all part of The Black Flamingo Cabaret. I hope in the future to include Adam Lowe, Remi Graves, Jay Bernard, Paula Varjack, Yrsa Daley-Ward and many many more Black queer writers and performers.
AH: Could you say something about the relationship between your own Black Flamingo drag act, and The Black Flamingo?
DA: No. If people come to the The Black Flamingo Cabaret on 16th October at Kings Place in London, with Poet in the City, or when we do it again in the future, they can find out for themselves.
AH: Have you performed The Black Flamingo in drag to YA audiences yet? If so, how was it received?
DA: I haven’t done yet but mostly because I haven’t fancied getting into drag for a 9am school assembly. It takes at least an hour to do my make up and I’m not really a morning person.
AH: Point taken! Are there any live dates/ performances coming up, in or out of drag?
DA: The Black Flamingo Cabaret at Kings Place, Wednesday 16th October 7.30pm with Travis Alabanza and Sea Sharp Book here.
The Stories We Tell YA Panel at Waterloo Library, Thursday 17th October 6pm with Alex Wheatle, Patrice Lawrence and Alexandra Sheppard Book here.
Being a Writer: Interactive Forum at Free Word, Wednesday 23rd October with Yomi Ṣode, Hannah Berry and Nathalie Teitler Book here.
YA Lit Day at Southbank Centre, Saturday 26th October 4.30pm with Sara Barnard, Yasmin Rahman and Nikesh Shukla Book here.
AH: Thank you Dean Atta. I’m really looking forward to your King’s Place show tomorrow – and many more beyond that.
The first time I saw poet and editor Rachael Allen live a few years back, she performed her complex, vegan anthem, ‘Many Bird Roast.’ It’s a tumbling, shifting, exposing poem, that comes in “dandy and present”, and moves to a surreally different, but intensely truthful-feeling, place. Rachael gave it to the room with an energy which made the lines rise up like juggling balls, and then float, reverberatingly, as objects in a Dutch still life. In our conversation, we discussed pulsing boundaries until they bend and melt, why the horror genre, and poetry, can each have the ability to expose truth, where human and animal rights meet, why it is important to be “serious” and “childlike” simultaneously – and avoiding getting hung up on the ‘right’ language around poetry. I was able to ask Rachael about the nameless, ambiguous female figures who slip in and out of Kingdomland, and she explained how the title poem, which came to her on a train journey, was her debut collection’s starting place, and the skeleton which gave form and direction to the material which took shape around it. As founding editor of online journal tender with Sophie Collins, editor at the poetry press clinic, and Poetry Editor of Granta, it’s a real delight to be able to share her immensely thoughtful and rich words on ‘saying the difficult thing’ in her work with you.
AH: Can I begin by asking about your path into writing poems Rachael Allen?
RA: At 15 I read Modern Women Poets, an anthology edited by Deryn Rees Jones published by Bloodaxe, and it is one of the most important books in my life. I think I can say I started writing poems because of this book.
AH: Were there any particular poets, writers, or artists, who made this collection seem more possible to you? The historian, Carolyn Steedman’s Landscape for a Good Woman, is credited relative to the title of your final sequence, ‘Landscape for Dead Woman’, but several poems seem to be in conversation with her work?
RA: There are a huge number of visual artists, writers and filmmakers who informed the poetry my book.When I read the book now it seems to be just a mesh of influences. I love horror films, novels and stories, and there’s an untitled poem that’s a kind of homage to my favourite M.R. James’s story, ‘Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’. Horror films in general are a big visual influence for me; the way certain images can initiate suspense and tension. This visual essay I read recently speaks to the aesthetic pleasure and beauty I find in horror films here. Horror films are epic to me in the emotions they can engender. I feel similarly when I’m watching a horror film to when I am reading poetry, like some kind of truth of the world is being exposed.But it was the visual artists I worked with during the writing of the book that feel like the most essential external influences. I collaborated with a number of artists over the course of writing the book, including Marie Jacotey, Guy Gormley, JocJonJosch, Oto Gillen and Vera Iliatova, and I wrote poems about sculptures by Anna Mahler. There are probably more poems indebted to my work with visual artists than not; it’s an incredibly generative process for me to work with other people.
AH: I know that Kingdomland was written over a number of years, and that some work appeared in your two previous collaborative publications, Jolene and Nights of Poor Sleep. It nonetheless feels as if the collection was conceived as a whole, to be read consecutively, as well as through individual poems. Was that part of your intention?
RA: ‘Kingdomland’ is the oldest poem in the book, and I remember when I wrote it I felt a strong connection to the kind of landscape or world it felt like it was trying to access. I wrote the poem quickly on a train, and I remember worrying that I would lose whatever I’d been thinking at that time that gave me access to the landscape or world that the poem seemed to invent for itself, so I worked hard from that point to write poems almost fulfilling the world that I felt the poem was establishing. In my mind I see it as a kind of genealogical tree, and even if I wasn’t realizing it early on, I was writing poems that wanted to flesh out the universe that started with this poem. There was a quote by my favourite horror writer Thomas Ligotti that I very nearly used to open the collection, which is ‘The only value of this world lay in its power – at certain times – to suggest another world’, and while I struggle to articulate the thrust or overall feel or intention of the book, when I read that quote I remember attaching my idea of the book to it. I feel very close to that quote and the desire to create worlds.
AH: One of the elements which drew me to reading Kingdomland as a continuous experience, was the six lyrics which open and close the collection, and appear episodically between the poems – almost as a form of commentary. Resisting the convention that a poem is by default titled for its first line, they are each denoted in the contents by a forward slash and their page number. The first lyric begins:
Watch the forest burn
with granular heat.
A girl, large-eyed
pressure in a ditch
grips to a dank and
disordered root system
bathing in the black
and emergent pool.
It seemed to me that one of the things that these lyrics were doing, was requiring the reader to see the world from a ‘young female’ perspective of being vulnerable, and undefended. Would you be able to say something about your decisions around these lyrics, and your idea of the “girl” in Kingdomland?
RA: I’m not very good with structuring or appreciating white space, but while I was writing the collection I wanted it to be interrupted by fragments that would link both to each other and to the sequences in the book, something that would hold everything together. In Vera Iliatova’s paintings, who I worked with on a number of poems, girls appear silently in various landscapes – running through trees or swimming or sometimes with a more sinister aspect, like face down in water.I liked the idea that the collection could have people running through it, cropping up here and there, but sparsely, like in a nightmare. Disappearing for a bit then popping up again. I think that could probably be influenced by films as well. The fact that these girls are almost acting as untrustworthy guides through the poems speaks to the balance between some elements that dominate the book, I’ve realized since publishing, which are female characters oscillating between being sinister and coquettish, and whatever exists in-between.
AH: ‘Kingdomland’, the title poem, appears to sit on a fault line. It opens:
The dark village sits on the crooked hill.
There is a plot of impassable paths towards it,
impassable paths overcome with bees, the stigma that bees bring. There is a bottle neck at the base of the hive.
There is an impassable knowledge that your eyebrows bring.
While these images are of resistance, intimidation and obstruction, the sound orchestration – the gliding open vowels in particular – has a quality of propulsion, as if this dangerous journey can no longer be resisted. Were you interested in exploring these conflicting energies within the collection, as well as this poem?
RA: This poem takes a lot from Lorca’s ‘Moon Poems’, and the poem has been previously published with a small epigraph line from Lorca, one of my favourite lines of poetry, which is ‘at the rise of the moon, bells fade out, and impassable paths appear’. What I love about these lines is they seem to offer an entrance into darkness and nocturnal thinking. I otherwise find it slightly hard to talk about this poem because it was one of those that almost just seems to drop into your head. I resist the kind of muse-struck mystical chat around poetry, because I think it can lead to a mode of thinking that tries to anti-intellectualize poetry, claiming that it needs to have come out of nowhere to be gifted some inexplicable brilliance, that it needs some kind of protective wide birth just in case we wreck it. I think this leads to people worrying they don’t have the ‘right’ language to talk about poetry, which I hear a lot from people who are more general readers. It can be really off putting. I work as an editor and can demystify a poem very quickly. But for all of that, this was one of those poems that just seemed to kind of write itself; which is the worst sentence ever, so I think I’d rather say I wrote it on a train from Cornwall, which is where I’m from and have conflicting feelings about, was probably the impetus for these feelings of resistance, intimidation and obstruction.
AH: The speaker of ‘Prawns of Joe’ (which responds to Selima Hill’s ‘Prawns de Jo’), seems to be haunted by a fatally injured female body – “burned in the oval/ purple and mystical”. She also expresses a light-filled moment which merges menace with possibility:
I hold her name like grit between my teeth
turning cartwheels by the edge of the stream.
The air is touchy, fiberglass,
summer streams through the trees like a long blonde hair.
I want to grab all the things that make me ashamed
and throw them from the bridge
Could you say something about these lines, within the poem more generally? They felt like a jumping off point to me, and a claiming of space at many levels.
RA: This poem is heavily indebted to Hill’s imagery in ‘Prawns de Jo’. I’ve spoken about Hill’s poem quite a bit, and Sophie Collins described the poem brilliantly as like a wound in the collection it’s taken from, Bunny, in Sophie’s extraordinary book Strange White Monkeys. So I think this poem could be seen as an exercise in being a fan, and how a poem – or a piece of art or music – can have a hold over you. I first read this poem when I was 15 in the book I mentioned earlier (Modern Women Poets), and now I think about it, I feel like the poem I wrote was perhaps me trying to exorcise certain feelings that poem held over me? It’s a frightening poem, and I think it frightened me when I first read it. It’s an incredibly tactile poem, talking about wigs and pubic hair and burned bodies. It struck me as not really a poem as I had recognised poems up until that point, and was probably the starting point for all my writing, that imagery, that shock factor and horror. I think this poem was written in the wake of all those feelings.
AH: I remember Wayne Holloway Smith telling me, admiringly, that you were one of the most “hardcore vegan poets” he knew. Some of your poems – ‘Lunatic Urbaine’, ‘Beef Cubes’ amongst others – melt the violence done to animal bodies into the violence done (on occasion) to women’s bodies. It is as if you were making a double mirror which reflects and refracts both sets of attacks, and lets us see the actions and lack of agency underlying current power structures more clearly?
RA: I have spent a long time researching how humans have used animals historically. Animal rights are a big part of my personal ethics and the way I live my life, and there are a few important texts that helped me think these things through and write poems out of this. Carol J. Adams The Sexual Politics of Meat, Nicole Shukin’s Animal Capital, Val Plumwood’s Feminism and the Mastery of Nature, and works by Gauri Maulekhi. In poems, Ariana Reines’ The Cow was huge for me, as I know it is for many other female writers. I was amazed at how a whole collection could dedicate itself to something as prominent (but ignored) as the abuse we see in animal agriculture every day, aligning that with violence towards women’s bodies in a way that still feels so incredibly radical, without making a metaphor of either, critiquing society through a critique of metaphor and damaging poetic structures, while utilising the power of them. She gives marginalised beings some kind of power in their margins.I think the way a society talks and thinks about animals speaks to how they treat other humans. This research into animal-human relationships has cemented my belief that, generally, the way we treat animals is barbaric. Unfortunately, I don’t see this changing anytime soon. I also know that not everyone has the room or time or want to consider this, and there are intersecting factors that make talking about eating and using animals tricky, and this was something I wanted to embed into the poems I wrote that try and think through human and non-human relationships, vegan ethics, and all the contradictions inherent in them.
AH: In ‘Lunatic Urbaine’ the voice reveals:
There’s nothing like a man
to serve you pain deep-seared
on a silver dish that rings
when you flick it, your table
gilded and festooned
with international meats,
cured and crusted, each
demanding its own sauce.
I ask to be taken home
but of course I am home,
so I turn my attention elsewhere.
Along with a complex complicity and vortex-like sense of powerlessness, I also found in the poem the kind of horror which some of Dorothea Tanning’s paintings of formal meals evoke. I wondered if you could say something about your table-setting here?
RA: I’m not much a fan of formality or formal settings but I do like aspects of ceremony and the performance inherent in formal settings, and I think that’s the thinking behind this table ceremony, it feels a little like a performance. And thank you so much for this comparison! Dorothea Tanning is one of my absolute favourite artists and writers. I adore her. She wrote this seriously underrated horror novel called Chasm that she spent 30 years writing, or something. I love her formal dining scenes, they are so claustrophobic, but also absolutely bizarre, and haunting and sinister. The way she twists what should be a homely or comforting scene is a draw to me. Tanning is a writer and artist who also knew the power of creating ‘horror’ in a scene. Some of her paintings haunt me. Maybe it’s easier to link to a few of my favourites? I think this one here. The overbearing figure of the father! And the dog of course, which is in so many of her paintings. At her recent show at the Tate there was a small film where she talked about her dog as being descendent from a dog that was kept in a Tibetan monastery. That it held seeing powers.
AH: Speaking of visual artists, I wondered how your collaboration with Marie Jacotey came about, and what the process between you was? The first poem in the ‘Nights of Poor Sleep’ sequence – ‘Meeting you in the first place was great though’ – introduces the reader to very dark material, continuing after the title:
I am the girl with the chapped cheeks and blue bow
with my breasts taped down
dancing silently on my father’s lap
of course I wake with a start in the
in a cacophonous pool of blood
the moon sways over me whitely
bordered by trees
in the ghost town where I live
RA: I have been in touch with Marie since around 2013, when Sophie Collins and I published her in Tender, the journal we edit. But collaborating with her came through my work with the gallerist Hannah Barry at the Hannah Barry gallery, who saw an affinity in our work and put us forward for a collaborative commission for a magazine. I responded to Marie’s paintings, and she would paint in response to the poems I wrote. We made work for the publication, but afterwards, I didn’t stop writing poems that came from Marie’s drawings and paintings. I feel a deep connection with how her work presents female desire as intensely powerful and destructive, complicating agency and control, what it means to be submissive or to dominate.Her work objectifies bodies in a way that is subversive to me, and there is a kind of performative confessionalism in her work that I adore. It all feels like a performance in the absolute extremes of high emotion, it has taught me a lot.
AH: In ‘Rodeo Fun on a Sunday’ (also within this sequence) the speaker refers to the man “who made me feel like I was falling from a cliff”, and afterwards to following their lover “around the larger parts of an unfamiliar forest”. Before this, ‘Monstrous Horses’ described “falling without help/down a steep white cliff”, and seeing a “forest so green/it is an optical illusion/ mounted on foam.” I wondered if you could say something about your use of landscape within Kingdomland?
RA: I remember a period of time spent trying to write these kind of staid landscape poems. As in, describing a hill I might be on top of or a sea I was looking out to, and the poetry was very trite. I was frustrated at one point that the landscapes in my poems, when written true to my thinking, feel like the set of a cartoon. When I have tried to replicate a real landscape I have always failed. I think I went through phase of kind of wanting to be like a proper nature poet, but I was just crap at it. Everything is ballooned and unreal. I think it was working on the Marie poems in their entirety that made me realise this could be a strength. I love cartoons, and I love the strange simplicity of a cartoon landscape, the limited colours and perspective, it feels naïve and knowing all once.I think to be serious and childlike at the same time is one of the most difficult things to do but is powerful and important.I was looking at some of the landscapes in Pingu the other day, and they were so melancholy and simple, and beautiful, surreal and quietly kind of epic. Edward Lear was one of the first poets I read when I was very young, and this probably made more of an impression than I realise. And my favourite poets, most recently, are poets who seem to have a child-like naivety in their poems, coupled with extraordinarily dark themes. Vasko Popa translated by Anne Pennington and Charles Simic, Sakutarō Hagiwara translated by Hiroaki Sato, Michael Earl Craig, Toon Tellegen translated by Judith Wilkinson.
AH: In my own work, I am interested in how trauma can result in inappropriately, or unwittingly, sexualized behaviours in adolescence. This inquiry also seems to be present in Kingdomland. I’m thinking of “hot tight Penny” in ‘Beef Cubes’, and also the poem ‘You look unwell, my dear’ describing a young girl sauntering into a café, “lipstick on my teeth/ a pair of pants hanging around my arm/ little smacked-on stain”. The poem ends, in her voice, “I’m having problems with my vision, sort of short lines of blue/ perhaps becoming blinder”. Carolyn Steedman writes in Landscape for a Good Woman of the “refusal of a complicated psychology to those living in conditions of material distress” as being something her work seeks to challenge.
Carolyn Steedman’s work also writes “Part of the desire to reproduce oneself as a body, as an entity in the real world, lies in a conscious memory of someone approving that body” [p.95]. Your poem ‘The Indigo Field’ responds with compassion to the grief which can result from a termination, even when there may have been no other possible outcome for the pregnancy. Picking up the bees in ‘Kingdomland’, to give a suggestion of brutal, or forced sex, in the image of the bees “forgetting that they’re supposed to/ pollinate/ flowers instead of/ the roughly opened gland/of a mammal”, ‘The Indigo Field’ concludes:
You stood no chance
of being born
I tell myself, as the sea
It manages to forgive itself
every day, without visions
of the baby
making her way towards me
across the indigo field.
Adjacent to violet, indigo is a darker shade than blue within the colour wheel, and I wondered if you would say something about how it entered this poem, and also how it relates to some of the other blues within your collection?
AH: Matthew Hollis who edits the poetry list at Faber counted up that the word I said most in the book was ‘blue’, which I think has no real significance other than thinking back to how I like to utilise cartoon imagery, as I also mention a ton of other colours, and think I just like and am attracted to very bright things. I am not (or at least I don’t think I am) synaesthetic, but when I am writing I can see some of the words and scenes of the writing as having a certain colour attached to them. Some poems feel yellow, some green, etc. I am attracted to visual works of art that utilise big blocks of colour to communicate emotion. I have felt physical symptoms when in front of some pieces of visual art, which is nothing too special, but they are usually pieces considered ‘abstract art’ with seemingly simple colour contrasts. There’s a big black painting by Rothko that made me feel nauseous when I first saw it. I had a panic attack once looking at Picasso paintings. I love Patrick Heron and Clyfford Still’s big stark colour paintings. Also Matisse’s swimming pool room in MOMA made me cry when I first saw it and makes me cry even when I think of it. It’s a small room that he made a frieze for when he was too old to make it down to the beach or swimming pool, and the frieze is made up of a collage of very basic and simple blue shapes of people jumping into water and water splashing. I don’t think this is doing much to answer your question, but I am led by the power that associations from colour can bring, so perhaps that’s where this indigo came from.
AH: I’ve also had that feeling of nausea rising from black paintings by Rothko, specifically in an exhibition in Tate Modern a few years back. For me, colour holds and triggers mood visually, as music does sonically. ‘Seer’, which follows immediately after ‘The Indigo Field’, contrasts “The kind of dark you find inside a body./ The kind of darkness you find a body in.” Its landscape suggests a world in which we all of us, wittingly and unwittingly, can do violence to each other through our processes of interaction. ‘Seer’ ends:
The sky is wet with blood and solvent,
sinewy like a fish spine, illuminated
with stars like bone ends. If you climb
onto the roof and watch this weather
from the weather vane, to hold this
poor memory up, like a sacrifice
to the firmament, you will be exposed.
There’s a Jamesian suggestion of the impossibility of innocence, and I wondered if that was something that preoccupied you in these difficult times?
RA: I’m not sure if it directly preoccupies me, but I write about violence a lot, in various ways. The poem ‘Seer’ actually came about through another collaboration with the arts collective JocJonJosch. They’d sent me a photograph of a spooky old hotel – or at least that’s what it looked like to me – with sort of Blair Witch-esque scratches all in it, and what I thought was the word BLOOD sort of coming through in the background. It sounds a bit over the top, but I absolutely loved it, and wanted to make a poem about this hotel scene. Anyway, turns out I misread the word BLOOD and what was actually written was the word POTATO, which I think just proves we all see what we want to see.
AH: Keeping with the idea of blood, and of the idea of inscribed landscapes, ‘Banshee’, the penultimate poem, holds the room where the act which brought about the ‘Landscape for a Dead Woman’ finally becomes visible:
There’s the kitchen
where she was murdered
where she was delivered
into a weapon with force
like a small model forester
axing up plastic logs
in a red wooden clock
The reader is simultaneously drawn in, and exposed, by the miniaturisation of the scene, and the seemingly disarming, and tender, use of rhyme and sound patterning. Like a tiny mouthful, we swallow too fast to stop – in the way that the murder described must also have happened. We then learn that “her hair was a clotted/ pattern of wallpaper/ like a tapestry of rabbits”, and also that the murdered woman can no longer be thought of separate from what was done to her. ‘Banshee’ ends:
She dons now a grey sheet
the dusk colour of bonbons
to seem more like a haunting
light pools through the mock-glass
and the door she approaches
the red door approaches
Would you be able to say something about the creative decisions you made relative to the form and tone of this poem?
RA: I’d say this was definitely a cartoon poem, the miniaturization of it. As I was writing I could see the action being played out in my head, cartoon-ized. With a quite easy reason behind it, the poem thinks about a relatively difficult subject, and to write about it I had to create an aesthetic distance between myself and it, which was this framing.
AH: There is great impact for me in what you have achieved. The “dusk colour of bonbons” has an alphabetised plangency – d, c, b but no a – , as if this ending is also remembering its beginning, which helps us mourn and honour the living-ness of the life that was taken, without denying the crime that caused it to be forfeited.
As you mentioned, you are also someone who helps bring the work of other poets to the world through your work as an editor. Will Harris told me how much you have helped him with RENDANG, which is going to be Granta’s first full poetry collection, out in February 2020. What does it feel like to swap chairs, and help other poets to realize their work into its published form?
RA: It’s hard for me to talk about Will’s book without hyperbole or with restraint. I think he is one of the most important poets writing now, and I cannot believe I have been lucky enough to work on this book with him. It blows my mind every time I read it, and I find new things in it every day. I feel so lucky to have been able to be a part of it. I have been working as an editor for as long as I’ve been writing poetry seriously, so the two feel inextricable for me, it doesn’t too much feel like chair swapping as I love editing and making books as much as I love writing.
AH: What are your future projects – as a poet, and an editor?
RA: There will be lots of books coming through with Granta, confirmed in the upcoming weeks and months. I have missed working on pamphlets with Clinic after a little break, so hopefully we should be publishing more next year. I am writing lots of new poems, but I think I’m going through a phase of trying to be a nature poet again. Terrible. I’m writing a book of horror short stories that will probably never see the light of day but are working in spooking me out when I’m alone in the house, which is maybe the only reason I’m writing them to be honest, I’ve just run out of horror films at this point.
AH: Thank you so much Rachael. I really look forward to your poems – and the short stories! For anyone wanting to go deeper into the creative power of horror, occult poems, fantasy landscapes and surreal worlds, I know that you’re running a two day pre-Halloween workshop at the Poetry School in London on 26 and 27 October (link below). Those of us not able to join you there will be looking forward keenly to all the new work you’ll be publishing over the next months and beyond.
An intensive weekend exploring the strange, surreal, and weird in selected contemporary poets at the Poetry School in Canada Water, London, UK.
Taking cues from weird fiction and the genres that informed it – horror, sci-fi, supernatural, and fantasy – this course will spend time looking at contemporary poets, such as Noelle Kocot, Oki Sogumi, Daisy Lafarge, Jenny George, Kim Kyung Ju, Mary Ruefle, and Dorothea Tanning to see where aspects of these genres intersect with poetry. Expect horror writers, surrealist artists, occult poets, and fantasy lands.
Born in Glasgow, and raised for the first years of her life in Scotland, the poet Yvonne Reddick has always had a profound affinity for wild, and mountainous landscapes. Her work explores the relationships between the natural world, and its human and animal inhabitants – within the dual frameworks of eco-poetics, and her own Swiss-French heritage. These deep interests have informed her three pamphlets – Deerhart, Translating Mountains, and Spikenard – and her academic research and publications on Ted Hughes. Meeting in Liverpool’s Bluecoats building, where she was due to read with Deryn Rees Jones at the conclusion of a year of mentoring under the inaugural Peggy Poole award, Yvonne and I began our interview among a clatter of teacups in the Bluecoats café, and finished it rattling back to Manchester on a late night train. We talked about writing in response to the loss of her father, and the creative workshops which Yvonne has led, drawing on making work from this experience. We also compared notes on the ways in which Brexit has impacted us as dual language women of joint English and European heritages. In conclusion, Yvonne previewed the forthcoming Loss issue of Magma, for which she and her fellow editor Adam Lowe received over 8000 submissions. Most recently, Yvonne has just won first prize in the 2019 Ambit Magazine poetry competition, judged by Liz Berry, for her poem ‘In the Burning Season’.
AH: Can I begin by asking about your journey into poetry, Yvonne?
YR: I started with things that everyone is exposed to in childhood – songs and rhymes. The breakthrough moment for me was reading Al Alvarez’s The New Poetry Anthology. My Dad had a copy. It was full of scribbled schoolboy notes – amazingly insightful things that were probably his English teacher’s words. There was work in that anthology that really stood out for me, like Ted Hughes’s work. I knew I was interested in what he was writing. I liked Seamus Heaney, and Peter Porter. I liked Sylvia Plath’s work. There were two women added as an afterthought to the second edition. It was still very white and very male – but it was an anthology of newer poetry than what we normally got at school.
AH: What sort of age were you when you came across the anthology?
YR: Ten or eleven. I can’t pretend that I understood all of it. I certainly wouldn’t have got the full meaning of all the poems.
AH: Was that when you were living in the Middle East?
YR: We had just come back.
AH: Were there any particular writers or teachers who encouraged you to think about becoming a poet yourself? Your first pamphlet, Deerhart, has poems about both Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes.
YR: Lots of writers’ groups were popping up when I was at university. Everyone seemed to go to poetry readings. My work was probably pretty rubbish at that stage, but we could still go to writing groups and have work critiqued, and share poems. That was a lovely thing. There was a writer-in-residence at the college I went to. He was Peter Manson. I’ve met him since. A lovely fellow – very humorous, very experimental, some incredible play with language in his work, and yet my poems are very different from his. He helped me to critique some of my early work. I was still sounding as though the New Poetry hadn’t happened. I was probably stuck at about 1900 with my diction. It was good to have feedback from somebody contemporary. My PhD at Warwick University was when I got some really fantastic encouragement for my poetry. Jonathan Bate supervised the first two years, and the last year was supervised by Emma Francis and David Morley. David Morley is like a Romani showman among poetry professors. All kinds of things would happen. A Painted Lady butterfly hatched out of his bookshelf. He had a bird feeder right outside his office. He’d encourage his student poets – tell them to send their poems out to magazines, tell them that they should go to open mics, tell them to get pamphlets out. He gave us the practical nuts and bolts of a publishing career. To have that kind of structured advice was really helpful.
AH: When I did my PhD at UCL during the 1990s, I felt that poetry was a space that I could only respond to critically, not enter creatively. To have someone saying poetry was yours to claim, and move within, was presumably energising?
YR: It was a wonderful thing. I studied a bit later, at a time when creative writing was expanding. There were lots of visiting writers, and writers employed there, and writers finishing up their PhDs. It was an exciting time. If you are in that kind of environment, where you feel you are tripping over other writers, it’s lovely because you can support each other and it doesn’t feel like you are stuck by yourself – with no idea of whether your work is good. If you have a bad writing day, then people can encourage you. There is something lovely about that situation. I have it now with my poet friends.
AH: And did Deerhart come out of that period?
YR: No, Deerhart emerged when I was beingmentored by Zaffar Kunial, the poet-in-residence at the Wordsworth Trust. He had a year-long residency. Everyone in the village recognises the poet-in-residence. There’d be events happening all the time. It was a bit of a trek from where I lived in Preston – but there was that sense of a community for writers.
AH: There is a poem about Ted Hughes in Deerhart which contains the line “you write yourself into the river”. You are talking to Hughes, but it seemed to me that you also have a project of writing yourself into the river – as an environmentalist and an eco-poet. Was always part of your intention or has it developed later?
YR: I think eco-awareness has always been part of my make up as a human being. I share it with our joint Jerwood Arvon mentor, Pascale Petit, whose poems are always an inspiration for me. I believe we are an integral part of this very sprawling, messy web of living things, human-made artefacts, non-human things. We depend on agriculture, the oceans, and everything else – just for our existence. I haven’t ever really seen myself as set apart. My sense of connection comes from doing things like catching newts in a pond when I was a kid. I always put them back! I used to know the calls of birds singing and I would respond to them. It sounds very idyllic – but it was only in a suburban garden that had slug pellets. I have always had a sense of environmental connection. The person to blame for that is Richard Adams. Watership Down was formative. I can’t have been much more than eight when I read it. I re-read it and re-read and re-read it as I grew up.
AH: I read Watership Down around eight or nine and it hugely impacted me too. It was in the early 1970s, and I had just moved to Wiltshire from Brussels. Being driven to and from school, we would go past blind rabbits, dying from myxomatosis beside the road, not able to get out of the way of the car. My father had just died and I found Watership Down almost unbearable. We are super-impressionable at that age. Very deep influences enter us, and then somehow they grow with us. We respond to them in more complex ways as our intellectual apparatus develops. They are the seeds that are sown early on. Your second pamphlet, Translating Mountains, is also connected to the natural landscape. It won the Mslexia competition in 2017-8. It responds closely to the mountainous landscape around Ben Nevis, and also to the death of your father while hill-walking alone during a family holiday with you, your mother and sister. The opening poem begins with what is a suggestion of search party, and immediately gives us its terrain:
At the Corrie of the Birds
two figures emerge from lightless spruces
one wraps a delicate arm around the other.
They scan a map of densely-contoured crags
for a chance that is becoming remote.
I wondered to what extent focusing on recording the close details of mountains which you and your father both loved, helped not only to bring a degree of creative agency to your project, but also created a physical space, and spaciousness, in which to explore the constricting experience of grief and loss?
YR: I think the space, or at least the physical landscape, was key. It had been part of my life since I was very young. When I was very, very small, before I started school, I would be taken up to the top of the Cairngorms in the chair lift on family walks. Initially, I suppose that I would have seen those landscapes as very suffused with grief and loss about my Dad’s death. They would probably have seemed overlaid with memories. There’s that quite vulnerable stage that you go through in the immediate aftermath of bereavement – where everything reminds you of the person you have lost. What I have always been aware of, though, is that those hills were there before I was, and are going to be there when I am gone. We are making a fair bit of a mess of the planet in many ways, but the hills aren’t going to disappear. They are enduring. But they are also in the flux of being eroded. They are moving. Ground in Scotland is actually rising compared to England – after the weight of the ice from the last Ice Age was lifted. If you write elegy, it’s very traditional to return the beloved to the landscape. What I am doing is maybe a little bit different than that. I suppose it is envisaging how humans are very, very small compared to massive earth systems. That brings me comfort now – although perhaps in the immediate months and years after my father died, it didn’t.
AH: I felt that there was a dialogue between you and the mountains – and a process. As a reader, I had a sense of space, and of being able, through this, to be present within the writing, and also with the views. They made a loss, which was huge, become more bearable – almost as the air moved over it, and the landscape moved with it.
YR: I think that’s fair to say. There are interesting histories there as well. Most of the west Highlands peaks have Gaelic names. This is a language and a culture that has been extirpated and sort of pushed to the margins of the Scottish Highlands. I was always aware that I was surrounded by a landscape that I did not have the skill to name. I was curious about who had been before me. If you read translated elegies by the Gaelic poets – Sorley Maclean’s ‘Hallaig’ chokes me up every time I read it – there is a very acute sense of what history had done in these places as well.I was born in Glasgow. I moved to Aberdeen when I was small. Growing up, I went back to Scotland almost every single year of my life, at least once. That was where we spent our holidays. My
parents wanted to relocate there in retirement. I wanted to work there. I’m in Manchester and Preston, so I have not quite managed, yet. I don’t really know if Scotland’s become a country of the mind for me – because I have been away for so long, but I always felt I missed something when I first arrived in England.
AH: It sounds like another strata of deep loss – which is also for all of us, the loss of the country of childhood, and of our parents as we knew them, then. While Translating Mountains responds to the practical realities of you father’s death – the search helicopter, the choice of urns, the inquest – it is ‘Risk’ in which you remember “The way he carried two compasses/ in case one failed, spare batteries for the GPS.” Was it important to you to use direct, everyday memories, and language, to keep his memory anchored, and is that a larger part of your elegiac project?
YR:I suppose so. I always think that the things of this world have a huge amount to tell poets. I believe in anchoring a poem in everyday objects. You give it a tighter focus than if you try to tackle massive abstract concepts straight out. It’s probably evidence of influence as well actually. One of my favourite elegaic poems is Mona Arshi’s ‘Phone Call on a Train Journey’. There is a list of things that are in the speaker’s brother’s rucksack. At the end of the poem, the rucksack, when handed back, becomes “(without the perishables)/ lighter than she had imagined.” It is just devastating. There is such economy, such skill and it’s so moving at the same time. There are other elegies by women poets that I have really enjoyed. Karen McCarthy Woolf uses objects to bring together some sense of focus, in the aftermath of the shattering loss of her baby son. Equally, I wanted to get at least some sense of a kind of person my Dad was. In that poem, ‘Risk’, there is a great deal of humour. Ironically, he was incredibly well prepared, whenever he went off walking, but he kept his ancient maps in feet and inches, even though everything had changed and the car park was in a different place. It was really quite funny. You would see scrawly hand writing on an old survey map and think he was calculating and how long was going take him to get from A to B. There is something very endearing in that methodical approach. I have some very, very fond memories of him.
AH: That really comes across in the poem. I definitely had an anchored sense of your dad. And it is lovely to hear you laughing as you talk about him. We think of elegy as the great Tennysonian weep, and so a memory can actually bring back the joy of the life that has been lost is a fantastic achievement.
YR: It is lovely to hear, thank you.
AH:I know you teach elegy. Would you like to say something about the workshops you run?
YR: The workshops take different forms. I like to take people outside and get them to work in a nature reserve if possible. You can also do very powerful, transformative work indoors as well. I have found helping other people to write about loss quite challenging myself. I have learned about what psychologists have to say about grief, also about expressive writing, and writing as a form of emotional release, to reflect the processes in your own mind. I have run workshops for the Harris Museum Gallery in Preston. A curator gave us objects that she owned, including a Victorian mourning brooch for us to write about. There is something quite comforting about seeing how other societies have dealt with grief. In Britain you get a certain amount of compassionate leave. Your friends and family will be phenomenally supportive at first – and then suddenly everything has to snap back to normal. That can be very disorienting. I think it’s not necessarily healthy. A friend of mine said how in villages in Ireland when she was a child the entire village would shut for a few days. And everybody would turn up for the service and the wake. It’s not necessarily the stereotype of the incredibly boozy Irish wake. It’s that people will cook for you or come round to your house and look after you. We have a bit less of that in Britain. I think people are very reluctant to say anything about loss. The Victorians would wear mourning suits as a sign that something, something was out of the ordinary, and they would treat people differently as a result.I have also run workshops to write a poem that could go in a memory box, using the idea of a smooth river and this whirlpool of bereavement – then using metaphors and images and voice to describe your state of mind. It’s about re-ordering experiences to enable healing.
AH: I know people who have done your bereavement workshops and found them transformative. Several poets said how helpful the one you ran at the Aldeburgh Festival was, last year. Translating Mountains also engages with your Lausanne French-Swiss heritage, and the grandmother who willed you the crystals collected by her grandfather in the Alps. ‘Cristaux de Roche’ begins “their gleam haunts my sleep.” Did it help you creatively – to call on this lineage, and vest your identity symbolically in these fragments of the mountains?
YR:I’ve walked around Mont Blanc. I used to go walking around a place Samoëns where my grandmother took us on holiday with my Dad as well. The Swiss have a tremendous attachment to some of their mountains. You would expect that. They have this fascination with the Salève which is Geneva’s mountain. I think technically it’s in France. My grandmother used to tell me the same and I would find it very funny. Just above Lausanne is Mont Tendre – Mount Tender is lovely. They have gorgeous names. One that I write about in the pamphlet is Lac de Folly. I suppose I wanted to bring out my connection to a place that was not in Britain, wasn’t in England, wasn’t in Scotland.
AH: I know you have recently returned from a residency in the Chateau de Lavigny courtesy of the Fondation Ledig-Rowohlt, which let you revisit places connected to your grandmother, and also make new work arising from the wild life and mountain landscapes. Could you tell me a little more about this? I gather it was a really amazing experience?
YR: It was fantastic: I was really grateful to have time away from all the things I have to do, and which I use as excuses for not writing! The other writers in residence there were super – great company, and full of ideas and encouragement. I went to visit the flat where my grandmother lived in Lausanne. All the local shops she used to go to were still there. I completed some poems that I’d been storing up in my mind for a long time. One of them features the invisible border between France and Switzerland, under Lake Léman. I even tried my hand at prose nature-writing as well, which was good – a different craft from the technical business of fretting over line-breaks! Lavigny is a small village surrounded by vineyards. They specialise in growing Chasselas grapes. There’s an old tale that Joyce was partial to a glass or two of Chasselas wine, and the result was Finnegans Wake!
AH:Europe, and our relationship to it, is a constant presence within your most recent pamphlet, Spikenard, published by smith/doorstop in 2019 as one of Carol Ann Duffy’s four final Laureate’s Choices. Is she a poet for whose work you have always felt a creative affinity?
YR: I’d admired her work since we read Mean Time at school. I think it was my first experience of poetry that was truly contemporary: from the 1990s, not the 1950s. I admire her for her fearless exploration of women’s experiences, and her affinity with nature. She’s been wonderfully kind to me.
AH: Spikenard returns to the themes of family history, and your father, but also explores the relationship between two lovers, set against a series of landscapes whose changes, and degradations, witness to your environmental concerns. Spikenard’s opening poem, ‘Desire Path’ – in which a young woman addresses her lover – is a hymn to life, and sensuality, written with open-ness, and courage. It begins “Once, we thought we’d find a route around the borders/ and feel the bounds dissolve”. The second stanza continues:
I’d flash you the glance you called that French look as you traced the curve of my back, the contours of my flank,
then I slid my Genevan tongue in your ear: Je t’aime, moi non plus, as if I’d become two speakers who split and merged
as tides braid, then loose, the waters of the Channel.
Did you want to foreground the female body, physically and emotionally, as the starting point for the pamphlet? I know there are other themes also alive within this work.
YR: I hadn’t really intended to focus on the female body. In a veiled form, that is one of my Brexit poems. There is the kind of line, the fracture line of the English Channel. Brexit is one of the biggest political issues that the UK is facing. It is huge deal for Europe. It feels almost as if the UK has decided to drift off across the Atlantic and I am getting further and further away from the the people I knew and loved who lived in Switzerland. It’s almost as if I’ve had my roots and connections to Europe cut, or weakened. That that for me is very scary and strange.
AH: I had a French Grandmother. Yours was French Swiss. Brexit was really personally traumatic for me. I am European, not English – if I have to choose.
YR: The morning after the referendum results, I was talking to a Polish academic, who had come over with a lucrative European Research Council grant. I got coffee with her. There were hardly any people in the café. We were shell-shocked. She couldn’t believe it. I was absolutely stunned. I had watched the news first thing that morning and I felt ashamed meeting with her. I thought it was a disgrace.
AH: I remember the whole of that day being as if someone had punched me. I had been punched by that news. Where I live in London, there are people of many nationalities. Everyone was reeling. We are an integrated community. I know French people who are moving back to Europe, because they don’t want to risk bringing up their children feeling that they are foreigners in England. Brexit has been like a form of bereavement for me.
AH: Spikenard also includes the sorrow that comes with the end of a relationship. ‘Firesetter’, which won the Platinum prize in the 2018 Creative Futures Award, translates a break-up into a forest fire. The poem is realised through a fierce, tense, shorthand of visual images – flaring successively up off the page. You write “Three months of drought; those trees were jackstraws. A flicker in the tinder, bird-call panic.” Would you like to say something about how the poem came into being, and the terrains, and fires, which inform it?
YR: My friend told me about the Swinley forest fires which are not far from my Mum still lives. They took place in a pine forest that is a nature reserve. I used to go off on kids’ nature walks with rangers there, when I was young. As in the poem, there was a severe forest fire, that did actually burn underground. The soil is peat, and flammable. I found the idea that fire could spread under the earth, in rainy Britain, incredibly sinister. Whenever I am writing about fires, I am writing about climate change. Those fires are linked to the oil fires and the fires of industry and of combustion. In a sense it’s part of the same body of work for me.
AH: Fires are very frightening, but they are also a visible manifestation of something growing rapidly out of control – when you think of forest fires in California, or in Greece. A lot of environmental change happens slightly more slowly, and then catches up with us, whereas the fires are a visible experience of catastrophe. It’s very potent – not a metaphor, but an actualisation. This is another form of mourning, for the earth and its losses?
YR: I finished ‘Firesetter’ at the very beginning of a summer of terrible droughts of 2018. In some ways, I felt a bit guilty about having written that poem when there were far worse forest fires happening, say in California. But that summer there was a forest fire on Skye actually caused by somebody burning litter. It destroyed a plantation and some areas of grass and that was Skye – the rainy west coast. It seems absurd.
AH: You’ve also written directly about the fossil fuel industry. ‘In Oils’, in the Laureate’s Choice Anthology, explores your father’s life as a petroleum engineer, and remembers your own experience of living in the Middle East as a child while he was working out there, and the devastated landscapes after the first Iraq war. It’s called ‘Light, Sweet Crude’ in Spikenard. You describe how he “drilled an emirate with straight-ruled borders”, and how, before your time, during the war:
‘The burning pipeline howled–
Sara said like a jet engine.
Fire-trenches and oil-lakes under a sky dark at midday’
What made you want to write about this topic?
YR:When I realised that commercial, printed ink was made of burnt oil, it was a light bulb moment for me. It made me feel very conflicted because my family’s living has been made from this volatile viscous substance, that is a cause of wars. Writing anything verging on the confessional – that makes me squeamish. I will pour it into some kind of poetic form generally – to get some kind of distance, and to let the artistic process take effect, and let me let me mould the raw material. Otherwise it is too it’s too intense.
AH: That absolutely makes sense. ‘In Oils’/Light, Sweet Crude’ ends with memories of your father returning, “jet-lagged and running fumes,/ to plant English lavender on Texan time”, and then gives us the moment of his death, realised with an engineered precision that perfectly holds its grief:
A two-stroke heart has steely valves and chambers
but frail fuel-lines. He’d said he’d hike the path
above the falls, but dusk failed to bring him home –
The theme of fire returns in ‘Muirburn’, which was commended in the 2018 National Poetry Competition. It describes returning your father’s ashes to the earth in the Highlands. The scattering brings back the memory of him teaching you to lay a fire in the hearth at home – “how he taught me to breathe on the steeple of logs” – and then leads into a dream about a heath fire which beautifully concludes the poem:
A voice at my shoulder said, ‘You’ll inherit fire.”
And through the smoke I glimpsed a line of figure
on the hillside, beating and beating the heather,
as the fire-front roared towards them.
A volley of shouts: ‘Keep the wind at your back!’
My grandmother threshing with a fire-broom
Dad hacking a firebreak. My stillborn brother, now grown
sprinting for the hollow where the spring once flowed
the whole hill flaring in the updraft.
And there: a girl, running for the riverside –
she wore my face, the shade of ash.
Would you be able to say something about “inheriting fire”, as a woman, and a writer?
YR: Fire, and the use of fire are the only things that actually separate human beings quite decisively from other creatures. We are the only species to have domesticated fire. Loads of other animals – tusk fish, crows – they can use tools. Many other creatures have language as well. Fire is something that is unique to us. It has tremendous potential for good, with the fire of the hearth that is warming. Needless to say fires can be profoundly destructive. For me, that inheritance of fire is the inheritance of the age of fire. What was at the forefront of my mind was that my Dad had been cremated, and again this was another source of combustion. It’s like, you know how much more can we put into the atmosphere?
AH: The final poem, ‘Spikenard’, returns to the theme of breaking-up, and separation, exploring a woman who traces her former lover by following the scent the cologne she bought him – right up to the doorway behind which he is now – with someone else. I had to look up Spikenard. I was really interested to see that it is an essential oil, from a plant that was used in incense as well as perfume. It goes back hundreds, if not thousands of years, so ties in with the idea of oil, which runs into the other poems.
YR: I think that is a really wonderful interpretation.
AH: I know you have just been mentored for a year by Deryn Rees Jones, under the inaugural Peggy Poole award. Would you like to say something about that experience?
YR: It was Deryn who helped me shape the oil poems. I don’t think I would really have had the courage to tackle that material if it hadn’t been for her encouragement. It’s a topic that I think I will run with. Going further back in my family tree, my grandmother’s father distilled oil from coal.
AH: Was this your father’s side?
YR: Yes, yes it was my Dad’s side. There was this family legend that my Grandmother was related to George Stephenson, the railway engineer. My Grandmother was a Yorkshire woman. She’d sit there on the phone with a Silk Cut cigarette in her hands – this plume of smoke. I have tremendously fond memories of her as a very strong minded matriarch. She is a link to an industry in the past that was coal capitalism.
AH: I trust there will be a poem about her, if only to capture those plumes of smoke. Just before we finish, I know you have just been editing the ‘Loss’ edition of Magma, which will be out in October 2019. Could you say something about how this came about, and what it was like to select and edit so many poems responding to this theme?
YR: I’m delighted to be helping Magma out as an associate editor, although I feel a bit like the proverbial poacher turned gamekeeper! It’s fascinating to be the one selecting poems – I’m usually the one sending work out for selection. It’s also a really difficult process, as you’ve got a limited amount of space and you wish you could take twice as many poems as you have room for. I’m working on the Loss Issue with author and editor Adam Lowe. People submitted over 8,000 poems – more than any issue of Magma had ever attracted before! Loss touches so many people, and it was amazing to have that kind of response. However, it meant we had to turn down some superb poems. I work as an academic, and universities are expected to make an ‘impact’: to run projects benefiting society, business or policymakers. I want to do what I can to support poetry and writing. Because I’d been writing about my Dad, a colleague suggested running writing workshops for people who had been bereaved, but the Magma issue is designed to expand the idea of loss a bit. Adam and I invited poets to submit work about anything from Brexit to losing a homeland to the loss of extinct animals – even beneficial losses, such as losing a gender label. We were lucky enough to get Arts Council funding, and with that, we paired poets with psychologists so that they could exchange ideas and write commissioned poems. We’ve commissioned reviews of books that resonate with the theme. I’m excited about launching the issue of the magazine later this year, with readings from some wonderful poets.
Yvonne Reddick’s editorial introduction to Magma 75 is here.
Identifiable in any gathering by her scarlet hair, L. Kiew is not a poet who seeks to conform. Her pamphlet, The Unquiet, was published by the prestigious independent publisher, Offord Road Books, earlier in 2019. A Chinese-Malaysian living in London, and working as an accountant, she is someone whose work I have loved for a number of years – for its originality, and willingness to take risks to arrive in new places, and open different ways of seeing and speaking. Over coffee in the Poetry Café in Covent Garden – ahead of a reading by her publisher Martha Sprackland – we spoke about her rebel great-grandmother refusing to have her feet bound, Chinese ghost stories, diaspora experiences, writing in multiple languages and dialects, arriving in England from Malaysia, and what feminism means outside of America and Europe. To give readers a sense of her multi-lingual poetry live, L. Kiew recorded three of her poems, which are available at the end of this interview, with more on her website.
AH: Your biog says that you’re an accountant and a dancer. Were you always a poet as well – and when did you start actually writing the poems down?
LK: I probably wouldn’t have thought of myself as a poet until my late teens. As a younger child I was happily writing little stories. In my late teens and early twenties I began to think a lot about language, and about the people I was speaking to, and about the challenges of communication. That is when I moved into poetry. I was very influenced by the more experimental work.
AH: Were there any poets who particularly inspired, encouraged or supported you?
LK:Very early I found Lisa Robertson. She was very very influential. I stumbled across Reality Street Press, so I was reading a lot of work from them. That really opened up things for me and made me think about language in quite a different way.
AH: When you are starting out, if you can find someone who is working in your area, it radically expands the field, and your sense of the possible. When it’s on the page, you can engage with it at your own pace. If you are taught in class, often it is being slightly pulled out of you – whereas sometimes you need to work more quietly.
LK: The curriculum was always quite conventional. The canon of English poetry. Obviously it is changing now. I read English at University.
AH: Likewise. Sylvia Plath was as close as we got to contemporary poetry.
LK: She was for me too. Sylvia Plath was quite a big influence on my work, as were a lot of the Imagist Poets.
AH: I really loved HD.
LK: That was a kind of beginning.
AH: Did you have any kind of mentors – or were you just writing on your own?
LK: Pretty much writing on my own. There was a writer in residence at the University. I saw her once. I felt very outside the thing that everyone else was doing so it didn’t really gel. All of my engagement was pretty much on the page.
AH: ‘Swallow’, the first poem in The Unquiet is about working within a multi-tongued framework.You write about “overeating from the dictionary” and “nouns as sticky as langsat”, but also that “The words I swallow become/ feathers poking through my skin.” Would you say that language learning can be a form of migration in itself, separate from travel?
LK: Yes, because I think when you learn language, you move from one view of the world into another. It is about a change of state. I am a different person in one language than I am in another. Jennifer Lee Tsai write about this in her poem ‘Another Language’, published in Wild Court this year. It is a poem about being different in Cantonese and being in English and I feel that very much too.
AH: I grew up speaking French as well. Your thoughts take different shapes, reflecting the word containers that are available. I wondered if it was important for you to allow your readers to make this journey as well, into a different language, through the physically embodied textures and sounds of Malaysian dialect words with which your poems enact themselves?
LK:Language is a visceral thing – because it comes out of your body, and you experience it through the body as well. I wanted that to be in the writing. I also wanted that sense of when you walk down the street, and things are partially heard.For me, language is all about the lines between one kind of experience and another. I think of conversations and literature and your experience of reading as beasts that rub up against each other. You may rub a little longer some times than others. Sometimes you rub, and you move on. I wanted all of those to be possible in the experience of reading The Unquiet.
AH: When you read words that you don’t understand, you pronounce them in your head because you are trying to get the physical feel of them, to make an engagement. That is definitely a kind of rubbing that also opens your head to different sounds.
LK: I think you can engage in things in all sorts of different levels. One level doesn’t have to be privileged over another.
AH: Absolutely. Would you be able to say a few words about your own childhood – because that is where your understanding of the world originated? You were born in Malaysia, where both your parents were scientists?
LK:Yes, I grew up in Malaysia until I was 10. I came to the UK to boarding school – only going back in the school holidays. Both my parents are scientists. My mother is a botanist and my father is a zoologist. Nature plays a really big part in my writing as well, because of that experience.
AH: Once you started to come to England for boarding school, you were cutting between Malaysia and England, so you were having parallel but very different climates and landscapes?
LK: Yes. In Malaysia, my parents would do field work at the weekend, so we often went on expeditions with them, when they were collecting locally. When my parents went on longer expeditions, we went too. My father ran a field study station for the University for many years, and we spent a lot of time there as children. People in Asia are very tolerant of children so the university students let us be underfoot. I had this wonderful experience – of playing there all the time.
AH: This was in the rainforest? With that density of sound and heat and visual stimuli?
LK: Whatever the students were studying, we were looking at too. We were alongside when they were trapping and collecting things in the rainforest. It was all very close.
AH: It sounds really fantastic. Like Natalie Linh Bolderston, whose pamphlet The Protection of Ghosts has just come out with V. Press, your poems occupy the voices of people from multiple generations. I’m thinking of Ląomà and Ah Jek in ‘Haunts,’ but also ‘Pitched in’ and ‘The Catch.’ Could you say something about those three poems?
LK: Some poems in the book are about ghost stories that I remember – family ghost stories. ‘Haunts’ is a series of ghost stories that I was told about people in the family. The Chinese love ghost stories. I really wanted to explore that because it’s not a genre that translates into English much. I was really wanting to write a whole series of ghost story poems.
‘Haunts’ is also about my great grandmother who came from China. I have been thinking a lot about her life, because she moved at a time of great transition. When you look back, she was an incredibly strong woman. For her time, she made very very difficult choices. She chose not to have her feet bound and she came all the way across to Malaysia.Because her feet were not bound, she had to marry a much much older man. He died very early and then she had a whole brood of children that she needed to bring up. She was a very successful matriarch in that way – but also so incredibly tough.
AH: She would have had to be tough from the start to be able to resist foot binding at a young age?
LK: She had an iron will, I have to say. You have to admire those people who get through life with that strength when so many around them are, in a certain respect, powerless around certain things.
AH: What period did she come over to Malaysia?
LK: I don’t really know. Sometime between the turn of the century and before the second world war.
AH: There is real sorrow, and pain in ‘Pitched in’, which ends simply “dragging steps/ msa”msĭ/ the water is dark”. The words feel wrung from the speaker, but also flinty. You begin:
kangbāng covered in dust
a worn shirt on the line with no one to fill it
Father at the door
I refused twelve
this was all that was left
kiaogià empty rice bowls
anguish springs like bamboo
on steep slopes
LK: ‘Pitched in’ covers choices about whom you marry. I was thinking of my grandmother’s generation, where those choices were not great. ‘The Catch’ comes from a family story about my great grandmother and how she didn’t have sons until quite late, and she adopted one son.
AH: ‘The Catch’ has this wonderfully direct, but also swimming-with-feeling, emotional language.Its metaphors are viscerally embodied, and through this, inclusive of the reader. We get the mood of the poem, its love, combative-ness, and wounded-ness, because we can intuit them from the diction. I’m assuming ‘our little fish’ is her son? The poem in total reads:
When he brought that stinky parcel
of catfish home from the market, Mother-in-law turned her eyes away like swifts swimming across water.
My heart was an empty
house with its red door swinging wide.
I held our little fish
safe from the monsoon, the gossip
of storm clouds hurled and smashed papayas
against the shutters.
It’s impossible to wash the face of
our house clean.
LK:In Asia, it was quite common that if you don’t have a son of your own, and somebody else had an abundance of sons, then you would come to an arrangement. It is a rumoured in the family that is what she did, so one of my great uncles is apparently adopted. As with all family stories, only half of it comes down to the next generation.
AH: Children come into families in many ways. What matters is the welcome that they receive, rather than the door that they entered through.
LK: Yes, and in Chinese culture a son is very very important. A son is always treasured.
AH:I love all the physical textures in the poem. The “storm clouds” and the “smashed papayas” – and how they speak to a world of unarticulated, but deeply felt emotions around this tiny baby coming into the house from a different background. You’re making in your words a very different world to what some readers in London know – and making it very tangible and palpable. Having been born in Singapore, I really appreciate it. You register heat, and humid atmosphere. That level of physical detail makes different realities three dimensional – rather than saying one place is real and everywhere else is ‘on the map’.
LK: It’s very real for the characters in the poem. I wanted it to be the same for the readers.
AH: That really comes across. There’s also a strong strand of feminism which runs through The Unquiet, again spanning generations, and social classes. ‘Francesca’ pays a beautiful tribute to a housekeeper “who walks to church/ daily, strong as bamboo// as persistent.” Elizabeth Bishop also wrote about women in positions of service, and more recently the film Roma honours a woman obliged to take this role in her employer’s family. Was it important to you to give space to this area of working lives? You say also that she “makes sweet/ and sour pork better than anyone” and “tends/ the avocado tree, […] picks its fruit”.
LK: We privilege experience in different ways. I feel that work is equally valid regardless of where it is done. Everybody has a thing they do incredibly well, that is very valuable. I wanted to foreground that because it’s very easy, when you read from a position of education, to say ‘They weren’t educated. They didn’t have great options, so their lives must be less rich’. I don’t that is true. It is really important to show that all of these experiences are equally valid –regardless of their relative socio-economic position, regardless of the position that we read into it coming from the west and being educated, and with a certain reading of feminism as well. It is really interesting to be asked about feminism in relation to this because I read feminism as a western concept. I don’t think my great grandmother or Francesca would recognise it in the articulation that exists. They would say ‘well of course we do these things but there are constraints’. But you know you can get around these constraints. It’s just a different articulation.
AH: I think if you have Francesca’s role, you are a functioning economic unit and that gives you agency. Every being needs agency. Having a value put on your services gives you the ability to pay for food, to pay for housing, to educate your children. It’s a very powerful way of claiming your space as a human being.
LK: There were people who chose domestic work as a career path. That’s not any different from any other career path you would choose. You know I would say Francesca, from the stories that she told me, chose it deliberately. It wasn’t that there were no other options. This is a path she deliberately chose.
AH: That was a real profession and a respected vocation. I just love that poem. It’s really beautiful and unapologetically celebratory. It really chimed with me.
LK: She is a marvellous and again, a very strong woman. Lots of strong women in my background.
AH: ‘Learning to be mixi’is one of several poems which suggests that acquiring English language and culture can be a bruising, as well as enabling, experience, socially and personally. You write:
I was buckled in, and taken off
to England, the boarding school (not like Enid Blyton, not at all) and Cambridge, the colleges,
the backs and the hate,
suppressing the suffix-lah,
being proper and nice, cutting
my tongue with that ice.
Could say something about this? It sounds as if you were not necessarily treated in the kindest way?
LK:England was a huge culture shock. I considered myself a speaker of English. My mother was English. I didn’t perceive myself as being unfamiliar with the culture, having read English storybooks. You have an expectation – then you arrive. It is so so different. As a child you just go through life. It happens to you.
AH: You live in your skin; you get on with it.
LK: It is only now that I am an adult, and have contemporaries with children at that age, that I look back and think that was actually quite a bruising culture shock. Behind this writing, there has been a lot of reflection – to do with reaching a certain point in my life and seeing other people’s children.
AH: The boarding school I went to very hierarchal and very prioritising of social class and conformity. My father was dead, and I was in a dormitory with girl whose mum was a single parent. The third girl was from Northern Ireland. We felt marked as different.
LK: There were a lot of children who went home every weekend. The ones that were left behind at the weekend had our parents very very far away. It made a barrier.
AH: Certainly in the 70’s, when I was growing up, English people were not very tolerant of difference. There was a reluctance to allow people to integrate in the schools that I went to. Hopefully that is shifting now.
LK: Yeah, it has shifted a lot. Not everywhere to the same extent but there is certainly a lot more openness. Moving from England to Scotland was a really interesting dynamic. Scotland was very mono-cultural but with a very strong self-identifying of itself against English. As long as you were not English, you were in. It’s been interesting to move around the United Kingdom.
AH: ‘Speech’ begins “Ah Ba speak red: liddat tone/ of voice sure salah wan.” The poem goes on to enact a merging of dictions, and dictionaries, ending:
And I let my words landslide,
ferrous, carrying both stone chips,
rice and tapioca roots.
I dig down, ah, I speak lah,
pearl and pebble, new shoots.
Did this combining reflect an act of healing that has taken place within the pamphlet by bringing in so many different sorts of words?
LK:As I wrote the pamphlet, I began to really embrace that movement across languages and through languages.Recognising it very much as the identity that I came from – because in Malaysia people are usually multilingual to varying degrees. That kind of dropping between languages is very common. Going to Malaysia with my partner was a lightbulb moment. I realised that shifting between languages within a sentence – something that I took as absolutely normal – was not something that everybody else experienced or practiced. I wanted to embrace that part of myself as I think in different languages. I grew up speaking different languages all simultaneously.
AH: My father was half-French so I have French and English. I learnt Italian, and can follow Spanish, so I’m quite happy to shuffle languages. My Italian and my Spanish are not particularly good but but I can get by and listen to radio or tv in all those languages. It gives you a different mindset.
LK:In England people tend to view a language like EU customs tracks. You are put into lines, but life is not like that.There is a lot of movement with the writing across languages. It is much more common than it used to be, and also in more of the poetry coming out of America, with writers who grow up with additional languages.
AH: Although you don’t give translations, because the words that you use are phonetically spelt, rather than written in ‘Chinese’ characters, and can be sounded out, I didn’t feel closed out as a reader. I could still get their sound quality. It didn’t feel that you were putting up icy walls that I couldn’t go across.
LK:I chose romanisation for The Unquiet because actually for me there is an interesting politics around the learning of characters, especially now when the only way to be able to learn them would be through Mandarin. And the primacy of Mandarin is a kind of construct that has come out of the rise of communism in China, and the development that they describe as Mandarin being the common language. That wasn’t the case previously. You can write all Chinese dialects in characters but when you do that, what tends to happen is that most readers will then attempt to read them as Mandarin, which they are not. I didn’t want that at all. I wanted to foreground the primacy of dialect in that space.
AH: Which is also functioning much of the time within the spoken space anyway?
LK: Yes. It is also about levels of literacy and levels of education which sit behind the text on the page. I am English educated, but I am not Chinese educated.
AH: You presumably hold the dialects primarily orally? As sounds in your head?
LK:For me, Teo Chew, Hokkien and other dialects were always oral languages. A lot of the older generation would never have completed school, so would read little or nothing. There is not much literature in dialect available outside of China and I’m not sure how much there is within China itself.
AH:So in fact the ghost stories you re-tell are political, in that they are a form of family literature, and shared storytelling. They may not be written down but they are your heritage and a resource. When we have stories in common, or stories that echo each other – even when you said read Enid Blyton and I got it – there is bonding over those common imaginative currencies.
LK: Yes, I think stories are common currencies across a lot of cultures. We all have a degree of archetype. They get changed according to the context – but there will be things that people recognise.
AH: I felt it with the “red shantung” dress in ‘Haunts.’ ,
Ląomà believes the dead
cling to their possessions.
My dress is red shantung;
its last occupant is
heartbroken and tugging
on my hem.
The widower holds me
at arms’ length, cold and stiff.
I waltz around, around.
When I sink down, a white hand
strokes my feet, smearing black
blood over my cracked heels.
It is saying that clothes which pass between owners carry stories, but the dress is also the vessel in which you choose to pour a meaning, that is probably an archetypal, universal one – which each culture, and reader, will particularise. It is a story about past and present, and difficult relationships, and strange things, but also how we make, and find, images to understand our lives. On that note, would you like to say something about your decision not to give any translations, so the English language reader has to try to hear and feel the words they don’t understand, rather than simply dismissing them into meaning? Poetry has that ambiguity built into it. When you don’t translate a word – are you making it an extreme poetry moment?
LK: The whole thing with poetry for me is the consciousness of language. I am foregrounding of it, and foregrounding the sound and the shape. For readers who can’t access the meaning automatically, they have to engage in it quite differently. I wanted those things not to be that smooth. I like your phrase ‘dismissing it into meaning’ because there is sometimes a tendency in how literature works that everything is made easy for the reader. That is, easy for the educated reader. So again there is a sort of dynamic of privilege that is in language. Choosing not to translate was partly about undermining. I want to privilege people who come from that multiple dialect background, and who can recognise some of it. I didn’t want to privilege the reader who has gone to Oxford and who has Latin and Greek but not any other languages. In their text, they might not translate classical Greek on the assumption that all the rest of us should understand. I wanted to shift that dynamic. We have Google translate these days and so actually it’s easy to find out.
AH: Yeah, I really loved it as it was. I think your realisation was a great triumph. Towards the end of The Unquiet, in ‘Cryptography’, you write about words which lie “like a forgotten cellar/ under the house of your childhood”. In ‘Lassaba’ there are “paper wings/ filling the hall with their shadows”. Whereas the earlier ghost poems called up histories in which there was suffering and cruelty, this seems like a more nourishing form of haunting – allowing the past also to be present in a sustaining way, and establishing a form of equilibrium. Does that seem fair?
LK: The past is who you are, and you can’t change it. Those stories form who you are. It’s about reaching an equilibrium, because you have to acknowledge it, and take where you are, then grow from that soil.
AH: If you said to me cheese soufflé, I would straight away see the cheese soufflé in my French grandmother’s house, because that’s where I ate it. Whatever that word means to anybody else, to me it means a kitchen in Normandy, how we beat the eggs, grated the Gruyère, the way the spoon broke the crust when it was served. Soufflé is just a word – but it holds so much for me.
LK: And it informs all your future cheese soufflés doesn’t it?
AH: I made it when my elder son came home from university for the first time. It was a deep celebration. I wanted to reach back into the good part of my past and have it with us. On that subject, I know you were with Nina Mingya Powles and Natalie Linh Bolderston on a Bi’an retreat for writers of Chinese heritage. Nina tweeted that there was a lot of food talk. How was that as an experience?
LK: It was actually amazing; I have to say, completely, completely amazing to be in a diaspora group.
AH: Nina is New Zealand Chinese. Nat is Vietnamese Chinese English.
LK: It was amazing to meet people who come from different places in the diaspora, in different the waves of diaspora. The commonalities and the differences were extremely interesting. Those sorts of things are really enriching and so very fascinating – because it wasn’t just a retreat for poets. I only really interact with poets on the whole, so it was fascinating to meet people who write fiction, who do life writing, who write for the stage and who write for the cinema. It was a really broad experience. We did some fascinating workshops around translation – which was also really interesting. Working with a group of people with different language levels to read across languages in terms of translation was absolutely fascinating.
AH: Nat and Nina I know came back very happy.
LK: It was an amazing experience.
AH: Have you taken part in any writers’ activities in Malaysia? I know that Romalyn Ante has been really supported by a programme, which she won a place on in the Philippines, for Filipino writers. Did you ever participate in anything like that – or maybe there aren’t those kinds of programmes in Malaysia?
LK: Not that I’m aware of. Malaysia until fairly recently had a small publishing industry. So most Malaysian writers you would come across, Malaysian writers in English, tend to have come overseas and are published overseas first.
AH: Before we go down to hear Martha and Jean Sprackland read, can I ask, in conclusion, where are you headed next, creatively and geographically?
LK:Creatively I am working towards my full collection. I have been exploring the language that people use about the natural world, and what is a native species and what is non-native species. It is very much about belonging – but also drawing on that heritage that I have, from my parents’ scientific background.
AH: That sounds really good. Are you going back to Malaysia, working on this?
LK: I don’t go back that often – every three to five years or so. The more I thought about it, the more I realised lots of things migrate. If you look in your garden, and see where your plants originally came from, you suddenly discover that they are from all over.
AH: I have this ferocious yucca – which is definitely not from an English hedgerow.
LK: Lots of plants we think of as very common, or that have become very common like cyclamens, are not from here originally. Cyclamens are from around the Mediterranean and down to Middle East. Tulips are as well. Lots of plants that we think of as native to the UK are naturalised. They weren’t originally from here.
AH: That sounds like a perfect note to end on. Thank you very much, and thank you also for give us live readings of some of your multi-lingual poems, featuring Chinese dialects, Malay and English, which readers will be able to hear with these links.
L. Kiew will be performing at Rich Mix in London’s Bethnal Green on Saturday 13 July – ‘with a sword on her head’. More details here.
There’s also a link to L.K’s website with more information about publications and performances. L. Kiew is shown with fellow poet and Westminster Library collaborator Joanna Ingham – whose debut pamphlet is due out with Ignition on 22 July.
Natalie Linh Bolderston has just published her brilliant, moving debut, The Protection of Ghosts, with V.Press, exploring life before, and after, her family’s departure from Vietnam as refugees in 1978 through three generations of women. The first time we met, I was struck by Natalie’s observant, centred quietness, and natural generosity. As I got to know her work, I came to understand how these qualities have been nourished by the multiple heritages which her poems honour. Together, in our conversation, we explored creativity, trauma, and healing – and the poets whose works have helped Natalie find her path. Still only in her mid twenties, while a student at Liverpool University, Natalie copy-edited Nuar Alsadir, under Pavilion’s internship programme, and was encouraged to develop her own poems by Deryn Rhys-Jones. Now working as an editor, Natalie Linh Bolderston has already been the Silver Winner for the Creative Future Writers’ Award 2018, come second in the Timothy Corsellis Prize 2018, been placed as a runner up in the Bi’an Award 2019 – and most recently won the Young Poets Network’s 2019 Golden Shovel Competition. As key new voice in poetry, I’m honoured to be able to share Natalie Linh Bolderston’s first in-depth interview.
AH: Can I ask when and why you started experimenting with poetry? Were there any mentors, or teachers, who encouraged you, or was it more DIY?
NLB: In my second year at university, I took a creative writing class with Deryn Rees-Jones. I hadn’t written seriously before, and just wanted to see if I could. At the time, I didn’t know what form my writing would take, but I had mainly read fantasy and literary fiction by women. My experience of contemporary poetry was limited: in my previous education, a lot of emphasis had been placed on the canon – specifically the white, male, British canon – which didn’t resonate with me.
Early on, Deryn introduced us to the work of Mona Arshi and Sarah Howe. I felt an immediate connection to both poets: I loved the vibrancy of their images, their use of myth and narrative, and their explorations of family and cultural heritage. I was interested in contemplating family history, traditional stories, and cultural identity in my own work, and reading their poems made me feel more able to do so. As a young woman of colour, it meant so much to me to have two modern female writers of colour to look up to – and to know that there were so many more to discover.
Since my ideas seemed to come to me in intense moments, images, and fragmented lines, poetry felt like the right form to express them.Deryn was very encouraging from the beginning, as well as being very generous with feedback – I owe a lot to her.
AH: Were there any other writers who helped call forth your voice? I know you connect imaginatively with poets outside the UK.
NLB: My two ‘gateway’ poets were Mona Arshi and Sarah Howe. But once I started following poetry accounts on Twitter, I found so many other brilliant poets – the ones I return to most are probably Ocean Vuong, K Ming Chang, Warsan Shire and Romalyn Ante. All four write about migration, sense of place, cultural identity, family, trauma and survival in very different ways, and have made me think about how I can approach these themes and other difficult subject matter in my poems.
I’m also in awe of them from a technical perspective – I find their images particularly astonishing. For example, one of my favourites by Ocean Vuong is: ‘one spring / I crushed a monarch midflight / just to know how it felt / to have something change / in my hands’ (from ‘My Father Writes From Prison’). I love the eerie, tactile beauty, and the emotions captured in that one moment: namely isolation, aggression, and longing. Reading work like this showed me the beautiful and extraordinary possibilities of poetry, and encouraged me to keep going.
AH: How did it feel when you heard that V. Press had accepted your first pamphlet, The Protection of Ghosts, published on 23 April 2019?
NLB: It was a mix of disbelief, joy, and gratitude! As a young, emerging poet, I was prepared to wait many more years to get to the pamphlet stage, so I felt very fortunate and very grateful to V. Press (especially to Sarah Leavesley and Carrie Etter) for their belief in my work.
I was also excited for my poems to appear together, as a lot were written in conversation with each other and form a sort of fragmented arc. Gathering them into pamphlet form made me feel more able to provide a ‘fuller picture’, as the narrative threads that have been passed on to me by my family began to join.
AH: The poems in The Protection of Ghosts speak from your own position and generation, but also through your mother’s and grandmother’s voices. They both lived in Vietnam until 1978. Did you always plan to have a chorus of mainly female voices speaking in and out of each other, ghosted by the past?
NLB: I don’t think it was a conscious plan at first, but when I started setting down my family’s stories the multiple voices came quite organically. Anything that I create is a collaborative effort, because so much of what I write is inspired by what my family have told me – particularly Mum and Bá Ngoại. I think that highlighting this through the chorus of voices enhances the emotional truth of what they have said, and gives me space to consider how I interact with that. For example, in ‘When Bá Ngoại tells stories’, I list quotes from her alongside my own interpretations and contemplations of these.
AH: How do your family feel about featuring in your work?
NLB: My mum is very supportive, and reads everything I write. She’s one of the first people who I send new poems to – so many stem from her stories, and I want to do them justice emotionally. A lot of poets mention having an ‘imagined reader’ when writing: for me, my mum is always the reader I have in mind. She’s told me that it moves her to see how much I’ve held on to her words and experiences over the years – she actually sent me a message about it, which I keep with me:
Bá Ngoại is the same, although she sometimes needs help from me and Mum to fully understand my poems (my mum provides Vietnamese translations for some parts).
I’ve only recently felt brave enough to start showing my work to the rest of my family. The response has been very kind – like Mum, they’ve been interested to see how I’ve interpreted, interacted with and reproduced their stories.
AH: The opening poem, ‘I watch my mother peel longan fruits –’ is both a beginning, and an ending. It slides in a series of present tense scenes from your personal experience in England, to Saigon. On “a long-ago rooftop” for your mother “longans taste like sour rain/ and street dust.” The action then moves to leaving Vietnam: “The family drives through back roads // dark as the mouths of dogs.” You embed thought and memory into taste and texture so the reader also lives the experience. Did recreating these scenes from the past also help you to inhabit them for yourself?
NLB: Yes – I think that poems like this help me get to know a version of my mother who I have never met: a young girl growing up in extraordinary circumstances, uncertain of her future. Starting with an image of food felt like a good way to conjure this part of her life, as tastes – and other sensory experiences – have a way of making the spectral very vivid.
I don’t hold these memories first hand, but do I have the fragments that my mother has shared with me over the years – memories of memories. Therefore, my piecing them together in my poems always feels like an act of ‘recreation’, rather than setting down verbatim fact. I think that that would be impossible. So poems like the one above are visualisations of the past: collaborations between my mother’s stories and my internal lens, with a shared emotional truth at their core.
AH: The second poem, ‘Divinations on Survival’, uses the I-Ching form, devised by K Ming Chang. Each of the stanzas takes the form of an I-Ching hexagram, and can be read top to bottom, or bottom to top, always from left to right. One of the images is of the speaker’s “body/ like a cooked fruit unravelling across the sea. in sagging boats.” It is a really powerful way of responding to the dislocations of exile, and forced migration. Did you experiment with any other forms first – or was it always going to be this one?
NLB: The poem came after the form. After I read K Ming Chang’s poem, I was first of all awestruck by what she had created with such imaginative self-imposed restraints, and by the very contemporary way in which she had honoured an old tradition (I-Ching is a Chinese method of divination). I then realised that the sense of enigma and fragmentation created by the form would work well as a way to express certain moments in my family’s history. The stanzas in ‘Divinations on Survival’ alternate between the voices of Bá Ngoại and my mother. They are moments of fear and uncertainty, when they had to put their faith in fate and their own courage in order to survive. I think the content also references the original basis of the form – divinations give a glimpse into the future, but the readings can be unclear and open to interpretation. Likewise, my poem depicts two women facing a precarious and unpredictable future, and trying to keep going long enough to see a better life.
AH: Did you grow up speaking Vietnamese as well as English? I think your family heritage is also partly Chinese?
NLB: I didn’t grow up bilingual, which is one of my biggest regrets. I treasure the fragments of Vietnamese that I do pick up from Mum and Bá Ngoại – my mum helps me record them, which is why they end up in my poems. I feel nourished by the sounds and conversations I grew up listening to, even if I didn’t understand them. My mum taught me a little bit when I was young, but she worked full time as a nurse so it was difficult. Now, I’m making more of a DIY effort to learn, which I think will be a lifelong process.
Ông Ngoại grew up in Xiamen in South China. He could speak Mandarin and Hokkien – as well as English and some French – and so can Bá Ngoại. Ông Ngoại died when I was very young, so I don’t have many memories of hearing him speak. But my mum has told me that he and Bá Ngoại mostly spoke Hokkien together. They didn’t teach my mum or her siblings any varieties of Chinese, so speaking Hokkien was their way of keeping things private.
AH: Like many of your poems, ‘Divinations on Survival’ uses both Chinese characters, and transliterated Vietnamese words. You also had multi-lingual work published in the inaugural issue of harana poetry . Can you say something about using these linguistic markers to evidence your multiple cultural heritages?
NLB: When writing about things that my family have said in Vietnamese (or in a mix of Vietnamese and English), I never like to translate them fully – it would feel wrong, like leaving out an important part of who they are. Mum had to leave so much behind when she fled Vietnam, but she never forgot her Vietnamese. At family gatherings – and when Mum meets up with her Vietnamese friends – most of her conversations are held in her mother tongue. And that’s so beautiful to hear and witness, which is why I want to celebrate this multi-lingual environment in my poems.
Bá Ngoại can speak Mandarin and Hokkien (in addition to Vietnamese and English) but I hardly ever hear her speak any variety of Chinese while in the UK. When we visited Ông Ngoại’s side of the family in China, she spoke with them in Hokkien. She had not seen them for many years, but they were conversing and laughing so easily. It was like the revival of another self, which again was beautiful to see.
We’ve been finding out more and more about Ông Ngoại’s and his family’s life in China from letters and photographs, so this aspect of our family history has also started to feature in my poems. For example, one of my harana poems – ‘Photograph’ – is based on a picture of Ông Ngoại as a baby, sitting on his mother’s lap. It’s actually part of a sequence of poems I’ve been writing, exploring his mother’s life and his early life. This was a time before he learned Vietnamese or English or French, so it feels right to use Chinese linguistic markers when writing about this part of his history. Chinese was part of his identity, and I want to acknowledge and commemorate this.
AH: Your poems never shy away from recording the challenging experiences which your family went through in occupied Vietnam, and then travelling to the UK as refugees. They also acknowledge the lingering impact of trauma. But the people you describe are always presented with dignity and agency. I’m thinking about your poem ‘Bá Ngoại’, about your grandmother, who teaches you to crochet, and “fastens gold” around your wrist. Could you say something about this resilience and life force?
NLB: When writing about trauma and resilience in my family, I keep in mind this quote from Ocean Vuong:
I’m trying to preserve the acts that made us possible. And so for a poet writing out of violence, it is on one point a moment of creation like the word poet from the Greek says, but also a point of preservation – you’re doing both at once. […] To honour their survival is to record it, and keep it from being obliterated.
This is something that has stayed with me, and helps me situate my writing. I’m also trying to write the stories not only of how my family suffered, but also how they survived. I want to record what they overcame to make a better life possible – for both themselves and the next generation of children.
I think intimate moments like the one you mention show the shadows of that survival instinct: my family’s impulse to pass on their knowledge, beliefs, traditions and heirlooms (physical or otherwise) to the next generation. By doing that, they pass on something of themselves: their strength and history. In ‘Bá Ngoại’, the gold bracelet holds a lot of memories – in Vietnam, my grandparents once owned a jewellery business, and Bá Ngoại was able to make chains herself. So it felt as if she was symbolically sharing that aspect of her past with me.
AH:Buddhist practices, along with the rituals to celebrate key festivals, and the offerings made on the family shrine at different times, are all lovingly recorded. Do they feel like places of strength for you?
NLB: Yes – I would say our shrines are places of strength, preservation, peace and comfort. I was thinking about them a lot when choosing the title for my pamphlet. When we pray, we are asking for the protection of ghosts – that is, guidance and protection from our ancestors. However, by keeping their stories, traditions and rituals alive, we are also protecting those ghosts by preserving and honouring their memory.
The shrines are also places of unity and celebration – some of my earliest memories are of my family coming together and leaving food at the shrine in Bá Ngoại’s house for Lunar New Year or Ông Ngoại’s remembrance day. Those are always special and loving times.
AH: ‘Typhoon in Xiamen’ and ‘Hạ Long Bay’ both refer to a visit you made with your family members to Vietnam and China a couple of years ago, which I believe was your mother’s first visit back since 1978. Would you like to say something about the experience of that trip, for you, and for her?
NLB: We visited Vietnam for the first time in 2014. For me, it was strange and wonderful to finally experience a place that I’ve held in my head for so long. Of course, it has changed so much since my mum left, but I could see shadows of her stories in the streets, markets, cafés, and food. It was also lovely to finally meet the members of my family who stayed in Saigon – they were so kind and welcoming.
For my mum, there were a lot of feelings. Mostly, she was so happy to spend time with extended family who she hadn’t seen for thirty years, and to meet the new generation. However, she was also a little sad – she didn’t feel like she belonged there anymore. In many ways, Vietnam isn’t the same place she remembers: she told me that it sometimes felt like her life there had been erased, or like it had never existed at all.
We visited my grandparents’ old jewellery shop in Bạc Liêu, which was a bittersweet experience for Mum. It was still a jewellery shop, but it had new owners – they turned out to be the people who used to live a few doors away from her, on the same street. They were friendly, and actually remembered my grandmother. Mum was happy to see that the place had been taken care of after so long, but I think it was hard to return to a place where she made so many memories, and where her life changed so suddenly and irrevocably.
We visited China (Beijing and then Xiamen) in 2016. That was a very new experience for both of us. Again, it was wonderful to meet more family, and find out a little more about my grandfather’s early life there. Xiamen has never been a physical home for me or my mum, but it did feel a little like an ancestral home – especially when we visited one of the family shrines, and the mausoleum where my great-grandmother’s ashes are kept. We burned joss paper in a barrel and prayed for her and my grandfather.
AH: The way you describe it in ‘Ha Long Bay’ suggests Vietnam woke something new in your own voice? You write:
Mangroves lean in,
knotted to the rockface
with swollen roots –
their rings, I think,
as many as our fingerprints.
A black kite springs alive
from the mist,
its call in my throat.
NLB: The details I included in ‘Hạ Long Bay’ give voice to my astonishment – it is a very beautiful and peaceful place. However, I think that there is also a sense of distance there. It was my first trip to Vietnam, and I was very aware that I was there as visitor rather than a former resident. So, in a way, everything was unfamiliar and astonishing to me. Despite that, it is still a place I feel deeply connected to. That’s why I tried to allude to the relationship between place and identity by linking the landscape to our bodies, as shown in the lines you mentioned.
Hạ Long Bay is also a site of historical violence: during the Vietnam War, the US Navy placed mines in many areas between the islands. So I also wanted to allude to the lingering presence of that violence beneath the beauty, with lines like: ‘Children wave / from wicker coracles / like upturned shields.’
AH: ‘Operation Ranch Hand’ won the Silver Award in the 2018 Creative Futures competition, and is named for the codename “for a chemical warfare campaign carried out by the US in the Vietnam War” according to the note below the title. It begins:
And just like that, the trees fold around them.
Gas snarls at a woman’s shoulders,
presses her belly to dirt.
She does not know about the scar
that is forming inside, that her daughter
will be born wordless on a stretcher.
That she will carry the smell
of dead leaves on her skin,
her name already cremated.
I think that this poem steps out of your family’s direct history, into the wider experience of the war, and I wondered how you researched it, and the impact on you of doing so?
NLB: When reading about Operation Ranch Hand, I concentrated on civilian accounts – from both victims and witnesses. I think that the methods behind military atrocities are often designed to feel very removed or distant, so that it’s easier for the perpetrators not to hold themselves accountable. So I wanted to show the painful impact of this particular cruelty by removing that distance and focusing in on one life. Even now, it’s hard to know the full extent of the damage caused by the US’ chemical weapons in Vietnam, but the health effects include death by agent orange poisoning, birth defects, and various cancers. Stories like this can be harrowing to read, but I think it’s very important to acknowledge that this happened, confront the impact, and not to forget the harm and destruction that chemical weapons cause.
AH: ‘Triệu Thị Trinh, or the Lady General Clad in Golden Robe’ and ‘Jingwei’ are two poems which both speak through legendary and mythical women. Did you find that this opened a new dimension for you within your work?
NLB: Yes: I’ve become interested in poetic ‘resurrection’ – researching and amplifying the voices of historical, legendary and mythical women from Vietnam and China. In this way, I want to find my own wider lineage of women to look up to, as well as those in my family.
In the cases of Triệu Thị Trinh and Jingwei, I was interested in the multiplicity of their identities. A lot of the accounts of Triệu Thị Trinh focus on her as a military leader, and as a woman who was desirable to men. But I wanted to get to know her other selves: her identity as an orphan, as a girl coming of age under extreme conditions, and as a protector of other women. So while my poem does depict her legendary battle persona, I also tried to show a layer of vulnerability, expressed through her sorrow over the absence of her mother. I’ve since decided that I would like to write a sequence of poems about her. I’ve already written the next poem, which focuses on a particular coming-of-age moment: her period. The third poem is as yet unwritten, but I’d like this to detail her visits to the graves of and shrines to women who were lost in the war she fought, and the conflicting emotions attached to this.
In Chinese mythology, Jingwei is a bird reborn from the Emperor’s daughter, who drowned in the Eastern Sea. In my poem about her, I wanted to zero in on the process of transformation – the phasing of one self into another – and the sense of loss and estrangement associated with this. I think that I’d also like to return to her story in the future.
AH:‘My mother’s nightmares’ begins describing how they “taste like seawater and vomit, handfuls of spat blood. The sky is a paper/ bruise, and it is always 1978.” The poem is in three sections. The second is the daughter’s dreams – “There is a garden where her skin is drying on the line.” The third draws mother and daughter together – “We both know there are some things we can only/ consider with our eyes closed.” Was it important for you to explore, and record, how trauma can speak through generations, even within the context of the very warm, and nurturing, connection between yourself and your mother, which shades so many of these poems with a movingly deep love, and tenderness?
NLB: Yes: I think that in this poem, I wanted to show one of the many ways in which my mother has taught me how to love. Although my mother has always been a figure of strength in my life, one of the ways we express our love and trust is through our mutual willingness to share our vulnerabilities with each other – and her willingness to share even the most painful aspects of her past. I think that trauma can manifest in very intimate moments, when you are allowing yourself to be most open. That’s probably why these recollections sometimes come at times of particular closeness, like the one described in the poem.
More generally, I also think that the stories my mother tells me are testaments to the strength and solace of familial love: it is her family’s love for and their determination to protect each other that kept them going through impossible circumstances.
AH: ‘Reflection’ is another poem which enters difficult spaces, describing a time when your mother apparently revolted against her own body while still in Vietnam by trying to stop eating, and then later sought to rub out visual traces of herself in you:
Asks if I remembered to pinch
my nose that morning,
as if I could exile her
from my face.
It suggests that one of the after-effects of trauma can be to alienate people from themselves, and their own bodies. I wondered if that was something which you wanted to draw attention to?
NLB: Yes: when my mum told me the story, it seemed like an expression of pain at a time when she felt voiceless. When your voice starts to disappear, I think that there’s an impulse to attempt to make the rest of your body disappear too. I wanted to show that feeling of powerlessness and isolation can manifest in the silence.
In the section you mention, I was contemplating the effects of intergenerational trauma, and how that feeling of self-alienation can be passed on. It was as if my mum thought that I’d be better off if I looked less like her – that I wouldn’t experience the same level of estrangement from my body if I could somehow assimilate with exclusionary western beauty standards. But of course there was no way to truly erase our internal and external similarities, and I’m grateful for that. She has always been someone who I look up to for her strength and kindness, and who I seek to emulate. I allude to this in the final line of the poem, when I ‘begin to stitch her skin over mine.’
AH: ‘Questions for My Mother’ identifies the racism which she faced within her nursing career in the UK on occasion, but also the danger which originally “chased” the family from Vietnam, after first “lining their clothes with the family gold” to travel. You draw together both the lack of choice which makes people refugees, alongside the hostility which their need for refuge can engender. Do you feel a sense of connection to the current generation of people obliged to flee their countries?
NLB: I think that everyone should: it’s a matter of empathy and compassion. Unfortunately, a lot of people fail to extend that. Everyone’s story is different, but I do see some parallels between my mother’s experiences of coming to the UK and the experiences of refugees now, especially in terms of the way they are treated as ‘other’.
My mum was generally expected to take this racist treatment in silence – especially in her profession – and in this poem I wanted to break that silence.I used multiple scenarios to emphasise that such acts of discrimination are not isolated incidents – they are incessant and exhausting. They make your everyday environment a more dangerous and terrifying place, and solidify the feeling that you don’t belong.
I know that this is the reality for so many current refugees – both in everyday interactions and at a governmental level. I think it’s important to listen to their stories and to think about what it’s like to be forced into that position. Warsan Shire bears witness to this kind of trauma in much of her work – for example, in her poem ‘Conversations About Home (at the Deportation Centre)’ – which I find so powerful.
AH: The final poem, ‘Aubade’, is a healing dawn song, addressed to your grandmother. It shows her surrounded by her generations of children and grandchildren, who have made full, loving, nurturing, valued lives in the UK.
Let your daughters cook stick rice, egg rolls, soup, thirteen cups of jasmine. Notice how they look less alike these days:
some lipsticked, grey-flecked, others ageless. See the chrysanthemums,
lilies, wild roses awaken at their silk shirts, the gold peeking
from beneath their sleeves.
The Asian American ceramicist and writer, Jade Snow Wong, made food one of the symbols of her creative, cultural and intellectual identities, writing in America in 1950, and I wondered if it was similarly resonant for you?
NLB: Yes – I think that food is so central to ceremony, unity and nourishment across generations. When we leave food at the shrine, we are inviting ancestors – both distant and recent – to share in our celebrations. It’s a way of remembering who we are, and honouring who came before us.
‘Aubade’ is about my grandfather’s death anniversary, which we observe every year – so in this poem it is mainly his memory that is being honoured. The anaphora was intended to sound both prayer-like and ritualistic. Grief can be a chaotic and disorienting experience, so I think that some comfort can be found in following set ceremonial practices. Ritual restores some measure of order, if only for a short period of time. Preparing and sharing food is part of this: it’s a practical, necessary task that you can get on with when you don’t know what else to do or say. In this poem, it felt like a very active way of processing loss.
Food is also tied to love. My mum is very openly affectionate anyway, but one of the ways in which she expresses her love is by constantly checking if I’m hungry, if I’ve eaten enough, if I’m eating well. It’s the same throughout my family – I allude to this towards the end of ‘Aubade’, when Bà Ngoại is being encouraged to eat: ‘Surrender to a bowl, / a fork.’ I think of this as my family’s way of strengthening and restoring each other.
AH: You have recently spent a week on an Arvon retreat with Bi’an, the UK Chinese Writers’ Network. How was that as an experience?
NLB: It was lovely and inspiring to meet so many Chinese-heritage writers creating work across so many genres. It felt like a very warm and supportive community, and the tutors – Jeremy Tiang and Yan Ge – were very inclusive and encouraging. Jeremy held a poetry translation workshop, where we translated an old Chinese poem as a group – Jeremy provided the literal translation, and we came up with variations on this. It was a great experience – I hadn’t considered trying translations before, but now I’d like to try translating some Vietnamese poems with my mum.
We were also fortunate enough to have Sarah Howe there as a guest tutor for one evening. It was wonderful to have the opportunity to watch her read and to chat to her afterwards – I told her that she was one of the first poets who made me want to write.
AH: Have you made any contacts with contemporary Vietnamese or Chinese poets outside of the UK?
NLB: I managed to meet Ocean Vuong at his Forward Prizes reading in 2017, which was a very special moment for me. I don’t think I’ve met any others personally, but I follow and have briefly interacted with several on Twitter. These include Đỗ Nguyên Mai and Cathy Linh Che, both of whom I admire very much. In an interview, Đỗ Nguyên Mai said that many of her literary heroines are ancient Vietnamese female writers and political figures. I love how this manifests in her work, especially in her poem ‘From Phùng Thị Chính to Her Child’.
AH: Where to next? I know that as I write these questions, you’re currently travelling in Vietnam again? Is this somewhere you would like to spend a more extended period of time?
I think that my next creative destination will be an eventual full collection, but I think that this will be quite a gradual process. Poems come to me in lines, fragments, and images, which I then gather, edit and fit together. So I tend to write quite slowly.
I’m not sure what my next physical destination will be, but I’ll definitely go back to Vietnam and China at some point in the future. My April 2019 trip was my second visit to Vietnam. I tried to be more observant this time around – the first time, I think it was all so new to me that I struggled to take everything in. But this time I asked my family a lot of questions and made notes wherever I went, so I feel like I managed to learn even more about old stories, legends and traditions as well as our family history.
Because I didn’t grow up there, I don’t know if Vietnam would ever feel like home – although I know that we can have many kinds of home. I think of both Vietnam and China – specifically Bạc Liêu, Sóc Trăng, Saigon, and Xiamen – as ancestral homes, and so I’ll always feel very connected to both countries in that way.
Natalie Linh Bolderston’s ‘Middle Name with Diacritics’ came third in the National Poetry Competition, and is on the shortlist for best single poems in the 2021 Forwards Prize Awards. You can read it here.
The Protection of Ghosts can be ordered through V. Press here.
Growing up is seldom easy – but sometimes it can be considerably more difficult. For Karen Smith, claiming her voice as a poet involved exploring a family history shaped by the mental illness experienced at times by both her loved, and loving, parents. How she did this, and the moving, deeply original poems which respond to her childhood and teenage years in the suburbs of South London, and now living near the South Coast, were the subject of our conversation in the Royal Festival Hall, where Karen works as a Poetry Cataloguer in the National Poetry Library. We talked about imagined landscapes as a form of psychic 3D printing, the challenges of coming to a creative life in the aftermath of complex beginnings, how trauma can be redefined through bringing the light of your adult life to the dark places of your past, and the healing, and the sense of release, that may ensue.
AH: Can I begin by asking you about your journey into poetry, Karen?
KS: I’ll never forget writing about Ted Hughes in an exam at school. He was writing very graphically about the wind “flexing like the lens of a mad eye” against the house. As I deconstructed the poem, which felt like climbing in, my body responded to it physically – as if it was real. I read English at Goldsmiths after that, and took an optional module on Modern Poetry because I’d been fired up by Moderns the year before (plus I hated long books!). I was shy and always more of a listener in the seminars, and the more I listened the more I could see in the poems. That surprised and excited me. It was like a beautiful bomb had gone off in my head. Part of my internal world suddenly had the music to dance to. During my MA at Kent I read John Ashbery. He grew on me. Sometimes it can be like with that with relationships too. He had a quieter voice, but it was such a beguiling voice. The more you looked into what he was saying – it was like a transformation. You were seeing at a different level. It actually changed your mind. There’s something so special about that experience. And even though Ashbery has lots of references in his work, and you don’t always get those, it doesn’t matter because of how it makes you feel, and see differently. To me, that really carries weight.
AH: I remember you telling me you were starstruck about hanging out at the Poetry Library – around the world that the books represented.
KS: Yeah, definitely. It was a little bit of peace from the world, but where you could be receptive and settle into yourself, and explore your mind going off in these different directions. I found it therapeutic I suppose, but also just so exciting. I enjoyed the fact that there was this quiet space in the middle of London where you could see virtually everything that’s been published in poetry, in modern times, and discover new voices that spoke to you. They seemed to articulate parts of yourself you were barely yet aware of.
AH: You recently published your first pamphlet, Schist, as one of four Laureate’s Choices for 2019 through the Poetry Business and smith/doorstop. When did you turn from being a reader of poetry to also being a writer of poetry?
KS: When I left university and did various jobs, I really missed that sense of intense connection to literature I had when I was studying. After a number of years, I started to feel, maybe I can try to write, as one way back in. I dipped my toe in. I went to a very short course. It was four weeks in the summer at Evolution Arts Centre in Brighton. And it wasn’t a poetry course, it was just creative writing. It didn’t feel great at first, because I didn’t feel I knew what I wanted to say. The other participants picked up on that. And so that was a little bit painful. But I thought I’d keep going because I knew that feeling of being excited and connected – and maybe I could get back there. And then, the poem ‘Schist’ came to me. I went to see my uncle. I was away from home traveling and I woke up one morning with the words playing in my head. I just started writing it down quickly because it felt like the poem was coming to me rather than me generating it. I had been working the previous day on different poem, so I think it kind of loosened something. That’s the first time that I felt a poem again in my body. I felt excited. The writing group were all very excited too. So I thought maybe there is something in this that I can do – even though I’m not sure how I’ve done it.
AH: Schist names your English teacher, Mr. Grey with his “antique-shop air”, (leading to the beautiful admission “I was hot for you, /Sir”), as an early source of inspiration. Were there other teachers, mentors and writers who led you forwards?
KS: Mr Grey was an enthusiastic teacher and his love for literature was very influential and inspiring. He was appreciative of my essays, but we didn’t really do creative writing very much. It was more criticism and analysis.
AH: In your writing life, it was really Carol Ann Duffy who really recognized your ability?
KS: I’d been to a couple of creative writing courses in Brighton before I met Carol Ann, led by Gary Mepsted and John McCullough. They were very encouraging and nurturing. I owe a debt to them. When you’re starting out, to have someone who guides you gently is really important, if you’re self-doubtful. But when Carol Ann recommended me to smith/doorstop, I hadn’t published anything and I didn’t even really think of myself as a poet. It was a real shock, but a nice shock. It was after I went to her five day “Starting out in poetry” course with Michael Woods at Moniack Mhor. It wasn’t a master class. That’s something I admire about her. She’s teaching at every level. She’s supporting right to the grassroots.
AH: We talked about John Ashbery. Are there any other books that have spoken to you over the years?
KS: I’ve always loved Alice in Wonderland. I keep going back to it because it’s mesmerizing to me – that surreal world. You know, what it feels like to be a child and the craziness of the world – all the playfulness in it.
AH: It’s a book that also captures powerlessness. And incomprehension – and the sense of there being no rules. That’s one of the things that your adult work addresses. Can I ask you about the title and opening poem, ‘Schist,’ which returns to a sun-filled seaside afternoon on the rocks at Mullion, in Cornwall. It begins:
One in a million, you said,
that summer in Mullion.
But we could never agree.
And we bickered all afternoon
between beach and lagoon, the tide began to carry more than it gave,
redrew the lines of flint
along the splay-veined shore.
Already, a boat was listing,
letting the water in.
You afterwards remember how the couple “bathed like lizards. Double spaced” – but the next line finds “In the light, a certain angle of extinction, / fulsome but unforgiving.” I know your work quite well, and you have that ability to capture beauty – but in the other hand to hold darkness. I wondered if you wanted to say something about those two forces being present in Schist?
KS: Very nice question. I like to try to capture all those elements, but I’m always conscious of the dark sides of things. And even at school, my teachers sometimes used to recommend things that were a bit strange and disturbing, because I’ve always been drawn to that. There’s a complete experience where you can try and hold everything – to be true to all aspects.
AH: In the dictionary, ‘schist’ signifies layered, metamorphic rock, whose “twist of minerals, caked and forged/ under an ocean of heat and torsion” is the backdrop for your poem. I wondered if there was a reason you felt drawn to this geological imagery, over and above the actual Lizard Peninsula location of the memory?
KS: I am really interested in geology. There was something about the landscape there that was really arresting and just stayed with me. And so I thought, well, why not explore that? I did a bit of research and then came across these geological terms, which are very beautiful in themselves. The language around the rock was so evocative – that kind of steered me towards playing with it. I think it made a path for other things to come to the fore in my mind. I didn’t set out to write about relationships, but as I was writing about being there with that landscape, the poem emerged in that way quite organically.
AH: One of the topics which your pamphlet explores is the experience of growing up in complex family circumstances. You write about some of the mental health challenges your parents faced. While as an adult, these are things that we can look at with compassion, as a child, it’s very different. When I read about the layered metamorphic rock and the twisting and the pressure and the compression, I thought about some of your other poems about children feeling squeezed and twisted by enormous epic, forces – like the earth’s plates – that they have no control over. Does that seem fair to you?
KS: Yeah, definitely. I think when the experiences are so deep and strong in your psyche, they emerge in that way. You don’t consciously say I’m going to choose this particular symbol, but you find yourself drawn to things. Sometimes, after I put it in the poem, I realized there was some kind of analogy for my own experience. I think it’s good not to be too conscious of that at the time.
AH: I think sometimes we need to look away to see. If you really absorb yourself in the material detail, when you have something very difficult to write about, actually not writing about it often, paradoxically, makes a space for the difficult thing to come into the writing. If you go at it straight on, you lose it. Whereas if you look studiously to one side, there’s always a potential for it to infuse your thought. What made me think about that particularly is Schist’s second poem, ‘Orthorexic Creed.’ It opens with an epigraph from the Catholic Nicene Creed, which it subverts, to address your own father – in the grip of an apparently remorseless eating disorder:
We believed it was right, Christ,
the only kind of love, eternally forgotten by the father, no word or song, night after night,
tuned out from tuning in,
forgotten, not savoured,
of being one with the illness. By him all food was weighed.
For us kids and for our staycation he came down from Croydon: by the power of the catamaran.
Eating disorders within families are deeply difficult to write about, but here, as very often your work, a dry wit, and emphatic sound-play – “right, Christ” – leaven the darkness, and help both writer, and reader, to regain a measure of creative agency. I wondered if you could comment on this as a strategy? Did the echoing Nicene Creed give you a way of making space to talk about something else?
KS: Yeah, I think it definitely did. I’ve taken the structure of the Nicene creed, and kept quite close to the form and the sounds. It was a very powerful structure, or container, for an experience that was very hard to talk about and to explore. I was having therapy at that point, talking about my father and my mother. I was ready to reconnect with that time in my life, a time when I felt very vulnerable. Writing the poem kind of dovetailed with that process. I woke up with a line for the poem in my head. It was the line “Eternally forgotten by the father”. This is part of the Catholic mass. If you grow up Catholic, it’s very ingrained in you, it becomes fundamental to your language.
AH: Although I am a Buddhist, I still have the Anglican psalms from my childhood. They are programmed like a rhythm into my body, so I know where the beats and the emphasis falls.
KS: It’s kind of a music isn’t it? When that line hit me, I felt, oh, this is something different. It has lot more to say, you know. It didn’t come to me all at once. I remember I was ill that day and I couldn’t attend my poetry course. I was able to instead to write most of the poem. The form seemed to hold what I was trying to say so well. It was exciting because I felt that something inside me needed to be said. It needed to come out – and this was my way of doing this. Having the vessel meant it could come out safely.
AH: You say really devastating things in the poem. “no word or song, night after night,/ tuned out from tuning in,/ forgotten, not savoured”. These are very painful things to admit in relationship to parents. Somehow, because they are within the music of the poem, it has a measure of resolution at the end. It’s like the humour keeps life in the poem? Even in very sad bits, because there’s this dry wit, and the sound-work, life is always present. Even as it’s looking at its own dark, places, life is also resisting them.
KS: I think that’s pretty important, for the reader obviously too. But mostly actually for your self. The work needs to find balance, just as a person does. If you’re going to let the weight of the darkness in, you need to counter it with light. The humour says I can take that forward in my own way. You know, there’s a kind of affirmation.
AH: We’ve both talked about bearing witness to things that people find very difficult to talk about. I feel one of my responsibilities is to keep the reader safe, if I’m showing them something very scary. I say this darkness exists in life – but I’m alive, and I’m telling you about it, in a way that also has beauty and agency. And it seems to me that is part of your process?
AH: The sea, but also the imagery of seaside towns, and funfairs, are threaded through Schist, making a first appearance in ‘How to Survive a Blackgang Chine.” The poem addresses a child “staggering/ round the black planks of the Crooked House.” Do you think it can be freeing for writers to create imagined landscapes, in which we site our younger selves?
KS: I’ve found it really useful to use space with my imagination, to plot out an area that somehow expresses your inner world, and maps itself onto the landscape.
AH: Like psychic 3D printing?
KS: Yes. It’s not just something inside you, that has to be hidden or withheld from the world. It’s actually this place that is real to you. I find that useful – to use places that I’ve been to as a mental landscape. It becomes something that your mind uses to plot the narrative of what you’ve experienced. You bring it into a physical space because emotions live in the body, and bringing that emotional experience into a physical form makes it comprehensible.
AH: Definitely. Like the sea, anger is recurrent energy throughout Schist, where it seems to function as a centreing force, which can return the speaker to herself when her identity is threatened. I’m thinking particularly of ‘Miss Etheridge’, which answers back down through the years to an unfair school teacher – guilty of playing favorites. It ends “I still think of you and your flags. The pig that got in.” Could you comment on some of the ways anger moves within your work?
KS: I think it’s something that I’ve been able to harness more recently, because in my family anger wasn’t something that was really accepted. But of course it’s a natural human emotion, and despite religious or cultural ideas, I think it has a strong energy and you can harness it in your poems. Learning how to do that is a real spur to get that material out. Those are the kinds of experiences – whether they’re anger-inducing or not, things that are very emotional – that can come from such a deep place and be very sustaining, in the sense that energy wants to find its way out. It’s a question of finding ways to allow it.
AH: I found it very difficult, for decades, to connect with my own anger. When I finally did, it seemed to me as if I was reaching out, and finding my own hand waiting for me. It was like – so that’s who I am. It was part of me. It had very deep roots that I’d really been cut off from –because it had been too dangerous. As you know, I was sexually abused by my mother, as a child, and my first focus was simply to try and stay alive. And once I did express my own anger, as an adult, it severed me from my family of origin. In real terms, it was a very dangerous force. For children who come from difficult backgrounds, it can be hard to own your own anger.
KS: Absolutely. Yeah. I think it sometimes it takes a long time for it to be able to come into your consciousness really. It’s a survival strategy. But if you cut it off, you’re cutting off part of yourself, so it feels first of all healing, actually, to connect with anger, and to say this is a part of my experience.This doesn’t mean that I’m a bad person. It doesn’t mean people are going to judge me. It’s just one of many human emotions. One that helps to guide you back to yourself and to say, well here are my boundaries. This is my identity and this is my experience. You know, it just helps you to take ownership of that.
AH: In my own case, it allowed me to define that what shouldn’t have happened, did happen. Your mother had periods of being really very unwell, and behaving in ways that were not maternal or nurturing. Because she was very unwell, they were not in her control either.
KS: Yeah, exactly. It wasn’t a question that she didn’t want to be a mother. She had two sides to her, where she could be very sweet and caring and nurturing, and then some of the time be a completely different person, sort of unrecognisable. I’ve lost boyfriends because I brought them home, and then I didn’t realise that she’d been in one of her psychotic states, and she would just go completely beserk, be really paranoid. It was hard to explain to people really. They didn’t understand that it wasn’t that she hated them. She was the same to me, you know. It wasn’t that she rejected me or my sisters, or that we’d done anything to provoke her, she just wasn’t well. I think there is a process of coming to terms with that. Part of you is angry – angry because it hurts, because it ‘shouldn’t be’. You come to understand that in the context of, somebody’s illness – as opposed to a negative intention towards you.
AH: Absolutely. One of Schist’s plainest, saddest – and most moving – poems, is simply titled ‘Her’. Structured within two only subtly different sections, its unstable boundaries suggests porous states of mind, reflecting and shifting points of view between a mother and a daughter. ‘Her’ begins:
You walk up the white corridor.
Smile at the nurse. Fix my hair.
I am trying not to look like you and not take offence at what everyone says.
This is what it means to hear hell.
They put me in one room, you in the other.
This time we hear the same sounds,
though they make a different message.
The pills help you realise that
voices have no bodies. You’re real mum,[…]
Could you say something about the doubling and mirroring structure you created, which refracts, and blurs, the poem’s two halves, and generations, into each other?
KS: I wanted to write about my mother for quite a while. When I wrote ‘Schist’ I wasn’t thinking of her but, but it made me think of her later – because of the etymological roots of schist, the idea of being split and doubled, and schizophrenic.
AH: This is one of the conditions that your mothered suffered from?
KS: Yes. Since I started writing seriously, I wanted to say something about her, but I stayed away from it for quite a long time, because it just felt like such a big thing to write about, and how was I going to approach it? And you know, when your mother is being unmotherly, it’s taboo to show that. How are people going to react? And there was always this repression of it within the family too, you know, my mother having schizophrenia and my father having an eating disorder. It felt very risky to actually start to talk about it, on the page. Very unknown territory.
AH: I can relate to that. Whenever I tell someone that I’m working on a collection about being sexually abused by my mother – half the time, it’s like I shot myself with an invisibility gun. Suddenly, I cease to exist.
KS: I don’t think they know how to react. It doesn’t fit with what’s safe to think about. We’ve created that figure in society of the ideal mother – or what we think all mothers should be. And, it’s very upsetting to people to pierce that really. You struggle with your own feelings about it. Am I doing her damage? Am I harming her and the family?But if we don’t acknowledge suffering, we can’t change it. I wrote this years after she died and I think that that did free me up. I had a lot of love and happy times too. I felt close to her and respected her. One way I kept myself safe was to try to live up to her expectations. But I also wanted enough space to be me, to be different. When someone’s ill, it helps to remember they are still present as a person, it’s just that they get obscured by the symptoms. As a society we’re beginning to not be so hesitant to voice that now.
AH: It’s also part of a larger project to de-stigmatise issues around mental health. For people with mental health challenges, certainly historically, it was much more difficult to manage them. I think the medication now is less impactful. ‘Ghost Train’, following immediately after ‘Her’, shows a younger sister hanging onto her elder sibling as they rush into a scary ride – which hurtles them headlong through the fears of their unstable childhood. The rhymes in the first stanza have a lock-down effect, predicting the inescapability of the lurching upsets which will follow:
Even before we clattered
into the blackness, I was
already there. Eyes shut
head buried in your hair. Ruffling and screeching like hens, our bellies cracked like eggs. My insides strained to escape, to get between us and them.
You use rhyme with considerable impact in your work. I wondered how consciously you reached for it, and whether you felt there could be a reassurance in the linguistic control which this provides when writing about difficult material, over and above to the sound-pleasures which it affords?
KS: I’ve always enjoyed rhyme and the oral qualities of the words. I enjoy making those sounds quite consciously, but I think in this poem it was more instinctive.
AH: Often poems for children rhyme?
KS: I think it’s putting yourself back in that place isn’t it, which can be difficult? But if you can put yourself back there physically, almost try and remember how you felt bodily, and then sometimes you instinctively reach for those structures – the rhyme and the more simple language. I think it did help me as well – to enter that territory. It’s not very enjoyable to go back there. It’s only human nature to want to avoid those feelings again. It definitely helped for me to feel okay, knowing I’m going to have a predictable structure here at least, in the beginning, to ease myself into this very uncomfortable space.And so the rhyme felt like a safe way to do it really. It enabled me to travel through unstable ground, which was more the experience I had as a child. In the poem, I’m able to find my way to that point where I could connect with the trauma of it really. It did take me a while to actually get this poem finished, because lots of it felt blurred in my head. That’s just part of going over that material, and parts of your brain trying to keep it locked away. And you can’t always quite see the full reality of what you experienced. The poem really helps to diffuse that kind of memory and allow you to reconstruct, to re-member parts you might have ‘resolved’ by forgetting.
AH: When I write things down, and I have to face them, I can find it devastating. But afterwards, once I’ve made a piece of work, it becomes a repository for that very difficult thing which it holds. Each poem is a box, and I can shut the lid and then open it again when I want to look inside. The work allows me not to forget, without requiring me to remember each day.
KS: Exactly. Yeah. It’s a kind of processing, isn’t it? You’ve really engaged with it – but transformed it at the same time.
AH: The three line poem, ‘In Search of the Pepperpot’, deploys a delicately wrenching compression of alliterations and assonances to bring to mind a medieval lighthouse lost in fog on the Isle of Wight, ending “Wrecked souls, pray for me.” Like ‘Schist’, and ‘Poseidon’s Trident’, it finds its forms of expression through English, and specifically South Coast maritime landscapes, and I wondered if you could say something about your imaginative and real relationships to them?
KS: Again, this poem is another real experience. I was lost in the fog on the hillside, looking for this medieval lighthouse. I had that feeling of being completely lost. I could not even see my hands. There was the irony of looking for this lighthouse and not being able to see it. And I just felt that it said something about my experience, you know, as a child but also as an adult, really and within this landscape of the collection.
AH: Which is also the landscape of where you live now near the South Coast, and you have family roots going back, it seems, a long time?
KS: We grew up in Croydon. We always used to holiday in the Isle of Wight. It was very familiar to us – almost like another member of the family. It’s been a canvas really for some of the things that have unfolded in our family. It has a real meaning to me over and above just being a place. I wanted to include that in the work.
AH: Like many poets, your work also directly addresses its own forms, and relationships to its materials. I’m thinking of ‘The Contortionist’, and ‘Schizophrenia Test (amended for poets)’ and ‘Drawing Lesson’, which includes the wonderful couplet “Imagine you’re a child/ wearing your eyes for the first time.” Is this process of reflection a particular interest for you? Would you like to say something about those poems?
KS: I think that reflection has always been important to me. You can gain a lot of insight into yourself and not only in your work, but you know, generally being reflective about your own mind.
AH: But this is also poetry thinking about how it is made, holding the mirror up to its own self?
KS: It’s always something that I want to reflect on – the process, and what it means to be a poet, and the process of making, and how that can sometimes be very uncomfortable and painful really. And there’s another poem written, called ‘L’Oeuf’, about a hen laying an egg very slowly. In that poem too, there was something I needed to incorporate – because the experience of writing was intense too. I knew I wanted to touch on these very personal, very painful things. I had to incorporate what that felt like, that feeling of trying to embody this experience into words. You know, it’s trying to make it come alive on the page and really be truthful, incorporating all aspects and, and doing that, doing that fully, you know, to feel that you’ve really gone as far as you can with it. As well as the trauma of talking about these difficult things, part of the process of writing is difficult too. It’s all very painful and risky, and even though my parents aren’t alive anymore, it’s still feels dangerous. They’re not here physically, but parts of them are inside of you, and you can still hear their voices and, and you can still get a sense of what they would think and what they say, and so it’s still a very, very present danger.
AH: Yeah, absolutely. I really recognise that from my own work. While there is deep sadness in Schist – and clear witness brought to the challenges for children of growing up with parents whose mental health is fragile – there are also repeated moments of sheer delight and radiance. I’m thinking of ‘Driving in Iceland’, which is laid out over two pages, so the stanzas ring an empty whiteness. It begins “It was like being born/As if a lamp had fallen on its side/ leaking light.” Would you like to say something about these poems – which often include the figure of your partner as a co-presence – and about the idea of healing, and creative self-regeneration, more generally?
KS: Despite difficulties in childhood, I was always a really happy child. I often remember thinking I’m really happy!. And I think there’s something about that joy that we need to celebrate really. And I think that helps to cope with the darkness too. There’s a real joy in being alive and to my mind, it’s also the joy of language itself and, just a feeling of those sensations – laying in a field with friends after an exam – pure freedom. And so those moments really were very important to me and I think that’s why they’ve come out in my work. Sometimes when you have intense traumatic experiences, I think you may also find an intensification of the joyful ones. There’s so much so much pleasure in just being.
AH: Yes, definitely. The penultimate poem, ‘Burning the years’, is addressed to a “you” which the footnote identifies as the “Protestant martyr & East Sussex ironmaster Richard Woodman, brother of my paternal ancestor, who was burned to death in Lewes.” You describe his torture, using “iron finery/ forged by your own hand”, and the poem ends
walk with me in the dark hours,
tell me what we don’t share, what we do.
Would you be able to say something about the sense of kinship here?
KS: My aunt did some family research about this figure, our ancestor, and uncovered his suffering. It was a terrible, terrible death. I now live quite close to where he lived and was burnt. I wanted to connect and to say something to him. As a historical person, he’s still very alive in the imagination. He came into my head, and I felt that there’s something very comforting about being able to speak to somebody else who has been through something really traumatic. He was persecuted for his religion. He was part of the family. I wanted to move beyond the confines of time and space to feel as though I could talk to him like people do, when they’ve lost someone.
AH: We were talking earlier about looking at something, or someone, else to see yourself.
KS: I think it makes it easier to digest, for both the writer and the reader, because you don’t really need to have it spelled out. It’s really hard to take if it’s too raw. Poetry especially has this compressive quality, this kind of indirect approach, where you’re able to take on these big subjects, you know, without frightening people away. It’s about communication and connection. Finding whatever way you can to empathize with the subject, with the reader, with yourself.
AH: The final poem ‘Calling Pluto’, returns in the present tense, to your father – using tangy, everyday language to remember the stories he would tell you over the phone when you called him, and “that last night in the hospital.” It is a poem of tenderness, which celebrates a mutuality of care between parent and adult child, and suggests that with their new-found equality comes the possibility of reframing past hurts, and conferring grace on both parties? Could you comment both on the process of creating Schist, and now of sharing your work with a wider readership?
KS: It’s been a difficult process, but it’s really changed the way I feel about the things that I’ve spoken about – in a very healing way. I’ve come to settle them somehow. It feels like I’ve really worked with them, you know, really engaged with them – with the things that were inside my head and, and wanting to be spoken. And so it feels different now. Somehow the pressure has been released from keeping it inside, that kind of burning feeling – that’s released. And that they might bring a touch of joy and insight to another mind, or change just one angle of vision… that’s all I hope for as a writer.
AH: That’s wonderful. Your poems are really extraordinary. I think they’re going to speak to many people, very deeply. Thank you Karen Smith.
To celebrate Midsummer, Karen Smith will be reading with Yvonne Reddick, Victoria Gatehouse, and Natalie Burdett at the Yorkshire Arboretum. More details here.
Karen Smith will be reading from Schist at Burley Fisher Books on 9 May 2019.
Above: Rebecca Tamás reading from WITCH at the London Launch, supported by Jane Yeh, A.K. Blakemore and Lucy Mercer. Photo Madeleine Rose Photography
I first met Rebecca Tamás on the page. Specifically, in her pamphlet SAVAGE, published by clinic. In ‘BDSM,’ I found “telling is a careful/ dance of pleasures.” And the room reconfigured itself around me. I knew, as Rebecca herself says of Anne Carson, that I would thereafter always read anything she wrote. We first met face to face at a Saturday workshop Rebecca was running at the Poetry School in London. Her exercises facilitated acts of self-divination, and opened us to the world, in all its naked vulnerability. Reading WITCH’s cunt-positive, historically-enraged spell and hex poems, I realised this ‘opening’ was also part of Rebecca’s own creative and political process. Born in London, she currently lives in York, where she lectures at York St John University. On the day of the interview, I left London in heavy rain, with Brexit grindingly updating itself on my phone. But as my train bumped its way northwards, the weather, and my spirits, began to lift. Finally, I pulled into York under a clear blue sky. Our meeting later that same evening, in a North African restaurant on one of York’s narrow medieval passageways, extended my sense of hopefulness.
AH: I’d like to begin by asking when and why you first engaged with poetry, Rebecca Tamás? Was it always your intention to re-form language into more egalitarian, and potential states?
RT: Somehow I ended up getting my hands on ‘High Windows’ by Philip Larkin. Even though he is a poet I’m pretty allergic to now, it was the first time I had interacted with a contemporary poem, and realised what it could do. It absolutely blew me away. I was 12 or 13. From then poetry was integrated into my life, and I wanted to know more about what it could do. I loved the fact that you didn’t need a story, a plot, a stage – you could just make something happen for the reader out of nowhere!
AH: Who were the first writers who really resonated with you – who you felt brought alive by?
RT: It was a mixture of older poets like John Clare, and Gerald Manley Hopkins – that combination of the bodily, sensual and the philosophical I get excited about to this day. Also Wallace Stevens. Even though my mum is not a big poetry reader, she enjoyed Wallace Stevens, and that was a huge opening for me. Stevens is the poet that I have continued to think about. I still draw from him now. For all his troubling nature, I keep going back to his spectacular, philosophical, rangy poems. To make thought that electric, that bursting with teeming life, is an aim for me. The next real poet for me was Anne Carson. Once I read her work – I started to understand what might really be possible for the form. Every time I read an Anne Carson poem, I’m reminded that there are no boundaries. Poetry can be anything, and contain everything.
AH: When you find that writer, it is nourishment going down to the roots you never knew you had.
RT: Totally – I read anything Anne Carson writes. It’s always a deep connection that she creates with her readers, a really potent magic –
AH: Having had the privilege of reading a proof copy of WITCH ahead of time, some of the many things I have come to love are its capacities for sensuality – and wit. They offer delight for the reader, but they also make the darkness which your work addresses the more desolating. ‘/penis hex/’, the first poem, begins:
the hex for a penis isn’t really all about
the penis is not an issue all fine doing its own thing
ink blot semen sweet white plaster
pale peach tartlet
but when it goes you see you see a lot of things
to hex a penis off means taking a laugh out for a walk
long and blue
cold as Russia laughing and laughing your mouth is open let your girlfriend see your tongue
to hex a penis off wrap yourself up
in a warm bed and no one is there intellectual persuasion hand in the unowned air peeling strips of dull bleached sky
The opening stanza swoops pleasurably to and fro – until we hit the ski jump between the doubled “you see” in the final line. In that gap, we drop down into a wilder, stranger, more dangerous world – “long and blue/ cold as Russia.” It was there all the time, waiting for us beneath the bourgeois “pale peach tartlet.” This double perspective seems to be fundamental to WITCH, and I wondered if you would say something about it?
RT: It’s funny that you mention that. It’s something that I have been talking about with Ariana Reines. I am interviewing for The White Review, and we’ve been discussing her new collection – A Sand Book – and the way it thinks about the possibilities that poetry offers for digging underneath the surface or ‘normal’ reality. Poetry allows us to connect with the possibility of freshness and agency, that is still there underneath all the societal capitalist constructs – the constructs of oppression. There is the possibility that we don’t have to be defined or controlled – that we can make things new – that we don’t have to label ourselves. I think ‘/penis hex/’ is interacting with that – chipping under the surface of gender. It’s not even about valorizing the female. It’s about removing the carapace of the gender entirely and getting down into the mulch where new things grow. Poetic language, interacting with imagery, can create a momentary clash and you see the possibility new shapes of being.
AH: You are taking a feminist doorway through to a space where gender is no longer a defining factor.
RT: Absolutely, it’s not about losing everything we are as a woman, or rejecting it – but being amorphous, open.
AH: When our brains try things out in poetry, we can extend them into real life. The brain forms expectations – but it can also un-form expectations.
RT: Something that is important to me is the possibility of thought spaces existing outside of rationality. The poem is a good space to do that.
AH: Can we talk about the starting point of WITCH? Your recent essay ‘Songs of Hecate”, published in White Review 24, reveals that you wrote your first spell/poem after visiting the Witches and Wicked Bodies exhibition at the British Museum in 2014. The show explored witches and witchcraft from the Renaissance to the end of the nineteenth century, through paintings, drawings, etchings and art works involving familiars, rituals, uninhibited, multi-valent sexualities – and images of younger and much older women’s bodies. The essay presents the experience as transformative for you. I wondered if you could say something about allowing yourself to sink into that messy, exposing, sexualised ‘degenerate’ WITCH space – and finding within it a deep energy source? It seems that feminism was one gateway, as well as questioning the patriarchy and capitalism, but the figure of the witch was another?
RT: Everyone has a different relationship to Witchcraft. For some people, it is part of their actual ancestral historical practice, and daily lived practice. For me, the witch was something new to explore. What I found exciting about the exhibition was that it is very tiring to think about feminist thought if you only live among your contemporaries. In the past women, had so little space to occupy, and we find it so hard to access that – but witchcraft allowed me to. To connect with the angry part of myself was also important in writing this book. You have to experience fury to break down the rigidity of what has held women down for so long. To see that represented in images of women, not usually constructed to be pleasing to men, and to connect with it, was really potent. It was a joy to see lots of nasty, scary women.
AH: If you’re thinking about female agency, the witch offers a world of possibility.
RT: Looking at the images of naked women of all ages performing rituals in Witches and Wicked Bodies was like looking at a refracted history of what has always been there – a female power that overflows. It’s a kind of female power which isn’t obedient, isn’t tidy, isn’t well behaved, isn’t nice necessarily. To see those images was so unbelievingly nourishing even though they were often intended to be negative. The images were of women working their will on the world.
AH: Younger women are not given much space by society to be angry. They are supposed to be ‘nice.’
RT : These witches are angry but also funny and cheeky and sexy and normal. It’s not always this pure righteous anger that dignifies them. They can become messy in their anger and flawed in their anger. Not nice.
AH: And witches can be post-menopausal. From my own experience, I can say that being post-menopausal is a very liberating space for women – because your whole physiology alters. You respond differently to society, and society responds differently to you.
RT: Totally. Often there would be pictures in the exhibition of a mixture of very, very old, post-menopausal women mixing with younger, ‘sexier’ women, intending to offer a kind of titillation in the contrast. But actually to see that kind of community, to see that kind of shared relationship, where solidarity is depicted, was powerful and fruitful for me. These were female spaces – almost without men. Occasionally there were horned devil figures. There weren’t straightforward situations where men were controlling the scene or defining what it might mean. It’s a witch’s Sabbath. It’s women plotting together, with love. I enjoy playing on the edge of misandry if that’s what’s necessary. I am happy to make people feel nervous and afraid.
AH: Historically woman have spent a lot of time been made to feel afraid. Don’t go out after dark!
RT: For the woman to be the scary one, hits you on a deep psychic level – that’s almost hard to put into words. Equally, to think that when a man hurts you or your sisters, that you might be able to hit back – to even imagine that – has power, whether you believe in witchcraft or not.
AH: This goes back to what we were talking about of entering a space of ‘being differently.’ And at a universal level, this thinking is simply responding, intellectually and emotionally to our whole life experience. Your essay defines your own witch-practice as operating through language, and specifically how “it might turn our fury, and our knowledge and our desire, out into the teeming world through the mouth of a poem.” Could you say something more about that?
RT: One of the things that was exciting about writing WITCH, was that I could access specific historic hexes and spells. Being able to borrow that power was really exciting because it encourages a newly potent way of thinking about language. Witches are not liked, they don’t insinuate themselves. Witches don’t fit into female ‘nicey nicey’ paradigms. It gives you a certain confidence and space to experiment with pushing the boundaries in the material world, in a way we often feel a bit shy to do in poetry. Sometimes we don’t want to be pretentious – or over-egg what we do it in writing. But being able to consider the power of change is important. It allowed me to access different types of writing, and be true to what I really wanted to talk about. That aspect of witchcraft was really helpful in bringing my WITCH project about. The world of witchcraft made the collection possible.
AH: The preoccupation of the poems is to express their intentions. The realisation of intention becomes their criteria. I have this sense of great freshness about your writing. How you set about it, is part of why that freshness has come into being.
RT: What is useful about creating a world through witchcraft, is how impersonal it is. In some senses, WITCH is the most personal thing I have ever written. I am very, very deeply implicated in the poems. But they are not autobiographical. I could move into this space and I could talk about everything I wanted to talk I could feel it with my entire self.Part of what women feel fragile about, is being confident that our personal experiences are relevant and important and worthy of serious literature. To be able to put all the questions aside and just work in a space completely outside of my own life, was unbelievably freeing. You don’t have to worry about reviews mulling on whether the poems are about ex-boyfriends, when they’re about the suffragettes and the witch trials. That was great for me – because it allows me to be more creatively open.
AH: Do you have other witch-poets with whom you feel yourself to be acting in concert in this mission? I know Sophie Collins cited you in Small White Monkeys, and that Rachael Allen also lives in York, where you are now teaching.
RT: Yes and no. There are a lot of writers around I am lucky to know, whose work supports my own through its originality and dynamism. With Sophie and Rachael, they are friends – but their books are creating paradigms in thinking about female and feminist experiences in very different ways. One of the poets that I relate to with this book is the American Dorothea Lasky. She about the occult, astrology. In brilliantly fresh, new ways. Another is Ariana Reines, whose book ‘Mercury’ explores, alchemy and the spirits. And CA Conrad, Bhanu Kapil. There are a lot of incredible writers who are making that new space for the un-rational.
AH: When I think of you, Sophie Collins, and Rachael Allen, I see you as lines starting close together, but going out in radically different directions on the map. Knowing you are supporting each others’ projects empowers you to go miles and miles in your individual directions.
RT: I feel so privileged to be writing at the same time as these amazing writers , not just in the world but here in the UK – also Lucy Mercer, Will Harris, Wayne-Holloway Smith, Amy Key, Rebecca Perry, Rachel Long, Jane Yeh, AK Blakemore, Daisy Lafarge, Helen Charman – phenomenal writers. You can just go on and on naming, it’s an unbelievably rich time for the form. And to be a small part of that, makes my work possible. If I felt I was off in my own little cave or tower, I don’t think I would have the creative courage to do what I do. The fact that they are doing work that excites me and ignites my imagination so much, makes it feel possible.
AH: It’s being supported in a project of change where everybody is enacting variously and individually – but with a shared goal of re-creating and expanding the landscape. While many of your poems refer to contemporary life, they operate within the historical framework of the persecution of witches. Did you research this in detail within your PhD, which I believe was the forming ground of the project?
RT: I actually did research it, but quite separately. I wrote the poems for WITCH as part of my PhD, but my critical project was about ecological thinking in poetry. I was thinking about Adorno, who was my big theory love and Wallace Stevens, and the ecological possibility in his work. The possibility of writing difference was the connection. I did quite a lot of historical research into the witch trials. There is a great book called Witchcraze, edited by Ann Barstow, which is about the European witch hunts, and not specific to UK. I did feel a responsibility to have a sense of what actually happened. The other really central text was Silvia Federici’s Caliban and the Witch. She suggests the witch trials were a way of capitalism suppressing women’s agency as it tried to make society accept the fact that women’s work would not be waged labor, and that they should stay in the home as their natural destiny. For her, the witch trials were part of this reign of terror – to make women fall into line. Certainly for me, reading the book joined a lot of dots in relationship with the historical legality of witchcraft and witch trials. This is not the same as the witch as the occult and folkloric kind of symbol, but it is still a great big part of my book. The witch trials were run by men, certainly in Europe, and were an assault on women. So, understanding the explosion of female murder – hundreds of thousands of women were killed – helped me understand the deep societal forces behind the trials. I felt very lucky to be able to use this text. And my research was beautiful and important in itself – into witchcraft , paganism and occult practices – a lot went into it.
AH: Your poem ‘WITCH SCOLD’ combines past and present, making the literal metal bridle forced onto purported witches a figure for wider female silencing, and the principle of enforced inequality within society which capitalism would also later exploit. It begins:
she looked at the hard bridle
saw it running with its own capture
witch attempted to be separate from her own body
witch attempted to unwoman
witch was not a wife but they could hear her going on
and on and on and wow and on
he held her arms and she kicked and someone else did
it went over her head the metal bar over her tongue
cages latches she stopped struggling she could not get away
so she made her eyes black holes dragging gravity
the tongue’s flesh was spongy and wet it was raining
so in the marketplace of course she waited one arm
tied to a post and all of that metal on her head her brain
people did their early capitalist accumulation
people said things and there was no saying back
from far away witch could see a ship moving
it was taking voices in soot boxes
Would you be able to say something more about this in the context of what you were telling me about the witch trials?
RT: I am happy that you mentioned this poem. It is not necessarily the one that draws most attention to itself, but it meant a lot to me. When I first saw a picture of a scold’s bridle – something put in the mouth of a ‘scolding’ woman, someone who talks too much – the feeling that it gave me was horror but also shame. The shame of being part of a group who had been treated like animals, not even like animals, worse than animals.There was a societal titillation in female pain. I found it really hard to look – but I did not want to push that response down. The metal bridle shouldn’t cause shame – it should cause anger. I can’t undo what was done to women, but to be able to explain that in language and refigure it with agency, was very important. It was also an important part of me being able to write, because it was material evidence. Most of WITCH is about is that silent gap. We know woman have been treated cruelly for thousands of years and when you see these material pieces, they give you a small way into that continent of pain. To be able to bring it into the light was part of what I was trying to do.
AH: It seems to me, you had to try and imagine yourself back into the space of what it was like to feel that metal in your mouth, to become the body that was being silenced in that way.
RT: Absolutely, and yet at the same time, the way she responds is with extreme distaste and a kind of calm, partly because she is a witch. She really is. I was fearful of creating a poem that was titillating, or larger than life or violent. I was just keeping it calm and low key, allowing her to reflect in an intellectual way on what was happening to her, even though she was upset. At the same time, I felt I needed to return the perspective to the female body in that moment, to be able to imaginatively get into it, and reclaim it.
AH: When I write about sexual abuse from my own experience in childhood, one of my primary criteria is never to write anything that would arouse a paedophile. I always take out any details that might do that, because I am not going to replicate in my created world the crime to which it responds. In a sense you have avoided replicating the impact on the victim –
RT: I wanted to avoid anyone deriving pleasure from female pain. I remember talking to Denise Riley when she was my supervisor. There were moments where she encouraged me to tone the poems down – because they could become exactly that, something imaginatively titillating She never wanted WITCH to become a spectacle of female pain –
AH: Of all the many extraordinary and powerful poems in this collection, one of the most moving for me is ‘WITCH EUROPE.’ At just over 7 pages long, it takes as its framework an instructive conversation between “the witch” and “the petrol station boy” who, unlike pretty much everyone else, is “too small to hunt the witch”, and therefore suitable for sharing “coconut pecan muffins” with. The poem moves through European history with slow-burn irony – “military parades/ where the hats distract you/ to a certain extent from the killing element.” It covers the wrongful accusations levied against witches, and the processes of interrogation to which they have been subjected. A key segment makes a common cause of all the ‘othered’ dead, who have through the centuries been denied rights and voices by dominant groupings, for reasons of political gain, and social control – within Europe and beyond:
the witch tells the boy
that she used to dream about a hill
covered in lumps of earth
the lumps stuck up and so you couldn’t walk
properly over the hill or sit or look at the view
under each of the lumps someone was buried
and the earth wasn’t thick at all over the dead people
so the witch got on her knees and pulled some of
the corpses up to the surface which were at different
stages of putrefaction
because she really wanted to see their faces
and to remember as much as she could about their hair colour
their bone structure or clothes
or to fish out personal artefacts from their graves
and work out their names
but the hill didn’t end and every time she pulled out a body
more stretched out in front of her
so that even those she had looked at were starting to blur together
in her mind
the witch decided that the only thing to do was to eat
some dirt from every grave so that even if she couldn’t remember
who was who then at least some of their bacteria might get inside her
and so she went along and stuffed handfuls of soil into her mouth
without stopping on and on even though she felt sick and knew that she’d never
get to everyone before night came and made it impossible
Would you be able to say something about this poem, and your own sense of connection to European history? It seems to be a poem that engages beyond the witch genocides to waves of genocide in Europe. It was incredibly resonant for me.
RT: This was actually the first poem I wrote in the whole collection. It was the first poem I wrote about historic pain. I was constantly thinking about the European destruction of witches as a kind of historical poison that seeps into the present. The personal resonances are also there. I come from a Hungarian family on my Dad’s side, and they have been through the ups and downs of the European history. When my grandmother was born, she lived in Hungary and then it actually became Romania. She became part of the Hungarian minority in Transylvania. All the rest of her family were lost in the Holocaust. The only reason that my grandmother survived was because she was in prison for being a communist. In the Sixties, in Romania, my father became an anti-communist dissident, which she fully supported. He was eventually exiled from Romania. I don’t talk much about it because I didn’t go through that myself. But knowing my history, and speaking to my family about it, certainly informed my understanding. When you hear stories about your grandmother going back to the house where her family used to live, and seeing people who have taken over from her dead family finding a few of the things that had their names, like photograph frames, and sheets, and giving them to her, it impacts you. I do link those histories to the witch trials, obliquely – societies and systems so often use violence for their own gain, and it degrades all of us.
AH: Both my family of origin, and the family of my first husband, Falcon Stuart, lost members to the Holocaust. His father was the sculptor, Oscar Nemon. Nemon lost his mother, brother and grandmother, and almost all his other relatives. Like you, someone who was part of my daily life, had relatives who had been murdered. I am always aware that those people who sit in countries feeling safe and untouchable, are deceiving themselves. We need to tell them Because it hasn’t happened to you doesn’t mean it can’t happen.It is here and it is waiting. Only by attempting to safeguard everyone’s rights, can we safeguard our own. And it seems that ‘WITCH EUROPE’ is a ‘guarding against’ poem. It is a poem saying that we all live with this communal grief. We have to use it to think with empathy, about how it must be for all those people facing these threats now, when they seek their own safety, and that of their families.
RT: The final thing I have to say about ‘WITCH EUROPE’ is that as well as confronting some specific parts of European history, is that it’s a form of poetic grief for the millions of women who have been killed because of misogynistic violence. The witch hunts are an example – but it’s not even the tip of the iceberg. Numerically, globally, one of the biggest massacres throughout history is men’s violence against women – on an incomprehensible scale. There is no memorial or place we can go to mourn it. There is no particular type of knowledge we can draw on. It’s too mammoth. That hugeness, and the possibility of containing that hugeness, is what the witch is trying to do, climbing over the hill of bodies. She is trying to find a way to bring that kind of huge silencing into reality and make it visible. But she can’t do that. None of us can. I certainly can’t bring all that to the surface – but I can point to it.
AH: The poem spoke deeply to me. It’s a great achievement. In addition to the two hexes, WITCH also harbours twenty-one spell poems. Their operational mode seems to be that of momentarily cracking open normal categorisations and perceptions – to let the reader see differently. I’m thinking of ‘spell for friendship,’ which includes the lines “when everything pulls back from its sheath of flesh/and the staggering weirdness flows and pulses like/ a lash.” Could you say something about this, and also about the shimmer of queerness, and same-sex closeness, that illuminates WITCH?
RT: Those poems are an area in which to play with a spell – and cause transformation in the world. ‘spell for friendship’ is a moment of pure beautiful weirdness. A lot of the spell poems don’t come from a specific source. There’s no kind of obvious life event or text that I can reference. But that one does come from a real relationship with my friend, Rosie Dunett. I remember us having a conversation about the world coming to an end via climate destruction, or something more supernatural and occult, whatever it might be; and we organised a place to meet if that did come about, to help each other through it! That poem is about friendship and the deep bonds, especially with female friends, that we form. The dream is that for the reader, spells can give that experience of breaking free from the rational, and going into unexpected imaginative spaces.
AH: It really works. There are channels of understanding that link us, as female-identified beings, that are political and as much as they are physiological. There’s a kind of a space of comprehension without the need for explanation.
RT: If we are thinking of things in the occult sphere, the non-national and anti-rational, it’s with woman that we have historically been able to share these things. Up to this day, it is with women that I can really dive into hexing, into astrology, into tarot. They are open to it. They are not scared of it. They give it dignity and respect. The witch doesn’t really believe in gender. She doesn’t believe in straightforward heterosexuality in any way. I have absolutely no time for thinking that you must be one gender all the time. It’s a multi gender being, not one not the other. Witch is male. Witch is female. I find joy in the spaces around the rigidity of gender and their resulting poetry. I find joy in the people that I know and the way that they challenge those kind of binaries, and help inspire the work.
AH: I did a great workshop with you and Nina Mingya Powles and Anita Pati last year. You used tarot cards. They were really about creating ways we could be, and think, and respond, more freely. They were an opening.
RT: Opening is always good. Putting things into boxes is usually not so good – it’s true for life and for poetry
AH: Along with dancing, eating, experiencing beauty, resisting, and other ways of hexing and spelling, WITCH is committed to acts of witness. ‘WITCH TRIALS’ ends “even if it took every piece of eye meat/ she would develop night vision/ for this long night.” I know you co-edited Spells 21st century occult poetry with Sarah Shin, which contains many poems of witness. Are the two projects linked in your mind?
RT: Yes they are linked. WITCH was written before Spells – but editor Sarah Shin had an interest in the occult too and that’s how we found each other. She is someone with a real understanding of art and poetry, but also a very sophisticated political knowledge. Her starting point was the political relationships in the occult. We agreed that the occult in all its different forms was absolutely connected to witness, and to drawing attention to life experiences, which are not always given the space. Often people who have not had the space to express themselves use the occult as a medium, and that deepened my belief that the occult is a really interesting tool to think with. Some of the people in Spells were occult practitioners. For others, it was purely an imaginative space.
AH: WITCH also works to redefine the sacred outside of a religious context. In ‘Songs of Hecate’ you write “the sacred, for me, is the strange holiness of being alive in a world of living things.” ‘spell for midsummer’s day’ begins “burn the fire and jump // dear heart// under all this is a centre of human jam/ red and pulsing” and ends “this earth is so // remarkable.” Could you say something more about sacredness within your work?
RT: Sacredness is a big element of this collection, which is quite hard to talk about. I want there to be a kind of seriousness that religion brings to sacred, but without religion. I think the material world itself contains sacred power. That’s what the poem is saying. The fact that we are alive is momentous and surprising. We don’t know everything and we have absolutely no idea what’s under the surface. I think there are things going on which we can’t just sum up in a spreadsheet and that’s probably the best way I can describe that in non-poetic language. Apart from to say that I am very interested in female mystics. They have been very influential in this project – people like Hildegard of Bingen. They have a very esoteric thinking about spirituality, that is revelatory, strange, lacking in rigidity.
AH: But those mystics, seen in another light, might have been hanged as witches – without the protection of the church.
RT: A lot of them had a lot of trouble. Margery Kempe was constantly getting into difficulties. She was called a heretic by some, drove everyone up the wall with her constant amazing weeping. So yes, they were absolutely on the edge of what they could get away with. That’s what I find exciting about them.
AH: WITCH closes with ‘\cunt hex\’ – another poem which marries beauty and ugliness, and enacts its anger as a restitutionary force, to bring about change and healing. In a collection replete with extraordinarily fresh images, this poem has some of the most fully embodied, and arresting. It begins:
all the attention & cold love
waiting at the finland station for the trains to rush in
this cunt is a commie red until the very end
this cunt is a commie with its heat set onto surplus value
be as afraid as you can be afraid
be afraid until you tremble the cunt wavering through concrete
so hardly and so softly
Could you say something about the creative process of endowing “the cunt” with so much power, without forfeiting its inherent vulnerability?
RT: You have definitely picked up on what I was trying to achieve. Yes, it is an angry poem. It’s about the profound need for a shift in systems. It did come from anger – seeing how men treated the woman in my life. In that sense it was quite specific. I wanted to create a spell that would undo their damage, undo them everywhere and in every way. At the same time, I didn’t want to refigure the cunt, or the images of female power, so far that it lost its identity. I always think, I don’t particularly care about women losing their ‘vocal fry’ or becoming CEO’s, or ‘breaking balls’ or being ‘tough’ or really taking on any of those clichés of maleness – rather I want men to become more like us. It would be fantastic if everyone on earth was crying all the time, and allowing their own emotions out, and being free and messy; if all the cliché attributes thrown at women were valorised and respected and enjoyed. These are not bad things. I wanted the idea that the cunt was terrifying for those being hexed – very strong and very potent – but that at no point did I want it it let go of its vulnerable, emotional commitment to love and feeling. I wanted it to be able to hold those things dear, at the same time as saying You better get on board because this is where we are going, so get on the train or you will be crushed. Women’s chosen versions of reality will become the new reality. And whether that is true or not, we don’t know – but in the poem I wanted it to be true. I wanted to think about the possibility of a revolution based on female principles.
AH: Your acknowledgements give thanks both to your “beloved Mum”, and to “Denise Riley, without whom this book would not exist.” As women, we are formed by our foremothers, but we also offer the future, and future generations, the products of our minds, as well as our bodies. Would you be able to say something briefly about how you hope WITCH may speak to readers, now and in the years to come?
RT: I want everyone to read and enjoy it – if they want to. I feel a little jealous of men having the epic poem as a form sometimes. As a human I don’t have that swaggering confidence, but if the book could steal a bit of that confidence, and refigure it into a female context, it might give other women the confidence to do something weird and offbeat themselves. That would be an amazing result. In general, whatever people get out of it I’m very happy with. I want it to be it’s own animal, making its own life out there without me.
AH: My own experience of reading WITCH was one of intellectual excitement and pleasure, sparking lots of senses of possibility. It’s a book that I cherish because it’s sensual, because it’s funny, as well as being hard-hitting – and it speaks to me at so many levels.
RT: Thank you. To go back to what you were saying about the elements of ‘womanhood’ – they are often degraded, but I revel in them all the same. I feel very happy to be full of emotions and to be weird, and to be sexual and strange and out there. To me there is joy in that, so the joy in the book is real, there is real pleasure in there, and real kind of excitement.
AH: Thank you very much, Rebecca Tamás.
Rebecca is the editor, with Sarah Shin, of the anthology Spells: Occult Poetry for the 21st Century (Ignota Press, 2018). She has published three pamphlets of poetry: The Ophelia Letters (Salt, 2013), Savage (Clinic, 2017) and Tiger (Bad Betty Press, 2018). WITCH is her first full-length collection.
You can buy a copy of WITCH from Penned in the
Winter was turning to spring when I met Belinda Zhawi in a pub not far from the Cutty Sark and the Greenwich Meridian line. For someone who came to London as an “immigrant child” aged 12, and whose work responds to the impact of colonialism on Southern Africa, Zimbabwe, and the wider African and Black diaspora, it was a fitting place to talk. Frank about the moral stain of racism, and the barriers that ‘white’ society can put in the way of articulating your identity as a person, and woman, of colour in contemporary Britain, Belinda shared with me her process of claiming and making her own unique voice, as a poet and performer. We explored why the poems in her pamphlet small inheritances came into being, how she faces down her own insecurities and why, as women, we cannot be afraid of confronting our own fears and sadness if we want to heal. A former London Laureate, and ICA Associate Poet, who has run BORN::FREE for five years, Belinda celebrated the energy she finds in the London jazz and beat scenes. She also spoke of what it means to work out of the Thamesmead Estate in South East London, as a creator, and community activist. Paying tribute to other Black voices which feed into her work, and give her the determination to keep going when times are hard, Belinda described the lineages and blood lines which are integral to her work. Found in her Shona and Southern African heritages, and the works of other Black writers, these are key to her creative agency in music, performance and on the printed page. We sat outside as the light faded, and sensation slowly vanished from our feet, talking and sharing our experiences for the best part of three hours – and I left feeling both strengthened, and inspired, by a woman who speaks with extraordinary power, and reach.
AH:Can you tell me about how and when you got started as a writer, Belinda?
BZ:I was reading from a very young age, because Mum was a primary school teacher. I always knew deep down I wanted to write books. At boarding school in Zimbabwe, I was reading everything. When I came to England, aged 12, the love of reading was there. Because my mother was so stressed about young people in this country, the first thing she showed us was the library in Woolwich. Woolwich Library became my sanctuary. I remember reading pretty much everything in that children’s part of the library and then noticing the Black and Asian and gay interest section. I mean – what were they doing together? But it was a revelation. At 14 I decided that I was only going to read Black books. That was when I realised that I really wanted to write – because I was reading characters that looked like me. Even if I couldn’t always deeply relate, because some of them were American. I thought I could tell my own story, and represent myself. I could write about people who looked like me, my friends. So, I used to write these little stories for my friends. When I was about 15 or 16 I became really interested in poetry because for GCSE we got this anthology with all the poems for the exams.
AH: I still have mine.
BZ: We started with Seamus Heaney. I just couldn’t believe his language. There was a section of poems from other cultures. I read the John Agard poem ‘Half-caste.’ At the same time, I was watching Def Poetry Jam videos on YouTube as YouTube was a new thing at the time. I bypassed a lot of things that a lot of people thought was important to read just because I wanted to read James Baldwin, I wanted to read Toni Morrison.
AH: Their work is essential, world-class writing.
BZ: Exactly so. On Wednesdays we had to bring a book we were reading. My teacher, Miss Bruce, she was just about done with me saying ‘This is about racism in the 60’s.’ She was supportive but she was also like, ‘Come on child. You should read other things.’ She was a great teacher – one of my favourite teachers – but for me it was realising that these Black voices were representing a centrality I hadn’t really seen since I left Zimbabwe. I had that desire to read and write things that other people that looked like me could relate to, or feel connected to. It has snowballed into other things since then – but I started writing fundamentally because I felt represented when I read Black writers, and then I felt that it was my duty as well to contribute to that.
AH: You wanted to keep the conversation going? Be the next generation of those voices?
BZ: Yeah, yeah.
AH: Were there other creative role models and teachers?
BZ:Next there was Polar Bear. Steve Camden he goes by now. He writes young adult novels. He was a spoken word artist for many years. He started off as a rapper from Birmingham but he was central to the spoken word scene in London throughout the 2000’s. Everybody loved Polar Bear. He was a fantastic teacher at the Roundhouse Poetry Collective. We used to have weekly workshops on a Sunday afternoon. There was just a room of other young people and Polar Bear. It was unlike other workshops I have been in since. Polar gave us themes and topics and we would have long discussions. The first hour was just chatting. Polar is quite young at heart so he got us. We got him. We were just honest. Some of my favourite poets are people from that group – Deanna Rodger, Dean Atta and Bridget Minamore. We were in this room, knowing stuff about each other that we would never tell anyone. One of the most important things Polar said to me was ‘Write for your voice.’ I was like, ‘What is he talking about?’ Now I’m writing for my voice and a lot of that is rooted in music. After I had Jacob Sam-La Rose who just taught me loads about craft, loads, but also loads about life as a poet, sustaining yourself financially, sustaining yourself emotionally, spiritually. He treated me with a gentleness and a kindness that was rooted in his understanding of the work I was writing and the things I was giving him. He was my one-on-one mentor for a while. I ended up doing Barbican Young Poets and then I when I did the MA at Goldsmiths he was a course leader on the Spoken Word Educators program. I had Moira Dooley as my dissertation tutor. She gave me a lot of confidence and made me feel calm when I really felt that my writing was a fluke and I had been pretending all of this time. She grounded me. She made me read stuff out loud that I had sent her. I remember reading one poem. Afterwards, a storm broke outside. She said – ‘See what you did.’ And I was just like, ‘Me?’ She recommended a lot of reading that I don’t think I would have really looked at for myself.
AH: These poets were your stepping stones?
AH: Since then you have been involved in Octavia as well?
BZ:Octavia is a community. Rachel Long leads but it’s more of a sharing and learning space on a mutual level. It’s more like a space of safety.
AH: It’s valuable to have a process of mentorship as a poet – but then you have to take the trainer wheels off. Otherwise you are looking to a mentor for validation. It’s scary to make that transition.
BZ:Jacob Sam-La Rose never really over-complimented me, but one time he invited me to his book launch in Lewisham Library. And I got there and he introduced me to somebody that he knew, he was like ‘This is Belinda, an amazing young poet.’ I was like, wait, what?! You never wrote that of my poems.’ He would be like ‘I read a lot of good poems and this is a good poem. But I want to read a great poem from you.’ It was about me finding myself. Sometimes he said things to me, that I didn’t get at the time.
AH:People used to tell me about my voice. It took me years to understand. I couldn’t see it and didn’t know what it was. But I realised it is rooted in my spoken words. And the rhythms of my body as well.
BZ: Yeah. That was what Polar was teaching me, which Jacob solidified in a different way later. Which is that your voice on the page, is your voice as a speaker, and your voice in your everyday regular life.
AH:The first time I heard you read, there was both a looseness, and tightness in your voice – a kind of freedom and control. It’s very beautiful what you achieve. It’s like you learnt to walk a tightrope, without noticing that you are doing it.
BZ:Jacob taught me to make my own forms and to trust my own intuition. I want to speak the way I speak with my friends in small inheritances, but I also want to speak as a scholar of poetry, a scholar of Black writing, specifically because that is what I have been for so long.
AH:Can I ask you about when you were the London Laureate and then the ICA Associate Poet?
BZ:The London Laureate was the name they gave to the short-listees of the Young People’s Laureate. It was a great experience for me. I wanted to apply twice before but I didn’t – because I was terrified of not being picked. Man, the things that insecurity can do to you right? I wanted the things that come with this award, leading up to when you find out who gets the to be the Laureate. There were retreats and workshops – things that I knew existed, but nobody was teaching me how to get access to them properly. The ICA thing came at a time where my confidence was lowwww. I’d finished my MA at Goldsmiths. I had started a job as a book seller. I remember checking my emails on the way from that job and I had an email from the ICA saying they would like to interview me. Kayo Chingonyi had done it before. I got really excited because it was affirmation. Within a few days the ICA were saying ‘We would like to have you on board.’ That was a responsibility I wanted – the element of freedom. The end of that residency was amazing because I pushed through a project I really wanted to do collaborating with artists in Southern Africa which became my cross-continental BORN::FREE. With the British Council, we brought these South African poets over and it was amazing, beautiful – and then I could get to South Africa. What happened in South Africa was really life-changing for me. I had been to South Africa many times but I had never been for work and I never really sat down with other artists in that way. I would always go to see family or my friends’ families. Meeting with other Southern African artists set into motion a new confidence in myself. I think it started from just being offered that ICA residency – which got me back connected to South Africa, and really changed my perspective in a deep way.
AH:Do you want to say something about BORN::FREE?
BZ: BORN::FREE was started as an events night and a Poetry Event between me and my friend Chima Nsoedo nearly five years ago. We actually met at The Roundhouse during Polar Bear days. Born Free started off as a monthly night then became a bi-monthly community project. Right now I’m finding ways to expand it outside of events. I want to make it a platform where we talk about Black literature in an interesting way. I’m still trying to solidify those ideas and get money. You want to pay poets properly. I’m trying to get a radio show as well. I want to start a writing platform that celebrates Black writing. It’s getting slightly better, but numbers in publishing are still low and these things make a difference.
AH:You need to look after the pipeline.
BZ: Exactly, who are the gatekeepers? I want to ask different people from all walks of life about a Black writer that they really identify with. If you read James Baldwin’s One Day When I Was Lost when you were 21, what did that mean to you? I want to write essays on these things – so we can get the conversation out there, and there is a paper trail when you Google. Before Alice Walker drew attention to Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God was out of print. Alice Walker did that legacy work about the lineage of writers who you come from, and then the lineage of family you are making. I really want to make BORN::FREE a very Black-centred project – but without being exclusive.
AH: I think that is a strong place to be. You claim your home ground – but say others are welcome too.
BZ:This year I have been waking up early to do funding applications to do the work the way I see it. I want the vision to come out right. I paid my dues in other ways – and then with time you learn you don’t have to pay them any more.
AH:You shift from being mentored to saying ‘I am the next generation.’
BZ: Yeah. We have Malika Booker and Salena Godden to look up to. As they say in the US, they had to walk so we could run, you know. Right now we are kind of jogging. We need to be allowed to sprint. How do we help others get through without unnecessary struggle?
AH: You told me earlier that the Arvon course you did was a booster pack to your career and your creativity?
BZ:It was with Caroline Bird and Roger Robinson. I was like, ‘C’mon the blessings of the universe!’ I really had given up on writing. In that week, I was awakened literally from the third eye. I was like ‘I am a writer!’ How do we make this easier to access? How do we help people to hear about it?
AH:If you have to come through difficulty, it gives you empathy for other people. When you have an easy path, you may not be aware of other people who can’t access that path. In different ways, we are both trying to act for many by going forward.
AH: Writing about my experience of sexual abuse in childhood, which a lot of people over the years have told me that no one wants to hear about, I know that following a community-minded approach gives me strength on the bad days. You can say to yourself, ‘I’ll keep going for them – if not for me. I’ll take this ton of shit. I’ll face this rejection – because if I get through, others will come after me.’
BZ: Exactly. That’s so important.
AH:When you come from a hard place, it pushes you forward.
BZ:Got to, man. Just don’t see any other way.
AH: The first poem of small inheritances – ‘thamesmead estate (dregs of south east London)– is a ‘we’ poem, not an ‘I’. It seemed to me that you were claiming community? It begins:
We know this city wouldn’t spit on us were we flagrant
red & ablaze, top deck of a bus. We learn to hear our screams walk
thru walls before they’re cast into concrete silence.
This city wouldn’t even spit on us.
BZ: I am really pleased you picked that up. It was about setting in place this sort of ‘south’ connection – Southern Africa and south London. I live on this estate man, but I was born somewhere else. But you have people who were born on this estate, whose parents were born on this estate. It really started as a poem about Grenfell.
AH:You used the Master P quote saying – “Black kids …we don’t have rehabs to go to … You gotta rehab yourself” as your epigraph to set it up?
BZ:It really stuck with me when I heard it on Seat at the Table by Solange Knowles. Towards the end of the album he says something like Black kids – you gotta really help yourself. I really started thinking about that, particularly in my personal experiences, which are related to people I am close with from the area. Sometimes you can’t go to your parents with your problems because they’ve got things to worry about. Some of them are working all kinds of hours. So you have to figure out for yourself. Your own rehab can involve getting past actual drug abuse, or it can involve maybe just travelling. Rehab can go in so many ways. But what is expected of you really – coming up in that space of grey? A place of concrete, like you know you can’t win. You’re expected to pull yourself out of that, and if you don’t it’s your fault – because others pulled themselves out. No one wants to talk about the fundamental, structural problems. Black boys are dying every day in the city, and nobody wants to talk about the real causes behind this knife crime. Nobody takes care of the places they come from. Nobody presents alternative options for them. If that lifestyle without opportunity is normalised – then you wake up to grey because you don’t have any way to look outside of that.
There is no real victim status given to these young people, but they are victims. They are 14-year olds running around with serious mental health issues. Serious home issues going on. To talk about it will damn the government or damn people in power so they’d rather not go there. It is such a white system – so inward and so obsessed with itself – that we need to say these boys are being vilified. There are a lot of young Black people dying in this country – incredibly talented and incredibly intelligent. They are also being matched up to their Black counterparts who have managed somehow to figure their way out. I also wanted to point out this outskirts-of-London experience as well, because we talk about the inner city but Thamesmead is not really. It’s like Kent. It’s like Croydon, all that stuff. These brutalist estates, Zones 4-6, can be complete chaos but also like complete cohesion because of our common experience.
I have mates who I grew up with, most of them have a Southern African connection. Because of our backgrounds and our love of reading, accessing different things from a different country, many of us were leading a kind of interesting middle class life – not necessarily myself – but a lot of my peers have become school teachers, heads of department, lawyers and doctors whatever. But we are aligned with the Black community. Grenfell messes me up every day.
AH: People are still struggling to get heard around Grenfell.
BZ: Heard yeah, and then it’s like whose voices get heard right? It’s the construct of class. When we leave the estates we still are not listened to properly, we are still not treated with the same dignity that we deserve as human beings. I really would never know what it is like to be given the benefit of the doubt outside of my own community, yeah. And the constant watching over your shoulder – like ‘why did that person behave that way towards me?’ Sometimes they just behave in that way because they are a prick. It’s like ‘Are you doing that because you are a bit racist – or are you doing that because you are just not a nice person, or you are just having a hard day?’ You don’t want to go through life like analysing people’s behaviours like that.
AH: You had a different experience in Zimbabwe?
BZ:I lived 12 years of my life not being scrutinised. Then I came to this country – and the constant scrutiny really fascinated me. I didn’t feel inferior ever at any point. If anything, I became more and more open-eyed to denigration. The ‘we’ in ‘thamesmead estate’ also comes from an accepting that I am also from this place, I contributed to the British narrative. A lot of British people don’t want to hear is that Britain is not only for white people and hasn’t been for a long time. There was a time that Britain was colonising half of the world, and also contributing to my narrative as a Zimbabwean – which is about the exit, and migration, and what caused that.
This country is full of Black kids who are first generation or no generation whatever – either just come back from their parents’ countries, or their parents were the last ones to leave, so there is always a connection with our cultures in this way, but then also a disconnect from them as well.
For Black children in London – first, second, third or fourth generation – there is limbo. You feel like this is your home, but your home is not entirely accepting of you, but then your other home is not entirely accepting of you. A lot of the time we just want to be one thing – because we want to belong somewhere. I think that ‘we’ was really an angry lamentation, but also compassion.
AH:‘thamesmead estate’ is a rightly enraged, pain-filled poem, but its power derives also from its imagistic and sonic beauty. Did the act of creating help to reframe a difficult experience? You didn’t surrender the pain – but you gained agency by writing about it.
BZ: That’s it. And as soon as I learnt that word – agency – I was like – oh my god, that’s sexy.
AH: Yeah, I felt the same. It was a breakthrough word for me.
BZ:Before I had that word in my vocabulary, I understood the importance of agency but I don’t think I was exercising it. Sometimes I thought maybe I’m being arrogant, who am I, this little Black girl – and all that shit. Fundamentally, this whole pamphlet is about agency. Writing for me is about agency. Nobody can tell me what do to and I can really transform what I am feeling. I can work with these things in any way I want. I can tell you a story. If you noticed, there are a lot of ‘you’s used in the poems, which are really ‘I’s.
AH: ‘You’ makes a little bit of space for the reader – and for yourself.
BZ:Yeah, it really does.
AH:Mary Jean Chan often identifies herself within her poems in a hurry of english. She chooses to – because it’s a narrative about queerness, and she needs to inhabit her own queer body to speak about it. It seems to me that by using ‘you’ and ‘we’ you are making space which is both your life, and a collective life. It is a space for other people to enter.
BZ: I am also creating images that people can relate to. I’m trying to get that longing and yearning that most people have. The essence of the poem should just have that.
AH:I was going to ask you next about ‘rye lane (foul ecstasy)’ which is a stunning ‘drugs poem’. It starts out with B and D sounds –“Black girls don’t do drugs/ said the bouncer/ at Bussey” – this percussive battery – so you know you are in club world. And then it goes inwards. The drug usage becomes a portal to these different selves. It’s not a poem advocating drugs – but it is a poem which suggests they can be a way into meeting yourself. There are real moments of psychic, physical and linguistic beauty that you are giving space to –
under drooped eyes
which flood the wet
stay open, each
touch from the bass
in upward spirals
of blue starlight.
the night not
BZ: I wrote that on a come-down. It was really about writing about my feelings and that space and really kind of writing from a personal perspective, but bringing in other girls I had done that with, been out with. We’d talk about it, and this is how we feel, you know. I’m sure that you know the facts about drugs. Let’s say this is about MDMA. You come up and you feel at one but you feel incredibly sad at the same time – because you don’t always feel that happy every day. I wanted to kind of bring that across, the ecstasy, but also how this is so sad.
I was trying to create some aesthetic of yearning you know – the longing for something. I think it is the longing for a deep, solid self-acceptance, and a joy, a continuous happiness, but I am also saying these moments are beautiful because you get to really see yourself.
AH:Often with severe depression, people are put on drugs as a short-term measure so they can experience ‘normality’, and then work their way towards it. The take I got from ‘rye lane’ was notthat you were a ‘drugs missionary’, but more that that experience of MDMA, good and bad, with all its sadness, had let you see something new in yourself which, in the rest of the collection, you work towards in a much more anchored way. I love that poem. It’s a poem about big experiences, and being human.
BZ:I will go into it further in other things I will write, but I grew up very Christian and thinking I would never do drugs.
AH: ‘holstein way (reclamation song)’ and ‘evonlode house (self-care)’ look inward to the body for salvation. Ecstasy comes from “sweet communion with self” – not drugs. Was that a next step for you?
BZ: I think when things happen to you as a child, or growing up, that seem like abandonment, neglect, or abuse whatever, you separate from your body. Maybe that’s why I’m always in my brain. I’m not necessarily like in touch with with what is going on – even though my heart is right here. D’you know what I mean?
AH: Yes, I do. In ‘holstein way’ you write:
Learn to touch yourself again & yet again
till you wander into those moments of ecstasy,
sweet communion with self, begging you
to fulfil a wish, to no longer erase yourself.
BZ:When I took MDMA, everything was unleashed in a very beautiful way like. I was around friends and I was loved – a lot of touching. I always had issues with touching. A lot of hugging. I’m working on those things – initiating affection, telling people how I feel and not caring about rejection. That one night showed me that I didn’t necessarily need to do that drug again.
‘holstein way’ and ‘evenlode house’ are really about deep, deep introspection. I want absolute freedom in my body. I want freedom between my mind and my body. In the past couple of years, that has really led to to this other journey of yoga every day and meditating and training the mind. I want to be in control in a way that is free. I want to be able to really get myself. I want to hear my body but I also to hear my mind. But I didn’t have those tools. I had to get the tools to combine everything and feel safer in myself. I am not completely there yet but I am starting that journey. ‘evonlode house’ is about living by myself.
AH: You wrote about buying flowers as “a weekly ritual when you learnt/ no one was going to heal for you/ so you figured it best to start small.”
BZ:I have plants instead now. These are the two newest poems. A lot of the poems I was starting writing from very young, and then I just edited the fuck out of them. These two particular poems, I wanted to put across this feeling of a little of where I am now. I think I really got to that stage where ‘joy is imminent – joy is there.’ I can go and get it – and there is work to do. Those two poems are really about looking into what that work entails. I think that a lot of that just entails stillness.
AH:You also write about the inner darkness: “Teach her to pray with precision/ for there will likely be days/ when her breasts will search for ripeness/ but black rot might come easier.” It’s like locating sort of psychic calm in the body – but also expressing the whole of what you have to work with to get there. We talked before about the couch in ‘evenlode house’ which held you like a womb and allowed change to happen. It’s that whole process of being held in stillness and letting yourself change through that. Almost breaking down into yourself.
BZ: Yeah, it’s just like so alone but I love it. I love self-indulgence in that way. It’s just like – ‘I’m so saaaadddd’ – and then just like, yeah, ‘I am’, and just kind of doing it.
AH: But not being scared of the sadness.
AH: Not having to run from it, just like being ok to sit with it and let it pass when it does.
BZ: That is hard too – because you don’t know that it will pass.
AH: Exactly. It can be very tough. Do you feel as women, and as writers, it’s important for us to have strategies for restarting out lives – symbolically and actually – to embody our intentions.
BZ:I do yeah. I cut off my hair. I didn’t do it to be a woman writing or whatever. I did it because it was hot and I was fed up.
AH: When did you cut it off?
BZ: Summer of 2017. And that’s the summer I moved in alone so that’s the point.
AH: A new beginning – yes, a new self.
BZ:It’s scary to change things, you know and move things forward, so I think it’s very important to find out little rituals where we can hold ourselves without thinking about what other people think. My mum had to restart her life when she left Zimbabwe. She had to change her career from being a teacher. I wrote about it in ‘reasons for leaving home’, after the Patricia Smith poem ‘Because’. You know Patricia Smith followed me on Twitter? And then I DM’d her and I was like ‘I love you, thank you’. I sent her the video of me reading ‘reasons for leaving home’. She didn’t reply for a month – but when she did, she said ‘thank you.’ It’s so interesting how sometimes we just need simple structures to kind of express the different disparate thoughts in our heads. I want to say all these things about Zimbabwe. I need to make a comment on like what Zimbabwe really was at that particular time, which was chaos. But I wanted to make a personal case.
AH:You wrote a poem out of your own experience based on a model that had been given to you by a Black writer – and then, she picked up on it and, affirmed the heritage. You are drawing lines from yourself, to America and Zimbabwe.
BZ:It was also an exercise in lineage that Jacob taught me. What lineage of writers are you from? What are you contributing, and what are you learning from them? The connection was what Patricia says about being a young Black girl. A lot of her poetry resonates – even though the geographies are different – because those feelings are just so alike. The diaspora, the Black diaspora is so linked from the Caribbean to North America to Asia. We are everywhere. We are absolutely everyone.
AH:The last two poems in the ‘small inconveniences’ section look at the reasons for and costs of migration. In ‘bantuland (dear whinchat)’, you imagine the migrating whinchat flying “Over former colonies still scarred with leftover pain; over red/ dust roads and broken railways.” Did you want to make the post-colonial legacy something people could feel and see?
BZ:I’m always writing about Africa or African issues. It’s very tricky and sensitive. When I write I know that other Black people are going to read it, and I want I want fairness to be there always. It was for an anthology about British birds. I found this bird and the poem didn’t actually make the cut because the lady who commissioned it was saying ‘No, you need to write about the bird specifically’. I was like, ‘There is no other way I can write this poem’ – once this poem came out. I couldn’t change it. I backed out of the project. In the first part I really talk about the beauty and the pain of the continent. I didn’t want to make it sound like we were suffering and sad, because that’s not the truth, but we are suffering and sad in the most part.
AH: ‘dear whinchat’ also catches what is unique to Zimbabwe and Southern Africa.
It has been ten years since I left home.
I’ve forgotten how at dusk the sun slowly sinks
into the ground & the sky becomes still, ablaze.
I’ve forgotten how the night spreads itself
in the folds of a light cold wind;
I’ve forgotten the sound a metal pail,
tied to thick long rope, makes when it falls
into wells swollen with a full night’s rain.
I’ve forgotten the feel of early morning,
how the eastern horizon would birth the sun
til the skies spun themselves violet, as a cockerel
spread its wings wider than its wake-up crow.
AH: The poem makes something extraordinary visible in words – more visible than in a travel documentary because the reader takes your words and plays them inside their head. I see those images much more clearly than something that flashes on a television screen because I have imagined them. In the same poem you also write “my first language’s started to wilt on my tongue.” How does it feel to work as well in a second language?
BZ: Shona is my favourite language. You understand more and more, the older you get, because everything is straightforward, but it’s also so like so elusive at the same time, because you can say so many things without saying anything. The Shona language is really also tied in with culture and tradition which is about respectability and how you look you know all these things. They find nice ways to say really ugly things. I think that is what I love about it the most. It’s so full of like wisdom and history – but at the same time it’s direct. That is something that would be hard to learn if you weren’t born into it because of its nuances. It’s about the underlying message as opposed to actual words so yeah, it’s a fascinating language to me in that way.
AH: From how you talk, it sounds as if the brain that you developed to speak Shona informs how you function in the English language as well – because you have experienced Shona as a space of possibility. Even if you are not actually writing in Shona directly, you still have that heritage informing your work?
BZ:A lot of stuff I write has strong imagery. I think Shona is really about images. Everything is shrouded in like imagery and comparison. That has really informed how I approach the English on the page – feeling through images. How can we create images that make you feel things you know? Specific images but also universal feelings.
AH: We talked about Black poets and writers as models. It seems to me that you are also taking Shona and African culture as a literary model. You are using its frameworks to shape your work. It’s not just the Black, and other, writers you read – but it’s also your own living culture that you using to claim agency within the English language and also to make it new. You give it something that it wouldn’t have otherwise. From the start, I found your poems incredibly powerful and magical. It’s really interesting to think that Shona is partly making them work like that.
BZ: I think some of my favourite writers are Bessie Head, Dorothy Masuka, Yvonne Vera and Chinua Achebe – these core African writers. Toni Morrison as well. She writes poetry in novel form.
AH:Beloved was one of the most important books that I ever every read. I read it when I was in my early 20’s, in the 1980’s. It just stopped me in my tracks, completely.
BZ:Whenever you are reading any Toni Morrison you are suspended. I feel that’s a thing that I also get from a lot of my favourite African writers. Chimananda Ngozi Adichie as well – whom I have loved since I was a young woman. She was a writer of my time. There is a simplicity in approach that’s really a simplicity in language as well. An openness in language, but a depth in image, and a depth in the underlying themes.
AH:Toni Morrison was accessing African imagery, storytelling and culture through her African American heritage and oral heritage.
BZ: There’s a distance and compassion in a lot of my favourite African writers works. In The Bluest Eye Toni Morrison is writing about these difficult subjects, but she affords everybody humanity and space – and for me that is very African. It feels like it’s in the bloodline.
AH:That’s a powerful response. African countries and their peoples may have been looted through colonisation, and also slavery – but the heritage resists and persists.
BZ: You can’t take people’s stories away.
AH: The final section of small inheritancesis set mostly in Zimbabwe – where you lived until you were 12. It uses Shona words alongside English. Did it feel like a form of home-coming, using the two languages in your work?
BZ: For sure. A lot of my work is really about trying to solidify numerous narratives of what Zimbabwe means for me, which includes that that particular migration. I think it is going to be written about a lot in the future by other Zimbabweans you know. I want Shona people to read this. I want to write in Shona one day. I am reading a lot of Shona literature at the moment. I’m reading this guy called Solomon Mutswairo, who published the first ever, full-length Shona novel. I’ve got this amazing book of his novels and then the last part is his poetry, with other poets who were writing in Shona at the time, who we study now in Zimbabwe within the education system.
It is really nice to be in that space of my literary ancestors – showing me the possibilities of our language – because what they have also shown me is that our language has got these superior vibes. They can’t come into English with the purity that they have in Shona. I’m in the space of learning that from people who did it before. From people who were really concerned about wide readership but also about clarity.
AH: We were talking about stillness and self-healing. Part of the self-healing is necessary nourishment.
BZ:I am hungry for it when I am reading, I am literally devouring it, and I am inspired at the same time, and amazed – and then full of respect and appreciation.
AH: It sounds like you’re anchoring your own sense of identity – claiming what is you and what is yours.
BZ: Which feels like a birthright. Every time I am reading Shona writing, it makes me a voracious learner in terms of my own traditions and my own cultures. You’ve got to understand that I’m kind of divorced from those cultures because of Christianity. Some of these things were seen as dark and devilish and demonic. The religion the colonisers brought said only the Christian way is valid. My mother’s father was a preacher.
AH: A Christian preacher?
BZ: Yeah, he was a Pentecostal minister who was actually really powerful in in his like energy, his spirit. He was the reason why my Mother and her sisters are incredibly spiritual in this particular way. They passed on something to me to do with spirituality that is very important. They taught me about the possible existence of other realms and all these things that I hold dear despite how I choose to enter their spaces. But the Christianity they taught me was really about divorcing from traditional African ways. In my Shona reading, I am being taught that there is a union, in the organic way my ancestors worshipped. In direct translation, the Shona name for god is ‘creator of people’, ‘creator of humanity’. My people were also spiritual and holistic in their approaches to everyday life – and those cultures don’t exist today. The more capitalist we get, the more global we get, the quicker and easier it is to let go of the Shona language. Some of my cousins born and raised in Zimbabwe don’t speak Shona because their parents put them in very expensive schools where English is the lingua franca.
AH: It’s like identity-genocide.
BZ: It’s like ‘Guys – stop!!’ When I was younger, I felt this heroic responsibility. Now I feel more responsibility towards myself as a Shona woman to be consistently telling my different versions of what it means to be valid. All these nuances are really about solidifying and documenting that culture, because a lot of it is rooted in oral culture.
AH:It seems to me that you have the possibility, through language and through heritage, to access and comprehend that Shona space and articulate it – because its are values about connection to environment, integrity and accountability, which the whole world needs. In a sense, you are a channel.
BZ: I used to sing in a church choir and what they taught me was when I hear the entertainment, the singing, it’s actually the ministry. It’s about serving people. In my approach to my work, if I’m going to ask people to listen to this or read this I feel this responsibility to be this best I can.
AH: As a performer and enabler of other performers was this a model for you, that whole idea of of a kind of sacred performance?
BZ: I think maybe in my writing I make that space, because I’m trying to talk about an acknowledgement of ancestors.
AH:Before we end, can I ask what you are doing next?
BZ: I am working a lot with music at the moment. I am trying to say things that I feel the rules of the page might not allow me to do in a way that I am satisfied with. Working with music affords me the space to experiment with how I say things and what I mean when I say those things.
AH: Are you recording the music yourself or are you working with musicians?
BZ:I’m recording myself but working with musicians. I’m working mostly with beats at the moment. There is a lot of interesting stuff happening in South East London. Shout out south east London as an amazing Jazz scene – Steez, Trinity Laban alumni, Tomorrow’s Warriors and Steam Down, other creators. For me that’s a space where I am meeting a lot of interesting creators – Brother Portrait, Nadeem Din-Gabisi, Footshooter. Some of them approach me and say ‘Hey would you like to do some poetry over this beat that I made?’ For me it’s all been a challenge, like yeah, why not let’s rise up to the challenge? It really expands how you read things and how you deliver things, and in terms of what I was saying earlier about economy on the page, economy in speech, especially on top of a structured piece of music. I like creating textures that people can feel. You can do it on a page but I find that there is something about also hearing music and being alone with that you know. Not having to read and make notes and understand – but constantly re-listening.
AH: Music is three-dimensional for me. Somehow, it’s a form, like sculpture.
BZ: Please go deeper!
AH: Sometimes words are like a painting, and music is like a sculpture.
BZ: I agree! Depending on what kind of music it is, it’s about emotions and feeling. I love jazz. A lot of a lot of stuff I am interested in doing next in terms of music is working with contemporary UK jazz because they explore the things I explore through words, through sound, and I am just amazed at like what they can do with that. You know how sometimes it can sound so disparate, but so harmonious, at the same time. Jazz is so structured and so textured. You can almost touch it – like you can touch a sculpture. It can be in your body.
AH: And you can touch it with your mind.
BZ:I love the completeness of music. I think that words can always be edited. Whereas with music, you can change it, but it might not be the same emotion, it might not be the same feeling, but it might also not be the same sound. A lot of the time when musicians are saying this is done, it is pretty much done you know.
AH: All the sounds are relative to each other. It’s like they’ve met their matching point. They are all intersecting – once those intersections have happened, that is the energy.
BZ:With music, I relate specifically to beat makers because I think they are poets. They are sound poets. And it’s funny because a lot of producers will send me those beats and I might be like, ahh I think this just feels like a city poem you know, like a night time you know. Because of the energy they are giving me, that feeling that I am taking about, and then you go and talk to them – and somehow it’s always linked. What works best about music and poetry is that they are both about distilling emotions and feelings into particular, almost tangible things, that your senses can access.
AH:. So would you be looking to do some live sets and record a CD as well as write a collection?
BZ:I have been working with a harpist since around this time last year. Through Spread The Word I applied for a small grant where you could work with another artist. She goes to Trinity – Maria Osuchowska. What a legend! She is in her early 20s – but she has been playing harp since she was 11. When we meet, the pieces that she has composed match exactly what I am trying to achieve. We don’t have to rehearse too much. It’s that connection. It was meant to be a one-off thing, but we have performed so many times now that at the last gig her mother said ‘Now you must record.’ Maria came from Poland at a young age and we were both immigrant children in London. London is both our home and our other home. I do a lot with her also inspired the jams that I attend at a weekly night of improv jazz in Deptford. I have also been working with two producers who I have known since I was in my early 20s. We have got two EP’s coming out this year.
AH:Really looking forward to those. We’ll put links up on this blog when they come out. Thank you very much, Belinda Zhawi.
Sunday night, I attended the T.S. Eliot award readings at the Southbank Centre. Each performance was intensely alive. With care, and precision, ten poets walked across to the podium to give themselves, and their work, to the audience. I had been on a different floor of the same building a few months earlier, to take part in a workshop organised by Spread the Word with Shivanee Ramlochan at the National Poetry Library.
In that quiet, afterhours space, surrounded by shelves of books, Shivanee Ramlochan had shared with us as generously, and as memorably, as the T.S. Eliot poets I watched on stage. The impact of Shivanee’s first collection, Everyone Knows I Am a Haunting, on the UK poetry scene was evidenced by the number of people who came to find me after the readings – to ask when the interview about ‘saying the difficult thing’ would be published. Imminently, I promised them.
When I got up Monday, it was waiting like magic in my inbox. Without delay, I read Shivanee’s answers to my questions, and then read them again, more slowly, more carefully, letting her take me through Everyone Knows I Am a Haunting, and the life which gave rise to its powerful, beautiful, uncompromising poems.
Coloured by desire, unafraid of rage, or terror, aiming hard at redemption, Shivanee Ramlochan’s work, written out of Trinidad, as a queer woman of colour, looks at topics – including infanticide, and rape – which many would prefer to deny, or at least avert their gaze from. The poems also witness loves, and lives, which have had to assert their right to be, a path that has led to “scorched wings” at times, as Shivanee admits.
As someone writing about making life in the aftermath of sexual abuse in childhood, Shivanee Ramlochan has long been a hero of mine. I am honoured to give you – our readers, our collaborators – the words she has entrusted to me with in this opening interview about ‘saying the difficult thing’. Please share them, and join with us in the work of challenging silence:
Shivanee, part of the project of the ‘saying the difficult thing’ interviews is to help poetry feel more approachable. I’m interested in people’s different ways in. Can I ask how, and why, you started writing and performing?
Thank you for taking the time to talk with me, Alice.
I began writing because it never felt like I had a choice: from the age of five onwards, everything in me compelled me to tell stories – strange, dark, pleasurable things – on paper, for myself first and alone. The idea of writing as public performance didn’t present itself to me til my eleventh or twelfth year, and though I’ve grown in my capacity to read my work aloud, I’m no trained performer. So much of what I write now, at thirty-two, are strings of words I still can’t believe I’m allowed to say out loud.
Were there people, on the page, or in the flesh, who encouraged you?
My mother is my first true encourager. She wouldn’t choose for me the poems I now choose for myself, but she’s never suggested my life would be better, or happier, if I were a doctor or lawyer. The opposite, in fact: she knows this business of wanting to write is precarious, uninsured, often thankless, and has assured me I’m more than welcome to take parental loans if I ever need them (and you know I’ve needed them over the years. Dental bills, alone…)
How long were the poems for Everyone Knows I Am a Haunting, in the making?
Your opening poem, ‘A Nursery of Gods for My Half-White Child’, suggests that we can claim and inhabit our heritages, but also remake them. I’m thinking of the last three lines:
drown me to sleep with the names of the gods you have made
shrieking, floating, bastarding into birth
called to the world of the living between the harvest of your thighs [p11].
‘Nursery’s’ strongly female, and bodily, image of making is particularly impactful in the context poems which follow, spoken in the voices of “The Abortionist’s Daughter”, and then her “Grand-daughter”. Abortion is currently still illegal in Trinidad and Tobago?
The first of these poems, ‘The Abortionist’s Daughter Declares her Love’, deploys the heart-breaking aphorism “Never give a woman more sadness than she needs” [p13]. It holds millennia of female struggle. I wondered if you wanted to say something about your use of a detached, authoritative voice for such potentially devastating material?
Everything I write, I give access to devastate me first. Maybe there are easier ways to perform that transaction, writer to poem, but I don’t know them, and I’m not convinced I’d ever want to learn how to do it easier, to make it easier on myself. I don’t think I can make a poem I can trust (or mistrust in totality/in part, but still find necessary) through perfect ease.
That’s true for the Abortionist poems in Haunting. They’re some of the earliest works in the collection, in terms of when they were written, and I was still struggling with asking permission in some specific ways that I’ve since shed. (I still ask, but mostly now, I ask myself.) I knew then that I had to write about women doing dangerous work, and to ask each of these poems to contemplate why that work was dangerous: was the labour inherently damaging, or were the women who worked at it menaced by external evils, expectations, cruelties? I wanted, too, to explore how dangerous working women differed in how they performed labour across generations: would the same salve suit a granddaughter, as it did the grandmother who invented it?
I say this to say that even in seeming detachment – even in the use of a narrator-as-curator, a narrator as observer, there is pain, and I trust that. I believe you must pay what you owe to the work, and each work demands something different, calls for its specific tithe in blood or lots and lots of bad lines, til you get it right.
‘My Sister of the Coral Mouth’, follows the first two ‘Abortionist’ poems and presents an infanticide committed after rape. The grief, and rage, of a “daughter who drowned her wrong child/ at our ocean’s worse fault” [p16] enters the erasing movements of the weeds and waters – but the poet also holds the difficult memory irrevocably present:
I carry your son’s name under my tongue in a barbed suture.
You wanted my speech to keep his first memory safe [p16].
Do you feel that the work of witness is part of your role as a writer?
Everyone Knows I Am a Haunting occupies multiple resisting perspectives, rather than speaking exclusively from your own position. I’m interested in the impact on you, personally, of giving yourself creatively to so much dark material.
Have you seen Chilling Adventures of Sabrina? Mild spoilers below for those who haven’t.
So half-witch, half-mortal Sabrina’s been struggling all season with the directive – an order, really, that she wants with all of her being to reject – to pledge allegiance to the Dark Lord Satan by signing his official ledger. It’s an act that would make her greatly powerful, but also bind her to his will. This is exactly what I think of when you so searchingly ask about giving myself creatively to so much dark material. Because there’s no way you get a halcyon happy ending from that equation, right? Which is why, much like Sabrina, I turn more and more to definitions of my life outside of happiness. My tendencies are dark, and often disastrous, and it makes me smile when readers who profess themselves deep admirers of my work are stunned, not always for the better, by ‘Shivanee in real life’. What’s more real life than a book of poems? And where do people think it comes from?
I love happiness, but my objective isn’t to be happy. I haven’t signed my name in any sepulchral ledger, but let’s just say I understand the impulse. Whether I’m writing poems or doing off-the-record deviations, my curiosity always gets the better of me – that’s the core of the dark surrender we’re discussing. I’m that Pandora, that Icarus, that intrepid sinner who knows better and risks it anyway, to see what I can learn. So many of my poems are scorched wings: investigations into what happens when you push too hard at the envelope of your own luck.
In ‘Duenna Lara’, the poem where the title line occurs, you write, graphically, ‘I take the four rivers of the forest by throat and algal sinew,/ pump the waters into my lungs.” Could you say something about the Caribbean landscapes in your work?
The Caribbean is indivisible from anything I write about anything. I used to think I belonged anywhere but here. Now I know that at least in this lifetime, here is where I’m from more than any other place. So it became mountingly important to inhabit the terrain of the places I used to reject out of the inherited colonial curse of self-hatred, to take those places – mountains, markets, rumshops, rivers – and call them by their names, for everyone to see.
‘The Red Thread Cycle’, which makes up the collection’s second segment, has been personally valuable to me, as someone who was raped in childhood. Can I ask you about the work done by the beautifully controlled language in the first poem, ‘On the Third Anniversary of the Rape’. I’m quoting the opening lines:
Don’t say Tunapuna Police Station.
Say you found yourself in the cave of a minotaur, not
knowing how you got there, with a lap of red thread.
Don’t say forced anal entry.
Say that you learned that some flowers bloom and die
at night. Say you remember stamen, filaments
cross-pollination, say that hummingbirds are
vital to the process [p35].
Was there a reason you chose to write this poem as a second person set of instructions, as opposed to a first person account?
Thank you, Alice, for your sharing here. It means so much.
I talk sometimes about the distinction between poems that come, seeming-unbidden, and declare themselves with such assurance on the page – between those poems, and others that require more slow, methodical finessing. ‘On the Third Anniversary of the Rape’ has always been a poem that belongs in the first category. Because it announced itself to me with such certainty, I used to think that I hadn’t worked for it. It took a reminder from the consummately kind, searingly intelligent Abigail Parry to show me that, in fact, I’d been working on it by living with the inhabitation – the very haunting – of that poem, riveted and tattooed by its imageries, for months before it was written.
The instructions of the poem – the poem as its own instruction – is me speaking to myself. This goes beyond the question of whether the events in this poem happened to me, as they are laid out. What I have always hoped ‘Third Anniversary’ does is to speak where all other speech fails. I turn to it when I find I can say nothing else, and it has never failed me.
The officer to whom the rape is reported, is portrayed as a “minotaur”, and linked to the crime by the length of spooled red thread. What led you to create this suggestion of a second assailant?
Rape is an underreported, misbelieved crime. I wanted to speak directly to the faces of those people put in positions of authority who do not believe survivors of sexual assault, who compound that assault with their refusal to witness that violation, to treat with its aftermath with compassion, care, and mercy.
The six poems which follow respond to different facets, and instances, of rape. You write in the second poem, ‘Nail It to the Barn Door Where It Happened’
Use your mother’s scissors to cut out the words
[father] [minister] [boyfriend] [wife]
Pick the right word, and nail it to the barn door
where it happened [p37].
Could you say something about how your writing works with decoupage, and nailing Shivanee?
I can speak to it directly in this poem: the cut-out and assembly of bracketed words in ‘Barn Door’ was another direct act of speech. I wanted to address those complicit in assault. I wanted to show that often, the most beloved and venerated amongst us – those in positions of familial and socio-religious power – corrupt their influence by raping and sexually subjugating those in their care. Nailing or bolting acts as a form of signifying here: a way to designate, to point the finger at the hooded assailant, to tear the mask off, to declaim – here, right here. This is the one who did it. They will not, thank the Goddess, be allowed to flee.
You shift towards agency in the final two poems in this central sequence, which are spoken in the first person. The last one, ‘The Open Mic of Every Deya, Burning’ states “I lit hurricane lamps with the lucifers of the stake he splintered/ six inches inside me” [p45]. It’s an amazing transformation of darkness into light, without denying the pain at the core of the image. I wondered if you would comment?
Working towards redemption became one of my primary goals as I worked on the Red Thread poems, which were not written consecutively, though ‘Third Anniversary’ was indeed written first. I went through many interior, often conflicting cycles of emotional travel with this series, over the years – so much of it might forever be past my power to fully articulate. One of the points of recognition on that journey was learning that I wanted a narrative arc that could, and would, tilt towards sovereignty. ‘Open Mic’ isn’t the original ending I devised for the Red Thread poems, but it’s the right place for those poems to loop back to themselves, to take their own temperature and declare themselves all survivors. I came to understand this as my duty of care to the work: to not only present the future as viable, in the face of such shattering trauma, but to manifest the future as an active catalyst, the future as present and viable and full of agency.
I don’t know if trauma can be cured, but I do know I believe in alchemy. Moving towards the deya reminds me of my own personal favourite form of magic: holding all the light I can, on Divali night. I’m humbled that the poems brought me there, and let me hold their light.
‘Open Mic’ also sets up a cathartic, healing reaction between performer and audience, and by implication poet and reader:
Each line break bursts me open
for applause, hands slapping like something hard and holy [p.45].
The third, untitled section of Everyone Knows I Am a Haunting explores queerness within the shifting histories and politics of our embodied identities. I understand that homosexuality was decriminalised in Trinidad and Tobago by Justice Devindra Rampersad on 12 April 2018, following the lawsuit initiated by LGBTQ+ activist Jason Jones?
It was therefore still illegal when the poems in the third section affirming and exploring queer identities were written, and indeed when your collection was published in 2017?
The first poem of the third sequence, ‘All the Dead, All the Living’, celebrates and reclaims the covert identity of an unnamed “public servant”. She wears “sensible slingback heels” to the office – but has a night-time, carnival patois self of “curry-gold battyriders” and “breasts swinging under electric tape nipples” [p49]. Are concrete, tangible things a valuable creative resource for your work?
Absolutely. The sensory memory of objects I have loved and feared has stayed with me all my life, from my earliest recollections to the present day. No doubt the images have been transmogrified, but they persist, and so many of them, gleaned from my most private encounters, have found their way into Haunting. I love that you ask this question in relation to this poem, because curating the tangible in my poetic practice is how I both hold onto my beloved dead, and vouchsafe my fidelity to my beloved living. It’s a secret act of service that I choose to make public-ish through the work, immersing my own material archive into the realm of the fictive. What emerges is a non-binary catalogue of memento mori, talismans, tricks and trinkets, wards and relics, weapons of conjure. Are they all a part of my life? Yes. Do they all belong to me? Oh, no.
‘All the Dead, All the Living’ understands the “wetness” from the public servant’s aroused, dancing body as a healing “purgatory-unction”. You make her embodied sexuality a source of identity – and salvation – which allows her to be “turning wolf/ to woman/ to wolf again.” [p.50] Is that something you wanted the reader to feel transformed by?
This is a poem of Trinidad & Tobago Jouvay, a part of my country’s annual Carnival. I’ve written extensively about the craft of this poem for Poetry School, where the full poem can also be read. Jouvay and Carnival are acts of ultimate shapeshifting. In islands so often hemmed by conservative and orthodox rhetoric, this festival represents for so many of its revellers a chance to ‘play a mas’, to perform and inhabit and exult in their chosen manifestations of good, evil, or one of the innumerable stations of love and excess in between those moral poles. So many of the optics of how Carnival is produced and consumed make me uncomfortable, as a fat woman, but when I strip my love for this festival to its bare, beating heart, I see an island of shapeshifters, shedding their skins, and I’ve never known any power that pulses to that specific, exceptional rhythm. It feels like, and is, rebirth.
You write organically, and powerfully, of erotic desire between women in ‘Catching Devi & Shakuntala’.
your daughter’s darkmouth on her lover,
their hair in oiled snakes weeping bright, [p51].
Is this something you choose to make visible?
I am as queer as the day is long, as the world turns, as salt brines on the tongue. Even now, this remains something I never feel I can say easily without looking over my shoulder, without balling my fists in anticipation of self-defense. I have played the long, tiring game of self-cloaking my queerness for so many reasons, ever since I came into the knowing of myself as non-heteronormative. I determined that I wouldn’t ask my poems to enact that same dance. The queer inhabitants of my poems may, and do, feel earth-shattering conflict, but the truth of the queer poem as an active, evident, self-sustaining reality in my work? I will never, not ever, deny that.
‘Good Names for Three Children’ speaks with compassion to those still “feeling filthy for the way you love”, and warns against this form of self-hatred? Was there a context to this poem?
The earliest written poem in the book, “Good Names” was, though of course I didn’t know it at the time, to become a kind of manifesto for how I hoped I could proceed, and grow, in poetry. It belongs to that era in which I found myself asking permission for the spaces I entered, including allegedly safe territory, and it is a gentler sort of poem in many ways than the work I’m making, right now. I feel tenderly about it, because as you say, it moves towards compassion, and is unafraid of the kind of gentleness that is so often stripped, beaten, exorcized and educated out of us when we are either innocent or young.
The final poem, ‘Vivek Chooses His Husbands’, is a fierce celebration of love and desire felt by men for each other, and includes the stunning image
You cling to the backs of his knees
and let the temple peal bells of bright orgasm over you.
After so much darkness, was it a deliberate decision to end in beauty?
More than that, I wanted to offer the truth of darkness, too, as that which is beautiful: the idea that, though the darkness can cut and bruise you, that the instruction you receive from your wounds can be, often is, the very inheritance that keeps you alive. That’s frankly gorgeous to me, the fact that we can, and do, survive the onslaught of unspeakable terror, that we are wound up in mobius strips of displacement, desecration and refuge from the danger. The danger is always, always with us. Sometimes, we are the danger. I know I am, to no one more so than myself. Yet if I’m that, then I’m also my own foul-mouthed, foul-minded, imperfect, incredibly imprecise cure. So if we always carry the danger, then we chemically, scientifically, might never be far from its antidote.
Besides being a poet, I know that you are an editor, blogger, legendary leader of workshops – and of course performer. What are your plans for 2019 Shivanee Ramlochan?
In response to Zora Neale Hurston’s wisdom, I believe this is an asking year for me. I admire and am even slightly envious of poets who can, and do, produce a new volume each year, but I’m not of their prolific ilk. I set myself the mission of reading 219 books in 2019, and I think this, primarily, is how I will do my asking: at the feet of other writers, living and deceased, with a specific focus on trans and nonbinary literatures; works produced by incarcerated writers; books that come from underserved communities in the global south; all poetries of brown and queer politics. I’d also like to interrogate and amplify the ways in which I critically engage with what I read, and to write about as much of it as I can at Novel Niche.
Buy Everyone Knows I Am a Haunting from Peepal Tree Press here.
Shivanee Ramlochan is a Trinidadian poet, arts reporter and book blogger. She is the Book Reviews Editor for Caribbean Beat Magazine. Shivanee also writes about books for the NGC Bocas Lit Fest, the Anglophone Caribbean’s largest literary festival, as well as Paper Based Bookshop, Trinidad and Tobago’s oldest independent Caribbean specialty bookseller. She is the deputy editor of The Caribbean Review of Books. Her first book of poems, Everyone Knows I Am a Haunting, was published by Peepal Tree Press on October 3rd, 2017 and was shortlisted for the 2018 Felix Dennis Award for best first collection.
Shivanee Ramlochan will be reading at the Ledbury Festival 2019.