“Everything I write, I give access to devastate me first” : Shivanee Ramlochan, on ‘saying the difficult thing’ with “weapons of conjure.”

shivanee

Sunday night, I attended the T.S. Eliot award readings at the Southbank Centre.   Each performance was intensely alive. With care, and precision, ten poets walked across to the podium to give themselves, and their work, to the audience. I had been on a different floor of the same building a few months earlier, to take part in a workshop organised by Spread the Word with Shivanee Ramlochan at the National Poetry Library.

In that quiet, afterhours space, surrounded by shelves of books, Shivanee Ramlochan had shared with us as generously, and as memorably, as the T.S. Eliot poets I watched on stage. The impact of Shivanee’s first collection, Everyone Knows I Am a Haunting, on the UK poetry scene was evidenced by the number of people who came to find me after the readings – to ask when the interview about ‘saying the difficult thing’ would be published. Imminently, I promised them.

When I got up Monday, it was waiting like magic in my inbox.   Without delay, I read Shivanee’s answers to my questions, and then read them again, more slowly, more carefully, letting her take me through Everyone Knows I Am a Haunting, and the life which gave rise to its powerful, beautiful, uncompromising poems.

Coloured by desire, unafraid of rage, or terror, aiming hard at redemption, Shivanee Ramlochan’s work, written out of Trinidad, as a queer woman of colour, looks at topics – including infanticide, and rape – which many would prefer to deny, or at least avert their gaze from.   The poems also witness loves, and lives, which have had to assert their right to be, a path that has led to “scorched wings” at times, as Shivanee admits.

As someone writing about making life in the aftermath of sexual abuse in childhood, Shivanee Ramlochan has long been a hero of mine. I am honoured to give you – our readers, our collaborators – the words she has entrusted to me with in this opening interview about ‘saying the difficult thing’. Please share them, and join with us in the work of challenging silence:

 

Shivanee, part of the project of the ‘saying the difficult thing’ interviews is to help poetry feel more approachable. I’m interested in people’s different ways in. Can I ask how, and why, you started writing and performing?

Thank you for taking the time to talk with me, Alice.

I began writing because it never felt like I had a choice: from the age of five onwards, everything in me compelled me to tell stories – strange, dark, pleasurable things – on paper, for myself first and alone. The idea of writing as public performance didn’t present itself to me til my eleventh or twelfth year, and though I’ve grown in my capacity to read my work aloud, I’m no trained performer. So much of what I write now, at thirty-two, are strings of words I still can’t believe I’m allowed to say out loud.

Were there people, on the page, or in the flesh, who encouraged you?

My mother is my first true encourager. She wouldn’t choose for me the poems I now choose for myself, but she’s never suggested my life would be better, or happier, if I were a doctor or lawyer. The opposite, in fact: she knows this business of wanting to write is precarious, uninsured, often thankless, and has assured me I’m more than welcome to take parental loans if I ever need them (and you know I’ve needed them over the years. Dental bills, alone…)

How long were the poems for Everyone Knows I Am a Haunting, in the making?

Five years.

Your opening poem, ‘A Nursery of Gods for My Half-White Child’, suggests that we can claim and inhabit our heritages, but also remake them. I’m thinking of the last three lines:

drown me to sleep with the names of the gods you have made

shrieking, floating, bastarding into birth
called to the world of the living between the harvest of your thighs [p11].

‘Nursery’s’ strongly female, and bodily, image of making is particularly impactful in the context poems which follow, spoken in the voices of “The Abortionist’s Daughter”, and then her “Grand-daughter”.  Abortion is currently still illegal in Trinidad and Tobago?

Oh, yes.

The first of these poems, ‘The Abortionist’s Daughter Declares her Love’, deploys the heart-breaking aphorism “Never give a woman more sadness than she needs” [p13]. It holds millennia of female struggle. I wondered if you wanted to say something about your use of a detached, authoritative voice for such potentially devastating material?

Everything I write, I give access to devastate me first. Maybe there are easier ways to perform that transaction, writer to poem, but I don’t know them, and I’m not convinced I’d ever want to learn how to do it easier, to make it easier on myself. I don’t think I can make a poem I can trust (or mistrust in totality/in part, but still find necessary) through perfect ease.

That’s true for the Abortionist poems in Haunting. They’re some of the earliest works in the collection, in terms of when they were written, and I was still struggling with asking permission in some specific ways that I’ve since shed. (I still ask, but mostly now, I ask myself.) I knew then that I had to write about women doing dangerous work, and to ask each of these poems to contemplate why that work was dangerous: was the labour inherently damaging, or were the women who worked at it menaced by external evils, expectations, cruelties? I wanted, too, to explore how dangerous working women differed in how they performed labour across generations: would the same salve suit a granddaughter, as it did the grandmother who invented it?

I say this to say that even in seeming detachment – even in the use of a narrator-as-curator, a narrator as observer, there is pain, and I trust that. I believe you must pay what you owe to the work, and each work demands something different, calls for its specific tithe in blood or lots and lots of bad lines, til you get it right.

‘My Sister of the Coral Mouth’, follows the first two ‘Abortionist’ poems and presents an infanticide committed after rape. The grief, and rage, of a “daughter who drowned her wrong child/ at our ocean’s worse fault” [p16] enters the erasing movements of the weeds and waters – but the poet also holds the difficult memory irrevocably present:

I carry your son’s name under my tongue in a barbed suture.
You wanted my speech to keep his first memory safe [p16].

Do you feel that the work of witness is part of your role as a writer?

Without question.

Everyone Knows I Am a Haunting occupies multiple resisting perspectives, rather than speaking exclusively from your own position. I’m interested in the impact on you, personally, of giving yourself creatively to so much dark material.

Have you seen Chilling Adventures of Sabrina? Mild spoilers below for those who haven’t.

So half-witch, half-mortal Sabrina’s been struggling all season with the directive – an order, really, that she wants with all of her being to reject – to pledge allegiance to the Dark Lord Satan by signing his official ledger. It’s an act that would make her greatly powerful, but also bind her to his will. This is exactly what I think of when you so searchingly ask about giving myself creatively to so much dark material. Because there’s no way you get a halcyon happy ending from that equation, right? Which is why, much like Sabrina, I turn more and more to definitions of my life outside of happiness. My tendencies are dark, and often disastrous, and it makes me smile when readers who profess themselves deep admirers of my work are stunned, not always for the better, by ‘Shivanee in real life’. What’s more real life than a book of poems? And where do people think it comes from?

I love happiness, but my objective isn’t to be happy. I haven’t signed my name in any sepulchral ledger, but let’s just say I understand the impulse. Whether I’m writing poems or doing off-the-record deviations, my curiosity always gets the better of me – that’s the core of the dark surrender we’re discussing. I’m that Pandora, that Icarus, that intrepid sinner who knows better and risks it anyway, to see what I can learn. So many of my poems are scorched wings: investigations into what happens when you push too hard at the envelope of your own luck.

In ‘Duenna Lara’, the poem where the title line occurs, you write, graphically, ‘I take the four rivers of the forest by throat and algal sinew,/ pump the waters into my lungs.” Could you say something about the Caribbean landscapes in your work?

The Caribbean is indivisible from anything I write about anything. I used to think I belonged anywhere but here. Now I know that at least in this lifetime, here is where I’m from more than any other place. So it became mountingly important to inhabit the terrain of the places I used to reject out of the inherited colonial curse of self-hatred, to take those places – mountains, markets, rumshops, rivers – and call them by their names, for everyone to see.

‘The Red Thread Cycle’, which makes up the collection’s second segment, has been personally valuable to me, as someone who was raped in childhood. Can I ask you about the work done by the beautifully controlled language in the first poem, ‘On the Third Anniversary of the Rape’. I’m quoting the opening lines:

Don’t say Tunapuna Police Station.
Say you found yourself in the cave of a minotaur, not
knowing how you got there, with a lap of red thread.
Don’t say forced anal entry.
Say that you learned that some flowers bloom and die
at night.   Say you remember stamen, filaments
cross-pollination, say that hummingbirds are

vital to the process [p35].

Was there a reason you chose to write this poem as a second person set of instructions, as opposed to a first person account?

Thank you, Alice, for your sharing here. It means so much.

I talk sometimes about the distinction between poems that come, seeming-unbidden, and declare themselves with such assurance on the page – between those poems, and others that require more slow, methodical finessing. ‘On the Third Anniversary of the Rape’ has always been a poem that belongs in the first category. Because it announced itself to me with such certainty, I used to think that I hadn’t worked for it. It took a reminder from the consummately kind, searingly intelligent Abigail Parry to show me that, in fact, I’d been working on it by living with the inhabitation – the very haunting – of that poem, riveted and tattooed by its imageries, for months before it was written.

The instructions of the poem – the poem as its own instruction – is me speaking to myself. This goes beyond the question of whether the events in this poem happened to me, as they are laid out. What I have always hoped ‘Third Anniversary’ does is to speak where all other speech fails. I turn to it when I find I can say nothing else, and it has never failed me.

The officer to whom the rape is reported, is portrayed as a “minotaur”, and linked to the crime by the length of spooled red thread. What led you to create this suggestion of a second assailant?

Rape is an underreported, misbelieved crime. I wanted to speak directly to the faces of those people put in positions of authority who do not believe survivors of sexual assault, who compound that assault with their refusal to witness that violation, to treat with its aftermath with compassion, care, and mercy.

The six poems which follow respond to different facets, and instances, of rape. You write in the second poem, ‘Nail It to the Barn Door Where It Happened’

Use your mother’s scissors to cut out the words
[father] [minister] [boyfriend]   [wife]
Pick the right word, and nail it to the barn door
where it happened [p37].

Could you say something about how your writing works with decoupage, and nailing Shivanee?

I can speak to it directly in this poem: the cut-out and assembly of bracketed words in ‘Barn Door’ was another direct act of speech. I wanted to address those complicit in assault. I wanted to show that often, the most beloved and venerated amongst us – those in positions of familial and socio-religious power – corrupt their influence by raping and sexually subjugating those in their care. Nailing or bolting acts as a form of signifying here: a way to designate, to point the finger at the hooded assailant, to tear the mask off, to declaim – here, right here. This is the one who did it. They will not, thank the Goddess, be allowed to flee.

You shift towards agency in the final two poems in this central sequence, which are spoken in the first person. The last one, ‘The Open Mic of Every Deya, Burning’ states “I lit hurricane lamps with the lucifers of the stake he splintered/ six inches inside me” [p45]. It’s an amazing transformation of darkness into light, without denying the pain at the core of the image. I wondered if you would comment?

Working towards redemption became one of my primary goals as I worked on the Red Thread poems, which were not written consecutively, though ‘Third Anniversary’ was indeed written first. I went through many interior, often conflicting cycles of emotional travel with this series, over the years – so much of it might forever be past my power to fully articulate. One of the points of recognition on that journey was learning that I wanted a narrative arc that could, and would, tilt towards sovereignty. ‘Open Mic’ isn’t the original ending I devised for the Red Thread poems, but it’s the right place for those poems to loop back to themselves, to take their own temperature and declare themselves all survivors. I came to understand this as my duty of care to the work: to not only present the future as viable, in the face of such shattering trauma, but to manifest the future as an active catalyst, the future as present and viable and full of agency.

I don’t know if trauma can be cured, but I do know I believe in alchemy. Moving towards the deya reminds me of my own personal favourite form of magic: holding all the light I can, on Divali night. I’m humbled that the poems brought me there, and let me hold their light.

‘Open Mic’ also sets up a cathartic, healing reaction between performer and audience, and by implication poet and reader:

Each line break bursts me open
for applause, hands slapping like something hard and holy [p.45].

The third, untitled section of Everyone Knows I Am a Haunting explores queerness within the shifting histories and politics of our embodied identities. I understand that homosexuality was decriminalised in Trinidad and Tobago by Justice Devindra Rampersad on 12 April 2018, following the lawsuit initiated by LGBTQ+ activist Jason Jones?

Yes!

It was therefore still illegal when the poems in the third section affirming and exploring queer identities were written, and indeed when your collection was published in 2017?

Yes.

The first poem of the third sequence, ‘All the Dead, All the Living’, celebrates and reclaims the covert identity of an unnamed “public servant”. She wears “sensible slingback heels” to the office – but has a night-time, carnival patois self of “curry-gold battyriders” and “breasts swinging under electric tape nipples” [p49]. Are concrete, tangible things a valuable creative resource for your work?

Absolutely. The sensory memory of objects I have loved and feared has stayed with me all my life, from my earliest recollections to the present day. No doubt the images have been transmogrified, but they persist, and so many of them, gleaned from my most private encounters, have found their way into Haunting. I love that you ask this question in relation to this poem, because curating the tangible in my poetic practice is how I both hold onto my beloved dead, and vouchsafe my fidelity to my beloved living. It’s a secret act of service that I choose to make public-ish through the work, immersing my own material archive into the realm of the fictive. What emerges is a non-binary catalogue of memento mori, talismans, tricks and trinkets, wards and relics, weapons of conjure. Are they all a part of my life? Yes. Do they all belong to me? Oh, no.

‘All the Dead, All the Living’ understands the “wetness” from the public servant’s aroused, dancing body as a healing “purgatory-unction”.  You make her embodied sexuality a source of identity – and salvation – which allows her to be “turning wolf/ to woman/ to wolf again.” [p.50] Is that something you wanted the reader to feel transformed by?

This is a poem of Trinidad & Tobago Jouvay, a part of my country’s annual Carnival. I’ve written extensively about the craft of this poem for Poetry School, where the full poem can also be read. Jouvay and Carnival are acts of ultimate shapeshifting. In islands so often hemmed by conservative and orthodox rhetoric, this festival represents for so many of its revellers a chance to ‘play a mas’, to perform and inhabit and exult in their chosen manifestations of good, evil, or one of the innumerable stations of love and excess in between those moral poles. So many of the optics of how Carnival is produced and consumed make me uncomfortable, as a fat woman, but when I strip my love for this festival to its bare, beating heart, I see an island of shapeshifters, shedding their skins, and I’ve never known any power that pulses to that specific, exceptional rhythm. It feels like, and is, rebirth.

You write organically, and powerfully, of erotic desire between women in ‘Catching Devi & Shakuntala’.

your daughter’s darkmouth on her lover,
their hair in oiled snakes weeping bright, [p51].

Is this something you choose to make visible?

I am as queer as the day is long, as the world turns, as salt brines on the tongue. Even now, this remains something I never feel I can say easily without looking over my shoulder, without balling my fists in anticipation of self-defense. I have played the long, tiring game of self-cloaking my queerness for so many reasons, ever since I came into the knowing of myself as non-heteronormative. I determined that I wouldn’t ask my poems to enact that same dance. The queer inhabitants of my poems may, and do, feel earth-shattering conflict, but the truth of the queer poem as an active, evident, self-sustaining reality in my work? I will never, not ever, deny that.

‘Good Names for Three Children’ speaks with compassion to those still “feeling filthy for the way you love”, and warns against this form of self-hatred? Was there a context to this poem?

The earliest written poem in the book, “Good Names” was, though of course I didn’t know it at the time, to become a kind of manifesto for how I hoped I could proceed, and grow, in poetry. It belongs to that era in which I found myself asking permission for the spaces I entered, including allegedly safe territory, and it is a gentler sort of poem in many ways than the work I’m making, right now. I feel tenderly about it, because as you say, it moves towards compassion, and is unafraid of the kind of gentleness that is so often stripped, beaten, exorcized and educated out of us when we are either innocent or young.

The final poem, ‘Vivek Chooses His Husbands’, is a fierce celebration of love and desire felt by men for each other, and includes the stunning image

You cling to the backs of his knees
and let the temple peal bells of bright orgasm over you.

After so much darkness, was it a deliberate decision to end in beauty?

More than that, I wanted to offer the truth of darkness, too, as that which is beautiful: the idea that, though the darkness can cut and bruise you, that the instruction you receive from your wounds can be, often is, the very inheritance that keeps you alive. That’s frankly gorgeous to me, the fact that we can, and do, survive the onslaught of unspeakable terror, that we are wound up in mobius strips of displacement, desecration and refuge from the danger. The danger is always, always with us. Sometimes, we are the danger. I know I am, to no one more so than myself. Yet if I’m that, then I’m also my own foul-mouthed, foul-minded, imperfect, incredibly imprecise cure. So if we always carry the danger, then we chemically, scientifically, might never be far from its antidote.

Besides being a poet, I know that you are an editor, blogger, legendary leader of workshops – and of course performer. What are your plans for 2019 Shivanee Ramlochan?

In response to Zora Neale Hurston’s wisdom, I believe this is an asking year for me. I admire and am even slightly envious of poets who can, and do, produce a new volume each year, but I’m not of their prolific ilk. I set myself the mission of reading 219 books in 2019, and I think this, primarily, is how I will do my asking: at the feet of other writers, living and deceased, with a specific focus on trans and nonbinary literatures; works produced by incarcerated writers; books that come from underserved communities in the global south; all poetries of brown and queer politics. I’d also like to interrogate and amplify the ways in which I critically engage with what I read, and to write about as much of it as I can at Novel Niche.

Shivanee-Ramlochan
Photo by Marlon James

Buy Everyone Knows I Am a Haunting from Peepal Tree Press here.

Shivanee Ramlochan is a Trinidadian poet, arts reporter and book blogger. She is the Book Reviews Editor for Caribbean Beat Magazine. Shivanee also writes about books for the NGC Bocas Lit Fest, the Anglophone Caribbean’s largest literary festival, as well as Paper Based Bookshop, Trinidad and Tobago’s oldest independent Caribbean specialty bookseller. She is the deputy editor of The Caribbean Review of Books. Her first book of poems, Everyone Knows I Am a Haunting, was published by Peepal Tree Press on October 3rd, 2017 and was shortlisted for the 2018 Felix Dennis Award for best first collection.

Shivanee Ramlochan will be reading at the Ledbury Festival 2019.

Further details here.

 

 

‘Vulnerability as Power’ : Romalyn Ante speaking with Alice Hiller on Nursing in the NHS & finding the words to be heard as a nurse and a poet writing between the UK and the Philippines.

Two years ago, I met Romalyn Ante for the first time at the Jerwood Arvon Totleigh Barton retreat, in Devon, run by the inimitable Joe Bibby. The medieval building, with its thatched roof, and creaking, wooden floors, lies at the end of a long drive, encircled by green hills and fields.   Neither of us had ever stayed anywhere like it before. We were there to meet our mentor Pascale Petit, and our two fellow poetry mentees – now sisters-in-words, Seraphima Kennedy and Yvonne Reddick – for five days’ work together, alongside the brilliant fiction and drama mentees, and their mentors Tim Crouch and Jacob Ross.

All of us talked, work-shopped, performed, ate and walked together, laying the foundations of friendships which have continued to deepen and grow. Later that same year, Romalyn become the joint winner of the 2017 Manchester Poetry Prize, won the 2017 Platinum Creative Futures Award, and was selected for Primers 3 with Sarala Estruch and Aviva Dautch. In 2018 she was awarded the Poetry London Prize – judged by Kwame Dawes – for her poem ‘Names’.

Romalyn Ante can be viewed reading ‘Names’ here.

roma reading poetry london
Romalyn Ante reading ‘Names’ at the Poetry London autumn launch at Kings Place.

For those who don’t know her personally, it can seem as if Romalyn’s  success has come out of nowhere. In fact, the poems which have brought her recognition are rooted in her childhood in the Philippines, when Tagalog was her primary language, and her grandfather told her their ancient myths during power cuts. Having started writing in the Philippines, Romalyn continued when she followed her nurse mother to the UK when she was 16, to complete her studies, and train as a nurse herself.

‘Names’, Romalyn’s Poetry London prize-winning poem carries this journey within its stanzas. Romalyn and I spoke about how it came into being on the evening of the prize reading at King’s Place in London, and again the next morning over breakfast in my kitchen, before she took the train back to Wolverhampton. We both share the desire to represent our experiences on behalf of our communities, and make them available to the wider world.

Remembering how she came to write ‘Names’, as we talked, Romalyn looked back on growing up in the Philippines, and her experiences of migrating to, and making her adult life in, the UK. We swapped notes on our different journeys into poetry, the value of Pascale Petit’s mentoring to us as writers, what it is like to be with someone who is dying, why loss can become a catalyst for growth, and how we let our words find their shapes.

Ahead of launching my first ‘saying the difficult thing’ interview, with Shivanee Ramlochan, on this blog, Romalyn has generously given me permission to upload our conversation:

 

AH: You told me that you first heard the music that words can carry in English when you were growing up in the Philippines, but that your work is also deeply nourished by its oral culture?

RA: My uncles and aunties would play music every night. My uncle always played the guitar over a table full of gin. Sometimes my Dad would come home and join them. They would sing in English. They would sing American love songs or American pop rock. I think that is how I learnt the music of words. I never read any English poetry when I was growing up, except for my high school diploma. I read literature in Tagalog. At home, my family didn’t really read many books. What got me into storytelling was my grandad – every time there was a blackout. We call it a brown-out. The brown-outs over there don’t just last for less than a minute. They last for an entire night or maybe an entire day. Every time there was a brownout, and say it was at night, my grandad – who is a barber by day, and was a porter or kargador when he was younger – would gather us on the terrace. He would light a candle and all of us would just sit there and he would tell stories about Filipino mythology in Tagalog. All this folklore, legends. My Grandad didn’t realise that he was a storyteller. During the day, and for everyone, he was just a barber who never even finished primary school. Looking back now – all those experiences fed in. I used to think I wasn’t well read.

AH: Your sources were different – oral stories, told myths. You actually had this extraordinary deep, rich background. Even if people read those stories as adults, it’s completely different to being told them as children.

RA: When you are a child, you are like ‘wow’ – and your imagination is going berserk. But I really agree with you. There was also a point when I asked myself if I should get a Poetry MA – because everyone seemed to have an MA and everyone seemed to know what they were doing. I’m thankful that I didn’t because I feel it might have marred the way I write poems now. I think that intuition is very important. I’m glad that I didn’t take any formal training in writing and got what I needed to learn from my mentors who have been extremely helpful.

AH: You told me you started writing initially to process your nursing experience – without a thought of publication?

RA: It started as journal entries. Then I realised that there were some words in my journal that sounded nice, almost like music. I think that really kick-started me into writing poetry.

AH: I remember that in my own work. You come across something that has an energy which you didn’t give it.

RA: It’s as if those couple of words, or let’s say that line, is very alive. It says: ‘There’s something here. You need to explore me. You need to get me out of this journal and put me somewhere I can be fully alive.’ It’s a breathing creature. Pascale Petit said that as well when we were being mentored. She said don’t give up on your poem even, if you think it’s bad, if you see a draft that has that one sentence that’s alive. You can explore it more.

AH: You must have been aware that what you were writing as a nurse wasn’t being written by anybody else?

RA: Kwame Dawes said yesterday, ‘I’ve known a lot of doctor poets but never known a nurse poet.’ I hoped something good will come from that.

AH: It has already. Primers – the CFLA Platinum Award. The Manchester Poetry Prize. The Saboteur Award for your pamphlet, Rice and Rain. I’m writing about sexual abuse in childhood. I just read Paper Cuts by Stephen Bernard. It was really helpful to recognise patterns that I found in my own life. You are the first person writing contemporary poetry about nursing. You had to open the conversation.

RA: Yes. I want my poems to be accessible for everyone.

AH: That’s very important to me. I’m trying to write for everyone who is making their life in the aftermath of abuse. I don’t want there to be any barrier to walking into my work – and that’s a political decision on my part.

RA: Yes, definitely. Can you explore that?

AH: Society has always turned away and denied sexual abuse. I’m standing up to say what it feels like to be sexually abused in childhood, how you try and operate afterwards – the fear, the bewilderment, the difficult teenage behaviour that people who have been abused tend to manifest. I stand before people and say: ‘All these things are in me.’ I don’t want to be the cardboard cut-out of a smiling child. You don’t want to be the cardboard cut-out of the smiling nurse. We want to say: ‘This is us in our wholeness.’

RA: We are putting ourselves in the centre of an arena, naked and saying: ‘This is the real me.’ After that, hopefully someone in the stadium or in the benches would stand up and say, ‘I am also this. I can relate to you, we are the same,’ and someone over there will stand up and say, ‘This is me – and I can relate to you as well.’ And that is what we are doing. We are ‘daring greatly’ – which is a phrase from the writer Brené Brown who believes in the power of showing others your vulnerability.

AH: Aged 23, you realised you had something to say to a wider audience. There was an energy in your words that you wanted to develop. How did that come about?

RA: I found Vera Brittain, who was a nurse in World War I. That was the first English poetry book I read in the UK. She wrote about her nursing career. Her fiancé went to the war and never came back. I read her poems. I felt their raw emotion. I was really inspired that it still rung true to me –  her sense of loss. That was when I started writing in a poem form rather than journaling.

AH: How did you come across Vera Brittain’s work?

RA: I was browsing in a book store. The title captivated me. Because You Died. [Poetry and Prose of the First World War and After, edited by Mark Bostridge]. The title was such a heart-breaking thing. I had a patient who had just died. Every single time a patient – a person, a human being – died in front of me, that changed something in me.

AH: I was with my first husband, Falcon, when he died. To see a body that is alive and has a being in it become just the container of that self, is incredible. Such a small margin between life and death. There is a one-breath margin.

RA: With repeated deaths of patients who I got to know, and who I got to be close to – every death I felt took something away from me, but it also gave me something. After I found Vera Brittain, I joined a local writing group. We met every month and then it came to a point that the facilitator left, and then I had to take over for two years. At that point, I was working as a dialysis nurse and my brother was having dialysis. I left the writing workshop, and then after everything settled down, I said to myself, ‘I need to do something for my writing.’ In 2016 I went on my very first Arvon Course with Ian Duhig and Mimi Khalvati. I had been working on my poems for three years. 2016 was when I also had the courage to really submit work.  I first submitted to the CFLA in late 2016. I got commended and I was very chuffed because that was my first recognition. Late 2016, I submitted my pamphlet to V Press, then in 2017 I got the news that V Press would like to publish my pamphlet. I also had an email from Joe Bibby saying that I was shortlisted for the Jerwood Arvon Mentoring scheme.

AH: And Pascale Petit, our shared Arvon mentor, was your lift-off?

pascale freeword centre
Pascale Petit reading from her forthcoming collection ‘Tiger Girl’ at the Free Word Centre

RA: Pascale was like a cannon blasting me into the sky. She is so generous, isn’t she? She asked what kind of goals do you have? It is very easy for people to assume that I am a nurse, I am a migrant, I am telling my own story. What might not be so obvious straightaway is that it’s not just my story. It happens to every single Filipino who comes here as a nurse. It happens to any migrant – not even Filipino – who leaves their country to work somewhere else. So even though this is so personal to me, it is not just my story. It is a story of people who had to leave something behind. You can’t moan. You have no choice. I want my experience to be able to evoke something that others can relate to. When I was reading Kwame’s Report [for the Poetry London Clore Prize], I was really touched. I didn’t expect Kwame would relate to ‘Names’ so much. He said it was ‘the poem that moved him’. That is his guiding principle. I thought OK, this is it. Even though you weren’t necessarily a nurse – it moved you to the point that you trusted in my work enough to choose it. He felt that something was happening here and something important was being said here – and this is what I need to do, really.

AH: ‘Names’ is a poem of questioning your sense of your own identity. You look at your beginning as a child of your parents, of the adjustments you had to make when your mother had to go abroad to work, and what her departure meant for your identity. You name your other mothers, the mothers that followed your birth mother when she went abroad to work – the supplementary mothers. Many of us are cared for by more than our birth mother. Other than health professionals, most of us only visit hospitals and nursing settings at a time of crisis. Because hospital is your place of work, you have a different way of seeing it. So, in a sense in those poems you are not only speaking for nurses who have to come to England from other countries, but you are also speaking –

RA: – for anyone who cared and for anyone who has lost, I think. We have all lost a loved one, a friend, a country, an identity.poetry london poster

 

AH: One of the questions that you bring up in ‘Names’ is, how do we survive in the face of loss? How do we remake ourselves? How can it be that loss doesn’t diminish us? How can we live creatively with loss, continue to grow in the face of loss –

RA: – so how can loss be a start of our own growth?

AH: I think that’s really valuable. The poem ends on a hopeful note. It ends on a note of acceptance of loss and change and still finding energy to go forward.

RA: Yes definitely. So, the last lines are: ‘I have the first syllables of my parents’ names, / that is why I am not scared. // I can trek the mountain of Makulot my father’s rifle hanging from my back. // I can carry myself / not how someone carries a cytotoxic drug / but how my mother hooks, / with her finger, a drain bottle / with blood clots / the weight of gemstones.’ The final lines are hopeful – an appreciation of life, the life you know that is going on, and the lives that were lost. It’s hopeful but it’s almost in a tone – for me, when I was writing it – of convincing myself that I’m strong. I’m strong because I’ve had so much pain before – so I can do it. It’s an act of trying to convince yourself of something that may not be necessarily true – you may not be as strong as you think. And I think that is a very normal, that’s a very human thing to do, you know. There are loads of times in our lives we have to convince ourselves.

AH: You were telling me about your grandparents?

RA: My grandad is actually half Spanish and half Filipino. His father left him. He had to bring himself up. He had to be a shoe shiner as a kid, and he worked as a kargador, which is like a porter in the market. After that he married my grandma, who worked at a dress shop in the market, and then he became a barber. I think my grandad finished Grade 3 – when you are an eight-year-old.

AH: Can he read and write?

RA: Yes. It’s very basic – and count. He brought up my uncles my aunties and my Mum.   He worked really hard throughout his life. All the things that he managed to invest, he had to sell when my grandma had kidney disease and she had dialysis. So it was really important to educate my mum as a way of giving her opportunities they did not have and lift her above the hardships of poverty.

AH: When you were a certain age, your mum decided to work abroad?

RA: She was originally a nurse in the Philippines in a local hospital. When I was about 11 or 12 – I was still in primary school I remember – she left for Oman first. She spent about three years in Oman before she came to the UK. And that’s the reason I became close to my aunty and to my granddad. I felt like they were the ones who cared for me. At one point my mum was talking, and she said: ‘When I had to leave I had to kill a part of my heart because I wouldn’t be able to survive’. It’s as if you almost have to forget that you have a child but then you are doing this for your child, really.

AH: How often did you see your mum when she was away working?

RA: She’d probably come once every two years.

AH: But you spoke to her on the phone?

RA: I spoke to her on the phone. Growing up, I was really surrounded by lovable people anyway. I think when my mum was away, I was more vocal about how much I love her. I’m shy face to face.

AH: All this work that you mother was doing was with the goal of being able to bring you to England. She had you in mind all the time she was away from you. She was working to open your life chances and give you different possibilities.

RA: You would have thought that it’s the person who is left who is lonely – but I think it’s much, much lonelier to leave. You don’t want to leave and risk losing the most important people in your life. She would say that sometimes she would call, and she knew I was sick, and in the hospital, and it was so hard for her because her work is to care for the sick.

AH: ‘Names’ is not a poem that takes the easy way out. One of the patients is misdiagnosed and dies.

RA: Yup.

AH: He is assessed in A&E. That figure of the nurse in ‘Names’ also represents your mother and represents many nurses who are struggling to maintain links with home, in a working environment which gives them a three-minute lunch break. It’s not a sugar candy and roses poem by any means, but it’s a poem that seems to be saying that by identifying and connecting with your identity – in your case, your identity as someone who grew up in the Philippines and whose parents grew up in the Philippines – you find yourself. And it’s really about making an honest connection with your own identity to give you strength to go forward.

RA: With the patient who died, it was John Moore-Robinson. He was actually recorded in the latest Staffordshire Hospital scandal. As a result of that, there was a report that came out called the Francis Report. It was an inquiry. So many patients died at that hospital. ‘Names’ is an honest interpretation of our struggle as nurses.

AH: Your poems also address some of the racism migrant workers can face. You write about having to shorten names and simplify names and anglicise names.

RA: I am careful about showing in my poems that I have been attacked by racism – because I want to celebrate resilience, hope and goodness despite bad things. Sometimes it just comes out and I want to delete it, but I can’t. Then it has to be there. The poem is telling me it has to be there. A brave writer is someone for me who can look unblinkingly at the truth.

AH: If we don’t say when people have treated us wrongly, if we don’t bear witness to that, then we are allowing them to continue.

RA: Definitely.

AH: It is important and courageous that you bear witness to these very difficult things in your work.

RA: I guess what I am trying to do is have some subtle hints. But at the moment I am just writing as I remember, then reading it. If that is how your brain wants you to write or how your body wants you to write, then let it be. Because I believe as writers we are our whole body. Holistically we know how to write and what to write and sometimes we just need to let the poem come out.

Alice: Let it have its energy and its truth.

roma and alice photo
Romalyn Ante and Alice Hiller the morning of the interview.

Roma: Yes, exactly.

 

Romalyn Ante is currently practising as a counsellor within the NHS, working with children and adolescents, while writing her first collection.

Her pamphlet Rice and Rain won the 2018 Saboteur Award and can be purchased via V Press.

Primers 3 can be purchased via Nine Arches Press.

Romalyn Ante co-founded the online journal harana poetry, for poets and poems who resist singleness of tongue and thought, with Kostya Tsolákis.   Alice Hiller is the Reviews Editor.   Our first issue will launch in February 2019 at www.haranapoetry.com