Trigger warning: non-explicit references to childhood sexual abuse.
This has not been an easy blog to put together. I have written, and redrafted its plain sentences, bare as winter branches, but like winter branches, holding within them the promise of spring. For those of you who are thinking of reading further, I should warn you that I write honestly about the challenge of living with a complex history, and the fact that resolution can seem hard to find. But I work my way through these hard places, to arrive at a point of hopefulness, which you will hopefully also reach if you stay with me and with these words.
In life, as in art, we’re encouraged to think in terms of beginnings, middles and endings. Progression and resolution give structure to stories. When an artwork responds to trauma, the requirements change. Anyone who has experienced, or observed the impacts of traumatic events, knows that they continue to resonate and replay themselves for many years. To generate a truthful creative transaction between a traumatic subject matter, and the work into which it is translated, calls for forms of expression which can suggest recurrences and hauntings. Through this act of creative witness, we may begin to change their power and reposition our relationships to them.
Living beyond, and making art that responds to, my own experience of childhood sexual abuse, amongst other subjects, I face this challenge myself. As the light dims towards the end of November, and the days grow shorter and darker, child ghosts walk again for me. They remember and re-live my father’s death in hospital when I was eight, in 1972. These ghost-selves also re-experience the beginning of the penetrative sexual abuse to which I was subjected, very shortly after, when my mother, who was my abuser, and I moved from Brussels to Wiltshire.
Impacting both my physical and mental health, these hauntings can lead me to feel as if I am sinking down through waves of old sadness. Like heavy black sump oil, they seep into my thoughts and bodily movements. When things get really bad, they can make it hard to move – or even think. Because this has happened every November and December since I was a teenager, over the years, I’ve developed resources to keep myself going. I work beside my SAD light. I try to be kinder to myself and organise my working life so that I am not too pressured. I meditate, swim and walk my dog Ithaca, noticing the natural world around us. I connect with people who love me.
But all these strategies only ever mitigate the after-effects of the dreams which rise up at night. In my sleep, I become again a scared, hurt child, taken back to a place between life and death by my mother. This was the case – very brutally – in November and December of 2021, as it had been in 2020, and all the years before that.
None of us likes to speak of what we perceive as our vulnerabilities, for fear people will think less of us, or feel we are ‘seeking attention’ in some way. But in 2020, working on bird of winter‘s final manuscript alone with my dog Ithaca in lockdown, I decided to make an artwork that could enact being haunted by a traumatic past, and reaching beyond this towards a form of resolution. At the time, I was following an online workshop with Nina Mingya Powles around multiple language heritages with the Poetry School, which my fellow Forwards Shortlistee, Cynthia Miller, was also part of. I was also experiencing difficult dreams. They shaped what I wrote.
What emerged is called ‘je suis son petit chat il est mon papa 1972/ I am his little cat he is my daddy 2020’. It’s a multi-form piece which exists simultaneously as a conventional poem, a visual work, a sound experience and a performance. It was published this January 22 in bath magg no 8, as you’ll be able to see and hear by following this link.
When I performed it at bath magg’s online launch, I began by saying a few words about the poem. The response I received made me feel there would be a value in expanding them into this blog, however inelegantly. Opening up the deliberately smudgy, troubled layers of the poem up in this way also gives me the opportunity to separate the two overlaid texts, and look at each one in isolation. In the final print they are blurred across each other to play out how traumatic stories repeat and recur, as you’ll have seen from the fragment above, and the link to the full work at bath magg.
‘je suis son petit chat/ I am his little cat’ begins in French and English, the two languages of my childhood. They refract and translate each other, but the work also makes complete sense in either language. In the first two lines, I’m waking up from a nightmare in 2020, aged fifty-six. I’m also myself in bed, aged eight, in 1972, as my father lies dying in intensive care. From there it is back to 1972 and my eight year old self returning home to our flat:
Describing my life before my father died as if it was still simultaneously present, including my grandmother taking me to the hospital, and my father sending me drawings home, the narrative enacts how, in dissolving the boundaries of time, these dark hauntings also open opportunities for healing, by re-accessing a fuller range of memory. Next in the underlay text comes the nightmare at the heart of the poem, which invaded my sleep in the early hours of 22 November, replaying the sexual abuse to which I was subjected as a child by my mother. As the poem reports, the terror of the dream induced vomiting and diarrhoea in my fifty-something year old self:
Tough though it was to experience in reality, this act of voiding is also a release, which opens up ‘je suis son petit chat/ I am his little cat’ to new energies – whereby the recurrence of the trauma becomes an opportunity to reset my relationship to the original events. Resetting happens through a short poem in both French and then English, which is overlaid on the looping narrative beneath it in larger font and bolder text, as the extract at the top of the blog shows.
Within its overlaid phrases, my adult self summarises the impacts of my childhood sexual abuse, including how it continues to haunt me. Speaking directly to my abuser, I refuse the silence which she imposed on me throughout my childhood and adolescence, and for long years beyond that. This frees the underlying narrative to begin to move towards the light of a different ending, where the recurrences of physical voiding can finally come to a stop:
The account of the nightmare, and falling “down a black tunnel” is repeated below the overlaid text, as when in nursery rhymes like ‘Oranges and lemons’, or ‘Frère Jacques’ in French, the verses come round again. Following the earlier shift, the act of voiding is once again purgative, letting go of some of the blackness and shame held inside me, and allowing gentler and more nurturing memories of my loving engagement with my father to continue to surface in the segment which follows:
Like many others with my history, for long years the trauma of the penetrative abuse in childhood separated me from being able to feel my own feelings, or know my own wants. Here, they begin to return to the child who lives within and alongside the adult. She can say once again “I want my daddy” and by expressing this longing re-form a more authentic connection with herself. My grandmother’s phrase translated means “let her through, let her through, she’s his daughter”. She was trying to get me allowed into the intensive care unit, but the phrase also acts out the way I am asking for my child self to be allowed back through, to speak and know herself, and how she was once loved.
‘Je suis son petit chat/I am his little cat’ ends in a place of quietness, with the possibility of integrating my separated selves more fully. Translating the “petit chat” nickname my father gave me into the English “little cat”, and laying it down on the page, the poem performs an act of witness to the co-presence of my child and adult selves. It also documents how, by reconnecting more fully with child-alice, adult-alice is able to begin to make a new relationship what made us who we now:
Walking in Shotover County Park near Oxford in the last days of 2021, after some very tough weeks, I saw trees and misty light that reminded me of Wiltshire, and felt unkind old ghosts crowd around me. But breath by breath, I drew the damp, cold air of the present into my body, and with it new energy. With each out-breath, I tried to let what I no longer needed pass from me. As I did this, the pearlescence of the fields and clouds became a wilderness of beauty, and the black branches of the trees uplifted themselves into acts of elemental resistance. With my dog Ithaca scenting the damp leaves, and pulling us forwards, and the landscape saying that life would return, I felt how this difficult annual recurrence was also a gateway to transformation – that each year I must find the way through.
Further exploration: four books and StAnza Festival
I often set a creative prompt after exploring one of my own poems for people to explore in their own practice. In this case the subject material is too dangerous. Instead, for anyone wanting to work creatively with complex materials, or look at other examples of this practice, I would recommend four books which open pathways to new understandings, and new creative forms of expression, from the breakages and fractures of trauma. I would also recommend the other brilliant poems in bath magg no 8, many which respond to complex subject matters – and make from them acts of beauty and reclamation.
In terms of books, Bloodroot, by Annemarie Ní Churreáin creates provisional, shifting structures to hold the lives and reposition the representations of Irish women whose lives were appropriated by the Irish State and Church. Documenting how the State invaded every corner of life in Romania under Romania, under Ceausescu and the Romanian Communist Party, for Buried Gods Metal Prophets Maria Stadnicka and Antonia Glűcksman assemble a living memorial that incorporates diary entries, photos, erasures, quotes from statutes, and building plans, as well as more conventional ‘poems’. In Things I have Forgotten Before Tanatsei Gambura speaks through radical formal innovation of what it can mean to have grown up as a “Black Girl” in Zimbabwe during the 1980s – and how losing a country can form you as much as having one. Sasha Dugdale’s extraordinary collection Deformationsexplores trauma and PTSD, through fragments composed around Homer’s Odyssey. A separate long sequence responds to the sculptor Eric Gill’s work and life, within the framework of his recorded sexual abuse of his daughters. Sasha and I spoke about our work in Volume 48 of PN Review. Sasha has a hugely impactful new poem in bath magg 8 which you can read here.
Annemarie Ní Churreáin, Maria Stadnicka and I will be appearing at the StAnza festival on 12 March both live and online with many other brilliant poets in St Andrews. You can find more details here. Prices start from £3.00. Booking opens on 21 January. For people not able to travel to Scotland, many of the events are online and very reasonably priced. As well as performing, I’m going to be sure to pack out my schedule with hearing other poets and it’s a great way to check in with a huge range of voices and perspectives.
I will also be running an online workshop via StAnza on 7 March between 2-4pm. I will be exploring bringing the body into our creative practices though the use of found materials and working safely with the “felt self”. Tickets will be available from 21 January priced from £4.00 here.
How can we resource our work in lean times? Where does inspiration come from when travel and and a wide range of live experiences are significantly curtailed, whether for financial, health or other restrictions? My steadfast belief is that we hold our own deepest and richest reserves within ourselves, accumulated through our lived experiences and interactions with the world at multiple levels. When more expansive possibilities are denied to us, to keep working, and generating new material, we therefore need to find ways to tune into this, both by nurturing ourselves, and also by finding new sources of ‘strangeness’ and intellectual and creative adventures to act as stimuli.
Working with my fellow poet and cherished friend, Julie Irigaray, I set out to devise a solstice workshop, performance and conversation for the Voicing Our Silences collective that I founded. We wanted to deliver both these aims – of self-nurture and adventure. Core to the process were the two prompts we developed, which were designed to complement each other. Mine is a two-part process for setting your creative compass, which begins with a gentle breathing exercise, to clear your creative space, and then builds up your individual compass on the page – through a five stage guided prompt, which I lead participants through. There’s then a follow-up to be completed two or more days later. People who did it on the night we recorded the event have said how valuable they found it to be. This compass process can be used for a specific piece of work such as a poem or prose work you are developing, or would like to start. It works equally well for people looking to explore a new project, or simply to check in with themselves. Julie’s explores ways to expand your work dynamically through different forms of research and I found it gave me a breakthrough into a poem which had been hovering half-realised since the summer, so I warmly recommend trying it for yourself.
In addition to these prompts, we both performed two short sets of poems, and spoke to each other between them about how they came into being, going deep with where we resourced our work – whether from online resources including YouTube, books, museum catalogues, or other starting points. My poems came from my collection, bird of winter, and Julie’s from her pamphlet, Whalers, Witches and Gauchos. Because we were recording in the run up to the winter solstice, we structured our sets to rise from darkness into light, and both kept lit candles burning beside us as symbols of inspiration and resilience. The aim was also to share how although our poems appear to journey huge distances through time and space on the page, much of this travel is in fact realised without ever leaving home, whether we’re writing about Pompeii and Herculaneum in my case, or in Julie’s about the Basque heritage she explores in Whalers, Witches and Gauchos, which she published this year with Nine Pens.
Julie also asked me about my practice of working with my childhood and adolescent medical notes, which have been crucial to my collection bird of winter, as with the poem ‘pistil’, given above. The poem is named for the female reproductive parts of the flower. It juxtaposes a quote from my medical notes when I was two, with a direct memory, which reflects how the grooming to which my abuser was subjecting me was already impacting my behaviour, and a photo I recall of myself at that age which my grandmother loved. I was very glad to have the opportunity speak about both the risk, and benefit, of working with documentary evidence such as medical notes if you have a complex history, as I do, arising from my experience of being groomed and then sexually abused as a child, and finding my way towards healing beyond this.
As you will be able to hear if you check in with the video, I said how valuable, and painful it was in equal measure, to have factual corroboration of events that lived inside my memory. I explained how I had felt very apprehensive about engaging with my medical notes, for what I might find there, but was very grateful to see that events which my abuser had tried to deny, were in fact recorded in sober black and white. I also told Julie that reading these same notes had in fact provided a core source of motivation for my ongoing activism around changing awareness with regard to childhood sexual abuse. Driving this was how harshly the medical profession had judged my troubled teenage behaviours once the abuse had stopped. I wanted people to understand this adolescent acting out of harm done differently and more compassionately. In the questions which followed, Chaucer Cameron raised the query about notes being redacted, that is having sections blanked out, which has been her experience.
Normally, when I record a Voicing Our Silences performance and workshop, I pause the recording at the prompt stops, and cut the audience participation, to keep the event around an hour. This time, however, we wanted to create an immersive experience for everyone who was joining us, and give the feeling of how the Voicing our Silences collective operates as a place of mutual creative nurture and adventure. Given that it’s a longer watch, I’ve therefore noted the minute timings of the different elements within the YouTube video, (which is captioned for accessibility), for ease of location. While they are managed safely, and there are no explicit references, this video includes discussion of grooming and childhood sexual abuse. If you need support with anything raised the Mind website is very helpful.
Please note, you will need a piece of paper and something to write with for each prompt.
0.00 alice hiller introduces 4.00 Julie Irigaray set 1: ‘The Basque Whaler’, ‘Six War Letters’, ‘Kreig’ 12.00 alice hiller set 1 ‘bains de mer’, ‘pistil’, ‘three small shrines’, ‘in the vineyard’, ‘circular’, ‘joujou’, ‘libation’ 21.20 Julie & alice discussion 1 including use of medical notes in poems 39.32alice hiller prompt : setting your creative compass 1.00 audience feedback. 1.05.50 julie irigaray set 2 : ‘Red Card’, ‘Divine Seraphine’, ‘Via Domitia’ 1.12.30 alice hiller set 2 : ‘the holly tree’, ‘vesuvius’, ‘benediction’, ‘o goddess isis’ 1.20 Julie & alice discussion 1.35 Julie Irigaray prompt turbocharging your creative explorations final questions from Voicing Our Silences collective
Julie’s poems include references to her Basque heritage, which is at the heart of her debut Whalers, Witches and Gauchos,published by Nine Pens earlier in 2021. In the spirit of expanding our horizons, Julie was kind enough to answer a few questions about Basque culture and history, which you can read below.
AH: Whalers, Witches and Gauchos opens with an epigraph from Thomas Jefferson about Basque fishing in the Atlantic. From what he said, Basque sailors and whalers were clearly active off Newfoundland and further south from the 1400s onwards. Could you (briefly) tell us something of the history of Basque involvement in whaling? It is partly the subject of the poem ‘The Basque Whaler’, which you perform on the video, but it clearly has deep roots.
JI: The Basques started hunting whales in the 11th century because whales were used to create a wide range of products: candles, soap, cosmetics, to fuel lamps. In the early modern period, Basque whalers spent between six and nine months per year fishing cod and hunting whales near the coasts of Canada and Iceland, in dreary living conditions.
AH: I know the Basque territory is currently ‘divided’ between France and Spain, and there has been political and other forms of activism, including formerly armed conflict, to reclaim and redefine this cultural, geographical and linguistic identity. Would you be able to outline this for us?
JI: The Basque Country is divided between seven provinces: four of them are in Spain, three in France. It has never been a unified country because it was always split up between the kingdoms of France, Navarre and Spain. The Basque language is not related to any other existing language, so some academics theorised the Basques were part of the first wave of human migration in Europe. The pronunciation and dialects of Basque are different from one province to another, although a unified Basque has been created by scholars. The armed Basque nationalist and separatist organization ETA emerged in the Spanish Basque Country in the late 1950s, mainly as a reaction to Franco’s dictatorship. But they kept on carrying out terrorist attacks well after Franco’s death, especially in the 1980s. I think it was particularly difficult to be young in the Basque Country at that time. But this is my parents’ story, not mine. I’ll probably write about it one day after doing more research. When I went on holiday to England fifteen years ago, there were still some people telling me “Oh! You come from the terrorists’ place!”
AH: Am I right in thinking that both your parents’ families are of Basque heritage? Your surname, Irigaray, has a sound which stands outside what I know of both French and Spanish, and I know the final poem ‘Exte’, in Whalers, Witches and Gauchos addresses this? Note – you can read ‘Exte’ at the end of this interview.
JI: You’re absolutely right – and that’s why nobody outside the Basque Country apart from you knows how to pronounce my name! Three of my grandparents are Basque, and the final one comes from les Landes, which is still in the south-west of France. My maternal grandmother comes from the coast and a different province from my father’s family, so there are differences of pronunciation and vocabulary between their Basque. My paternal grandparents used to speak Basque to each other or with their neighbours, and my father has a good grasp of it as well.
AH: One of the ideas that our Voicing Our Silences collective works with is how our difficult histories and experiences can be creatively fruitful, because asking us to find new forms of language to respond to them. ‘Krieg’ in an incredibly vivid, and subtle poem, imagining two former combatants from World War I meeting high in a Basque mountain pass, and reaching a form of understanding which hinges on the title word, which only the German officer understands initially. Could you say something about this poem and the idea of how poetry can open spaces for things we might not otherwise be able to say and also comprehend?
JI: I always knew I was going to write about this family anecdote one day, but I wanted to avoid certain pitfalls, like making it too overly emotional, or depicting my French great-grandfather as the good guy and the German soldier as the villain. These two men cannot communicate because they do not speak the same language, but also because they were conditioned to think of themselves as enemies for seventy years, and fought against each other during World War I. The memory of World War II in occupied countries like France is still sensitive since so many unspeakable things happened. My family did not suffer more than average, but a variety of things happened to them which are difficult to talk about or even taboo, like a great-aunt who fell in love with a German soldier, or a great-grandfather sent to Czechoslovakia to work as forced labour for the German war effort – which was seen as treason by some. During lockdown, I have written a few poems about World War II from the point of view of several family members. I hate black and white pictures of a character, or moralistic views, so what I try to achieve with my poems is a sense of balance. I want to give a voice to both sides of the story without judging, as I did in ‘Krieg’.
AH: ‘Their Common language’ addresses your great-grandparents’ migration to Argentina, and subsequent return to France. Could you say something about the Basque relationship to South America and how that came about?
JI: On my father’s side of the family, several great-grandparents emigrated to Argentina with their parents or siblings because they came from a rural area with little prospects. As I explain in ‘Etxe’, in the Basque tradition, the eldest child (either girl or boy) inherited the family house while the other siblings were left with nothing. One of my great-grandfathers who emigrated to Argentina had thirteen siblings: three sisters ended up nuns, one brother a missionary in Madagascar. Back then, there were not many opportunities to earn a living apart from entering the Church or emigrating to America… In the late nineteenth-century, many Basques moved to Uruguay or Argentina to work as gauchos, others chose the USA to become shepherds in Nevada, California or Florida. The great-grandmother from “Their Common Language” worked in an hotel in Buenos Aires, like the great-grand-uncle who inspired the poem ‘Amerikanoa’. Some of them stayed in Argentina, but many Basques have a sense of nostalgia and preferred moving back to the Basque Country after a few years.
AH: A number of your other poems also lean into this Basque restlessness, and sense of not-belonging to any single place, which I know you and I both share for different reasons, as do millions of people around the world, who have left their places of birth to migrate for economic, political or other reasons. Would you like to say something about this experience of becoming un-rooted, but also of carrying your roots with you?
JI: Since I was a teenager, I dreamed of living abroad. Either for my studies or for professional reasons, I moved back and forth between the Basque Country, Paris, Ireland, Britain and Italy seven times in seven years, which had its toll on my mental and physical health. When I moved back to the UK for my first job, I felt terribly homesick, and for the first time. I started a series of Basque poems that made up the greater part of Whalers, Witches and Gauchos, probably because I felt completely unrooted. I found it more difficult than the first time I lived in England to study to fit in. I think it was because I had lived in so many countries, and picked up some bits of each of their cultures, that I didn’t belong anywhere anymore. I’m still processing this. My poems interrogate cultural differences because it is a subject that I constantly think of.
AH: I know you have been back in the Basque region of France during the lockdown, able to travel both to the Atlantic and the Pyrenees, when free of restrictions. How has it impacted your work being back in these landscapes?
JI: Unfortunately, few good poems came out of my lockdown writing, precisely because of the anxiety generated by the closing of all borders. The border between France and Spain remained shut for almost four months, and I have spent a day in Spain since Christmas 2019 because things are still not back to normal. Even during World War II or under Francoism, the border could be crossed, albeit illegally. I wrote a poem about a friend being in lockdown in San Sebastian (where the lockdown was extremely restrictive) and my panic at the idea that I could not see him for months because the border was shut. I wanted to capture this claustrophobic feeling. It’s difficult to explain this to people who live on an island, but sharing a border with another country is for us a natural right and a source of enrichment. I have also written a poem from the point of view of the border, and all the historical events it witnessed through millennia. But in the end, I did not write much about the Basque Country. I write better about a place when I see it from a distance, ideally when I live in another country. I wrote almost all my Basque poems while living in the UK, and during lockdown I wrote many poems about Italy because I felt extremely upset about not being allowed to travel back there.
AH: Some of your newest poems are following your interest in military history, addressed in a number of the poems in WWG, including the ways in which countries who have denied citizens their rights nonetheless require them to die in their wars. This was the the case for many soldiers brought in from Britain’s colonised countries during the first and second world wars, as Sathnam Sanghera has explored in Empireland. It was also the case for Basque citizens resident in France. Could you say something about these poems, and the new ones which are forthcoming?
JI: I was looking for books on this subject, so thank you for recommending Sanghera’s! I would like to address the subject of the soldiers who fought for the French and British colonies one day as they were completely written out of history, but I need to find the right approach. I normally write a lot about women, but these days I am interested in the values conveyed by the army, especially with regard to masculinity. France is still a very militarised country. With the rise of the right and the French presidential elections taking place in five months’ time, some politicians have suggested the return of the military service for both men and women, and I don’t see it in a good light. There was also the bicentenary of Napoléon’s death this year, and I’m not fond of the idea of promoting the legacy of a man who invaded and subjected a whole continent and killed around three million European soldiers (and God knows how many civilians) for his campaigns. I am writing a couple of poems about these themes and the toxic myths surrounding masculinity. My poem ‘Six War Letters’ tells the story of an underaged young man who is enrolled in World War I in spite of all and stops idealising war as a way to prove his manhood. One English teacher told me she’d taught this poem to her boys-only class and that one pupil said it made him reconsider masculinity. I couldn’t be prouder! I also recently talked to my parents about my father’s and uncle’s experiences of military service or hazing when they entered their engineering school, and I found these testimonies deeply disturbing. As someone who was bullied in school, I can imagine the psychological impact of hazing in elite schools and universities, and I am outraged by the mechanisms used by the bullies to make their victims believe this is perfectly normal, and even desirable.
AH: Finally, I know you are also working on a PhD about Sylvia Plath and her relationship with England and Europe at Huddersfield. What does 2022 hold for you Julie Irigaray, in so much as it is possible for any of us to answer this question?
JI: A lot of travelling, I hope! If Covid does not come on the way, I should attend several conferences in France and the UK. I am co-organising an online conference on Sylvia Plath (https://bit.ly/3yHGIW0) on 11th and 12th March 2022, and I will be a volunteer for The Sylvia Plath Literary Festival that should take place in Hebden Bridge at the end of October. I also need to write a couple of academic articles, so 2022 will be more PhD-oriented. But I will try to assemble a poetry collection as I have enough poems that satisfy me to create one now.
If you would like to read more of Julie Irigaray’s work please visit her brilliant website.
On Saturday 6 November, I was asked to read and speak at an event on Poetry and Trauma at Poetry in Aldeburgh 2021 with brilliant, radical poets Chaucer Cameron, Day Mattar and Tessay Foley, introduced by poet and academic Patricia Debney. We have in common a background of having been subjected to predation and sexual abuse, in childhood or afterwards. Our shared experience, and the fact that we have all made artworks which begin in this harsh place, set the stakes very high in terms of creating an event which could speak collectively to people with similar experience in their own histories. The link to the podcast follows further down.
Sixty-five people tuned in to join us mid-afternoon. I don’t think anyone who was there will ever forget what was said and read. Both Chaucer and Day touched on their experiences of sex work or prostitution. Chaucer’s pamphlet In an Ideal World I’d Not be Murdered is part memoir/part fiction. It explores the impact of sex work on body, mind and spirit – through the voices of characters speaking to and with each other, while also questioning what it takes to leave this profession. Speaking of one of the female characters, who in real life was murdered, Chaucer said : “In my version she has her own voice, she sings her own song…and this is what it looks like.” The same could be true of her performance of those extraordinary poems on 6 November.
With real poignancy, and an ability to enter a child’s perspective, Day’s debut Springing from the Pews, with Broken Sleep Books, documents a six year old boy being groomed and then abused. Interweaving confessions, journal entries, and multiple voices into a verse play, the poems follow this little boy into adult life, asking how we may live with, and beyond, this very difficult legacy. He explained “I struggled for a long time to write these poems… I had multiple voices in my head…responding each as loud as each other… contradictory, loving, manipulative.” The results are astonishing.
Tessa Foley’s poems live in rooms where shadows rise up from the corners, even when the lights are on, and follow people down the streets at high noon. Drawing both on family history, and her own experience of volunteering for three years at Portsmouth Rape and Abuse Counselling Centre, the poems of What Sort of Bird Are You? witness the greatest difficulties, but also document moving beyond them into a more hopeful and resilient spaces, engendered in part through acts of mutual solidarity and community. Her line “Just because there’s a fence, the garden don’t stop growing” could speak for us all.
My own text is given in full below, exploring the idea of trauma as a wound, and how we may heal beyond it. I chose poems relating to water, to honour Aldeburgh’s seaside setting. To hear Chaucer’s, Day’s and Tessa’s voices testifying to experiences which I felt in my own body and spirit, had my heart rushing before I ever got to my own set. I was hugely honoured to perform with them. Inevitably, I needed to rebalance myself afterwards. Walking by the Thames later that afternoon, allowing the present world back into me as dusk deepened, I saw a footbridge lit up over the dark water. Watching it, I felt as if I had been given a visual representation of how we had, through our works, lit safe passages over places where we had once known great suffering.
As the set was an hour long, and very intense, I decided to record the audio of my poems and words separately as well – for people who wanted a shorter listen, or who might be hesitant around exposing themselves to the longer experience of the full set. The performance and comments from the audience set twitter alight for hours and days afterwards. My individual recording is 15 minutes long. I have put the linking text I wrote below it as a guide to what to expect.
To give a flavour of my approach, the words I wrote to link the poems are reproduced below in italics, interspersed by the poem titles. ‘phare d’ailly’ is reproduced as a sample of my work, because it has appeared in PN Review, along with a description of discovering ancient Herculaneum by Scipio Maffei. You can hear all the poems in full on the recording. If you face hearing challenges please contact me through the blog and I can send you a full text of words and poems.
If you would like to buy bird of winter, it’s available here.
alice hiller words and water poems on healing beyond trauma at Poetry in Aldeburgh:
As many of you know, trauma means wound in ancient Greek. My own collection, bird of winter, is partly about the childhood wound of being groomed and sexually abused by my mother. But it’s also about healing, and opening our wings into wider, freer skies. I’ll alternate poems which explore my difficult early years with others honouring experiences that helped me reclaim life. Celebrating Aldeburgh, many of the poems include water. First up is ‘bains de mer’ or ‘sea swimming’, remembering my beloved French bonne maman or grandmother.
bains de mer [performed]
Bonne maman represented a space of safety and unconditional love. Because my mother was my abuser, danger remained omnipresent. Normandie is the backdrop to a photo taken by my father in ‘pistil’. Named for the female reproductive parts of a flower, the poem combines words from my childhood medical notes with direct memories.
In addition to my medical notes, bird of winter is framed by Pompeii and Herculaneum. Both were harbour towns, but water is not a place of refuge or safety in the abuse poems. ‘let none of this enter you’ is spoken to my four or five year old self – with extra lines by Pliny the Younger describing the eruption of Vesuvius, which shapes bird of winter.
let none of this enter you [performed]
Even though he worked long hours, my diplomat father had been my protector. Once he was diagnosed with motor neurone disease when I was six, power shifted. I was eight when he died and my mother and I moved from Brussels, to England. I saw my father as the lighthouse whose beams lit my bedroom in Normandie.
papa the tide at vasterival was going out when you were carried from our flat as I slept
your jaw swung open like a latchless door
the sea is now 1km from the site of pompeii
The penetrative abuse began in England. My erasure ‘and now came the ashes’ is from Pliny the Younger’s account of Vesuvius :
and now came the ashes [performed]
Traumatic events such as rape fracture our consciousness. Scipio Maffei’s 1747 account of excavating Herculaneum offered a way of suggesting the injuries arising from raping a child, along with the difficulties of voicing this. The reader gets to puzzle out the imagery. They can determine how far to engage.
proceeding blindly through tunnels and through narrow passages much will be broken much will be destroyed nor will it ever be possible to see the noble buildings in their entirety
Scipio Maffei 1747
Even in very difficult times, the memory of my father, and my bonne maman’s love, gave my spirit a space of nurture. This is critical for all of us who are subjected to wounding experiences. ‘Rue de l’aurore’ was my grandmother’s address in Brussels. It means street of the dawn.
rue de l’aurore [performed]
I escaped the physical element of the abuse when I was thirteen by stopping eating. I was admitted to hospital – but this was 1977. Eating disorders were not recognised as a possible indicators of childhood sexual abuse. I wasn’t asked about, or able to speak directly of, what my mother had done. The psychiatrist who saw me understood something terrible had happened. Writing ‘tesselation’, I instinctively sited myself between worlds, like water becoming vapour.
My mother ended all contact with this psychiatrist when I was released from hospital. I was left very vulnerable. With time, I reconnected with life and love again and began to reclaim my body. My final poem moves between capture and release, remembering when I was seventeen.
becoming your channel of pearl [performed]
I dedicate it to all of us who turn our faces to the light, no matter what darkness we have come through [end of set].
The Festival brought together a rainbow of poets from Andrew McMillan, Sean Hewitt, Kim Moore, Victoria Kenneflick, Dom Bury, Colette Bryce, Rachel Long, Vidyan Ravinthiran, Momtaza Mehri and Sarah Westcott, to name but a few. The podcasts will be up on the Poetry in Aldeburgh website over the next days. I really recommend checking in with them.
If you live in or near London, I’ll be performing live for Outspoken at the Southbank with Nick Mahona and Wayne Holloway-Smith on Thursday 25 November at 7.45 pm. I’ll be sharing poems about the bumpy teenage years that follow grooming and childhood sexual abuse, but also how these are the freedom trail that leads to reclamation and healing.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’ 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
When I think of adolescence, the unruly rush of spring growth, that transforms woodlands after winter comes to mind. Trees burst their buds into leaf, and plants grow towards the light following months of dormancy. Walking with my dog Ithaca in Shotover woods, above Oxford, as the seasons changed this year, I observed and photographed this almost ecstatic transition close up. I saw it with senses made more acutely responsive by the restrictions of lockdown. Like everyone, my daily life through the winter was defined by ‘sameness’ – without access to the visual stimuli of museums and films in cinemas and the different landscapes that travel and social contacts can open.
At the time, I was getting ready to launch bird of winter with my brilliant fellow Pavilion Poets Alice Miller and Sarah Westcott in May. The collection responds to my childhood experiences of being groomed, and then sexually abused, by my mother. It also documents the difficult teenage years beyond this as I found my uncertain way towards reclaiming myself and living again. When I was writing the individual poems, I would necessarily be in a single emotional space or remembered time. It might be reconnecting with my late father and grandmother, whose love helped me come through, or finding ways to bring much more complex memories of the grooming and the abuse, and their aftermaths, to the page.
With the poems orchestrated into their structure by my brilliant poet-editor at Pavilion, Deryn Rees-Jones, what became uppermost in my mind was the movements between them. Divided into three parts, the collection flows together like waves rising up a beach to lift their tide of moods and images into the shore of creative witness. Then it rallies its forces to carry the darkness of the abuse far out to sea – revealing the gleaming seaweed and new sands of the healing with which the final poems close.
Holding the sea-coloured book in my hands, turning its pages, I saw, and felt, how the way I was groomed set up and fed into the abuse, making it impossible to refuse. I also recognised with a new clarity how even when it was over, the abuse left me acutely vulnerable as a teenager, through having broken down any boundaries I might have had. But reading over bird of winter’s teenage poems, I also re-experienced the ferocious life force that puberty awakened in me, along with a hunger for the world beyond what I had known. This helped me reach towards my future like a plant towards the sun, in many different ways. These included forming new friendships, deepening my interest in books and the arts more generally, and beginning to travel alone. Adolescence also gave me the confidence to experiment, however awkwardly, with my reclaimed sexuality, and through this begin to separate myself emotionally from my abuser.
Once bird of winter was launched and out in the world, with many warmly generous responses from readers and people who watched the launch online, my thoughts kept going to my teenage self, surrounded by danger and possibility both at once. On my woodland walks with Ithaca, the foxgloves we spotted seemed like young girls, flamboyantly delicate, standing out from the foliage around them, but also susceptible to injury – as a flower can be picked and broken because it is not able to defend itself. When I turned sixteen, in the summer of 1980, I had a short white playsuit that I wore all the time. The bells of the white foxgloves in particular, cupped one on top of the other, brought back to me my own young body within that light cotton, and my unawareness of how I might be perceived.
During those teenage years, I faltered in my education, and was harshly judged by those around me as the impact of the abuse started to shape my behaviours and choices, as many young people are still today. Reconnecting with those times made me realise that it was not enough only to publish poems. I also needed to write and speak directly about the experiences held within them to expand the discussion. Children and teenagers who have been subjected to this crime deserve to be understood compassionately and respectfully as they work to reclaim their lives. Creative witness, and the discussion it engenders, are powerful tools for supporting this. Even, and especially, if recovery is necessarily messy and stumbling at times.
To further the work of changing awareness around sexual abuse in childhood, and help generate engagement, I wrote a performance text for Neptune’s Glitter House, which I also recorded as a podcast, exploring adolescence as a time of reclamation for those of us who have been subjected to sexual abuse in childhood. It features live readings of nine of my poems including ‘sea level’, ‘tessellation’, ‘wall painting removed from the house of the surgeon’, ‘mirror’, ‘when they begin to have feathers’, ‘sagittae’, ‘becoming your channel of pearl’ and ‘quadrant’. In addition to the poems themselves, I speak about their contexts, and the subject more generally. These words which are lifted from my introduction to the podcast:
As a bi-queer woman, club culture is something that resonates with me. I love its strobed shadowiness, and potential for transformations, and discovering new selves through playing with refractions of your identity. And of course all that glitter, ironic and otherwise. When I was a teenager in the late 1970s and early 80s, the time I’m going to explore, punk and two tone gave way to the ruffles and swags of the new romantics, and glitter balls were mainly synonymous with low-fi seaside discos in unfashionable towns, often along hot European coastlines. There time slowed to a trickle. Adventures could open into the night like strange flowers.
If you would like to listen to the full podcast, please follow the link below. In terms of safeguarding, be aware that it contains references to the aftermaths of sexual abuse, but opens and closes with poems of healing. If you need support with anything the podcast touches on, the Mind website has valuable links.
Following up from recording this podcast, I also wrote a memoir-essay for The Friday Poem website, published in August, which looks closely at four of the teenage poems in bird of winter. Titled ‘I think she is beginning’, (from a comment in my medical notes by the psychiatrist who treated me for anorexia when I was thirteen), this tracks how the poems enact my journey from the darkness of abuse towards the new light of healing. Again, it’s a journey that millions of people around the world are making every day. The essay begins:
Adolescence is seldom tidy or straightforward. Trying to locate ourselves beyond the lives we knew and lived as children gives rise to exploratory behaviours that outsiders can be quick to condemn. For those of us subjected to the crime of sexual abuse in childhood, the challenges and potential dangers are inevitably greater. This was my own experience. My abuser was my mother. Without appropriate support, the changes of puberty may push us back towards our places of injury, and emotional disassociation. If we have not been able to articulate or process the original trauma, there is also often little to mitigate the destabilising impact of reconnection with complex energies.
If you would like to read on, the full article can be found here. As before, I refer to the aftermath of sexual abuse in childhood, and the Mind website is a valuable source of support should you need any.
While I write these words in London, beyond the city the woods are moving from the heavy, green vegetation of high summer, towards the very first intimations of autumn. In the next months, leaf fall will reveal the bones of the trees, and the shapes their branches print onto the sky, as their roots co-link underground. Working alone, but with Ithaca close by, I hope what I say here may speak to all of us making strong lives beyond sexual abuse in childhood, and give support to the larger societies within which these works of reclamation and transformation take place, as communities of trees share their resources in order to grow and flourish.
I will be reading from bird of winter online on 9 September at 7PM UK time with Alice Miller and Sarah Westcott for Chener books. Tickets are free, but you need to email Chener Books in advance at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Link to bird of winter podcast no 1: finding words to hold things that can be hard to say :https://youtu.be/wnVHd5JR3cQIt’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 thebird 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
‘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.
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.
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.
By the nature of how life is, sadly many of us will have been through difficult times – whether or not we work in creative fields. While these experiences stay with us, they are seldom easy to talk about, as a number of the poets I have interviewed on this blog reveal. Screenwriter Russell T. Davies, who wrote the landmark series Queer as Folk in 1999, and has just premiered It’s a Sin, remembers how when the first HIV/Aids infections were happening, and he was in his early 20s:
“I looked away. Oh, I went on marches, and gave a bit of money and said how sad it was, but really, I couldn’t quite look at it. This impossible thing. There are boys whose funerals I didn’t attend. Letters I didn’t write. Parents I didn’t see.” [Observer 3/1/21].
Reasons for our silences around our difficult experiences may include that we lack the words with which to say what happened, or feel shame, or fear how others may react. As time passes, these places of silence can lie within us like ice, or rock. They may be heavy, unwieldy and painful to carry – as if they were obstructing part of our growth, or even the evolution of our lives. But nothing is ever fixed, and change can always come.
In the same Observer article, Davies reveals how as the years went by: “I stayed busy, looking away, but I suppose I also looked down. At the keyboard. And stories began to emerge in my work. Rising up. Bleeding through the page. In 1994, I created a 15-year-old HIV+ teenager for Children’s Ward.” [Observer, 3/1/21]. Queer as Folk then followed five years later.
Having been groomed and sexually abused by a close family member in childhood, I recognise both that looking away that Davies describes, and the rising up that can follow. From my 20s onwards, what had happened to me as a child and a teenager came into my dreams and nightmares – and then into my waking conversations in my 30s.
At last, in my 40s and 50s, I began to voice my silences around the crime to which I had been subjected, within creative work. Also in his 50s, Davis reveals of It’s a Sin, “Finally, I came to write a show with Aids centre stage. I think I had to wait till now, to find what I wanted to say.”
One of the processes that has helped me become strong enough to stay with writing bird of winter, my debut collection with Pavilion Poetry, has been the workshop community which formed with other poets saying ‘the difficult thing’ in their work. This started life as a Poetry Society Stanza three years ago, and shifted to meeting online during the pandemic.
Collectively, we realised that there would be value in sharing the insights we are able to give each other, beyond our own group. We wanted to support and connect with a wider community of people also trying to voice their own silences – whether on the page, or in their own lives.
Our format has been to create a series of free, hour-long workshops available through our Voicing Our Silences website. Two of our poets speak to each other about their work and perform it. They also set live writing exercises for the audience to follow, to help spark new creative strands. We have four workshops up so far, featuring Arji Maneulpillai, Maia Elsner, Isabelle Baafi, Romalyn Ante, Rachel Lewis, Kostya Tsolakis, Joanna Ingham and myself. They are available as podcasts, or captioned videos. More recordings will be coming over the next months, with Chaucer Cameron and Jeffery Sugarman in March.
While in-person meetings for live events are still a way off, we hope our website will offer a proxy community. We aim for it to generate a creative boost to help get people through the last months of lockdown. We also want it to make new connections between writers and readers, that we can follow up together into actual meetings, over the summer and beyond. To find out more, please click the link to go through to http://www.voicingoursilences.com
Sometimes distance generates its own form of closeness. Or at least that was our experience, when Rachel Long and I connected through zoom to go deep with her debut, My Darling from the Lions, which was shortlisted for both the Forwards and Costa prizes in 2020. Each of us had instinctively positioned ourselves by a window – as if to share the same autumn afternoon light, notwithstanding being on opposite sides of London. Over the course of the two hours which followed, we talked about what it means to create as women, where we find the spaces and energies to nurture ourselves as artists, and why poetry is sideways-thinking. We asked how someone accesses their own ‘true’ perspective or ‘spirit level’; we agreed on the generative nature of play, and why translating another poet’s work can lead your own into new dimensions. Specifically, in Rachel Long’s case – that working with Adelaide Ivánova fed into her own poems of witness around the subject of sexual predation and assault. We then moved into a closer discussion of the extraordinary sequence of poems in which Rachel Long responds creatively to the challenging subject of sexual abuse in childhood – about which I also write. Together we explored language as reclamation, and how the process of articulating, and shaping, may enact a form of restitution and healing. Reviewing the transcript, we both felt that this second half of the conversation formed its own unit. I have therefore divided the interview into two segments, so that our readers have the option of either reading it right through, or in two halves as feels right to them. At the close of that tough year, I had no doubt that this was one of the most nourishing, but also radical conversations, I had in the whole of 2020. It’s the greatest honour to be able to share Rachel Long’s words with you, as we go forward as readers and writers into 2021 together.
AH: Can I start by asking about how My Darling from the Lions came into being Rachel Long? When, and how, did you start writing?
RL: I feel that in many ways I was maybe always writing it. I loved writing even as a child. I didn’t know what I was writing for a long time, in terms of subject or form. I return to the subjects that I have long been fascinated with – the lives of the people around me. The complexity of people’s stories, of how appearances are not necessarily the reality of what is going on inside. My mother came to the UK from Sierra Leone when she was eight. So many of her stories of growing up are holey snippets. The older I get, the more I realise they might actually be some kind of fiction or poetry. If you question something in one of my mother’s ‘origin stories’, she gets almost confused, or contradictory very quickly. The stories become murky, vague, abstract.
AH: I love that idea of murkiness. It’s full of possibility, and also really honest. In the collection, you explore everything from the harm caused by racism and sexual predation, all the way to what it’s like to grow up in the UK of dual heritage, this can’t have been an easy collection to write – at a creative as well as on a personal level?
RL: What is ever easy to write? I’m interested in what gets lost in memory, where it goes – how the body holds it. Being of dual heritage… I grew up in a white working-class area on the outskirts of London. My schools were majoritively white, my friends, half my family. I’m not sure that I thought of myself as Black for a long time. Mixed, half-caste, (dark-)light-skinned, all the rest of it, but not Black particularly. That was an understanding, a knowledge and an acceptance of a self that I had to carve out later, as I grew up, as left that estate, as I read, spoke and understood myself within a much wider context. When I was a girl, I thought that you had to choose what colour you were. I remember sitting in the back seat of my dad’s car, Dad driving, Mum in the passenger seat, and suddenly thinking, you must choose, now, whether you want to be white like Dad or black like Mum – isn’t that… disturbing? And as if I thought that I get to choose how the world perceives me.
AH: Picking up on what you were saying about claiming your Black identity as you grew older, certainly in decades past in England, the dominant culture wasn’t respectful of different identities. There was a pressure to only tick one box or feel of less worth if you didn’t tick that box. I knew Poly Styrene, of X-Ray Spex. She used to pretend to be Greek as a teenager in the 70’s. Once she became an artist, she was able to claim her dual heritage identity more fully.
RL: I understand that. It’s interesting that she could become closer to herself through her art.
AH: Poly was freed to claim her identity partly by working with live theatre as a teenager. Were there people who made becoming a writer more possible for you?
RL: What a beautiful question. Yes. I loved school. Primary school particularly, I felt so much freer at school than at home, and I loved learning, like very honestly loved it. My formidable headmistress, Mrs Wiley loved literature. She would make us recite poetry. Her favourite poem was WB Yeats’ ‘Aedh Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven’, (with the line “Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.”). Our morning assemblies consisted of who could get through the poem. I became good at reciting and at being shy, but showing off. Because of my love of English and of reading, she recommended me for some residential creative writing courses. On the weekends, and during the holidays, from when I was about 10 to 17, I spent time in the Essex countryside, which I loved, reading under trees, and watching Man Ray films at ten, or discussing silent French movies before sneaking off to play spin the bottle. As I got older obviously, that crux of being 14 and ashamed of everything, I completely hid what I had ‘got up to at the weekend’ from my friends – except perhaps my best friend. It’s good to be able to trust one person at least in life…. Anyway, my 10 year-old brain is going whish whish whish whish, just totally like woah, this is… beautiful, I feel like this is what I’m here for. We did things like creative dreaming – all of us, a gaggle of geeky ‘chosen children’ from all over the country, laying down in the grounds listening to what the grass was telling us. What a radical side-education! Without those easters and summers away, I hate to think where all my dreaming or talking to grass would have been wasted. On boys probably, in phone boxes, at the bottom of bottles. My childminder Barbara was also an amazing education for me. My mum and dad both worked so I would go to Barbara’s after school. Barbara loved sewing and knitting. She taught me to sew (I was never great at knitting). She taught me to draw and paint too, how to look after flowers. I feel very blessed to have had this creative education, to have learnt what I love from others, particularly from women seeing and encouraging me.
AH: At such a young age, that forms you as an artist. It’s letting you know that this is the way to be.
RL: Absolutely. If I didn’t have those people then, I would have had a different path, one I suspect I would not be happy in at all right now. I can’t think about the ‘other path’ for too long, I always well up very quickly, as if the possibility of it is still uncomfortably close. I suspect that is the same for most children, that they’ll thrive if opened up to what is possible.
AH: For sure. And there is the simplicity of playfulness. When I was pregnant with my second son, I did a playing course. There were no children there. It was for parents to enjoy playing. I built bricks and did all those things. That really was a brilliant thing to take back into my parenting. I connected with my joy and playfulness.
RL: I love that! What we do as poets is sort of play. Serious play.
AH: Yes, exactly. When it stops being play, it stops working. Being exposed to poetry early, you learnt how to tell without telling, because poetry works with a backward logic. You don’t just state a sequential narrative. You let it ooze out. It’s like sideways thinking. To develop your ability to sideways-think young, has to be a fantastic thing.
RL: I think you just nailed something for me Alice – or kind of opened something up for me – about sideways thinking. I don’t usually credit my parents for making me very creative, but I think the ways they are as people, people who don’t hide, but also don’t necessarily access or communicate how they more deeply feel, has influenced my work.
Mum will tell you exactly how she is feeling, but I think what she says is the surface, a lot of her anger and worry is fear. I think that underneath she is a lot quieter, shy, strange and dangerous, but she would never absolutely communicate that. My Dad says nothing about anything. So maybe as a child I watched them and understood something essential about what is said and unsaid, about how much you can communicate in your not-saying, in your subtle showing.
AH: To be able to connect the surface and the depth requires opening the channels in the way that you did as a child through creative play. For a lot of people, knowing how they feel isn’t easy. Connecting what they are experiencing on the surface with what’s driving it down below is tricky. Somehow art communicates this, even if it doesn’t do so explicitly. It lets it be understood.
AH: Nowadays, as a poet and a teacher, you work with language to expand and change awareness, and make the new. Were there artists who enabled you to see that your voice, as a women of colour, needed to be realized in a way that did not try to erase the contexts from which it took its shapes? Specifically, the female and the domestic, including the shadowed hinterlands between adolescence and adulthood, which are vulnerable times for many of us? Asking this question, I had in mind your poem ‘Apples’. It starts with the speaker running for a train – “tits play-doughing/ out of a shit bra” – then slides through an admission of her being “magazine educated” into a childhood memory of :
When the mum of my then-best friend said her daughter wasn’t allowed to play with me because I was another N-word – meaning Mum went round in her dressing-gown to slap her silly with her tongue, then returned to scatter the kitchen and shred Dad’s Guardian for not sticking up for us, for never saying anything –
RL: The person who comes to mind most is Caroline Bird, who was my Jerwood-Arvon mentor in 2015-16. Working with Caroline completely accelerated my work. I felt seen and heard and ‘good’, like I could do this, that it wasn’t all rubbish and a waste of time. Caroline was the first person to read my work and really see and hear me. Not in a weird tokenistic or racialized or classist way, as sometimes is ‘the way’. She read me un-bemused, nonjudgmentally, deadly seriously; essentially. That was radicalising for my poetry, for my practice, and for my personhood. Over that year I was able to let go of a lot of shame and therefore I could begin writing it. That came from finally not being or feeling judged, or boxed, or expected of. I realise that you’ve asked me about women of colour influencing me specifically and I have immediately offered Caroline, who is not a woman of colour – how can I phrase this so that it doesn’t sound ‘colour blind’ – let me access my own perspective… I don’t write (or read, or sleep or dream any of those essential, private, self-onto-self things) as a ‘woman of colour’. I write as myself — by that I mean, I don’t think our truest, deepest selves, at spirit level, register or identify with concepts of race, gender ecterea, the spirit doesn’t need these codes I don’t think, they aren’t necessary, and if the spirit level is also likely where the writing is from, then essentially do any of us write as our society-necessary, society-inflicted, society-worn labels? It is only later, when another person reads the work, that certain societal lenses may be worn to read and interpret the work. For example, in my poem, ‘Jail Letter’, I sit between my mother’s legs getting my hair plaited for what feels like all of Saturday. Only to go to school on Monday and be laughed at because my hair ‘looked like spiders’, but also because I had a Wednesday clip in and it was Friday or something. Sitting there as a girl, I did not realise the racial politics of hair, its implications, the perceptions of beauty and the precedence of European ideals, none of that, at least not consciously. I might have felt, suspected, some of it. I was just sitting there, bored out of my mind, in some discomfort. I wanted the poem to reflect that. I didn’t want the poems to have a knowledge of a context that is implausible for the little (mixed-race black) girl in it to reach yet. I badly want to leave the brackets out there because to constantly be a bracketed girl is not the girlhood I wanted, nor should any girl be bracketed, does this make any sense?
AH: Yes it does.
RL: Anyway, I wanted the poem to stay true to her authentic universe rather than be unhonestly aware of her place within the wider context, or indeed other people’s perceptions and dictations of it. And I think, I hope, that by doing that it makes the poem sad and funny, because she doesn’t realise, as she’s sitting there getting her hair plaited, what the reader might think about who she is and what she means, or what her hair means in the world, to others. I was supposed to be talking about Caroline and other influential women and I’m talking about authentic poetic universes!
AH: I was reading Toni Morrison in the 80’s. I felt understood by her writing, and I felt I understood myself. I was born in 1964 and sexual abuse in terms of children wasn’t discussed much until the 80s, by which time I was in my 20’s. It was to do with finding myself in her work as someone who was living a life, carrying a history, that most of society denied and excluded, before I could even articulate my own experience coherently.
RL: Morrison is one of the best writers that we have had on this planet. The fact that you feel personally understood and encompassed by that work, and that it also speaks to a universal experience – maybe it’s to do with identity, but also bloody good writing.
AH: Also, being formally inventive, because you need to make a language to say something that hasn’t been said and isn’t being said. You have to find a language that will actually do that. We both saw the Faith Ringgold Exhibition at the Serpentine. I feel that about her work. And in terms of our work as artists, that is a fantastic challenge to be set – because you know you really have to rise to it. That creates newness, originality, invention.
RL: ‘Apples’ is partly inspired by the experience of reading Morgan Parker’s collection, Other People’s Comfort Keeps Me Up at Night.Parker really harnesses a multiplicity in her work. She has all of these apparent contradictions and juxtaposition, allgoing on at once, which is, of course, most like life. One particular poem of Morgan’s is ‘How to Piss in Public and Maintain Femininity.’ Just the way it runs, it switches up, it is sliding-doory. This being of multiple things all at once inspired ‘Apples’. I think I have long felt lots of different things at once, sometimes contradictory, and sometimes only things other people said or thought were contradictory, but I knew them intimately to be one. I realized when writing ‘Apples’ that I had long felt like lots of apparently-different selves presenting as a single person.
AH: I love her work, and the way it takes from daily life, and makes it strange and powerful. In his memoir The Beautiful Struggle, Ta-Nihisi Coates makes a point of recording complex situations in direct, accessible language. Was that part of your intention for My Darling from the Lions?
RL: It’s the way I speak. It’s uncomfortably pronouncing words I confidently but silently read, it’s mispronouncing the same words my mum does, the dreaming holidays in the countryside talking to grass. It’s the mediocre comprehensive secondary school, using a flirtier voice to convince the bus driver to let me on without a ticket, and that voice sticking. It’s the sudden grammar school sixth form, University upt North, and only just now realising that I speak in about five different registers. Sometimes I am very aware and ashamed of it, and others I’m like, well, I start sentences with ‘I’m like’. I want to write in a way that feels true. Poetry is opening up a little in terms of reflecting a plethora of different voices and moving away from having one overarching voice that we must all listen very carefully and above all others to. My poem, ‘Helena’ was written after a conversation I had with a poet, who is from Peckham — not so far from where I grew up in south east London also. He was like, no you don’t talk like you are from South London, and sort of laughed at me for even thinking that I did/still did (did I ever?). So, then I went away and thought, OK, how did we used to speak when we were at school? –and or just after, at like 20, 21. As I was writing ‘Helena’ I realised that it is starkly different to how I speak now, even the pace of it is different, we spoke all in a rush to each other, all the time – and we swore a hell of a lot more. What I found interesting to was recalling old sayings, old ways of using language, ‘swear down’, ‘I’m not being funny, mate’, ‘at the end of the day’ (not all of these made the final edit, but at one point they were all in there). The poem is not a pretty poem, but it was liberating to write in a vernacular that was so essentially us, ours, that felt so much like I was speaking to Helena again, like, really. Our kind of ‘girl-speak’ was so rooted in a specific place and time.
AH: I love that. Going further with the idea of ‘girl-speak’, and the collective, you work with experiences you identify as not having happened to you personally, but that open to larger themes. In ‘Helena’, the speaker is witness to Helena coming round to their mutual friend Tiff’s flat, after being attacked by the bouncer at the nightclub where she worked. The language is raucous, high-energy girl-talk, that takes a turn for the nasty. Helena is speaking. Scarlett is Tiff’s daughter
The er/a and i/e/y rhymes punctuate the sonic patterning of this section with groan and cry sounds, without compromising the spoken feel of the language, or the heartbreak-humour with which Helena creates a retrospective shield for herself against the rape, which the reader is left to imagine. You translated the Brazilian poet and artist Adelaide Ivánova for a chapbook with the PTC last year, whose work denounces crimes of sexual violence. I wondered if this collaboration informed your work of witness in ‘Helena’, and if you could say something about the poem?
RL: I don’t think until I read your question that I truly understood how influential actually translating Adelaide Ivánova’s work was for me. In being invited by The Poetry Translation Centre to translate Adelaide’s work from the literals, and in being introduced to her when she came to the UK to launch and tour the collection, I was influenced, massively. I was moved by her activism, in life and on the page. You’ve made me think about what the act of translation does spiritually; to read someone else’s work, to be deep inside it, to experience and walk around in it. When I’m translating, I always feel like I’m in somebody else’s room. I look around this room trying to work out who this is, essentially, where things go, trying to understand why things are placed where they are placed, and I can, as the translator, move some things around, ask questions, understand. But it’s Adelaide’s room, her creation and design. When translating I aim not to rearrange too heavily, small touches, to extend my room metaphor, I suppose quarter-turn certain plants towards the window, smooth the covers, plump some pillows. Being in Adelaide’s room, the rooms of her poems and experiencing each of them was a joy and a challenge and a privilege.
AH: And they have incredibly tough subject matters.
RL: Incredibly tough, incredibly brave and dangerous too. Working with Adelaide probably did give me the permission, however subconsciously, to write ‘Helena.’
AH: Because it is a very tough poem. You give the story of the rape very clearly. It’s a horrible rape. We know it wasn’t the narrator’s experience. That’s made quite clear. It seemed to me something that was very important to get on the page. Rape is something that people do to each other, and the person to whom it’s done often feels so bad that they tend not to talk about it. That silence makes it more possible for the crime to continue.
RL: Absolutely. It was a tough poem to write – alleviated only by the fact that I kept going back to writing in our voices, and that did alleviate it in a way, because the way we used to speak, in a rush, all at once, angry and sad and laughing at once felt true, and like taking something back, her voice, her clear-as-a-bell voice. That’s what I think I wanted to get to with ‘Helena’. When things happened like that, we didn’t have the exact language, but we knew how to speak to each other, we knew how to tell each other things – but no power to actually help each other. Now, god forbid, if a friend of mine came and said something like this to me, I would be so better equipped, even in terms of language, and then other things thereafter, to be able to offer assistance to that friend if she wanted it. We didn’t, as girls. We glossed it over, at least in terms of what we said aloud, because we all knew that it was bad, but it was so bad the consequences of doing ‘nothing’ always seemed better than the repercussions of saying ‘something’ to people outside of our circle, outside of our experience and language.
AH: As human beings, when tough things happen to us, sometimes we shut them down to some extent, because we are at a point in our life when that’s the only safe thing to do. Helena said what happened, and then she took the shower. She was supported, and she took the shower, and washed it away. That’s an honest account of how we cope with very difficult things.
RL: I think about being that age again, with my girls, my sisters, my old friends or just other girls I went to school with. Really horrific things happened. Regularly. You’d come back to school on a Monday morning and each Monday there would be some standardly horrific story of what had happened at one party or another at the weekend, or at a bus stop, or in a local park. The frequency of these violences done unto us girls almost normalized it. It’s so heartbreaking to remember.
AH: I grew up in the late 70’s, early 80’s. I was reading Rebecca Solnit’s memoir, Recollections of my Non-Existence, which has just come out. She describes that omnipresent violence and threat of violence so strongly. I thought It wasn’t only me. She was having that experience on the West Coast of the US, in San Francisco. She described that predatory environment, being followed home, feeling that she was permanently on verge of being raped. She managed to escape rape, but some of her friends didn’t.
RL: This is not even a long time ago. So, it makes me glad to measure at least how far we’ve come in terms of speaking out about these. I think we have to be careful, or I do, not to be angry with our previous selves, because that was the world only moments ago, and it was the world that made those conditions, not us.
AH: Often when I have written about something difficult, I do a short Buddhist meditation around self-compassion. I never think I need to. But then I do it – and I feel so much less bad. I have to keep going back and being kind to that girl who I was.
RL: We had to survive in the only ways we thought were available and possible, right?
AH: I think a lot of tough things that happen to us as children, as adolescents, as young women, we seal away inside ourselves. We build protective tissue around them. At a later point, we often have to deal with them. When you’re young, you’ve got such a strong instinct just to survive, that you keep going through it somehow. I think you have a different level of life energy at that point, that drives you forward. It changes as we get older. That’s my sense of looking back on the hair-raising escapades of my teenage self, operating in a menacing world.
This is the point at which Rachel Long and I felt there was a natural break. In the conversation that follows, which was all part of our single meeting, we talk about how you can respond with agency and creativity to very difficult experiences, and the ways in which this process of articulation can become of itself reclamatory and healing.
AH: This seems the right place to ask you about the sequence of five or so poems within My Darling from the Lions, recording the sexual abuse of a young girl child by one of the minsters in the church she attends with her family, and the aftermath of this crime in her subsequent life. Because of my own background of having been sexually abused as a child, these made a great impression on me from when I first heard you perform them live. The first of these is ‘Night Vigil’, which is the third poem in the collection. It begins in a child-adult voice “I was a choir-girl. Real angel/ – lightning faced and giant for my age.” There is tongue in cheek wonder at its midnight start – “a time too exciting to fathom. / How the minute and the hour stood to attention!” The miracle stops there, however, as the rest of the poem falls down through time, to an ending its beginning could never have anticipated:
During the Three Members’ Prayer, my sister fell asleep under a chair, so she never knew
how I sang. Or how I fell silent when the evangelist with smiling eyes said in his pulpit voice,
Here, child. Had she woken, I would have told her Sleep, sleep!
so, she’d never know Smiling Eyes also meant teeth,
or that he had blown candles for hands, with which he led me down an incensed corridor,
and I followed.
While this is a very difficult experience to take on board, you generate protection for the reader and creator alike through the child’s desire to shelter her sister, and through the way the imagery lets what happened be apprehended step by step. The “blown candles” and “incensed corridor” are simultaneously sacred and penetrative. We have in that moment the choice to understand the simultaneous desecration of an act of faith, and a child’s body.
Workshops I have taken with you instigate an alchemy of deep, internal self-liberation. ‘Free-writing’, along with engaging with secondary sources, such as dreams or artworks, help generate less ‘managed’ creative responses? Was that how you put ‘Night Vigil’ together? How did it come into being kind of creatively?
RL: Maybe I should keep a kind of diary or a log of how each poem was written because I find it really hard to remember them.
AH: Like dreams.
RL: They are like dreams, that’s perfect Alice. Yeah, they are like my dreams. I can’t remember how I got there. Even sometimes with the edits, if I was to go back and find a real old version of that poem, I wouldn’t remember it. The only thing I do remember is that this poem was much longer. At that time, I was on the Jerwood-Arvon mentoring scheme with Caroline Bird. She was the first person to read that poem. As I said, I was grateful for the way Caroline read me. I had never written like this before. I had never framed such a peak experience. She didn’t do that awkward thing that people do, she read it as an artwork, or a draft of a work of art, and did not focus on the ‘apparently personal’ experience in the poem, but the poem as an experience itself. I’m trying to recall now, and I think part of what made the early draft longer is that it continued with the girl down the corridor. Caroline asked, why don’t you end it here?” — end at the girl following the man down the corridor, the poem becoming the corridor. In this way, the reader experiences it as the little girl, and becomes the girl, walking, ever-walking down that corridor with that man. The corridor then also becomes a metaphor for how the experience goes on, haunts you in many ways, forever.
AH: Exactly, and it’s much scarier.
RL: Much scarier, yes. And then she went “whoosh” with the pen, and she was like What do you think? And it kind of made me go eurgh like in my stomach. I was like yes; this is what it felt like. As a poem that was the closest and most fitting frame for it. If you end a poem in a place where you have refrained from summing it up or allowing your older voice to come in and intercept it – you leave the reader in freefall.
AH: That is an amazing answer. It’s just a stunning, stunning poem. I heard you perform it live, and really longed for the time it would be published, and I could read it on the page because it felt so important to me personally.
RL: Is that when we met that night, was that in the Poetry Cafe with Kaveh Akbah?
AH: I think so, yeah.
RL: It was so beautiful, and you were so generous afterwards, thank you.
AH: It was just so impactful for me. I had a hunger to be able to have those poems on the page. I knew they would make my life feel different – and they did. I’m really serious about that. There are many reasons why this collection has been important to me, but I hungered to be able to read those poems.
The next poem but one after ‘Night Vigil’ is ‘The Clean’. It starts out sounding like it’s ‘about’ bulimia – “Imagine/ eating all the snow/ you’ve ever wanted/ in one sitting, / not having to pay for it.” But then, after adding in “avocado”, “toast butter/ cascading your fingers” and “pink prosecco”, it morphs into something sadder. Or maybe just more specific, if you take the view that many eating disorders stem from something the individual cannot stomach. The second stanza reveals:
I know a place that is snow falling from the Artex ceiling into a room you will never return to. A promise piling like cable knit. 4-ply snow-day snow.
Some of the biggest things I write about are things which I had the least control over, but which have impacted me very deeply. Following on from ‘Night Vigil’, this room full of falling snow feels like a frozen, traumatic moment which is continuously happening, but cannot at the same time be properly felt. Does that seem like a fair reading to you, and would you be able to say something about these first two stanzas?
RL: I think it’s a stunning reading. What I wanted to do with ‘The Clean’ was to write about a woman with bulimia, and then in the second stanza, perhaps trace through the colour as it was, through this whiteness. But then in the same sense, trying to walk through the colour into why this woman is kneeling at this bowl of whiteness and expelling. Without wanting to say explicitly, because I don’t even know if that is necessarily explicit even to my understanding, but to wonder whether that because of sexual abuse, in childhood in that snow room, as in that frozen room, whether that is the reason, or a contributing reason, to why she has bulimia.
Is there something about her body that would be less, have been less desirable to someone else had she looked different? Had she been in a different body, if her body did something different, would that be able to change the outcome? This is what you said about lack of control. Bulimia is very much about what can and cannot be controlled.
AH: This is a generalization, but ever since the sexual abuse began when I was a child, I have always struggled with IBS. It is as if my body wants to throw things out. The snow room isn’t the end of ‘The Clean’, though. The final verse begins “I know a place where/ the sad can’t go.” Now, expulsion becomes a political act as the speaker instructs the protagonist “Go on, baby, give it back/ to whence it came. / Dispel three dinosaur dinners/ like forgiveness, / like it never happened.” The subject is told “Girl, you can be new, / surrender it all/ into one bowl. This, / your hollow.” The suggestion is that voiding, and expelling, are also creative acts, because resisting and rejecting what was forced in without consent. In this context, is it fair to think the holding pages of the collection make a kind of bowl, and create opportunities for restitution? Not just by vomiting forth, but by expressing things that were silenced at lots of levels.
AH: It seems to me that the turn in the poem was crucial. That’s why I wanted to put the question into two halves, that turn into restitution and beauty, without denying.
RL: Thank you, Alice. An act of restitution and freedom from your own body. You can be free of it. An action can be erased. You can float above it.
AH: Speaking it and putting it in words is part of that process of creative expulsion.
RL: Yeah, absolutely. You have reminded me. I always did feel like that – free and light.
AH: I am really interested in how we make it through and how we make it through partly creatively as well. Rather than just casting people as being without agency, also looking at the ways in which we claim ourselves. Bulimia is widespread through society. Many people experience who are not necessarily artists. There is a sort of restitutory justice in the body somehow.
Suggesting that maybe something has shifted, and become freer as a result of this act of voiding and voicing, the next poem, ‘Open’, moves from a place of potential trauma to one of freedom:
This morning, she told me I sleep with my mouth open and my hands in my hair. I say, What, Tiff, like screaming? She says, No, Rach, like abandon.
It is one of a sequence of poems, all titled ‘Open’, that link and orchestrate the collection, changing small but significant details with each iteration. You said in your Forwards interview with Kim Moore that Don Patterson encouraged you to develop this strand. I wondered if you could say something more about it?
RL: I was speaking to the brilliant Nuar Alsadir about dreams for a radio programme. She said something like, I liked the ‘Open’ sequence, I liked how they show these flashes of awakenings, these flashes of desire. She thought that they showed the waker’s unconscious desires. More and more with this book, post-publication, I discover new things in it. Oftentimes by readers – who have far more insight than me into what I have apparently ‘done’. Don Paterson really did encourage them significantly, I think originally there were three, but he suggested weaving them throughout the whole first section of the book. As soon as he suggested it, I was like, of course! It made poetic sense, narrative sense. Don is an extraordinary editor. I think that increasing my explorations into that ‘Open’ sequence opened up what the whole book concerns and interrogates, intimacy, desire, dreams, the material and immaterial, appearance and reality.
AH: I make all my work completely blind like a mole digging for the surface, with no clue really as to what I am doing. You find out later. The news catches up with you.
RL: I like that, like moles.
AH: We have very, very powerful paddles for digging up through the earth, as far I’m concerned. I have to work blind. I can’t just sit down and do it. It has to come to me.
AH: ‘8’ is another poem which continues ‘The Clean’s’ process of marking the white page. Its act of witnessing is also the relocation of a moment of private, concealed horror to a public externalized space. As with ‘Night Vigil’, the speaker moves back and forward between being a bewildered, uncomprehending child to a more knowing adult. So, readers can have a sense of how the poem works, I’m going to quote the first section in full:
‘Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean: wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.’ – Psalm 51:7
this memory can’t skip it hops on one leg the other making the buckles on my mary janes bounce then clang cute shackles my feet will hopscotch-land on 8 wash me at 8 I can’t tell time i’m led through school and play tea then bed at 8 i can’t read faces tell hands to stop unfreeze my grin that room his weight wash me and I shall be the girls at school call that place mini but mum says it’s a front bottom
Later “time decides itself till i’m pressed/ apple against that wall that sunday/ that school”. The voice of the poem is somewhere between a playground skipping song and a crime scene report, with “wash me” breaking through over and over again like a child’s plea to undo the moment when “touched/ by the hand of his clock i am/ instantly older”.
While the narrative is devastating, sonically, this is a very lovely poem, especially when you perform it live, partly because of the way the rhymes and half-rhymes dance through the lines. I wondered whether choosing to tell ‘8’ in this way – weaving the everyday words the child might have used into the story it is suggested that she was unable to tell – is a form of restitution and reclamation of the child’s self and innocence, conferring a retrospective agency through beauty, and as well as through witness?
RL: The language had to be the language of the girl at eight. The lines all being of eight syllables was because I had the image of the girl playing hopscotch, the beat, the rhythm, the form came from that. Even like the lower-casing of the letters. I wanted it to look and feel on the page as if she is writing and/or telling it.
AH: Because it is the only lower case i/ first person in the collection?
RL: It felt right for this poem. She has been made less of a capital I, rendered less of a person by another, a big I.
AH: But it’s also like a sort of crime scene report. I mean we get what went on. She speaks, but she is also spoken for by the poem. That to me is its power. She stays small but the poem is actually pretty hardcore in what it delivers. That’s an amazing achievement that you can do both at the same time.
RL: Thank you Alice. Do you know, it also came out of, Kathryn Maris’s brilliant Poetry School class which we were both students of at the same time One week she set us an assignment to write in the intonation or rhythm of a prayer. What I handed in the week after was not very good, but with much longer to think about it and let it ruminate and ‘come out’ in its own time, I do think that exercise was the catalyst for ‘8’
AH: Some of her prompts were very valuable to me. I did a really good Poetry School workshop with Shivanee Ramlochan online at the end of 2019. There are some poems that I very very definitely have no intention of ever writing. Those are the ones that it is useful to have prompts for – because otherwise I will strenuously protect myself from writing them for decades. A prompt can knock out that little peg that you have blocked into the hole. Then the poem pops out.
Thinking about healing, wholeness, and restitution, are central to the beginning of the second section, titled ‘A Lineage of Wigs’. The first poem, ‘Orb’, floats like a rainbow soap bubble of a praise poem. It calls to mind some of Selima Hill’s brevity, but takes it to new places:
Mum combs her auburn ‘fro up high. So high it’s an orb. Everyone wants to – but cannot – touch it.
The “auburn ‘fro” is an angel’s halo vested in human form, and an emblem of unbroken-ness. Is that ‘perfection’ something you wanted to assert and reclaim?
RL: Yes, absolutely. The word orb changed. It was crown at first, because in that sequence there is the image of the queen arrowed on a sofa.
AH: Yeah, I remember that.
RL: It did sort of look like that. I think to me when I was younger, looking up at my mother . I’m really enjoying the way that you have read and seen the poem. That was exactly what I wanted to do with it. I’m so glad you have read and seen it like that.
AH: It felt like a really important reset point. We go from a tough poem to a place of wholeness and beauty and unbrokenness. The last question I’d like to ask you is about the title and the cover, which shows a young Black girl in a candy striped dress, with her back to the reader, looking inwards towards the poems that lie ahead. Can I just ask you about the title?
RL: My Darling from the Lions is taken from Psalm 35. ‘Rescue my soul from their destruction, my darling from the lions.’ It is a ’ Psalm that I heard a lot growing up, either hearing it recited in church, or by my mother from her bedroom, or we were instructed to say it, for protection or for strength. The collection wasn’t always called My Darling… Even up to a year before publication it had a different working title. But, for some reason, I must have read Psalm 35 again or seen something of it, or was reminded of it, and by this verse particularly and it was as if it was the first time I’d read it, I was like that’s so beautiful. A darling for a soul. There is so much rich and stunning language in the Bible, the poetry of it all. . When I read that verse again, I thought, this is what I am trying to get to with the collection. The girls and the women particularly are threatened by different lions. I wanted it to be a sort of a call for help and protection from something higher, whether that be God, or art. I wanted the collection to pose the question: can the spirit survive life intact? I also love the idea of referring to oneself as a darling. You can, even when something ugly has happened to you, begin to love yourself enough to refer to yourself as you would another woman or another girl. I would call Tiff or Helena darlings. Hey, my loves, my darlings.
AH: That’s absolutely beautiful. I think that’s the perfect place at which to end. It’s been an amazing privilege to talk about this extraordinary book. I have waited a long time to be able to hold these poems. I’m so grateful that they are out in the world – and that they will be coming out in America as well with Tin House. My Darling from the Lions is a wonderful book to read – and will change how people think. Thank you Rachel Long.
RL: Thank you so very much, Alice.
Rachel is at @rachelnalong on twitter.
Rachel Long’s debut collection, My Darling from the Lions was published by Picador in August 2020. It was shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection, and The Costa Book Award 2020. Rachel is the founder of Octavia Poetry Collective for women of colour.
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.
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