‘I’m trying to write the stories not only of how my family suffered, but also how they survived’: Natalie Linh Bolderston on witnessing and healing in ‘The Protection of Ghosts’.

Natalie Linh Bolderston author photograph

@NatBolderston

Natalie Linh Bolderston has just published her brilliant, moving debut, The Protection of Ghosts, with V.Press, exploring life before, and after, her family’s departure from Vietnam as refugees in 1978 through three generations of women. The first time we met, I was struck by Natalie’s observant, centred quietness, and natural generosity. As I got to know her work, I came to understand how these qualities have been nourished by the multiple heritages which her poems honour. Together, in our conversation, we explored creativity, trauma, and healing – and the poets whose works have helped Natalie find her path. Still only in her mid twenties, while a student at Liverpool University, Natalie copy-edited Nuar Alsadir, under Pavilion’s internship programme, and was encouraged to develop her own poems by Deryn Rhys-Jones. Now working as an editor, Natalie Linh Bolderston has already been the Silver Winner for the Creative Future Writers’ Award 2018, come second in the Timothy Corsellis Prize 2018, been placed as a runner up in the Bi’an Award 2019 – and most recently won the Young Poets Network’s 2019 Golden Shovel Competition.   As key new voice in poetry, I’m honoured to be able to share Natalie Linh Bolderston’s first in-depth interview.

AH: Can I ask when and why you started experimenting with poetry? Were there any mentors, or teachers, who encouraged you, or was it more DIY?

NLB: In my second year at university, I took a creative writing class with Deryn Rees-Jones. I hadn’t written seriously before, and just wanted to see if I could. At the time, I didn’t know what form my writing would take, but I had mainly read fantasy and literary fiction by women. My experience of contemporary poetry was limited: in my previous education, a lot of emphasis had been placed on the canon – specifically the white, male, British canon – which didn’t resonate with me.

Early on, Deryn introduced us to the work of Mona Arshi and Sarah Howe. I felt an immediate connection to both poets: I loved the vibrancy of their images, their use of myth and narrative, and their explorations of family and cultural heritage. I was interested in contemplating family history, traditional stories, and cultural identity in my own work, and reading their poems made me feel more able to do so. As a young woman of colour, it meant so much to me to have two modern female writers of colour to look up to – and to know that there were so many more to discover.

Since my ideas seemed to come to me in intense moments, images, and fragmented lines, poetry felt like the right form to express them. Deryn was very encouraging from the beginning, as well as being very generous with feedback – I owe a lot to her.

AH: Were there any other writers who helped call forth your voice? I know you connect imaginatively with poets outside the UK.

NLB: My two ‘gateway’ poets were Mona Arshi and Sarah Howe. But once I started following poetry accounts on Twitter, I found so many other brilliant poets – the ones I return to most are probably Ocean Vuong, K Ming Chang, Warsan Shire and Romalyn Ante. All four write about migration, sense of place, cultural identity, family, trauma and survival in very different ways, and have made me think about how I can approach these themes and other difficult subject matter in my poems.

I’m also in awe of them from a technical perspective – I find their images particularly astonishing. For example, one of my favourites by Ocean Vuong is: ‘one spring / I crushed a monarch midflight / just to know how it felt / to have something change / in my hands’ (from ‘My Father Writes From Prison’). I love the eerie, tactile beauty, and the emotions captured in that one moment: namely isolation, aggression, and longing. Reading work like this showed me the beautiful and extraordinary possibilities of poetry, and encouraged me to keep going.

AH: How did it feel when you heard that V. Press had accepted your first pamphlet, The Protection of Ghosts, published on 23 April 2019?

NLB: It was a mix of disbelief, joy, and gratitude! As a young, emerging poet, I was prepared to wait many more years to get to the pamphlet stage, so I felt very fortunate and very grateful to V. Press (especially to Sarah Leavesley and Carrie Etter) for their belief in my work.

I was also excited for my poems to appear together, as a lot were written in conversation with each other and form a sort of fragmented arc. Gathering them into pamphlet form made me feel more able to provide a ‘fuller picture’, as the narrative threads that have been passed on to me by my family began to join.

AH: The poems in The Protection of Ghosts speak from your own position and generation, but also through your mother’s and grandmother’s voices.   They both lived in Vietnam until 1978. Did you always plan to have a chorus of mainly female voices speaking in and out of each other, ghosted by the past?

NLB: I don’t think it was a conscious plan at first, but when I started setting down my family’s stories the multiple voices came quite organically. Anything that I create is a collaborative effort, because so much of what I write is inspired by what my family have told me – particularly Mum and Bá Ngoại. I think that highlighting this through the chorus of voices enhances the emotional truth of what they have said, and gives me space to consider how I interact with that. For example, in ‘When Bá Ngoại tells stories’, I list quotes from her alongside my own interpretations and contemplations of these.

AH: How do your family feel about featuring in your work?

NLB: My mum is very supportive, and reads everything I write. She’s one of the first people who I send new poems to – so many stem from her stories, and I want to do them justice emotionally. A lot of poets mention having an ‘imagined reader’ when writing: for me, my mum is always the reader I have in mind. She’s told me that it moves her to see how much I’ve held on to her words and experiences over the years – she actually sent me a message about it, which I keep with me:

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Bá Ngoại is the same, although she sometimes needs help from me and Mum to fully understand my poems (my mum provides Vietnamese translations for some parts).

I’ve only recently felt brave enough to start showing my work to the rest of my family. The response has been very kind – like Mum, they’ve been interested to see how I’ve interpreted, interacted with and reproduced their stories.

AH: The opening poem, ‘I watch my mother peel longan fruits –’ is both a beginning, and an ending. It slides in a series of present tense scenes from your personal experience in England, to Saigon. On “a long-ago rooftop” for your mother “longans taste like sour rain/ and street dust.” The action then moves to leaving Vietnam: “The family drives through back roads // dark as the mouths of dogs.” You embed thought and memory into taste and texture so the reader also lives the experience.   Did recreating these scenes from the past also help you to inhabit them for yourself?

NLB: Yes – I think that poems like this help me get to know a version of my mother who I have never met: a young girl growing up in extraordinary circumstances, uncertain of her future. Starting with an image of food felt like a good way to conjure this part of her life, as tastes – and other sensory experiences – have a way of making the spectral very vivid.

I don’t hold these memories first hand, but do I have the fragments that my mother has shared with me over the years – memories of memories. Therefore, my piecing them together in my poems always feels like an act of ‘recreation’, rather than setting down verbatim fact. I think that that would be impossible. So poems like the one above are visualisations of the past: collaborations between my mother’s stories and my internal lens, with a shared emotional truth at their core.

Nat readingAH: The second poem, ‘Divinations on Survival’, uses the I-Ching form, devised by K Ming Chang. Each of the stanzas takes the form of an I-Ching hexagram, and can be read top to bottom, or bottom to top, always from left to right.   One of the images is of the speaker’s “body/ like a cooked fruit unravelling across the sea. in sagging boats.” It is a really powerful way of responding to the dislocations of exile, and forced migration. Did you experiment with any other forms first – or was it always going to be this one?

NLB: The poem came after the form. After I read K Ming Chang’s poem, I was first of all awestruck by what she had created with such imaginative self-imposed restraints, and by the very contemporary way in which she had honoured an old tradition (I-Ching is a Chinese method of divination). I then realised that the sense of enigma and fragmentation created by the form would work well as a way to express certain moments in my family’s history. The stanzas in ‘Divinations on Survival’ alternate between the voices of Bá Ngoại and my mother. They are moments of fear and uncertainty, when they had to put their faith in fate and their own courage in order to survive. I think the content also references the original basis of the form – divinations give a glimpse into the future, but the readings can be unclear and open to interpretation. Likewise, my poem depicts two women facing a precarious and unpredictable future, and trying to keep going long enough to see a better life.

AH: Did you grow up speaking Vietnamese as well as English? I think your family heritage is also partly Chinese?

NLB: I didn’t grow up bilingual, which is one of my biggest regrets. I treasure the fragments of Vietnamese that I do pick up from Mum and Bá Ngoại – my mum helps me record them, which is why they end up in my poems. I feel nourished by the sounds and conversations I grew up listening to, even if I didn’t understand them. My mum taught me a little bit when I was young, but she worked full time as a nurse so it was difficult. Now, I’m making more of a DIY effort to learn, which I think will be a lifelong process.

Ông Ngoại grew up in Xiamen in South China. He could speak Mandarin and Hokkien – as well as English and some French – and so can Bá Ngoại. Ông Ngoại died when I was very young, so I don’t have many memories of hearing him speak. But my mum has told me that he and Bá Ngoại mostly spoke Hokkien together. They didn’t teach my mum or her siblings any varieties of Chinese, so speaking Hokkien was their way of keeping things private.

 AH: Like many of your poems, ‘Divinations on Survival’ uses both Chinese characters, and transliterated Vietnamese words. You also had multi-lingual work published in the inaugural issue of harana poetry . Can you say something about using these linguistic markers to evidence your multiple cultural heritages?

NLB: When writing about things that my family have said in Vietnamese (or in a mix of Vietnamese and English), I never like to translate them fully – it would feel wrong, like leaving out an important part of who they are. Mum had to leave so much behind when she fled Vietnam, but she never forgot her Vietnamese. At family gatherings – and when Mum meets up with her Vietnamese friends – most of her conversations are held in her mother tongue. And that’s so beautiful to hear and witness, which is why I want to celebrate this multi-lingual environment in my poems.

Bá Ngoại can speak Mandarin and Hokkien (in addition to Vietnamese and English) but I hardly ever hear her speak any variety of Chinese while in the UK. When we visited Ông Ngoại’s side of the family in China, she spoke with them in Hokkien. She had not seen them for many years, but they were conversing and laughing so easily. It was like the revival of another self, which again was beautiful to see.

We’ve been finding out more and more about Ông Ngoại’s and his family’s life in China from letters and photographs, so this aspect of our family history has also started to feature in my poems. For example, one of my harana poems – ‘Photograph’ – is based on a picture of Ông Ngoại as a baby, sitting on his mother’s lap. It’s actually part of a sequence of poems I’ve been writing, exploring his mother’s life and his early life. This was a time before he learned Vietnamese or English or French, so it feels right to use Chinese linguistic markers when writing about this part of his history. Chinese was part of his identity, and I want to acknowledge and commemorate this.

AH: Your poems never shy away from recording the challenging experiences which your family went through in occupied Vietnam, and then travelling to the UK as refugees. They also acknowledge the lingering impact of trauma. But the people you describe are always presented with dignity and agency.   I’m thinking about your poem ‘Bá Ngoại’, about your grandmother, who teaches you to crochet, and “fastens gold” around your wrist. Could you say something about this resilience and life force?

NLB: When writing about trauma and resilience in my family, I keep in mind this quote from Ocean Vuong:

I’m trying to preserve the acts that made us possible. And so for a poet writing out of violence, it is on one point a moment of creation like the word poet from the Greek says, but also a point of preservation – you’re doing both at once. […] To honour their survival is to record it, and keep it from being obliterated.

This is something that has stayed with me, and helps me situate my writing. I’m also trying to write the stories not only of how my family suffered, but also how they survived. I want to record what they overcame to make a better life possible – for both themselves and the next generation of children.

I think intimate moments like the one you mention show the shadows of that survival instinct: my family’s impulse to pass on their knowledge, beliefs, traditions and heirlooms (physical or otherwise) to the next generation. By doing that, they pass on something of themselves: their strength and history. In ‘Bá Ngoại’, the gold bracelet holds a lot of memories – in Vietnam, my grandparents once owned a jewellery business, and Bá Ngoại was able to make chains herself. So it felt as if she was symbolically sharing that aspect of her past with me.

AH: Buddhist practices, along with the rituals to celebrate key festivals, and the offerings made on the family shrine at different times, are all lovingly recorded. Do they feel like places of strength for you?

NLB: Yes – I would say our shrines are places of strength, preservation, peace and comfort. I was thinking about them a lot when choosing the title for my pamphlet. When we pray, we are asking for the protection of ghosts – that is, guidance and protection from our ancestors. However, by keeping their stories, traditions and rituals alive, we are also protecting those ghosts by preserving and honouring their memory.

The shrines are also places of unity and celebration – some of my earliest memories are of my family coming together and leaving food at the shrine in Bá Ngoại’s house for Lunar New Year or Ông Ngoại’s remembrance day. Those are always special and loving times.

AH: ‘Typhoon in Xiamen’ and ‘Hạ Long Bay’ both refer to a visit you made with your family members to Vietnam and China a couple of years ago, which I believe was your mother’s first visit back since 1978. Would you like to say something about the experience of that trip, for you, and for her?

NLB: We visited Vietnam for the first time in 2014. For me, it was strange and wonderful to finally experience a place that I’ve held in my head for so long. Of course, it has changed so much since my mum left, but I could see shadows of her stories in the streets, markets, cafés, and food. It was also lovely to finally meet the members of my family who stayed in Saigon – they were so kind and welcoming.

For my mum, there were a lot of feelings. Mostly, she was so happy to spend time with extended family who she hadn’t seen for thirty years, and to meet the new generation. However, she was also a little sad – she didn’t feel like she belonged there anymore. In many ways, Vietnam isn’t the same place she remembers: she told me that it sometimes felt like her life there had been erased, or like it had never existed at all.

We visited my grandparents’ old jewellery shop in Bạc Liêu, which was a bittersweet experience for Mum. It was still a jewellery shop, but it had new owners – they turned out to be the people who used to live a few doors away from her, on the same street. They were friendly, and actually remembered my grandmother. Mum was happy to see that the place had been taken care of after so long, but I think it was hard to return to a place where she made so many memories, and where her life changed so suddenly and irrevocably.

We visited China (Beijing and then Xiamen) in 2016. That was a very new experience for both of us. Again, it was wonderful to meet more family, and find out a little more about my grandfather’s early life there. Xiamen has never been a physical home for me or my mum, but it did feel a little like an ancestral home – especially when we visited one of the family shrines, and the mausoleum where my great-grandmother’s ashes are kept. We burned joss paper in a barrel and prayed for her and my grandfather.  

AH: The way you describe it in ‘Ha Long Bay’ suggests Vietnam woke something new in your own voice? You write:

 Mangroves lean in,
knotted to the rockface
with swollen roots –

their rings, I think,
as many as our fingerprints.
A black kite springs alive
from the mist,
its call in my throat.

NLB: The details I included in ‘Hạ Long Bay’ give voice to my astonishment – it is a very beautiful and peaceful place. However, I think that there is also a sense of distance there. It was my first trip to Vietnam, and I was very aware that I was there as visitor rather than a former resident. So, in a way, everything was unfamiliar and astonishing to me. Despite that, it is still a place I feel deeply connected to. That’s why I tried to allude to the relationship between place and identity by linking the landscape to our bodies, as shown in the lines you mentioned.

 H Long Bay is also a site of historical violence: during the Vietnam War, the US Navy placed mines in many areas between the islands. So I also wanted to allude to the lingering presence of that violence beneath the beauty, with lines like: ‘Children wave / from wicker coracles / like upturned shields.’

AH: ‘Operation Ranch Hand’ won the Silver Award in the 2018 Creative Futures competition, and is named for the codename “for a chemical warfare campaign carried out by the US in the Vietnam War” according to the note below the title. It begins:

And just like that, the trees fold around them.
Gas snarls at a woman’s shoulders,
presses her belly to dirt.

She does not know about the scar
that is forming inside, that her daughter
will be born wordless on a stretcher.
That she will carry the smell
of dead leaves on her skin,
her name already cremated.

I think that this poem steps out of your family’s direct history, into the wider experience of the war, and I wondered how you researched it, and the impact on you of doing so?

IMG_0348NLB: When reading about Operation Ranch Hand, I concentrated on civilian accounts – from both victims and witnesses. I think that the methods behind military atrocities are often designed to feel very removed or distant, so that it’s easier for the perpetrators not to hold themselves accountable. So I wanted to show the painful impact of this particular cruelty by removing that distance and focusing in on one life. Even now, it’s hard to know the full extent of the damage caused by the US’ chemical weapons in Vietnam, but the health effects include death by agent orange poisoning, birth defects, and various cancers. Stories like this can be harrowing to read, but I think it’s very important to acknowledge that this happened, confront the impact, and not to forget the harm and destruction that chemical weapons cause.

AH: ‘Triệu Thị Trinh, or the Lady General Clad in Golden Robe’ and ‘Jingwei’ are two poems which both speak through legendary and mythical women.   Did you find that this opened a new dimension for you within your work?

NLB: Yes: I’ve become interested in poetic ‘resurrection’ – researching and amplifying the voices of historical, legendary and mythical women from Vietnam and China. In this way, I want to find my own wider lineage of women to look up to, as well as those in my family.

In the cases of Triệu Thị Trinh and Jingwei, I was interested in the multiplicity of their identities. A lot of the accounts of Triệu Thị Trinh focus on her as a military leader, and as a woman who was desirable to men. But I wanted to get to know her other selves: her identity as an orphan, as a girl coming of age under extreme conditions, and as a protector of other women. So while my poem does depict her legendary battle persona, I also tried to show a layer of vulnerability, expressed through her sorrow over the absence of her mother. I’ve since decided that I would like to write a sequence of poems about her. I’ve already written the next poem, which focuses on a particular coming-of-age moment: her period. The third poem is as yet unwritten, but I’d like this to detail her visits to the graves of and shrines to women who were lost in the war she fought, and the conflicting emotions attached to this.

In Chinese mythology, Jingwei is a bird reborn from the Emperor’s daughter, who drowned in the Eastern Sea. In my poem about her, I wanted to zero in on the process of transformation – the phasing of one self into another – and the sense of loss and estrangement associated with this. I think that I’d also like to return to her story in the future.

AH: ‘My mother’s nightmares’ begins describing how they “taste like seawater and vomit, handfuls of spat blood. The sky is a paper/ bruise, and it is always 1978.” The poem is in three sections. The second is the daughter’s dreams – “There is a garden where her skin is drying on the line.” The third draws mother and daughter together – “We both know there are some things we can only/ consider with our eyes closed.” Was it important for you to explore, and record, how trauma can speak through generations, even within the context of the very warm, and nurturing, connection between yourself and your mother, which shades so many of these poems with a movingly deep love, and tenderness?

NLB: Yes: I think that in this poem, I wanted to show one of the many ways in which my mother has taught me how to love. Although my mother has always been a figure of strength in my life, one of the ways we express our love and trust is through our mutual willingness to share our vulnerabilities with each other – and her willingness to share even the most painful aspects of her past. I think that trauma can manifest in very intimate moments, when you are allowing yourself to be most open. That’s probably why these recollections sometimes come at times of particular closeness, like the one described in the poem.

More generally, I also think that the stories my mother tells me are testaments to the strength and solace of familial love: it is her family’s love for and their determination to protect each other that kept them going through impossible circumstances.

AH: ‘Reflection’ is another poem which enters difficult spaces, describing a time when your mother apparently revolted against her own body while still in Vietnam by trying to stop eating, and then later sought to rub out visual traces of herself in you:

Asks if I remembered to pinch

my nose that morning,
as if I could exile her
from my face.

It suggests that one of the after-effects of trauma can be to alienate people from themselves, and their own bodies. I wondered if that was something which you wanted to draw attention to?

NLB: Yes: when my mum told me the story, it seemed like an expression of pain at a time when she felt voiceless. When your voice starts to disappear, I think that there’s an impulse to attempt to make the rest of your body disappear too. I wanted to show that feeling of powerlessness and isolation can manifest in the silence.

In the section you mention, I was contemplating the effects of intergenerational trauma, and how that feeling of self-alienation can be passed on. It was as if my mum thought that I’d be better off if I looked less like her – that I wouldn’t experience the same level of estrangement from my body if I could somehow assimilate with exclusionary western beauty standards. But of course there was no way to truly erase our internal and external similarities, and I’m grateful for that. She has always been someone who I look up to for her strength and kindness, and who I seek to emulate. I allude to this in the final line of the poem, when I ‘begin to stitch her skin over mine.’

AH: Questions for My Mother’ identifies the racism which she faced within her nursing career in the UK on occasion, but also the danger which originally “chased” the family from Vietnam, after first “lining their clothes with the family gold” to travel. You draw together both the lack of choice which makes people refugees, alongside the hostility which their need for refuge can engender. Do you feel a sense of connection to the current generation of people obliged to flee their countries?

NLB: I think that everyone should: it’s a matter of empathy and compassion. Unfortunately, a lot of people fail to extend that. Everyone’s story is different, but I do see some parallels between my mother’s experiences of coming to the UK and the experiences of refugees now, especially in terms of the way they are treated as ‘other’.

My mum was generally expected to take this racist treatment in silence – especially in her profession – and in this poem I wanted to break that silence. I used multiple scenarios to emphasise that such acts of discrimination are not isolated incidents – they are incessant and exhausting. They make your everyday environment a more dangerous and terrifying place, and solidify the feeling that you don’t belong.

I know that this is the reality for so many current refugees – both in everyday interactions and at a governmental level. I think it’s important to listen to their stories and to think about what it’s like to be forced into that position. Warsan Shire bears witness to this kind of trauma in much of her work – for example, in her poem ‘Conversations About Home (at the Deportation Centre)’ – which I find so powerful.

 AH: The final poem, ‘Aubade’, is a healing dawn song, addressed to your grandmother. It shows her surrounded by her generations of children and grandchildren, who have made full, loving, nurturing, valued lives in the UK.

Let your daughters cook stick rice, egg rolls, soup,
thirteen cups of jasmine.   Notice how they look less alike these days:

some lipsticked, grey-flecked, others ageless. See the chrysanthemums,
lilies, wild roses awaken at their silk shirts, the gold peeking

from beneath their sleeves.

The Asian American ceramicist and writer, Jade Snow Wong, made food one of the symbols of her creative, cultural and intellectual identities, writing in America in 1950, and I wondered if it was similarly resonant for you?

NLB: Yes – I think that food is so central to ceremony, unity and nourishment across generations. When we leave food at the shrine, we are inviting ancestors – both distant and recent – to share in our celebrations. It’s a way of remembering who we are, and honouring who came before us.

‘Aubade’ is about my grandfather’s death anniversary, which we observe every year – so in this poem it is mainly his memory that is being honoured. The anaphora was intended to sound both prayer-like and ritualistic. Grief can be a chaotic and disorienting experience, so I think that some comfort can be found in following set ceremonial practices. Ritual restores some measure of order, if only for a short period of time. Preparing and sharing food is part of this: it’s a practical, necessary task that you can get on with when you don’t know what else to do or say. In this poem, it felt like a very active way of processing loss.

Food is also tied to love. My mum is very openly affectionate anyway, but one of the ways in which she expresses her love is by constantly checking if I’m hungry, if I’ve eaten enough, if I’m eating well. It’s the same throughout my family – I allude to this towards the end of ‘Aubade’, when Bà Ngoại is being encouraged to eat: ‘Surrender to a bowl, / a fork.’ I think of this as my family’s way of strengthening and restoring each other.

AH: You have recently spent a week on an Arvon retreat with Bi’an, the UK Chinese Writers’ Network. How was that as an experience?

NLB: It was lovely and inspiring to meet so many Chinese-heritage writers creating work across so many genres. It felt like a very warm and supportive community, and the tutors – Jeremy Tiang and Yan Ge – were very inclusive and encouraging. Jeremy held a poetry translation workshop, where we translated an old Chinese poem as a group – Jeremy provided the literal translation, and we came up with variations on this. It was a great experience – I hadn’t considered trying translations before, but now I’d like to try translating some Vietnamese poems with my mum.

We were also fortunate enough to have Sarah Howe there as a guest tutor for one evening. It was wonderful to have the opportunity to watch her read and to chat to her afterwards – I told her that she was one of the first poets who made me want to write.

AH: Have you made any contacts with contemporary Vietnamese or Chinese poets outside of the UK?

NLB: I managed to meet Ocean Vuong at his Forward Prizes reading in 2017, which was a very special moment for me. I don’t think I’ve met any others personally, but I follow and have briefly interacted with several on Twitter. These include Đỗ Nguyên Mai and Cathy Linh Che, both of whom I admire very much. In an interview, Đỗ Nguyên Mai said that many of her literary heroines are ancient Vietnamese female writers and political figures. I love how this manifests in her work, especially in her poem ‘From Phùng Thị Chính to Her Child’.

AH: Where to next? I know that as I write these questions, you’re currently travelling in Vietnam again?   Is this somewhere you would like to spend a more extended period of time?

I think that my next creative destination will be an eventual full collection, but I think that this will be quite a gradual process. Poems come to me in lines, fragments, and images, which I then gather, edit and fit together. So I tend to write quite slowly.

I’m not sure what my next physical destination will be, but I’ll definitely go back to Vietnam and China at some point in the future. My April 2019 trip was my second visit to Vietnam. I tried to be more observant this time around – the first time, I think it was all so new to me that I struggled to take everything in. But this time I asked my family a lot of questions and made notes wherever I went, so I feel like I managed to learn even more about old stories, legends and traditions as well as our family history.

Because I didn’t grow up there, I don’t know if Vietnam would ever feel like home – although I know that we can have many kinds of home. I think of both Vietnam and China – specifically Bạc Liêu, Sóc Trăng, Saigon, and Xiamen – as ancestral homes, and so I’ll always feel very connected to both countries in that way.

Natalie Linh Bolderston’s ‘Middle Name with Diacritics’ came third in the National Poetry Competition, and is on the shortlist for best single poems in the 2021 Forwards Prize Awards.  You can read it here. 

The Protection of Ghosts can be ordered through V. Press here.

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hearing the less welcome MASS PUBLICATION CELEBRATION No. 1: ‘a safe place to be completely unsafe’ Mary Devlin Powell.

IMG_2221If you’re new to ‘event promotion’, as I am, and stumbled into it by accident – a rainy Thursday evening, and a non-central London venue, look daunting. And I was daunted, setting out for Burley Fisher Books on the Overground, with an hour in hand, and my bag rustling with family packs of crisps, bought to sustain our poets and their audience.   But I didn’t need the spare pair of shoes, packed in the event of a sudden downpour. And the warmth with which I was greeted, and offered a barista coffee from behind the Burley Fisher counter, lifted my heart, and steadied my nerves.

Even before our 7.00 door time, people were piling steadily into the Hackney/Dalston booksellers.   Some I knew from our workshop, and others I didn’t. Each person through the door was a fist punch of joy – because they had come from all parts of London to join in our workshop’s first MASS PUBLICATION CELEBRATION, and to hear our ‘less welcome’ poets read from their debut pamphlets.

We ended up with so many people that we had to carry all the cafe seating downstairs, to supplement the event chairs. People still ended up ramming the basement venue to its back wall. What followed was extraordinary – fierce, warm, challenging, unafraid, readings, and energised, flowing discussions, right up until we had to leave at 9.30 when Burley Fisher needed to close.

To make a record of this extraordinary night, and share it with supporters who were not able to be there, I’m uploading what I said about our creative project, followed by the introductions for each of the poets who read, with a single poem from their set, to give you a flavour of their work, and a buy button for their pamphlet.

Below: Natalie Linh Bolderston and Edward Garvey Long, ready to go at Burley Fisher.

 

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A huge thank you to everyone here tonight – and to Burley Fisher for welcoming us so warmly to host our first MASS PUBLICATION CELEBRATION.   I’ll be introducing our poets individually – but I wanted to begin by saying something about our stanza workshop group, which has been running for 18 months now.

 Our tag is ‘the less welcome’. It relates directly to the difficult elements which our work engages with – and which we support each in realising, technically, editorially, and emotionally. We do this not for therapy – but because we want to get our poems into print –so we help can change how the world understands itself.

 If you write about your complex experiences of migration, or of class-based exclusion, there will be people within the dominant cultures who perceive that as an act of aggression. If you write about your queerness, religious and hetero-normative groupings will be quick to come back at you. If you write about mental health, sadness, or difficult family situations, many will suggest that it’s better to keep quiet. And if you write about your experience of sexual abuse in childhood – as I do – then work on your resilience. Because you’re going to need it.

 But these all ‘less welcome’ things have to be said – and, just as importantly, heard – as you are hearing us tonight. They have to be said because they are our lives. They also have to be said because the act of saying them, and claiming their rights to be represented, is beautiful and powerful, as we who stand before you to speak them in our own voices, and witness to them with our own beings, are beautiful, and powerful.

IMG_2229 Above : Audience piling in.

 

On that note, I am honoured to introduce Natalie Whittaker, who will also be reading with Julie Irigaray and I at the POETRY CAFE poem-a-thon on 18 May. Natalie is prize-winning poet, and secondary school English teacher, fresh back from reading at the Newcastle Poetry Festival. The poems in her debut pamphlet, Shadow Dogs, published by Ignition, grow out of South London’s tower blocks, bus routes and public parks, but move through them into a darkly witty, surreally symbolist, landscape – and much larger, wilder, stranger worlds.  

Natalie Whittaker has chosen ‘Not Again’ from her pamphlet Shadow Dogs published by Ignition Press. 

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Not again Natalie Whittaker

Buy ‘Shadow Dogs’ here.

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Above: Joanna Ingham and Isabelle Baafi

Isabelle Baafi, our next reader, is one of our many rising stars. A writer, poet and filmmaker, so far she has published in magazines, but her pamphlet and collection are only a matter of time. Isabelle’s part of the London Library’s Emerging Writers Programme. and recently performed at the Battersea Arts Centre. Taking beauty as their currency, Isabelle’s poems question what is done to, and said about, those who have no say in how they are treated and spoken of. Her poems give those people, and places, back their voices.

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Find out more about Isabelle Baafi’s work here.

Our third reader, Karen Smith, is another London girl, now living near the South Coast. A cataloguer at the Poetry Library, her pamphlet Schist was chosen by Carol Ann Duffy to be one of the final Laureate’s Choices, published in February by Smith Doorstop. Karen’s poems whirl us round fairground rides, and lose us in sea fogs, the better to understand the complex and fragile mental health of her parents, and its impact on herself and her sisters growing up. Karen’s poems also show what it means for radiance to enter our daily lives.

karen at soutbank

 

 

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There is also an interview with Karen Smith on this blog .

Here is the link to buy Karen Smith’s ‘Schist‘.

 

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The final poet of our first half, Edward Garvey Long, is launching his debut – The Living Museum – with Selcouth Station Press today.   On twitter, Ed fabulously describes himself as a “poet of queer feelings, gif queen, and crafty bitch.” His poems encounter queer love in London, the Fenlands, and Stockholm, negotiating tilted cathedral towers, and arctic chills. Probing the murky recesses of queer taxidermy, they also hang out with George Michael and Kenneth Williams. It goes without saying that you’re going to love them, and him….

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You can buy The Living Museum by Edward Garvey Longman here.

An editor by day, Natalie Linh Bolderston is our other poet launching tonight. Nat was asked to copy edit Nuar Alsadir’s Fourth Person Singular when an undergrad at Liverpool University, was a Silver Award winner at Creative Futures last year, and today brings us her stunning debut The Protection of Ghosts, from V.Press. Working with three generations of female voices, Nat looks back to Vietnam before her family were forced to flee as refugees in 1978, and questions who comes with us when we migrate countries, and cultures, how we are welcomed, and what we leave behind.

You can buy ‘The Protection of Ghosts’ by Natalie Linh Bolderston here.

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Joanna Ingham’s pamphlet Naming Bones, is coming out with Ignition in July, so she’s giving us a preview of the really wonderful, original poems it features. Like Isabelle, Joanna is a cross-genre artist, encompassing poetry and prose. Her work has been published in many magazines, including The Sunday Times. The poems she’ll be sharing question how we inhabit our bodies, what it means to know love – as a parent, as well as a lover – and why the the places through which we pass remain present within us.

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Joanna Ingham will be launching ‘Naming Bones’ at the Poetry Cafe in Betterton Street in London on 22 July at 7pm.   Book your free tickets here.

 

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Jeffery Sugarman with Natalie Whittaker before reading.

Our closing reader, Jeffery Sugarman, is launching his debut Dear Friend(s) with Emma Press tomorrow. One of this year’s Jerwood Arvon mentee’s, Jeffery came to writing through his practice of architecture. Dear Friend(s) maps the geographies of Jeffery’s life from a complex Florida childhood, to a queer coming of self in New York, and then London, where he now lives with his husband.   Through all the parts, runs the “long elegaic poem, ‘Dear Friend’, addressed to one young man, but a paean for all those lost to the genocide of AIDS.”

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You can buy ‘Dear Friend(s)  by Jeffery Sugarman here.

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Alice Hiller introducing our MASS PUBLICATION CELEBRATION No. 1 at Burley Fisher Books.

Photos by Julie Irigaray, Mary Mulholland and Alice Hiller.

With thanks to everyone who joined us.

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Less welcome poets feeling warmly welcome.  Ed Garvey Longman is out of shot.

‘When your mother is being unmotherly, it’s taboo to show that’ : Karen Smith on the transformative power of creating in her debut ‘Schist’.

Karen Smith author photo

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?

KS: Definitely.

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?

karen at soutbank

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

Come,
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

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hearing the less welcome/ mass publication celebration no 1: live in London at Burley Fisher Books on 9/5/19 and at the Poetry Cafe on 18/5/19

mass_publication_celebration_1 (1)In these hard times, it can be tempting to pull back from what is strange. For poets, writers and artists, this may limit our parameters, and make it more difficult to connect with new audiences. To resist this narrowing, for the past eighteen months I’ve been facilitating a workshop for poets who address themes found to be less welcome or easy.

My poems respond to same-sex, sexual abuse in childhood, and its aftermath in adult life.   Others among our group explore migration, queerness, mental health, class privilege and exclusion, gender rebellion – and our beautiful, bodily beings.

Multi-national, complexly oriented, and variously aged, each of us is also a poet of witness. Political in our awareness, we are committed to creative innovation and experimentation – and the realisation of beauty in multiple forms and tongues. Because of its subject matters, our work can feel vulnerable and exposing in draft. To be part of a community of fellow poets, who have your back, is powerful – and necessary.

Our workshop, and its network of mutual nurture, came about when Paul McGrane offered the space above the Poetry Cafe in Betterton Street to anyone wanting to set up the Covent Garden Stanza group.   For me, that represented an opportunity to bring together individual poets that I had met through different classes, readings and workshops.

Within nine months, we had outgrown our first home, and moved to a free access public space. We operate a ‘yoghurt culture’ of co-creation and practice shared, collective promotion. Now that some of our poets are publishing their debut pamphlets, it seems logical to extend our conversation of difference into the public sphere, initially through two live events taking place in London this May – although we hope also to travel further afield.

On May 9, I will be hosting our free MASS PUBLICATION CELEBRATION NO. 1, at Burley Fisher Books between 7-9 pm. Edward Garvey-Long, Joanna Ingham, Natalie Linh Bolderston, Karen Smith, Jeffery Sugarman and Natalie Whittaker will be reading from their debut pamphlets, with a short ‘rising start’ slot from Isabelle Baafi, another of our poets. The link is here:

On 18 May, three of us will be performing within the Poetry Society poem-a-thon at the Poetry Cafe in Betterton Street, where we first met as a group. I’m on at 2.10, followed immediately by fellow poet Julie Irigaray at 2.20, with our third member, Natalie Whittaker on at 5.00. The event, which raises money to support the work of the Poetry Society, runs from midday until 10p.m, and features 60 amazing poets.

If you would like to donate to support work of the Poetry Society, Julie Irigaray, Natalie Whittaker and I are raising funds jointly under our Covent Garden Stanza group name. The link is here.

18 May at the Poetry Cafe in Betterton Street Poem-a-thon details here.

We would warmly welcome anyone free to join us on either 9 May at Burley Fisher Books, or 18 May at the Poetry Cafe in Betterton Street, to further our project of hearing the less welcome. Celebrate the powerful work being made by our poets – and be part of changing how people perceive the world we share.

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“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.

 

 

From my 32 year old mouth, a terrified 8 year old whispered ‘Don’t make me’ : alice hiller on ‘saying the difficult thing’ in her work – and life.

Performing, and writing, generate anxiety. It is as inevitable as adrenaline. You worry if your work is original. Does it communicate? How will it will be received? For those of us who explore difficult material – there is also conflict. We fear, or have been warned off, distressing our audiences. But we also know, from personal experience, the greater dangers of remaining silent.

The recent launch of The Dizziness of Freedom by Bad Betty Press, brought this dilemma home to me. By virtue of their strength, elements within the material were difficult to bear. But the searing, fierce, sometimes painfully funny performances by poets from this anthology responding to mental health, resolved many of my concerns – through their ability to transform creatively a raw subject matter into work no one could ignore.

Dean Atta gave us depression in formal mourning clothes in ‘No Ascension’. Rachel Nwokoro made OCD the logical response to growing up queer, short-sighted, and female in a Nigerian/London household in ‘School Days’. And then it was Joelle Taylor’s turn to raise her hand above her head like a pistol – and proclaim an only half-laughing “trigger warning”. She told the audience, with absolute seriousness, if you feel the trigger, you hold the gun – and the power is yours.

Joelle Taylor’s blistering performance – of work about her own experience of having been raped as a child, and its aftermath – bore out her words. I was deeply impacted by hearing her, as someone who, like Joelle, was raped in childhood.   But I was also strengthened. And I jolted home on the train feeling so much less alone in the poems, and memoir, I am creating on this subject.

Joelle Taylor

When I write, or perform, poems about my own experiences of sexual abuse in childhood, I question my right to bear witness on a topic which people may feel disturbed by – no matter how much care I take to engender agency and safety within the work. From past experiences at live readings, and with contacts made through this blog and twitter, I know that there many of us out here. Either we have our own histories of sexual abuse in childhood, or we are connected to people who do, simply as a consequence of the widespread nature of this crime.

But I have found that it is this same group – my group –  who can be most relieved to hear, or read, my work. We discover within it forms of verbal and imagistic play which we recognise as making comprehensible an experience which is difficult to speak of, even in a private or therapeutic conversation.

While my poems appear simple, operating largely through layered imageries, and using direct, accessible language, it took more than a decade of creative experimentation in prose, then poetry, to find out how to write them. Before even getting going, I needed nearly a decade of psychotherapy to begin to able to articulate and resolve what had happened to me, and thereby gain enough separation from the sexual abuse to exercise a measure of creative agency.

I was already 32, with sons of 14 and 8, and researching a PhD at University College London, when I first met the psychotherapist to whom my GP referred me in order to discuss my troubled childhood and adolescence. I had recently discovered legal evidence of other harmful actions, which my abuser had taken concurrently to the abuse in the mid 1970s. This gave me the spur to open up a part of my earlier life which had always seemed too devastating to re-connect with.

I can still see that murky, grey November afternoon when I stood on a doorstep in Earls Court in London, feeling more numb than scared.   After a few moments, the grey-haired, soberly dressed therapist opened the front door of the apartment block to me, and led me up a dark stairwell, and along a narrow hallway, into her consulting room. Small, lined with books, it looked out onto the grey backs of other houses.

I had been confined to a similarly view-less room when hospitalised for anorexia aged 13.   That period of my life, during which I had first received psychiatric care, was one the psychotherapist asked me to discuss, along with the events that had caused me to stop eating as a teenager. I gave her a factual, slightly detached summary of my childhood, including my father’s death when I was eight, and our subsequent move from Brussels to Wiltshire in 1972.

And then she dropped the bomb. She said You’ll have to go back there.

From my 32 year old mouth, a terrified 8 year old whispered Don’t make me.

At that moment, with the light falling, and the darkness seeming to press its way in through the net curtains of the consulting room, a third person was present with us – ashamed, dirty, frightened, barely able to make a sound.

For twenty-four years I had kept this hurt child locked away inside me. Inaccessible, and silenced, her only medium of expression had been my regular, terrifying nightmares, which made me, and continues to make me on occasion, fearful of sleeping.

When our first session was up, I found my way down the stairs, and out onto the street. I was shocked – and deeply shaken. After I got home, time started to run in parallel. I was a mother, feeding my sons, asking them about their school day. I was also a cold, scared little girl, who wanted to curl up and lie absolutely still under heavy blankets.

That same night, I dreamt I was standing alone, in darkness, on the edge of a shingle beach. The stones shelved steeply down into navy blue water, the colour of a silk petticoat my abuser sometimes wore. With the pebbles sliding, and giving way, I stumbled forward into the sea. I was immediately out of my depth. All round me – dark, chilled water, and the pink-orange whiskery antennae of shrimp, touching my skin, entering my mouth, going between my teeth. I smelt a distinctive, fishy smell that I recognised from before.

The following week, with the psychotherapist’s support, I connected the dream with the textures, and colour, of my abuser’s slippery pubic hair, when I was forced to put my face in her aroused genital area. Our work of articulating my experience, and slowly, slowly, finding some degree of healing, was underway.

Many years later, I came to understand that the imagery within my poems could operate as a transmitter of meaning in the same way that the shrimp whiskers had. Back in 1996, the dreams simply intensified as we worked more deeply.  I continued the practice I had already evolved of writing them down, to separate them from myself, and gain some sense of control.

I was simultaneously trying to research and write up my funded PhD, be a partner to my husband, and raise our two sons as best I could. The dreams offered me a space to re-engage very deeply with my childhood experiences of sexual abuse, while also granting a degree of safety in the other parts of my life, where I needed to continue to function for the well-being of our family.  My poems now offer this for other people.

There was always a backlog of material, but I would print out two copies of each dream, and then bring them to my therapy session, so that the psychotherapist and I could respond to and interpret them together – in much the same way that I did the texts which I was writing about for my academic research. The difference was that the psychotherapist would then channel my responses to the imagery that my dreams had generated.

Although it was a slow and halting progress, which invariably left me devastated for several hours after each session, the dreams helped me locate feelings which I had not been able to experience at the time of the abuse because they were too dangerous. They also gave me a language in which to speak about the regular anal rapes, the implement used to effect them, and the emotional impact of living within the climate of secrecy, shame and fear both during the abuse, and afterwards as a teenager.

Heart-breakingly, as the psychotherapy was reaching a measure of resolution late in 2000, my husband Falcon was diagnosed with terminal cancer. For the next 14 months I cared for him full-time, in and out of hospital. After his death in 2002, my priority was to put life back together for our sons, then both in their teens.

Losing Falcon additionally led me to re-engage with the death of my own father when I was 8, which had been the precipitating factor for the penetrative phase of the sexual abuse. Through the Royal Free, I received further counselling. The more I took on board how much what had happened in my childhood had hurt me, the more I realised the need to try and change awareness around the crime of sexual abuse in childhood.

In 2007, once my younger son had left for university, I began to ask if I could find a way of articulating what had happened to me creatively, with all the personal risk this entailed. With younger my son away during term times, and his brother working outside London, I could afford to risk laying myself more open to my past. I was also fortunate to have formed a new, deeply supportive relationship, with the man who later became my second husband, which also helped sustain me.

My first attempt at writing took the form of a novel, which I worked on for seven years, while also working, and undergoing surgeries for ovarian cancer, diagnosed in 2011. The gynaecological surgeries had the effect of opening up more tissue memories of the abuse – a common response according to my surgeon. Although very difficult to bear, this extra layer of memory ultimately hardened my resolve to continue to agitate creatively for change.

Having always been a hungry reader, and previously been a features journalist, the novel initially seemed a good way to explore my story.  I could see its scenes, and hear its voices, and I valued the ability to tell a longer story, and show my narrator at multiple ages, alone and refracted through others.   But then as time went on, it began to feel as if I was working with thick gloves – speaking through a ‘character’.

I came to believe, for political, as well as personal reasons, that I needed to bear witness directly to my own experiences.  At the same time, as I wrote towards the novel’s climax, I found the scenes breaking themselves into shorter and shorter fragments, due to the power, and difficulty, of the material, and the need to contain and offset it within white space.

From here it was only a small step into poetry. Not knowing quite how to negotiate this new terrain, I signed up for Pascale Petit’s final workshop course at the Tate, in conjunction with the Marlene Dumas exhibition. Pascale’s encouragement, and that of poets on the course including Karen McCarthy Woolf, and Seraphima Kennedy, when I shared my draft work, told me that I had found where I needed to be – and set me on the path of developing my craft, and honing my voice as a poet.

I have since taken classes at The Poetry School, and Spread the Word, and was lucky to be awarded a year-long Jerwood Arvon mentorship with Pascale Petit, which also gave me the opportunity to collaborate on poems with fellow mentees Romalyn Ante, Seraphima Kennedy, Yvonne Reddick and Rachel Burns.

The poems may contain refractions of grooming, sexual abuse, and my troubled teenage years as a bisexual girl trying to find her identity after same-sex abuse – but I see them as jewelled musical boxes. They can be opened up, and allowed to play their harshly beautiful, sometimes shocking tunes – but they do so with all the resourcefulness and surprises of precise, beautifully made objects. When the song is done, and the tiny dancers have stopped revolving, the poem-boxes can then be closed down again until they are next needed, whether by myself, or another reader.

Although the materials at the poems’ hearts are given the resolutions of form and imagery, they nonetheless retain the danger, and terror of what happened to me as a child, which I re-experience every time I work on them. Without this, they could not do their work of speaking out on behalf of all those sexually abused as children – to help change how people perceive this global crime.