Speaking a rainbow: performing live at StAnza Poetry alongside Annemarie Ní Churreáin and Maria Stadnicka.

St Andrews, Scotland.

Note: this blog contains non-explicit references to childhood sexual abuse in a context of witness and healing.

Preparing to travel to St Andrews, in Scotland, for the StAnza Poetry Festival 2022, I flickered between nervousness and excitement.  It was my first long trip since October 2019. The traveller in me was thrilled to be seeing new places after so long. But I was going there to speak about ‘Erasure – what cannot be said and how we say it’, alongside Annemarie Ní Churreáin and Maria Stadnicka. Writing respectively about Ireland’s foundling homes, and Romania’s orphanages, and my own childhood experience of being sexually abused, our work does not hesitate to enter complex areas, while being strongly committed to healing through creative witness. I knew the event would be a powerful one, and would need to be approached carefully. I spent the days leading up to departure working on my talk and performance, which you can read at the end of this blog or watch via the video link on the StAnza website which includes Annemarie and Maria’s readings as well.

Annemarie Ní Churreáin

To reach St Andrews from London meant five and a half hours of constantly changing landscapes, and a succession of passengers sharing the communal table where I was working.  Around York, three generations of women settled in beside me, the same beautiful bone structure playing like variations in music across their faces as they laughed and chatted.  Later, a mother came with a toddler, who rode firmly standing.  He was mainly eating crunchy snacks or wailing the extremely convincing siren on his police car. This repeatedly turned heads down the carriage as we sped through roadless fields. Finally, from Newcastle, a woman whose hair made a waterfall over her face as she fell into peaceful sleep. So many strangers in close proximity, after months of limited contact, felt bewildering – but wonderful. 

Maria Stadnicka

Towards Berwick upon Tweed, the sea became the train’s companion. Winds had blown away the grey that we left London under, and the waves were turquoise under a blue sky. Beyond Edinburgh, as we sailed through the air over the Forth Bridge, the clouds returned and the sea became shades of pewter and silver. This same wind was blowing hard as we disembarked at Leuchars, then travelled onto St Andrews. It was whipping up the waves as I followed the street on which my guest house stood, down to the sea which lay beyond a fence and low granite cliffs. 

After watching events on zoom from London, the live festival began for me  with fellow Pavilion poet and former civil rights lawyer, Mona Arshi’s, inaugural address in the auditorium of the Byre Theatre in the centre of town. Mona’s subject was the Nationalities and Borders Bill currently passing through the UK Parliament.  If passed into law, it will reverse many of the key tenets of the 1951 agreement on refugee rights.  These were put into law following the genocides of the second world war.  With examples from poets, and guidance from a barrister who has written on the proposed changes, Mona left her live and online audience in no doubt about the urgent need to protest the bill. She explained that it seeks to criminalise and penalise the seeking of refuge in all but the most narrow and restrictive of circumstances, and make it impossible for people to arrive in England without prior approval, even when the channels for this approval are largely absent.

Mona Arshi

Why our cultures are so deeply enriched by travel and migration was borne out by the headline event for Friday evening.  Kayo Chingonyi, who came to the UK as a child from Gambia, and now lives and teaches in Leeds, and Safiya Sinclair, who originated in Jamaica, but now works and teaches in the USA, shared the stage with the Syrian poet Nouri Al-Jarrah, reading from A Boat to Lesbos.  As an audience, we were on the edges of our seats for nearly two hours with a short interval, as you can see if you view the recording via the StAnza website, where Mona’s is also available. At other events, brilliant Irish poets included my fellow Forwards judge Stephen Sexton, Gail McConnell, whose The Sun is Open, was one of my most compelling reads of 2021, and Padraig Regan, whose Some Intensity has just come out with Carcanet.

Safiya Sinclair joining from the USA

The following morning the clouds were gone and the skies were blue again. From my room, I could hear the wind was still blowing hard, feathering the sea with a lace of frothed foam.  I’d come down to breakfast shaken by the news from Ukraine, and nervous about my own reading. I found Stephanie Sy-Quia already in place, having travelled from France to read from her debut Amnion, which responds to her families’ multiple heritages, reaching around the world from the Philippines through Europe and beyond. Stephanie was followed in short order by the Latinx-British poet Leo Boix, who was performing both his own poems and those he had translated. We were then joined by Saturday and Sunday nights’ headliners, Holly Pester and Luke Kennard.  To breakfast amid so much kindness and friendliness was the best possible start to the day. 

Holly Pester live on Saturday night

Then it was time to thread through the streets of granite houses back to the Byre theatre again, to catch Pascale Petit and George Szirtes talking with Yang Lian’s translator about rendering Chinese poetry into English. They discussed the very different structures of the two languages, and also the implications in Yang’s poems of working within a literary tradition that extends back 3000 years. As a bonus, Yian Lian was on hand to comment, and read one of his poems in Mandarin before a Saturday evening showcase. For the travel-starved among us,  Pascale and George remembered their own journeys to China to meet Lian, and visit the Forbidden City and Shanghai.

George Szirtes, Annie Rutherford and Pascale Petit.

Pascale had mentored me very generously under the Jerwood Arvon scheme when I was finding my feet as a poet. Afterwards, we caught up as we walked her back to her room through sunny St Andrews. Saturday morning shoppers and university students were beginning to head out into the town’s coffee shops, boutiques and ice cream parlours. Next it was back to my room to run through my own reading which was due to begin at 2.00. 

My unimpressed audience of seagulls

To steady myself, I practised my set for an audience of seagulls, who were more interested in launching themselves into the gusting wind from the chimney pots of the rooftops opposite. Within the performance, the poems fall down into my personal underworld of being groomed and then sexually abused as a child, before climbing back up into the light of witness and healing. Reading what I was going to say to a sky of rushing clouds helped anchor what I was going to share into light and life. I wanted to absorb and transmit that energy.  I had read, and loved both Annemarie Ní Churreáin and Maria Stadnicka’s work, but finding Annemarie waiting in the auditorium by stage, and Maria guarding us from the screen like an angelic presence, further strengthened my hope that we would be able to create something of value together. 

Annemarie opened with the foundling hospitals and mother and baby homes of the Irish state, remembering those who had brought their babies there because they had no other options. Helping us feel their great loss, and the loss also for Ireland as a nation, Annemarie set it within the larger wound of the country’s forcible colonisation. She also reached back into an early, mythological past to create songs of healing. Maria Stadnicka’s work is likewise a place where institutional and state actions are examined – through the impacts on Romania’s population of Ceausescu’s and the Communist party’s rule. Specifically the ban on abortions, and the resultant filling of state orphanages, where over 10,000 children would contract HIV Aids. Like Annemarie, her work engages with great compassion, as well as creative strength, in bringing neglected experiences to the page and through this into our lives. 

Annemarie Ní Churreáin reading from ‘The Poison Glen’

And then it was my turn, to introduce and then perform the full sequence of the erasure poems in bird of winter. As I mentioned, you can see the video of us all, on the Stanza Poetry website until 31 March.  To speak out of my childhood darkness into the light and warmth of the Byre Theatre felt like an act of profound transformation.  Closing, I led a safeguarding exercise where we could join together, to honour the space we had made between us by our co-participation in the works shared by Annemarie, Maria and I. 

Once the event was over, and the book signings and warm conversations with the audience were all done, Annemarie and I realised how very urgently we needed coffee and cake to put ourselves back together. Heading out with our StAnza chair Robyn Marsack, we were stopped short by a broad rainbow. `It was rising like a realised wish up over the blue sea, that lay at the end of the street down which we were heading. In that moment, it seemed as if the light we had created together through our readings had assumed a visible form. 

Annemarie’s and my conversation was as warm as it was nurturing. After, I wanted to get myself out into the sea air and feel the hugeness of the beach backed by dunes. Walking across the sands, lit by runnels of water holding the last of the light, that sense of being supported by the living world stayed with me as the sun dropped and the sky dimmed to the glimmering purples and greys of a Scots mid March dusk.  The following morning, before and after seeing Emily Berry and Fiona Benson perform for the Poetry Book Society showcase, I discovered the ruined cathedral and stone-walled harbour, and climbed down onto the small enclosed beach below the ruins of the castle, where the water swirled in over the coarse granite sand and luxuriant seaweed. 

I had slept fitfully, still caught up in the energies of the places my poems had opened, but being out in the North Sea air dissipated those memories and helped me re-enter the present more fully.  Boarding the train south again, albeit with considerable regret, I took with me the certain knowledge that, through the sharing of our work, Annemarie NíáChurreáin, Maria Stadnicka and I had brought about an alchemical transformation that we and our audience would carry forward into new adventures.  

Below you can read the text of my performed set at StAnza, together with recordings of the individual erasures. Play them by clicking on the title as you read through. The video will be available until 31 March here: 

If anything you read is difficult for you, the Mind website has valuable resources. 

If you would like to read the erasure poems I have recorded on the page, they can be found in bird of winter via this link. 

Erasure: what we cannot say and how we say it : text of performance by alice hiller 

Is it possible to translate silencing back into sound? To voice complex experiences, we need first to access them.  As some of you know, bird of winter, offers creative witness to my childhood experience of being groomed and then sexually abused by my mother, but also of finding healing beyond this crime. Like many, who share my history, the impact of what was done to me meant I wasn’t able to talk about the abuse until my thirties.  

When I came to write about it in my fifties, through bird of winter, I found that making hand erasures created scratch cards through to my unconscious, and allowed some of the toughest, but also most needed, poems onto the page.  The erasures also generated the fractured narrative spine of the collection, as I’m going to show you, by reading them in sequence. 

Before that, I’ll say briefly how they came into being.  All bird of winter’s erasures grow from texts about Pompeii and Herculaneum, which have absorbed me since childhood.  As an adult, the eruption of Vesuvius, and subsequent, laborious excavations of materials buried under the volcanic rock and ash, became central to how I understand the slow, often dangerous, recovery of my buried past. 

Each of the erasures I’ll read was generated over a day, circling words and phrases, and blacking out, allowing the poem to emerge. I was letting my eye see, my hand move – before my mind could censor.  Working through texts read by many people, over the centuries, also gives communal witness to this global crime, which impacts millions of us. 

Visually, the erasures in bird of winter ask the reader to hopscotch from phrase to phrase. But even as the islands of words travel towards revelation and reclamation, they co-exist with the blacked out passages witnessing the unarticulated materials which are also present.  Reading today, I’ll tread carefully,  to keep us all safe.  If anything I speak about is difficult for you, the Mind website is a good place to go. I’ll close with a short, grounding exercise, to bring us all securely back into the present. In the meantime, if in doubt, keep breathing!

Erasure is of course a function of trauma.   Our brains conceal or remove what is too dangerous for us to bear, especially when traumatic events occur when there is no support, as happens in the poem, ‘black river’, remembering my childhood. 

black river

when the fingers came
at night your weeds rose up

when the rocks arrived
you rushed my brain’s sluices

when the day returned
no hurt could surface

‘the stupendous task’, my first erasure in bird of winter, directly answers ‘black river’. From Herculaneum, Past Present and Future, it takes Charles Waldenstein’s demand for excavation of the site as the collection’s manifesto and call to arms:   

the stupendous task

 The second erasure,  ‘destruction impact landscape’ grew from the poet Martial’s account of the eruption of Vesuvius.  As it took shape, I realised the poem held its own before and after, divided at a midpoint, like mirrored reflections. Taken together they signal that something is not destroyed merely because it is attacked. 

destruction impact landscape

The next erasure,  ‘gardens fountains’, combines Columella’s and Flores’  descriptions of Pompeii and Herculaneum before the eruption.  Explorations of trauma often focus on the aftermath of the crime. It was important also to witness the unhurt place, or indeed the innocence of a child’s body, where ‘spring flowers blossom twice’:

gardens fountains

From this stronghold of beauty, we drop hard down into an underworld of darkness.  The next erasure, ‘eyewitness’ emerges out of a Times article from 1863.  Describing two figures revealed by pouring plaster into the voids left in the ash that fell over Pompeii, it also gave me a way to show my mother and I in her bed.  Like the excavations, these plaster casts are central to bird of winter’s understanding of how artworks manifest  out of voids or absences, and make visible what otherwise remains unseen. 

eye-witness

Coming next, ‘remove the solidified mix’, responds to the difficulties of creating bird of winter. It began as a description of  tunnelling down to the Villa dei Papyri during the eighteenth century in Herculaneum: Italy’s Buried Treasure. This work was often undertaken by convicts and forced labourers because of its risk.

remove the solidified mix

What happened down one of those eight hundred dark tunnels is documented in ‘and now came the ashes’, erased from a letter by Pliny the Younger. His description of Vesuvius erupting becomes also my mother and my eight year old self in a cottage in Wiltshire. I was given permission by Pavilion to reproduce this erasure which you can see and then hear below:

and now came the ashes

and now came the ashes

As you’ll see, the lineation of the  poem breaks down at its centre point, as my own life did following my father’s death in 1972.  Indeed, beyond the word “death”, there is no single or clear path forward, playing out how trauma refuses a conclusive act of narration but in its fragmentation draws us back and back. 

‘and now came the ashes’ is spoken by my child self, but bird of winter is in fact a dialogue between past and present.  Immediately afterwards, the sexual abuse I experienced is revisited in ‘this happened during winter’, erased from Seneca the Younger’s Natural Questions. Here, my adult self asks the reader for their empathetic engagement within a process of transformation:

this happened during winter

From this shared, mutually supported place, reader or listener and speaker can take their final steps down into the darkness of the repeated rape of a child by an adult, which is at the heart of bird of winter. ‘Gladiatorial training school’ works through an excavation report from 1766 to open a pathway to the deepest substrate of memory. 

gladiatorial training school

In “the hole/ the/ bolt/ passed” the secret assault by which my abuser controlled and subjugated me is finally out on the page. From there, only one more erasure is needed to guide us together, back up into the light. It’s from Fiorelli’s 1830 account of entering the ‘House of the Faun’, with additional words by classicists Alison E. Cooley, and M.G.L. Cooley.  

the house of the faun

As I end, I would like you all to place your feet firmly on the ground. Take some slow, comfortable breaths, in and out, holding in mind that “decoration/ in the shape of dogs/ gilded protecting deities/ with various colours and with gold leaf.” Breathing comfortably, we are passing together up from the underworld.  Greeting us is “a large festoon of flowers and fruit” created by our mutual solidarity – online and in this physical space.

Where silence is refused, healing can come. 
Thank you all for travelling with me today. 
When we stand together, we stand strong. 

The full source details of the erasures are credited in bird of winter.  My deepest thanks to those writers whose works I have used.

Thanks to Dr. Katie Ailes for the final photo.

If you would like to buy bird of winter to see the erasures on the page you can here.

‘When we stand together, we stand strong’ alice hiller by Dr. Katie Ailes

Letting new light in – setting your creative compass for 2022 and beyond with the help of a ‘Basque Whaler’

Letting new light in to set your creative compass: photo alice hiller

How can we resource our work in lean times? Where does inspiration come from when travel and and a wide range of live experiences are significantly curtailed, whether for financial, health or other restrictions? My steadfast belief is that we hold our own deepest and richest reserves within ourselves, accumulated through our lived experiences and interactions with the world at multiple levels. When more expansive possibilities are denied to us, to keep working, and generating new material, we therefore need to find ways to tune into this, both by nurturing ourselves, and also by finding new sources of ‘strangeness’ and intellectual and creative adventures to act as stimuli.

Basque poet Julie Irigaray Voicing Our Silences 15.12.21

Working with my fellow poet and cherished friend, Julie Irigaray, I set out to devise a solstice workshop, performance and conversation for the Voicing Our Silences collective that I founded. We wanted to deliver both these aims – of self-nurture and adventure. Core to the process were the two prompts we developed, which were designed to complement each other. Mine is a two-part process for setting your creative compass, which begins with a gentle breathing exercise, to clear your creative space, and then builds up your individual compass on the page – through a five stage guided prompt, which I lead participants through. There’s then a follow-up to be completed two or more days later. People who did it on the night we recorded the event have said how valuable they found it to be. This compass process can be used for a specific piece of work such as a poem or prose work you are developing, or would like to start. It works equally well for people looking to explore a new project, or simply to check in with themselves. Julie’s explores ways to expand your work dynamically through different forms of research and I found it gave me a breakthrough into a poem which had been hovering half-realised since the summer, so I warmly recommend trying it for yourself.

Frame for Setting Your Creative Compass to draw in central third of A4 page.

In addition to these prompts, we both performed two short sets of poems, and spoke to each other between them about how they came into being, going deep with where we resourced our work – whether from online resources including YouTube, books, museum catalogues, or other starting points. My poems came from my collection, bird of winter, and Julie’s from her pamphlet, Whalers, Witches and Gauchos. Because we were recording in the run up to the winter solstice, we structured our sets to rise from darkness into light, and both kept lit candles burning beside us as symbols of inspiration and resilience. The aim was also to share how although our poems appear to journey huge distances through time and space on the page, much of this travel is in fact realised without ever leaving home, whether we’re writing about Pompeii and Herculaneum in my case, or in Julie’s about the Basque heritage she explores in Whalers, Witches and Gauchos, which she published this year with Nine Pens.

pistil by alice hiller from bird of winter

Julie also asked me about my practice of working with my childhood and adolescent medical notes, which have been crucial to my collection bird of winter, as with the poem ‘pistil’, given above. The poem is named for the female reproductive parts of the flower. It juxtaposes a quote from my medical notes when I was two, with a direct memory, which reflects how the grooming to which my abuser was subjecting me was already impacting my behaviour, and a photo I recall of myself at that age which my grandmother loved. I was very glad to have the opportunity speak about both the risk, and benefit, of working with documentary evidence such as medical notes if you have a complex history, as I do, arising from my experience of being groomed and then sexually abused as a child, and finding my way towards healing beyond this.

As you will be able to hear if you check in with the video, I said how valuable, and painful it was in equal measure, to have factual corroboration of events that lived inside my memory. I explained how I had felt very apprehensive about engaging with my medical notes, for what I might find there, but was very grateful to see that events which my abuser had tried to deny, were in fact recorded in sober black and white. I also told Julie that reading these same notes had in fact provided a core source of motivation for my ongoing activism around changing awareness with regard to childhood sexual abuse. Driving this was how harshly the medical profession had judged my troubled teenage behaviours once the abuse had stopped. I wanted people to understand this adolescent acting out of harm done differently and more compassionately. In the questions which followed, Chaucer Cameron raised the query about notes being redacted, that is having sections blanked out, which has been her experience.

alice hiller Voicing Our Silences 15.12.21

Normally, when I record a Voicing Our Silences performance and workshop, I pause the recording at the prompt stops, and cut the audience participation, to keep the event around an hour. This time, however, we wanted to create an immersive experience for everyone who was joining us, and give the feeling of how the Voicing our Silences collective operates as a place of mutual creative nurture and adventure. Given that it’s a longer watch, I’ve therefore noted the minute timings of the different elements within the YouTube video, (which is captioned for accessibility), for ease of location. While they are managed safely, and there are no explicit references, this video includes discussion of grooming and childhood sexual abuse. If you need support with anything raised the Mind website is very helpful.

Youtube video: resourcing your work in lean times: setting your creative compass with Julie Irigaray and alice hiller

Please note, you will need a piece of paper and something to write with for each prompt.

0.00 alice hiller introduces
4.00 Julie Irigaray set 1: ‘The Basque Whaler’, ‘Six War Letters’, ‘Kreig’
12.00 alice hiller set 1 ‘bains de mer’, ‘pistil’, ‘three small shrines’, ‘in the vineyard’, ‘circular’, ‘joujou’, ‘libation’
21.20 Julie & alice discussion 1 including use of medical notes in poems
39.32 alice hiller prompt : setting your creative compass
1.00 audience feedback.
1.05.50 julie irigaray set 2 : ‘Red Card’, ‘Divine Seraphine’, ‘Via Domitia’
1.12.30 alice hiller set 2 : ‘the holly tree’, ‘vesuvius’, ‘benediction’, ‘o goddess isis’
1.20 Julie & alice discussion
1.35 Julie Irigaray prompt turbocharging your creative explorations
final questions from Voicing Our Silences collective

Julie’s poems include references to her Basque heritage, which is at the heart of her debut Whalers, Witches and Gauchos, published by Nine Pens earlier in 2021. In the spirit of expanding our horizons, Julie was kind enough to answer a few questions about Basque culture and history, which you can read below.

Photo of the Pyrenees in the Basque region of France by Julie Irigaray.

AH: Whalers, Witches and Gauchos opens with an epigraph from Thomas Jefferson about Basque fishing in the Atlantic. From what he said, Basque sailors and whalers were clearly active off Newfoundland and further south from the 1400s onwards.  Could you (briefly) tell us something of the history of Basque involvement in whaling? It is partly the subject of the poem ‘The Basque Whaler’, which you perform on the video, but it clearly has deep roots.

JI: The Basques started hunting whales in the 11th century because whales were used to create a wide range of products: candles, soap, cosmetics, to fuel lamps. In the early modern period, Basque whalers spent between six and nine months per year fishing cod and hunting whales near the coasts of Canada and Iceland, in dreary living conditions.

AH: I know the Basque territory is currently ‘divided’ between France and Spain, and there has been political and other forms of activism, including formerly armed conflict, to reclaim and redefine this cultural, geographical and linguistic identity.  Would you be able to outline this for us?

JI: The Basque Country is divided between seven provinces: four of them are in Spain, three in France. It has never been a unified country because it was always split up between the kingdoms of France, Navarre and Spain. The Basque language is not related to any other existing language, so some academics theorised the Basques were part of the first wave of human migration in Europe. The pronunciation and dialects of Basque are different from one province to another, although a unified Basque has been created by scholars. The armed Basque nationalist and separatist organization ETA emerged in the Spanish Basque Country in the late 1950s, mainly as a reaction to Franco’s dictatorship. But they kept on carrying out terrorist attacks well after Franco’s death, especially in the 1980s. I think it was particularly difficult to be young in the Basque Country at that time. But this is my parents’ story, not mine. I’ll probably write about it one day after doing more research. When I went on holiday to England fifteen years ago, there were still some people telling me “Oh! You come from the terrorists’ place!”

AH: Am I right in thinking that both your parents’ families are of Basque heritage?  Your surname, Irigaray, has a sound which stands outside what I know of both French and Spanish, and I know the final poem ‘Exte’, in Whalers, Witches and Gauchos addresses this? Note – you can read ‘Exte’ at the end of this interview.

JI: You’re absolutely right – and that’s why nobody outside the Basque Country apart from you knows how to pronounce my name! Three of my grandparents are Basque, and the final one comes from les Landes, which is still in the south-west of France. My maternal grandmother comes from the coast and a different province from my father’s family, so there are differences of pronunciation and vocabulary between their Basque. My paternal grandparents used to speak Basque to each other or with their neighbours, and my father has a good grasp of it as well. 

AH: One of the ideas that our Voicing Our Silences collective works with is how our difficult histories and experiences can be creatively fruitful, because asking us to find new forms of language to respond to them. ‘Krieg’ in an incredibly vivid, and subtle poem, imagining two former combatants from World War I meeting high in a Basque mountain pass, and reaching a form of understanding which hinges on the title word, which only the German officer understands initially.  Could you say something about this poem and the idea of how poetry can open spaces for things we might not otherwise be able to say and also comprehend?

JI: I always knew I was going to write about this family anecdote one day, but I wanted to avoid certain pitfalls, like making it too overly emotional, or depicting my French great-grandfather as the good guy and the German soldier as the villain. These two men cannot communicate because they do not speak the same language, but also because they were conditioned to think of themselves as enemies for seventy years, and fought against each other during World War I. The memory of World War II in occupied countries like France is still sensitive since so many unspeakable things happened. My family did not suffer more than average, but a variety of things happened to them which are difficult to talk about or even taboo, like a great-aunt who fell in love with a German soldier, or a great-grandfather sent to Czechoslovakia to work as forced labour for the German war effort – which was seen as treason by some. During lockdown, I have written a few poems about World War II from the point of view of several family members. I hate black and white pictures of a character, or moralistic views, so what I try to achieve with my poems is a sense of balance. I want to give a voice to both sides of the story without judging, as I did in ‘Krieg’. 

AH: ‘Their Common language’ addresses your great-grandparents’ migration to Argentina, and subsequent return to France.  Could you say something about the Basque relationship to South America and how that came about?

JI: On my father’s side of the family, several great-grandparents emigrated to Argentina with their parents or siblings because they came from a rural area with little prospects. As I explain in ‘Etxe’, in the Basque tradition, the eldest child (either girl or boy) inherited the family house while the other siblings were left with nothing. One of my great-grandfathers who emigrated to Argentina had thirteen siblings: three sisters ended up nuns, one brother a missionary in Madagascar. Back then, there were not many opportunities to earn a living apart from entering the Church or emigrating to America… In the late nineteenth-century, many Basques moved to Uruguay or Argentina to work as gauchos, others chose the USA to become shepherds in Nevada, California or Florida. The great-grandmother from “Their Common Language” worked in an hotel in Buenos Aires, like the great-grand-uncle who inspired the poem ‘Amerikanoa’. Some of them stayed in Argentina, but many Basques have a sense of nostalgia and preferred moving back to the Basque Country after a few years. 

AH: A number of your other poems also lean into this Basque restlessness, and sense of not-belonging to any single place, which I know you and I both share for different reasons, as do millions of people around the world, who have left their places of birth to migrate for economic, political or other reasons.  Would you like to say something about this experience of becoming un-rooted, but also of carrying your roots with you?

JI: Since I was a teenager, I dreamed of living abroad. Either for my studies or for professional reasons, I moved back and forth between the Basque Country, Paris, Ireland, Britain and Italy seven times in seven years, which had its toll on my mental and physical health. When I moved back to the UK for my first job, I felt terribly homesick, and for the first time. I started a series of Basque poems that made up the greater part of Whalers, Witches and Gauchos, probably because I felt completely unrooted. I found it more difficult than the first time I lived in England to study to fit in.  I think it was because I had lived in so many countries, and picked up some bits of each of their cultures, that I didn’t belong anywhere anymore. I’m still processing this. My poems interrogate cultural differences because it is a subject that I constantly think of. 

AH: I know you have been back in the Basque region of France during the lockdown, able to travel both to the Atlantic and the Pyrenees, when free of restrictions. How has it impacted your work being back in these landscapes?

JI: Unfortunately, few good poems came out of my lockdown writing, precisely because of the anxiety generated by the closing of all borders. The border between France and Spain remained shut for almost four months, and I have spent a day in Spain since Christmas 2019 because things are still not back to normal. Even during World War II or under Francoism, the border could be crossed, albeit illegally. I wrote a poem about a friend being in lockdown in San Sebastian (where the lockdown was extremely restrictive) and my panic at the idea that I could not see him for months because the border was shut. I wanted to capture this claustrophobic feeling. It’s difficult to explain this to people who live on an island, but sharing a border with another country is for us a natural right and a source of enrichment. I have also written a poem from the point of view of the border, and all the historical events it witnessed through millennia. But in the end, I did not write much about the Basque Country. I write better about a place when I see it from a distance, ideally when I live in another country. I wrote almost all my Basque poems while living in the UK, and during lockdown I wrote many poems about Italy because I felt extremely upset about not being allowed to travel back there.

AH:  Some of your newest poems are following your interest in military history, addressed in a number of the poems in WWG, including the ways in which countries who have denied citizens their rights nonetheless require them to die in their wars. This was the the case for many soldiers brought in from Britain’s colonised countries during the first and second world wars, as Sathnam Sanghera has explored in Empireland.  It was also the case for Basque citizens resident in France.  Could you say something about these poems, and the new ones which are forthcoming?

JI: I was looking for books on this subject, so thank you for recommending Sanghera’s! I would like to address the subject of the soldiers who fought for the French and British colonies one day as they were completely written out of history, but I need to find the right approach. 
I normally write a lot about women, but these days I am interested in the values conveyed by the army, especially with regard to masculinity. France is still a very militarised country. With the rise of the right and the French presidential elections taking place in five months’ time, some politicians have suggested the return of the military service for both men and women, and I don’t see it in a good light. There was also the bicentenary of Napoléon’s death this year, and I’m not fond of the idea of promoting the legacy of a man who invaded and subjected a whole continent and killed around three million European soldiers (and God knows how many civilians) for his campaigns. 
I am writing a couple of poems about these themes and the toxic myths surrounding masculinity. My poem ‘Six War Letters’ tells the story of an underaged young man who is enrolled in World War I in spite of all and stops idealising war as a way to prove his manhood. One English teacher told me she’d taught this poem to her boys-only class and that one pupil said it made him reconsider masculinity. I couldn’t be prouder! 
I also recently talked to my parents about my father’s and uncle’s experiences of military service or hazing when they entered their engineering school, and I found these testimonies deeply disturbing. As someone who was bullied in school, I can imagine the psychological impact of hazing in elite schools and universities, and I am outraged by the mechanisms used by the bullies to make their victims believe this is perfectly normal, and even desirable.

AH: Finally, I know you are also working on a PhD about Sylvia Plath and her relationship with England and Europe at Huddersfield.  What does 2022 hold for you Julie Irigaray, in so much as it is possible for any of us to answer this question?

JI: A lot of travelling, I hope! If Covid does not come on the way, I should attend several conferences in France and the UK. I am co-organising an online conference on Sylvia Plath (https://bit.ly/3yHGIW0) on 11th and 12th March 2022, and I will be a volunteer for The Sylvia Plath Literary Festival that should take place in Hebden Bridge at the end of October. I also need to write a couple of academic articles, so 2022 will be more PhD-oriented. But I will try to assemble a poetry collection as I have enough poems that satisfy me to create one now. 

from Whalers, Witches and Gauchos by Julie Irigaray.

If you would like to read more of Julie Irigaray’s work please visit her brilliant website.

‘Just because there’s a fence, the garden don’t stop growing’: poems as pathways beyond trauma at Poetry in Aldeburgh.

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.

You can hear the podcast of Chaucer Cameron, Day Matar, Tessa Foley and I reading together here which Poetry in Aldeburgh have just released.

If anything is difficult for you, the Mind website has helpful links.

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.

audio link to alice hiller’s Poetry in Aldeburgh ‘healing beyond trauma’ set of poems.

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. 

pistil [performed]

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. 

phare d’ailly

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. 

tessellation [performed]

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.

Tickets are here for Outspoken on 25/11/21 at 19.45 at the Southbank.

‘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.’ –Romalyn Ante and Pascale Petit perform and speak with alice hiller about the work witness in their new collections, Antiemetic for Homesickness and Tiger Girl.

Romalyn Ante by S. Chadawong.

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.

Photo by Brian Fraser

Romalyn Ante Antiemetic for Homesickness

Pascale Petit Tiger Girl

https://youtu.be/V57ZxGbGAQc

Audio Link

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. 

Romalyn Ante’s website is here.

Pascale Petit’s website is here.

Romalyn Ante Antiemetic for Homesickness

Pascale Petit Tiger Girl

“Ask yourself what makes you unique, different and amazing”: Arji Manuelpillai talks to alice hiller about saying the difficult thing in his debut ‘Mutton Rolls’ by “reflecting the way the mind moves” and embracing “exclusion as a force of creativity.”

Arji photo
Photo Credit : Martin Brown

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 then I’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.

Mutton Rolls can be bought here from Out-Spoken’s website for £7.00..

If you want to find out more about joining a Poetry Society Stanza workshop group to develop your poems and connect with other poets details are here at the Poetry Society’s website.

For details of Arji’s ongoing creative adventures, including films he’s made, and performance collaborations, sign up to his mailing list at www.arji.org .

To check in with Arji’s Pickle Jar podcast, where he checks in with poets making and chatting, click here.