‘sea level’ : the poem as miniature tornado – ‘bird of winter’ podcast no 2.

Like miniature tornados rising up off the page, poems move energy.  Working with words and sounds, they carry their readers, or listeners, into spaces which are new to us – hopefully without inflicting damage.   By involving us imaginatively, and creatively, they open our consciousnesses to transformative alchemies. Or that’s the aim. For those of us who work with difficult materials, the reader or listener can of course decide how far ‘in’ they want to go, and how much of the created world they allow to come alive.  When a poem has an element of catharsis, they can also choose if they want to become part of the shift this precipitates. 

Naples seen from above, with Vesuvius

To explore how this poem/tornado process might take place, my second bird of winter podcast rides the energy flow of ‘sea level’, which came together on a winter trip to Naples. Specifically, I engage with how the poem imagines worlds to generate forward and upward movement. In this case, it’s from a place of suppression and denial towards a place of comprehension and healing, and from underground darkness up towards the light of day.  If you’d like to listen to this as a podcast, with an optional prompt at the end for your own art-making, the link is here: https://youtu.be/pJLPHD5A2sE

If you’d prefer to check it out, developed for the page as an essay, please keep reading. The photographs are ones I took in Naples.  As a word of warning – this episode mentions sexual abuse briefly, in the context of the weight of silencing that can arise from this crime, and its potential for continued resonance in our adult lives.  I also explore how we can move beyond its heavy legacy towards reclamation. While I’ll be  tracking the energy flow through the individual lines of ‘sea level’, to hear the poem from start to finish please follow this link to my recording: 

sea level

Naples harbour at nightfall

For ‘sea level’s tornado to lift off, it needed both darkness and light. Real tornadoes require warm humid air, and cold dry air, to create the rotating updraft that leads to the formation of the funnel cloud.   In this case, I wanted readers to feel the oppressiveness of the silence and denial that abusers, including my own, force onto children.  These weights are carried by many of us whose experiences have been denied or dismissed.  Having encountered them within the physical landscape of the poem, we can enter into the relief that arises when they are released, collectively, into an act of witness and reclamation.

Back in December 2018, the day before I wrote the first draft of ‘sea level’,  (when I still had no idea it was coming to me), I’d visited the palatial Archaeological Museum, in the grimy heart of Naples. The city’s soundtrack is a symphony of car horns but the tight street grid in the old town dates back to Roman times.  Extraordinary finds, from statues, to frescoes, to objects from daily life including a charred cradle, were excavated from the volcanic rock that covered the ancient city of Herculaneum.  Key items are displayed in room after room, alongside equally dazzling, moving, and mundane, treasures from the neighbouring city of Pompeii.  They make you feel as if time is melting and you no longer know quite where you stand.

Wall painting of young woman from Archaeological Museum

While Pompeii was covered with ash that was relatively easy to shift when Vesuvius erupted, four metres of molten volcanic materials settled into solid rock over ancient Herculaneum.  To rediscover the city, the original excavators had to tunnel down, partly below the modern town of Ercolano, at great personal risk from poisonous gases and cave-ins, beginning during the eighteenth century.  Reading about them, and seeing old illustrations in my guide book, called to mind my own painful, stumbling, sometimes dangerous and destabilising, process of excavating my childhood memories. I embarked on this in my thirties, during the 1990s, with the support of a skilled psychotherapist.

Those same childhood memories were moving in the shadowed corners of my thoughts as I walked around the museum, trying to take in as much as possible, and then explored the tiny shops and tight backstreets of Naples while dusk came and people started to congregate in bars and cafes after work. While most people think of December in terms of holidays and celebrations, for me it marks the anniversary of when the penetrative sexual abuse began during my childhood, in 1972.  I was eight and a half. With my abuser, who was my mother, I’d just moved to a small village in Wiltshire following the death of my diplomat father.   Even decades later, whenever I can, I go abroad briefly at that time of year, to reset the light in England, which can intensify the return of flashbacks and nightmares. 

Eighteenth century anonymous illustration of visiting the excavations at Herculaneum

Despite the Southern Italian location, the night after I visited the Archaeological Museum, I woke in the early hours from a dream of being held down in the darkness, as had happened when I was a child.  Lying in the dark hotel room, cold and scared, the feeling the dream left me with,  after a day of imagining  the still largely buried ancient city of Herculaneum, and then walking Naples’ shadowy, narrow twisting back streets, somehow led to the phrase “there will always be the city/ beneath this city charted by no one” dictating itself. This became the first two lines of ‘sea level’. I was thinking of Herculaneum. I was also articulating my own underground memories, nestled beneath the surface  of my daily life, but swimming up to its surface again in the crack in time that the December anniversary had opened.

Jotting the words down, on a bedside scrap of paper, but also opening myself to the energy I could feel rising up, I next heard “where column of stone tears/ cling to the ceilings.” As a child, I could neither cry, nor cry out, in bed beside my abuser. When you visit underground cave systems, the stalactites and stalagmites can seem like frozen ghosts, caught momentarily in the electric lights of the present.   I knew these stone columns were my own emotions, unarticulated and unacknowledged, until my thirties – when I first started to thaw and allow myself to re-experience them with professional support.  Brittle and dangerous until that point,  they had hung within me like unwieldy stone daggers, triggering panic attacks and flashbacks, as is the case for many peoples who have experienced trauma.   But the image was by no means exclusively sad. Stalactites are also objects of great beauty. Crystalline structures, created from dripping water, they sparkle when illuminated, and make visible the accretions of time. 

Seeing the lines on the hotel notepad,  I felt again that tornado of energy rising within them, driving the narrative forwards.  What came to me next was an image that called back the lost inhabitants of my imagined underground city “whose people were once/ lost or vaporised/ their houses and temples/ buried and forgotten”.  This of course happened historically to the citizens of Pompeii and Herculaneum – whose lives we now know in considerable detail thanks to the works of recovery undertaken by archeologists, and scholars. Within the carbonised cradle, the feather-light residue of a baby testified to his or her former presence. In Pompeii, archeologists pour plaster into voids left in the ash where bodies decomposed, to cast out the shapes of the people who fell trying to escape Vesuvius.

Figures cast from hollows left in the ash at Pompeii photo Wikipedia

By the end of 2018, when I visited Naples, I had begun to share the poems which were my own creative acts of recovery. I was also being mentored by Pascale Petit under the Jerwood Arvon scheme.  Through the responses I was receiving from her and other people, I knew that by writing about my childhood, the spell of denial thrown over my own life was being undone.  This also happens when other denied and buried histories – including those of enslavement, persecution, and genocide – are recovered and documented.

Writers including Primo Levi, who recorded his experience of Auschwitz, and the long journey home, and Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou, who make work in response to the histories of enslavement and racism, and the impacts of colonisation, were integral to my own process of giving creative testimony, as was Pascale Petit. Also crucial to my ongoing sense of possibility have been works of exploratory witness from contemporaries writing alongside me including Bhanu Kapil, Sandeep Parmar, Isabelle Baafi, Romalyn Ante, Jenny Mitchell, Rachael Allen, Rachel Long, Caleb Femi, Will Harris, Nina Mingya Powles, Troy Cabida, Arji Manuelpillai, Karen Smith, Natalie Linh Bolderston, Holly Pester, Ralph Webb and Cynthia Miller – to name only a very few. 

Carried forward by so many powerful examples, scribbling in bad handwriting by the streetlight coming through the gap in the curtains, I felt myself caught up into the process of collective reclamation and voicing. This was the journey of the poem, from darkness to light, from silence to noise.  As it took hold of me, with the Bay of Naples moving as a wash of liquid blackness beyond the town, I heard “let these people  who are my people/ enter your lives again”.  What had been denied and pushed down was rising up now in a way that made me think of a different set of tunnels altogether. 

Oritigia, showing temple columns in the wall of the church.

These were the tunnels under the Sicilian town of Ortigia, that I had previously visited with Pen, the younger of my two adult sons. The town has existed since classical times, and its main church is made from a former Greek temple, whose columns are still visible within the walls.  Ortigia’s deep network of tunnels were used over the centuries for rituals, burials and shelter, including from bombing during the second world war.  They formed places of safety, as we discovered during a guided tour.  Going underground in the town square, the musty, twisting passages emerge from darkness into the light of day at sea level, where the white gold rock of the island meets the turquoise waves. It was this memory which informed the next lines – “and hope will shaft passages/ up through the bedrock”. The photograph I chose for the YouTube podcast was taken on that holiday.  Being with my own son, by the iridescent waters of the Mediterranean, was in my mind as the last lines of the poem came to me, as you will be able to hear again. 

sea level

alice hiller emerging from the tunnels in Ortigia, photo by Pendragon Stuart.

‘sea level’ moves from suppression and denial, into life and community, ending “until we swim free/ within the breathing harbour of morning”.   The double sound meaning of its final word – morning – holds within it an echo of the sorrow and loss which is also part of the process of the poem.  It gives the journey into the light an element of circularity, echoing the circling of energy which is also integral to the formation of a tornado.  Those of us who have known difficult times will recognise how this circling can be manifested in the return of memories and anniversaries of the sort which kicked off the poem for me. While such a legacy is not easy to carry, I understand that it forms the foundation of who I am as a person, and as an artist, and has become one of the deep energy sources that fuel my work and my political consciousness.

Sunrise over the harbour in Naples

If anything in this blog has been difficult, the Mind website has valuable links.

If you would like to read more about bird of winter please go to the page in this blog, where I explain its background, or follow this link to Pavilion Poetry’s website: http://bit.ly/birdhiller.

If you would like to try out putting your own journey poem or artwork together, the following prompt may give you a few ideas. 

The first stage of putting your own journey poem or artwork together will be to think of an experience, feeling or memory which will be your starting point. It doesn’t have to be taken from your own life, but it should be something that you can potentially travel beyond to a new place, physically, emotionally,  geographically or conceptually.  This is what will give your work its forward motion and form its primary energy source.

In my case, the journey was from my child to my adult self, from a crime taking place to its anniversary many decades later, and from an individual, silenced position, to a collective act of witness. Be careful if your explorations start to feel upsetting for any reason, and plan beforehand how to stay emotionally safe.  You might want to have a friend you can connect with, or a helpline you can call, or another form of support. 

The next stage is to select your recording materials.  You might want to write on a sheet of paper or in a notebook, or type into a new document on your computer, or speak into your phone using a voice memo app.  All are equally good.   Once you’re ready, set a timer for five minutes, and then write, or speak freely, and without censuring yourself, about the starting point of your experience. What you’re looking to capture is the emotional mood and colour of the subject, rather than any formal description. Rough jottings, phrases, and images are great. 

Naples from the island of Capri

The next step will be to repeat this writing or recording process for another five minutes, envisaging and describing the place where the journey travels to.   You could do this straight after, or you might want to leave it until another day, week, or even month.  Sometimes poems and artworks come quickly, but other times they reveal themselves to us more slowly and gradually.    When you’ve got the two sets of material, combine them into a single document, so you can see how they sit together.

Beyond this, or alongside the process, you want to start thinking about a physical terrain across which the emotional journey of your poem or artwork can realise itself.  In my case, it was the double set of tunnels in Herculaneum and Ortigia, which became a single joined underground landscape. They could be landscapes you know personally, or ones you have experienced either online or via film or television or books. They could be from the past, or the present.  

The sea off Ortigia in Sicily.

Once you have identified your landscape, or landscapes, you want to generate some words around them.  If they are nearby, maybe visit them with your phone to speak into, or paper to write on. Otherwise, spend some time just looking at them online or in books. As you’re engaging with the landscapes, notice the feelings and ideas that come up, and again jot down phrases and images.  Do it as a timed session if that’s feasible and helpful.  As before, be careful if this starts to feel upsetting for any reason, and plan beforehand how to stay emotionally safe.

Land travelling into water

The final step will be to bring together your two sets of words and images – about the experience, and the landscape – in a way that makes the journey of your poem or artwork travel forward through time and across geography to its place of arrival. 

Good creating – and thank you for reading. Please sign up to the blog if you would like to be notified of other bird of winter podcasts and materials, and writing and interviews more generally on the topic of working creatively and transformatively with difficult materials.          

                                             

Naples underground

Like spring after winter – growing and claiming life beyond disaster.

When I think of adolescence, the unruly rush of spring growth, that transforms woodlands after winter comes to mind. Trees burst their buds into leaf, and plants grow towards the light following months of dormancy. Walking with my dog Ithaca in Shotover woods, above Oxford, as the seasons changed this year, I observed and photographed this almost ecstatic transition close up. I saw it with senses made more acutely responsive by the restrictions of lockdown. Like everyone, my daily life through the winter was defined by ‘sameness’ – without access to the visual stimuli of museums and films in cinemas and the different landscapes that travel and social contacts can open.

And iridescent carpet of nettles in Shotover County Park, near Oxford.

At the time, I was getting ready to launch bird of winter with my brilliant fellow Pavilion Poets Alice Miller and Sarah Westcott in May. The collection responds to my childhood experiences of being groomed, and then sexually abused, by my mother. It also documents the difficult teenage years beyond this as I found my uncertain way towards reclaiming myself and living again. When I was writing the individual poems, I would necessarily be in a single emotional space or remembered time. It might be reconnecting with my late father and grandmother, whose love helped me come through, or finding ways to bring much more complex memories of the grooming and the abuse, and their aftermaths, to the page.

Ithaca in a field of buttercups

With the poems orchestrated into their structure by my brilliant poet-editor at Pavilion, Deryn Rees-Jones, what became uppermost in my mind was the movements between them. Divided into three parts, the collection flows together like waves rising up a beach to lift their tide of moods and images into the shore of creative witness. Then it rallies its forces to carry the darkness of the abuse far out to sea – revealing the gleaming seaweed and new sands of the healing with which the final poems close.

cover of bird of winter

Holding the sea-coloured book in my hands, turning its pages, I saw, and felt, how the way I was groomed set up and fed into the abuse, making it impossible to refuse. I also recognised with a new clarity how even when it was over, the abuse left me acutely vulnerable as a teenager, through having broken down any boundaries I might have had. But reading over bird of winter’s teenage poems, I also re-experienced the ferocious life force that puberty awakened in me, along with a hunger for the world beyond what I had known. This helped me reach towards my future like a plant towards the sun, in many different ways. These included forming new friendships, deepening my interest in books and the arts more generally, and beginning to travel alone. Adolescence also gave me the confidence to experiment, however awkwardly, with my reclaimed sexuality, and through this begin to separate myself emotionally from my abuser.

Foxgloves in June.

Once bird of winter was launched and out in the world, with many warmly generous responses from readers and people who watched the launch online, my thoughts kept going to my teenage self, surrounded by danger and possibility both at once. On my woodland walks with Ithaca, the foxgloves we spotted seemed like young girls, flamboyantly delicate, standing out from the foliage around them, but also susceptible to injury – as a flower can be picked and broken because it is not able to defend itself. When I turned sixteen, in the summer of 1980, I had a short white playsuit that I wore all the time. The bells of the white foxgloves in particular, cupped one on top of the other, brought back to me my own young body within that light cotton, and my unawareness of how I might be perceived.

White foxgloves growing up between the ferns and brambles.

During those teenage years, I faltered in my education, and was harshly judged by those around me as the impact of the abuse started to shape my behaviours and choices, as many young people are still today. Reconnecting with those times made me realise that it was not enough only to publish poems. I also needed to write and speak directly about the experiences held within them to expand the discussion. Children and teenagers who have been subjected to this crime deserve to be understood compassionately and respectfully as they work to reclaim their lives. Creative witness, and the discussion it engenders, are powerful tools for supporting this. Even, and especially, if recovery is necessarily messy and stumbling at times.

View from the path up to Shotover from Risinghurst

To further the work of changing awareness around sexual abuse in childhood, and help generate engagement, I wrote a performance text for Neptune’s Glitter House, which I also recorded as a podcast, exploring adolescence as a time of reclamation for those of us who have been subjected to sexual abuse in childhood. It features live readings of nine of my poems including ‘sea level’, ‘tessellation’, ‘wall painting removed from the house of the surgeon’, ‘mirror’, ‘when they begin to have feathers’, ‘sagittae’, ‘becoming your channel of pearl’ and ‘quadrant’. In addition to the poems themselves, I speak about their contexts, and the subject more generally. These words which are lifted from my introduction to the podcast:

As a bi-queer woman, club culture is something that resonates with me.  I love its strobed shadowiness, and potential for transformations, and discovering new selves through playing with  refractions of your identity.  And of course all that glitter, ironic and otherwise.  When I was a teenager in the late 1970s and early 80s, the time I’m going to explore, punk and two tone gave way to the ruffles and swags of the new romantics, and glitter balls were mainly synonymous with low-fi seaside discos in unfashionable towns, often along hot European coastlines.  There time slowed to a trickle.  Adventures could open into the night like strange flowers.

Poppy photographed growing on wasteland in London this summer.

If you would like to listen to the full podcast, please follow the link below. In terms of safeguarding, be aware that it contains references to the aftermaths of sexual abuse, but opens and closes with poems of healing. If you need support with anything the podcast touches on, the Mind website has valuable links.

Neptune’s Glitterhouse Performance on ‘Reclaiming Adolescence’ : https://t.co/D1WKymRpGu?amp=1

A canopy of new green covering the woodland floor

Following up from recording this podcast, I also wrote a memoir-essay for The Friday Poem website, published in August, which looks closely at four of the teenage poems in bird of winter. Titled ‘I think she is beginning’, (from a comment in my medical notes by the psychiatrist who treated me for anorexia when I was thirteen), this tracks how the poems enact my journey from the darkness of abuse towards the new light of healing. Again, it’s a journey that millions of people around the world are making every day. The essay begins:

Adolescence is seldom tidy or straightforward. Trying to locate ourselves beyond the lives we knew and lived as children gives rise to exploratory behaviours that outsiders can be quick to condemn.   For those of us subjected to the crime of sexual abuse in childhood, the challenges and potential dangers are inevitably greater.  This was my own experience.  My abuser was my mother.   Without appropriate support, the changes of puberty may push us back towards our places of injury, and emotional disassociation.  If we have not been able to articulate or process the original trauma, there is also often little to mitigate the destabilising impact of reconnection with complex energies.

If you would like to read on, the full article can be found here. As before, I refer to the aftermath of sexual abuse in childhood, and the Mind website is a valuable source of support should you need any.

Ithaca in rest mode with her ball.

While I write these words in London, beyond the city the woods are moving from the heavy, green vegetation of high summer, towards the very first intimations of autumn. In the next months, leaf fall will reveal the bones of the trees, and the shapes their branches print onto the sky, as their roots co-link underground. Working alone, but with Ithaca close by, I hope what I say here may speak to all of us making strong lives beyond sexual abuse in childhood, and give support to the larger societies within which these works of reclamation and transformation take place, as communities of trees share their resources in order to grow and flourish.

If you would like to buy bird of winter it’s available here: https://uk.bookshop.org/books/bird-of-winter/9781800348691

If you need support via the Mind website please click this link: https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/

Reading with Alice Miller and Sarah Westcott introduced by Mona Arshi

I will be reading from bird of winter online on 9 September at 7PM UK time with Alice Miller and Sarah Westcott for Chener books. Tickets are free, but you need to email Chener Books in advance at chenerbookshop@gmail.com.

Flyer advertising Chener Books reading on 9 September with Alice Hiller, Alice Miller and Sarah Westcott

Introducing the bird of winter podcast series: exploring working safely and creatively with difficult materials through discussion and prompts.

cover of bird of winter

Link to bird of winter podcast no 1: finding words to hold things that can be hard to say : https://youtu.be/wnVHd5JR3cQ  It’s part of my commitment to changing awareness through working creatively beyond our places of silence.

How much does it matter what a work of art is ‘about’?  Do we only watch a film to find out what happens at the end?  Or is it to see the actors look towards each other, then drop their gazes? Do we also want to discover how they inhabit the skins of their characters, what landscapes are revealed by the bends in the road, how the mood changes when darkness falls?  All these elements are also the story.  They let us absorb the process of the film, and make us care about its outcome, because they involve us in what happens and why.  By engaging with them, we feel and think along with what we’re watching.  We bring our own imaginations, our own understandings, our own experiences into the mix.  

The same is true for poems.  Although their format is more compressed, it’s not only what the poem ‘says’ that catches us.  Of course that central energy matters.  But also how it is said – and why.  I believe the how and the why are particularly important when we write about our difficult things.  If we’re going to ask a reader, or a listener, to come on board with a complex or challenging topic, we need to help them engage actively, and with imaginative agency.  That way the material is not simply inflicted on them.  They can choose what to make of what rises from the page – and through this exercise a measure of control and safety.   

I founded, and have been facilitating a workshop for poets working with difficult materials since 2017.  It now has over fifty members, and has expanded into the Voicing our Silences website with dynamic sections run by different poets including Maia Elsner, Tamsin Hopkins, Rachel Lewis and Mary Mulholland. Others among our poets also include Romalyn Ante, Isabelle Baafi, Natalie Linh Bolderston, S. Niroshini, Natalie Whittaker,  Arji Manuelpillai, Jeffery Sugarman, Kostya Tsolakis, Joanna Ingham, Julie Irigaray, Wendy Allen, Patrizia Longhitano, Chaucer Cameron, Rochelle Roberts, Dan Fitt-Palmer, Holly Conant and SK Grout – to name but a few. 

As a group, we’ve had many conversations over the years, which have informed and shaped my own poems in bird of winter.  A considerable part of my collection passed through our workshop feedbacks at different stages.  I therefore wanted to use bird of winter’s publication this May by Pavilion Poetry, part of Liverpool University Press, to take some of our group’s and my own thinking around working with difficult materials out into the wider world. As with the Voicing Our Silences website, I hope we can support other people bringing their creative voices into the larger conversation. 

To facilitate this process, I’m launching the bird of winter podcast series. Each podcast includes a discussion and prompt, plus a performance of the poem I explore.  The first podcast is about working with things that live in the gaps and shadows of our lives, and finding words to hold things we find difficult to say. This is something which I know many of us face.  I investigate this theme relative to my title poem, (also called ‘bird of winter’), and specifically the creative strategies I came up with.  Because the poem looks at my experience of being treated in hospital for anorexia aged thirteen, and includes references to psychological vulnerability after sexual abuse in childhood, I have included the full text of the discussion and performance of the poem ‘bird of winter’ below the photo of the seagull. People who have concerns can read it first if they are concerned about being triggered.

If you would rather jump straight in and listen, the podcast is here. It’s auto-captioned and takes 10 minutes : https://youtu.be/wnVHd5JR3cQ

Text of bird of winter podcast no 1: finding words for things we find difficult to say. 

Hello I’m alice hiller, bringing you the bird of winter podcast series. The podcasts explore ways to be playful and adventurous with language, and share strategies for staying safe if you work with difficult materials, like I do.   A a word of warning – this episode mentions sexual abuse briefly, in the context of living beyond this crime as a teenager.  

What I’m going to explore today is finding words to hold things which can be hard to say – because they exist in the gaps and shadows of our lives.  To do this, I’m going to talk about the title poem of my collection.  It centres around meetings with the psychiatrist who admitted me to hospital in 1977, when I was thirteen.  I’d stopped eating, after being subjected to sexual abuse, and needed treatment for anorexia.  When I look back,  these conversations bring together silence and speaking – through the body, as well as with words. 

In 1977, sexual abuse in childhood wasn’t widely recognised, or discussed.  There was no framework for me to say or even think about what my abuser had done.  Aged thirteen, I weighed 28.5 kg, or 4.5 stone.  That’s the average weight for an eight or nine year old.  Seeing me,  the psychiatrist understood that something had gone very wrong.  She began the process of turning my life around, by giving me appropriate care.  

I needed ‘bird of winter’  to communicate her care, but also my experience of not being able to communicate fully with her, and the vulnerability that arose from this.  I also wanted to record what it feels like if your home is not a safe place to live in, when you haven’t yet finished growing up, something many young people face for various reasons.  

After trying out different approaches, I ended up setting short comments and questions from the psychiatrist down one side of the poem. I butted these into silent, unspoken thoughts from my teenage self, taking up the second half of the line. Because we were connected to each other within the therapeutic process, I then moulded our shared lines into an oval or pill shape that held our exchanges in its single, joined space. 

The pill shape made a record on the page of how talking was a key part of the treatment.  It also registered how I couldn’t really speak at the time, partly due to the drugs that were prescribed to help me to eat and sleep. The voice of the poem is fairly flat, almost muffled, suggesting how the drugs numbed my experience of the world while I was in hospital.

bird of winter

This is the text of the poem bird of winter which you can hear read on the podcast link

‘bird of winter’ is also a poem about healing. Seen another way, the oval looks like an egg. This extra layer of meaning matters.  It reflects how being in hospital put a safe shell around me.  Inside this shell, I could start to recover and grow beyond the abuse.  The new alice hatches out  in the poems about my teenage and then adult selves in bird of winter. 

The photo I chose for this podcast is of a gull flying alongside the cross-Channel ferry to Dieppe.  The way the bird stays close to the boat – while remaining free to tilt its wings and lift with the wind, or dive down into the green waves – made me think of how a teenager will progressively claim their independence, until they are strong enough and confident enough to take to the skies of their adult life.

Unlike the 1970s,  there are now positive options in the UK for young people who have been subjected to sexual abuse, to help them recover and feel strong and well. Support is also there for people seeking help in later life, as I did.  The Mind website has valuable links and phone numbers and your doctor can also give you advice. 

If you’d like to try writing something of your own based on how I put the poem together, I’ve created a three stage writing exercise which will come after this. Otherwise, thanks for listening. I’m alice hiller, speaking about my collection bird of winter which is published by Pavilion Poetry and I really appreciate you checking in with this project. 

You can buy bird of winter here, or read more about the project in the side bar.

shadow of alice hiller photographed falling on the sand through a small wave.

Finding out that ‘bird of winter’ has been chosen as one of the 10 books recommended by the Poetry Book Society for Mental Health Awareness Week – and launching difficult materials live online with safeguarding in mind.

Trigger warning: reference to grooming and sexual abuse in childhood. Also to healing and reclamation.

Finding out that bird of winter has been chosen by the Poetry Book Society as one of the 10 books they recommend for Mental Health Awareness Week came as a huge boost to me this week, in addition to being chosen as their Summer Special Commendation. In amongst other themes, my collection explores the impacts of sexual abuse in childhood – on the mental health of the child, the adolescent they become, and their adult self. It also traces paths towards self-reclamation and healing in the aftermath of this crime, which I believe should be integral to any discussion around the topic. By focusing on both injury and restitution, and the importance of witness, and listening, we can honour the selfhood and agency of people making meaningful lives beyond this assault, as I try to do myself. We can also change awareness around the value of the voluntary support services, whose impacts can be transformative for peoples of all ages. You can find a very helpful list on the Mind website. Barnardos and the NSPCC are amongst charities who provide specialised help for children and adolescents. Their services are usually accessed through referral.

You can read more about the other books on the Poetry Book Society list, and the challenges they respond to, on the PBS website. These include brilliant titles by Kaveh Akvah, Fiona Benson, Emma Jeremy, Niall Campbell, Hollie McNish, Ben Wilkinson and Helen Calcutt. The link is here.


Like many of us with complex histories, the pandemic has made my own mental health feel more fragile at times, not least because I lived with only my excellent dog Ithaca for company during long sections of the lockdowns. I would normally counterbalance working from home with communal activities including family contact, swimming, attending arts events, Buddhist learning, and seeing people socially. Until very recently, all of these have been off the menu other than via a screen. Meditation, meeting with fellow dog walkers outdoors, walking with Ithaca, and collaborating with the collective of Voicing our Silences poets have all been valuable sustenance in this time of absence.

Editing the poems in bird of winter which respond to my own experiences of being groomed and sexually abused in childhood, and then finding my way through a tricky adolescence towards healing in adult life, without my usual resources, made me realise last autumn that I needed to check in with some support again. I went back to see the counsellor I have worked with previously, weekly on zoom, which undoubtedly helped me get through the long winter lockdown. I know many other people who have similarly realised they needed more support than they could generate on their own over the past year. In his recent interview for the Society of Authors, I was grateful to hear Kayo Chingonyi speak of the difficulties he experienced as a result of separation from cherished family members and friends over the lockdowns, and to hear him say that he was working with a therapist. This kind of matter of fact open-ness helps us all feel that the challenges we face are shared by many, and that to seek solutions to them is a reflection of strength.


My own vulnerability has also made me aware of the need to keep safe-guarding in mind during online live performances, while also honouring my commitment to witnessing and speaking out. When you perform to a room full of people, you can ‘take the temperature’ of the collective mood, and adjust your set accordingly. You also know that the audience members have each other for grounding and support, along with the possibility of a drink and chat afterwards. They can equally come and talk to you, as people often do when I read. At physical live events, there is also the journey home, which has the effect of placing a degree of separation between the content of the evening, and the rest of your life.

Beaming into people’s homes is of course entirely different. Not only do you, the performer, have no idea of who is out there (other of course than friends whose names flash by as the audience file in, if it’s an interactive format), but you have no sense of how they are feeling, whether they are alone, how long it might be since the last saw anyone, and a host of other questions which can significantly influence the reception of more challenging materials.

I have therefore sifted my poems to set aside some which I feel can only be shared either via the printed page, or carefully in a live context, and with appropriate safeguarding measures. I am also taking time to write short scripts linking the poems, and contextualising the subject matter, so the listener can feel invited in as an active participant in a process of transformation. This was absolutely my intention for the live launch of bird of winter, on 5 May, which was recorded by Liverpool University Press, and can be watched here, along with wonderful performances by my fellow Pavilion Poets of 2021, Sarah Westcott and Alice Miller. You will need to scroll down to the video of 5 May, which shows Mona Arshi introducing us as the identifying image. All the other videos are absolutely worth watching as well.

There is a trigger warning for my performance within the launch, which begins at 33.40, in case anyone wants to switch off. The recording has captioning available, but I decided to publish the words I wrote to link the poems below, to give a fuller understanding of the bird of winter project of changing awareness around sexual abuse in childhood through art-making and art-sharing.

For copyright reasons, I can’t include all the poems, but I have dropped in the image for ‘sagittae’, as it is difficult to visualise it from the reading. ‘elegy for an eight year old’ and ‘bird of winter’ are also available elsewhere on this blog. If you watch the video, there is also a really powerful Q&A at the end, when Mona Arshi talks to us about our collections. The link to the launch again is here.

Mona Arshi, alice hiller, Sarah Westcott and Alice Miller at the Pavilion Launch

alice hiller: words and poems to launch bird of winter on 5/5/21

As some of you will know, bird of winter responds to my own experience of being groomed and then sexually abused as a child, but also of finding my way towards healing.  Sadly, it’s a crime which is being perpetrated day and night around the world.  Millions of teenagers and adults like me make their lives in its aftermath. 

One of the difficulties we face in reclaiming ourselves is that the trauma and perceived shamefulness of the experience can make sexual abuse hard to talk about.  Many people wait decades to be able to say what was done to them as undefended children or teenagers. 

 My poems in bird of winter seek to create a language, through made artworks, that can help people explore this complex topic safely, and with agency.  I’ve been careful about what I’ve chosen to read tonight.

The first poem I’m going to share is called ‘the needle’s eye sews red silk.’  It sets out the legal penalties for what was done to me in childhood, as defined by the UK criminal justice act of 2003, with the 2007 sentencing guidelines. The legal quotes are interspersed with my own ‘impact statement’.

reading of ‘the needle’s eye sews red silk’

My abuser was unfortunately my mother. The grooming began in my earliest life. I was, however, blessed by a good French grandmother, or bonne maman, and diplomat father. They both loved me.   Thanks to my father’s posting to Singapore, I was looked after from birth by a Chinese amah called Ah Loh. This next poem is for her. It honours how the good that we are given strengthens our whole being, and gives us a better chance of coming through difficult times. 

reading of ‘my amah   my armour

Once Ah Loh had returned to Singapore, my life became less safe, as ‘pistil’ records.  It’s named for the female reproductive parts of the flower and the first section quotes from my GP’s notes when I was two. They record the troubled behaviours my abuser’s actions were already precipitating. 

reading of ‘pistil’

The French buttercups in the third section of ‘pistil’ grew in the field adjacent to my bonne maman’s clifftop house in Normandy, where I went every summer of my childhood.  I could hear the lighthouse when I lay in bed, and see its fingers of light sweeping the sky. ‘bains de mer’ or ‘sea-swimming’ was written after visiting the area again a few years ago, when I was beginning these poems.

reading of ‘bains de mer’ or ‘sea-swimming’

What my abuser was doing remained  profoundly damaging.  In bird of winter, Pompeii and  Herculaneum form shadow worlds in which the injuries and silencings of my childhood play out.  They are also where the excavations and reclamations of my story are enacted. The next poem is titled for two tiny gladiators who were dug up in Pompeii and shows my abuser and I side by side. 

reading of ‘terracotta figurines’

‘terracotta figurines’ is set in the flat Brussels, where my father was posted after Paris. Here he became ill with motor neurone disease, and died when I was eight.  My abuser and I then moved to Wiltshire, away from the protection of my French bonne maman. I had never lived full-time in England, and no one really knew me there. I see what happened next in terms of the eruption of Vesuvius. 

reading of ‘on the shoreline’

In the early 1970s, the sexual abuse of children was not widely recognised, or discussed. No one suspected that the studious little girl in glasses, who worked so hard at school, but didn’t seem to have many friends, had something very wrong at home.

reading of ‘cyclical’ which will be reproduced in PN Review.

One of the most damaging aspects of sexual abuse is how the child is made to feel complicit with, and implicated in, the forced intimacy that is imposed on them as part of the abuse. ‘joujou’ takes its title from the eighteenth century French word for a yoyo, based on the verb jouer, to play.  

reading of ‘joujou

For many of us who are abused in childhood, the changes of puberty can bring the possibility of agency.  Christmas eve when I was twelve proved a turning point. 

reading of ‘december 1976’

The following Easter, of 1977, I decided to stop eating. I was hospitalised for anorexia that autumn.  Now began the long, sometimes uncertain, journey towards healing.  The next two poems give snapshots of me at eight and thirteen, at school and then in hospital respectively. They book-end the years of penetrative abuse. 

reading of ‘elegy for an eight year old followed by ‘bird of winter’ these can both be found on the blog in the sidebar about ‘bird of winter’.

Aged thirteen,  I had no words to tell the psychiatrist who treated me in hospital what my abuser had done. Inevitably, my teenage years proved turbulent, as they are for everyone with my history. Like many, I was left vulnerable to further predation, and psychological distress.  

Forming a loving relationship, and becoming a mother, along with meaningful study and work, gradually led me towards firmer ground.  I only became strong enough to begin to speak to a counsellor of what had happened to me as a child when I was  in my early thirties.  I started to try and write about it in my forties. I’m now 56. 

My poem ‘sagittae’, or ‘arrows’ uses the processes of how arrows are made, then fired,  to explore the transformations that healing can bring about if you have a history of having been sexually abused.  As you will see, it’s repeated across the page to become a collective act of resistance and reclamation.

I’m going to end this reading with the final poem of bird of winter.  ‘o goddess isis’ takes its details from the excavation of the Temple of Isis at Pompeii and the rituals performed there as part of the worship.   With her son Horus, and her partner Osiris, the Egyptian goddess Isis watches over death and loss –  but also birth and regeneration.  I dedicate the poem to all of us who seek to live facing into the light.

reading of ‘o goddess isis’

Thank you all for listening, and Deryn and LUP for publishing bird of winter.

Please see the link to the Mind website if you need help or support with anything I have talked about. 

I am going to be publishing a series of short podcasts looking at the ideas behind individual poems on this blog.

If anyone is d/Deaf and needs a transcript of the full reading please connect with me through the contact section of the blog.

You can buy ‘bird of winter’ here.

If you’re a member of the Poetry Book Society, bird of winter and their other selected books are available at a 25% discount here.

Voicing Our Silences : a free writing website combining interviews, performances and live prompts to connect and recharge us all through the last months of lockdown.

Maia Elsner with Arji Maneuelpillai from our first workshop

By the nature of how life is, sadly many of us will have been through difficult times – whether or not we work in creative fields.  While these experiences stay with us, they are seldom easy to talk about, as a number of the poets I have interviewed on this blog reveal.   Screenwriter Russell T. Davies, who wrote the landmark series Queer as Folk in 1999, and has just premiered It’s a Sin, remembers how when the first HIV/Aids infections were happening, and he was in his early 20s: 

“I looked away. Oh, I went on marches, and gave a bit of money and said how sad it was, but really, I couldn’t quite look at it.  This impossible thing.  There are boys whose funerals I didn’t attend.  Letters I didn’t write.  Parents I didn’t see.” [Observer 3/1/21]. 

Reasons for our silences around our difficult experiences may include that we lack the words with which to say what happened, or feel shame, or fear how others may react.  As time passes, these places of silence can lie within us like ice, or rock.  They may be heavy, unwieldy and painful to carry –  as if they were obstructing part of our growth, or even the evolution of our lives. But nothing is ever fixed, and change can always come.

In the same Observer article, Davies reveals how as the years went by: “I stayed busy, looking away, but I suppose I also looked down.  At the keyboard.  And stories began to emerge in my work.  Rising up.  Bleeding through the page. In 1994, I created a 15-year-old HIV+ teenager for Children’s Ward.”  [Observer, 3/1/21].  Queer as Folk then followed five years later. 

Having been groomed and sexually abused by a close family member in childhood, I recognise both that looking away that Davies describes, and the rising up that can follow.  From my 20s onwards, what had happened to me as a child and a teenager came into my dreams and nightmares – and then into my waking conversations in my 30s. 

At last, in my 40s and 50s, I began to voice my silences around the crime to which I had been subjected, within creative work.  Also in his 50s, Davis reveals of It’s a Sin, “Finally, I came to write a show with Aids centre stage.  I think I had to wait till now, to find what I wanted to say.” 

One of the processes that has helped me become strong enough to stay with writing bird of winter, my debut collection with Pavilion Poetry, has been the workshop community which formed with other poets saying ‘the difficult thing’ in their work.  This started life as a Poetry Society Stanza three years ago, and shifted to meeting online during the pandemic.

Collectively, we realised that there would be value in sharing the insights we are able to give each other, beyond our own group.  We wanted to support and connect with a wider community of people also trying to voice their own silences – whether on the page, or in their own lives. 

Our format has been to create a series of free, hour-long workshops available through our Voicing Our Silences website.  Two of our poets speak to each other about their work and perform it.  They also set live writing exercises for the audience to follow, to help spark new creative strands.  We have four workshops up so far, featuring Arji Maneulpillai, Maia Elsner, Isabelle Baafi, Romalyn Ante, Rachel Lewis, Kostya Tsolakis, Joanna Ingham and myself.  They are available as podcasts, or captioned videos. More recordings will be coming over the next months, with Chaucer Cameron and Jeffery Sugarman in March. 

While in-person meetings for live events are still a way off, we hope our website will offer a proxy community.  We aim for it to generate a creative boost to help get people through the last months of lockdown.  We also want it to make new connections between writers and readers, that we can follow up together into actual meetings, over the summer and beyond. To find out more, please click the link to go through to http://www.voicingoursilences.com

Isabelle Baafi.

‘What is ever easy to write? I’m interested in what gets lost in memory, where it goes – how the body holds’: Rachel Long talks to alice hiller about the power of ‘girl-speak’ and art as transfiguration in ‘My Darling from the Lions’.

Photo of Rachel Long by Amaal Said.

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. 

RL:      Definitely. 

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, all going 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. 

RL:  Definitely. 

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.  

RL: Yes.

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:

Open

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. 

RL: Same.

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:

8

‘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:

Orb

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. 

You can order My Darling from the Lions https://www.waterstones.com/book/my-darling-from-the-lions/rachel-long/9781529045161

Rachel Long will be appearing with Amima Jama and Sarah Lasoye as part of Octavia Collective : Creativity in Solitude on 25 February 7-8pm at Goldsmiths CCA. Tickets are here https://goldsmithscca.art/event/octavia-collective-x-goldsmiths-cca-creativity-in-solitude-a-reading/

my debut ‘bird of winter’ – published by Pavilion in May 2021

When I was first experimenting with poems, five years ago,  I was working blind, like a mole digging upwards. Coming from a prose background, all I knew was that I had to find words able to hold what I needed to write. 

Like millions of other people around the world, I was groomed, and then sexually abused as a young child.  In my case, this took place in the late 1960s and 1970s. I then stumbled through the messy teenage aftermath as Punk gave way to Two Tone and Margaret Thatcher took power.  Nearly forty years later, memories of what happened can still flood my dreams.  Physical symptoms replay old injuries. 

Nowadays, sexual abuse is discussed extensively in the media.   Measures are in place to identify, make safe and support children who have been subjected to predation of this sort, even if these have been compromised during the recent lockdowns.  But there is still limited comprehension of what the crime entails, and how it impacts people, not least because it is so difficult, and painful, to think or talk about.  

Changing awareness, and giving witness, were two things I had in mind as I shaped my fledgling poems.  I wanted to make compact pieces of art.  They needed to contain and express what had happened to me, but do so with a degree of agency and protection for both writer and reader.  Like seashells found on a beach, they had to be small, beautiful fragments that you could pick up and hold to the light – while thinking of the depths in which they grew. 

Aside from a transformative Jerwood Arvon mentorship by Pascale Petit, and generous insights and readings from other poets along the way, three key elements fed into the poems that will be published by Pavilion as bird of winter in April 2021.  The first was my own long-standing fascination with Pompeii and Herculaneum.  I visited the two sites in the summer of 2000, along with the Naples Museum which holds many of the key finds.  I also subsequently saw, and bought the catalogues of, exhibitions at the British Museum and the Ashmolean. From the plaster dog, cast out from the void left in the ash by his evaporated body, to wall paintings and brothel graffiti testifying to lost lives, the findings gave forms to my excavations of my own past.  

bird of winter was also shaped by the notes I salvaged from my childhood and adolescent medical records. They corroborated my hospital stay as a teenager.  They additionally reflected how doctors saw children like me, at a time when sexual abuse was almost always missed. Finally, two trips to Dieppe in the summer and autumn of 2019 let me reconnect with what had sustained me through those very difficult years – namely the love I received from my French grandmother, and my father until his death when I was eight.

When bad things happen to you growing up, they can choke and pollute the waters of your life like an oil slick, and cause immense local damage. But they are not the whole story, any more than an oil slick is the whole surface of the sea.  Healing comes through cleaning up the damage, and then moving beyond it, to clearer waters and moments of love and joy, which more truthfully define us and let us know who we are.  I wanted bird of winter to honour these good elements, which enabled me to resist, and ultimately reclaim myself. 

First in the July sunshine, and then in October rain, I travelled across from Newhaven on the ferries like those I used to sail on to see my grandmother. I stood outside the gates of what had been her clifftop house, along the coast from Dieppe. I climbed down to the beach where I paddled and swum with her and my father.  To be there again, to know the movement of the sea, to hear the waves ringing through the shingle, was to feel a tide of strength flowing through me, as I worked on what proved to be some of the core poems of bird of winter

When I was asked by Pavilion to choose the cover colours, I knew immediately that they had to be from the Channel off Normandy.  They needed to wrap the darkness which the collection addresses in a transformative mantle of light. Some of them can be seen in the photos that run alongside these words, which were taken on those two trips in 2019. 

In the months to come, I will be writing more about bird of winter, and the real, and imagined, birds which take flight from its pages, alongside the objects excavated from Pompeii and Herculaneum which inspired some of the poems.  I will also write about what it is like to take back your medical notes, and see how you were seen, when you could not see yourself.

For now, I want to thank Deryn Rees-Jones, currently recovering from Long Covid, for making me a Pavilion poet, on a list which includes many writers who speak to my heart. Nuar Alsadir, Mona Arshi and Bhanu Kapil, to name only some, occupy sacred spaces on my shelves. I am honoured to be appearing alongside Alice Miller and Sarah Westcott in 2021 and hope we will be able to read together. 

In closing, I express solidarity with all of us who have been impacted by sexual abuse in childhood – whether at firsthand, or because it has come into the lives of those who matter to us.  By giving witness, by supporting each other, by making art that reclaims agency and beauty, we can work together across our communities.  We can help the world to see and think differently. 

If you would like to order a copy of bird of winter please follow this link.

To find more about the other amazing Pavilion Poets please follow this link.

Of dumplings, magnolias and pomelos: Alice Hiller on travelling in the imagination with Nina Mingya Powles.

This spring and summer, when travel of any distance has been more or less impossible for most of us, I have consoled myself with words that do the journeying for me.  Two books which have drawn me back again and again are Nina Mingya Powles’ debut collection, Magnolia, published by Nine Arches Press, and her collection of essays, Tiny Moons, which move between Shanghai and Wellington and Malaysia, published by the Emma Press.   Within their pages I can cycle through the swamp-hot summer nights of the deserted student campus in Shaghai, or climb into rain forests, or swim in the freezing, exhilarating Southern Ocean and warm myself afterwards with a bowl of dumplings. 

Nina’s description of tearing the papery inner skin from the pink flesh of a pomelo, and the sweet sting of the flesh inside, encouraged me to buy my first fruit, in a beautiful printed wrapper which felt like a journey of its own even before I peeled open the yellow globe of the fruit. 

As an act of thanks for this, I’m reprinting the review I wrote in harana poetry for Nina’s now sold out pamphlet, field notes on a downpour. This is one of the segments of her debut Magnolia, currently on the Forwards prize shortlist. I’ve included a photo I took of a magnolia in Golders Green just before lockdown last spring. For all of us with dual or multiple heritages Nina’s work is a place where we can find and understand ourselves, and know that being made from many places can gift us with a richness that is also strength. 

From harana poetry, issue 1. 

For her pamphlet field notes on a downpour, self-proclaimed “mudblood” Nina Mingya Powles travels out of English back towards her mother’s Chinese mother-tongue.  Powles previously wrote about this process in prose about living in Shanghai. Neither the narrator, nor the city, of this eight page pamphlet are directly named, however.  Instead, their identities accrete over time within the pages, like the Chinese characters whose processes of formation and signifying Powles explores. She begins:

The first character of my mother’s name, 雯 wen, is made of rain 雨 and language 文. 
According to my dictionary, together they mean “multi-coloured clouds” or “cloud tints.”

Mouthfuls of rain, the blue undersides of clouds, her hydrangeas in the dark.  To stop them from slipping I write them down. 

By hearing, and seeing, the sound “wen” transliterated into English, followed by its Chinese character, and then the two characters from which this is made up – rain and language – the process of signing simultaneously enacts and undoes itself.  We recognise the dashes which mark the rain within the ‘rain’ character.  We then experience the “mouthfuls of rain” which the words become as they enter mouths that speak them, and minds that think them, before mutating through the cloud imagery into “her hydrangeas in the dark”.   

This could be Katherine Mansfield territory, about whom Powles has previously written – except that everything is taking place in a city where “old/ buildings are crushed to pieces” and “the subway map rewrites/ itself each night”.  The second page introduces a second unnamed character, whom the speaker connects with a modern form of illumination – and also something rooted in the past: “Not long after we met I learnt the word [ ] neon, which is both a type of light, and a/ type of memory.”  Attempting to come closer to each other through language on the third page, the pair find it multiplying and sliding away from them, towards the bodies in which we imagine they may also meet: 

One night you said my name in the dark and it came out like a ghost 鬼 from between two trees 林.  A ghost that rhymes with a path between rice fields which rhymes with a piece of steamed bread which rhymes with paralysis of one side of the body which rhymes with thin blood vessels.  

The fourth page opens itself onto watermelons and rain, and the complexities of a tonal language where “More than a hundred characters share the same sound.  //  ‘zong.’”  Their meanings include a variety of mark-makings – “footprint, trace” and “the uneven flight of a bird”.   The fifth page uses the gaze of the “the lady at the fruit shop” to let us see the poet’s “half Chinese” face – “(She points to my hair).  We come up against a word I don’t know.  She draws a character in/ the air with one finger and it hangs there between us.”

“zong”:
总  assemble, put together / always
踪  footprint, trace
翪  the uneven flight of a bird

The sixth page runs into cracks in the ceiling – not unlike the strokes for characters – through which rain water drops onto the “you” and the “I”.  Afterwards the poet notes that “two hundred white tundra swans were found dead beside a lake in Inner/ Mongolia.”   Doubling the hundred-plus meanings of “zong” – the rupture which this collective swan death entails also visits itself on a jar of honey which “shattered softly, the/ pieces melting apart in my hands.”

On the seventh page, the differences between animate and inanimate dissolve, within “ming”’s refractions of meaning and sound, all rhyming with “the first part of my Chinese name”.  Powles, who has through this part-named herself, discovers  “I am a tooth-/like thing.  I am half sun half moon, and the scissors used to cut away the steamed lotus/ leaves.   I am honey strokes spreading over the tiles.”

On the luckiest eighth and final page the word “honey” migrates into a “honey pomelo” being sliced by a man with “a faded tattoo of a knife on the back of his hand,/ the blade adjacent to his thumb” – as if he were the human equivalent of a written character, with his meaning marked onto him.   Building and collapsing houses of word cards, field notes on a downpour reaches through language towards the images which it evokes in our minds to ask how we exist to ourselves and others, within and beyond the ways in which we communicate. 

To read the whole review, which also talks about works by Belinda Zhawi, Raymond Antrobus, Mary Jean Chan and Lila Matsumoto, please follow this link to harana 1: 

You can buy Tiny Moons: A Year of Eating in Shaghai here: https: //theemmapress.com/shop/tiny-moons/

You can buy Magnolia here: https://ninearchespress.com/publications/poetry-collections/magnolia.html

You can buy pomelos in specialist grocery stores and greengrocers. 

Marking the Spaces of our Silences : alice hiller on art as activism in the aftermaths of trauma.

Trigger warning: references to sexual abuse in childhood.

In common with others who were sexually abused in childhood, I have been haunted by the awareness that millions of children round the world are potentially being locked in with sexual predators, as a consequence of measures necessary to limit the spread of COVID 19. I am also deeply concerned for the psychological health of adults living with their memories of having been subjected to this crime, without the normal range of social interactions and support, which would usually help them to cope and hold the past at bay.

While art and activism can be awkward bedfellows, the current crisis has made me think how I can use the body of work I am making around my own history of being groomed and then sexually abused as a child, to bring awareness of this crime to a wider audience. My intention is part of an ongoing project aimed at finding ways to counter the devastating impacts when children are sexually abused.  I also want to make the subject more comprehensible to those whose lives it has not touched directly, in order that we may work collectively for change.

One of the first challenges I faced in writing about sexual abuse was how to find a form of language which respects the inarticulacy of the child’s experience. This arises from the dissociative pressures of shock and shame, in combination with the intimidation and concealment perpetrated by the adult abuser. In her brilliant study, Minor Feelings, Cathy Park Hong cites the poet Myung Mi Kim telling her that “attention to silence is in itself an interrogation” [p139]. This chimes both with my own practice, and that of my late father-in-law, the sculptor Oscar Nemon, whose work has been part of my life since I was sixteen.

Together with millions of Europeans of Jewish heritage, Nemon and his sister Bella lost almost their entire family to the Holocaust. In their case, the twenty-three murdered relatives included their mother, brother and grandmother. Like many who suffer loss on this scale, aside from one interview at the end of his life, Nemon does not seem to have been able to speak out loud about this tragedy, not even to his children, nor to his close friends.

Better known for his portraits from life of Sigmund Freud and Winston Churchill, Nemon did however respond to the Shoah in his art, which also addresses wider questions of the impacts of genocide on surviving communities. Titled Humanity, his memorial to those killed was unveiled in 1965 in his home town of Osijek, now in Croatia (see below). Emerging from on sketches stretching back to the second world war, the composition shows a mother lifting her child to the future in defiance of annihilation.

Heredity in park

While there is no direct allusion to genocide, it is a composition of the utmost vulnerability. Reaching out and up, neither mother nor child have any form of protection, silently reminding us of the undefendedness of the millions of civilians whose lives were taken both in the concentration camps, and en route for them. The model for the baby was Nemon’s son Falcon, born in 1941 as Yugoslavia was invaded, signalling the likely end of Nemon’s family of origin. Falcon later became my husband.

Nemon only completed two Shoah sculptures, but from 1945 onwards he made sketches exploring living in the aftermath of this loss. They often feature groups of mourning figures, standing together in solidarity, or holding one another. I first discovered them within his papers after Falcon died in 2002. Nemon had previously died in 1985. Recently bereaved, they moved me deeply. When I look through these drawings now, I am additionally struck by their relationships to silences, and silencings, and how they build bodies of gestural language from not speaking. Below is the rapidly drawn Don’t Forget, whose title and injunction come from the page of the memo pad on which it was executed in black felt tip pen.

Don't Forget

Turned away from the viewer, the two figures hold each other, and possibly a child each, in a wordless enactment of grief. They make their loss palpable, but decline to let us into their closed circle, which is a place we can imagine, but not know. By existing, Don’t Forget gives witness, and forms a concrete place of testimony to a crime whose perpetrators attempted to deny it, and to destroy all evidence of what was done. This witnessing is an ambition I also have for the body of work I am making, as I hope to show in the discussion which follows of five poems published since the start of the pandemic in the Cambridge Literary Review and One Hand Clapping.

As a reviewer, and former features journalist, my intention is to use the additional resource of my prose to open up the context of these poems during these uniquely difficult times, to support children and adults with experiences of sexual abuse, whether current or historic. With funding for programmes to heal the aftermaths of this crime  being cut, I also wanted to throw light on the nature of what happens when a child is sexually abused, to make it easier to understand why the damage, though often invisible, can be so profound.

‘twice told’ and ‘quadrant’, the first two poems I will discuss, were published in the full UK lockdown within the ‘script as identity’ issue of the Cambridge Literary Review. There is a clip of me reading them for the online launch available here. Looking back to the autumn of 1977, ‘twice told’ documents the immediate aftermath of the sexual abuse when I was just thirteen. At this point, the physical element had been stopped, but I had no means or opportunity of saying what had been done to me.

Set in a hospital room, the poem remembers the tone of the many conversations I had with Ann Dally, the psychiatrist who admitted me. I weighed 4 and a half stone, and had stopped eating in order to be able to die, but anorexia was still largely regarded as the disease of over-ambitious, perfectionist middle class girls. While Ann Dally rapidly became aware that my relationship with my abuser was not what it should be, it never occurred to her to ask about the possibility of sexual abuse.

‘twice told’ lies in a lozenge on the page, forming the shape of one the many sedating pills I was given. It alternates the psychiatrist’s questions with the child patient’s thoughts about a chaffinch she sees, who is neither able to sing nor fly. Working through the image of a flightless bird, with a grotesquely swollen beak, the poem catches both the impossibility of speaking, and the resulting weight of not being able to do to so.

Photo 05-08-2020, 15 11 29

‘quadrant’, moves beyond this to register the silences surrounding sexual abuse being being enforced, endured, and finally negotiated. It suggests that we may not have to remain in a place of injury forever. The word quadrant initially meant a quarter of a day, or six hours. This led to the name being given to an instrument, shaped like a quarter circle, used to measure altitudes in astronomy and navigation.

The poem is built from four quadrants. The first imagines a little girl’s words as “soft pink kissing” spread onto “iced cakes” and then fed back into her own mouth. The “steel hooves” of ‘intimidation’ follow, and lead to the exile of ‘exclusion’ when “lies puff out on/ washing lines” and “because/ she will not wear them/ the young woman must/ walk out naked.” This image to calls to mind the unprotected state of the adolescent who has suffered sexual abuse, and her vulnerability in the aftermath of the crime when she is trying to reclaim herself.

‘quadrant’ ends in a place of ‘redemption’, however. Finally, “open sky and water/ wind-blink a clear pool of June silver – washing/ her skin with spangled/ rings of joy.” Swimming, and particularly swimming in open air municipal pools in summer, has always been one of the most restorative areas of my life. I honour the transformative gift water represents for so many of us with histories of trauma, and the ways it may enable us to reclaim our bodies.

Photo 05-08-2020, 15 12 28

The three poems published in One Hand Clapping engage with different aspects of living with and in the aftermath of sexual abuse in childhood. ‘embedded’ is already available on this blog in the poems section. It was a poem that came alive for me again during the first phase of the full UK lockdown. The isolation I was experiencing through living alone, combined with the lack of social contact that many of us rely upon to manage our mental health, caused me to re-somatise the injury the poem responds to.

At the time of the poem, I was a pupil in a small village primary in Wiltshire. I worked among other children on shared tables, with papier maché animal masks looking down on us from the walls. Writing ‘embedded’, the soreness of those childhood mornings seemed to materialise within the roughness of the sacking tacked to the underside of my bed, the splinteriness of the wood, the sharpness of the rusty nails – in the same way that water vapour may be precipitated onto a cold surface. The word ‘backdoor’ is embedded centrally in the poem as an act of witness.

Photo 05-08-2020, 15 39 21

One Hand Clapping is also publishing two new poems of mine. They respond to how traumatic memories persist, but also how they may be represented and to some extent transformed. I first experienced penetrative abuse aged eight and a half, in December 1972. Ever since, that month has been difficult for me. Whenever I can afford to, I travel. It helps to be in a different light to that in England, and to open myself to new experiences, rather than being pulled backwards by the ghosts which return each year to claim me.

‘performance’ came out of a late December trip to Sicily in 2017. I wanted to see the island’s landscapes, and understand more of its multi-stranded history. A few days short of the end of the year, I was standing in the ruins of an almost vanished Roman amphitheatre at Eraclea within sight of the sea. Two thousand years ago there would have been crowds, and blood, and gladiators, and wild animals. Now broken rows of stones emerged from the dry grasses to mark where the benches would have stood. More or less the whole town had been carried away over the centuries to build houses nearby – as is the case with many classical ruins.

IMG-3515

My own vanished, but present, past was within my thoughts as I walked around, trying to figure out the layout of the site from the notices and my guidebook, and imagine how everything had been. In their liminality, and near erasure, the ghosted forms of the seating and stage suggested the presences of memory, but also the way time erodes and changes. I was struck by how, although it was impossible, without additional information, to read the site fully, you could not ignore that something had once stood there.

A salt breeze was blowing in off the sea, like it had on the clifftop by my French grandmother’s house in Normandy. This was always my place of safety as a child, where I was usually more protected from my abuser. Feeling it on my face, the phrase “amphitheatres are carved from bones and stagger into stone” slipped into my consciousness. Then I heard “have traps in their floors troughs to drain blood.”

Those two phrases, arriving on the wind, turned my eight year old body into the amphitheatre, and stage for my own attack. Like a looping echo, as I thought about the gladiators forced to fight each other, and the animals they killed for public amusement, I also held somewhere in my mind my own powerlessness to resist my abuser, and the sense of unwitting complicity that the sexually abused child experiences. But, in the historical fact of the “troughs to drain blood”, the imagery also offered the possibility of some form of easing or relief, through draining away. As the poem took shape, I understood it could give a measure of moving beyond the eternal recurrence of what was done to me night after night in the dark, because refusing the silence that my abuser had required and enforced through my childhood and well into adult life, as is the case for many of us with this history.

performance

amphitheatres carved from
bone stagger into stone

traps in floors
troughs to drain blood

bars protect the watchers
from the creature

when attacked
leaves marks

as rain drunk
by growing grass

‘performance’ stayed short – only six more lines came. Sexual abuse is not something that can be fully communicated. Reticence is moreover a retrospective form of redress – clothing the child in a measure of dignity that was denied to her while the abuse was ongoing, and gifting the reader the option to engage only insofar as is safe and comfortable for them. As I worked on the poem, I understood that it needed to be tiny, and tight, and partly folded in on itself like a child’s body – but with a mysterious, felt possibility of growth and healing. The blood at the end is also just rain, in the same way that when we speak the difficult things that happen to us, they may be in some measure transfigured by the act of documenting.

The title was the last element to arrive. For a long time I called the poem ‘evidence’. Then I realised that it was more than that, because not static, but moving. ‘performance’ holds for me how, when we make works of art, whatever their starting point or destination, we construct them in such a way that they enact themselves within the viewer’s or reader’s mind, and then fold away again at the end, like the curtain going down on a stage. In that retelling, and closing down, we also exert our agency as the co-creators of our own life experiences, and give a degree of creative agency to our audience. Together – as artists and audiences, as past and present selves – we may discover the power to see and relate in new ways, as we move forwards through time, and gain different understandings of our own histories, and those of others.

‘papyri’, the final poem appearing in One Hand Clapping, responds to the difficulties inherent to making aesthetic performances from charged materials, and more generally to opening up traumatic memories to allow their energies to be present within a creative work. The starting point was my own reading about the ancient city of Herculaneum, which, like nearby Pompeii, was overwhelmed when Vesuvius erupted. Rather than ash, however, Herculaneum was covered with a hardened shroud of volcanic stone, up to 40 metres thick in places. This has not yet been fully excavated, and may never be, as the modern town of Ercolano stands above much of the ancient city.

Digging down along narrow, vertical shafts, the early excavators discovered among other finds the complex of a magnificent villa, complete with extraordinary mosaics and statues. There was also an area containing blackened, contorted log-like objects. These were originally disregarded as rubbish, or burnt to keep warm – until it was realised that they were in fact tightly rolled papyrus scrolls from the villa’s library. They had been carbonised and crushed during the eruption, and are the only surviving examples of this kind.

Even when the papyri were recognised for what they were, they remained almost impossible to unroll or decipher. The writing is black on black, and the carbonised sheets crumble entirely to dust unless treated with the utmost care. Many techniques were tried for deciphering them, including fixing to a silk background and unrolling by fractional amounts each day. The breakthrough only came in recent years, however, when medical diagnostic technology was brought into play. It was realised the papyri could be read through a combination of using a CT scanner to unroll them virtually, and an infrared scanner to distinguish the letters from the paper.

A CT scanner is of course more usually used to see inside the human body without surgical intervention. For those of us whose bodies have been attacked or invaded, the ability to see within their closed surfaces, to discover the evidence of what took place, is at once an impossible dream, and a potential nightmare. My poem ‘conjugation’, also on this blog, explores this idea, in the context of an MRI scan which I was given in 2014 to assess internal damage following cancer surgery.

While ‘conjugation’ speaks directly to my abuser, ‘papyri’ asks the reader to become a form of CT scanner, calling upon the magical powers of an empathetic imagination in bringing the processes of art into play. Because the sexual abuse of a child very often entails a measure of societal or familial complicity, I wanted to build the poem from phrases already in the public domain to enact a wider engagement. For this reason, the poem uses only ‘found language’ taken from an academic article published by the University of Kentucky about using CT scanners to read two unopened Herculaneum scrolls.

The borrowed and rearranged phrases request the scanner/reader to “distinguish bodily tissue/ detail a human’s organs/ reveal internal surfaces.” The poem accepts, sorrowfully, but also respectfully, “the task immensely difficult/ the scrolls so tightly/ wound and creased”. It allows the resistance to opening and disambiguating of such materials. But it also suggests that when you are able to “unwrap sections/ flatten them” they may gift you the ability to “see clearly” the constituent elements of “papyrus/ fibres/ sand” contained within the seemingly incomprehensible scrolls.

In the context of ‘papyri’, the final word, “sand”, is the saddest, and the most hopeful. It embodies the grit, and abrasion, caught between the soft surfaces of the historic Herculaneum papyri before carbonisation. Through this it looks back to the soreness of ‘embedded’. But it also honours the persistence of selfhood even under the most extreme adversity and fragmentation. Sand is made from minute particles of rock – most commonly granite, quartz or mica, or marine life forms – which still retain their original identities. In the same way, children subjected to sexual abuse retain their original selves, however dissipated and broken up by the trauma to which they have been subjected, as ‘two unopened scrolls’ asks the reader/scanner to recognise:

Photo 05-08-2020, 15 38 53

My late father-in-law, Oscar Nemon, also has a sketch which works with and transforms ‘found’ materials. It is a tender, grieving group, composed of three visible figures. More are implied behind them, completing the circle. With their backs to the viewer, refusing to speak directly out of the frame of the page, the figures cluster together and hold each other close. Their bodies, which form a trunk-like column, are made up of vertical, striped lines, like the striped clothes that the prisoners in the Lagers were required to wear, and which the world saw on newsreels of the liberation of the camps. The base on which they stand is a crosshatch of vertical and horizontal lines – echoing the barbed wire which contained the prisoners, and prevented their escape, also visible in contemporary news reportage.

Mourning group stripes

But extraordinarily, and almost unbelievably, while the figures’ heads bow in sorrow, as grapes on a vine, awaiting harvest, their holding arms form two victory ‘V’s. This was another archetypal image of the second world war, implying resilience, and determination to resist. An additional V has been added below them, in a different pen, at a later date. The resulting shape, made by the interlocking Vs, calls to mind both a diamond – an emblem of light – and an open mouth at the heart of the composition. Made from the raw horror of war, the untitled sketch forms an act of articulation. Loss is made manifest through unflinching, empathetic, witness – without surrendering its final unspeakability. I hope my own poems will be able to work in this way for the global community of those of us living with, and making our lives and arts in the aftermath of, sexual abuse in childhood.

Falcon & Oscar & bust
Oscar Nemon with his baby son Falcon in 1941

One Hand Clapping can be found here.

The Cambridge Literary Review can be found here.

“Ask yourself what makes you unique, different and amazing”: Arji Manuelpillai talks to Alice Hiller about saying the difficult thing in his debut ‘Mutton Rolls’ by “reflecting the way the mind moves” and embracing “exclusion as a force of creativity.”

Arji photo
Photo Credit : Martin Brown

Traveller, writer, theatre-maker, and freestyler, Arji Manuelpillai is a poet whose work has always derived energy and resonance from its live components.   While Mutton Rolls, his debut pamphlet from Out-Spoken, was launched online from his living room in lockdown, this in no way diminished audience numbers, or the warmth of their appreciation. Mutton Rolls’ poems find their subjects in UK raves and garage forecourt shops, but also on Sri Lankan beaches and in the aftermath of bombings and tsunamis.  Like strobe lights flashing moments of visibility, they illuminate growing up in Britain with the double consciousness that derives from knowing your parents and family once lived somewhere else, and explore what it means not always to be made to feel welcome.  Witty, joyous, and irreverent, the poems we talk about do not hesitate to call out the unacceptable.  They can spin in a second to catch your heart  – and hold it in a net of words that makes it beat differently when let go again. 

AH: I’d like to start by asking you about your experience of the last few months Arji.  You launched Mutton Rolls within the full UK lockdown.  You also ran free poetry workshops with special guests on zoom which attracted huge attendances during the months when we were largely unable to meet in the physical world.  How has this been for you?

AM: Such a pleasure to be here with you Alice and thanks so much for taking the time to chat to me. It has been a whirlwind few months. With so much of our collective futures turned upside down, I’ve found it difficult to manage my own expectations and keep the positivity up. However, in another way I have lived my whole life as a freelancer and with that sort of lifestyle comes an ability to adapt to the challenges with innovation and creativity. I can think of nothing worse than being furloughed at home being unable to work on new projects. So I was thankful for the opportunity to start Arji’s Poetry Jam, to continue with workshops with young people, help create a Refugee Week education resource for Kazzum Arts, and to plan and deliver a great release party for the pamphlet. It has been interesting as I feel like the online thing has provided people with greater accessibility in many ways. It creates a global playing field with fans for the workshops appearing in NZ, Finland, Canada and New York. It also made me feel like anything is possible with a little creativity. Right now, I’m spending a whole lot of time on Zoom but I’m really missing the real life groups, the community and the love of people connecting and creating together. I’m praying for the future, that we will return and still create wonderful work someday.

AH:  I understand that.  I feel the same way.  It’s really fantastic that you have been able to continue to reach out and deliver to so many different groups against all the odds.  People who want to find out more about these projects can check out the links on www.arji.org.  Coming back to the current situation, you tweeted your uncle was one of the first doctors to die from COVID 19.  The poem ‘after being called a paki’ confronts the racism which your father and his generation were met with on arrival in the UK.  I wondered what it’s been like to publish a pamphlet which calls out UK racism past and present, and then have the #BlackLivesMatter movement rise up so powerfully here and round the world, speaking to and with so many of your themes?

AM: It has been so interesting to see how people respond to the poems about race. I’ve been surprised by some animosity towards poems like ‘white people’ and then I’ve had some really heartfelt messages from other South Asian people who connect with the work. I hadn’t really realised how important it was to speak to my community and capture those feelings until it was actually out there. This was highlighted by a good friend of mine who doesn’t ‘do poems’, (those are the people I really love to reach).  He told me how he had never found the words to say how he felt growing up as a British Asian but now suddenly the book had captured them. I felt moved by that. As the BLM thing started to rise I was fully engrossed, angry, unsurprised, pretty much like most of the minority communities – but as it moved forward I started to unpack some of the racism within the South Asian community. I think we have to remember that the racism that black people feel in this country is unique to this country and the people within it. Black people deserve this space for discussion and the recognition of the racism they face and it is up to us all to face that head on and bring sustainable change. That’s not to say the South Asian experience isn’t important or valid.  It is just accepting that the grouping together of races doesn’t help any of us. I am fortunate to have worked with inspiring black men and women and will continue to fight for change and equality. I believe that this is a movement of hope and change is possible if we are willing to keep trying.

AH:   I absolutely agree with you, and I think your work is unquestionably part of that larger movement, and has been for many years.  Calling into question the stability and integrity of contemporary identities, and the pressures to which people can be subjected, your opening poem, ‘credit card’, begins  “someone pretended to be me/ filled my details out online”.  The intercepted card is imagined/described as being used to facilitate an impeccably ‘middle class’ spending spree which includes “crème fraiche” for leek and potato soup, and ends up funding a seat at a shared table in a café “on the white side of Peckham” where the thief is supposed to have:

had a tea and carrot cake
read the paper, lent
back in their seat

so their hands fell to their sides
and the lady to the right
casual as breathing
pulled her handbag close

The only skin tone that is mentioned is “white”, but the “casual as breathing” action of the woman has the effect of putting the “someone” under suspicion for no reason that can be deduced from their tea drinking, paper reading or carrot cake eating.  Would you be able to say something about the relationship between the speaking “me” and the observed “someone” in ‘credit card’, and why you chose to open Mutton Rolls with this poem? 

AM: This poem is one of those poems that fell out of my head on a long walk. Someone actually did fraud my debit card and went to Morrisons and spent a small amount of money on groceries. I couldn’t get this idea out of my head, that someone was just hungry, no drugs, no alcohol, just hungry. All of those preconceived prejudice I had were thrown away. Almost in the same week I was in a theatre show, it was a play set in South Africa. In the middle of the piece I sat back in my seat and the lady beside me suddenly reached to her side, grabbed her bag and put it in her lap in the most awkward position. I sat there for 2 hours wanting to ask her why she had done that but I didn’t have the guts and it probably would have seemed over-the-top. As with many of my poems, it is the coming together of two contrasting ideas that gives birth to a real ‘charged’ feeling. So, let’s go back to the debit card thief. I started imagining a whole world for this thief, I created short vignettes of them all round town and the question kept coming up as to why they might have stolen the card. I was moving towards the ‘someone’ wanting to feel like they were part of the elitist class, like they could dine in the places the middle class dine but at the bottom of all that, they never truly belong. I combined that idea with the concept that no matter how well the thief works, he can never shake his class away. Hence the lady pulling her bag in at the end. I love that poem as it is all about wanting to belong and that’s the reason I put it at the opening of the pamphlet. 

AH: Wanting to belong gets imagined in a different way in ‘brown boys in Kavos.’ The poem begins among a “tulip-topped spliffs” and “the backwash of cheap vodka” at “4am in a balmy Greek heat.”  A hymn to the hedonism of “rumbling dance floors”, its heroes are “four brown corduroy-coloured boys” who are “failing to get laid/ in the ‘getting laid’ capital of Greece.” Their charms are coming off worse to “sweaty charisma and beautiful blackness” on the one hand, and “glitter soaked torsos/ all fearless and normal and slavemastery.”  Against this temporarily disheartening outcome, their salvation, and reclamation of themselves comes in their solidarity, as the sun calls into life a new day:

brown boys think themselves ugly

but not yet ugly because they are brown
the sun is reaching over the rooftops
brown boys light cigs and laugh
an orgasm is caught in the breeze

I wondered if the idea of working collectively, and in concert with others, resonated with you, as part of a creative and transformative process?

AM: Everyone who knows me knows that I believe creativity is best enjoyed together. The camaraderie, the sharing of ideas, the spontaneity, I believe it is at the centre of a healthy mind and spirit. I have spent most of the last 15 years in participation arts because I truly believe making art together is integral to a happy society. In other parts of the world participatory arts is just art, by which I mean, everything is focussed around making art together. This is really true when we think about poetry. Poetry communities are integral to the scene, taking a poem to a group and sharing process is everything.  Without it I really feel I would not be half the poet I am. This is one of the reasons why I feel there needs to be more mentorships for minority groups to encourage collaboration and connection.  It is these communities that will nurture and grow Britain’s best new poems. Many publishers at the moment are asking for BAME poets to come forward but we need ‘quality’ –  and to make ‘quality’ poets you need quality mentoring spread over long periods of time. 

If you are interested in finding yourself a group perhaps start at The Poetry School where regular bursaries are available. Alternative options are Malika’s Kitchen and Covent Garden Stanza (run of course by you Alice). These are free groups but you will probably be asked to send samples. Loneliness is affecting us all at the moment so don’t sit in silence, connect with others and use art as a vehicle for transformation.

AH:  Again, I can only agree.  The Poetry Society co-ordinates Stanza groups up and down the UK, with further groups available in a few other countries, or with online membership.  I’ll put details at the end of the interview.  I know that the support of our stanza group really helped me personally during a very difficult few weeks in lockdown, It’s also been a fantastic place for me to try out new work in a safe place.   Going back to Mutton Rolls, while ‘brown boys’ has a sunrise ending, ‘half catholic’ strikes a more sombre note. The first person speaker reveals himself to be a man who, while attracted to women, also responds to men with desire. As a woman who is drawn to both women, and men, this is a duality which I recognise.  Reflecting how Catholicism can become a force which risks alienating people from themselves, the speaker remembers how:

at fifteen I touch a man in a way
that makes me wish God didn’t exist

throw up behind a Ford Fiesta
brush my teeth till the toothbrush snaps

“in Lourdes years later” he promises “not to want/ a man again” and prays for this to happen.  Returning to the motif of theft, also present within ‘credit card’, the poem ends:

after the tsunami
I watch a man 

pickpocket a corpse
quietly as though hiding it from the sky

The pickpocketing is presumably a matter of economic necessity, in order to ensure survival.  I wondered if you could say something about why you chose to set those two narratives consecutively, and whether the reader was being asked to think about the historic thefts and appropriations of colonialism, and their enduring impacts through time?

AM: This poem is the coming together of a series of moments in my life. All of them are strung together through a feeling of humiliation and shame, a sense of not belonging and being unable to conform to a system that didn’t necessarily fit me both religiously, ideologically and spiritually. Landing in Sri Lanka during the Tsunami was one of the most pivotal moments of my life. It came at a time when I was turning to activism and God, observing the situation unravel was painful. I was amazed by the level of blind faith that many of the victims had, even after they had often lost their family, friends and livelihoods. Their faith gave them strength, it was something I envied but also something I ridiculed. This for me, connected the two parts of my upbringing. One side of me is always in awe of my heritage as a Sri Lankan Tamil, half Catholic and half Hindu. With that side comes all of the myths and stories and the rich cultural history of tradition and ritual. But the other British side was often disillusioned, faithless and sceptical of it all. That dichotomy is at the centre of the poem and a great deal of my work. I dabbled with the ending for a long, long time. Finally I came to this idea of a man stealing money while only caring about God watching. It seemed to connect to the British impact in Sri Lanka, it shows the power of capitalism and it also illustrates shame and it also connected with the desperation to survive.

AH:    That’s an incredibly rich explanation Arji.  It really captures how poems can hold multiplicities without forcing a single or simple resolution.  Belinda Zhawi talked to me earlier in this series about the impacts of colonialism in Zimbabwe which was similarly powerful. There is an ongoing, and fruitful, tension in your work between narrating your experiences as a person, not least in several powerful break-up poems, and as a person of colour.  Many writers are responding to this, not least the poet Cathy Park Hong in her study Minor Feelings, whose work speaks to many of us. ‘nominated for a BAME prize’ tackles this complexity head on, beginning “it’s always in capitals/ like someone is shouting it.” The speaker states “I feel almost unBAME// in my M&S shirt and trousers”, and seems to position the BAME branding as something which risks diminishing and ghettoising artists, and over-simplifying complex, nuanced narratives.  Is that a fair reading?

AM: I think that is an extremely astute reading. I feel like BAME as a title has a truckload of problems associated with it. It boxes us all together, which dilutes the differentiation of culture between countries and religious groups. It gives people the perception that we are ‘all the same’ when in actual fact the continent of Asia is as diverse as you can get and Sri Lanka is a place made up of so many different minority groups. I totally sympathise with those that have tried to champion the representation of minorities in the arts but BAME is starting to feel a little dated. On top of this I’ve seen the term become quite divisive within the arts sector. Artists like me get a role or new project but it feels rather shadowed by the idea that ‘I only got it because I’m brown’. Often other artists may think me not deserving of the opportunity and that hurts. By segmenting us off, and doing call outs and competitions just for specific groups, it ends up feeling like we are in some way not applicable to the same rules of quality as our white counterparts. This is the opposite of what we as a society are trying to achieve. The funding and grant system in this country is creating divisions amongst artists, from those that do or don’t get funded, to those that can or can’t write an application form.  Sometimes it feels like we spend so much of our time divided instead of innovating together.

I’m not sure what the answers are, but I believe the start is to have a universally clearer understanding of the differentiation between countries, cultures and traditions. When we begin to accept our own ignorance we will begin to move into a space where we are ready to grow and learn. This space is a position of true power.

AH:  Undoubtedly your work is helping this transformation. The back cover of Mutton Rolls says you , like the speaker of ‘nominated for a BAME prize’, were “shortlisted for the Burning Eye BAME Pamphlet Prize 2018.”  I wondered if I could ask you here something about the first person “I” of your poems?  Do you see it as primarily specific, that is linking the work with you, Arji Manuelpillai, as a series of statements of witness? Or is it more a ‘first personal universal’, so that the I becomes a portal through which the reader can look with a greater degree of empathy and understanding?  Or both?

AM: You are the first person to call this out. Yes, much as I love and respect Burning Eye, they did inspire that poem. After I was shortlisted I found it interesting how I didn’t tell my parents it was a BAME prize. I was almost embarrassed by it. So I create vehicles for the personal messages to travel through. I do feel like the work is reflective of where I was at during that time. I wanted it to be like a calling card for my style and voice. The voice is very much me, the situations (though not always completely true) are very much like me and I’m proud of that. I hope that they will provide a greater understanding and empathy from the reader but I also feel they are fragments of myself and not designed to lead or coax the reader into any set reaction. I think in the newer work I am creating I am more interested in the ‘I’ taking a back seat, perhaps even disappearing and allowing the reader space to walk around, wander and discover. I hope that doesn’t sound too over-the-top. I feel like my new work is going to discuss life in a whole new nuanced way and I’m super excited about it.

AH:    I really look forward to those poems Arji.  Many of your Mutton Rolls poems explore the emotional lives of men.   ‘Cecilia says we’re all fucked up’ is an unpunctuated prose poem that explores the conversations between a psychotherapist and her client.   There is a surface play of humour and irony, riffing on the neutral décor and demeanour of the therapist.  This anodyne professional setting elicits the revelation “my friend died when I was 24    I never got to say goodbye.” After the apparently desultory meandering leading up to this, however, the closing lines have all the impact of being dropped down through a trap door 

                            I was busy being strong   that’s why abstract
paintings work so well    she’s leaning back  must be time  wipe
the tears away like face paint    how long before I’m wandering
drunk down the Old Kent Road     not knowing how I got there

Could you say something about the poem’s ending, and what it means to you to find forms through which to speak of things which can’t easily be said, but are powerful forces within our lives?

AM:  This poem was a real turning point to me. The Cecilia in the poem is actually Cecilia Knapp and the poem came out of a need to connect many opposing internal dialogues with the running dialogue with a therapist.  After I finished it I took it to a feedback session and I literally wasn’t sure whether it was good or really rubbish. I think the poem began to unpack a need I have to move towards reflecting the way the mind moves without the need for set narrative. My favourite poets are doing this currently, the work of poets like Jericho Brown, Chen Chen and Morgan Parker have led the way in this, but poets like Wayne Holloway Smith and Emily Berry have paved the way in England too. I feel that this poem was the start of that hunger and movement. The final lines took a lot to muster, the balance was integral and it was discussed over many a cup of tea with Hannah Lowe, who helped me learn about the soft step off. She always says ‘go in hard and get off lightly’ (or something like that). Finding this form and flipping the camera upside down allows us to capture the intricacies of this complex world that we live in. During this answer I’ve name-dropped a bit. I am doing this because it is important to remember that these poems are the product of many discussions, feedback sessions and books by other poets.

AH:   You mentioned Wayne Holloway-Smith in the roll call.  I know you’ve taken workshops with him.  Wayne is concerned to investigate and call out how the complexities of masculinities are represented,  and to challenge cultural and class stereotyping.  To what extent do you feel your work is in conversation with his poems?

AM: Wow, I never thought of it like that. I’d be honoured for people to even consider them in connection with Wayne’s work. He has been a real inspiration to me.  His work unpicks so much about being a man and growing up but it also deals with emotions in an incomplete and broken linear. The real admiration I have for Wayne is his attitude to poetry itself. His mindset is settled around feeling, process and freedom, not necessarily making sense or clarity of narrative. He isn’t bothered whether things look or sound like a poem, he is just about how it makes an audience squeal or turn in their seat. He has taught me to be the sort of poet that doesn’t give a f-ck, to innovate, challenge preconception and industry notions of acceptance, to dig into process, to grow, discover, play with it all and take nothing for granted. Everything we read in the Monday night class we question, poke fun at, pick apart, no one is on a pedestal, everything isn’t about what’s happening but what is ‘working’. Some people say ‘oh it doesn’t seem much like a poem’ and that really doesn’t bother us, I want to make people think and Wayne has taught me that. Thematically, any connections between our work is simply because I have spent too many Monday nights in his group. 

AH:  I’m sure Wayne will be happy to read that.  Your wonderful poem ‘regret’ was placed in last year’s Oxford Poetry Prize.  It offers a vignette of “my mum chatting in Tamil to the boy at the petrol station counter.”  Snatches of their conversation are represented in Tamil, and the mum is shown as being completely at ease and lost in this moment: 

she is Aunty, he is Thamby
and the queue behind us can wait 

The speaker, however, is excluded, catching only snatches of the conversation, “plucking subtitles from their eyebrows”.  Yet it is from this sense of not-fitting that the poem’s voice and consciousness grow. I wondered if you would like to say something about the creative potential of dislocation and exclusion as a generative force for you as an artist, in this poem and more generally?

AM: I feel like not belonging drives the majority of my work. We spend most our years growing up hoping to fit into the system only to realise our uniqueness is what makes us special. In my workshops with young people I’m always encouraging people to think about their exclusion as a force of creativity. Ask yourself, what makes you unique, different and amazing. This poem is a very truthful representation of my mother and I in a petrol station. My Mum is an amazing conversationalist. Whenever we go anywhere she is talking to the cashier or catching up with someone in the queue.  In England, India or Sri Lanka she’s always speaking to people and often I wish so much I could join in. I mastered the English language but perhaps in doing so sacrificed my Tamil heritage. This poem isn’t just about language though, it is also about the love I have for my Mum.

AH:  Another important woman in your life has been the poet Hannah Lowe, who was your mentor on the Jerwood Arvon Scheme, and who, like so many of us, works from a place of cultural multiplicities. I was massively helped by having Pascale Petit as my mentor on the same scheme.  Could you say something about your experience of being mentored by Hannah?

AM: Getting the Jerwood Arvon mentorship was probably one of the biggest achievements of my writing life. It provided me (and you too) with a community of artists, a space to create and a mentor who really believed in me. Hannah has been completely instrumental to my growth as a poet and artist. Her work transcends cultures and backgrounds, her control of narrative is second to none and her ability to mentor is truly masterful. Hannah is always focussed on clarity of image, constantly pushing me to make even the abstract hold true conceit and is always encouraging me to take the reader by the hand and lead them from line to line. This has been so influential to me. When I’m lost, I often see her on my shoulder asking ‘I don’t really get this bit’ or it’s not really clear enough’. She is also a poet who believes in accessibility of the work, so she pushed me to make sure the poems reached the readership I wanted to reach instead of tumbling into abstraction. In many ways Hannah and Wayne sit on opposite ends of a poetry spectrum. This was a wonderful thing to experience, it allowed me to see how poetry could pull and shift in different directions, it allowed me to ride a very thin line between being abstract and being very clear and it also showed me that finally my own choices had to be made. As Hannah once said to me ‘just be confident with what you’re trying to do’. Hannah’s passionate, down to earth, giving nature is something that I will always be thankful for.

AH:  ‘after the Sri Lankan bombing that kills 360 (after the 20 year more than killed significantly more)’ uses the powers of miniaturisation deployed by Elizabeth Bishop in her poem ‘Brazil, January 1 1502’, and by Rachael Allen in her poem ‘Banshee’ – to name but two other poets of the tiny. Elizabeth Bishop is describing the rapist-conquistadors who are “hard as nails/ tiny as nails, and glinting, in creaking armour.”  Rachael Allen (interviewed last year in this series) is reanimating the murder of a woman whose aggressor works “like a small model forester/ axing up plastic logs.”  

Your poem begins “after the news   my skin feels darker”, and uses responses to the bombing in the Grand Cinnamon Hotel as a prism to make more visible the complexities of only being “Sri Lankan / at weddings and funerals  or for inquisitive white people”.   The poem ends by distilling its contradictions into three singing lines:

from here (on the toilet) it’s all just a cluster of tiny red faces
wailing in a language I don’t understand    in a country I can’t
oh look!  that’s where Mama and Appa first met  

I wanted to ask you to what extent the miniaturised space of the poem – which takes huge subjects and telescopes them down – creates a measure of safety for dealing with difficult or otherwise unmanageable materials

AM: I think you’re really onto something there. I’m really interested in pulling big political constructs into my poems and sometimes that can be a very daunting thing. Finding methods to do this is tricky. I’ve found that keeping the subject of the poem down-to-earth and ‘local’ allows the overriding message to have its own open plain. In this poem it all centres around the speaker watching a video online yet the focus is bigger. All political problems have a microscopic impact on our lives, that means taking a subject like war and persecution and asking yourself where does that sit on a local level. This can be a very fruitful task and I feel it allows you an ability to not seem ‘over-the-top’ or ‘self-righteous’ which is always the problem of political poetry. I want to take risks and over the last year since the pamphlet has been released I have been researching political poets. Most of them from USA. Tracy K  Smith creates letters charting the journey of black slaves from varying people in history. Patricia Smith tells the story through accounts from victims and family members of violence. These poets are a real inspiration to me, they take the human, local situations and show how they are the repercussions of larger political problems. I believe poetry needs to reflect our politics and begin to unpack some of the complexities of our political system. Often these systems seem too much to deal with, too complicated and too daunting but it is important we find ways to do it, it’s important we do not turn away, but instead create vehicles to promote discussion. 

AH:    I can relate to that, albeit in a slightly different field.  As you know, in my current work I am trying to use my own direct experiences of being abused as a child to give witness to, and change awareness around, the global crime of the grooming and sexual abuse of children, and look at its aftermath for vulnerable teenagers.  To make the poems, I have to find or open myself to imageries and forms that can hold the materials so they become accessible to, and safe for, the reader, notwithstanding their potentially very difficult subject matters.

More generally, poetry is about control, but it’s also about the reverse – abandoning and opening yourself to let complex things enact a form of authentic aesthetic identity in language. Could you say something about how, when, and where your poems come into being, and your process of working with them to their published forms?  I know you also freestyle, where improvisation and being able to trust yourself and go with the energy, is a key?

AM: I am a true believer in play as a means to creation. I believe that being playful will allow us to open ourselves up and throw away the inner voice obsessed with judging our success. Freestyling is the epitome of this. A rapper freestyling is a magical, spontaneous force of creativity. For me, I freestyle best when I am relaxed, when the audience lack judgement, I can move into a space where my brain seems to work outside of itself, where I don’t think of the words, the words just fall together like bubbles pulling together in a bath. This feeling is as much about the people around me as it is about my presence in the moment. I believe that workshops and feedback groups should adopt this way of thinking. The workshops should initially focus on connecting people, creating a relaxed and free space full of love, while allowing people to express and discover themselves in a wholly present way. After this, the poems will simply flow naturally. I chase the feeling of freestyle when I am creating poems. I’m always looking for experiences that bring the playful from me, that pull me out of my usual surroundings and throw me into a space where I must be fully present. I’m all about the process, the feeling of building a poem like a house, and living in it, taking risks and pushing it to see how far it can go. In terms of practise, I try to wake up each day and put something into being. Anything, just accepting whatever comes out can be really rubbish or be the start of something really good. Recently I have read more as this has been a weakness for me. 

AH:   I wanted to ask about your brilliant final poem, ‘because it’s in the Lonely Planet top five places to visit’.  The poem intercuts a couple telling the speaker about how the husband proposed “as the sun / licked the sea red   and birds punched shrapnel in the sky”, on the sand outside their beach hut, with the speaker’s account (thought, not spoken within the live conversation) of the island’s recent bloody history, to which they appear oblivious or indifferent :       

              will you –  I used to march to make change   but
since then     I march just to sleep at night         that country
changed me she says   the bars  the sea-views  biryani kothu roti
plus the people are so generous    they don’t hassle like Indians
they’d drop a bomb   wait five minutes    drop another to
kill the rescue party    they spent the whole evening staring
out to sea      she says it’s their paradise    they made a pact to
go back there every ten years      to that bar    in that country where
bombs rained into no fire zones    where bodies are hidden sixty
to a hole   it’s hard to put into words    he says as their fingers
weave together   it’s somewhere we could call our second
home   the soldiers were spread across Tamil land   few tried
for war crimes    I don’t know why you don’t move back there

In your opening poem, ‘credit card’, identity is precarious, deniable, steal-able.  Here the only two points at which the speaker uses the “I” pronoun come around his attempt to assert a contradictory narrative, as quoted above.  The reader is given the sense of a narrative about Sri Lanka which is being repeatedly drowned out by the denials of history and blithe rewritings of the tourist industry.  The final phrase first person phrase, spoken by one of the members of the couple, – “I don’t know why you don’t move back there” – is moreover one used by people challenging migrations globally.   Would you be able to say something about this poem and its ending?

AM: The poem was originally built in a train in India. Remember when I talked about the local situation being used to talk about global issues? In this poem the local situation is a Californian couple. Yes, they did indeed speak in detail about how they loved Sri Lanka. I actually spent a little while explaining my mixed feelings about the place but it didn’t seem to faze them. The recent groom said ‘well you could say that about a lot of places’ and that message stuck with me. I wanted the poem to capture this conversation in a new way with multiple perspectives. To create a range of conversations happening simultaneously. That is the spoken words, the internal dialogue, as well as the dialogue to the reader. There is a line that I really battled with ‘I used to march to make change…’ that line is a clinical line for me as it is the speaker’s internal dialogue, it comes from a different place. The ending has gone through many different stages, it used to have more of a back and forth but I found that pulling it back left the reader on more of an edge and let the poem live on after the poem was finished. This is a real life situation for a lot of second generation migrants. There is conflict between our own feelings and those that go there, there is a conflict between the politics of oppressors and the politics of our supposed mother land. I attempted to capture this conflict in the use of this cut and splice form.

AH :  It really works for me, Arji.  Can I end by asking where to next?  What are your plans for 2020, and beyond?

AM: I’ve been really productive since lockdown from writing to workshopping and I’m looking forward to an August break in Wales. I’m also about to become writer in residence for a pub in Dorset where I will be writing a series of poems in conjunction with local patrons of the pub. I’m also currently commissioned by Stockton Council to write 40 poems for isolated people across the North East so I’ve been writing poems and ringing people up out the blue to share them. I love that so much. 

In terms of poetry I want to be pushing my process and work as far as it can go.  I feel like I’m only just reaching my stride and I have a whole lot left to give. I am really excited about the new work I’m writing connected to race and hate crime. I’m messing with the ‘i’, writing from a range of perspectives and most importantly, still enjoying it. It’s a risky, deep vat of possibilities so at the exciting part of the process. I want to be more political in my poems and create work for those without a voice. I want to push the boundaries of what we can say and how we say it with regards to race, it’s a dicey game but also very exciting. There’s a lot to keep an eye out for, you can follow me at @theleano, or Arji Manuelpillai on insta or you can join the mailing list at www.arji.org. Thank you so much for having me on here Alice, you are an inspiration to so many of us poets.

AH: Thank you so much for such an amazing set of answers Arji.  As always with these interviews around the idea of ‘saying the difficult thing’, I feel I have gained so much by being given an insight into to the workings behind your poems.  I’m really excited for your new work and so happy to have had the chance to share the poems in Mutton Rolls with our readers.

Mutton Rolls can be bought here from Out-Spoken’s website for £7.00..

If you want to find out more about joining a Poetry Society Stanza workshop group to develop your poems and connect with other poets details are here at the Poetry Society’s website.

For details of Arji’s ongoing creative adventures sign up to the mailing list on his website at www.arji.org