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.
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.
Traveller, writer, theatre-maker, and freestyler, Arji Manuelpillai is a poet whose work has always derived energy and resonance from its live components. While Mutton Rolls, his debut pamphlet from Out-Spoken, was launched online from his living room in lockdown, this in no way diminished audience numbers, or the warmth of their appreciation. Mutton Rolls’ poems find their subjects in UK raves and garage forecourt shops, but also on Sri Lankan beaches and in the aftermath of bombings and tsunamis. Like strobe lights flashing moments of visibility, they illuminate growing up in Britain with the double consciousness that derives from knowing your parents and family once lived somewhere else, and explore what it means not always to be made to feel welcome. Witty, joyous, and irreverent, the poems we talk about do not hesitate to call out the unacceptable. They can spin in a second to catch your heart – and hold it in a net of words that makes it beat differently when let go again.
AH: I’d like to start by asking you about your experience of the last few months Arji. You launched Mutton Rolls within the full UK lockdown. You also ran free poetry workshops with special guests on zoom which attracted huge attendances during the months when we were largely unable to meet in the physical world. How has this been for you?
AM: Such a pleasure to be here with you Alice and thanks so much for taking the time to chat to me. It has been a whirlwind few months. With so much of our collective futures turned upside down, I’ve found it difficult to manage my own expectations and keep the positivity up. However, in another way I have lived my whole life as a freelancer and with that sort of lifestyle comes an ability to adapt to the challenges with innovation and creativity. I can think of nothing worse than being furloughed at home being unable to work on new projects. So I was thankful for the opportunity to start Arji’s Poetry Jam, to continue with workshops with young people, help create a Refugee Week education resource for Kazzum Arts, and to plan and deliver a great release party for the pamphlet. It has been interesting as I feel like the online thing has provided people with greater accessibility in many ways. It creates a global playing field with fans for the workshops appearing in NZ, Finland, Canada and New York. It also made me feel like anything is possible with a little creativity. Right now, I’m spending a whole lot of time on Zoom but I’m really missing the real life groups, the community and the love of people connecting and creating together. I’m praying for the future, that we will return and still create wonderful work someday.
AH: I understand that. I feel the same way. It’s really fantastic that you have been able to continue to reach out and deliver to so many different groups against all the odds. People who want to find out more about these projects can check out the links on www.arji.org. Coming back to the current situation, you tweeted your uncle was one of the first doctors to die from COVID 19. The poem ‘after being called a paki’ confronts the racism which your father and his generation were met with on arrival in the UK. I wondered what it’s been like to publish a pamphlet which calls out UK racism past and present, and then have the #BlackLivesMatter movement rise up so powerfully here and round the world, speaking to and with so many of your themes?
AM: It has been so interesting to see how people respond to the poems about race. I’ve been surprised by some animosity towards poems like ‘white people’ and thenI’ve had some really heartfelt messages from other South Asian people who connect with the work. I hadn’t really realised how important it was to speak to my community and capture those feelings until it was actually out there. This was highlighted by a good friend of mine who doesn’t ‘do poems’, (those are the people I really love to reach). He told me how he had never found the words to say how he felt growing up as a British Asian but now suddenly the book had captured them. I felt moved by that. As the BLM thing started to rise I was fully engrossed, angry, unsurprised, pretty much like most of the minority communities – but as it moved forward I started to unpack some of the racism within the South Asian community. I think we have to remember that the racism that black people feel in this country is unique to this country and the people within it. Black people deserve this space for discussion and the recognition of the racism they face and it is up to us all to face that head on and bring sustainable change. That’s not to say the South Asian experience isn’t important or valid. It is just accepting that the grouping together of races doesn’t help any of us. I am fortunate to have worked with inspiring black men and women and will continue to fight for change and equality. I believe that this is a movement of hope and change is possible if we are willing to keep trying.
AH: I absolutely agree with you, and I think your work is unquestionably part of that larger movement, and has been for many years. Calling into question the stability and integrity of contemporary identities, and the pressures to which people can be subjected, your opening poem, ‘credit card’, begins “someone pretended to be me/ filled my details out online”. The intercepted card is imagined/described as being used to facilitate an impeccably ‘middle class’ spending spree which includes “crème fraiche” for leek and potato soup, and ends up funding a seat at a shared table in a café “on the white side of Peckham” where the thief is supposed to have:
had a tea and carrot cake read the paper, lent back in their seat
so their hands fell to their sides and the lady to the right casual as breathing pulled her handbag close
The only skin tone that is mentioned is “white”, but the “casual as breathing” action of the woman has the effect of putting the “someone” under suspicion for no reason that can be deduced from their tea drinking, paper reading or carrot cake eating. Would you be able to say something about the relationship between the speaking “me” and the observed “someone” in ‘credit card’, and why you chose to open Mutton Rolls with this poem?
AM: This poem is one of those poems that fell out of my head on a long walk. Someone actually did fraud my debit card and went to Morrisons and spent a small amount of money on groceries. I couldn’t get this idea out of my head, that someone was just hungry, no drugs, no alcohol, just hungry. All of those preconceived prejudice I had were thrown away. Almost in the same week I was in a theatre show, it was a play set in South Africa. In the middle of the piece I sat back in my seat and the lady beside me suddenly reached to her side, grabbed her bag and put it in her lap in the most awkward position. I sat there for 2 hours wanting to ask her why she had done that but I didn’t have the guts and it probably would have seemed over-the-top. As with many of my poems, it is the coming together of two contrasting ideas that gives birth to a real ‘charged’ feeling. So, let’s go back to the debit card thief. I started imagining a whole world for this thief, I created short vignettes of them all round town and the question kept coming up as to why they might have stolen the card. I was moving towards the ‘someone’ wanting to feel like they were part of the elitist class, like they could dine in the places the middle class dine but at the bottom of all that, they never truly belong. I combined that idea with the concept that no matter how well the thief works, he can never shake his class away. Hence the lady pulling her bag in at the end. I love that poem as it is all about wanting to belong and that’s the reason I put it at the opening of the pamphlet.
AH: Wanting to belong gets imagined in a different way in ‘brown boys in Kavos.’ The poem begins among a “tulip-topped spliffs” and “the backwash of cheap vodka” at “4am in a balmy Greek heat.” A hymn to the hedonism of “rumbling dance floors”, its heroes are “four brown corduroy-coloured boys” who are “failing to get laid/ in the ‘getting laid’ capital of Greece.” Their charms are coming off worse to “sweaty charisma and beautiful blackness” on the one hand, and “glitter soaked torsos/ all fearless and normal and slavemastery.” Against this temporarily disheartening outcome, their salvation, and reclamation of themselves comes in their solidarity, as the sun calls into life a new day:
brown boys think themselves ugly
but not yet ugly because they are brown the sun is reaching over the rooftops brown boys light cigs and laugh an orgasm is caught in the breeze
I wondered if the idea of working collectively, and in concert with others, resonated with you, as part of a creative and transformative process?
AM: Everyone who knows me knows that I believe creativity is best enjoyed together. The camaraderie, the sharing of ideas, the spontaneity, I believe it is at the centre of a healthy mind and spirit. I have spent most of the last 15 years in participation arts because I truly believe making art together is integral to a happy society. In other parts of the world participatory arts is just art, by which I mean, everything is focussed around making art together. This is really true when we think about poetry.Poetry communities are integral to the scene, taking a poem to a group and sharing process is everything. Without it I really feel I would not be half the poet I am. This is one of the reasons why I feel there needs to be more mentorships for minority groups to encourage collaboration and connection. It is these communities that will nurture and grow Britain’s best new poems. Many publishers at the moment are asking for BAME poets to come forward but we need ‘quality’ – and to make ‘quality’ poets you need quality mentoring spread over long periods of time.
If you are interested in finding yourself a group perhaps start at The Poetry School where regular bursaries are available. Alternative options are Malika’s Kitchen and Covent Garden Stanza (run of course by you Alice). These are free groups but you will probably be asked to send samples. Loneliness is affecting us all at the moment so don’t sit in silence, connect with others and use art as a vehicle for transformation.
AH: Again, I can only agree. The Poetry Society co-ordinates Stanza groups up and down the UK, with further groups available in a few other countries, or with online membership. I’ll put details at the end of the interview. I know that the support of our stanza group really helped me personally during a very difficult few weeks in lockdown, It’s also been a fantastic place for me to try out new work in a safe place. Going back to Mutton Rolls, while ‘brown boys’ has a sunrise ending, ‘half catholic’ strikes a more sombre note. The first person speaker reveals himself to be a man who, while attracted to women, also responds to men with desire. As a woman who is drawn to both women, and men, this is a duality which I recognise. Reflecting how Catholicism can become a force which risks alienating people from themselves, the speaker remembers how:
at fifteen I touch a man in a way that makes me wish God didn’t exist
throw up behind a Ford Fiesta brush my teeth till the toothbrush snaps
“in Lourdes years later” he promises “not to want/ a man again” and prays for this to happen. Returning to the motif of theft, also present within ‘credit card’, the poem ends:
after the tsunami I watch a man
pickpocket a corpse quietly as though hiding it from the sky
The pickpocketing is presumably a matter of economic necessity, in order to ensure survival. I wondered if you could say something about why you chose to set those two narratives consecutively, and whether the reader was being asked to think about the historic thefts and appropriations of colonialism, and their enduring impacts through time?
AM: This poem is the coming together of a series of moments in my life. All of them are strung together through a feeling of humiliation and shame, a sense of not belonging and being unable to conform to a system that didn’t necessarily fit me both religiously, ideologically and spiritually. Landing in Sri Lanka during the Tsunami was one of the most pivotal moments of my life. It came at a time when I was turning to activism and God, observing the situation unravel was painful. I was amazed by the level of blind faith that many of the victims had, even after they had often lost their family, friends and livelihoods. Their faith gave them strength, it was something I envied but also something I ridiculed. This for me, connected the two parts of my upbringing. One side of me is always in awe of my heritage as a Sri Lankan Tamil, half Catholic and half Hindu. With that side comes all of the myths and stories and the rich cultural history of tradition and ritual. But the other British side was often disillusioned, faithless and sceptical of it all. That dichotomy is at the centre of the poem and a great deal of my work. I dabbled with the ending for a long, long time. Finally I came to this idea of a man stealing money while only caring about God watching. It seemed to connect to the British impact in Sri Lanka, it shows the power of capitalism and it also illustrates shame and it also connected with the desperation to survive.
AH: That’s an incredibly rich explanation Arji. It really captures how poems can hold multiplicities without forcing a single or simple resolution. Belinda Zhawi talked to me earlier in this series about the impacts of colonialism in Zimbabwe which was similarly powerful. There is an ongoing, and fruitful, tension in your work between narrating your experiences as a person, not least in several powerful break-up poems, and as a person of colour. Many writers are responding to this, not least the poet Cathy Park Hong in her study Minor Feelings, whose work speaks to many of us. ‘nominated for a BAME prize’ tackles this complexity head on, beginning “it’s always in capitals/ like someone is shouting it.” The speaker states “I feel almost unBAME// in my M&S shirt and trousers”, and seems to position the BAME branding as something which risks diminishing and ghettoising artists, and over-simplifying complex, nuanced narratives. Is that a fair reading?
AM: I think that is an extremely astute reading. I feel like BAME as a title has a truckload of problems associated with it. It boxes us all together, which dilutes the differentiation of culture between countries and religious groups. It gives people the perception that we are ‘all the same’ when in actual fact the continent of Asia is as diverse as you can get and Sri Lanka is a place made up of so many different minority groups. I totally sympathise with those that have tried to champion the representation of minorities in the arts but BAME is starting to feel a little dated. On top of this I’ve seen the term become quite divisive within the arts sector. Artists like me get a role or new project but it feels rather shadowed by the idea that ‘I only got it because I’m brown’. Often other artists may think me not deserving of the opportunity and that hurts. By segmenting us off, and doing call outs and competitions just for specific groups, it ends up feeling like we are in some way not applicable to the same rules of quality as our white counterparts. This is the opposite of what we as a society are trying to achieve. The funding and grant system in this country is creating divisions amongst artists, from those that do or don’t get funded, to those that can or can’t write an application form. Sometimes it feels like we spend so much of our time divided instead of innovating together.
I’m not sure what the answers are, but I believe the start is to have a universally clearer understanding of the differentiation between countries, cultures and traditions. When we begin to accept our own ignorance we will begin to move into a space where we are ready to grow and learn. This space is a position of true power.
AH: Undoubtedly your work is helping this transformation. The back cover of Mutton Rolls says you , like the speaker of ‘nominated for a BAME prize’, were “shortlisted for the Burning Eye BAME Pamphlet Prize 2018.” I wondered if I could ask you here something about the first person “I” of your poems? Do you see it as primarily specific, that is linking the work with you, Arji Manuelpillai, as a series of statements of witness? Or is it more a ‘first personal universal’, so that the I becomes a portal through which the reader can look with a greater degree of empathy and understanding? Or both?
AM: You are the first person to call this out. Yes, much as I love and respect Burning Eye, they did inspire that poem. After I was shortlisted I found it interesting how I didn’t tell my parents it was a BAME prize. I was almost embarrassed by it. So I create vehicles for the personal messages to travel through. I do feel like the work is reflective of where I was at during that time. I wanted it to be like a calling card for my style and voice. The voice is very much me, the situations (though not always completely true) are very much like me and I’m proud of that. I hope that they will provide a greater understanding and empathy from the reader but I also feel they are fragments of myself and not designed to lead or coax the reader into any set reaction. I think in the newer work I am creating I am more interested in the ‘I’ taking a back seat, perhaps even disappearing and allowing the reader space to walk around, wander and discover. I hope that doesn’t sound too over-the-top. I feel like my new work is going to discuss life in a whole new nuanced way and I’m super excited about it.
AH: I really look forward to those poems Arji. Many of your Mutton Rolls poems explore the emotional lives of men. ‘Cecilia says we’re all fucked up’ is an unpunctuated prose poem that explores the conversations between a psychotherapist and her client. There is a surface play of humour and irony, riffing on the neutral décor and demeanour of the therapist. This anodyne professional setting elicits the revelation “my friend died when I was 24 I never got to say goodbye.” After the apparently desultory meandering leading up to this, however, the closing lines have all the impact of being dropped down through a trap door
I was busy being strong that’s why abstract paintings work so well she’s leaning back must be time wipe the tears away like face paint how long before I’m wandering drunk down the Old Kent Road not knowing how I got there
Could you say something about the poem’s ending, and what it means to you to find forms through which to speak of things which can’t easily be said, but are powerful forces within our lives?
AM: This poem was a real turning point to me. The Cecilia in the poem is actually Cecilia Knapp and the poem came out of a need to connect many opposing internal dialogues with the running dialogue with a therapist. After I finished it I took it to a feedback session and I literally wasn’t sure whether it was good or really rubbish. I think the poem began to unpack a need I have to move towards reflecting the way the mind moves without the need for set narrative. My favourite poets are doing this currently, the work of poets like Jericho Brown, Chen Chen and Morgan Parker have led the way in this, but poets like Wayne Holloway Smith and Emily Berry have paved the way in England too. I feel that this poem was the start of that hunger and movement. The final lines took a lot to muster, the balance was integral and it was discussed over many a cup of tea with Hannah Lowe, who helped me learn about the soft step off. She always says ‘go in hard and get off lightly’ (or something like that). Finding this form and flipping the camera upside down allows us to capture the intricacies of this complex world that we live in. During this answer I’ve name-dropped a bit. I am doing this because it is important to remember that these poems are the product of many discussions, feedback sessions and books by other poets.
AH: You mentioned Wayne Holloway-Smith in the roll call. I know you’ve taken workshops with him. Wayne is concerned to investigate and call out how the complexities of masculinities are represented, and to challenge cultural and class stereotyping. To what extent do you feel your work is in conversation with his poems?
AM: Wow, I never thought of it like that. I’d be honoured for people to even consider them in connection with Wayne’s work. He has been a real inspiration to me. His work unpicks so much about being a man and growing up but it also deals with emotions in an incomplete and broken linear. The real admiration I have for Wayne is his attitude to poetry itself. His mindset is settled around feeling, process and freedom, not necessarily making sense or clarity of narrative. He isn’t bothered whether things look or sound like a poem, he is just about how it makes an audience squeal or turn in their seat. He has taught me to be the sort of poet that doesn’t give a f-ck, to innovate, challenge preconception and industry notions of acceptance, to dig into process, to grow, discover, play with it all and take nothing for granted. Everything we read in the Monday night class we question, poke fun at, pick apart, no one is on a pedestal, everything isn’t about what’s happening but what is ‘working’. Some people say ‘oh it doesn’t seem much like a poem’ and that really doesn’t bother us, I want to make people think and Wayne has taught me that. Thematically, any connections between our work is simply because I have spent too many Monday nights in his group.
AH: I’m sure Wayne will be happy to read that. Your wonderful poem ‘regret’ was placed in last year’s Oxford Poetry Prize. It offers a vignette of “my mum chatting in Tamil to the boy at the petrol station counter.” Snatches of their conversation are represented in Tamil, and the mum is shown as being completely at ease and lost in this moment:
she is Aunty, he is Thamby and the queue behind us can wait
The speaker, however, is excluded, catching only snatches of the conversation, “plucking subtitles from their eyebrows”. Yet it is from this sense of not-fitting that the poem’s voice and consciousness grow. I wondered if you would like to say something about the creative potential of dislocation and exclusion as a generative force for you as an artist, in this poem and more generally?
AM: I feel like not belonging drives the majority of my work. We spend most our years growing up hoping to fit into the system only to realise our uniqueness is what makes us special. In my workshops with young people I’m always encouraging people to think about their exclusion as a force of creativity. Ask yourself, what makes you unique, different and amazing. This poem is a very truthful representation of my mother and I in a petrol station. My Mum is an amazing conversationalist. Whenever we go anywhere she is talking to the cashier or catching up with someone in the queue. In England, India or Sri Lanka she’s always speaking to people and often I wish so much I could join in. I mastered the English language but perhaps in doing so sacrificed my Tamil heritage. This poem isn’t just about language though, it is also about the love I have for my Mum.
AH: Another important woman in your life has been the poet Hannah Lowe, who was your mentor on the Jerwood Arvon Scheme, and who, like so many of us, works from a place of cultural multiplicities. I was massively helped by having Pascale Petit as my mentor on the same scheme. Could you say something about your experience of being mentored by Hannah?
AM: Getting the Jerwood Arvon mentorship was probably one of the biggest achievements of my writing life. It provided me (and you too) with a community of artists, a space to create and a mentor who really believed in me. Hannah has been completely instrumental to my growth as a poet and artist. Her work transcends cultures and backgrounds, her control of narrative is second to none and her ability to mentor is truly masterful. Hannah is always focussed on clarity of image, constantly pushing me to make even the abstract hold true conceit and is always encouraging me to take the reader by the hand and lead them from line to line. This has been so influential to me. When I’m lost, I often see her on my shoulder asking ‘I don’t really get this bit’ or it’s not really clear enough’. She is also a poet who believes in accessibility of the work, so she pushed me to make sure the poems reached the readership I wanted to reach instead of tumbling into abstraction. In many ways Hannah and Wayne sit on opposite ends of a poetry spectrum. This was a wonderful thing to experience, it allowed me to see how poetry could pull and shift in different directions, it allowed me to ride a very thin line between being abstract and being very clear and it also showed me that finally my own choices had to be made. As Hannah once said to me ‘just be confident with what you’re trying to do’. Hannah’s passionate, down to earth, giving nature is something that I will always be thankful for.
AH: ‘after the Sri Lankan bombing that kills 360 (after the 20 year more than killed significantly more)’ uses the powers of miniaturisation deployed by Elizabeth Bishop in her poem ‘Brazil, January 1 1502’, and by Rachael Allen in her poem ‘Banshee’ – to name but two other poets of the tiny. Elizabeth Bishop is describing the rapist-conquistadors who are “hard as nails/ tiny as nails, and glinting, in creaking armour.” Rachael Allen (interviewed last year in this series) is reanimating the murder of a woman whose aggressor works “like a small model forester/ axing up plastic logs.”
Your poem begins “after the news my skin feels darker”, and uses responses to the bombing in the Grand Cinnamon Hotel as a prism to make more visible the complexities of only being “Sri Lankan / at weddings and funerals or for inquisitive white people”. The poem ends by distilling its contradictions into three singing lines:
from here (on the toilet) it’s all just a cluster of tiny red faces wailing in a language I don’t understand in a country I can’t oh look! that’s where Mama and Appa first met
I wanted to ask you to what extent the miniaturised space of the poem – which takes huge subjects and telescopes them down – creates a measure of safety for dealing with difficult or otherwise unmanageable materials?
AM: I think you’re really onto something there. I’m really interested in pulling big political constructs into my poems and sometimes that can be a very daunting thing. Finding methods to do this is tricky. I’ve found that keeping the subject of the poem down-to-earth and ‘local’ allows the overriding message to have its own open plain. In this poem it all centres around the speaker watching a video online yet the focus is bigger. All political problems have a microscopic impact on our lives, that means taking a subject like war and persecution and asking yourself where does that sit on a local level. This can be a very fruitful task and I feel it allows you an ability to not seem ‘over-the-top’ or ‘self-righteous’ which is always the problem of political poetry. I want to take risks and over the last year since the pamphlet has been released I have been researching political poets. Most of them from USA. Tracy K Smith creates letters charting the journey of black slaves from varying people in history. Patricia Smith tells the story through accounts from victims and family members of violence. These poets are a real inspiration to me, they take the human, local situations and show how they are the repercussions of larger political problems. I believe poetry needs to reflect our politics and begin to unpack some of the complexities of our political system. Often these systems seem too much to deal with, too complicated and too daunting but it is important we find ways to do it, it’s important we do not turn away, but instead create vehicles to promote discussion.
AH: I can relate to that, albeit in a slightly different field. As you know, in my current work I am trying to use my own direct experiences of being abused as a child to give witness to, and change awareness around, the global crime of the grooming and sexual abuse of children, and look at its aftermath for vulnerable teenagers. To make the poems, I have to find or open myself to imageries and forms that can hold the materials so they become accessible to, and safe for, the reader, notwithstanding their potentially very difficult subject matters.
More generally, poetry is about control, but it’s also about the reverse – abandoning and opening yourself to let complex things enact a form of authentic aesthetic identity in language. Could you say something about how, when, and where your poems come into being, and your process of working with them to their published forms? I know you also freestyle, where improvisation and being able to trust yourself and go with the energy, is a key?
AM: I am a true believer in play as a means to creation. I believe that being playful will allow us to open ourselves up and throw away the inner voice obsessed with judging our success. Freestyling is the epitome of this. A rapper freestyling is a magical, spontaneous force of creativity. For me, I freestyle best when I am relaxed, when the audience lack judgement, I can move into a space where my brain seems to work outside of itself, where I don’t think of the words, the words just fall together like bubbles pulling together in a bath.This feeling is as much about the people around me as it is about my presence in the moment. I believe that workshops and feedback groups should adopt this way of thinking. The workshops should initially focus on connecting people, creating a relaxed and free space full of love, while allowing people to express and discover themselves in a wholly present way. After this, the poems will simply flow naturally. I chase the feeling of freestyle when I am creating poems. I’m always looking for experiences that bring the playful from me, that pull me out of my usual surroundings and throw me into a space where I must be fully present. I’m all about the process, the feeling of building a poem like a house, and living in it, taking risks and pushing it to see how far it can go. In terms of practise, I try to wake up each day and put something into being. Anything, just accepting whatever comes out can be really rubbish or be the start of something really good. Recently I have read more as this has been a weakness for me.
AH: I wanted to ask about your brilliant final poem, ‘because it’s in the Lonely Planet top five places to visit’. The poem intercuts a couple telling the speaker about how the husband proposed “as the sun / licked the sea red and birds punched shrapnel in the sky”, on the sand outside their beach hut, with the speaker’s account (thought, not spoken within the live conversation) of the island’s recent bloody history, to which they appear oblivious or indifferent :
will you – I used to march to make change but since then I march just to sleep at night that country changed me she says the bars the sea-views biryani kothu roti plus the people are so generous they don’t hassle like Indians they’d drop a bomb wait five minutes drop another to kill the rescue party they spent the whole evening staring out to sea she says it’s their paradise they made a pact to go back there every ten years to that bar in that country where bombs rained into no fire zones where bodies are hidden sixty to a hole it’s hard to put into words he says as their fingers weave together it’s somewhere we could call our second home the soldiers were spread across Tamil land few tried for war crimes I don’t know why you don’t move back there
In your opening poem, ‘credit card’, identity is precarious, deniable, steal-able. Here the only two points at which the speaker uses the “I” pronoun come around his attempt to assert a contradictory narrative, as quoted above. The reader is given the sense of a narrative about Sri Lanka which is being repeatedly drowned out by the denials of history and blithe rewritings of the tourist industry. The final phrase first person phrase, spoken by one of the members of the couple, – “I don’t know why you don’t move back there” – is moreover one used by people challenging migrations globally. Would you be able to say something about this poem and its ending?
AM: The poem was originally built in a train in India. Remember when I talked about the local situation being used to talk about global issues? In this poem the local situation is a Californian couple. Yes, they did indeed speak in detail about how they loved Sri Lanka. I actually spent a little while explaining my mixed feelings about the place but it didn’t seem to faze them. The recent groom said ‘well you could say that about a lot of places’ and that message stuck with me. I wanted the poem to capture this conversation in a new way with multiple perspectives. To create a range of conversations happening simultaneously. That is the spoken words, the internal dialogue, as well as the dialogue to the reader. There is a line that I really battled with ‘I used to march to make change…’ that line is a clinical line for me as it is the speaker’s internal dialogue, it comes from a different place. The ending has gone through many different stages, it used to have more of a back and forth but I found that pulling it back left the reader on more of an edge and let the poem live on after the poem was finished. This is a real life situation for a lot of second generation migrants. There is conflict between our own feelings and those that go there, there is a conflict between the politics of oppressors and the politics of our supposed mother land. I attempted to capture this conflict in the use of this cut and splice form.
AH : It really works for me, Arji. Can I end by asking where to next? What are your plans for 2020, and beyond?
AM: I’ve been really productive since lockdown from writing to workshopping and I’m looking forward to an August break in Wales. I’m also about to become writer in residence for a pub in Dorset where I will be writing a series of poems in conjunction with local patrons of the pub. I’m also currently commissioned by Stockton Council to write 40 poems for isolated people across the North East so I’ve been writing poems and ringing people up out the blue to share them. I love that so much.
In terms of poetry I want to be pushing my process and work as far as it can go. I feel like I’m only just reaching my stride and I have a whole lot left to give. I am really excited about the new work I’m writing connected to race and hate crime. I’m messing with the ‘i’, writing from a range of perspectives and most importantly, still enjoying it. It’s a risky, deep vat of possibilities so at the exciting part of the process. I want to be more political in my poems and create work for those without a voice. I want to push the boundaries of what we can say and how we say it with regards to race, it’s a dicey game but also very exciting. There’s a lot to keep an eye out for, you can follow me at @theleano, or Arji Manuelpillai on insta or you can join the mailing list at www.arji.org. Thank you so much for having me on here Alice, you are an inspiration to so many of us poets.
AH: Thank you so much for such an amazing set of answers Arji. As always with these interviews around the idea of ‘saying the difficult thing’, I feel I have gained so much by being given an insight into to the workings behind your poems. I’m really excited for your new work and so happy to have had the chance to share the poems in Mutton Rolls with our readers.
Troy Cabida is the first poet I have had the privilege of interviewing about ‘saying the difficult thing’ in their work during lockdown, and the second librarian poet in this spot, following on from Karen Smith last year. Troy tuned into poetry while still at school (further details below) and has shared with us a live recording of his poem ‘In Conversation with Past Troy’ to a backing track by Gabriel Jones of Bump Kin, from which the title quote is taken. If you want to carry Troy’s live voice in your ears alongside our conversation about War Dove, Troy’s debut with Bad Betty Press, published on 2 May 2020, click on the link here now.
Like Romalyn Ante, who also spoke with me, Tagalog was Troy’s first language. Romalyn and Troy both choose to write in English at present. Troy is originally from Las Piñas City, Metro Manila, but is currently based close to me in southwest London, which makes us both neighbours of the magnificent Brompton Cemetery. Built as a Victorian burial ground, with flamboyant avenues of tombs, it has over time also become an impromptu nature reserve, and was a legendary queer hang-out in the 1970s and early 1980s before HIV/AIDS took hold, which works for us both as out bi-queer poets. Had social distancing not been in force, we would might well have hung out in its café for the interview.
Widely published in Bukambibig, harana, TAYO Literary, Ink, Sweat and Tears, Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, and Macmillan, Troy was a member of two legendary London co-operatives, the Barbican Young Poets, and Roundhouse Poetry Collective, which previously nurtured Belinda Zhawi and Dean Atta, amongst other distinguished poets. Belinda’s and Dean’s interviews also feature in this series and tutor and poet Rachel Long’s is also available.
While he has not neglected his own career, Troy has also been generous to other emerging and established talents, editing The Murmur House and Síblíni Journal as senior editor and Issues 3-7 of the Thought Notebook by Thought Collection Publishing.He is also editor for 30 Days Dry by Chicago poet-playwright Robert Eric Shoemaker. A notable and powerful live performer, as a producer, Troy’s projects include London open mic night Poetry and Shaah, his debut headline show Overture: An Evening with Troy Cabida, Poems for Boys, a night that gives space for male-identifying poets to talk about their relationships with masculinity and Liwayway, an open mic nightand art collective bringing together UK-based Filipinx creatives spearheaded by Jessica Manuelfor British-Filipinx poets, singers and rappers.
As a fellow poet who, like Troy, identifies as bi and queer, and also carries two languages in my psychic toolkit, not to mention a whole load of supplementary musical and other inspirations, it was really powerful for me to hear what Troy had to say about his own experiences of realising these doubled aspects of his identity, and negotiating them relative to his private, public and creative selves. I was also really drawn to hearing how the extraordinary poems in War Dove, his debut pamphlet just launched with Bad Betty, found their voices and forms, within the context of both London, and the wider world, including through some targeted “binge-watching’ of the series Sorry For Your Loss,and how the poems fuse the multiple languages and registers through which Troy speaks to us all.
AH: Can you tell me about your path into poems Troy? When and why did you start writing and performing?
TC: I was introduced to poetry back in 2010, through a blue GCSE English anthology everyone in my generation will probably remember with utmost emotion. We studied Derek Walcott, John Agard, Carol Ann Duffy and I remember specifically a worksheet highlighting poetry techniques like the simile and the enjambment and how they work within a poem. I experimented writing when I got home that same day and fell in love. I started submitting my poems for publication after I left sixth form, around 2013,and started doing working as an editor for several journals and manuscripts to get myself acquainted with how poetry works as a collaboration rather than something purely solitary. It’s great because turns out, there were people that liked my work and accepted them into their publications, many of which I highly regard.My first experience performing was at the open mic night BoxedIn back in 2016. I remember my performance was so stiff, but I just knew where to go from there to become a better reader, and I owe that confidence to the hosts Sean Mahoney, Amina Jama and Yomi Ṣode, who have and continue to curate a night that listens to poets but also challenges them to be better. I initially found performing to be daunting because I didn’t know how to place myself within it but then found it fun and a way to get an immediate response for your poems. An audience can be a very good sounding board.
AH: Were there any poets, songwriters or other creative figures who made this seem more possible? I know you have been part of the Barbican Poets and Roundhouse collective.
TC: I’m lucky to call the Barbican Young Poets and Roundhouse Poetry Collective strong support systems in this crazy poetry scene. Being a member of both programmes taught me about community and knowing how to work and give parts of yourself to create a tight unit. I have to shout out Jacob Sam-La Rose, Rachel Long, Bridget Minamore and Cecilia Knapp, who are all amazing. I get a dopamine rush every time they say something nice about my work. In terms of poets, I really admire Joseph Legaspi, Pascale Petit, Richard Scott, Amina Jama, Victoria Adukwei Bulley, Natalie Linh Bolderston, Helen Bowell, Andrew McMillan, R.A. Villanueva, Romalyn Ante, Kayo Chingonyi, Terrance Hayes and Chen Chen. I always find myself going back to their work. Then musicians like Karylle, (((O))), Curtismith, Janelle Monáe, Bamboo, The Corrs, She’s Only Sixteen and Yolanda Moon. I’m a huge fan of BTS. “Interlude: Calico” is written after their song “Serendipity”.
I binged on a Facebook Watch series called “Sorry For Your Loss” starring Elizabeth Olsen when I was drafting the poems, and I loved and studied the show so much that it ended up being a huge influence on the overall manuscript. Its execution of someone’s emotional journey from a major event, in this case the death of the lead’s husband, was handled with both logic and heart that I was inspired to follow that route with this pamphlet.
AH: Your epigraph is in Tagalog, from a song by the indie folk Filipino band Ben&Ben, whose debut was out in May 2019. What made you choose this as the launch pad for your work?
TC: Thank you for catching that! It’s from their song “Lucena”, which I first heard around October 2019, around the time I was going through the manuscript by myself before Amy began working on it. Through that time, I couldn’t help but feel an emotional distance between myself and the poems as majority of them were written in 2017 and 2018 and studying them from that perspective dawned to me how different I am now from the person who wrote those poems. I chose “Lucena” because it sings about the joy in letting go, in hitting the ground running after a long time of hurt, which I felt would work as the epigraph as it reflects where I was emotionally at the time of the pamphlet’s release.
AH: As a dual language speaker, I don’t translate or italicise the French words I use in my work because I want to reflect the way that my mind doesn’t give primacy to
any single language.L. Kiew, who I have also interviewed for this series, follows the same approach. What was your thinking around this decision for the epigraph?
TC: I chose “Lucena” because it does so many things at the same time. I have this fantasy in my mind that when people read the lyrics, they’ll get curious and check the song out and then get a feel of its message and sound, which is anthem-like, like feet stamping and voices cheering. Starting the pamphlet in Tagalog is my way of letting the reader know that although the poems are in English, it’s still a second language to me, and that my relationship with Tagalog heavily informs my relationship with English. I often call English my “work language” and that I get tired of speaking it after 11pm. True story. Also, R.A. Villanueva was once asked how his readers will understand his work if he doesn’t translate his Tagalog into English and he answered with a picture of Chewbacca. Now, I may not be the most prolific of Star Wars fans, but I share the exact sentiment.
AH: The title of the opening poem, ‘Ladlad’ is glossed as “From Tagalog – unfolded; spreading out on a surface; to expose;” .To the English ear, it reads initially as a twinned or dual male identity, like a doubled lad. The poem refracts a shifting expression of identities:
out of yourself, your wrists bending
at the sides of a box struggling to contain you,
translates to you falling from somewhere high,
reminder that you are unpolished quartz,
your sense of a man cracked for wanting man
as if to say:
you deserve all that is twisting your heart,
all that is crushing your torso.
It has an almost biblical feel – as if a new definition of masculinity, in a different shape to what has gone before, is being formed through and claimed in words, albeit not without great struggle, reflected in the stone imageries. Was that process in your mind while you were writing?
TC: I was speaking to my dad about a friend who had come out publicly which I admired. We were speaking about it purely in Tagalog and it took me a second after we finished to realise that the word we used for “coming out” can be interpreted as derogatory. When taken out of the LGBTQ+ context, “ladlad” means to spread an item so it is entirely visible, or to force the truth out of someone. To constantly use this word to describe that process made me feel uncomfortable, and then realising how it can even parallel with how Filipino culture perceives being gay: an immoral truth that can’t help but be a truth, but something others have the freedom to punish you for. ‘Ladlad’ chews and squeezes the juice out of that word, uncovering any silenced or repressed emotions and associations that it passes down to people. In the context of the pamphlet, it being the first poem takes the reader straight into the psyche of the narrator, who is in the middle of this ocean of confusion and isolation that they have grown to believe that they deserve.
AH: That’s a really moving explanation Troy. Thank you. Mary Jean Chan, Norman Erikson Pasaribu and Jay G. Ying are other poets who are currently making work that explores the negative impacts of societal hostility on the queer identity. They
also claim the idea of the queer self as a place of cultural regeneration and onward transmission of new and different possibilities. Is that a project that also speaks to you?
TC: I believe it’s really important for artists to create work that is true to themselves, as well as it is important to consume art made by those who live those experiences.Too many times I’ve read poems about the queer experience written by straight poets as a prompt for them to experiment with and it doesn’t sit well with me. I used to have this idea that I shouldn’t be writing about my experiences of being bisexual because, for some reason, I didn’t think they’d fit the mould of what can pass as bisexual narrative. But then you try to ignore that thought and hope that someone reads your work and feel a little less alone.
AH: Speaking from my own experience, I know that bisexual self can be a scary one to claim, not least because you fear hostility and negative judgements from all quarters! I was terrified, joining Mary Jean Chan’s Queer Studio online course with the Poetry School, in case I would be rejected by more ‘purely queer’ poets. But in fact the space was intensely freeing and supportive, and gave me an audience for whom I could write first drafts of poems about a relationship I had with a girl my own age when we were both teenagers – which was a seminal and reclamatory experience for me after I experienced same sex abuse in childhood.
Turning back to your work Troy, the poem ‘Hawk and dove’ continues a work of re-forming. It fuses poetry and martial arts, remembering “when I tried to punch you/ with a hand boxed like a rock/ only to see it crack open on impact.” Where there could have been harm, there is instead transformation and co-existence – “Fist bouncing from chest/ feather meeting concrete”. Do you envisage language as having the capacity to operate in this fluid, shifting way?
TC: I think poetry can break rules that other forms of language can’t. Poetry is often an artform where you can do that and then the craft reverts to freshness rather that disrespecting it. Jacob would always teach us to know the rules of a specific form, and then he’ll encourage us to break it apart if it serves the poem. I imagined “Hawk and dove” to be about the playing of foils and how opposites can melt into one another. For me, it’s a nostalgic look into a relationship between polar opposites: where the first stanza focuses on a dominant and physical figure, the second stanza is about the more pensive counterpart. Having both stanzas hold six lines each, to me, meant that they were still standing on equal grounds even though they were different. In a normal situation, the “fist bouncing from chest” would have resulted in pain and then a cue to retreat, but in this instance, this clash becomes a gateway into a deeper relationship, where you can see “flickers of your eyes from mine to the ground”, and then the two personalities mix and learn from one another.
AH: ‘The Afters of After’ is a coming out poem, which called to mind Norman Erikson Pasaribu’s voice, albeit that the outcome is very different. Here the kitchen is homely – “moist from steam and cigarette smoke and white wine” – and the parents appear to be understanding:
They refer to a friend’s son, whose name was meant for me. Paul.
Remember him? He works in Malta now. He’s bisexual too!
As the bisexual mum of a queer son, I had my own experience of this, when he came out to me in his teens, only for me to come out back to him. It was a very emotional but very beautiful experience for us both, that continues to inform our adult relationship. It seems to me that this is a very important exchange to record for other young LGBTQ+ people – to give them hope and confidence about revealing themselves to their families. Was this part of your intention within the poem?
TC: That’s such a beautiful anecdote that you’ve shared. Thank you for sharing that, Alice. When I was editing “War Dove”, I knew that I would be dealing with personal themes, and thankfully I’ve been able to add in experiences of levity into my poems because while there has been negative aspects to my process of coming out, there has been lighter stories that I can share, which I think should be celebrated. Coming out is an experience that has facets of both good and bad, and poetry has the ability to narrate all of that. One of the stanzas in “Makeup and heels and Reece King” came about because the first thing my friend Idil asked me upon finding out I’m bisexual, was my opinion on this model named Reece King. It was in an escalator in Debenhams.
In terms of my parents, I’m also so thankful that they’ve been supportive. It wasn’t always the case with them growing up, but it’s definitely something that’s changed. The moment I captured in my poem is my parents grasping the fact that their son has finally come out, after years of holding his breath, and they’re getting used to the idea that they finally can talk about this thing in front of them and the first story they manage to bring to the table is how their high school friend’s son is also bisexual, which I found so awkward then but really funny looking back now. From then on, our relationship has relaxed, my parents have spoken more and more, and I’ve felt comfortable working on becoming more open with them.
However, I understand that coming out to family, or anyone for that matter, is a concept that shouldn’t be taken lightly, and I totally see my privilege in having an accepting inner circle. Coming out or voicing out this aspect of your identity should be done whenever you are most emotionally ready. Do it for yourself and do it in service of your growth and healing.
AH: Poems including ‘Buddy’, ‘Bonds’ and ‘Interlude: Calico’ give witness to the complexity of inhabiting a queer identity in a predominantly heterosexual world, and also to the sense of alienation and separation which can sometimes arise even when seeking to form queer relationships or simply enjoy more casual connections. In ‘Bonds’ the speaker uses the disjunct of a stanza break to state “Man, I have a feeling // we’re not watching the same thing.” Was this an area that you felt drawn to exploring?
TC: I once heard someone say that poems about sex shouldn’t just talk about sex as it can become one dimensional, and I took that in, when drafting ‘Buddy’. I wanted it to be about the defence mechanisms we’re not aware of creating, due to loneliness. Oftentimes toxic relationships are born out of the desire to shut out parts of ourselves that we don’t want to deal with. Sometimes those kinds of relationships exacerbate those exact parts and when they come out, it’s in ways that they shouldn’t, which causes more damage. ‘Bonds’ is a poem that I took the longest to edit because of the ending, where the poem jumps from the narrator to the subject, the person that the voice is sitting next to. It’s about dynamics in a relationship can develop because of unrequited love and an inability to heal past that. Where “Buddy” uses couplets to indicate two people’s close connection, the subjects in “Bonds” have a barrier that keeps them from fully connecting, which I wanted to highlight through the three-line stanzas. The sudden shift is abrupt and uncomfortable because that’s another voice altogether and it’s a wakeup call back into reality, one that’s hard to accept because it’s not the reality that you want to be in.
AH: Romalyn Ante writes in her poems of the sense of unreality which can arise from her Filipino heritage and identity being portrayed in crassly simplified terms by the European and American media. The opening stanza of ‘Examples of Confusion’ suggests the danger of becoming party to a news and entertainment media which marginalises and diminishes non-white experiences:
You can laugh through floods and earthquakes and dictators
but your heart cracks easy for emotions? You’re losing colour.
The action cuts between the speaker and his friend in a UK Costa, a vignette of family life in Manila, and a close up of the American actor Timothée Chalamet, when the camera is “romancing yet another scrunched up white boy forehead.” Chalamet made his name in Call Me by Your Name, but could be one of many young white male pin ups. Would you like to say something about this poem?
TC: Oftentimes, being Filipino means carrying a certain pressure to uphold a stereotype that we’re the happiest culture in the world, something that American media has perpetuated for so long. And to criticise that means I’m ungrateful for having what has been called a “positive stereotype”. It’s ridiculous because the conversation about mental health issues has been deeply vilified and buried in taboo, leaving many people confused and in need of a professional, which should be a solution as logical as seeing a doctor for a physical illness.
‘Examples of Confusion’ tackles my unrest about this situation of growing up in a culture that teaches us that it’s better to sweep things under a rug and weather the storm with a smile than admit that we’re actually struggling, which denies us human substance and depth. It’s really dangerous because it does get to the point where Filipinos grow up thinking we don’t even get mental health problems, that things like anxiety and depression are just for white people, which is far from the truth. The stanza about Timothée Chalamet’s performance came about because I had reached a point where I was able to feel more heard through art produced by non-Filipinos, which bothered me because I know I can’t say that that story is truly mine to compare with. It’s funny becausedigging deep, deep into Filipino art and media outside of the mainstream circuit that encourages these stereotypes rather than challenging them, I managed to find like-minded artists who make work that I can 100% empathise with. And the biggest criticism they get is that they’re too radical or that they’re too ungrateful to appreciate what we already have.
AH: ‘War Dove’, the title poem, draws many of your pamphlet’s themes together:
I’ve come to know the kind of tender
that packs muscle, that doesn’t cower
even to my own desires.
In front of the face that profits from my labour
but doesn’t know how to give back,
the doves around me fought to remain.
You express a form of reclamation enacted in the teeth of harsh treatment and continuing adversity – “the understanding of the apology, / the need for it to be verbalised and accepted/ to release the victim of their past”. What was in your mind when you were writing and revising this?
TC: Whenever I read this poem out to an audience, I always mention how much of this poem isn’t trying to solve the problem against violence or toxic masculinity, but it’s rather thinking through those things and wondering what it can do internally to stop becoming a part of the problem, if such an act can ever be truly done. The first stanza is after “Trevor” by Ocean Vuong, where he says that “tenderness depends on how little the world touches you”. I agreed with that for a long time until I started to realise that when you’re put in a situation where you can retaliate after being wronged, it’s actually perfectly okay to ignore the voices that push you to fight back and just remain still.Practicing compassion after being punched in the face. The idea that the world can beat you up and your response to that is to accept and find strength in the tender state that you’re left in makes as much sense to me as Ocean Vuong’s line does. And then tenderness becomes a strength, which defies the idea that the two can’t be synonymous with one another. The third stanza was very fun to write because it was my attempt in understanding the concept of forgiveness, an action that hasn’t been truly perfected yet, in my opinion. It puts something so emotionally driven in a logical perspective because it’s looking for something that can’t be found through that emotional route. I grew up in a community where forgiveness is a hazy and mystical thing that you must experience and to give it concreteness, reasoning for its validity and actual steps to follow is somehow taboo and disrespectful, which I find so interesting.
AH: As someone who was subject to sustained sexual abuse by a family member in childhood, forgivenesss and compassion are things about which I have thought often – though without yet fully reaching resolution, I must admit. I really value the subtlety and rigour of your thought in this respect Troy, particularly because I try to follow a daily Buddhist meditation practice which can generate a freedom to renegotiate my relationship with my past, without surrendering agency. Your idea of how we can allow tenderness to become strength is very powerful and beautiful.
I’d like to close our page conversation by asking how it feels to launch your debut in lockdown? Will you be doing some live events to share the work when it becomes possible for venues to open again?
TC: So I’m launching the pamphlet online on Bad Betty Press’ Instagram Live and I’m sharing it with an amazing poet named Gabriel Akamọ with his own debut pamphlet called At The Speed of Dark. We joked about how our pamphlets will make poetry history by being one of the publications released during the lockdown. I was having a conversation with another poet friend about how the lockdown has affected the poetry scene and he said that despite not being together physically, the support between us have only gone stronger and have adapted to the tides. Moving our launch into the digital space is still as exciting as it would be on a venue because it means more people can watch alongside our community, watching at the comfort of their own homes. I’ve been contacting nights for a possible feature slot with them at the start of the year so I hope we can get those off the ground when it’s safe to do so. I’m a co-producer for an open mic night called Poetry and Shaah with Neimo Askar, Fahima Hersi, Abdullahi Mohammed, Ayaan Abdullahi and Idil Abdullahi and when we’re all able to resume our normal shows, we’ll only go upwards from there. I’m asking them for a feature spot to help promote the pamphlet, so fingers crossed they say yes!
AH: Thank you very much for talking to me so generously, and so insightfully, Troy Cabida. We’re launching this interview after your launch, the thinking being that readers would already have joined you, Gabriel Akamọ, and your brilliant support acts, in the live event, the facebook link for which is here. I’m also placing links to the publications and live videos we’ve discussed below this for our readers to follow, and most importantly, the buy button link to Bad Betty so they can get themselves their own copy of War Dove through the mail, and bring it along for you to sign when performances are able to take place in shared physical spaces again.