‘sea level’ : the poem as miniature tornado – ‘bird of winter’ podcast no 2.

Like miniature tornados rising up off the page, poems move energy.  Working with words and sounds, they carry their readers, or listeners, into spaces which are new to us – hopefully without inflicting damage.   By involving us imaginatively, and creatively, they open our consciousnesses to transformative alchemies. Or that’s the aim. For those of us who work with difficult materials, the reader or listener can of course decide how far ‘in’ they want to go, and how much of the created world they allow to come alive.  When a poem has an element of catharsis, they can also choose if they want to become part of the shift this precipitates. 

Naples seen from above, with Vesuvius

To explore how this poem/tornado process might take place, my second bird of winter podcast rides the energy flow of ‘sea level’, which came together on a winter trip to Naples. Specifically, I engage with how the poem imagines worlds to generate forward and upward movement. In this case, it’s from a place of suppression and denial towards a place of comprehension and healing, and from underground darkness up towards the light of day.  If you’d like to listen to this as a podcast, with an optional prompt at the end for your own art-making, the link is here: https://youtu.be/pJLPHD5A2sE

If you’d prefer to check it out, developed for the page as an essay, please keep reading. The photographs are ones I took in Naples.  As a word of warning – this episode mentions sexual abuse briefly, in the context of the weight of silencing that can arise from this crime, and its potential for continued resonance in our adult lives.  I also explore how we can move beyond its heavy legacy towards reclamation. While I’ll be  tracking the energy flow through the individual lines of ‘sea level’, to hear the poem from start to finish please follow this link to my recording: 

sea level

Naples harbour at nightfall

For ‘sea level’s tornado to lift off, it needed both darkness and light. Real tornadoes require warm humid air, and cold dry air, to create the rotating updraft that leads to the formation of the funnel cloud.   In this case, I wanted readers to feel the oppressiveness of the silence and denial that abusers, including my own, force onto children.  These weights are carried by many of us whose experiences have been denied or dismissed.  Having encountered them within the physical landscape of the poem, we can enter into the relief that arises when they are released, collectively, into an act of witness and reclamation.

Back in December 2018, the day before I wrote the first draft of ‘sea level’,  (when I still had no idea it was coming to me), I’d visited the palatial Archaeological Museum, in the grimy heart of Naples. The city’s soundtrack is a symphony of car horns but the tight street grid in the old town dates back to Roman times.  Extraordinary finds, from statues, to frescoes, to objects from daily life including a charred cradle, were excavated from the volcanic rock that covered the ancient city of Herculaneum.  Key items are displayed in room after room, alongside equally dazzling, moving, and mundane, treasures from the neighbouring city of Pompeii.  They make you feel as if time is melting and you no longer know quite where you stand.

Wall painting of young woman from Archaeological Museum

While Pompeii was covered with ash that was relatively easy to shift when Vesuvius erupted, four metres of molten volcanic materials settled into solid rock over ancient Herculaneum.  To rediscover the city, the original excavators had to tunnel down, partly below the modern town of Ercolano, at great personal risk from poisonous gases and cave-ins, beginning during the eighteenth century.  Reading about them, and seeing old illustrations in my guide book, called to mind my own painful, stumbling, sometimes dangerous and destabilising, process of excavating my childhood memories. I embarked on this in my thirties, during the 1990s, with the support of a skilled psychotherapist.

Those same childhood memories were moving in the shadowed corners of my thoughts as I walked around the museum, trying to take in as much as possible, and then explored the tiny shops and tight backstreets of Naples while dusk came and people started to congregate in bars and cafes after work. While most people think of December in terms of holidays and celebrations, for me it marks the anniversary of when the penetrative sexual abuse began during my childhood, in 1972.  I was eight and a half. With my abuser, who was my mother, I’d just moved to a small village in Wiltshire following the death of my diplomat father.   Even decades later, whenever I can, I go abroad briefly at that time of year, to reset the light in England, which can intensify the return of flashbacks and nightmares. 

Eighteenth century anonymous illustration of visiting the excavations at Herculaneum

Despite the Southern Italian location, the night after I visited the Archaeological Museum, I woke in the early hours from a dream of being held down in the darkness, as had happened when I was a child.  Lying in the dark hotel room, cold and scared, the feeling the dream left me with,  after a day of imagining  the still largely buried ancient city of Herculaneum, and then walking Naples’ shadowy, narrow twisting back streets, somehow led to the phrase “there will always be the city/ beneath this city charted by no one” dictating itself. This became the first two lines of ‘sea level’. I was thinking of Herculaneum. I was also articulating my own underground memories, nestled beneath the surface  of my daily life, but swimming up to its surface again in the crack in time that the December anniversary had opened.

Jotting the words down, on a bedside scrap of paper, but also opening myself to the energy I could feel rising up, I next heard “where column of stone tears/ cling to the ceilings.” As a child, I could neither cry, nor cry out, in bed beside my abuser. When you visit underground cave systems, the stalactites and stalagmites can seem like frozen ghosts, caught momentarily in the electric lights of the present.   I knew these stone columns were my own emotions, unarticulated and unacknowledged, until my thirties – when I first started to thaw and allow myself to re-experience them with professional support.  Brittle and dangerous until that point,  they had hung within me like unwieldy stone daggers, triggering panic attacks and flashbacks, as is the case for many peoples who have experienced trauma.   But the image was by no means exclusively sad. Stalactites are also objects of great beauty. Crystalline structures, created from dripping water, they sparkle when illuminated, and make visible the accretions of time. 

Seeing the lines on the hotel notepad,  I felt again that tornado of energy rising within them, driving the narrative forwards.  What came to me next was an image that called back the lost inhabitants of my imagined underground city “whose people were once/ lost or vaporised/ their houses and temples/ buried and forgotten”.  This of course happened historically to the citizens of Pompeii and Herculaneum – whose lives we now know in considerable detail thanks to the works of recovery undertaken by archeologists, and scholars. Within the carbonised cradle, the feather-light residue of a baby testified to his or her former presence. In Pompeii, archeologists pour plaster into voids left in the ash where bodies decomposed, to cast out the shapes of the people who fell trying to escape Vesuvius.

Figures cast from hollows left in the ash at Pompeii photo Wikipedia

By the end of 2018, when I visited Naples, I had begun to share the poems which were my own creative acts of recovery. I was also being mentored by Pascale Petit under the Jerwood Arvon scheme.  Through the responses I was receiving from her and other people, I knew that by writing about my childhood, the spell of denial thrown over my own life was being undone.  This also happens when other denied and buried histories – including those of enslavement, persecution, and genocide – are recovered and documented.

Writers including Primo Levi, who recorded his experience of Auschwitz, and the long journey home, and Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou, who make work in response to the histories of enslavement and racism, and the impacts of colonisation, were integral to my own process of giving creative testimony, as was Pascale Petit. Also crucial to my ongoing sense of possibility have been works of exploratory witness from contemporaries writing alongside me including Bhanu Kapil, Sandeep Parmar, Isabelle Baafi, Romalyn Ante, Jenny Mitchell, Rachael Allen, Rachel Long, Caleb Femi, Will Harris, Nina Mingya Powles, Troy Cabida, Arji Manuelpillai, Karen Smith, Natalie Linh Bolderston, Holly Pester, Ralph Webb and Cynthia Miller – to name only a very few. 

Carried forward by so many powerful examples, scribbling in bad handwriting by the streetlight coming through the gap in the curtains, I felt myself caught up into the process of collective reclamation and voicing. This was the journey of the poem, from darkness to light, from silence to noise.  As it took hold of me, with the Bay of Naples moving as a wash of liquid blackness beyond the town, I heard “let these people  who are my people/ enter your lives again”.  What had been denied and pushed down was rising up now in a way that made me think of a different set of tunnels altogether. 

Oritigia, showing temple columns in the wall of the church.

These were the tunnels under the Sicilian town of Ortigia, that I had previously visited with Pen, the younger of my two adult sons. The town has existed since classical times, and its main church is made from a former Greek temple, whose columns are still visible within the walls.  Ortigia’s deep network of tunnels were used over the centuries for rituals, burials and shelter, including from bombing during the second world war.  They formed places of safety, as we discovered during a guided tour.  Going underground in the town square, the musty, twisting passages emerge from darkness into the light of day at sea level, where the white gold rock of the island meets the turquoise waves. It was this memory which informed the next lines – “and hope will shaft passages/ up through the bedrock”. The photograph I chose for the YouTube podcast was taken on that holiday.  Being with my own son, by the iridescent waters of the Mediterranean, was in my mind as the last lines of the poem came to me, as you will be able to hear again. 

sea level

alice hiller emerging from the tunnels in Ortigia, photo by Pendragon Stuart.

‘sea level’ moves from suppression and denial, into life and community, ending “until we swim free/ within the breathing harbour of morning”.   The double sound meaning of its final word – morning – holds within it an echo of the sorrow and loss which is also part of the process of the poem.  It gives the journey into the light an element of circularity, echoing the circling of energy which is also integral to the formation of a tornado.  Those of us who have known difficult times will recognise how this circling can be manifested in the return of memories and anniversaries of the sort which kicked off the poem for me. While such a legacy is not easy to carry, I understand that it forms the foundation of who I am as a person, and as an artist, and has become one of the deep energy sources that fuel my work and my political consciousness.

Sunrise over the harbour in Naples

If anything in this blog has been difficult, the Mind website has valuable links.

If you would like to read more about bird of winter please go to the page in this blog, where I explain its background, or follow this link to Pavilion Poetry’s website: http://bit.ly/birdhiller.

If you would like to try out putting your own journey poem or artwork together, the following prompt may give you a few ideas. 

The first stage of putting your own journey poem or artwork together will be to think of an experience, feeling or memory which will be your starting point. It doesn’t have to be taken from your own life, but it should be something that you can potentially travel beyond to a new place, physically, emotionally,  geographically or conceptually.  This is what will give your work its forward motion and form its primary energy source.

In my case, the journey was from my child to my adult self, from a crime taking place to its anniversary many decades later, and from an individual, silenced position, to a collective act of witness. Be careful if your explorations start to feel upsetting for any reason, and plan beforehand how to stay emotionally safe.  You might want to have a friend you can connect with, or a helpline you can call, or another form of support. 

The next stage is to select your recording materials.  You might want to write on a sheet of paper or in a notebook, or type into a new document on your computer, or speak into your phone using a voice memo app.  All are equally good.   Once you’re ready, set a timer for five minutes, and then write, or speak freely, and without censuring yourself, about the starting point of your experience. What you’re looking to capture is the emotional mood and colour of the subject, rather than any formal description. Rough jottings, phrases, and images are great. 

Naples from the island of Capri

The next step will be to repeat this writing or recording process for another five minutes, envisaging and describing the place where the journey travels to.   You could do this straight after, or you might want to leave it until another day, week, or even month.  Sometimes poems and artworks come quickly, but other times they reveal themselves to us more slowly and gradually.    When you’ve got the two sets of material, combine them into a single document, so you can see how they sit together.

Beyond this, or alongside the process, you want to start thinking about a physical terrain across which the emotional journey of your poem or artwork can realise itself.  In my case, it was the double set of tunnels in Herculaneum and Ortigia, which became a single joined underground landscape. They could be landscapes you know personally, or ones you have experienced either online or via film or television or books. They could be from the past, or the present.  

The sea off Ortigia in Sicily.

Once you have identified your landscape, or landscapes, you want to generate some words around them.  If they are nearby, maybe visit them with your phone to speak into, or paper to write on. Otherwise, spend some time just looking at them online or in books. As you’re engaging with the landscapes, notice the feelings and ideas that come up, and again jot down phrases and images.  Do it as a timed session if that’s feasible and helpful.  As before, be careful if this starts to feel upsetting for any reason, and plan beforehand how to stay emotionally safe.

Land travelling into water

The final step will be to bring together your two sets of words and images – about the experience, and the landscape – in a way that makes the journey of your poem or artwork travel forward through time and across geography to its place of arrival. 

Good creating – and thank you for reading. Please sign up to the blog if you would like to be notified of other bird of winter podcasts and materials, and writing and interviews more generally on the topic of working creatively and transformatively with difficult materials.          

                                             

Naples underground

Introducing the bird of winter podcast series: exploring working safely and creatively with difficult materials through discussion and prompts.

cover of bird of winter

Link to bird of winter podcast no 1: finding words to hold things that can be hard to say : https://youtu.be/wnVHd5JR3cQ  It’s part of my commitment to changing awareness through working creatively beyond our places of silence.

How much does it matter what a work of art is ‘about’?  Do we only watch a film to find out what happens at the end?  Or is it to see the actors look towards each other, then drop their gazes? Do we also want to discover how they inhabit the skins of their characters, what landscapes are revealed by the bends in the road, how the mood changes when darkness falls?  All these elements are also the story.  They let us absorb the process of the film, and make us care about its outcome, because they involve us in what happens and why.  By engaging with them, we feel and think along with what we’re watching.  We bring our own imaginations, our own understandings, our own experiences into the mix.  

The same is true for poems.  Although their format is more compressed, it’s not only what the poem ‘says’ that catches us.  Of course that central energy matters.  But also how it is said – and why.  I believe the how and the why are particularly important when we write about our difficult things.  If we’re going to ask a reader, or a listener, to come on board with a complex or challenging topic, we need to help them engage actively, and with imaginative agency.  That way the material is not simply inflicted on them.  They can choose what to make of what rises from the page – and through this exercise a measure of control and safety.   

I founded, and have been facilitating a workshop for poets working with difficult materials since 2017.  It now has over fifty members, and has expanded into the Voicing our Silences website with dynamic sections run by different poets including Maia Elsner, Tamsin Hopkins, Rachel Lewis and Mary Mulholland. Others among our poets also include Romalyn Ante, Isabelle Baafi, Natalie Linh Bolderston, S. Niroshini, Natalie Whittaker,  Arji Manuelpillai, Jeffery Sugarman, Kostya Tsolakis, Joanna Ingham, Julie Irigaray, Wendy Allen, Patrizia Longhitano, Chaucer Cameron, Rochelle Roberts, Dan Fitt-Palmer, Holly Conant and SK Grout – to name but a few. 

As a group, we’ve had many conversations over the years, which have informed and shaped my own poems in bird of winter.  A considerable part of my collection passed through our workshop feedbacks at different stages.  I therefore wanted to use bird of winter’s publication this May by Pavilion Poetry, part of Liverpool University Press, to take some of our group’s and my own thinking around working with difficult materials out into the wider world. As with the Voicing Our Silences website, I hope we can support other people bringing their creative voices into the larger conversation. 

To facilitate this process, I’m launching the bird of winter podcast series. Each podcast includes a discussion and prompt, plus a performance of the poem I explore.  The first podcast is about working with things that live in the gaps and shadows of our lives, and finding words to hold things we find difficult to say. This is something which I know many of us face.  I investigate this theme relative to my title poem, (also called ‘bird of winter’), and specifically the creative strategies I came up with.  Because the poem looks at my experience of being treated in hospital for anorexia aged thirteen, and includes references to psychological vulnerability after sexual abuse in childhood, I have included the full text of the discussion and performance of the poem ‘bird of winter’ below the photo of the seagull. People who have concerns can read it first if they are concerned about being triggered.

If you would rather jump straight in and listen, the podcast is here. It’s auto-captioned and takes 10 minutes : https://youtu.be/wnVHd5JR3cQ

Text of bird of winter podcast no 1: finding words for things we find difficult to say. 

Hello I’m alice hiller, bringing you the bird of winter podcast series. The podcasts explore ways to be playful and adventurous with language, and share strategies for staying safe if you work with difficult materials, like I do.   A a word of warning – this episode mentions sexual abuse briefly, in the context of living beyond this crime as a teenager.  

What I’m going to explore today is finding words to hold things which can be hard to say – because they exist in the gaps and shadows of our lives.  To do this, I’m going to talk about the title poem of my collection.  It centres around meetings with the psychiatrist who admitted me to hospital in 1977, when I was thirteen.  I’d stopped eating, after being subjected to sexual abuse, and needed treatment for anorexia.  When I look back,  these conversations bring together silence and speaking – through the body, as well as with words. 

In 1977, sexual abuse in childhood wasn’t widely recognised, or discussed.  There was no framework for me to say or even think about what my abuser had done.  Aged thirteen, I weighed 28.5 kg, or 4.5 stone.  That’s the average weight for an eight or nine year old.  Seeing me,  the psychiatrist understood that something had gone very wrong.  She began the process of turning my life around, by giving me appropriate care.  

I needed ‘bird of winter’  to communicate her care, but also my experience of not being able to communicate fully with her, and the vulnerability that arose from this.  I also wanted to record what it feels like if your home is not a safe place to live in, when you haven’t yet finished growing up, something many young people face for various reasons.  

After trying out different approaches, I ended up setting short comments and questions from the psychiatrist down one side of the poem. I butted these into silent, unspoken thoughts from my teenage self, taking up the second half of the line. Because we were connected to each other within the therapeutic process, I then moulded our shared lines into an oval or pill shape that held our exchanges in its single, joined space. 

The pill shape made a record on the page of how talking was a key part of the treatment.  It also registered how I couldn’t really speak at the time, partly due to the drugs that were prescribed to help me to eat and sleep. The voice of the poem is fairly flat, almost muffled, suggesting how the drugs numbed my experience of the world while I was in hospital.

bird of winter

This is the text of the poem bird of winter which you can hear read on the podcast link

‘bird of winter’ is also a poem about healing. Seen another way, the oval looks like an egg. This extra layer of meaning matters.  It reflects how being in hospital put a safe shell around me.  Inside this shell, I could start to recover and grow beyond the abuse.  The new alice hatches out  in the poems about my teenage and then adult selves in bird of winter. 

The photo I chose for this podcast is of a gull flying alongside the cross-Channel ferry to Dieppe.  The way the bird stays close to the boat – while remaining free to tilt its wings and lift with the wind, or dive down into the green waves – made me think of how a teenager will progressively claim their independence, until they are strong enough and confident enough to take to the skies of their adult life.

Unlike the 1970s,  there are now positive options in the UK for young people who have been subjected to sexual abuse, to help them recover and feel strong and well. Support is also there for people seeking help in later life, as I did.  The Mind website has valuable links and phone numbers and your doctor can also give you advice. 

If you’d like to try writing something of your own based on how I put the poem together, I’ve created a three stage writing exercise which will come after this. Otherwise, thanks for listening. I’m alice hiller, speaking about my collection bird of winter which is published by Pavilion Poetry and I really appreciate you checking in with this project. 

You can buy bird of winter here, or read more about the project in the side bar.

shadow of alice hiller photographed falling on the sand through a small wave.