Back in 2022, for Fatima, Nadine, Rishi, Stephen and I, the impact of all those books arriving was something like a lifelong chocolate lover finding themselves suddenly swimming in a chocolate fountain. How to take it in the richness we were offered, without becoming overwhelmed and losing our powers of discrimination, was the challenge we faced. In my own case, to fit in the reading, overnight everything became book-shaped. If I was making a meal, I was reading a book on the side. If I was eating a meal, I was reading a book on the side. If I was travelling on the tube, I was reading a book standing, or sitting. When we met for the short-listing meeting, one of my fellow judges said that they were reading anything between two and ten books a day once the numbers of submissions ramped up. The rest of us simply agreed.
Because the books followed me everywhere, wherever I happened to be, I was constantly reminding myself not to let go of, lose, mislay or forget the collection which was my companion of the moment. For all I knew, it might prove to be one of the ones which made the prestigious Forwards Shortlists for Best Poem, Best First Collection, or Best Collection, or indeed ultimately won one of the big prizes. Respectively worth £1,000, £5000 and £10,000, they offer an incalculable and enduring career uplift to the poet concerned, beyond their already significant cash value.
To make it more interesting, I’d never formally judged anything before. I have a PhD from UCL. And I’ve done a lot of reviewing over the years, everywhere from the TLS to the Poetry Review and Poetry London. So the tools were in place. Would I know how to use them to winnow down such a huge mass of material? The first test would be creating our individual shortlists, ahead of the formal shortlisting meeting. Building up to it, I found myself waking in the night with the weight of responsibility. I was comforted by knowing this was a shared endeavour. Up and down the country, and across Scottish borders and over the Irish sea, and further afield too, Fatima, Nadine, Rishi and Stephen also had their shoulders to the wheel. We were carrying the decision-making collectively.
Fortunately, as I read steadily onwards, in my book-shaped world, a sense of the material began to emerge. We were sent many outstanding poems, but certain collections had a coherence, as well as newness and difference, that made them stand out. Their parts held together and were of a consistently high standard. As Rishi Dastidar observed, they often also made our pulses race with excitement. These books, and individual poems, also gave us a sense of entering new worlds – defined by the language through which they were realised, the shapes they made on the page. In my own case, this was the work which began to make its way onto my longlist. Or rather into the set of four stacked plastic drawers into which I was posting my serious contenders, for further consideration.
When we came to swap longlists, ahead of our first meeting, our intersection points became the roadmaps which led to the eventual nominations. The judging meeting to decide the shortlist took place over many zoomed hours, on a hot, late spring day. It was exhausting and wonderful in equal measure, generating deep conversations around the works under consideration with other people who had thought about them as intensely as we each had. At the end of the day, we all felt that the shortlists that we arrived at were genuinely communal decisions.
We chose poems written on front lines, responding to climate change, exploring migration, queerness, illness, identity, questioning, affirmation, faith, shame, desire, sexual predation, and sexual reclamation. They went into the woods, and into stinky kitchens, peered back at us out of buckets. Our non-human species included crows, butterflies, hyenas, cats, dogs, seagulls, and fungi, to name but a few. Mothers were sometimes wrecked, sometimes wrecking. Other times sources of profound nurture. Fathers might, or might not be, not terrorists. We were there as life began, and ended, with Nobel prize winners, and poets who had yet to publish their first full work.
There was humour and anger, play of all sorts, a relentless inventiveness and above all a sense of the sheer magnificence, and courage of the creative process, on page after page. It felt extraordinary, and deeply heartening, in a year when hope and joy often seemed in short supply. You can read excerpts from all the 2022 shortlisted collections, and the single poems in full, on the Forwards website, and find them, along with all the Highly Commended Poems, all in the Forwards Anthology for 2022.
Over the summer and autumn, we then had the task of winnowing down the five shortlists to a single winner. Every shortlisted poet had a compelling case for being chosen as the winner of their category, so it was a hard call. Because I knew how much I’d valued hearing from Stephen, Fatima, Nadine and Rishi, there was less anxiety this time around. We were a good team, who had found our collective process and identity through the first sets of strong choices. But we were going to need all those skills to come to the best decision we could make.
The days were shortening by the time we met again, and the conversations were engaged and warm, but also searching. We had had the summer to live with our fifteen shortlisted books and poems, to think about them from different angles, to respond to them in more open and relaxed ways than had been possible in the frantic read-to-the-finish-line of the first judging meeting. Once again we gathered on our zooms, with companion animals appearing in the background, or sometimes foreground, and occasionally barking their comments. And the winners that we arrived at were, miraculously, all ones we believed in, and stood behind wholeheartedly.
That knowledge made the awards ceremony in Manchester’s Contact Theatre a genuinely joyous event. The event format celebrates the entire shortlist, with each poet reading, before the final decision is announced. This was also the Forwards Thirtieth Year, and its first Award taking place outside of London, which added to the edgy, vibrant excitement. Despite the chilly weather, there was a real buzz in the theatre even before the sold out audience took their seats, with many more joining from around the world via streaming. Reflecting the Northern location, poets within reach of Manchester were packing in, including Malika Booker, Jason Allen-Paisant, Andrew Macmillan, Simon Armitage, Kayo Chingonyi, Natalie Linh Bolderston, and many more.
The readings were mesmerising, and moving, bringing out the value in each work. Together we cheered Stephania Sy-Quia, Padraig Regan, Warsan Shire, Holly Hopkins and Mohammed El-Kurd for the best debut, with Kim Moore, Anthony Joseph, Kaveh Akbar, Shane McCrae and Helen Mort for Best Collection, and Nick Laird, Cecilia Knapp, Louisa Campbell, Clare Pollard and Carl Phillips for Best Single Poem. You can read more from each of them on the Forwards website, and I would warmly recommend this. Kim Moore, Stephanie Sy-Quia and Nick Laird were then announced as the winners.
Because the word ‘winner’ can have an almost obliterating quality, as if that achievement becomes the defining quality of the work, I wanted to finish this blog by sharing something of what I felt gives so much to readers in the Kim Moore’s and Stephanie Sy-Quia’s collections, and why the work of the Forwards Prizes has so much value in supporting artists whose work will make a lasting difference to the world at many levels. Nick Laird’s extraordinary poem, ‘Up Late’, can be read in its entirety via the Forwards website, and speaks for itself, but it can be a big investment for many people to buy a book at the moment. Here are some pointers towards what lies between the covers of Amnion and All the Men I Never Married, for those considering taking the plunge and buying these two brilliant collections.
Turning first to Stephanie Sy-Quia, who won the Felix Dennis prize for best debut for Amnion,from the first time I heard from her read from the book, at the online launch, and well before I ever saw a printed copy, I had the sense that she was working into crucial new territory around questions of migrations and gendered identity, both thematically, and in terms of delivery. I was also struck by how she was able to embed a very young woman’s voice into the poem, including sections which were first drafted while she was still at school.
Through the extended, fragmented form, Amnion builds an organically alive structure which is simultaneously open and connected, able to interlink multiple generations and diverse identities, always questioning how the individual narratives are sited relative to the dominant power structures and historical realities shaping their outcomes. Part of this arises from Sy-Quia’s ability to find language and imagery that locates the individual as a moment in time, and a product of their histories and migrations, but also of the languages which have determined the apprehension and transmission of their cultures, and the experience of their gendered bodies.
Re-reading Amnion for the second Forwards judging meeting, I found the idea of the family or social group as an externalised amnion – that is a symbolic version of the membrane that protects the growing foetus – interesting to explore. It made me think about how groups can shelter and contain growing, evolving beings, but can also generate their own forms of harm through the holding-in of intergenerational and other traumas, especially ones that lead to, or result from, displacement. My own father-in-law, Oscar Nemon, came to the UK as a refugee, and lost 22 members of his family to the Holocaust. Sy-Quia’s ability to invoke and create imaginative empathy for the impacts on psychological health (including depression), of feelings of un-rootedness arising from cultural displacement therefore resonated with me, as it will potentially with many readers.
Writing about adolescence and young womanhood, Sy-Quia also places the female body centrally within the narrative, as a unit of reception, and perception. She explores teenage desire and vulnerability, and the loss or confusion of self which can come about as a result of predation, and exploitation during those vulnerable, hope-filled, urgent years, in a way which felt radical. There is a degree of privilege in the boarding school segments, but they butt the narrative up against the gender and class monopolies which Amnion interrogates, while also reflecting how ‘history’ and myth may be manipulated to shore up existing power structures, including those of empires and their toxic, ruinous aftermaths. All these questions come together towards the end in the final ‘Epilogue: Epithalamion’, which merges the political and the personal with immense power:
I AM WRITING NOW from the inky heart of empire, its assonance no more unknown to me. I shall knock the pillars out from under you and label you up in room upon room of Wedgwood blue.
I HAVE SHUFFLED ALL THE SHARDS of what came to me broken and I have not pried, for dealing in shards is what I wanted; these being my inheritance.
THESE BEING my demands my thanks my by rights
I USED TO WORRY that the performance was never quite for my own benefit; that I owed it to others, that without me they might never apprehend and therefore I was duty-bound to make the point again and again with the quiet militancy of washing rice before cooking it in a saucepan. This has been the extent of it: cooking rice. But it is possible, as I have found, to delineate blood-bearings to each their own. My brother, for instance, is less interested in this quandary. My father, for instance, professes to be half, which would make me a quarter. I reserve his right to do so; but my claim is my own.
Ultimately, Amnion left me with a feeling of making a path out of darkness and displacement towards claiming and belonging, which was powerful and real, and to which I think many will relate. Kim Moore’s second collection, All the Men I Never Married, also works with the gendered body as a political, as well as an intimate space, engaging with and articulating some of the forces and constraints which inform how women, and men, move in the world – both as living beings and as artists. It is the interplay between these two strands – of the lived experience and the creative response – which gives the collection much of its uniqueness.
As I read, and re-read Moore’s collection, it became a hauntingly ‘big’ book. Its surface ‘accessibility’, arising from a string of ‘anecdotal’ poems in a variety of registers and forms, builds a navigable causeway leading the reader out into deeper waters. Moving through them, we explore desire, and its consequences, and the complex societal and cultural forces that form and give rise to this force within individuals, whether they are predatory, or subjected to predation. The poems also allow us to question from whose perspective the narratives under scrutiny are, and have historically been, represented.
Moore is writing in conversation with Rachael Allen, Rachel Long, Olivia Laing, Maggie Nelson, Katherine Angel, Fiona Benson, Helen Mort, also on this list, and many others, giving a porousness and permeability to the poems within a larger discourse – which enhances their resonance. Her building block is the individual self, and the individual body, and how these tessellate either lastingly and fleetingly to those around them. The prefatory, un-numbered poem begins, ‘We stand at the base of our own spines/ and watch tree turn to bone and climb/ each vertebra to crawl back into our minds,/we’ve been out of our minds all this time’.
A stand-out poem is 7, which Moore read at the Forwards ceremony. Beginning “Imagine you’re me, fifteen, the summer of 95” it remembers the “stranger” at the end of a log flume ride who reaches out to brush a drop of water from the speaker’s thigh. The work of the poem takes place in the doubled perspectives of the account, moving from the second person address to the teenage girl – “And you are not innocent, you’re fifteen,/ something in you likes that you were chosen./ It feels like power, though you were only/ the one who was touched, who was acted upon.” – to the third person, seen as if from the man’s point of view. Now she becomes “A girl… with hair to her waist/ and he’s close enough to smell the cream/ lifting in waves from her skin…/ and why should he tell himself no, hold himself back?” The poem closes “You remember this lesson your whole life,/ That sliver/shiver of time, that moment in the sun./ What am I saying? Nothing. Nothing happened.”
There’s a blend of delicacy, quietness, and horror, and a sense of this transgressive action echoing down through the years because not called out or defined as wrong, that is potent, partly in its restraint. Other poems aren’t afraid of exploring rawness, and a compulsive, propulsive sexualised intoxication, as with 15, when the speaker writes of a relationship where: “I thought love was a knife/ pressed to the throat, I thought there was a blade/ in each of our hands. I am telling this now so he appears/ as real as that first night when we didn’t sleep./ The slight red stubble of his beard, the freckles/ covering his arms – his gaze, his attention all mine –”.
From fumbling teenage confusion, to disturbing encounters in hotel corridors, or on trains or in taxis, while including also support from mentors and others who positively expand the sense of being differently, the collection makes the reader part of its own process of investigation and discovery. Through this, we share in the work of progressive redefinition and reclamation, from the starting point of being “a stone pretending to be a woman/ in the dark or like someone returning/ from a land nobody else could see.”
This trajectory generates a sense of arrival upon reaching 48, the concluding poem. Here, Moore’s voice recalls being told by an established, canonical, male poet, at the start of her writing life, that she should not speak of straightening her mother’s hair as a child. We, the readers, feel why she has come to understand that as a result of this “I have held my tongue for many years.” Evidence of the journey travelled, away from that silencing, lives within the poem. Moore has formed language and imagery that enables what was not allowed to be said to resonate with the reader in all its subtle complexity and vivid life:
My father elsewhere, and part of me still there, part of me in the library with the man who told me not to speak about such things. The lawn. The drifting dusk. The bats. My mother’s hair. My hands. That house. The shudder of a horse’s flank.
As I publish this, the 2023 Forwards judges will be receiving their last boxes of books, and print-outs of poems. This year’s judges are Kate Fox, Karen McCarthy Woolf, Andrés N. Ordórica, and Jessica Traynor, coming together within two separate panels, being chaired respectively by the legendary Bernardine Evaristo for the Best Collections, and Joelle Taylor for the Best Single Poems. Along with many others I will be waiting, when summer comes, to hear the results of their hours of careful reading and thought, and to investigating the recommendations of the 2023 shortlists.
Trigger warning: non-explicit references to childhood sexual abuse.
This has not been an easy blog to put together. I have written, and redrafted its plain sentences, bare as winter branches, but like winter branches, holding within them the promise of spring. For those of you who are thinking of reading further, I should warn you that I write honestly about the challenge of living with a complex history, and the fact that resolution can seem hard to find. But I work my way through these hard places, to arrive at a point of hopefulness, which you will hopefully also reach if you stay with me and with these words.
In life, as in art, we’re encouraged to think in terms of beginnings, middles and endings. Progression and resolution give structure to stories. When an artwork responds to trauma, the requirements change. Anyone who has experienced, or observed the impacts of traumatic events, knows that they continue to resonate and replay themselves for many years. To generate a truthful creative transaction between a traumatic subject matter, and the work into which it is translated, calls for forms of expression which can suggest recurrences and hauntings. Through this act of creative witness, we may begin to change their power and reposition our relationships to them.
Living beyond, and making art that responds to, my own experience of childhood sexual abuse, amongst other subjects, I face this challenge myself. As the light dims towards the end of November, and the days grow shorter and darker, child ghosts walk again for me. They remember and re-live my father’s death in hospital when I was eight, in 1972. These ghost-selves also re-experience the beginning of the penetrative sexual abuse to which I was subjected, very shortly after, when my mother, who was my abuser, and I moved from Brussels to Wiltshire.
Impacting both my physical and mental health, these hauntings can lead me to feel as if I am sinking down through waves of old sadness. Like heavy black sump oil, they seep into my thoughts and bodily movements. When things get really bad, they can make it hard to move – or even think. Because this has happened every November and December since I was a teenager, over the years, I’ve developed resources to keep myself going. I work beside my SAD light. I try to be kinder to myself and organise my working life so that I am not too pressured. I meditate, swim and walk my dog Ithaca, noticing the natural world around us. I connect with people who love me.
But all these strategies only ever mitigate the after-effects of the dreams which rise up at night. In my sleep, I become again a scared, hurt child, taken back to a place between life and death by my mother. This was the case – very brutally – in November and December of 2021, as it had been in 2020, and all the years before that.
None of us likes to speak of what we perceive as our vulnerabilities, for fear people will think less of us, or feel we are ‘seeking attention’ in some way. But in 2020, working on bird of winter‘s final manuscript alone with my dog Ithaca in lockdown, I decided to make an artwork that could enact being haunted by a traumatic past, and reaching beyond this towards a form of resolution. At the time, I was following an online workshop with Nina Mingya Powles around multiple language heritages with the Poetry School, which my fellow Forwards Shortlistee, Cynthia Miller, was also part of. I was also experiencing difficult dreams. They shaped what I wrote.
What emerged is called ‘je suis son petit chat il est mon papa 1972/ I am his little cat he is my daddy 2020’. It’s a multi-form piece which exists simultaneously as a conventional poem, a visual work, a sound experience and a performance. It was published this January 22 in bath magg no 8, as you’ll be able to see and hear by following this link.
When I performed it at bath magg’s online launch, I began by saying a few words about the poem. The response I received made me feel there would be a value in expanding them into this blog, however inelegantly. Opening up the deliberately smudgy, troubled layers of the poem up in this way also gives me the opportunity to separate the two overlaid texts, and look at each one in isolation. In the final print they are blurred across each other to play out how traumatic stories repeat and recur, as you’ll have seen from the fragment above, and the link to the full work at bath magg.
‘je suis son petit chat/ I am his little cat’ begins in French and English, the two languages of my childhood. They refract and translate each other, but the work also makes complete sense in either language. In the first two lines, I’m waking up from a nightmare in 2020, aged fifty-six. I’m also myself in bed, aged eight, in 1972, as my father lies dying in intensive care. From there it is back to 1972 and my eight year old self returning home to our flat:
Describing my life before my father died as if it was still simultaneously present, including my grandmother taking me to the hospital, and my father sending me drawings home, the narrative enacts how, in dissolving the boundaries of time, these dark hauntings also open opportunities for healing, by re-accessing a fuller range of memory. Next in the underlay text comes the nightmare at the heart of the poem, which invaded my sleep in the early hours of 22 November, replaying the sexual abuse to which I was subjected as a child by my mother. As the poem reports, the terror of the dream induced vomiting and diarrhoea in my fifty-something year old self:
Tough though it was to experience in reality, this act of voiding is also a release, which opens up ‘je suis son petit chat/ I am his little cat’ to new energies – whereby the recurrence of the trauma becomes an opportunity to reset my relationship to the original events. Resetting happens through a short poem in both French and then English, which is overlaid on the looping narrative beneath it in larger font and bolder text, as the extract at the top of the blog shows.
Within its overlaid phrases, my adult self summarises the impacts of my childhood sexual abuse, including how it continues to haunt me. Speaking directly to my abuser, I refuse the silence which she imposed on me throughout my childhood and adolescence, and for long years beyond that. This frees the underlying narrative to begin to move towards the light of a different ending, where the recurrences of physical voiding can finally come to a stop:
The account of the nightmare, and falling “down a black tunnel” is repeated below the overlaid text, as when in nursery rhymes like ‘Oranges and lemons’, or ‘Frère Jacques’ in French, the verses come round again. Following the earlier shift, the act of voiding is once again purgative, letting go of some of the blackness and shame held inside me, and allowing gentler and more nurturing memories of my loving engagement with my father to continue to surface in the segment which follows:
Like many others with my history, for long years the trauma of the penetrative abuse in childhood separated me from being able to feel my own feelings, or know my own wants. Here, they begin to return to the child who lives within and alongside the adult. She can say once again “I want my daddy” and by expressing this longing re-form a more authentic connection with herself. My grandmother’s phrase translated means “let her through, let her through, she’s his daughter”. She was trying to get me allowed into the intensive care unit, but the phrase also acts out the way I am asking for my child self to be allowed back through, to speak and know herself, and how she was once loved.
‘Je suis son petit chat/I am his little cat’ ends in a place of quietness, with the possibility of integrating my separated selves more fully. Translating the “petit chat” nickname my father gave me into the English “little cat”, and laying it down on the page, the poem performs an act of witness to the co-presence of my child and adult selves. It also documents how, by reconnecting more fully with child-alice, adult-alice is able to begin to make a new relationship what made us who we now:
Walking in Shotover County Park near Oxford in the last days of 2021, after some very tough weeks, I saw trees and misty light that reminded me of Wiltshire, and felt unkind old ghosts crowd around me. But breath by breath, I drew the damp, cold air of the present into my body, and with it new energy. With each out-breath, I tried to let what I no longer needed pass from me. As I did this, the pearlescence of the fields and clouds became a wilderness of beauty, and the black branches of the trees uplifted themselves into acts of elemental resistance. With my dog Ithaca scenting the damp leaves, and pulling us forwards, and the landscape saying that life would return, I felt how this difficult annual recurrence was also a gateway to transformation – that each year I must find the way through.
Further exploration: four books and StAnza Festival
I often set a creative prompt after exploring one of my own poems for people to explore in their own practice. In this case the subject material is too dangerous. Instead, for anyone wanting to work creatively with complex materials, or look at other examples of this practice, I would recommend four books which open pathways to new understandings, and new creative forms of expression, from the breakages and fractures of trauma. I would also recommend the other brilliant poems in bath magg no 8, many which respond to complex subject matters – and make from them acts of beauty and reclamation.
In terms of books, Bloodroot, by Annemarie Ní Churreáin creates provisional, shifting structures to hold the lives and reposition the representations of Irish women whose lives were appropriated by the Irish State and Church. Documenting how the State invaded every corner of life in Romania under Romania, under Ceausescu and the Romanian Communist Party, for Buried Gods Metal Prophets Maria Stadnicka and Antonia Glűcksman assemble a living memorial that incorporates diary entries, photos, erasures, quotes from statutes, and building plans, as well as more conventional ‘poems’. In Things I have Forgotten Before Tanatsei Gambura speaks through radical formal innovation of what it can mean to have grown up as a “Black Girl” in Zimbabwe during the 1980s – and how losing a country can form you as much as having one. Sasha Dugdale’s extraordinary collection Deformationsexplores trauma and PTSD, through fragments composed around Homer’s Odyssey. A separate long sequence responds to the sculptor Eric Gill’s work and life, within the framework of his recorded sexual abuse of his daughters. Sasha and I spoke about our work in Volume 48 of PN Review. Sasha has a hugely impactful new poem in bath magg 8 which you can read here.
Annemarie Ní Churreáin, Maria Stadnicka and I will be appearing at the StAnza festival on 12 March both live and online with many other brilliant poets in St Andrews. You can find more details here. Prices start from £3.00. Booking opens on 21 January. For people not able to travel to Scotland, many of the events are online and very reasonably priced. As well as performing, I’m going to be sure to pack out my schedule with hearing other poets and it’s a great way to check in with a huge range of voices and perspectives.
On Saturday 6 November, I was asked to read and speak at an event on Poetry and Trauma at Poetry in Aldeburgh 2021 with brilliant, radical poets Chaucer Cameron, Day Mattar and Tessay Foley, introduced by poet and academic Patricia Debney. We have in common a background of having been subjected to predation and sexual abuse, in childhood or afterwards. Our shared experience, and the fact that we have all made artworks which begin in this harsh place, set the stakes very high in terms of creating an event which could speak collectively to people with similar experience in their own histories. The link to the podcast follows further down.
Sixty-five people tuned in to join us mid-afternoon. I don’t think anyone who was there will ever forget what was said and read. Both Chaucer and Day touched on their experiences of sex work or prostitution. Chaucer’s pamphlet In an Ideal World I’d Not be Murdered is part memoir/part fiction. It explores the impact of sex work on body, mind and spirit – through the voices of characters speaking to and with each other, while also questioning what it takes to leave this profession. Speaking of one of the female characters, who in real life was murdered, Chaucer said : “In my version she has her own voice, she sings her own song…and this is what it looks like.” The same could be true of her performance of those extraordinary poems on 6 November.
With real poignancy, and an ability to enter a child’s perspective, Day’s debut Springing from the Pews, with Broken Sleep Books, documents a six year old boy being groomed and then abused. Interweaving confessions, journal entries, and multiple voices into a verse play, the poems follow this little boy into adult life, asking how we may live with, and beyond, this very difficult legacy. He explained “I struggled for a long time to write these poems… I had multiple voices in my head…responding each as loud as each other… contradictory, loving, manipulative.” The results are astonishing.
Tessa Foley’s poems live in rooms where shadows rise up from the corners, even when the lights are on, and follow people down the streets at high noon. Drawing both on family history, and her own experience of volunteering for three years at Portsmouth Rape and Abuse Counselling Centre, the poems of What Sort of Bird Are You? witness the greatest difficulties, but also document moving beyond them into a more hopeful and resilient spaces, engendered in part through acts of mutual solidarity and community. Her line “Just because there’s a fence, the garden don’t stop growing” could speak for us all.
My own text is given in full below, exploring the idea of trauma as a wound, and how we may heal beyond it. I chose poems relating to water, to honour Aldeburgh’s seaside setting. To hear Chaucer’s, Day’s and Tessa’s voices testifying to experiences which I felt in my own body and spirit, had my heart rushing before I ever got to my own set. I was hugely honoured to perform with them. Inevitably, I needed to rebalance myself afterwards. Walking by the Thames later that afternoon, allowing the present world back into me as dusk deepened, I saw a footbridge lit up over the dark water. Watching it, I felt as if I had been given a visual representation of how we had, through our works, lit safe passages over places where we had once known great suffering.
As the set was an hour long, and very intense, I decided to record the audio of my poems and words separately as well – for people who wanted a shorter listen, or who might be hesitant around exposing themselves to the longer experience of the full set. The performance and comments from the audience set twitter alight for hours and days afterwards. My individual recording is 15 minutes long. I have put the linking text I wrote below it as a guide to what to expect.
To give a flavour of my approach, the words I wrote to link the poems are reproduced below in italics, interspersed by the poem titles. ‘phare d’ailly’ is reproduced as a sample of my work, because it has appeared in PN Review, along with a description of discovering ancient Herculaneum by Scipio Maffei. You can hear all the poems in full on the recording. If you face hearing challenges please contact me through the blog and I can send you a full text of words and poems.
If you would like to buy bird of winter, it’s available here.
alice hiller words and water poems on healing beyond trauma at Poetry in Aldeburgh:
As many of you know, trauma means wound in ancient Greek. My own collection, bird of winter, is partly about the childhood wound of being groomed and sexually abused by my mother. But it’s also about healing, and opening our wings into wider, freer skies. I’ll alternate poems which explore my difficult early years with others honouring experiences that helped me reclaim life. Celebrating Aldeburgh, many of the poems include water. First up is ‘bains de mer’ or ‘sea swimming’, remembering my beloved French bonne maman or grandmother.
bains de mer [performed]
Bonne maman represented a space of safety and unconditional love. Because my mother was my abuser, danger remained omnipresent. Normandie is the backdrop to a photo taken by my father in ‘pistil’. Named for the female reproductive parts of a flower, the poem combines words from my childhood medical notes with direct memories.
In addition to my medical notes, bird of winter is framed by Pompeii and Herculaneum. Both were harbour towns, but water is not a place of refuge or safety in the abuse poems. ‘let none of this enter you’ is spoken to my four or five year old self – with extra lines by Pliny the Younger describing the eruption of Vesuvius, which shapes bird of winter.
let none of this enter you [performed]
Even though he worked long hours, my diplomat father had been my protector. Once he was diagnosed with motor neurone disease when I was six, power shifted. I was eight when he died and my mother and I moved from Brussels, to England. I saw my father as the lighthouse whose beams lit my bedroom in Normandie.
papa the tide at vasterival was going out when you were carried from our flat as I slept
your jaw swung open like a latchless door
the sea is now 1km from the site of pompeii
The penetrative abuse began in England. My erasure ‘and now came the ashes’ is from Pliny the Younger’s account of Vesuvius :
and now came the ashes [performed]
Traumatic events such as rape fracture our consciousness. Scipio Maffei’s 1747 account of excavating Herculaneum offered a way of suggesting the injuries arising from raping a child, along with the difficulties of voicing this. The reader gets to puzzle out the imagery. They can determine how far to engage.
proceeding blindly through tunnels and through narrow passages much will be broken much will be destroyed nor will it ever be possible to see the noble buildings in their entirety
Scipio Maffei 1747
Even in very difficult times, the memory of my father, and my bonne maman’s love, gave my spirit a space of nurture. This is critical for all of us who are subjected to wounding experiences. ‘Rue de l’aurore’ was my grandmother’s address in Brussels. It means street of the dawn.
rue de l’aurore [performed]
I escaped the physical element of the abuse when I was thirteen by stopping eating. I was admitted to hospital – but this was 1977. Eating disorders were not recognised as a possible indicators of childhood sexual abuse. I wasn’t asked about, or able to speak directly of, what my mother had done. The psychiatrist who saw me understood something terrible had happened. Writing ‘tesselation’, I instinctively sited myself between worlds, like water becoming vapour.
My mother ended all contact with this psychiatrist when I was released from hospital. I was left very vulnerable. With time, I reconnected with life and love again and began to reclaim my body. My final poem moves between capture and release, remembering when I was seventeen.
becoming your channel of pearl [performed]
I dedicate it to all of us who turn our faces to the light, no matter what darkness we have come through [end of set].
The Festival brought together a rainbow of poets from Andrew McMillan, Sean Hewitt, Kim Moore, Victoria Kenneflick, Dom Bury, Colette Bryce, Rachel Long, Vidyan Ravinthiran, Momtaza Mehri and Sarah Westcott, to name but a few. The podcasts will be up on the Poetry in Aldeburgh website over the next days. I really recommend checking in with them.
If you live in or near London, I’ll be performing live for Outspoken at the Southbank with Nick Mahona and Wayne Holloway-Smith on Thursday 25 November at 7.45 pm. I’ll be sharing poems about the bumpy teenage years that follow grooming and childhood sexual abuse, but also how these are the freedom trail that leads to reclamation and healing.
When you’re a debut poet, aged 57, you don’t necessarily expect to find your name on a prize list. I certainly didn’t. I was overwhelmed when I discovered my bird of winter had made the first collection shortlist for the Felix Dennis Award of the Forwards Prizes. Even more so when I found out that I had been selected alongside Caleb Femi, Cynthia Miller, Holly Pester, and Ralf Webb. They are all poet-heroes of mine, whose work I had loved, and followed live, and online. We have all been interviewed on the Forwards Prizes website, where you can also read about the poets selected for Best Poem, and Best Collection. The Best Poem list includes Natalie Linh Bolderston, who I interviewed on this blog talking about the family heritages and creative influences which shape her art-making.
Over the last week, in the run up to the Forwards Prizes Ceremony at the Southbank on Sunday 24 October, WasafiriMagazineand The Poetry School have both published work about our Debut Collection shortlist as a group. I wanted to take the opportunity to share it here, to celebrate us together as the shortlist of 2021. I also wanted to reflect my sense of how crucial Caleb’s, Cynthia’s, Holly’s and Ralf’s collections are, and how much they mean to me personally, as someone who has read and re-read them over the summer. No five poets can ever say everything, but between us we have a wide reach – geographically, creatively, and in terms of our subject matters – and share a commitment to making new work that speaks from deep places in ourselves and lives.
To read what Caleb, Cynthia, Holly, Ralf and I have to say about our work, please follow this link to the poet Shash Trevett’s insightful interview with us for Wasafiri Magazine.
By way of a taster, Shash’s questions throw light on how each of us wrote, and where we wrote from, amongst other topics. Physically – Holly Pester said in the bath, as well as elsewhere, and also from “My small intestine. My dreams. My lunch breaks.” She also came up with a definition of making work which captures the experimental, provisional force of this adventure.
Holly: “‘Tussle’ is a very good word for describing what writing poetry is; words, idea, time, speech, language, text, hormones, affections, all moving towards the recovery of a new thought in a barely held communion. It is a tussle! (It grew over about three years). “
Cynthia Miller spoke of writing from her mother’s Chinese Malaysian heritages – “I think of the long tradition of fortune tellers at temples. Star-charts and fortune sticks and divining the placement of the heavens.” She explained how this fed into work about displacements and migrations: “all the poems in my collection about stars are really poems about family, longing and displacement (such as ‘Scheherezade’, ‘Summer Preserves Haibun’, ‘Proxima b’), and how acute and destabilizing that feeling of disorientation can be.”
Caleb Femi’s words bring out how his debut, like his film-making, speaks from a place of multiplicity and open-hearing:
Shash – “In ‘Barter’ you write ‘I was reaching for my voice box / I rarely use it to its full potential’. Can you talk about lending your voice to those who cannot speak anymore, or who are voiceless?”
Caleb: “My voice is one of many that exists in my community. Each as intriguing as the other, we should all be heard. ”
Ralf Webb made his explanation of the colour pink expressive of the range of tones and moods and slip-sliding transitions that his work encompasses – always with an eye to how our lives stack up ,and the social and political constructs which inform the shapes they take and make.
Ralf: “When I think of the colour pink I think of carnations, earthworms, anemic-looking plums; I think of the huge rose quartz crystals on my childhood bedroom windowsill; I think of pink moons and Nick Drake’s Pink Moon; I think of hematology and bone marrow biopsies; I think of Pepto-Bismol, pills, the skin under the nail; I think of how the sunrise would have looked to my parents, alone, driving to or back from work at dawn.”
Finally, I added some thoughts on “form” in its wider sense:
alice: “I use form to confer agency, even while navigating danger. I drop the reader down, somatically, into the terror of my childhood, but offer ladders out… Form also embodies childish play and mess. Some poems circle round. Within the erasures, white tunnels of words are dug out from smudgy, hand-blacked rectangles. Elsewhere you have to puzzle out the links between the historical fragments as you jump from one to another – like stepping stones or hopscotch. Those sorts of engagements help generate active, empathetic readings.”
Ralf, Holly and I also each wrote a ‘how we did it’ blog for the Poetry School, where I’ve taken many classes as my collection bird of winter found its wings.
‘We know that the year – and more – of the pandemic was also the year of reading. And that means poetry as well as prose. It was a time when everyone was reminded how much we need to be exposed to the power of the imagination. And the short lists for the Forward Prizes 2021 are a reminder that the poetic imagination isn’t wholly introspective, although it cuts deep. It’s bold, limitless in ambition and it touches every part of our lives – our own hopes and fears, our communities, and the wider world that so often seems bewildering and over-powering. These poets find pathways into the deepest feelings and discover vantage points that take a reader (or a listener) to another place. In their hands we look at the world differently. This is a moment for poetry; and all these poets deliver. Read them, and take off.’
– James Naughtie, The chair of the 2021 Forward Prizes jury
Link to bird of winter podcast no 1: finding words to hold things that can be hard to say :https://youtu.be/wnVHd5JR3cQIt’s part of my commitment to changing awareness through working creatively beyond our places of silence.
How much does it matter what a work of art is ‘about’? Do we only watch a film to find out what happens at the end? Or is it to see the actors look towards each other, then drop their gazes? Do we also want to discover how they inhabit the skins of their characters, what landscapes are revealed by the bends in the road, how the mood changes when darkness falls? All these elements are also the story. They let us absorb the process of the film, and make us care about its outcome, because they involve us in what happens and why. By engaging with them, we feel and think along with what we’re watching. We bring our own imaginations, our own understandings, our own experiences into the mix.
The same is true for poems. Although their format is more compressed, it’s not only what the poem ‘says’ that catches us. Of course that central energy matters. But also how it is said – and why. I believe the how and the why are particularly important when we write about our difficult things. If we’re going to ask a reader, or a listener, to come on board with a complex or challenging topic, we need to help them engage actively, and with imaginative agency. That way the material is not simply inflicted on them. They can choose what to make of what rises from the page – and through this exercise a measure of control and safety.
I founded, and have been facilitating a workshop for poets working with difficult materials since 2017. It now has over fifty members, and has expanded into the Voicing our Silences website with dynamic sections run by different poets including Maia Elsner, Tamsin Hopkins, Rachel Lewis and Mary Mulholland. Others among our poets also include Romalyn Ante, Isabelle Baafi, Natalie Linh Bolderston, S. Niroshini, Natalie Whittaker, Arji Manuelpillai, Jeffery Sugarman, Kostya Tsolakis, Joanna Ingham, Julie Irigaray, Wendy Allen, Patrizia Longhitano, Chaucer Cameron, Rochelle Roberts, Dan Fitt-Palmer, Holly Conant and SK Grout – to name but a few.
As a group, we’ve had many conversations over the years, which have informed and shaped my own poems in bird of winter.A considerable part of my collection passed through our workshop feedbacks at different stages. I therefore wanted to use bird of winter’s publication this May by Pavilion Poetry, part of Liverpool University Press, to take some of our group’s and my own thinking around working with difficult materials out into the wider world. As with the Voicing Our Silences website, I hope we can support other people bringing their creative voices into the larger conversation.
To facilitate this process, I’m launching thebird of winter podcast series. Each podcast includes a discussion and prompt, plus a performance of the poem I explore. The first podcast is about working with things that live in the gaps and shadows of our lives, and finding words to hold things we find difficult to say. This is something which I know many of us face. I investigate this theme relative to my title poem, (also called ‘bird of winter’), and specifically the creative strategies I came up with. Because the poem looks at my experience of being treated in hospital for anorexia aged thirteen, and includes references to psychological vulnerability after sexual abuse in childhood, I have included the full text of the discussion and performance of the poem ‘bird of winter’ below the photo of the seagull. People who have concerns can read it first if they are concerned about being triggered.
If you would rather jump straight in and listen, the podcast is here. It’s auto-captioned and takes 10 minutes : https://youtu.be/wnVHd5JR3cQ
Text of bird of winter podcast no 1: finding words for things we find difficult to say.
Hello I’m alice hiller, bringing you the bird of winter podcast series. The podcasts explore ways to be playful and adventurous with language, and share strategies for staying safe if you work with difficult materials, like I do. A a word of warning – this episode mentions sexual abuse briefly, in the context of living beyond this crime as a teenager.
What I’m going to explore today is finding words to hold things which can be hard to say – because they exist in the gaps and shadows of our lives. To do this, I’m going to talk about the title poem of my collection. It centres around meetings with the psychiatrist who admitted me to hospital in 1977, when I was thirteen. I’d stopped eating, after being subjected to sexual abuse, and needed treatment for anorexia. When I look back, these conversations bring together silence and speaking – through the body, as well as with words.
In 1977, sexual abuse in childhood wasn’t widely recognised, or discussed. There was no framework for me to say or even think about what my abuser had done. Aged thirteen, I weighed 28.5 kg, or 4.5 stone. That’s the average weight for an eight or nine year old. Seeing me, the psychiatrist understood that something had gone very wrong. She began the process of turning my life around, by giving me appropriate care.
I needed ‘bird of winter’ to communicate her care, but also my experience of not being able to communicate fully with her, and the vulnerability that arose from this. I also wanted to record what it feels like if your home is not a safe place to live in, when you haven’t yet finished growing up, something many young people face for various reasons.
After trying out different approaches, I ended up setting short comments and questions from the psychiatrist down one side of the poem. I butted these into silent, unspoken thoughts from my teenage self, taking up the second half of the line. Because we were connected to each other within the therapeutic process, I then moulded our shared lines into an oval or pill shape that held our exchanges in its single, joined space.
The pill shape made a record on the page of how talking was a key part of the treatment. It also registered how I couldn’t really speak at the time, partly due to the drugs that were prescribed to help me to eat and sleep. The voice of the poem is fairly flat, almost muffled, suggesting how the drugs numbed my experience of the world while I was in hospital.
bird of winter
‘bird of winter’ is also a poem about healing. Seen another way, the oval looks like an egg. This extra layer of meaning matters. It reflects how being in hospital put a safe shell around me. Inside this shell, I could start to recover and grow beyond the abuse. The new alice hatches out in the poems about my teenage and then adult selves in bird of winter.
The photo I chose for this podcast is of a gull flying alongside the cross-Channel ferry to Dieppe. The way the bird stays close to the boat – while remaining free to tilt its wings and lift with the wind, or dive down into the green waves – made me think of how a teenager will progressively claim their independence, until they are strong enough and confident enough to take to the skies of their adult life.
Unlike the 1970s, there are now positive options in the UK for young people who have been subjected to sexual abuse, to help them recover and feel strong and well. Support is also there for people seeking help in later life, as I did. The Mind website has valuable links and phone numbers and your doctor can also give you advice.
If you’d like to try writing something of your own based on how I put the poem together, I’ve created a three stage writing exercise which will come after this. Otherwise, thanks for listening. I’m alice hiller, speaking about my collection bird of winter which is published by Pavilion Poetry and I really appreciate you checking in with this project.
Trigger warning: reference to grooming and sexual abuse in childhood. Also to healing and reclamation.
Finding out that bird of winter has been chosen by the Poetry Book Society as one of the 10 books they recommend for Mental Health Awareness Week came as a huge boost to me this week, in addition to being chosen as their Summer Special Commendation. In amongst other themes, my collection explores the impacts of sexual abuse in childhood – on the mental health of the child, the adolescent they become, and their adult self. It also traces paths towards self-reclamation and healing in the aftermath of this crime, which I believe should be integral to any discussion around the topic. By focusing on both injury and restitution, and the importance of witness, and listening, we can honour the selfhood and agency of people making meaningful lives beyond this assault, as I try to do myself. We can also change awareness around the value of the voluntary support services, whose impacts can be transformative for peoples of all ages. You can find a very helpful list on the Mind website. Barnardos and the NSPCC are amongst charities who provide specialised help for children and adolescents. Their services are usually accessed through referral.
You can read more about the other books on the Poetry Book Society list, and the challenges they respond to, on the PBS website. These include brilliant titles by Kaveh Akvah, Fiona Benson, Emma Jeremy, Niall Campbell, Hollie McNish, Ben Wilkinson and Helen Calcutt. The link is here.
Like many of us with complex histories, the pandemic has made my own mental health feel more fragile at times, not least because I lived with only my excellent dog Ithaca for company during long sections of the lockdowns. I would normally counterbalance working from home with communal activities including family contact, swimming, attending arts events, Buddhist learning, and seeing people socially. Until very recently, all of these have been off the menu other than via a screen. Meditation, meeting with fellow dog walkers outdoors, walking with Ithaca, and collaborating with the collective of Voicing our Silences poets have all been valuable sustenance in this time of absence.
Editing the poems in bird of winter which respond to my own experiences of being groomed and sexually abused in childhood, and then finding my way through a tricky adolescence towards healing in adult life, without my usual resources, made me realise last autumn that I needed to check in with some support again. I went back to see the counsellor I have worked with previously, weekly on zoom, which undoubtedly helped me get through the long winter lockdown. I know many other people who have similarly realised they needed more support than they could generate on their own over the past year. In his recent interview for the Society of Authors, I was grateful to hear Kayo Chingonyi speak of the difficulties he experienced as a result of separation from cherished family members and friends over the lockdowns, and to hear him say that he was working with a therapist. This kind of matter of fact open-ness helps us all feel that the challenges we face are shared by many, and that to seek solutions to them is a reflection of strength.
My own vulnerability has also made me aware of the need to keep safe-guarding in mind during online live performances, while also honouring my commitment to witnessing and speaking out. When you perform to a room full of people, you can ‘take the temperature’ of the collective mood, and adjust your set accordingly. You also know that the audience members have each other for grounding and support, along with the possibility of a drink and chat afterwards. They can equally come and talk to you, as people often do when I read. At physical live events, there is also the journey home, which has the effect of placing a degree of separation between the content of the evening, and the rest of your life.
Beaming into people’s homes is of course entirely different. Not only do you, the performer, have no idea of who is out there (other of course than friends whose names flash by as the audience file in, if it’s an interactive format), but you have no sense of how they are feeling, whether they are alone, how long it might be since the last saw anyone, and a host of other questions which can significantly influence the reception of more challenging materials.
I have therefore sifted my poems to set aside some which I feel can only be shared either via the printed page, or carefully in a live context, and with appropriate safeguarding measures. I am also taking time to write short scripts linking the poems, and contextualising the subject matter, so the listener can feel invited in as an active participant in a process of transformation. This was absolutely my intention for the live launch of bird of winter, on 5 May, which was recorded by Liverpool University Press, and can be watched here, along with wonderful performances by my fellow Pavilion Poets of 2021, Sarah Westcott and Alice Miller. You will need to scroll down to the video of 5 May, which shows Mona Arshi introducing us as the identifying image. All the other videos are absolutely worth watching as well.
There is a trigger warning for my performance within the launch, which begins at 33.40, in case anyone wants to switch off. The recording has captioning available, but I decided to publish the words I wrote to link the poems below, to give a fuller understanding of the bird of winter project of changing awareness around sexual abuse in childhood through art-making and art-sharing.
For copyright reasons, I can’t include all the poems, but I have dropped in the image for ‘sagittae’, as it is difficult to visualise it from the reading. ‘elegy for an eight year old’ and ‘bird of winter’ are also available elsewhere on this blog. If you watch the video, there is also a really powerful Q&A at the end, when Mona Arshi talks to us about our collections. The link to the launch again is here.
alice hiller: words and poems to launch bird of winter on 5/5/21
As some of you will know, bird of winter responds to my own experience of being groomed and then sexually abused as a child, but also of finding my way towards healing. Sadly, it’s a crime which is being perpetrated day and night around the world. Millions of teenagers and adults like me make their lives in its aftermath.
One of the difficulties we face in reclaiming ourselves is that the trauma and perceived shamefulness of the experience can make sexual abuse hard to talk about. Many people wait decades to be able to say what was done to them as undefended children or teenagers.
My poems in bird of winter seek to create a language, through made artworks, that can help people explore this complex topic safely, and with agency. I’ve been careful about what I’ve chosen to read tonight.
The first poem I’m going to share is called ‘the needle’s eye sews red silk.’ It sets out the legal penalties for what was done to me in childhood, as defined by the UK criminal justice act of 2003, with the 2007 sentencing guidelines. The legal quotes are interspersed with my own ‘impact statement’.
reading of ‘the needle’s eye sews red silk’
My abuser was unfortunately my mother. The grooming began in my earliest life. I was, however, blessed by a good French grandmother, or bonne maman, and diplomat father. They both loved me. Thanks to my father’s posting to Singapore, I was looked after from birth by a Chinese amah called Ah Loh. This next poem is for her. It honours how the good that we are given strengthens our whole being, and gives us a better chance of coming through difficult times.
reading of ‘my amah my armour‘
Once Ah Loh had returned to Singapore, my life became less safe, as ‘pistil’ records. It’s named for the female reproductive parts of the flower and the first section quotes from my GP’s notes when I was two. They record the troubled behaviours my abuser’s actions were already precipitating.
reading of ‘pistil’
The French buttercups in the third section of ‘pistil’ grew in the field adjacent to my bonne maman’s clifftop house in Normandy, where I went every summer of my childhood. I could hear the lighthouse when I lay in bed, and see its fingers of light sweeping the sky. ‘bains de mer’ or ‘sea-swimming’ was written after visiting the area again a few years ago, when I was beginning these poems.
reading of ‘bains de mer’ or ‘sea-swimming’
What my abuser was doing remained profoundly damaging. In bird of winter, Pompeii and Herculaneum form shadow worlds in which the injuries and silencings of my childhood play out. They are also where the excavations and reclamations of my story are enacted. The next poem is titled for two tiny gladiators who were dug up in Pompeii and shows my abuser and I side by side.
reading of ‘terracotta figurines’
‘terracotta figurines’ is set in the flat Brussels, where my father was posted after Paris. Here he became ill with motor neurone disease, and died when I was eight. My abuser and I then moved to Wiltshire, away from the protection of my French bonne maman. I had never lived full-time in England, and no one really knew me there. I see what happened next in terms of the eruption of Vesuvius.
reading of ‘on the shoreline’
In the early 1970s, the sexual abuse of children was not widely recognised, or discussed. No one suspected that the studious little girl in glasses, who worked so hard at school, but didn’t seem to have many friends, had something very wrong at home.
reading of ‘cyclical’ which will be reproduced in PN Review.
One of the most damaging aspects of sexual abuse is how the child is made to feel complicit with, and implicated in, the forced intimacy that is imposed on them as part of the abuse. ‘joujou’ takes its title from the eighteenth century French word for a yoyo, based on the verb jouer, to play.
reading of ‘joujou‘
For many of us who are abused in childhood, the changes of puberty can bring the possibility of agency. Christmas eve when I was twelve proved a turning point.
reading of ‘december 1976’
The following Easter, of 1977, I decided to stop eating. I was hospitalised for anorexia that autumn. Now began the long, sometimes uncertain, journey towards healing. The next two poems give snapshots of me at eight and thirteen, at school and then in hospital respectively. They book-end the years of penetrative abuse.
reading of ‘elegy for an eight year old followed by ‘bird of winter’ these can both be found on the blog in the sidebar about ‘bird of winter’.
Aged thirteen, I had no words to tell the psychiatrist who treated me in hospital what my abuser had done. Inevitably, my teenage years proved turbulent, as they are for everyone with my history. Like many, I was left vulnerable to further predation, and psychological distress.
Forming a loving relationship, and becoming a mother, along with meaningful study and work, gradually led me towards firmer ground. I only became strong enough to begin to speak to a counsellor of what had happened to me as a child when I was in my early thirties. I started to try and write about it in my forties. I’m now 56.
My poem ‘sagittae’, or ‘arrows’ uses the processes of how arrows are made, then fired, to explore the transformations that healing can bring about if you have a history of having been sexually abused. As you will see, it’s repeated across the page to become a collective act of resistance and reclamation.
I’m going to end this reading with the final poem of bird of winter. ‘o goddess isis’ takes its details from the excavation of the Temple of Isis at Pompeii and the rituals performed there as part of the worship. With her son Horus, and her partner Osiris, the Egyptian goddess Isis watches over death and loss – but also birth and regeneration. I dedicate the poem to all of us who seek to live facing into the light.
reading of ‘o goddess isis’
Thank you all for listening, and Deryn and LUP for publishing bird of winter.
Please see the link to the Mind website if you need help or support with anything I have talked about.
I am going to be publishing a series of short podcasts looking at the ideas behind individual poems on this blog.
If anyone is d/Deaf and needs a transcript of the full reading please connect with me through the contact section of the blog.
Sometimes distance generates its own form of closeness. Or at least that was our experience, when Rachel Long and I connected through zoom to go deep with her debut, My Darling from the Lions, which was shortlisted for both the Forwards and Costa prizes in 2020. Each of us had instinctively positioned ourselves by a window – as if to share the same autumn afternoon light, notwithstanding being on opposite sides of London. Over the course of the two hours which followed, we talked about what it means to create as women, where we find the spaces and energies to nurture ourselves as artists, and why poetry is sideways-thinking. We asked how someone accesses their own ‘true’ perspective or ‘spirit level’; we agreed on the generative nature of play, and why translating another poet’s work can lead your own into new dimensions. Specifically, in Rachel Long’s case – that working with Adelaide Ivánova fed into her own poems of witness around the subject of sexual predation and assault. We then moved into a closer discussion of the extraordinary sequence of poems in which Rachel Long responds creatively to the challenging subject of sexual abuse in childhood – about which I also write. Together we explored language as reclamation, and how the process of articulating, and shaping, may enact a form of restitution and healing. Reviewing the transcript, we both felt that this second half of the conversation formed its own unit. I have therefore divided the interview into two segments, so that our readers have the option of either reading it right through, or in two halves as feels right to them. At the close of that tough year, I had no doubt that this was one of the most nourishing, but also radical conversations, I had in the whole of 2020. It’s the greatest honour to be able to share Rachel Long’s words with you, as we go forward as readers and writers into 2021 together.
AH: Can I start by asking about how My Darling from the Lions came into being Rachel Long? When, and how, did you start writing?
RL: I feel that in many ways I was maybe always writing it. I loved writing even as a child. I didn’t know what I was writing for a long time, in terms of subject or form. I return to the subjects that I have long been fascinated with – the lives of the people around me. The complexity of people’s stories, of how appearances are not necessarily the reality of what is going on inside. My mother came to the UK from Sierra Leone when she was eight. So many of her stories of growing up are holey snippets. The older I get, the more I realise they might actually be some kind of fiction or poetry. If you question something in one of my mother’s ‘origin stories’, she gets almost confused, or contradictory very quickly. The stories become murky, vague, abstract.
AH: I love that idea of murkiness. It’s full of possibility, and also really honest. In the collection, you explore everything from the harm caused by racism and sexual predation, all the way to what it’s like to grow up in the UK of dual heritage, this can’t have been an easy collection to write – at a creative as well as on a personal level?
RL: What is ever easy to write? I’m interested in what gets lost in memory, where it goes – how the body holds it. Being of dual heritage… I grew up in a white working-class area on the outskirts of London. My schools were majoritively white, my friends, half my family. I’m not sure that I thought of myself as Black for a long time. Mixed, half-caste, (dark-)light-skinned, all the rest of it, but not Black particularly. That was an understanding, a knowledge and an acceptance of a self that I had to carve out later, as I grew up, as left that estate, as I read, spoke and understood myself within a much wider context. When I was a girl, I thought that you had to choose what colour you were. I remember sitting in the back seat of my dad’s car, Dad driving, Mum in the passenger seat, and suddenly thinking, you must choose, now, whether you want to be white like Dad or black like Mum – isn’t that… disturbing? And as if I thought that I get to choose how the world perceives me.
AH: Picking up on what you were saying about claiming your Black identity as you grew older, certainly in decades past in England, the dominant culture wasn’t respectful of different identities. There was a pressure to only tick one box or feel of less worth if you didn’t tick that box. I knew Poly Styrene, of X-Ray Spex. She used to pretend to be Greek as a teenager in the 70’s. Once she became an artist, she was able to claim her dual heritage identity more fully.
RL: I understand that. It’s interesting that she could become closer to herself through her art.
AH: Poly was freed to claim her identity partly by working with live theatre as a teenager. Were there people who made becoming a writer more possible for you?
RL: What a beautiful question. Yes. I loved school. Primary school particularly, I felt so much freer at school than at home, and I loved learning, like very honestly loved it. My formidable headmistress, Mrs Wiley loved literature. She would make us recite poetry. Her favourite poem was WB Yeats’ ‘Aedh Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven’, (with the line “Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.”). Our morning assemblies consisted of who could get through the poem. I became good at reciting and at being shy, but showing off. Because of my love of English and of reading, she recommended me for some residential creative writing courses. On the weekends, and during the holidays, from when I was about 10 to 17, I spent time in the Essex countryside, which I loved, reading under trees, and watching Man Ray films at ten, or discussing silent French movies before sneaking off to play spin the bottle. As I got older obviously, that crux of being 14 and ashamed of everything, I completely hid what I had ‘got up to at the weekend’ from my friends – except perhaps my best friend. It’s good to be able to trust one person at least in life…. Anyway, my 10 year-old brain is going whish whish whish whish, just totally like woah, this is… beautiful, I feel like this is what I’m here for. We did things like creative dreaming – all of us, a gaggle of geeky ‘chosen children’ from all over the country, laying down in the grounds listening to what the grass was telling us. What a radical side-education! Without those easters and summers away, I hate to think where all my dreaming or talking to grass would have been wasted. On boys probably, in phone boxes, at the bottom of bottles. My childminder Barbara was also an amazing education for me. My mum and dad both worked so I would go to Barbara’s after school. Barbara loved sewing and knitting. She taught me to sew (I was never great at knitting). She taught me to draw and paint too, how to look after flowers. I feel very blessed to have had this creative education, to have learnt what I love from others, particularly from women seeing and encouraging me.
AH: At such a young age, that forms you as an artist. It’s letting you know that this is the way to be.
RL: Absolutely. If I didn’t have those people then, I would have had a different path, one I suspect I would not be happy in at all right now. I can’t think about the ‘other path’ for too long, I always well up very quickly, as if the possibility of it is still uncomfortably close. I suspect that is the same for most children, that they’ll thrive if opened up to what is possible.
AH: For sure. And there is the simplicity of playfulness. When I was pregnant with my second son, I did a playing course. There were no children there. It was for parents to enjoy playing. I built bricks and did all those things. That really was a brilliant thing to take back into my parenting. I connected with my joy and playfulness.
RL: I love that! What we do as poets is sort of play. Serious play.
AH: Yes, exactly. When it stops being play, it stops working. Being exposed to poetry early, you learnt how to tell without telling, because poetry works with a backward logic. You don’t just state a sequential narrative. You let it ooze out. It’s like sideways thinking. To develop your ability to sideways-think young, has to be a fantastic thing.
RL: I think you just nailed something for me Alice – or kind of opened something up for me – about sideways thinking. I don’t usually credit my parents for making me very creative, but I think the ways they are as people, people who don’t hide, but also don’t necessarily access or communicate how they more deeply feel, has influenced my work.
Mum will tell you exactly how she is feeling, but I think what she says is the surface, a lot of her anger and worry is fear. I think that underneath she is a lot quieter, shy, strange and dangerous, but she would never absolutely communicate that. My Dad says nothing about anything. So maybe as a child I watched them and understood something essential about what is said and unsaid, about how much you can communicate in your not-saying, in your subtle showing.
AH: To be able to connect the surface and the depth requires opening the channels in the way that you did as a child through creative play. For a lot of people, knowing how they feel isn’t easy. Connecting what they are experiencing on the surface with what’s driving it down below is tricky. Somehow art communicates this, even if it doesn’t do so explicitly. It lets it be understood.
AH: Nowadays, as a poet and a teacher, you work with language to expand and change awareness, and make the new. Were there artists who enabled you to see that your voice, as a women of colour, needed to be realized in a way that did not try to erase the contexts from which it took its shapes? Specifically, the female and the domestic, including the shadowed hinterlands between adolescence and adulthood, which are vulnerable times for many of us? Asking this question, I had in mind your poem ‘Apples’. It starts with the speaker running for a train – “tits play-doughing/ out of a shit bra” – then slides through an admission of her being “magazine educated” into a childhood memory of :
When the mum of my then-best friend said her daughter wasn’t allowed to play with me because I was another N-word – meaning Mum went round in her dressing-gown to slap her silly with her tongue, then returned to scatter the kitchen and shred Dad’s Guardian for not sticking up for us, for never saying anything –
RL: The person who comes to mind most is Caroline Bird, who was my Jerwood-Arvon mentor in 2015-16. Working with Caroline completely accelerated my work. I felt seen and heard and ‘good’, like I could do this, that it wasn’t all rubbish and a waste of time. Caroline was the first person to read my work and really see and hear me. Not in a weird tokenistic or racialized or classist way, as sometimes is ‘the way’. She read me un-bemused, nonjudgmentally, deadly seriously; essentially. That was radicalising for my poetry, for my practice, and for my personhood. Over that year I was able to let go of a lot of shame and therefore I could begin writing it. That came from finally not being or feeling judged, or boxed, or expected of. I realise that you’ve asked me about women of colour influencing me specifically and I have immediately offered Caroline, who is not a woman of colour – how can I phrase this so that it doesn’t sound ‘colour blind’ – let me access my own perspective… I don’t write (or read, or sleep or dream any of those essential, private, self-onto-self things) as a ‘woman of colour’. I write as myself — by that I mean, I don’t think our truest, deepest selves, at spirit level, register or identify with concepts of race, gender ecterea, the spirit doesn’t need these codes I don’t think, they aren’t necessary, and if the spirit level is also likely where the writing is from, then essentially do any of us write as our society-necessary, society-inflicted, society-worn labels? It is only later, when another person reads the work, that certain societal lenses may be worn to read and interpret the work. For example, in my poem, ‘Jail Letter’, I sit between my mother’s legs getting my hair plaited for what feels like all of Saturday. Only to go to school on Monday and be laughed at because my hair ‘looked like spiders’, but also because I had a Wednesday clip in and it was Friday or something. Sitting there as a girl, I did not realise the racial politics of hair, its implications, the perceptions of beauty and the precedence of European ideals, none of that, at least not consciously. I might have felt, suspected, some of it. I was just sitting there, bored out of my mind, in some discomfort. I wanted the poem to reflect that. I didn’t want the poems to have a knowledge of a context that is implausible for the little (mixed-race black) girl in it to reach yet. I badly want to leave the brackets out there because to constantly be a bracketed girl is not the girlhood I wanted, nor should any girl be bracketed, does this make any sense?
AH: Yes it does.
RL: Anyway, I wanted the poem to stay true to her authentic universe rather than be unhonestly aware of her place within the wider context, or indeed other people’s perceptions and dictations of it. And I think, I hope, that by doing that it makes the poem sad and funny, because she doesn’t realise, as she’s sitting there getting her hair plaited, what the reader might think about who she is and what she means, or what her hair means in the world, to others. I was supposed to be talking about Caroline and other influential women and I’m talking about authentic poetic universes!
AH: I was reading Toni Morrison in the 80’s. I felt understood by her writing, and I felt I understood myself. I was born in 1964 and sexual abuse in terms of children wasn’t discussed much until the 80s, by which time I was in my 20’s. It was to do with finding myself in her work as someone who was living a life, carrying a history, that most of society denied and excluded, before I could even articulate my own experience coherently.
RL: Morrison is one of the best writers that we have had on this planet. The fact that you feel personally understood and encompassed by that work, and that it also speaks to a universal experience – maybe it’s to do with identity, but also bloody good writing.
AH: Also, being formally inventive, because you need to make a language to say something that hasn’t been said and isn’t being said. You have to find a language that will actually do that. We both saw the Faith Ringgold Exhibition at the Serpentine. I feel that about her work. And in terms of our work as artists, that is a fantastic challenge to be set – because you know you really have to rise to it. That creates newness, originality, invention.
RL: ‘Apples’ is partly inspired by the experience of reading Morgan Parker’s collection, Other People’s Comfort Keeps Me Up at Night.Parker really harnesses a multiplicity in her work. She has all of these apparent contradictions and juxtaposition, allgoing on at once, which is, of course, most like life. One particular poem of Morgan’s is ‘How to Piss in Public and Maintain Femininity.’ Just the way it runs, it switches up, it is sliding-doory. This being of multiple things all at once inspired ‘Apples’. I think I have long felt lots of different things at once, sometimes contradictory, and sometimes only things other people said or thought were contradictory, but I knew them intimately to be one. I realized when writing ‘Apples’ that I had long felt like lots of apparently-different selves presenting as a single person.
AH: I love her work, and the way it takes from daily life, and makes it strange and powerful. In his memoir The Beautiful Struggle, Ta-Nihisi Coates makes a point of recording complex situations in direct, accessible language. Was that part of your intention for My Darling from the Lions?
RL: It’s the way I speak. It’s uncomfortably pronouncing words I confidently but silently read, it’s mispronouncing the same words my mum does, the dreaming holidays in the countryside talking to grass. It’s the mediocre comprehensive secondary school, using a flirtier voice to convince the bus driver to let me on without a ticket, and that voice sticking. It’s the sudden grammar school sixth form, University upt North, and only just now realising that I speak in about five different registers. Sometimes I am very aware and ashamed of it, and others I’m like, well, I start sentences with ‘I’m like’. I want to write in a way that feels true. Poetry is opening up a little in terms of reflecting a plethora of different voices and moving away from having one overarching voice that we must all listen very carefully and above all others to. My poem, ‘Helena’ was written after a conversation I had with a poet, who is from Peckham — not so far from where I grew up in south east London also. He was like, no you don’t talk like you are from South London, and sort of laughed at me for even thinking that I did/still did (did I ever?). So, then I went away and thought, OK, how did we used to speak when we were at school? –and or just after, at like 20, 21. As I was writing ‘Helena’ I realised that it is starkly different to how I speak now, even the pace of it is different, we spoke all in a rush to each other, all the time – and we swore a hell of a lot more. What I found interesting to was recalling old sayings, old ways of using language, ‘swear down’, ‘I’m not being funny, mate’, ‘at the end of the day’ (not all of these made the final edit, but at one point they were all in there). The poem is not a pretty poem, but it was liberating to write in a vernacular that was so essentially us, ours, that felt so much like I was speaking to Helena again, like, really. Our kind of ‘girl-speak’ was so rooted in a specific place and time.
AH: I love that. Going further with the idea of ‘girl-speak’, and the collective, you work with experiences you identify as not having happened to you personally, but that open to larger themes. In ‘Helena’, the speaker is witness to Helena coming round to their mutual friend Tiff’s flat, after being attacked by the bouncer at the nightclub where she worked. The language is raucous, high-energy girl-talk, that takes a turn for the nasty. Helena is speaking. Scarlett is Tiff’s daughter
The er/a and i/e/y rhymes punctuate the sonic patterning of this section with groan and cry sounds, without compromising the spoken feel of the language, or the heartbreak-humour with which Helena creates a retrospective shield for herself against the rape, which the reader is left to imagine. You translated the Brazilian poet and artist Adelaide Ivánova for a chapbook with the PTC last year, whose work denounces crimes of sexual violence. I wondered if this collaboration informed your work of witness in ‘Helena’, and if you could say something about the poem?
RL: I don’t think until I read your question that I truly understood how influential actually translating Adelaide Ivánova’s work was for me. In being invited by The Poetry Translation Centre to translate Adelaide’s work from the literals, and in being introduced to her when she came to the UK to launch and tour the collection, I was influenced, massively. I was moved by her activism, in life and on the page. You’ve made me think about what the act of translation does spiritually; to read someone else’s work, to be deep inside it, to experience and walk around in it. When I’m translating, I always feel like I’m in somebody else’s room. I look around this room trying to work out who this is, essentially, where things go, trying to understand why things are placed where they are placed, and I can, as the translator, move some things around, ask questions, understand. But it’s Adelaide’s room, her creation and design. When translating I aim not to rearrange too heavily, small touches, to extend my room metaphor, I suppose quarter-turn certain plants towards the window, smooth the covers, plump some pillows. Being in Adelaide’s room, the rooms of her poems and experiencing each of them was a joy and a challenge and a privilege.
AH: And they have incredibly tough subject matters.
RL: Incredibly tough, incredibly brave and dangerous too. Working with Adelaide probably did give me the permission, however subconsciously, to write ‘Helena.’
AH: Because it is a very tough poem. You give the story of the rape very clearly. It’s a horrible rape. We know it wasn’t the narrator’s experience. That’s made quite clear. It seemed to me something that was very important to get on the page. Rape is something that people do to each other, and the person to whom it’s done often feels so bad that they tend not to talk about it. That silence makes it more possible for the crime to continue.
RL: Absolutely. It was a tough poem to write – alleviated only by the fact that I kept going back to writing in our voices, and that did alleviate it in a way, because the way we used to speak, in a rush, all at once, angry and sad and laughing at once felt true, and like taking something back, her voice, her clear-as-a-bell voice. That’s what I think I wanted to get to with ‘Helena’. When things happened like that, we didn’t have the exact language, but we knew how to speak to each other, we knew how to tell each other things – but no power to actually help each other. Now, god forbid, if a friend of mine came and said something like this to me, I would be so better equipped, even in terms of language, and then other things thereafter, to be able to offer assistance to that friend if she wanted it. We didn’t, as girls. We glossed it over, at least in terms of what we said aloud, because we all knew that it was bad, but it was so bad the consequences of doing ‘nothing’ always seemed better than the repercussions of saying ‘something’ to people outside of our circle, outside of our experience and language.
AH: As human beings, when tough things happen to us, sometimes we shut them down to some extent, because we are at a point in our life when that’s the only safe thing to do. Helena said what happened, and then she took the shower. She was supported, and she took the shower, and washed it away. That’s an honest account of how we cope with very difficult things.
RL: I think about being that age again, with my girls, my sisters, my old friends or just other girls I went to school with. Really horrific things happened. Regularly. You’d come back to school on a Monday morning and each Monday there would be some standardly horrific story of what had happened at one party or another at the weekend, or at a bus stop, or in a local park. The frequency of these violences done unto us girls almost normalized it. It’s so heartbreaking to remember.
AH: I grew up in the late 70’s, early 80’s. I was reading Rebecca Solnit’s memoir, Recollections of my Non-Existence, which has just come out. She describes that omnipresent violence and threat of violence so strongly. I thought It wasn’t only me. She was having that experience on the West Coast of the US, in San Francisco. She described that predatory environment, being followed home, feeling that she was permanently on verge of being raped. She managed to escape rape, but some of her friends didn’t.
RL: This is not even a long time ago. So, it makes me glad to measure at least how far we’ve come in terms of speaking out about these. I think we have to be careful, or I do, not to be angry with our previous selves, because that was the world only moments ago, and it was the world that made those conditions, not us.
AH: Often when I have written about something difficult, I do a short Buddhist meditation around self-compassion. I never think I need to. But then I do it – and I feel so much less bad. I have to keep going back and being kind to that girl who I was.
RL: We had to survive in the only ways we thought were available and possible, right?
AH: I think a lot of tough things that happen to us as children, as adolescents, as young women, we seal away inside ourselves. We build protective tissue around them. At a later point, we often have to deal with them. When you’re young, you’ve got such a strong instinct just to survive, that you keep going through it somehow. I think you have a different level of life energy at that point, that drives you forward. It changes as we get older. That’s my sense of looking back on the hair-raising escapades of my teenage self, operating in a menacing world.
This is the point at which Rachel Long and I felt there was a natural break. In the conversation that follows, which was all part of our single meeting, we talk about how you can respond with agency and creativity to very difficult experiences, and the ways in which this process of articulation can become of itself reclamatory and healing.
AH: This seems the right place to ask you about the sequence of five or so poems within My Darling from the Lions, recording the sexual abuse of a young girl child by one of the minsters in the church she attends with her family, and the aftermath of this crime in her subsequent life. Because of my own background of having been sexually abused as a child, these made a great impression on me from when I first heard you perform them live. The first of these is ‘Night Vigil’, which is the third poem in the collection. It begins in a child-adult voice “I was a choir-girl. Real angel/ – lightning faced and giant for my age.” There is tongue in cheek wonder at its midnight start – “a time too exciting to fathom. / How the minute and the hour stood to attention!” The miracle stops there, however, as the rest of the poem falls down through time, to an ending its beginning could never have anticipated:
During the Three Members’ Prayer, my sister fell asleep under a chair, so she never knew
how I sang. Or how I fell silent when the evangelist with smiling eyes said in his pulpit voice,
Here, child. Had she woken, I would have told her Sleep, sleep!
so, she’d never know Smiling Eyes also meant teeth,
or that he had blown candles for hands, with which he led me down an incensed corridor,
and I followed.
While this is a very difficult experience to take on board, you generate protection for the reader and creator alike through the child’s desire to shelter her sister, and through the way the imagery lets what happened be apprehended step by step. The “blown candles” and “incensed corridor” are simultaneously sacred and penetrative. We have in that moment the choice to understand the simultaneous desecration of an act of faith, and a child’s body.
Workshops I have taken with you instigate an alchemy of deep, internal self-liberation. ‘Free-writing’, along with engaging with secondary sources, such as dreams or artworks, help generate less ‘managed’ creative responses? Was that how you put ‘Night Vigil’ together? How did it come into being kind of creatively?
RL: Maybe I should keep a kind of diary or a log of how each poem was written because I find it really hard to remember them.
AH: Like dreams.
RL: They are like dreams, that’s perfect Alice. Yeah, they are like my dreams. I can’t remember how I got there. Even sometimes with the edits, if I was to go back and find a real old version of that poem, I wouldn’t remember it. The only thing I do remember is that this poem was much longer. At that time, I was on the Jerwood-Arvon mentoring scheme with Caroline Bird. She was the first person to read that poem. As I said, I was grateful for the way Caroline read me. I had never written like this before. I had never framed such a peak experience. She didn’t do that awkward thing that people do, she read it as an artwork, or a draft of a work of art, and did not focus on the ‘apparently personal’ experience in the poem, but the poem as an experience itself. I’m trying to recall now, and I think part of what made the early draft longer is that it continued with the girl down the corridor. Caroline asked, why don’t you end it here?” — end at the girl following the man down the corridor, the poem becoming the corridor. In this way, the reader experiences it as the little girl, and becomes the girl, walking, ever-walking down that corridor with that man. The corridor then also becomes a metaphor for how the experience goes on, haunts you in many ways, forever.
AH: Exactly, and it’s much scarier.
RL: Much scarier, yes. And then she went “whoosh” with the pen, and she was like What do you think? And it kind of made me go eurgh like in my stomach. I was like yes; this is what it felt like. As a poem that was the closest and most fitting frame for it. If you end a poem in a place where you have refrained from summing it up or allowing your older voice to come in and intercept it – you leave the reader in freefall.
AH: That is an amazing answer. It’s just a stunning, stunning poem. I heard you perform it live, and really longed for the time it would be published, and I could read it on the page because it felt so important to me personally.
RL: Is that when we met that night, was that in the Poetry Cafe with Kaveh Akbah?
AH: I think so, yeah.
RL: It was so beautiful, and you were so generous afterwards, thank you.
AH: It was just so impactful for me. I had a hunger to be able to have those poems on the page. I knew they would make my life feel different – and they did. I’m really serious about that. There are many reasons why this collection has been important to me, but I hungered to be able to read those poems.
The next poem but one after ‘Night Vigil’ is ‘The Clean’. It starts out sounding like it’s ‘about’ bulimia – “Imagine/ eating all the snow/ you’ve ever wanted/ in one sitting, / not having to pay for it.” But then, after adding in “avocado”, “toast butter/ cascading your fingers” and “pink prosecco”, it morphs into something sadder. Or maybe just more specific, if you take the view that many eating disorders stem from something the individual cannot stomach. The second stanza reveals:
I know a place that is snow falling from the Artex ceiling into a room you will never return to. A promise piling like cable knit. 4-ply snow-day snow.
Some of the biggest things I write about are things which I had the least control over, but which have impacted me very deeply. Following on from ‘Night Vigil’, this room full of falling snow feels like a frozen, traumatic moment which is continuously happening, but cannot at the same time be properly felt. Does that seem like a fair reading to you, and would you be able to say something about these first two stanzas?
RL: I think it’s a stunning reading. What I wanted to do with ‘The Clean’ was to write about a woman with bulimia, and then in the second stanza, perhaps trace through the colour as it was, through this whiteness. But then in the same sense, trying to walk through the colour into why this woman is kneeling at this bowl of whiteness and expelling. Without wanting to say explicitly, because I don’t even know if that is necessarily explicit even to my understanding, but to wonder whether that because of sexual abuse, in childhood in that snow room, as in that frozen room, whether that is the reason, or a contributing reason, to why she has bulimia.
Is there something about her body that would be less, have been less desirable to someone else had she looked different? Had she been in a different body, if her body did something different, would that be able to change the outcome? This is what you said about lack of control. Bulimia is very much about what can and cannot be controlled.
AH: This is a generalization, but ever since the sexual abuse began when I was a child, I have always struggled with IBS. It is as if my body wants to throw things out. The snow room isn’t the end of ‘The Clean’, though. The final verse begins “I know a place where/ the sad can’t go.” Now, expulsion becomes a political act as the speaker instructs the protagonist “Go on, baby, give it back/ to whence it came. / Dispel three dinosaur dinners/ like forgiveness, / like it never happened.” The subject is told “Girl, you can be new, / surrender it all/ into one bowl. This, / your hollow.” The suggestion is that voiding, and expelling, are also creative acts, because resisting and rejecting what was forced in without consent. In this context, is it fair to think the holding pages of the collection make a kind of bowl, and create opportunities for restitution? Not just by vomiting forth, but by expressing things that were silenced at lots of levels.
AH: It seems to me that the turn in the poem was crucial. That’s why I wanted to put the question into two halves, that turn into restitution and beauty, without denying.
RL: Thank you, Alice. An act of restitution and freedom from your own body. You can be free of it. An action can be erased. You can float above it.
AH: Speaking it and putting it in words is part of that process of creative expulsion.
RL: Yeah, absolutely. You have reminded me. I always did feel like that – free and light.
AH: I am really interested in how we make it through and how we make it through partly creatively as well. Rather than just casting people as being without agency, also looking at the ways in which we claim ourselves. Bulimia is widespread through society. Many people experience who are not necessarily artists. There is a sort of restitutory justice in the body somehow.
Suggesting that maybe something has shifted, and become freer as a result of this act of voiding and voicing, the next poem, ‘Open’, moves from a place of potential trauma to one of freedom:
This morning, she told me I sleep with my mouth open and my hands in my hair. I say, What, Tiff, like screaming? She says, No, Rach, like abandon.
It is one of a sequence of poems, all titled ‘Open’, that link and orchestrate the collection, changing small but significant details with each iteration. You said in your Forwards interview with Kim Moore that Don Patterson encouraged you to develop this strand. I wondered if you could say something more about it?
RL: I was speaking to the brilliant Nuar Alsadir about dreams for a radio programme. She said something like, I liked the ‘Open’ sequence, I liked how they show these flashes of awakenings, these flashes of desire. She thought that they showed the waker’s unconscious desires. More and more with this book, post-publication, I discover new things in it. Oftentimes by readers – who have far more insight than me into what I have apparently ‘done’. Don Paterson really did encourage them significantly, I think originally there were three, but he suggested weaving them throughout the whole first section of the book. As soon as he suggested it, I was like, of course! It made poetic sense, narrative sense. Don is an extraordinary editor. I think that increasing my explorations into that ‘Open’ sequence opened up what the whole book concerns and interrogates, intimacy, desire, dreams, the material and immaterial, appearance and reality.
AH: I make all my work completely blind like a mole digging for the surface, with no clue really as to what I am doing. You find out later. The news catches up with you.
RL: I like that, like moles.
AH: We have very, very powerful paddles for digging up through the earth, as far I’m concerned. I have to work blind. I can’t just sit down and do it. It has to come to me.
AH: ‘8’ is another poem which continues ‘The Clean’s’ process of marking the white page. Its act of witnessing is also the relocation of a moment of private, concealed horror to a public externalized space. As with ‘Night Vigil’, the speaker moves back and forward between being a bewildered, uncomprehending child to a more knowing adult. So, readers can have a sense of how the poem works, I’m going to quote the first section in full:
‘Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean: wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.’ – Psalm 51:7
this memory can’t skip it hops on one leg the other making the buckles on my mary janes bounce then clang cute shackles my feet will hopscotch-land on 8 wash me at 8 I can’t tell time i’m led through school and play tea then bed at 8 i can’t read faces tell hands to stop unfreeze my grin that room his weight wash me and I shall be the girls at school call that place mini but mum says it’s a front bottom
Later “time decides itself till i’m pressed/ apple against that wall that sunday/ that school”. The voice of the poem is somewhere between a playground skipping song and a crime scene report, with “wash me” breaking through over and over again like a child’s plea to undo the moment when “touched/ by the hand of his clock i am/ instantly older”.
While the narrative is devastating, sonically, this is a very lovely poem, especially when you perform it live, partly because of the way the rhymes and half-rhymes dance through the lines. I wondered whether choosing to tell ‘8’ in this way – weaving the everyday words the child might have used into the story it is suggested that she was unable to tell – is a form of restitution and reclamation of the child’s self and innocence, conferring a retrospective agency through beauty, and as well as through witness?
RL: The language had to be the language of the girl at eight. The lines all being of eight syllables was because I had the image of the girl playing hopscotch, the beat, the rhythm, the form came from that. Even like the lower-casing of the letters. I wanted it to look and feel on the page as if she is writing and/or telling it.
AH: Because it is the only lower case i/ first person in the collection?
RL: It felt right for this poem. She has been made less of a capital I, rendered less of a person by another, a big I.
AH: But it’s also like a sort of crime scene report. I mean we get what went on. She speaks, but she is also spoken for by the poem. That to me is its power. She stays small but the poem is actually pretty hardcore in what it delivers. That’s an amazing achievement that you can do both at the same time.
RL: Thank you Alice. Do you know, it also came out of, Kathryn Maris’s brilliant Poetry School class which we were both students of at the same time One week she set us an assignment to write in the intonation or rhythm of a prayer. What I handed in the week after was not very good, but with much longer to think about it and let it ruminate and ‘come out’ in its own time, I do think that exercise was the catalyst for ‘8’
AH: Some of her prompts were very valuable to me. I did a really good Poetry School workshop with Shivanee Ramlochan online at the end of 2019. There are some poems that I very very definitely have no intention of ever writing. Those are the ones that it is useful to have prompts for – because otherwise I will strenuously protect myself from writing them for decades. A prompt can knock out that little peg that you have blocked into the hole. Then the poem pops out.
Thinking about healing, wholeness, and restitution, are central to the beginning of the second section, titled ‘A Lineage of Wigs’. The first poem, ‘Orb’, floats like a rainbow soap bubble of a praise poem. It calls to mind some of Selima Hill’s brevity, but takes it to new places:
Mum combs her auburn ‘fro up high. So high it’s an orb. Everyone wants to – but cannot – touch it.
The “auburn ‘fro” is an angel’s halo vested in human form, and an emblem of unbroken-ness. Is that ‘perfection’ something you wanted to assert and reclaim?
RL: Yes, absolutely. The word orb changed. It was crown at first, because in that sequence there is the image of the queen arrowed on a sofa.
AH: Yeah, I remember that.
RL: It did sort of look like that. I think to me when I was younger, looking up at my mother . I’m really enjoying the way that you have read and seen the poem. That was exactly what I wanted to do with it. I’m so glad you have read and seen it like that.
AH: It felt like a really important reset point. We go from a tough poem to a place of wholeness and beauty and unbrokenness. The last question I’d like to ask you is about the title and the cover, which shows a young Black girl in a candy striped dress, with her back to the reader, looking inwards towards the poems that lie ahead. Can I just ask you about the title?
RL: My Darling from the Lions is taken from Psalm 35. ‘Rescue my soul from their destruction, my darling from the lions.’ It is a ’ Psalm that I heard a lot growing up, either hearing it recited in church, or by my mother from her bedroom, or we were instructed to say it, for protection or for strength. The collection wasn’t always called My Darling… Even up to a year before publication it had a different working title. But, for some reason, I must have read Psalm 35 again or seen something of it, or was reminded of it, and by this verse particularly and it was as if it was the first time I’d read it, I was like that’s so beautiful. A darling for a soul. There is so much rich and stunning language in the Bible, the poetry of it all. . When I read that verse again, I thought, this is what I am trying to get to with the collection. The girls and the women particularly are threatened by different lions. I wanted it to be a sort of a call for help and protection from something higher, whether that be God, or art. I wanted the collection to pose the question: can the spirit survive life intact? I also love the idea of referring to oneself as a darling. You can, even when something ugly has happened to you, begin to love yourself enough to refer to yourself as you would another woman or another girl. I would call Tiff or Helena darlings. Hey, my loves, my darlings.
AH: That’s absolutely beautiful. I think that’s the perfect place at which to end. It’s been an amazing privilege to talk about this extraordinary book. I have waited a long time to be able to hold these poems. I’m so grateful that they are out in the world – and that they will be coming out in America as well with Tin House. My Darling from the Lions is a wonderful book to read – and will change how people think. Thank you Rachel Long.
RL: Thank you so very much, Alice.
Rachel is at @rachelnalong on twitter.
Rachel Long’s debut collection, My Darling from the Lions was published by Picador in August 2020. It was shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection, and The Costa Book Award 2020. Rachel is the founder of Octavia Poetry Collective for women of colour.
Poet Andrea Gorman spoke out at Joe Biden’s inauguration against the force in America that would rather ‘shatter our nation rather than share it’. In her stunning poem, ‘The Hill We Climb’, she stated instead ‘there is always light…./If only we’re brave enough to be it.’ Anyone listening will have felt the restitutionary power of her words, written and delivered, as she stated, by “a skinny Black girl, descended from slaves and raised by a single mother.’
Globally, one of the most necessary questions today is around who gets heard – and who does not. It has been at the heart of the Black Lives Matter movement. It is equally central to the legacies of empires round the world, as Satham Sanghera argues in his powerful new study, Empireland, and to our relationship to our environment and the fair distribution of its resources.
Being heard is also crucial in poetry, as two new collections by Pascale Petit and Romalyn Ante remind us. Pascale Petit’s Tiger Girl draws the life of her half-Indian grandmother, born in secret to her great-grandfather’s serving maid, together with conditions in and around the Tiger reserves of Central India. Romalyn Ante’s Antiemetic for Homesickness explores more recent experiences of migration to the UK, and working within the NHS, against the healing, nurturing background of the Filipino culture which her family brought with them, and which continues to shape their understanding of themselves in the world.
I had the great privilege of hosting a performance and conversation between Pascale Petit and Romalyn Ante, towards the end of 2021, with a very enthusiastic live audience. Immediately afterwards, coming up to the holiday period, with infection levels rising steeply, and restrictions changing all the time, was not the right time to share the recording.
But now, with the UK, Europe, and much of the rest of the world, in varying degrees of lockdown, and everyone still separated in physical terms from each other, co-experiencing resources such as this conversation seem to be of the utmost importance in maintaining our sense of connectedness with each other as fellow human beings, and as creative artists.
To maximise accessibility, I have transcribed both my own introduction, and the conversation between the three of us. To experience the full event, specifically and crucially, Pascale Petit’s and Romalyn Ante’s readings of their poems, please click on either the video or audio links below. The video link has close captions enabled via Youtube, although you will need to turn these on in the control bar at the bottom right of the screen. Apologies for the occasional surreal spellings.
If you would like to see the texts of the poems, they are available in Tiger Girl and Antiemetic for Homesickness through the buy buttons below. There are also links to some of the published poems on Romalyn Ante’s and Pascale Petit’s websites.
alice hiller’s introduction to Pascale Petit and Romalyn Ante, 26 November 2020:
After a rough year and a tough November, it’s a real pleasure to welcome you to this act of creative community. We’re here to celebrate the deep, healing play of Pascale Petit’s and Romalyn Ante’s brilliant new collections, Tiger Girl and Antiemetic for Homesickness. Both Pascale and Romalyn are poets of courage, as well as of distinction.
In a week when we learnt that the UK’s foreign aid budget commitment will be broken, and while so many vulnerable voices are being excluded from the global conversation, Pascale and Romalyn give witness to a wider range of experiences than many poets. They also help us ask ourselves and our governments, whose foot is being kept on whose head?
Writing about life in the Philippines, Welsh gardens, and the stunning nature reserves of central India, Pascale and Romalyn move our minds to places of delight – even as they remind us that the world is still far from being a fair or kind place for many human and creaturely lives, and the fragile ecosystems and economies which sustain them.
Our format tonight will be that Romalyn will read from Antiemetic for Homesickness, published by Chatto, followed by Pascale from Tiger Girl, published by Bloodaxe. Afterwards, I’ll open a conversation between them.
Before the readings, I’d like to say a few words about Pascale and Romalyn. Winner of the Ondaatje Prize, and inaugural Laurel Prize for Mama Amazonica, amongst very many other distinguished awards, Pascale Petit is also a radically empowering supporter of new voices in poetry through her mentoring, teaching and judging, as Romalyn and I can both testify.
Over eight collections, Pascale’s poems have brought an artist’s eye to the Amazon river and its rainforest, the arid landscapes of the Languedoc, and the markets and historic sites of Paris including her beloved Jardin des Plantes. Tiger Girl, from which she’ll be reading shortly, gives us one of the most life-filled portraits of a woman of colour, and of mature years, that I have read in a long time. It should be bought for that reason alone, aside from its many other treasures.
Moving between between continents, Tiger Girl documents Pascale’s time growing up in Wales with her fierce half-Indian grandmother – who took in washing, told fortunes and made her garden a canvas equal to any artist’s. The poems also respond to Pascale’s experiences on recent trips to nature reserves in Central India. Celebrating the magnificent wild creatures who inhabit those parks, Pascale also registers the damage to them by poverty-stricken poachers, from whose social class her Indian great-grandmother, her great-grandfather’s maid, would have come.
Mentored like me by Pascale under the Jerwood Arvon scheme, which brought the three of us together, Romalyn shares with Pascale an intuitive sense of the mythic residing within the everyday. She is similarly the recipient of many distinguished awards, including the Poetry London Prize, the Manchester Poetry Prize, the Primers Prize, and the Creative Futures Platinum Award.
Having grown up in the Philippines until she was sixteen, before coming to Wolverhampton, and subsequently training as a NHS nurse and then counsellor, Romalyn conveys how “the wind has the ears of a wild boar” and explains why you have to turn your shirt inside out to find your way home, whether that home is warmed by the “smoke of a Brummie accent”, or cooled by the night breeze.
Antiemetic for Homesickness moves compellingly between the landscapes, and foods, and folklore of the Philippines – and life as a nurse within the NHS, while living in the Black Country. Exploring what it can mean to make the UK your home, Romalyn also witnesses the racism to which so many people who come here have been subjected, and how they have made strong, creative lives notwithstanding the challenges faced.
The co-founder of the wonderful harana poetry, for poets working with English as a parallel or additional language, like Pascale, Romalyn is both an outstanding poet, and a key figure for the expansion of the possible in poetry, both through her own work, and her support for others. She also gives us life from a nurse’s point of view, as never before, another reason to buy her essential Antiemetic for Homesickness. It’s my great pleasure now to hand over to Romalyn Ante.
[Romalyn Ante and Pascale Petit introduce and read their poems, available via the Youtube or Audio links.]
AH: That was fantastic Pascale. Thank you so much. It’s amazing to hear the two of you reading together. I’m going to ask you a few questions because I’ve lived with, loved and thought about your collections since they were published. The first question is about making worlds visible that are known to you, but not to your readers? Pascale, I’m thinking both about your poems about wildlife in Indian National Parks, but also about your poems about life in rural Wales? Romalyn, I’m thinking about your poems about rural life in the Philippines, but also about the day to day life of a nurse in the NHS? We can really feel the worlds you both have made in your poems. I wondered if that was an important part of making them?
RA: Thank you Alice. That’s a very important question. In the UK Filipinos are the second highest immigrant NHS staff, next to Indians. In the US the highest number of immigrant nurses are Filipinos. Most recently, specially during this pandemic, the West has been really dependent on migrant nurses but little is known about us, our own narratives, our own lives. I feel that mostly people only see us on the surface without knowing our pasts and our own tales, why we came here. I have people commenting to me ‘So you’re Filipino. If you’re Filipino, where are you from? Are you from Korea then?’ They don’t even know what a Filipino is. There are also some readers’ comments. You shouldn’t really read GoodReads comments. But I do. I read my reviews because I want to improve. There are some comments, ‘I don’t know. I can’t relate.’ But for me the truth is unfamiliarity, the state of being unknown, is not the same as non-existence. Migrant nurses exist. We do exist in this world. But somehow we are not known and what puzzles me is why is the United Kingdom or the West so dependent on a sector of people that has so little voice, and that has never been heard of. And this is the reason why I wrote this. To really show them not only the physical place we came from, but also to show them our narrative, what propels us to do this.
AH: That’s a fantastic answer. Thank you so much.
PP. Thank you. Roma that was fantastic. With Tiger Girl, I wanted to honour my grandmother, and write a book almost of love poems, you know, and acknowledge that she was the daughter of a maid and she was taken in by her father’s white family and she was very poor when I lived with her in Wales. We didn’t have indoor toilets or running water. Really quite poor. Children don’t notice that. What I did notice was an enormous garden and lots of animals, and the incredible world of the garden which she worked in all the time, and which I worked in for her as well. That’s one half of the book. The other is where she came from. The story of the tiger, and my wanting to see tigers, and to see this wildness that she came from, that she’d encountered as a baby, and the terrible realisation that that wildness is so so threatened and endangered. Even the tigers that are safe are fighting each other. Daughters kill mothers and so on because the forests are too small for them. Even though the tourists are only allowed in 20% of the National Parks. There’s still not enough space. They have enormous territories. Having seen the tigers, and seen how – I’ve seen wild jaguars as well in the Amazon rainforest – to see what they are like, in their territories in the wild, is so different from seeing them in zoos. Of course there are far more tigers in zoos than there are in India. There’s about 2,800 in India, and only a handful elsewhere. So that was the world I was trying to bring forward.
AH: Most of us never get to those reserves, to see them through someone’s eyes, to see them emotionally, rather than just on a wildlife documentary, is incredibly powerful. I really appreciated that. My next question is you both work within your collections with a powerful and healing female figure. For Pascale, it is your grandmother. For Romalyn, it is your nurse mother. Did it feel important to honour the ways in which we as women can nurture each other?
RA: Yes, definitely. In Antiemetic for Homesickness the mother is the one who leaves to provide a better life for her family. So if you think about it, the mother is away from the very essence of being a mother, which is to take care of her own children. And I think by shedding light on that fact, I also needed to shed light on the fact that in leaving there could also be healing. So even though the mother has left, as a sacrifice almost, she still heals the socio-economic problems that her family has. She still heals people abroad. She heals people where she works. That’s incredibly important for me, not only as a nurse, but also as a daughter of a migrant nurse. I feel very similar to Pascale, writing about the voicing of the poet is really healing the world that is full of annihilation.
PP: When I wasn’t with my grandmother, I was in various homes and things in France. If I was with my parents, it was a bad experience. I eventually went to live with my mother when I was a teenager, when my grandmother kind of threw me out, which she had to do, she was tired, she had a teenager on her hands. But my mother was severely mentally ill, and couldn’t really look after me, and was a malevolent force for me. I had a malevolent maternal figure there, so it was wonderful for me to have a chance in this book to write about a really benevolent figure, who not only was benevolent, but was a very powerful person. She was known as the local witch where we lived. As a good witch, but she was. And she also had an extraordinary second sight. I did have the experience of being with her and her telling me about ghosts. For example she saw the postman who lived down our lane. For example she said ‘I’ve just seen him walking down our lane and he said hello to me as if everything was normal but his feet were floating off, weren’t touching the ground, so I knew he was a ghost. I knew he had just died.’ And he had. So there were always those kind of experiences going on. She also used to tell fortunes. People in the village used to come. The vicar and the doctor would come to have their fortunes told. I would go with her as well to fairs to see her tell fortunes.
AH: Looking back, women have been disempowered for centuries. It’s really important that we make work than honours female power, female goodness. It seems to me a very positive thing to do. But at the same time these healing figures work within very injurious and injured societies and you both show them as being capable of deeply wounding those who are dependent on their care and provision. Pascale, you explore your grandmother returning you to your mother. Romalyn, you look at the impacts on you of being separated from your mother when she goes to nurse abroad, and not seeing her for several years. In each case, the wounding behaviour is driven by larger socio-economic pressures, and the vulnerable positions which these women occupy. The fact that your mother left the Philippines to give you and your siblings a better life, Romalyn. It was the only way she could materially improve your lives. Your grandmother had very limited resources Pascale. We’re now talking in the pandemic about the impact of material strain, of poverty, on families. Was it also important to show that in difficult circumstances even loving people can in injurious ways, through no real volition of their own. Or does that feel too challenging?
PP: It can’t be challenging. You need to write the truth. For me, I was thirteen. So the injury wasn’t being moved from my grandmother. I was still a child. She was still the best thing that ever happened. The real wound was not being allowed to grieve her loss, when I lived with my mother. That was the wound. I never realised that I wasn’t allowed to grieve. I just knew it was a subject that mustn’t be mentioned. I wasn’t allowed to grieve for my grandmother, who I saw as my mother, because my mother couldn’t bear that.
RA: I think what you said a while ago Alice really resonated with me, when you said we left because we were propelled by socio-economic circumstances. See, even though in Antiemetic for Homesickness, the left-behind-child was left by her nurse mother, this story is not unique to me. It happens to a lot of children, millions of children around the world. Your parents don’t even need to go abroad for you to be a left-behind-child. In China, parents go to richer cities to help financially with the family. My mother left because she really had no choice. But then again, she made a choice. Her only choice was not having any choice. She left knowing that the people she would leave behind would be hurt. That knowledge hurt her, I’m sure, in return. For me it’s not just me who is wounded, it’s the mother who is wounded. It’s very timely and relevant to this day, especially when I see my colleagues, or my mother even, who has been going all around the country helping in the pandemic front line, my other Filipino colleagues who could choose not to go home, as their homes across the street, so they don’t put their children at risk of Covid. So mothers have always been leaving their children, and this story has always been happening. But then again, it’s not the children who get hurt. The wounded one is also the mother. And I think that’s what Antiemetic for Homesickness is also about.
AH: That really comes across. It’s very important. I see we’re coming to the end of the time. I have one final question. While neither of you holds back from speaking about difficult subjects, both collections give the gift to their readers of being able to abide in beauty. Romalyn, you let us glimpse the pre-colonised life, and warmth of community, in the Philippines. Pascale, your work gives itself deeply to the natural world. Was that an important thing to do, to give the gift of beauty, when the world is facing so much difficulty?
PP: Absolutely. You can’t write about the threats to the natural world without showing why, without trying to show – it’s a real challenge – the awe and the wonder of it. That’s something I’ve always felt. You have to show what it is you’re trying to protect. What the non-human world is. I keep getting these flashes which are images of the planet without one human life on it, without animals, and that’s like hell. I don’t want that to happen. But I need to show the beauty and the awe. The wonder of tigers.
AH: Absolutely. Stay with the programme Pascale! Romalyn?
RA: I echo what Pascale has said. It’s very true to me. It’s also one of the reasons, when Chatto asked me what kind of cover I wanted, I really wanted it to be colourful, with some kind of insignias of the Philippines, the sun bird, the abaniko flower. For me these beautiful images serve as anchors, and guides, that will lead us back to healing, and perhaps to hope. It’s very similar to what we hope for now. We look for that beauty. When we can go again to our favourite coffee shops again, or we can hug our parents again, or meet up with our friends. I think that’s very important to look for beauty, because beauty gives hope.
AH: I think that’s the perfect note on which to end. I’m going to thank everyone who’s joined us. I’m going to especially thank Pascale and Romalyn for these two brilliant books. The season of gifting is coming upon us. These have to be top of your list. This has been a stunning evening. Thank you so much. Everybody, buy the books. Thank you so much.
This spring and summer, when travel of any distance has been more or less impossible for most of us, I have consoled myself with words that do the journeying for me. Two books which have drawn me back again and again are Nina Mingya Powles’ debut collection, Magnolia, published by Nine Arches Press, and her collection of essays, Tiny Moons, which move between Shanghai and Wellington and Malaysia, published by the Emma Press. Within their pages I can cycle through the swamp-hot summer nights of the deserted student campus in Shaghai, or climb into rain forests, or swim in the freezing, exhilarating Southern Ocean and warm myself afterwards with a bowl of dumplings.
Nina’s description of tearing the papery inner skin from the pink flesh of a pomelo, and the sweet sting of the flesh inside, encouraged me to buy my first fruit, in a beautiful printed wrapper which felt like a journey of its own even before I peeled open the yellow globe of the fruit.
As an act of thanks for this, I’m reprinting the review I wrote in harana poetry for Nina’s now sold out pamphlet, field notes on a downpour. This is one of the segments of her debut Magnolia, currently on the Forwards prize shortlist. I’ve included a photo I took of a magnolia in Golders Green just before lockdown last spring. For all of us with dual or multiple heritages Nina’s work is a place where we can find and understand ourselves, and know that being made from many places can gift us with a richness that is also strength.
From harana poetry, issue 1.
For her pamphlet field notes on a downpour, self-proclaimed“mudblood” Nina Mingya Powles travels out of English back towards her mother’s Chinese mother-tongue. Powles previously wrote about this process in prose about living in Shanghai. Neither the narrator, nor the city, of this eight page pamphlet are directly named, however. Instead, their identities accrete over time within the pages, like the Chinese characters whose processes of formation and signifying Powles explores. She begins:
The first character of my mother’s name, 雯 wen, is made of rain 雨 and language 文. According to my dictionary, together they mean “multi-coloured clouds” or “cloud tints.”
Mouthfuls of rain, the blue undersides of clouds, her hydrangeas in the dark. To stop them from slipping I write them down.
By hearing, and seeing, the sound “wen” transliterated into English, followed by its Chinese character, and then the two characters from which this is made up – rain and language – the process of signing simultaneously enacts and undoes itself. We recognise the dashes which mark the rain within the ‘rain’ character. We then experience the “mouthfuls of rain” which the words become as they enter mouths that speak them, and minds that think them, before mutating through the cloud imagery into “her hydrangeas in the dark”.
This could be Katherine Mansfield territory, about whom Powles has previously written – except that everything is taking place in a city where “old/ buildings are crushed to pieces” and “the subway map rewrites/ itself each night”. The second page introduces a second unnamed character, whom the speaker connects with a modern form of illumination – and also something rooted in the past: “Not long after we met I learnt the word [ ] neon, which is both a type of light, and a/ type of memory.” Attempting to come closer to each other through language on the third page, the pair find it multiplying and sliding away from them, towards the bodies in which we imagine they may also meet:
One night you said my name in the dark and it came out like a ghost 鬼 from between two trees 林. A ghost that rhymes with apath between rice fields which rhymes with a piece of steamed bread which rhymes with paralysis of one side of the body which rhymes with thin blood vessels.
The fourth page opens itself onto watermelons and rain, and the complexities of a tonal language where “More than a hundred characters share the same sound. // ‘zong.’” Their meanings include a variety of mark-makings – “footprint, trace” and “the uneven flight of a bird”. The fifth page uses the gaze of the “the lady at the fruit shop” to let us see the poet’s “half Chinese” face – “(She points to my hair). We come up against a word I don’t know. She draws a character in/ the air with one finger and it hangs there between us.”
“zong”: 总 assemble, put together / always 踪 footprint, trace 翪 the uneven flight of a bird
The sixth page runs into cracks in the ceiling – not unlike the strokes for characters – through which rain water drops onto the “you” and the “I”. Afterwards the poet notes that “two hundred white tundra swans were found dead beside a lake in Inner/ Mongolia.” Doubling the hundred-plus meanings of “zong” – the rupture which this collective swan death entails also visits itself on a jar of honey which “shattered softly, the/ pieces melting apart in my hands.”
On the seventh page, the differences between animate and inanimate dissolve, within “ming”’s refractions of meaning and sound, all rhyming with “the first part of my Chinese name”. Powles, who has through this part-named herself, discovers “I am a tooth-/like thing. I am half sun half moon, and the scissors used to cut away the steamed lotus/ leaves. I am honey strokes spreading over the tiles.”
On the luckiest eighth and final page the word “honey” migrates into a “honey pomelo” being sliced by a man with “a faded tattoo of a knife on the back of his hand,/ the blade adjacent to his thumb” – as if he were the human equivalent of a written character, with his meaning marked onto him. Building and collapsing houses of word cards, field notes on a downpour reaches through language towards the images which it evokes in our minds to ask how we exist to ourselves and others, within and beyond the ways in which we communicate.
To read the whole review, which also talks about works by Belinda Zhawi, Raymond Antrobus, Mary Jean Chan and Lila Matsumoto, please follow this link to harana 1:
Traveller, writer, theatre-maker, and freestyler, Arji Manuelpillai is a poet whose work has always derived energy and resonance from its live components. While Mutton Rolls, his debut pamphlet from Out-Spoken, was launched online from his living room in lockdown, this in no way diminished audience numbers, or the warmth of their appreciation. Mutton Rolls’ poems find their subjects in UK raves and garage forecourt shops, but also on Sri Lankan beaches and in the aftermath of bombings and tsunamis. Like strobe lights flashing moments of visibility, they illuminate growing up in Britain with the double consciousness that derives from knowing your parents and family once lived somewhere else, and explore what it means not always to be made to feel welcome. Witty, joyous, and irreverent, the poems we talk about do not hesitate to call out the unacceptable. They can spin in a second to catch your heart – and hold it in a net of words that makes it beat differently when let go again.
AH: I’d like to start by asking you about your experience of the last few months Arji. You launched Mutton Rolls within the full UK lockdown. You also ran free poetry workshops with special guests on zoom which attracted huge attendances during the months when we were largely unable to meet in the physical world. How has this been for you?
AM: Such a pleasure to be here with you Alice and thanks so much for taking the time to chat to me. It has been a whirlwind few months. With so much of our collective futures turned upside down, I’ve found it difficult to manage my own expectations and keep the positivity up. However, in another way I have lived my whole life as a freelancer and with that sort of lifestyle comes an ability to adapt to the challenges with innovation and creativity. I can think of nothing worse than being furloughed at home being unable to work on new projects. So I was thankful for the opportunity to start Arji’s Poetry Jam, to continue with workshops with young people, help create a Refugee Week education resource for Kazzum Arts, and to plan and deliver a great release party for the pamphlet. It has been interesting as I feel like the online thing has provided people with greater accessibility in many ways. It creates a global playing field with fans for the workshops appearing in NZ, Finland, Canada and New York. It also made me feel like anything is possible with a little creativity. Right now, I’m spending a whole lot of time on Zoom but I’m really missing the real life groups, the community and the love of people connecting and creating together. I’m praying for the future, that we will return and still create wonderful work someday.
AH: I understand that. I feel the same way. It’s really fantastic that you have been able to continue to reach out and deliver to so many different groups against all the odds. People who want to find out more about these projects can check out the links on www.arji.org. Coming back to the current situation, you tweeted your uncle was one of the first doctors to die from COVID 19. The poem ‘after being called a paki’ confronts the racism which your father and his generation were met with on arrival in the UK. I wondered what it’s been like to publish a pamphlet which calls out UK racism past and present, and then have the #BlackLivesMatter movement rise up so powerfully here and round the world, speaking to and with so many of your themes?
AM: It has been so interesting to see how people respond to the poems about race. I’ve been surprised by some animosity towards poems like ‘white people’ and thenI’ve had some really heartfelt messages from other South Asian people who connect with the work. I hadn’t really realised how important it was to speak to my community and capture those feelings until it was actually out there. This was highlighted by a good friend of mine who doesn’t ‘do poems’, (those are the people I really love to reach). He told me how he had never found the words to say how he felt growing up as a British Asian but now suddenly the book had captured them. I felt moved by that. As the BLM thing started to rise I was fully engrossed, angry, unsurprised, pretty much like most of the minority communities – but as it moved forward I started to unpack some of the racism within the South Asian community. I think we have to remember that the racism that black people feel in this country is unique to this country and the people within it. Black people deserve this space for discussion and the recognition of the racism they face and it is up to us all to face that head on and bring sustainable change. That’s not to say the South Asian experience isn’t important or valid. It is just accepting that the grouping together of races doesn’t help any of us. I am fortunate to have worked with inspiring black men and women and will continue to fight for change and equality. I believe that this is a movement of hope and change is possible if we are willing to keep trying.
AH: I absolutely agree with you, and I think your work is unquestionably part of that larger movement, and has been for many years. Calling into question the stability and integrity of contemporary identities, and the pressures to which people can be subjected, your opening poem, ‘credit card’, begins “someone pretended to be me/ filled my details out online”. The intercepted card is imagined/described as being used to facilitate an impeccably ‘middle class’ spending spree which includes “crème fraiche” for leek and potato soup, and ends up funding a seat at a shared table in a café “on the white side of Peckham” where the thief is supposed to have:
had a tea and carrot cake read the paper, lent back in their seat
so their hands fell to their sides and the lady to the right casual as breathing pulled her handbag close
The only skin tone that is mentioned is “white”, but the “casual as breathing” action of the woman has the effect of putting the “someone” under suspicion for no reason that can be deduced from their tea drinking, paper reading or carrot cake eating. Would you be able to say something about the relationship between the speaking “me” and the observed “someone” in ‘credit card’, and why you chose to open Mutton Rolls with this poem?
AM: This poem is one of those poems that fell out of my head on a long walk. Someone actually did fraud my debit card and went to Morrisons and spent a small amount of money on groceries. I couldn’t get this idea out of my head, that someone was just hungry, no drugs, no alcohol, just hungry. All of those preconceived prejudice I had were thrown away. Almost in the same week I was in a theatre show, it was a play set in South Africa. In the middle of the piece I sat back in my seat and the lady beside me suddenly reached to her side, grabbed her bag and put it in her lap in the most awkward position. I sat there for 2 hours wanting to ask her why she had done that but I didn’t have the guts and it probably would have seemed over-the-top. As with many of my poems, it is the coming together of two contrasting ideas that gives birth to a real ‘charged’ feeling. So, let’s go back to the debit card thief. I started imagining a whole world for this thief, I created short vignettes of them all round town and the question kept coming up as to why they might have stolen the card. I was moving towards the ‘someone’ wanting to feel like they were part of the elitist class, like they could dine in the places the middle class dine but at the bottom of all that, they never truly belong. I combined that idea with the concept that no matter how well the thief works, he can never shake his class away. Hence the lady pulling her bag in at the end. I love that poem as it is all about wanting to belong and that’s the reason I put it at the opening of the pamphlet.
AH: Wanting to belong gets imagined in a different way in ‘brown boys in Kavos.’ The poem begins among a “tulip-topped spliffs” and “the backwash of cheap vodka” at “4am in a balmy Greek heat.” A hymn to the hedonism of “rumbling dance floors”, its heroes are “four brown corduroy-coloured boys” who are “failing to get laid/ in the ‘getting laid’ capital of Greece.” Their charms are coming off worse to “sweaty charisma and beautiful blackness” on the one hand, and “glitter soaked torsos/ all fearless and normal and slavemastery.” Against this temporarily disheartening outcome, their salvation, and reclamation of themselves comes in their solidarity, as the sun calls into life a new day:
brown boys think themselves ugly
but not yet ugly because they are brown the sun is reaching over the rooftops brown boys light cigs and laugh an orgasm is caught in the breeze
I wondered if the idea of working collectively, and in concert with others, resonated with you, as part of a creative and transformative process?
AM: Everyone who knows me knows that I believe creativity is best enjoyed together. The camaraderie, the sharing of ideas, the spontaneity, I believe it is at the centre of a healthy mind and spirit. I have spent most of the last 15 years in participation arts because I truly believe making art together is integral to a happy society. In other parts of the world participatory arts is just art, by which I mean, everything is focussed around making art together. This is really true when we think about poetry.Poetry communities are integral to the scene, taking a poem to a group and sharing process is everything. Without it I really feel I would not be half the poet I am. This is one of the reasons why I feel there needs to be more mentorships for minority groups to encourage collaboration and connection. It is these communities that will nurture and grow Britain’s best new poems. Many publishers at the moment are asking for BAME poets to come forward but we need ‘quality’ – and to make ‘quality’ poets you need quality mentoring spread over long periods of time.
If you are interested in finding yourself a group perhaps start at The Poetry School where regular bursaries are available. Alternative options are Malika’s Kitchen and Covent Garden Stanza (run of course by you Alice). These are free groups but you will probably be asked to send samples. Loneliness is affecting us all at the moment so don’t sit in silence, connect with others and use art as a vehicle for transformation.
AH: Again, I can only agree. The Poetry Society co-ordinates Stanza groups up and down the UK, with further groups available in a few other countries, or with online membership. I’ll put details at the end of the interview. I know that the support of our stanza group really helped me personally during a very difficult few weeks in lockdown, It’s also been a fantastic place for me to try out new work in a safe place. Going back to Mutton Rolls, while ‘brown boys’ has a sunrise ending, ‘half catholic’ strikes a more sombre note. The first person speaker reveals himself to be a man who, while attracted to women, also responds to men with desire. As a woman who is drawn to both women, and men, this is a duality which I recognise. Reflecting how Catholicism can become a force which risks alienating people from themselves, the speaker remembers how:
at fifteen I touch a man in a way that makes me wish God didn’t exist
throw up behind a Ford Fiesta brush my teeth till the toothbrush snaps
“in Lourdes years later” he promises “not to want/ a man again” and prays for this to happen. Returning to the motif of theft, also present within ‘credit card’, the poem ends:
after the tsunami I watch a man
pickpocket a corpse quietly as though hiding it from the sky
The pickpocketing is presumably a matter of economic necessity, in order to ensure survival. I wondered if you could say something about why you chose to set those two narratives consecutively, and whether the reader was being asked to think about the historic thefts and appropriations of colonialism, and their enduring impacts through time?
AM: This poem is the coming together of a series of moments in my life. All of them are strung together through a feeling of humiliation and shame, a sense of not belonging and being unable to conform to a system that didn’t necessarily fit me both religiously, ideologically and spiritually. Landing in Sri Lanka during the Tsunami was one of the most pivotal moments of my life. It came at a time when I was turning to activism and God, observing the situation unravel was painful. I was amazed by the level of blind faith that many of the victims had, even after they had often lost their family, friends and livelihoods. Their faith gave them strength, it was something I envied but also something I ridiculed. This for me, connected the two parts of my upbringing. One side of me is always in awe of my heritage as a Sri Lankan Tamil, half Catholic and half Hindu. With that side comes all of the myths and stories and the rich cultural history of tradition and ritual. But the other British side was often disillusioned, faithless and sceptical of it all. That dichotomy is at the centre of the poem and a great deal of my work. I dabbled with the ending for a long, long time. Finally I came to this idea of a man stealing money while only caring about God watching. It seemed to connect to the British impact in Sri Lanka, it shows the power of capitalism and it also illustrates shame and it also connected with the desperation to survive.
AH: That’s an incredibly rich explanation Arji. It really captures how poems can hold multiplicities without forcing a single or simple resolution. Belinda Zhawi talked to me earlier in this series about the impacts of colonialism in Zimbabwe which was similarly powerful. There is an ongoing, and fruitful, tension in your work between narrating your experiences as a person, not least in several powerful break-up poems, and as a person of colour. Many writers are responding to this, not least the poet Cathy Park Hong in her study Minor Feelings, whose work speaks to many of us. ‘nominated for a BAME prize’ tackles this complexity head on, beginning “it’s always in capitals/ like someone is shouting it.” The speaker states “I feel almost unBAME// in my M&S shirt and trousers”, and seems to position the BAME branding as something which risks diminishing and ghettoising artists, and over-simplifying complex, nuanced narratives. Is that a fair reading?
AM: I think that is an extremely astute reading. I feel like BAME as a title has a truckload of problems associated with it. It boxes us all together, which dilutes the differentiation of culture between countries and religious groups. It gives people the perception that we are ‘all the same’ when in actual fact the continent of Asia is as diverse as you can get and Sri Lanka is a place made up of so many different minority groups. I totally sympathise with those that have tried to champion the representation of minorities in the arts but BAME is starting to feel a little dated. On top of this I’ve seen the term become quite divisive within the arts sector. Artists like me get a role or new project but it feels rather shadowed by the idea that ‘I only got it because I’m brown’. Often other artists may think me not deserving of the opportunity and that hurts. By segmenting us off, and doing call outs and competitions just for specific groups, it ends up feeling like we are in some way not applicable to the same rules of quality as our white counterparts. This is the opposite of what we as a society are trying to achieve. The funding and grant system in this country is creating divisions amongst artists, from those that do or don’t get funded, to those that can or can’t write an application form. Sometimes it feels like we spend so much of our time divided instead of innovating together.
I’m not sure what the answers are, but I believe the start is to have a universally clearer understanding of the differentiation between countries, cultures and traditions. When we begin to accept our own ignorance we will begin to move into a space where we are ready to grow and learn. This space is a position of true power.
AH: Undoubtedly your work is helping this transformation. The back cover of Mutton Rolls says you , like the speaker of ‘nominated for a BAME prize’, were “shortlisted for the Burning Eye BAME Pamphlet Prize 2018.” I wondered if I could ask you here something about the first person “I” of your poems? Do you see it as primarily specific, that is linking the work with you, Arji Manuelpillai, as a series of statements of witness? Or is it more a ‘first personal universal’, so that the I becomes a portal through which the reader can look with a greater degree of empathy and understanding? Or both?
AM: You are the first person to call this out. Yes, much as I love and respect Burning Eye, they did inspire that poem. After I was shortlisted I found it interesting how I didn’t tell my parents it was a BAME prize. I was almost embarrassed by it. So I create vehicles for the personal messages to travel through. I do feel like the work is reflective of where I was at during that time. I wanted it to be like a calling card for my style and voice. The voice is very much me, the situations (though not always completely true) are very much like me and I’m proud of that. I hope that they will provide a greater understanding and empathy from the reader but I also feel they are fragments of myself and not designed to lead or coax the reader into any set reaction. I think in the newer work I am creating I am more interested in the ‘I’ taking a back seat, perhaps even disappearing and allowing the reader space to walk around, wander and discover. I hope that doesn’t sound too over-the-top. I feel like my new work is going to discuss life in a whole new nuanced way and I’m super excited about it.
AH: I really look forward to those poems Arji. Many of your Mutton Rolls poems explore the emotional lives of men. ‘Cecilia says we’re all fucked up’ is an unpunctuated prose poem that explores the conversations between a psychotherapist and her client. There is a surface play of humour and irony, riffing on the neutral décor and demeanour of the therapist. This anodyne professional setting elicits the revelation “my friend died when I was 24 I never got to say goodbye.” After the apparently desultory meandering leading up to this, however, the closing lines have all the impact of being dropped down through a trap door
I was busy being strong that’s why abstract paintings work so well she’s leaning back must be time wipe the tears away like face paint how long before I’m wandering drunk down the Old Kent Road not knowing how I got there
Could you say something about the poem’s ending, and what it means to you to find forms through which to speak of things which can’t easily be said, but are powerful forces within our lives?
AM: This poem was a real turning point to me. The Cecilia in the poem is actually Cecilia Knapp and the poem came out of a need to connect many opposing internal dialogues with the running dialogue with a therapist. After I finished it I took it to a feedback session and I literally wasn’t sure whether it was good or really rubbish. I think the poem began to unpack a need I have to move towards reflecting the way the mind moves without the need for set narrative. My favourite poets are doing this currently, the work of poets like Jericho Brown, Chen Chen and Morgan Parker have led the way in this, but poets like Wayne Holloway Smith and Emily Berry have paved the way in England too. I feel that this poem was the start of that hunger and movement. The final lines took a lot to muster, the balance was integral and it was discussed over many a cup of tea with Hannah Lowe, who helped me learn about the soft step off. She always says ‘go in hard and get off lightly’ (or something like that). Finding this form and flipping the camera upside down allows us to capture the intricacies of this complex world that we live in. During this answer I’ve name-dropped a bit. I am doing this because it is important to remember that these poems are the product of many discussions, feedback sessions and books by other poets.
AH: You mentioned Wayne Holloway-Smith in the roll call. I know you’ve taken workshops with him. Wayne is concerned to investigate and call out how the complexities of masculinities are represented, and to challenge cultural and class stereotyping. To what extent do you feel your work is in conversation with his poems?
AM: Wow, I never thought of it like that. I’d be honoured for people to even consider them in connection with Wayne’s work. He has been a real inspiration to me. His work unpicks so much about being a man and growing up but it also deals with emotions in an incomplete and broken linear. The real admiration I have for Wayne is his attitude to poetry itself. His mindset is settled around feeling, process and freedom, not necessarily making sense or clarity of narrative. He isn’t bothered whether things look or sound like a poem, he is just about how it makes an audience squeal or turn in their seat. He has taught me to be the sort of poet that doesn’t give a f-ck, to innovate, challenge preconception and industry notions of acceptance, to dig into process, to grow, discover, play with it all and take nothing for granted. Everything we read in the Monday night class we question, poke fun at, pick apart, no one is on a pedestal, everything isn’t about what’s happening but what is ‘working’. Some people say ‘oh it doesn’t seem much like a poem’ and that really doesn’t bother us, I want to make people think and Wayne has taught me that. Thematically, any connections between our work is simply because I have spent too many Monday nights in his group.
AH: I’m sure Wayne will be happy to read that. Your wonderful poem ‘regret’ was placed in last year’s Oxford Poetry Prize. It offers a vignette of “my mum chatting in Tamil to the boy at the petrol station counter.” Snatches of their conversation are represented in Tamil, and the mum is shown as being completely at ease and lost in this moment:
she is Aunty, he is Thamby and the queue behind us can wait
The speaker, however, is excluded, catching only snatches of the conversation, “plucking subtitles from their eyebrows”. Yet it is from this sense of not-fitting that the poem’s voice and consciousness grow. I wondered if you would like to say something about the creative potential of dislocation and exclusion as a generative force for you as an artist, in this poem and more generally?
AM: I feel like not belonging drives the majority of my work. We spend most our years growing up hoping to fit into the system only to realise our uniqueness is what makes us special. In my workshops with young people I’m always encouraging people to think about their exclusion as a force of creativity. Ask yourself, what makes you unique, different and amazing. This poem is a very truthful representation of my mother and I in a petrol station. My Mum is an amazing conversationalist. Whenever we go anywhere she is talking to the cashier or catching up with someone in the queue. In England, India or Sri Lanka she’s always speaking to people and often I wish so much I could join in. I mastered the English language but perhaps in doing so sacrificed my Tamil heritage. This poem isn’t just about language though, it is also about the love I have for my Mum.
AH: Another important woman in your life has been the poet Hannah Lowe, who was your mentor on the Jerwood Arvon Scheme, and who, like so many of us, works from a place of cultural multiplicities. I was massively helped by having Pascale Petit as my mentor on the same scheme. Could you say something about your experience of being mentored by Hannah?
AM: Getting the Jerwood Arvon mentorship was probably one of the biggest achievements of my writing life. It provided me (and you too) with a community of artists, a space to create and a mentor who really believed in me. Hannah has been completely instrumental to my growth as a poet and artist. Her work transcends cultures and backgrounds, her control of narrative is second to none and her ability to mentor is truly masterful. Hannah is always focussed on clarity of image, constantly pushing me to make even the abstract hold true conceit and is always encouraging me to take the reader by the hand and lead them from line to line. This has been so influential to me. When I’m lost, I often see her on my shoulder asking ‘I don’t really get this bit’ or it’s not really clear enough’. She is also a poet who believes in accessibility of the work, so she pushed me to make sure the poems reached the readership I wanted to reach instead of tumbling into abstraction. In many ways Hannah and Wayne sit on opposite ends of a poetry spectrum. This was a wonderful thing to experience, it allowed me to see how poetry could pull and shift in different directions, it allowed me to ride a very thin line between being abstract and being very clear and it also showed me that finally my own choices had to be made. As Hannah once said to me ‘just be confident with what you’re trying to do’. Hannah’s passionate, down to earth, giving nature is something that I will always be thankful for.
AH: ‘after the Sri Lankan bombing that kills 360 (after the 20 year more than killed significantly more)’ uses the powers of miniaturisation deployed by Elizabeth Bishop in her poem ‘Brazil, January 1 1502’, and by Rachael Allen in her poem ‘Banshee’ – to name but two other poets of the tiny. Elizabeth Bishop is describing the rapist-conquistadors who are “hard as nails/ tiny as nails, and glinting, in creaking armour.” Rachael Allen (interviewed last year in this series) is reanimating the murder of a woman whose aggressor works “like a small model forester/ axing up plastic logs.”
Your poem begins “after the news my skin feels darker”, and uses responses to the bombing in the Grand Cinnamon Hotel as a prism to make more visible the complexities of only being “Sri Lankan / at weddings and funerals or for inquisitive white people”. The poem ends by distilling its contradictions into three singing lines:
from here (on the toilet) it’s all just a cluster of tiny red faces wailing in a language I don’t understand in a country I can’t oh look! that’s where Mama and Appa first met
I wanted to ask you to what extent the miniaturised space of the poem – which takes huge subjects and telescopes them down – creates a measure of safety for dealing with difficult or otherwise unmanageable materials?
AM: I think you’re really onto something there. I’m really interested in pulling big political constructs into my poems and sometimes that can be a very daunting thing. Finding methods to do this is tricky. I’ve found that keeping the subject of the poem down-to-earth and ‘local’ allows the overriding message to have its own open plain. In this poem it all centres around the speaker watching a video online yet the focus is bigger. All political problems have a microscopic impact on our lives, that means taking a subject like war and persecution and asking yourself where does that sit on a local level. This can be a very fruitful task and I feel it allows you an ability to not seem ‘over-the-top’ or ‘self-righteous’ which is always the problem of political poetry. I want to take risks and over the last year since the pamphlet has been released I have been researching political poets. Most of them from USA. Tracy K Smith creates letters charting the journey of black slaves from varying people in history. Patricia Smith tells the story through accounts from victims and family members of violence. These poets are a real inspiration to me, they take the human, local situations and show how they are the repercussions of larger political problems. I believe poetry needs to reflect our politics and begin to unpack some of the complexities of our political system. Often these systems seem too much to deal with, too complicated and too daunting but it is important we find ways to do it, it’s important we do not turn away, but instead create vehicles to promote discussion.
AH: I can relate to that, albeit in a slightly different field. As you know, in my current work I am trying to use my own direct experiences of being abused as a child to give witness to, and change awareness around, the global crime of the grooming and sexual abuse of children, and look at its aftermath for vulnerable teenagers. To make the poems, I have to find or open myself to imageries and forms that can hold the materials so they become accessible to, and safe for, the reader, notwithstanding their potentially very difficult subject matters.
More generally, poetry is about control, but it’s also about the reverse – abandoning and opening yourself to let complex things enact a form of authentic aesthetic identity in language. Could you say something about how, when, and where your poems come into being, and your process of working with them to their published forms? I know you also freestyle, where improvisation and being able to trust yourself and go with the energy, is a key?
AM: I am a true believer in play as a means to creation. I believe that being playful will allow us to open ourselves up and throw away the inner voice obsessed with judging our success. Freestyling is the epitome of this. A rapper freestyling is a magical, spontaneous force of creativity. For me, I freestyle best when I am relaxed, when the audience lack judgement, I can move into a space where my brain seems to work outside of itself, where I don’t think of the words, the words just fall together like bubbles pulling together in a bath.This feeling is as much about the people around me as it is about my presence in the moment. I believe that workshops and feedback groups should adopt this way of thinking. The workshops should initially focus on connecting people, creating a relaxed and free space full of love, while allowing people to express and discover themselves in a wholly present way. After this, the poems will simply flow naturally. I chase the feeling of freestyle when I am creating poems. I’m always looking for experiences that bring the playful from me, that pull me out of my usual surroundings and throw me into a space where I must be fully present. I’m all about the process, the feeling of building a poem like a house, and living in it, taking risks and pushing it to see how far it can go. In terms of practise, I try to wake up each day and put something into being. Anything, just accepting whatever comes out can be really rubbish or be the start of something really good. Recently I have read more as this has been a weakness for me.
AH: I wanted to ask about your brilliant final poem, ‘because it’s in the Lonely Planet top five places to visit’. The poem intercuts a couple telling the speaker about how the husband proposed “as the sun / licked the sea red and birds punched shrapnel in the sky”, on the sand outside their beach hut, with the speaker’s account (thought, not spoken within the live conversation) of the island’s recent bloody history, to which they appear oblivious or indifferent :
will you – I used to march to make change but since then I march just to sleep at night that country changed me she says the bars the sea-views biryani kothu roti plus the people are so generous they don’t hassle like Indians they’d drop a bomb wait five minutes drop another to kill the rescue party they spent the whole evening staring out to sea she says it’s their paradise they made a pact to go back there every ten years to that bar in that country where bombs rained into no fire zones where bodies are hidden sixty to a hole it’s hard to put into words he says as their fingers weave together it’s somewhere we could call our second home the soldiers were spread across Tamil land few tried for war crimes I don’t know why you don’t move back there
In your opening poem, ‘credit card’, identity is precarious, deniable, steal-able. Here the only two points at which the speaker uses the “I” pronoun come around his attempt to assert a contradictory narrative, as quoted above. The reader is given the sense of a narrative about Sri Lanka which is being repeatedly drowned out by the denials of history and blithe rewritings of the tourist industry. The final phrase first person phrase, spoken by one of the members of the couple, – “I don’t know why you don’t move back there” – is moreover one used by people challenging migrations globally. Would you be able to say something about this poem and its ending?
AM: The poem was originally built in a train in India. Remember when I talked about the local situation being used to talk about global issues? In this poem the local situation is a Californian couple. Yes, they did indeed speak in detail about how they loved Sri Lanka. I actually spent a little while explaining my mixed feelings about the place but it didn’t seem to faze them. The recent groom said ‘well you could say that about a lot of places’ and that message stuck with me. I wanted the poem to capture this conversation in a new way with multiple perspectives. To create a range of conversations happening simultaneously. That is the spoken words, the internal dialogue, as well as the dialogue to the reader. There is a line that I really battled with ‘I used to march to make change…’ that line is a clinical line for me as it is the speaker’s internal dialogue, it comes from a different place. The ending has gone through many different stages, it used to have more of a back and forth but I found that pulling it back left the reader on more of an edge and let the poem live on after the poem was finished. This is a real life situation for a lot of second generation migrants. There is conflict between our own feelings and those that go there, there is a conflict between the politics of oppressors and the politics of our supposed mother land. I attempted to capture this conflict in the use of this cut and splice form.
AH : It really works for me, Arji. Can I end by asking where to next? What are your plans for 2020, and beyond?
AM: I’ve been really productive since lockdown from writing to workshopping and I’m looking forward to an August break in Wales. I’m also about to become writer in residence for a pub in Dorset where I will be writing a series of poems in conjunction with local patrons of the pub. I’m also currently commissioned by Stockton Council to write 40 poems for isolated people across the North East so I’ve been writing poems and ringing people up out the blue to share them. I love that so much.
In terms of poetry I want to be pushing my process and work as far as it can go. I feel like I’m only just reaching my stride and I have a whole lot left to give. I am really excited about the new work I’m writing connected to race and hate crime. I’m messing with the ‘i’, writing from a range of perspectives and most importantly, still enjoying it. It’s a risky, deep vat of possibilities so at the exciting part of the process. I want to be more political in my poems and create work for those without a voice. I want to push the boundaries of what we can say and how we say it with regards to race, it’s a dicey game but also very exciting. There’s a lot to keep an eye out for, you can follow me at @theleano, or Arji Manuelpillai on insta or you can join the mailing list at www.arji.org. Thank you so much for having me on here Alice, you are an inspiration to so many of us poets.
AH: Thank you so much for such an amazing set of answers Arji. As always with these interviews around the idea of ‘saying the difficult thing’, I feel I have gained so much by being given an insight into to the workings behind your poems. I’m really excited for your new work and so happy to have had the chance to share the poems in Mutton Rolls with our readers.