Growing up is seldom easy – but sometimes it can be considerably more difficult. For Karen Smith, claiming her voice as a poet involved exploring a family history shaped by the mental illness experienced at times by both her loved, and loving, parents. How she did this, and the moving, deeply original poems which respond to her childhood and teenage years in the suburbs of South London, and now living near the South Coast, were the subject of our conversation in the Royal Festival Hall, where Karen works as a Poetry Cataloguer in the National Poetry Library. We talked about imagined landscapes as a form of psychic 3D printing, the challenges of coming to a creative life in the aftermath of complex beginnings, how trauma can be redefined through bringing the light of your adult life to the dark places of your past, and the healing, and the sense of release, that may ensue.
AH: Can I begin by asking you about your journey into poetry, Karen?
KS: I’ll never forget writing about Ted Hughes in an exam at school. He was writing very graphically about the wind “flexing like the lens of a mad eye” against the house. As I deconstructed the poem, which felt like climbing in, my body responded to it physically – as if it was real. I read English at Goldsmiths after that, and took an optional module on Modern Poetry because I’d been fired up by Moderns the year before (plus I hated long books!). I was shy and always more of a listener in the seminars, and the more I listened the more I could see in the poems. That surprised and excited me. It was like a beautiful bomb had gone off in my head. Part of my internal world suddenly had the music to dance to. During my MA at Kent I read John Ashbery. He grew on me. Sometimes it can be like with that with relationships too. He had a quieter voice, but it was such a beguiling voice. The more you looked into what he was saying – it was like a transformation. You were seeing at a different level. It actually changed your mind. There’s something so special about that experience. And even though Ashbery has lots of references in his work, and you don’t always get those, it doesn’t matter because of how it makes you feel, and see differently. To me, that really carries weight.
AH: I remember you telling me you were starstruck about hanging out at the Poetry Library – around the world that the books represented.
KS: Yeah, definitely. It was a little bit of peace from the world, but where you could be receptive and settle into yourself, and explore your mind going off in these different directions. I found it therapeutic I suppose, but also just so exciting. I enjoyed the fact that there was this quiet space in the middle of London where you could see virtually everything that’s been published in poetry, in modern times, and discover new voices that spoke to you. They seemed to articulate parts of yourself you were barely yet aware of.
AH: You recently published your first pamphlet, Schist, as one of four Laureate’s Choices for 2019 through the Poetry Business and smith/doorstop. When did you turn from being a reader of poetry to also being a writer of poetry?
KS: When I left university and did various jobs, I really missed that sense of intense connection to literature I had when I was studying. After a number of years, I started to feel, maybe I can try to write, as one way back in. I dipped my toe in. I went to a very short course. It was four weeks in the summer at Evolution Arts Centre in Brighton. And it wasn’t a poetry course, it was just creative writing. It didn’t feel great at first, because I didn’t feel I knew what I wanted to say. The other participants picked up on that. And so that was a little bit painful. But I thought I’d keep going because I knew that feeling of being excited and connected – and maybe I could get back there. And then, the poem ‘Schist’ came to me. I went to see my uncle. I was away from home traveling and I woke up one morning with the words playing in my head. I just started writing it down quickly because it felt like the poem was coming to me rather than me generating it. I had been working the previous day on different poem, so I think it kind of loosened something. That’s the first time that I felt a poem again in my body. I felt excited. The writing group were all very excited too. So I thought maybe there is something in this that I can do – even though I’m not sure how I’ve done it.
AH: Schist names your English teacher, Mr. Grey with his “antique-shop air”, (leading to the beautiful admission “I was hot for you, /Sir”), as an early source of inspiration. Were there other teachers, mentors and writers who led you forwards?
KS: Mr Grey was an enthusiastic teacher and his love for literature was very influential and inspiring. He was appreciative of my essays, but we didn’t really do creative writing very much. It was more criticism and analysis.
AH: In your writing life, it was really Carol Ann Duffy who really recognized your ability?
KS: I’d been to a couple of creative writing courses in Brighton before I met Carol Ann, led by Gary Mepsted and John McCullough. They were very encouraging and nurturing. I owe a debt to them. When you’re starting out, to have someone who guides you gently is really important, if you’re self-doubtful. But when Carol Ann recommended me to smith/doorstop, I hadn’t published anything and I didn’t even really think of myself as a poet. It was a real shock, but a nice shock. It was after I went to her five day “Starting out in poetry” course with Michael Woods at Moniack Mhor. It wasn’t a master class. That’s something I admire about her. She’s teaching at every level. She’s supporting right to the grassroots.
AH: We talked about John Ashbery. Are there any other books that have spoken to you over the years?
KS: I’ve always loved Alice in Wonderland. I keep going back to it because it’s mesmerizing to me – that surreal world. You know, what it feels like to be a child and the craziness of the world – all the playfulness in it.
AH: It’s a book that also captures powerlessness. And incomprehension – and the sense of there being no rules. That’s one of the things that your adult work addresses. Can I ask you about the title and opening poem, ‘Schist,’ which returns to a sun-filled seaside afternoon on the rocks at Mullion, in Cornwall. It begins:
One in a million, you said,
that summer in Mullion.
But we could never agree.
And we bickered all afternoon
between beach and lagoon,
the tide began to carry
more than it gave,
redrew the lines of flint
along the splay-veined shore.
Already, a boat was listing,
letting the water in.
You afterwards remember how the couple “bathed like lizards. Double spaced” – but the next line finds “In the light, a certain angle of extinction, / fulsome but unforgiving.” I know your work quite well, and you have that ability to capture beauty – but in the other hand to hold darkness. I wondered if you wanted to say something about those two forces being present in Schist?
KS: Very nice question. I like to try to capture all those elements, but I’m always conscious of the dark sides of things. And even at school, my teachers sometimes used to recommend things that were a bit strange and disturbing, because I’ve always been drawn to that. There’s a complete experience where you can try and hold everything – to be true to all aspects.
AH: In the dictionary, ‘schist’ signifies layered, metamorphic rock, whose “twist of minerals, caked and forged/ under an ocean of heat and torsion” is the backdrop for your poem. I wondered if there was a reason you felt drawn to this geological imagery, over and above the actual Lizard Peninsula location of the memory?
KS: I am really interested in geology. There was something about the landscape there that was really arresting and just stayed with me. And so I thought, well, why not explore that? I did a bit of research and then came across these geological terms, which are very beautiful in themselves. The language around the rock was so evocative – that kind of steered me towards playing with it. I think it made a path for other things to come to the fore in my mind. I didn’t set out to write about relationships, but as I was writing about being there with that landscape, the poem emerged in that way quite organically.
AH: One of the topics which your pamphlet explores is the experience of growing up in complex family circumstances. You write about some of the mental health challenges your parents faced. While as an adult, these are things that we can look at with compassion, as a child, it’s very different. When I read about the layered metamorphic rock and the twisting and the pressure and the compression, I thought about some of your other poems about children feeling squeezed and twisted by enormous epic, forces – like the earth’s plates – that they have no control over. Does that seem fair to you?
KS: Yeah, definitely. I think when the experiences are so deep and strong in your psyche, they emerge in that way. You don’t consciously say I’m going to choose this particular symbol, but you find yourself drawn to things. Sometimes, after I put it in the poem, I realized there was some kind of analogy for my own experience. I think it’s good not to be too conscious of that at the time.
AH: I think sometimes we need to look away to see. If you really absorb yourself in the material detail, when you have something very difficult to write about, actually not writing about it often, paradoxically, makes a space for the difficult thing to come into the writing. If you go at it straight on, you lose it. Whereas if you look studiously to one side, there’s always a potential for it to infuse your thought. What made me think about that particularly is Schist’s second poem, ‘Orthorexic Creed.’ It opens with an epigraph from the Catholic Nicene Creed, which it subverts, to address your own father – in the grip of an apparently remorseless eating disorder:
We believed it was right, Christ,
the only kind of love,
eternally forgotten by the father,
no word or song, night after night,
tuned out from tuning in,
forgotten, not savoured,
of being one with the illness.
By him all food was weighed.
For us kids and for our staycation
he came down from Croydon:
by the power of the catamaran.
Eating disorders within families are deeply difficult to write about, but here, as very often your work, a dry wit, and emphatic sound-play – “right, Christ” – leaven the darkness, and help both writer, and reader, to regain a measure of creative agency. I wondered if you could comment on this as a strategy? Did the echoing Nicene Creed give you a way of making space to talk about something else?
KS: Yeah, I think it definitely did. I’ve taken the structure of the Nicene creed, and kept quite close to the form and the sounds. It was a very powerful structure, or container, for an experience that was very hard to talk about and to explore. I was having therapy at that point, talking about my father and my mother. I was ready to reconnect with that time in my life, a time when I felt very vulnerable. Writing the poem kind of dovetailed with that process. I woke up with a line for the poem in my head. It was the line “Eternally forgotten by the father”. This is part of the Catholic mass. If you grow up Catholic, it’s very ingrained in you, it becomes fundamental to your language.
AH: Although I am a Buddhist, I still have the Anglican psalms from my childhood. They are programmed like a rhythm into my body, so I know where the beats and the emphasis falls.
KS: It’s kind of a music isn’t it? When that line hit me, I felt, oh, this is something different. It has lot more to say, you know. It didn’t come to me all at once. I remember I was ill that day and I couldn’t attend my poetry course. I was able to instead to write most of the poem. The form seemed to hold what I was trying to say so well. It was exciting because I felt that something inside me needed to be said. It needed to come out – and this was my way of doing this. Having the vessel meant it could come out safely.
AH: You say really devastating things in the poem. “no word or song, night after night,/ tuned out from tuning in,/ forgotten, not savoured”. These are very painful things to admit in relationship to parents. Somehow, because they are within the music of the poem, it has a measure of resolution at the end. It’s like the humour keeps life in the poem? Even in very sad bits, because there’s this dry wit, and the sound-work, life is always present. Even as it’s looking at its own dark, places, life is also resisting them.
KS: I think that’s pretty important, for the reader obviously too. But mostly actually for your self. The work needs to find balance, just as a person does. If you’re going to let the weight of the darkness in, you need to counter it with light. The humour says I can take that forward in my own way. You know, there’s a kind of affirmation.
AH: We’ve both talked about bearing witness to things that people find very difficult to talk about. I feel one of my responsibilities is to keep the reader safe, if I’m showing them something very scary. I say this darkness exists in life – but I’m alive, and I’m telling you about it, in a way that also has beauty and agency. And it seems to me that is part of your process?
AH: The sea, but also the imagery of seaside towns, and funfairs, are threaded through Schist, making a first appearance in ‘How to Survive a Blackgang Chine.” The poem addresses a child “staggering/ round the black planks of the Crooked House.” Do you think it can be freeing for writers to create imagined landscapes, in which we site our younger selves?
KS: I’ve found it really useful to use space with my imagination, to plot out an area that somehow expresses your inner world, and maps itself onto the landscape.
AH: Like psychic 3D printing?
KS: Yes. It’s not just something inside you, that has to be hidden or withheld from the world. It’s actually this place that is real to you. I find that useful – to use places that I’ve been to as a mental landscape. It becomes something that your mind uses to plot the narrative of what you’ve experienced. You bring it into a physical space because emotions live in the body, and bringing that emotional experience into a physical form makes it comprehensible.
AH: Definitely. Like the sea, anger is recurrent energy throughout Schist, where it seems to function as a centreing force, which can return the speaker to herself when her identity is threatened. I’m thinking particularly of ‘Miss Etheridge’, which answers back down through the years to an unfair school teacher – guilty of playing favorites. It ends “I still think of you and your flags. The pig that got in.” Could you comment on some of the ways anger moves within your work?
KS: I think it’s something that I’ve been able to harness more recently, because in my family anger wasn’t something that was really accepted. But of course it’s a natural human emotion, and despite religious or cultural ideas, I think it has a strong energy and you can harness it in your poems. Learning how to do that is a real spur to get that material out. Those are the kinds of experiences – whether they’re anger-inducing or not, things that are very emotional – that can come from such a deep place and be very sustaining, in the sense that energy wants to find its way out. It’s a question of finding ways to allow it.
AH: I found it very difficult, for decades, to connect with my own anger. When I finally did, it seemed to me as if I was reaching out, and finding my own hand waiting for me. It was like – so that’s who I am. It was part of me. It had very deep roots that I’d really been cut off from –because it had been too dangerous. As you know, I was sexually abused by my mother, as a child, and my first focus was simply to try and stay alive. And once I did express my own anger, as an adult, it severed me from my family of origin. In real terms, it was a very dangerous force. For children who come from difficult backgrounds, it can be hard to own your own anger.
KS: Absolutely. Yeah. I think it sometimes it takes a long time for it to be able to come into your consciousness really. It’s a survival strategy. But if you cut it off, you’re cutting off part of yourself, so it feels first of all healing, actually, to connect with anger, and to say this is a part of my experience. This doesn’t mean that I’m a bad person. It doesn’t mean people are going to judge me. It’s just one of many human emotions. One that helps to guide you back to yourself and to say, well here are my boundaries. This is my identity and this is my experience. You know, it just helps you to take ownership of that.
AH: In my own case, it allowed me to define that what shouldn’t have happened, did happen. Your mother had periods of being really very unwell, and behaving in ways that were not maternal or nurturing. Because she was very unwell, they were not in her control either.
KS: Yeah, exactly. It wasn’t a question that she didn’t want to be a mother. She had two sides to her, where she could be very sweet and caring and nurturing, and then some of the time be a completely different person, sort of unrecognisable. I’ve lost boyfriends because I brought them home, and then I didn’t realise that she’d been in one of her psychotic states, and she would just go completely beserk, be really paranoid. It was hard to explain to people really. They didn’t understand that it wasn’t that she hated them. She was the same to me, you know. It wasn’t that she rejected me or my sisters, or that we’d done anything to provoke her, she just wasn’t well. I think there is a process of coming to terms with that. Part of you is angry – angry because it hurts, because it ‘shouldn’t be’. You come to understand that in the context of, somebody’s illness – as opposed to a negative intention towards you.
AH: Absolutely. One of Schist’s plainest, saddest – and most moving – poems, is simply titled ‘Her’. Structured within two only subtly different sections, its unstable boundaries suggests porous states of mind, reflecting and shifting points of view between a mother and a daughter. ‘Her’ begins:
You walk up the white corridor.
Smile at the nurse. Fix my hair.
I am trying not to look like you
and not take offence at what everyone says.
This is what it means to hear hell.
They put me in one room, you in the other.
This time we hear the same sounds,
though they make a different message.
The pills help you realise that
voices have no bodies. You’re real mum,[…]
Could you say something about the doubling and mirroring structure you created, which refracts, and blurs, the poem’s two halves, and generations, into each other?
KS: I wanted to write about my mother for quite a while. When I wrote ‘Schist’ I wasn’t thinking of her but, but it made me think of her later – because of the etymological roots of schist, the idea of being split and doubled, and schizophrenic.
AH: This is one of the conditions that your mothered suffered from?
KS: Yes. Since I started writing seriously, I wanted to say something about her, but I stayed away from it for quite a long time, because it just felt like such a big thing to write about, and how was I going to approach it? And you know, when your mother is being unmotherly, it’s taboo to show that. How are people going to react? And there was always this repression of it within the family too, you know, my mother having schizophrenia and my father having an eating disorder. It felt very risky to actually start to talk about it, on the page. Very unknown territory.
AH: I can relate to that. Whenever I tell someone that I’m working on a collection about being sexually abused by my mother – half the time, it’s like I shot myself with an invisibility gun. Suddenly, I cease to exist.
KS: I don’t think they know how to react. It doesn’t fit with what’s safe to think about. We’ve created that figure in society of the ideal mother – or what we think all mothers should be. And, it’s very upsetting to people to pierce that really. You struggle with your own feelings about it. Am I doing her damage? Am I harming her and the family? But if we don’t acknowledge suffering, we can’t change it. I wrote this years after she died and I think that that did free me up. I had a lot of love and happy times too. I felt close to her and respected her. One way I kept myself safe was to try to live up to her expectations. But I also wanted enough space to be me, to be different. When someone’s ill, it helps to remember they are still present as a person, it’s just that they get obscured by the symptoms. As a society we’re beginning to not be so hesitant to voice that now.
AH: It’s also part of a larger project to de-stigmatise issues around mental health. For people with mental health challenges, certainly historically, it was much more difficult to manage them. I think the medication now is less impactful. ‘Ghost Train’, following immediately after ‘Her’, shows a younger sister hanging onto her elder sibling as they rush into a scary ride – which hurtles them headlong through the fears of their unstable childhood. The rhymes in the first stanza have a lock-down effect, predicting the inescapability of the lurching upsets which will follow:
Even before we clattered
into the blackness, I was
already there. Eyes shut
head buried in your hair.
Ruffling and screeching like hens,
our bellies cracked like eggs.
My insides strained to escape,
to get between us and them.
You use rhyme with considerable impact in your work. I wondered how consciously you reached for it, and whether you felt there could be a reassurance in the linguistic control which this provides when writing about difficult material, over and above to the sound-pleasures which it affords?
KS: I’ve always enjoyed rhyme and the oral qualities of the words. I enjoy making those sounds quite consciously, but I think in this poem it was more instinctive.
AH: Often poems for children rhyme?
KS: I think it’s putting yourself back in that place isn’t it, which can be difficult? But if you can put yourself back there physically, almost try and remember how you felt bodily, and then sometimes you instinctively reach for those structures – the rhyme and the more simple language. I think it did help me as well – to enter that territory. It’s not very enjoyable to go back there. It’s only human nature to want to avoid those feelings again. It definitely helped for me to feel okay, knowing I’m going to have a predictable structure here at least, in the beginning, to ease myself into this very uncomfortable space. And so the rhyme felt like a safe way to do it really. It enabled me to travel through unstable ground, which was more the experience I had as a child. In the poem, I’m able to find my way to that point where I could connect with the trauma of it really. It did take me a while to actually get this poem finished, because lots of it felt blurred in my head. That’s just part of going over that material, and parts of your brain trying to keep it locked away. And you can’t always quite see the full reality of what you experienced. The poem really helps to diffuse that kind of memory and allow you to reconstruct, to re-member parts you might have ‘resolved’ by forgetting.
AH: When I write things down, and I have to face them, I can find it devastating. But afterwards, once I’ve made a piece of work, it becomes a repository for that very difficult thing which it holds. Each poem is a box, and I can shut the lid and then open it again when I want to look inside. The work allows me not to forget, without requiring me to remember each day.
KS: Exactly. Yeah. It’s a kind of processing, isn’t it? You’ve really engaged with it – but transformed it at the same time.
AH: The three line poem, ‘In Search of the Pepperpot’, deploys a delicately wrenching compression of alliterations and assonances to bring to mind a medieval lighthouse lost in fog on the Isle of Wight, ending “Wrecked souls, pray for me.” Like ‘Schist’, and ‘Poseidon’s Trident’, it finds its forms of expression through English, and specifically South Coast maritime landscapes, and I wondered if you could say something about your imaginative and real relationships to them?
KS: Again, this poem is another real experience. I was lost in the fog on the hillside, looking for this medieval lighthouse. I had that feeling of being completely lost. I could not even see my hands. There was the irony of looking for this lighthouse and not being able to see it. And I just felt that it said something about my experience, you know, as a child but also as an adult, really and within this landscape of the collection.
AH: Which is also the landscape of where you live now near the South Coast, and you have family roots going back, it seems, a long time?
KS: We grew up in Croydon. We always used to holiday in the Isle of Wight. It was very familiar to us – almost like another member of the family. It’s been a canvas really for some of the things that have unfolded in our family. It has a real meaning to me over and above just being a place. I wanted to include that in the work.
AH: Like many poets, your work also directly addresses its own forms, and relationships to its materials. I’m thinking of ‘The Contortionist’, and ‘Schizophrenia Test (amended for poets)’ and ‘Drawing Lesson’, which includes the wonderful couplet “Imagine you’re a child/ wearing your eyes for the first time.” Is this process of reflection a particular interest for you? Would you like to say something about those poems?
KS: I think that reflection has always been important to me. You can gain a lot of insight into yourself and not only in your work, but you know, generally being reflective about your own mind.
AH: But this is also poetry thinking about how it is made, holding the mirror up to its own self?
KS: It’s always something that I want to reflect on – the process, and what it means to be a poet, and the process of making, and how that can sometimes be very uncomfortable and painful really. And there’s another poem written, called ‘L’Oeuf’, about a hen laying an egg very slowly. In that poem too, there was something I needed to incorporate – because the experience of writing was intense too. I knew I wanted to touch on these very personal, very painful things. I had to incorporate what that felt like, that feeling of trying to embody this experience into words. You know, it’s trying to make it come alive on the page and really be truthful, incorporating all aspects and, and doing that, doing that fully, you know, to feel that you’ve really gone as far as you can with it. As well as the trauma of talking about these difficult things, part of the process of writing is difficult too. It’s all very painful and risky, and even though my parents aren’t alive anymore, it’s still feels dangerous. They’re not here physically, but parts of them are inside of you, and you can still hear their voices and, and you can still get a sense of what they would think and what they say, and so it’s still a very, very present danger.
AH: Yeah, absolutely. I really recognise that from my own work. While there is deep sadness in Schist – and clear witness brought to the challenges for children of growing up with parents whose mental health is fragile – there are also repeated moments of sheer delight and radiance. I’m thinking of ‘Driving in Iceland’, which is laid out over two pages, so the stanzas ring an empty whiteness. It begins “It was like being born/As if a lamp had fallen on its side/ leaking light.” Would you like to say something about these poems – which often include the figure of your partner as a co-presence – and about the idea of healing, and creative self-regeneration, more generally?
KS: Despite difficulties in childhood, I was always a really happy child. I often remember thinking I’m really happy!. And I think there’s something about that joy that we need to celebrate really. And I think that helps to cope with the darkness too. There’s a real joy in being alive and to my mind, it’s also the joy of language itself and, just a feeling of those sensations – laying in a field with friends after an exam – pure freedom. And so those moments really were very important to me and I think that’s why they’ve come out in my work. Sometimes when you have intense traumatic experiences, I think you may also find an intensification of the joyful ones. There’s so much so much pleasure in just being.
AH: Yes, definitely. The penultimate poem, ‘Burning the years’, is addressed to a “you” which the footnote identifies as the “Protestant martyr & East Sussex ironmaster Richard Woodman, brother of my paternal ancestor, who was burned to death in Lewes.” You describe his torture, using “iron finery/ forged by your own hand”, and the poem ends
walk with me in the dark hours,
tell me what we don’t share,
what we do.
Would you be able to say something about the sense of kinship here?
KS: My aunt did some family research about this figure, our ancestor, and uncovered his suffering. It was a terrible, terrible death. I now live quite close to where he lived and was burnt. I wanted to connect and to say something to him. As a historical person, he’s still very alive in the imagination. He came into my head, and I felt that there’s something very comforting about being able to speak to somebody else who has been through something really traumatic. He was persecuted for his religion. He was part of the family. I wanted to move beyond the confines of time and space to feel as though I could talk to him like people do, when they’ve lost someone.
AH: We were talking earlier about looking at something, or someone, else to see yourself.
KS: I think it makes it easier to digest, for both the writer and the reader, because you don’t really need to have it spelled out. It’s really hard to take if it’s too raw. Poetry especially has this compressive quality, this kind of indirect approach, where you’re able to take on these big subjects, you know, without frightening people away. It’s about communication and connection. Finding whatever way you can to empathize with the subject, with the reader, with yourself.
AH: The final poem ‘Calling Pluto’, returns in the present tense, to your father – using tangy, everyday language to remember the stories he would tell you over the phone when you called him, and “that last night in the hospital.” It is a poem of tenderness, which celebrates a mutuality of care between parent and adult child, and suggests that with their new-found equality comes the possibility of reframing past hurts, and conferring grace on both parties? Could you comment both on the process of creating Schist, and now of sharing your work with a wider readership?
KS: It’s been a difficult process, but it’s really changed the way I feel about the things that I’ve spoken about – in a very healing way. I’ve come to settle them somehow. It feels like I’ve really worked with them, you know, really engaged with them – with the things that were inside my head and, and wanting to be spoken. And so it feels different now. Somehow the pressure has been released from keeping it inside, that kind of burning feeling – that’s released. And that they might bring a touch of joy and insight to another mind, or change just one angle of vision… that’s all I hope for as a writer.
AH: That’s wonderful. Your poems are really extraordinary. I think they’re going to speak to many people, very deeply. Thank you Karen Smith.
To celebrate Midsummer, Karen Smith will be reading with Yvonne Reddick, Victoria Gatehouse, and Natalie Burdett at the Yorkshire Arboretum. More details here.
Karen Smith will be reading from Schist at Burley Fisher Books on 9 May 2019.
Copies of Schist can be ordered here