Studying Italian at school in England, I never dared dream that I’d write poems that would be re-created in the language of Dante and Fiorucci, Italo Svevo and cappuccino – by the distinguished poet and professional translator Piero Toto. I speak to him here about the larger project of travelling curiously between cultures. We also explore how meaning and sensation can move from word to experience across the boundaries of geography.
Writers, clothes, food, Pompeii from my school textbooks, films with people riding fast through Roma on scooters – as a teenager during the late Seventies, for me Italy was the land of gritty glamour. Somewhere I longed to visit. A language I wanted to grow up into. I got my wish the summer I turned sixteen, when I spent two months in Florence. After running away from my family of origin, I funded my trip by working in London as a cashier in a supermarket by day, and then a nightclub-come-restaurant by night. By July, I could afford to travel to Firenze on a hot, jolting sleeper train, pleasurably full of rucksacks and backpackers.
Florence in the hot summer of 1980 was not today’s tourist Airbnb honeypot which I revisited in 2019 to take these photos. Aged just sixteen, I found a shadowy city where men wolf-whistled me me on dark streets, followed me on hot summer nights, propositioned me, invited me into their cars. But it was also the city of blazing, luminous sunshine, the city of train stations. I met a girl from Catania in Sicily, working as a secretary. She took me travelling on weekends. We came to share a room, drank our morning cappuccino standing up at the bar together. With her beside me, I was beginning to find myself in a body that had known sexual abuse in childhood, but was now coming to feminity, coming to maturity – as poems like ‘imprint of a young woman’, translated for Atelier by Piero Toto as ‘impronta di una giovane donna’, record. Because I grew up between French and English, and then added Italian into the mix, I understand something of the challenges of translation, which made more valuable the gift of being able to discuss them with Piero.
ah: Thank you so much for translating my poems from bird of winter,Piero. It was a huge honour to be translated so beautifully by another poet into his mother tongue. I feel I am meeting my work with new eyes, new senses. Can I begin our conversation by asking you to say a few words about Atelier, for readers who may not know its work? When did it begin? What’s its mission? Who are the team behind it?
PT: First of all, thank you for accepting my invitation to be published in Atelier. Like I said in our recent pre-translation chat over Zoom, I knew we had to do something together the moment I saw you perform at the Forward Prizes back in 2021. Luckily the opportunity to collaborate came with my involvement as translator for Atelier, one of Italy’s most prominent poetry magazines. It is produced by Giuliano Ladolfi Editore in two different formats, online and in print. It was founded back in 1996 to bring attention to the new generations of poets, but also to feature critical contributions on 20th century poets and poetry in translation. Throughout the years, Ladolfi Editore has also published monographs, conference proceedings and other publications dedicated to contemporary poetry, critical essays on poetry and new voices in the European poetry scene. The current Atelier team is made up of poets, critics and writers who all contribute pro bono to both the online version of the magazine and its print sister. I am part of the online editorial team.
ah: It sounds like a hugely important and necessary space of cultural transmission. I know you have been collaborating with Atelier to showcase contemporary English-language poetry in translation. You have translated Andrew McMillan, Peter Scalpello, Anthony Anaxagorou, André Naffis-Sahely and Golnoosh Nour so far, with more poets lined up for 2023. How did this come about and did you have any particular criteria for the poets you chose to translate? I noticed that a number of the poets you have chosen identify as queer poets, as I do myself.
PT: The main criterion I follow is to include poets that are little known or completely unknown to Italian-speaking audiences. The process for choosing them is very easy: does their poetry speak to me? Does their poetics or collection introduce something new for the Italian poetry scene (in terms of form, content, language, imagery, etc.)? UK and American poetry are very different from Italian poetry, which tends to be slightly more ‘lyrical’ compared to the more prosaic tendency of English language poetry (with exceptions of course). The other question I ask myself is: in my current position of privilege, can I use my voice to amplify (other) marginalised voices? Especially as a queer poet, I feel that it is my duty to make sure that I can support other queer poets’ work by offering them a platform – if I do not do it, who will?
In the early selection stages, a deciding factor behind the inclusion of a poet was whether or not I knew the poet personally, as this would speed things up: as a matter of fact the first two poets I published are poets I am close to and whose work I deeply admire. The later selections were based on whether the poets were known to Italian-speaking audiences or whether they had an upcoming collection. Apart from the poets’ own bios, I hardly introduce the poets or their work, so as not to influence our readers. When we decide to include a note or a short explanatory introduction (as I did for Peter Scalpello or with your own poems) it is because we feel that it is 100% integral to the poetry itself.
ah: I was very grateful that you should have translated my note about living beyond grooming and childhood sexual abuse with the poems from bird of winter. Bringing words to this space where there has historically been so much silence is integral to my creative project. You bring to your translations both your academic background as Senior Lecturer in Translation at London Metropolitan University, and your creative process as a poet who writes in both English and Italian. Could I ask you how you set about translating poetry, as opposed to other materials?
PT: I have been working as a translator for almost 20 years, dealing with a variety of materials, genres and clients. Compared to commercial translation, where most of the time it is the target audience’s needs that must be kept in mind when translating (depending of course on your clients’ instructions), with poetry I constantly try and remind myself of honouring the original poet’s voice, their lived experience, and this is probably more prominent in my case because I am a poet myself and I have been translated too, so I know first-hand how it feels to undergo the process of translation, and once again I felt that if I am in a position to be able to lend my services to introduce new voices on the current poetry scene, then I must do that. Other poetry translators will probably say differently, but for me this is my main mantra when translating. That is why I tend to approach contemporary, living poets with whom I can have a chat beforehand or whatever, feed off their energy and intuition, and then try and channel that in my translations. Basically, though, I just keep my fingers crossed and hope that everything goes well!! [joking of course]
ah: In my own case, I found that your translations brought out beautiful textures and subtleties that the English could not deliver in the same way, being a terser language. From ‘imprint of a young woman’ translating “the husk of your voice/ musked my being” to “il graffio della tua voce/ muschiava la mia essenza” laid the lingering sensuality of that encounter down onto the page through Italian’s long vowel sounds, and whispering, sibilant consonants. It was a true gift. Following on from this, what was your own route into translation, and how did you decide on this as part of your career path?
PT: I believe I can be described as a xenophile and a citizen of the world rather than belonging to a specific nationality, so my need to explore different cultures and different countries as well as being able to put my language skills to good use, to be of service, are at the core of everything I do. This has motivated most of my personal and professional choices.
ah: You are not alone in feeling that way, Piero. In an interview in the current issue of The Paris Review, , poet Rita Dove looks back on beginning to learn German as a teenager in Akron, and thinks of it relative to the process of coming to understand poetry. Dove was a Fullbright Scholar in Germany, and is a fluent German speaker, married for many years to German writer Fred Viehbahn. She speaks as someone used to moving between languages:
At that time I also started learning German – Akron had a sizeable German population, so our teacher was a native speaker. I realized that figuring out how to talk about poetry was, in some ways, similar to speaking in another language – with practice it was something I could master but, ultimately, true understanding of a poem happened on a level beyond words. It was untranslatable.
Would you care to comment on Dove’s insights, both as a poet, and as a translator?
PT: We often hear the traduttore traditore [translator traitor] expression in translation circles, meaning that there will always be a level of imprecision in our translations and ineffability in the original pieces of work which make the act of translation seemingly redundant. I would tend to agree with Dove: the superficial symbols (the language) that we use to write poetry can merely represent what has been revealed to us, what has emerged out of our experience of the world. It is in the interstices of those symbols that we need to seek meaning: it takes only one vibrational deflection from language to reveal its limits (its untranslatability) and at the same time its power beyond these limits. Meanwhile, though, we must make do with the instruments at our disposal (i.e., translation) to get by. Because, what is the option otherwise?
ah: I couldn’t agree more with you. I love your formulation of ‘vibrational deflection’, and the idea of meaning occurring at the ‘interstices of symbols’. Thank you for those Piero. As I mention in my preface to this interview, I learnt Italian for three years at school as a teenager, and lived alone for two months in Florence the summer I turned sixteen. Before that, I had grown up speaking French to my French grandmother from my earliest childhood. In both cases, I understood without consciously articulating it that I thought differently when I was expressing myself in a different language. In French you say J’ai peur, j’ai faim, literally translated as I have cold, I have hunger. It is if these sensations come bodily to inhabit you, rather than define you, as they do in English. Developing this idea, I loved the way the lines of my poems were transformed as well as translated in your transmission of them into Italian. I wondered if you might say something about how this came about?
PT: Firstly I think it is important to acknowledge some of the basic structural differences between languages, and in our particular case Italian and English, in terms of grammar, sentence structure, etc. Having said this, poetry is probably the one ‘language’ that allows us to deconstruct those very same differences and take some liberties in order to honour the poets’ voice. When translating extracts from bird of winter, I considered the ‘mood’ of the collection and the vivid imagery contained within it. For example, when translating the first verse of the poem elegy for an eight year old, where the English opens with the subject “she” followed by a verb in the present form + an adjective to describe how the protagonist is sitting, I turned that into a past participle [seduta dritta] instead to create a vivid snapshot of the little girl and to put even more distance between the reader and the initial scene, which for me sets the tone of the whole poem. In this way, the reader is slowly shown the image described in the opening verses, as if it were a slo-mo camera approaching the eight-year-old girl. It also introduces the repetitions of “d’s” and “t’s” to enhance the soundscape. Compensating with other rhetorical/stylistic devices for what is lost in translation is an essential part of poetry translation, or at least for my own practice. In this case, however, I do not see it as a loss.
ah: I read ‘elegia per una bambina di otto anni’ as both a miracle of subtle empathy, and a truly generous gift. In her recent memoir, Dandelions,writer and translator Thea Lenarduzzi reminds her readers of the weft of indigenous languages across Italy, from Sardinian and Neapolitan in the South, to Friulian in the North, that underlie and co-exist with ‘standard’ Italian. Do you feel that growing up in a country where the construct of language is in and of itself so diverse, and at times also so politically charged, helped shape your own relationship to communication as a space of nuance, opening and possibility, rather than fixed meaning? I know you co-edited Gender Approaches in the Translation Classroom: Training the Doers, which published in 2019 by Palgrave Macmillan.
PT: I guess you could say that. When growing up, especially in the heel of Italy – which is where I am from – you are exposed to dialects, which are languages in themselves, with their own grammar and lexis. They are imbued in the fabric of society and carry a lot of history within them: my own dialect comes from Latin but has strong French, Spanish, Greek and Arabic influences, for example. So code-switching (almost without realising) is a thing!
ah: And indeed genre switching. After so much generous support of the work of other poets, could we close with a few words on your own career as a poet writing in English and Italian. You published tempo 4/4 in 2021 with Transeuropa Edizioni, and have published many wonderful individual poems in Italian, German and English periodicals and magazines from La Repubblica to Queerlings and harana poetry. For readers who would like to read more, would you like to say something about the themes which your own work is drawn to explore, and where you see your career taking you next creatively?
PT: I recently completed my first poetry collection in English, which I hope will find a good home soon. I am attracted to the value and meaning of human relationships, of existence per se, and the way our experiences forge our vision of life. In particular, exploring sexual identity and incommunicability. Constantly shifting between languages, harmonies, sounds and meanings can be a rather messy business… as I said on another occasion, I navigate through multiple cultural and linguistic identities inhabiting the world on its margins. I am not sure where I will be creatively in the near future, given the many hats that I wear (as a bilingual poet, as a translation scholar, as a poetry translator…) but poetry-wise I intend to look at the overlaps between poetry and the visual arts, specifically poetry-music and its digital fruition. For those interested in my work, you can check out my linktree.
ah: Thank you again Piero. I will be first in the line to buy your collection. It can’t come too soon. And thank you also for your generosity in conversation and in translation.
When you’re a debut poet, aged 57, you don’t necessarily expect to find your name on a prize list. I certainly didn’t. I was overwhelmed when I discovered my bird of winter had made the first collection shortlist for the Felix Dennis Award of the Forwards Prizes. Even more so when I found out that I had been selected alongside Caleb Femi, Cynthia Miller, Holly Pester, and Ralf Webb. They are all poet-heroes of mine, whose work I had loved, and followed live, and online. We have all been interviewed on the Forwards Prizes website, where you can also read about the poets selected for Best Poem, and Best Collection. The Best Poem list includes Natalie Linh Bolderston, who I interviewed on this blog talking about the family heritages and creative influences which shape her art-making.
Over the last week, in the run up to the Forwards Prizes Ceremony at the Southbank on Sunday 24 October, WasafiriMagazineand The Poetry School have both published work about our Debut Collection shortlist as a group. I wanted to take the opportunity to share it here, to celebrate us together as the shortlist of 2021. I also wanted to reflect my sense of how crucial Caleb’s, Cynthia’s, Holly’s and Ralf’s collections are, and how much they mean to me personally, as someone who has read and re-read them over the summer. No five poets can ever say everything, but between us we have a wide reach – geographically, creatively, and in terms of our subject matters – and share a commitment to making new work that speaks from deep places in ourselves and lives.
To read what Caleb, Cynthia, Holly, Ralf and I have to say about our work, please follow this link to the poet Shash Trevett’s insightful interview with us for Wasafiri Magazine.
By way of a taster, Shash’s questions throw light on how each of us wrote, and where we wrote from, amongst other topics. Physically – Holly Pester said in the bath, as well as elsewhere, and also from “My small intestine. My dreams. My lunch breaks.” She also came up with a definition of making work which captures the experimental, provisional force of this adventure.
Holly: “‘Tussle’ is a very good word for describing what writing poetry is; words, idea, time, speech, language, text, hormones, affections, all moving towards the recovery of a new thought in a barely held communion. It is a tussle! (It grew over about three years). “
Cynthia Miller spoke of writing from her mother’s Chinese Malaysian heritages – “I think of the long tradition of fortune tellers at temples. Star-charts and fortune sticks and divining the placement of the heavens.” She explained how this fed into work about displacements and migrations: “all the poems in my collection about stars are really poems about family, longing and displacement (such as ‘Scheherezade’, ‘Summer Preserves Haibun’, ‘Proxima b’), and how acute and destabilizing that feeling of disorientation can be.”
Caleb Femi’s words bring out how his debut, like his film-making, speaks from a place of multiplicity and open-hearing:
Shash – “In ‘Barter’ you write ‘I was reaching for my voice box / I rarely use it to its full potential’. Can you talk about lending your voice to those who cannot speak anymore, or who are voiceless?”
Caleb: “My voice is one of many that exists in my community. Each as intriguing as the other, we should all be heard. ”
Ralf Webb made his explanation of the colour pink expressive of the range of tones and moods and slip-sliding transitions that his work encompasses – always with an eye to how our lives stack up ,and the social and political constructs which inform the shapes they take and make.
Ralf: “When I think of the colour pink I think of carnations, earthworms, anemic-looking plums; I think of the huge rose quartz crystals on my childhood bedroom windowsill; I think of pink moons and Nick Drake’s Pink Moon; I think of hematology and bone marrow biopsies; I think of Pepto-Bismol, pills, the skin under the nail; I think of how the sunrise would have looked to my parents, alone, driving to or back from work at dawn.”
Finally, I added some thoughts on “form” in its wider sense:
alice: “I use form to confer agency, even while navigating danger. I drop the reader down, somatically, into the terror of my childhood, but offer ladders out… Form also embodies childish play and mess. Some poems circle round. Within the erasures, white tunnels of words are dug out from smudgy, hand-blacked rectangles. Elsewhere you have to puzzle out the links between the historical fragments as you jump from one to another – like stepping stones or hopscotch. Those sorts of engagements help generate active, empathetic readings.”
Ralf, Holly and I also each wrote a ‘how we did it’ blog for the Poetry School, where I’ve taken many classes as my collection bird of winter found its wings.
‘We know that the year – and more – of the pandemic was also the year of reading. And that means poetry as well as prose. It was a time when everyone was reminded how much we need to be exposed to the power of the imagination. And the short lists for the Forward Prizes 2021 are a reminder that the poetic imagination isn’t wholly introspective, although it cuts deep. It’s bold, limitless in ambition and it touches every part of our lives – our own hopes and fears, our communities, and the wider world that so often seems bewildering and over-powering. These poets find pathways into the deepest feelings and discover vantage points that take a reader (or a listener) to another place. In their hands we look at the world differently. This is a moment for poetry; and all these poets deliver. Read them, and take off.’
– James Naughtie, The chair of the 2021 Forward Prizes jury
Sometimes distance generates its own form of closeness. Or at least that was our experience, when Rachel Long and I connected through zoom to go deep with her debut, My Darling from the Lions, which was shortlisted for both the Forwards and Costa prizes in 2020. Each of us had instinctively positioned ourselves by a window – as if to share the same autumn afternoon light, notwithstanding being on opposite sides of London. Over the course of the two hours which followed, we talked about what it means to create as women, where we find the spaces and energies to nurture ourselves as artists, and why poetry is sideways-thinking. We asked how someone accesses their own ‘true’ perspective or ‘spirit level’; we agreed on the generative nature of play, and why translating another poet’s work can lead your own into new dimensions. Specifically, in Rachel Long’s case – that working with Adelaide Ivánova fed into her own poems of witness around the subject of sexual predation and assault. We then moved into a closer discussion of the extraordinary sequence of poems in which Rachel Long responds creatively to the challenging subject of sexual abuse in childhood – about which I also write. Together we explored language as reclamation, and how the process of articulating, and shaping, may enact a form of restitution and healing. Reviewing the transcript, we both felt that this second half of the conversation formed its own unit. I have therefore divided the interview into two segments, so that our readers have the option of either reading it right through, or in two halves as feels right to them. At the close of that tough year, I had no doubt that this was one of the most nourishing, but also radical conversations, I had in the whole of 2020. It’s the greatest honour to be able to share Rachel Long’s words with you, as we go forward as readers and writers into 2021 together.
AH: Can I start by asking about how My Darling from the Lions came into being Rachel Long? When, and how, did you start writing?
RL: I feel that in many ways I was maybe always writing it. I loved writing even as a child. I didn’t know what I was writing for a long time, in terms of subject or form. I return to the subjects that I have long been fascinated with – the lives of the people around me. The complexity of people’s stories, of how appearances are not necessarily the reality of what is going on inside. My mother came to the UK from Sierra Leone when she was eight. So many of her stories of growing up are holey snippets. The older I get, the more I realise they might actually be some kind of fiction or poetry. If you question something in one of my mother’s ‘origin stories’, she gets almost confused, or contradictory very quickly. The stories become murky, vague, abstract.
AH: I love that idea of murkiness. It’s full of possibility, and also really honest. In the collection, you explore everything from the harm caused by racism and sexual predation, all the way to what it’s like to grow up in the UK of dual heritage, this can’t have been an easy collection to write – at a creative as well as on a personal level?
RL: What is ever easy to write? I’m interested in what gets lost in memory, where it goes – how the body holds it. Being of dual heritage… I grew up in a white working-class area on the outskirts of London. My schools were majoritively white, my friends, half my family. I’m not sure that I thought of myself as Black for a long time. Mixed, half-caste, (dark-)light-skinned, all the rest of it, but not Black particularly. That was an understanding, a knowledge and an acceptance of a self that I had to carve out later, as I grew up, as left that estate, as I read, spoke and understood myself within a much wider context. When I was a girl, I thought that you had to choose what colour you were. I remember sitting in the back seat of my dad’s car, Dad driving, Mum in the passenger seat, and suddenly thinking, you must choose, now, whether you want to be white like Dad or black like Mum – isn’t that… disturbing? And as if I thought that I get to choose how the world perceives me.
AH: Picking up on what you were saying about claiming your Black identity as you grew older, certainly in decades past in England, the dominant culture wasn’t respectful of different identities. There was a pressure to only tick one box or feel of less worth if you didn’t tick that box. I knew Poly Styrene, of X-Ray Spex. She used to pretend to be Greek as a teenager in the 70’s. Once she became an artist, she was able to claim her dual heritage identity more fully.
RL: I understand that. It’s interesting that she could become closer to herself through her art.
AH: Poly was freed to claim her identity partly by working with live theatre as a teenager. Were there people who made becoming a writer more possible for you?
RL: What a beautiful question. Yes. I loved school. Primary school particularly, I felt so much freer at school than at home, and I loved learning, like very honestly loved it. My formidable headmistress, Mrs Wiley loved literature. She would make us recite poetry. Her favourite poem was WB Yeats’ ‘Aedh Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven’, (with the line “Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.”). Our morning assemblies consisted of who could get through the poem. I became good at reciting and at being shy, but showing off. Because of my love of English and of reading, she recommended me for some residential creative writing courses. On the weekends, and during the holidays, from when I was about 10 to 17, I spent time in the Essex countryside, which I loved, reading under trees, and watching Man Ray films at ten, or discussing silent French movies before sneaking off to play spin the bottle. As I got older obviously, that crux of being 14 and ashamed of everything, I completely hid what I had ‘got up to at the weekend’ from my friends – except perhaps my best friend. It’s good to be able to trust one person at least in life…. Anyway, my 10 year-old brain is going whish whish whish whish, just totally like woah, this is… beautiful, I feel like this is what I’m here for. We did things like creative dreaming – all of us, a gaggle of geeky ‘chosen children’ from all over the country, laying down in the grounds listening to what the grass was telling us. What a radical side-education! Without those easters and summers away, I hate to think where all my dreaming or talking to grass would have been wasted. On boys probably, in phone boxes, at the bottom of bottles. My childminder Barbara was also an amazing education for me. My mum and dad both worked so I would go to Barbara’s after school. Barbara loved sewing and knitting. She taught me to sew (I was never great at knitting). She taught me to draw and paint too, how to look after flowers. I feel very blessed to have had this creative education, to have learnt what I love from others, particularly from women seeing and encouraging me.
AH: At such a young age, that forms you as an artist. It’s letting you know that this is the way to be.
RL: Absolutely. If I didn’t have those people then, I would have had a different path, one I suspect I would not be happy in at all right now. I can’t think about the ‘other path’ for too long, I always well up very quickly, as if the possibility of it is still uncomfortably close. I suspect that is the same for most children, that they’ll thrive if opened up to what is possible.
AH: For sure. And there is the simplicity of playfulness. When I was pregnant with my second son, I did a playing course. There were no children there. It was for parents to enjoy playing. I built bricks and did all those things. That really was a brilliant thing to take back into my parenting. I connected with my joy and playfulness.
RL: I love that! What we do as poets is sort of play. Serious play.
AH: Yes, exactly. When it stops being play, it stops working. Being exposed to poetry early, you learnt how to tell without telling, because poetry works with a backward logic. You don’t just state a sequential narrative. You let it ooze out. It’s like sideways thinking. To develop your ability to sideways-think young, has to be a fantastic thing.
RL: I think you just nailed something for me Alice – or kind of opened something up for me – about sideways thinking. I don’t usually credit my parents for making me very creative, but I think the ways they are as people, people who don’t hide, but also don’t necessarily access or communicate how they more deeply feel, has influenced my work.
Mum will tell you exactly how she is feeling, but I think what she says is the surface, a lot of her anger and worry is fear. I think that underneath she is a lot quieter, shy, strange and dangerous, but she would never absolutely communicate that. My Dad says nothing about anything. So maybe as a child I watched them and understood something essential about what is said and unsaid, about how much you can communicate in your not-saying, in your subtle showing.
AH: To be able to connect the surface and the depth requires opening the channels in the way that you did as a child through creative play. For a lot of people, knowing how they feel isn’t easy. Connecting what they are experiencing on the surface with what’s driving it down below is tricky. Somehow art communicates this, even if it doesn’t do so explicitly. It lets it be understood.
AH: Nowadays, as a poet and a teacher, you work with language to expand and change awareness, and make the new. Were there artists who enabled you to see that your voice, as a women of colour, needed to be realized in a way that did not try to erase the contexts from which it took its shapes? Specifically, the female and the domestic, including the shadowed hinterlands between adolescence and adulthood, which are vulnerable times for many of us? Asking this question, I had in mind your poem ‘Apples’. It starts with the speaker running for a train – “tits play-doughing/ out of a shit bra” – then slides through an admission of her being “magazine educated” into a childhood memory of :
When the mum of my then-best friend said her daughter wasn’t allowed to play with me because I was another N-word – meaning Mum went round in her dressing-gown to slap her silly with her tongue, then returned to scatter the kitchen and shred Dad’s Guardian for not sticking up for us, for never saying anything –
RL: The person who comes to mind most is Caroline Bird, who was my Jerwood-Arvon mentor in 2015-16. Working with Caroline completely accelerated my work. I felt seen and heard and ‘good’, like I could do this, that it wasn’t all rubbish and a waste of time. Caroline was the first person to read my work and really see and hear me. Not in a weird tokenistic or racialized or classist way, as sometimes is ‘the way’. She read me un-bemused, nonjudgmentally, deadly seriously; essentially. That was radicalising for my poetry, for my practice, and for my personhood. Over that year I was able to let go of a lot of shame and therefore I could begin writing it. That came from finally not being or feeling judged, or boxed, or expected of. I realise that you’ve asked me about women of colour influencing me specifically and I have immediately offered Caroline, who is not a woman of colour – how can I phrase this so that it doesn’t sound ‘colour blind’ – let me access my own perspective… I don’t write (or read, or sleep or dream any of those essential, private, self-onto-self things) as a ‘woman of colour’. I write as myself — by that I mean, I don’t think our truest, deepest selves, at spirit level, register or identify with concepts of race, gender ecterea, the spirit doesn’t need these codes I don’t think, they aren’t necessary, and if the spirit level is also likely where the writing is from, then essentially do any of us write as our society-necessary, society-inflicted, society-worn labels? It is only later, when another person reads the work, that certain societal lenses may be worn to read and interpret the work. For example, in my poem, ‘Jail Letter’, I sit between my mother’s legs getting my hair plaited for what feels like all of Saturday. Only to go to school on Monday and be laughed at because my hair ‘looked like spiders’, but also because I had a Wednesday clip in and it was Friday or something. Sitting there as a girl, I did not realise the racial politics of hair, its implications, the perceptions of beauty and the precedence of European ideals, none of that, at least not consciously. I might have felt, suspected, some of it. I was just sitting there, bored out of my mind, in some discomfort. I wanted the poem to reflect that. I didn’t want the poems to have a knowledge of a context that is implausible for the little (mixed-race black) girl in it to reach yet. I badly want to leave the brackets out there because to constantly be a bracketed girl is not the girlhood I wanted, nor should any girl be bracketed, does this make any sense?
AH: Yes it does.
RL: Anyway, I wanted the poem to stay true to her authentic universe rather than be unhonestly aware of her place within the wider context, or indeed other people’s perceptions and dictations of it. And I think, I hope, that by doing that it makes the poem sad and funny, because she doesn’t realise, as she’s sitting there getting her hair plaited, what the reader might think about who she is and what she means, or what her hair means in the world, to others. I was supposed to be talking about Caroline and other influential women and I’m talking about authentic poetic universes!
AH: I was reading Toni Morrison in the 80’s. I felt understood by her writing, and I felt I understood myself. I was born in 1964 and sexual abuse in terms of children wasn’t discussed much until the 80s, by which time I was in my 20’s. It was to do with finding myself in her work as someone who was living a life, carrying a history, that most of society denied and excluded, before I could even articulate my own experience coherently.
RL: Morrison is one of the best writers that we have had on this planet. The fact that you feel personally understood and encompassed by that work, and that it also speaks to a universal experience – maybe it’s to do with identity, but also bloody good writing.
AH: Also, being formally inventive, because you need to make a language to say something that hasn’t been said and isn’t being said. You have to find a language that will actually do that. We both saw the Faith Ringgold Exhibition at the Serpentine. I feel that about her work. And in terms of our work as artists, that is a fantastic challenge to be set – because you know you really have to rise to it. That creates newness, originality, invention.
RL: ‘Apples’ is partly inspired by the experience of reading Morgan Parker’s collection, Other People’s Comfort Keeps Me Up at Night.Parker really harnesses a multiplicity in her work. She has all of these apparent contradictions and juxtaposition, allgoing on at once, which is, of course, most like life. One particular poem of Morgan’s is ‘How to Piss in Public and Maintain Femininity.’ Just the way it runs, it switches up, it is sliding-doory. This being of multiple things all at once inspired ‘Apples’. I think I have long felt lots of different things at once, sometimes contradictory, and sometimes only things other people said or thought were contradictory, but I knew them intimately to be one. I realized when writing ‘Apples’ that I had long felt like lots of apparently-different selves presenting as a single person.
AH: I love her work, and the way it takes from daily life, and makes it strange and powerful. In his memoir The Beautiful Struggle, Ta-Nihisi Coates makes a point of recording complex situations in direct, accessible language. Was that part of your intention for My Darling from the Lions?
RL: It’s the way I speak. It’s uncomfortably pronouncing words I confidently but silently read, it’s mispronouncing the same words my mum does, the dreaming holidays in the countryside talking to grass. It’s the mediocre comprehensive secondary school, using a flirtier voice to convince the bus driver to let me on without a ticket, and that voice sticking. It’s the sudden grammar school sixth form, University upt North, and only just now realising that I speak in about five different registers. Sometimes I am very aware and ashamed of it, and others I’m like, well, I start sentences with ‘I’m like’. I want to write in a way that feels true. Poetry is opening up a little in terms of reflecting a plethora of different voices and moving away from having one overarching voice that we must all listen very carefully and above all others to. My poem, ‘Helena’ was written after a conversation I had with a poet, who is from Peckham — not so far from where I grew up in south east London also. He was like, no you don’t talk like you are from South London, and sort of laughed at me for even thinking that I did/still did (did I ever?). So, then I went away and thought, OK, how did we used to speak when we were at school? –and or just after, at like 20, 21. As I was writing ‘Helena’ I realised that it is starkly different to how I speak now, even the pace of it is different, we spoke all in a rush to each other, all the time – and we swore a hell of a lot more. What I found interesting to was recalling old sayings, old ways of using language, ‘swear down’, ‘I’m not being funny, mate’, ‘at the end of the day’ (not all of these made the final edit, but at one point they were all in there). The poem is not a pretty poem, but it was liberating to write in a vernacular that was so essentially us, ours, that felt so much like I was speaking to Helena again, like, really. Our kind of ‘girl-speak’ was so rooted in a specific place and time.
AH: I love that. Going further with the idea of ‘girl-speak’, and the collective, you work with experiences you identify as not having happened to you personally, but that open to larger themes. In ‘Helena’, the speaker is witness to Helena coming round to their mutual friend Tiff’s flat, after being attacked by the bouncer at the nightclub where she worked. The language is raucous, high-energy girl-talk, that takes a turn for the nasty. Helena is speaking. Scarlett is Tiff’s daughter
The er/a and i/e/y rhymes punctuate the sonic patterning of this section with groan and cry sounds, without compromising the spoken feel of the language, or the heartbreak-humour with which Helena creates a retrospective shield for herself against the rape, which the reader is left to imagine. You translated the Brazilian poet and artist Adelaide Ivánova for a chapbook with the PTC last year, whose work denounces crimes of sexual violence. I wondered if this collaboration informed your work of witness in ‘Helena’, and if you could say something about the poem?
RL: I don’t think until I read your question that I truly understood how influential actually translating Adelaide Ivánova’s work was for me. In being invited by The Poetry Translation Centre to translate Adelaide’s work from the literals, and in being introduced to her when she came to the UK to launch and tour the collection, I was influenced, massively. I was moved by her activism, in life and on the page. You’ve made me think about what the act of translation does spiritually; to read someone else’s work, to be deep inside it, to experience and walk around in it. When I’m translating, I always feel like I’m in somebody else’s room. I look around this room trying to work out who this is, essentially, where things go, trying to understand why things are placed where they are placed, and I can, as the translator, move some things around, ask questions, understand. But it’s Adelaide’s room, her creation and design. When translating I aim not to rearrange too heavily, small touches, to extend my room metaphor, I suppose quarter-turn certain plants towards the window, smooth the covers, plump some pillows. Being in Adelaide’s room, the rooms of her poems and experiencing each of them was a joy and a challenge and a privilege.
AH: And they have incredibly tough subject matters.
RL: Incredibly tough, incredibly brave and dangerous too. Working with Adelaide probably did give me the permission, however subconsciously, to write ‘Helena.’
AH: Because it is a very tough poem. You give the story of the rape very clearly. It’s a horrible rape. We know it wasn’t the narrator’s experience. That’s made quite clear. It seemed to me something that was very important to get on the page. Rape is something that people do to each other, and the person to whom it’s done often feels so bad that they tend not to talk about it. That silence makes it more possible for the crime to continue.
RL: Absolutely. It was a tough poem to write – alleviated only by the fact that I kept going back to writing in our voices, and that did alleviate it in a way, because the way we used to speak, in a rush, all at once, angry and sad and laughing at once felt true, and like taking something back, her voice, her clear-as-a-bell voice. That’s what I think I wanted to get to with ‘Helena’. When things happened like that, we didn’t have the exact language, but we knew how to speak to each other, we knew how to tell each other things – but no power to actually help each other. Now, god forbid, if a friend of mine came and said something like this to me, I would be so better equipped, even in terms of language, and then other things thereafter, to be able to offer assistance to that friend if she wanted it. We didn’t, as girls. We glossed it over, at least in terms of what we said aloud, because we all knew that it was bad, but it was so bad the consequences of doing ‘nothing’ always seemed better than the repercussions of saying ‘something’ to people outside of our circle, outside of our experience and language.
AH: As human beings, when tough things happen to us, sometimes we shut them down to some extent, because we are at a point in our life when that’s the only safe thing to do. Helena said what happened, and then she took the shower. She was supported, and she took the shower, and washed it away. That’s an honest account of how we cope with very difficult things.
RL: I think about being that age again, with my girls, my sisters, my old friends or just other girls I went to school with. Really horrific things happened. Regularly. You’d come back to school on a Monday morning and each Monday there would be some standardly horrific story of what had happened at one party or another at the weekend, or at a bus stop, or in a local park. The frequency of these violences done unto us girls almost normalized it. It’s so heartbreaking to remember.
AH: I grew up in the late 70’s, early 80’s. I was reading Rebecca Solnit’s memoir, Recollections of my Non-Existence, which has just come out. She describes that omnipresent violence and threat of violence so strongly. I thought It wasn’t only me. She was having that experience on the West Coast of the US, in San Francisco. She described that predatory environment, being followed home, feeling that she was permanently on verge of being raped. She managed to escape rape, but some of her friends didn’t.
RL: This is not even a long time ago. So, it makes me glad to measure at least how far we’ve come in terms of speaking out about these. I think we have to be careful, or I do, not to be angry with our previous selves, because that was the world only moments ago, and it was the world that made those conditions, not us.
AH: Often when I have written about something difficult, I do a short Buddhist meditation around self-compassion. I never think I need to. But then I do it – and I feel so much less bad. I have to keep going back and being kind to that girl who I was.
RL: We had to survive in the only ways we thought were available and possible, right?
AH: I think a lot of tough things that happen to us as children, as adolescents, as young women, we seal away inside ourselves. We build protective tissue around them. At a later point, we often have to deal with them. When you’re young, you’ve got such a strong instinct just to survive, that you keep going through it somehow. I think you have a different level of life energy at that point, that drives you forward. It changes as we get older. That’s my sense of looking back on the hair-raising escapades of my teenage self, operating in a menacing world.
This is the point at which Rachel Long and I felt there was a natural break. In the conversation that follows, which was all part of our single meeting, we talk about how you can respond with agency and creativity to very difficult experiences, and the ways in which this process of articulation can become of itself reclamatory and healing.
AH: This seems the right place to ask you about the sequence of five or so poems within My Darling from the Lions, recording the sexual abuse of a young girl child by one of the minsters in the church she attends with her family, and the aftermath of this crime in her subsequent life. Because of my own background of having been sexually abused as a child, these made a great impression on me from when I first heard you perform them live. The first of these is ‘Night Vigil’, which is the third poem in the collection. It begins in a child-adult voice “I was a choir-girl. Real angel/ – lightning faced and giant for my age.” There is tongue in cheek wonder at its midnight start – “a time too exciting to fathom. / How the minute and the hour stood to attention!” The miracle stops there, however, as the rest of the poem falls down through time, to an ending its beginning could never have anticipated:
During the Three Members’ Prayer, my sister fell asleep under a chair, so she never knew
how I sang. Or how I fell silent when the evangelist with smiling eyes said in his pulpit voice,
Here, child. Had she woken, I would have told her Sleep, sleep!
so, she’d never know Smiling Eyes also meant teeth,
or that he had blown candles for hands, with which he led me down an incensed corridor,
and I followed.
While this is a very difficult experience to take on board, you generate protection for the reader and creator alike through the child’s desire to shelter her sister, and through the way the imagery lets what happened be apprehended step by step. The “blown candles” and “incensed corridor” are simultaneously sacred and penetrative. We have in that moment the choice to understand the simultaneous desecration of an act of faith, and a child’s body.
Workshops I have taken with you instigate an alchemy of deep, internal self-liberation. ‘Free-writing’, along with engaging with secondary sources, such as dreams or artworks, help generate less ‘managed’ creative responses? Was that how you put ‘Night Vigil’ together? How did it come into being kind of creatively?
RL: Maybe I should keep a kind of diary or a log of how each poem was written because I find it really hard to remember them.
AH: Like dreams.
RL: They are like dreams, that’s perfect Alice. Yeah, they are like my dreams. I can’t remember how I got there. Even sometimes with the edits, if I was to go back and find a real old version of that poem, I wouldn’t remember it. The only thing I do remember is that this poem was much longer. At that time, I was on the Jerwood-Arvon mentoring scheme with Caroline Bird. She was the first person to read that poem. As I said, I was grateful for the way Caroline read me. I had never written like this before. I had never framed such a peak experience. She didn’t do that awkward thing that people do, she read it as an artwork, or a draft of a work of art, and did not focus on the ‘apparently personal’ experience in the poem, but the poem as an experience itself. I’m trying to recall now, and I think part of what made the early draft longer is that it continued with the girl down the corridor. Caroline asked, why don’t you end it here?” — end at the girl following the man down the corridor, the poem becoming the corridor. In this way, the reader experiences it as the little girl, and becomes the girl, walking, ever-walking down that corridor with that man. The corridor then also becomes a metaphor for how the experience goes on, haunts you in many ways, forever.
AH: Exactly, and it’s much scarier.
RL: Much scarier, yes. And then she went “whoosh” with the pen, and she was like What do you think? And it kind of made me go eurgh like in my stomach. I was like yes; this is what it felt like. As a poem that was the closest and most fitting frame for it. If you end a poem in a place where you have refrained from summing it up or allowing your older voice to come in and intercept it – you leave the reader in freefall.
AH: That is an amazing answer. It’s just a stunning, stunning poem. I heard you perform it live, and really longed for the time it would be published, and I could read it on the page because it felt so important to me personally.
RL: Is that when we met that night, was that in the Poetry Cafe with Kaveh Akbah?
AH: I think so, yeah.
RL: It was so beautiful, and you were so generous afterwards, thank you.
AH: It was just so impactful for me. I had a hunger to be able to have those poems on the page. I knew they would make my life feel different – and they did. I’m really serious about that. There are many reasons why this collection has been important to me, but I hungered to be able to read those poems.
The next poem but one after ‘Night Vigil’ is ‘The Clean’. It starts out sounding like it’s ‘about’ bulimia – “Imagine/ eating all the snow/ you’ve ever wanted/ in one sitting, / not having to pay for it.” But then, after adding in “avocado”, “toast butter/ cascading your fingers” and “pink prosecco”, it morphs into something sadder. Or maybe just more specific, if you take the view that many eating disorders stem from something the individual cannot stomach. The second stanza reveals:
I know a place that is snow falling from the Artex ceiling into a room you will never return to. A promise piling like cable knit. 4-ply snow-day snow.
Some of the biggest things I write about are things which I had the least control over, but which have impacted me very deeply. Following on from ‘Night Vigil’, this room full of falling snow feels like a frozen, traumatic moment which is continuously happening, but cannot at the same time be properly felt. Does that seem like a fair reading to you, and would you be able to say something about these first two stanzas?
RL: I think it’s a stunning reading. What I wanted to do with ‘The Clean’ was to write about a woman with bulimia, and then in the second stanza, perhaps trace through the colour as it was, through this whiteness. But then in the same sense, trying to walk through the colour into why this woman is kneeling at this bowl of whiteness and expelling. Without wanting to say explicitly, because I don’t even know if that is necessarily explicit even to my understanding, but to wonder whether that because of sexual abuse, in childhood in that snow room, as in that frozen room, whether that is the reason, or a contributing reason, to why she has bulimia.
Is there something about her body that would be less, have been less desirable to someone else had she looked different? Had she been in a different body, if her body did something different, would that be able to change the outcome? This is what you said about lack of control. Bulimia is very much about what can and cannot be controlled.
AH: This is a generalization, but ever since the sexual abuse began when I was a child, I have always struggled with IBS. It is as if my body wants to throw things out. The snow room isn’t the end of ‘The Clean’, though. The final verse begins “I know a place where/ the sad can’t go.” Now, expulsion becomes a political act as the speaker instructs the protagonist “Go on, baby, give it back/ to whence it came. / Dispel three dinosaur dinners/ like forgiveness, / like it never happened.” The subject is told “Girl, you can be new, / surrender it all/ into one bowl. This, / your hollow.” The suggestion is that voiding, and expelling, are also creative acts, because resisting and rejecting what was forced in without consent. In this context, is it fair to think the holding pages of the collection make a kind of bowl, and create opportunities for restitution? Not just by vomiting forth, but by expressing things that were silenced at lots of levels.
AH: It seems to me that the turn in the poem was crucial. That’s why I wanted to put the question into two halves, that turn into restitution and beauty, without denying.
RL: Thank you, Alice. An act of restitution and freedom from your own body. You can be free of it. An action can be erased. You can float above it.
AH: Speaking it and putting it in words is part of that process of creative expulsion.
RL: Yeah, absolutely. You have reminded me. I always did feel like that – free and light.
AH: I am really interested in how we make it through and how we make it through partly creatively as well. Rather than just casting people as being without agency, also looking at the ways in which we claim ourselves. Bulimia is widespread through society. Many people experience who are not necessarily artists. There is a sort of restitutory justice in the body somehow.
Suggesting that maybe something has shifted, and become freer as a result of this act of voiding and voicing, the next poem, ‘Open’, moves from a place of potential trauma to one of freedom:
This morning, she told me I sleep with my mouth open and my hands in my hair. I say, What, Tiff, like screaming? She says, No, Rach, like abandon.
It is one of a sequence of poems, all titled ‘Open’, that link and orchestrate the collection, changing small but significant details with each iteration. You said in your Forwards interview with Kim Moore that Don Patterson encouraged you to develop this strand. I wondered if you could say something more about it?
RL: I was speaking to the brilliant Nuar Alsadir about dreams for a radio programme. She said something like, I liked the ‘Open’ sequence, I liked how they show these flashes of awakenings, these flashes of desire. She thought that they showed the waker’s unconscious desires. More and more with this book, post-publication, I discover new things in it. Oftentimes by readers – who have far more insight than me into what I have apparently ‘done’. Don Paterson really did encourage them significantly, I think originally there were three, but he suggested weaving them throughout the whole first section of the book. As soon as he suggested it, I was like, of course! It made poetic sense, narrative sense. Don is an extraordinary editor. I think that increasing my explorations into that ‘Open’ sequence opened up what the whole book concerns and interrogates, intimacy, desire, dreams, the material and immaterial, appearance and reality.
AH: I make all my work completely blind like a mole digging for the surface, with no clue really as to what I am doing. You find out later. The news catches up with you.
RL: I like that, like moles.
AH: We have very, very powerful paddles for digging up through the earth, as far I’m concerned. I have to work blind. I can’t just sit down and do it. It has to come to me.
AH: ‘8’ is another poem which continues ‘The Clean’s’ process of marking the white page. Its act of witnessing is also the relocation of a moment of private, concealed horror to a public externalized space. As with ‘Night Vigil’, the speaker moves back and forward between being a bewildered, uncomprehending child to a more knowing adult. So, readers can have a sense of how the poem works, I’m going to quote the first section in full:
‘Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean: wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.’ – Psalm 51:7
this memory can’t skip it hops on one leg the other making the buckles on my mary janes bounce then clang cute shackles my feet will hopscotch-land on 8 wash me at 8 I can’t tell time i’m led through school and play tea then bed at 8 i can’t read faces tell hands to stop unfreeze my grin that room his weight wash me and I shall be the girls at school call that place mini but mum says it’s a front bottom
Later “time decides itself till i’m pressed/ apple against that wall that sunday/ that school”. The voice of the poem is somewhere between a playground skipping song and a crime scene report, with “wash me” breaking through over and over again like a child’s plea to undo the moment when “touched/ by the hand of his clock i am/ instantly older”.
While the narrative is devastating, sonically, this is a very lovely poem, especially when you perform it live, partly because of the way the rhymes and half-rhymes dance through the lines. I wondered whether choosing to tell ‘8’ in this way – weaving the everyday words the child might have used into the story it is suggested that she was unable to tell – is a form of restitution and reclamation of the child’s self and innocence, conferring a retrospective agency through beauty, and as well as through witness?
RL: The language had to be the language of the girl at eight. The lines all being of eight syllables was because I had the image of the girl playing hopscotch, the beat, the rhythm, the form came from that. Even like the lower-casing of the letters. I wanted it to look and feel on the page as if she is writing and/or telling it.
AH: Because it is the only lower case i/ first person in the collection?
RL: It felt right for this poem. She has been made less of a capital I, rendered less of a person by another, a big I.
AH: But it’s also like a sort of crime scene report. I mean we get what went on. She speaks, but she is also spoken for by the poem. That to me is its power. She stays small but the poem is actually pretty hardcore in what it delivers. That’s an amazing achievement that you can do both at the same time.
RL: Thank you Alice. Do you know, it also came out of, Kathryn Maris’s brilliant Poetry School class which we were both students of at the same time One week she set us an assignment to write in the intonation or rhythm of a prayer. What I handed in the week after was not very good, but with much longer to think about it and let it ruminate and ‘come out’ in its own time, I do think that exercise was the catalyst for ‘8’
AH: Some of her prompts were very valuable to me. I did a really good Poetry School workshop with Shivanee Ramlochan online at the end of 2019. There are some poems that I very very definitely have no intention of ever writing. Those are the ones that it is useful to have prompts for – because otherwise I will strenuously protect myself from writing them for decades. A prompt can knock out that little peg that you have blocked into the hole. Then the poem pops out.
Thinking about healing, wholeness, and restitution, are central to the beginning of the second section, titled ‘A Lineage of Wigs’. The first poem, ‘Orb’, floats like a rainbow soap bubble of a praise poem. It calls to mind some of Selima Hill’s brevity, but takes it to new places:
Mum combs her auburn ‘fro up high. So high it’s an orb. Everyone wants to – but cannot – touch it.
The “auburn ‘fro” is an angel’s halo vested in human form, and an emblem of unbroken-ness. Is that ‘perfection’ something you wanted to assert and reclaim?
RL: Yes, absolutely. The word orb changed. It was crown at first, because in that sequence there is the image of the queen arrowed on a sofa.
AH: Yeah, I remember that.
RL: It did sort of look like that. I think to me when I was younger, looking up at my mother . I’m really enjoying the way that you have read and seen the poem. That was exactly what I wanted to do with it. I’m so glad you have read and seen it like that.
AH: It felt like a really important reset point. We go from a tough poem to a place of wholeness and beauty and unbrokenness. The last question I’d like to ask you is about the title and the cover, which shows a young Black girl in a candy striped dress, with her back to the reader, looking inwards towards the poems that lie ahead. Can I just ask you about the title?
RL: My Darling from the Lions is taken from Psalm 35. ‘Rescue my soul from their destruction, my darling from the lions.’ It is a ’ Psalm that I heard a lot growing up, either hearing it recited in church, or by my mother from her bedroom, or we were instructed to say it, for protection or for strength. The collection wasn’t always called My Darling… Even up to a year before publication it had a different working title. But, for some reason, I must have read Psalm 35 again or seen something of it, or was reminded of it, and by this verse particularly and it was as if it was the first time I’d read it, I was like that’s so beautiful. A darling for a soul. There is so much rich and stunning language in the Bible, the poetry of it all. . When I read that verse again, I thought, this is what I am trying to get to with the collection. The girls and the women particularly are threatened by different lions. I wanted it to be a sort of a call for help and protection from something higher, whether that be God, or art. I wanted the collection to pose the question: can the spirit survive life intact? I also love the idea of referring to oneself as a darling. You can, even when something ugly has happened to you, begin to love yourself enough to refer to yourself as you would another woman or another girl. I would call Tiff or Helena darlings. Hey, my loves, my darlings.
AH: That’s absolutely beautiful. I think that’s the perfect place at which to end. It’s been an amazing privilege to talk about this extraordinary book. I have waited a long time to be able to hold these poems. I’m so grateful that they are out in the world – and that they will be coming out in America as well with Tin House. My Darling from the Lions is a wonderful book to read – and will change how people think. Thank you Rachel Long.
RL: Thank you so very much, Alice.
Rachel is at @rachelnalong on twitter.
Rachel Long’s debut collection, My Darling from the Lions was published by Picador in August 2020. It was shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection, and The Costa Book Award 2020. Rachel is the founder of Octavia Poetry Collective for women of colour.
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.
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.