Back in March, when spring was only beginning in the UK, Dr Pragya Suman asked me if I would contribute a short essay and three poems to Arc Magazine. I chose to explore what working experimentally can bring to those of us whose work responds to complex materials, and was given permission by Pavilion to reproduce ‘her door is missing’, ‘and now came the ashes’, and ‘tessellation’ to evidence what I was saying in practice. Pragya and I also explored the topic further in a mini interview. The beginning of the essay is quoted below, and you will be able to read it in full, along with the other powerful material featured in Arc’s spring 22 issue if you follow the link at the end of the excerpt or here:
alice hiller in Arc Magazine: When I was growing up during the 1970s, England experienced intensely cold winters. Walking through the graveyard of the parish church with my mother, I would sometimes find small birds lying curled in the snow. Seeking shelter within yew bushes, they had frozen to death overnight, then fallen from their perches. Although I could not articulate why at the time, the hunched shapes of their still, undefended bodies resonated with me.
During those same years of unlocking the church, polishing its brasses, singing hymns on Sundays beside my mother, I was also being subjected to penetrative sexual abuse by her. We had moved together to Wiltshire from Brussels when my father died, the year I turned eight. In the English countryside, surrounded by darkness and silence, my mother took me into her bed. I was not able to tell anyone what came to pass between us for two decades beyond the physical abuse ceasing.
Writing bird of winter in my fifties, which gives creative witness to this crime, also on behalf of the millions who are subjected to childhood sexual abuse around the world, I knew the poems needed to exist in relation to the white spaces around them. I wanted them to communicate at a somatic and an instinctive level, through the shapes they made on the page, as the birds’ hunched outlines in the snow connected with me to suggest my own body when I was word-less. I wanted the freedoms of more experimental poetry to open pathways to healing.
Working visually as well as texually in bird of winter, I invite the reader’s conscious and subconscious selves to collaborate dynamically in the work of ‘reading’, conferring upon them an agency that the abuse denied me. Through this they become discoverers, rather than recipients of this complex material, and participate in the collection’s journey into meaning and resolution. They can also calibrate their depth of engagement, as I hope these three featured poems reflect.
If you would like to keep reading, please follow the link below.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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, poemsonto 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.
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 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.
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’:
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.
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.
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:
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:
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.
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.
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.
Trigger warning: non-explicit references to childhood sexual abuse.
This has not been an easy blog to put together. I have written, and redrafted its plain sentences, bare as winter branches, but like winter branches, holding within them the promise of spring. For those of you who are thinking of reading further, I should warn you that I write honestly about the challenge of living with a complex history, and the fact that resolution can seem hard to find. But I work my way through these hard places, to arrive at a point of hopefulness, which you will hopefully also reach if you stay with me and with these words.
In life, as in art, we’re encouraged to think in terms of beginnings, middles and endings. Progression and resolution give structure to stories. When an artwork responds to trauma, the requirements change. Anyone who has experienced, or observed the impacts of traumatic events, knows that they continue to resonate and replay themselves for many years. To generate a truthful creative transaction between a traumatic subject matter, and the work into which it is translated, calls for forms of expression which can suggest recurrences and hauntings. Through this act of creative witness, we may begin to change their power and reposition our relationships to them.
Living beyond, and making art that responds to, my own experience of childhood sexual abuse, amongst other subjects, I face this challenge myself. As the light dims towards the end of November, and the days grow shorter and darker, child ghosts walk again for me. They remember and re-live my father’s death in hospital when I was eight, in 1972. These ghost-selves also re-experience the beginning of the penetrative sexual abuse to which I was subjected, very shortly after, when my mother, who was my abuser, and I moved from Brussels to Wiltshire.
Impacting both my physical and mental health, these hauntings can lead me to feel as if I am sinking down through waves of old sadness. Like heavy black sump oil, they seep into my thoughts and bodily movements. When things get really bad, they can make it hard to move – or even think. Because this has happened every November and December since I was a teenager, over the years, I’ve developed resources to keep myself going. I work beside my SAD light. I try to be kinder to myself and organise my working life so that I am not too pressured. I meditate, swim and walk my dog Ithaca, noticing the natural world around us. I connect with people who love me.
But all these strategies only ever mitigate the after-effects of the dreams which rise up at night. In my sleep, I become again a scared, hurt child, taken back to a place between life and death by my mother. This was the case – very brutally – in November and December of 2021, as it had been in 2020, and all the years before that.
None of us likes to speak of what we perceive as our vulnerabilities, for fear people will think less of us, or feel we are ‘seeking attention’ in some way. But in 2020, working on bird of winter‘s final manuscript alone with my dog Ithaca in lockdown, I decided to make an artwork that could enact being haunted by a traumatic past, and reaching beyond this towards a form of resolution. At the time, I was following an online workshop with Nina Mingya Powles around multiple language heritages with the Poetry School, which my fellow Forwards Shortlistee, Cynthia Miller, was also part of. I was also experiencing difficult dreams. They shaped what I wrote.
What emerged is called ‘je suis son petit chat il est mon papa 1972/ I am his little cat he is my daddy 2020’. It’s a multi-form piece which exists simultaneously as a conventional poem, a visual work, a sound experience and a performance. It was published this January 22 in bath magg no 8, as you’ll be able to see and hear by following this link.
When I performed it at bath magg’s online launch, I began by saying a few words about the poem. The response I received made me feel there would be a value in expanding them into this blog, however inelegantly. Opening up the deliberately smudgy, troubled layers of the poem up in this way also gives me the opportunity to separate the two overlaid texts, and look at each one in isolation. In the final print they are blurred across each other to play out how traumatic stories repeat and recur, as you’ll have seen from the fragment above, and the link to the full work at bath magg.
‘je suis son petit chat/ I am his little cat’ begins in French and English, the two languages of my childhood. They refract and translate each other, but the work also makes complete sense in either language. In the first two lines, I’m waking up from a nightmare in 2020, aged fifty-six. I’m also myself in bed, aged eight, in 1972, as my father lies dying in intensive care. From there it is back to 1972 and my eight year old self returning home to our flat:
Describing my life before my father died as if it was still simultaneously present, including my grandmother taking me to the hospital, and my father sending me drawings home, the narrative enacts how, in dissolving the boundaries of time, these dark hauntings also open opportunities for healing, by re-accessing a fuller range of memory. Next in the underlay text comes the nightmare at the heart of the poem, which invaded my sleep in the early hours of 22 November, replaying the sexual abuse to which I was subjected as a child by my mother. As the poem reports, the terror of the dream induced vomiting and diarrhoea in my fifty-something year old self:
Tough though it was to experience in reality, this act of voiding is also a release, which opens up ‘je suis son petit chat/ I am his little cat’ to new energies – whereby the recurrence of the trauma becomes an opportunity to reset my relationship to the original events. Resetting happens through a short poem in both French and then English, which is overlaid on the looping narrative beneath it in larger font and bolder text, as the extract at the top of the blog shows.
Within its overlaid phrases, my adult self summarises the impacts of my childhood sexual abuse, including how it continues to haunt me. Speaking directly to my abuser, I refuse the silence which she imposed on me throughout my childhood and adolescence, and for long years beyond that. This frees the underlying narrative to begin to move towards the light of a different ending, where the recurrences of physical voiding can finally come to a stop:
The account of the nightmare, and falling “down a black tunnel” is repeated below the overlaid text, as when in nursery rhymes like ‘Oranges and lemons’, or ‘Frère Jacques’ in French, the verses come round again. Following the earlier shift, the act of voiding is once again purgative, letting go of some of the blackness and shame held inside me, and allowing gentler and more nurturing memories of my loving engagement with my father to continue to surface in the segment which follows:
Like many others with my history, for long years the trauma of the penetrative abuse in childhood separated me from being able to feel my own feelings, or know my own wants. Here, they begin to return to the child who lives within and alongside the adult. She can say once again “I want my daddy” and by expressing this longing re-form a more authentic connection with herself. My grandmother’s phrase translated means “let her through, let her through, she’s his daughter”. She was trying to get me allowed into the intensive care unit, but the phrase also acts out the way I am asking for my child self to be allowed back through, to speak and know herself, and how she was once loved.
‘Je suis son petit chat/I am his little cat’ ends in a place of quietness, with the possibility of integrating my separated selves more fully. Translating the “petit chat” nickname my father gave me into the English “little cat”, and laying it down on the page, the poem performs an act of witness to the co-presence of my child and adult selves. It also documents how, by reconnecting more fully with child-alice, adult-alice is able to begin to make a new relationship what made us who we now:
Walking in Shotover County Park near Oxford in the last days of 2021, after some very tough weeks, I saw trees and misty light that reminded me of Wiltshire, and felt unkind old ghosts crowd around me. But breath by breath, I drew the damp, cold air of the present into my body, and with it new energy. With each out-breath, I tried to let what I no longer needed pass from me. As I did this, the pearlescence of the fields and clouds became a wilderness of beauty, and the black branches of the trees uplifted themselves into acts of elemental resistance. With my dog Ithaca scenting the damp leaves, and pulling us forwards, and the landscape saying that life would return, I felt how this difficult annual recurrence was also a gateway to transformation – that each year I must find the way through.
Further exploration: four books and StAnza Festival
I often set a creative prompt after exploring one of my own poems for people to explore in their own practice. In this case the subject material is too dangerous. Instead, for anyone wanting to work creatively with complex materials, or look at other examples of this practice, I would recommend four books which open pathways to new understandings, and new creative forms of expression, from the breakages and fractures of trauma. I would also recommend the other brilliant poems in bath magg no 8, many which respond to complex subject matters – and make from them acts of beauty and reclamation.
In terms of books, Bloodroot, by Annemarie Ní Churreáin creates provisional, shifting structures to hold the lives and reposition the representations of Irish women whose lives were appropriated by the Irish State and Church. Documenting how the State invaded every corner of life in Romania under Romania, under Ceausescu and the Romanian Communist Party, for Buried Gods Metal Prophets Maria Stadnicka and Antonia Glűcksman assemble a living memorial that incorporates diary entries, photos, erasures, quotes from statutes, and building plans, as well as more conventional ‘poems’. In Things I have Forgotten Before Tanatsei Gambura speaks through radical formal innovation of what it can mean to have grown up as a “Black Girl” in Zimbabwe during the 1980s – and how losing a country can form you as much as having one. Sasha Dugdale’s extraordinary collection Deformationsexplores trauma and PTSD, through fragments composed around Homer’s Odyssey. A separate long sequence responds to the sculptor Eric Gill’s work and life, within the framework of his recorded sexual abuse of his daughters. Sasha and I spoke about our work in Volume 48 of PN Review. Sasha has a hugely impactful new poem in bath magg 8 which you can read here.
Annemarie Ní Churreáin, Maria Stadnicka and I will be appearing at the StAnza festival on 12 March both live and online with many other brilliant poets in St Andrews. You can find more details here. Prices start from £3.00. Booking opens on 21 January. For people not able to travel to Scotland, many of the events are online and very reasonably priced. As well as performing, I’m going to be sure to pack out my schedule with hearing other poets and it’s a great way to check in with a huge range of voices and perspectives.
On Saturday 6 November, I was asked to read and speak at an event on Poetry and Trauma at Poetry in Aldeburgh 2021 with brilliant, radical poets Chaucer Cameron, Day Mattar and Tessay Foley, introduced by poet and academic Patricia Debney. We have in common a background of having been subjected to predation and sexual abuse, in childhood or afterwards. Our shared experience, and the fact that we have all made artworks which begin in this harsh place, set the stakes very high in terms of creating an event which could speak collectively to people with similar experience in their own histories. The link to the podcast follows further down.
Sixty-five people tuned in to join us mid-afternoon. I don’t think anyone who was there will ever forget what was said and read. Both Chaucer and Day touched on their experiences of sex work or prostitution. Chaucer’s pamphlet In an Ideal World I’d Not be Murdered is part memoir/part fiction. It explores the impact of sex work on body, mind and spirit – through the voices of characters speaking to and with each other, while also questioning what it takes to leave this profession. Speaking of one of the female characters, who in real life was murdered, Chaucer said : “In my version she has her own voice, she sings her own song…and this is what it looks like.” The same could be true of her performance of those extraordinary poems on 6 November.
With real poignancy, and an ability to enter a child’s perspective, Day’s debut Springing from the Pews, with Broken Sleep Books, documents a six year old boy being groomed and then abused. Interweaving confessions, journal entries, and multiple voices into a verse play, the poems follow this little boy into adult life, asking how we may live with, and beyond, this very difficult legacy. He explained “I struggled for a long time to write these poems… I had multiple voices in my head…responding each as loud as each other… contradictory, loving, manipulative.” The results are astonishing.
Tessa Foley’s poems live in rooms where shadows rise up from the corners, even when the lights are on, and follow people down the streets at high noon. Drawing both on family history, and her own experience of volunteering for three years at Portsmouth Rape and Abuse Counselling Centre, the poems of What Sort of Bird Are You? witness the greatest difficulties, but also document moving beyond them into a more hopeful and resilient spaces, engendered in part through acts of mutual solidarity and community. Her line “Just because there’s a fence, the garden don’t stop growing” could speak for us all.
My own text is given in full below, exploring the idea of trauma as a wound, and how we may heal beyond it. I chose poems relating to water, to honour Aldeburgh’s seaside setting. To hear Chaucer’s, Day’s and Tessa’s voices testifying to experiences which I felt in my own body and spirit, had my heart rushing before I ever got to my own set. I was hugely honoured to perform with them. Inevitably, I needed to rebalance myself afterwards. Walking by the Thames later that afternoon, allowing the present world back into me as dusk deepened, I saw a footbridge lit up over the dark water. Watching it, I felt as if I had been given a visual representation of how we had, through our works, lit safe passages over places where we had once known great suffering.
As the set was an hour long, and very intense, I decided to record the audio of my poems and words separately as well – for people who wanted a shorter listen, or who might be hesitant around exposing themselves to the longer experience of the full set. The performance and comments from the audience set twitter alight for hours and days afterwards. My individual recording is 15 minutes long. I have put the linking text I wrote below it as a guide to what to expect.
To give a flavour of my approach, the words I wrote to link the poems are reproduced below in italics, interspersed by the poem titles. ‘phare d’ailly’ is reproduced as a sample of my work, because it has appeared in PN Review, along with a description of discovering ancient Herculaneum by Scipio Maffei. You can hear all the poems in full on the recording. If you face hearing challenges please contact me through the blog and I can send you a full text of words and poems.
If you would like to buy bird of winter, it’s available here.
alice hiller words and water poems on healing beyond trauma at Poetry in Aldeburgh:
As many of you know, trauma means wound in ancient Greek. My own collection, bird of winter, is partly about the childhood wound of being groomed and sexually abused by my mother. But it’s also about healing, and opening our wings into wider, freer skies. I’ll alternate poems which explore my difficult early years with others honouring experiences that helped me reclaim life. Celebrating Aldeburgh, many of the poems include water. First up is ‘bains de mer’ or ‘sea swimming’, remembering my beloved French bonne maman or grandmother.
bains de mer [performed]
Bonne maman represented a space of safety and unconditional love. Because my mother was my abuser, danger remained omnipresent. Normandie is the backdrop to a photo taken by my father in ‘pistil’. Named for the female reproductive parts of a flower, the poem combines words from my childhood medical notes with direct memories.
In addition to my medical notes, bird of winter is framed by Pompeii and Herculaneum. Both were harbour towns, but water is not a place of refuge or safety in the abuse poems. ‘let none of this enter you’ is spoken to my four or five year old self – with extra lines by Pliny the Younger describing the eruption of Vesuvius, which shapes bird of winter.
let none of this enter you [performed]
Even though he worked long hours, my diplomat father had been my protector. Once he was diagnosed with motor neurone disease when I was six, power shifted. I was eight when he died and my mother and I moved from Brussels, to England. I saw my father as the lighthouse whose beams lit my bedroom in Normandie.
papa the tide at vasterival was going out when you were carried from our flat as I slept
your jaw swung open like a latchless door
the sea is now 1km from the site of pompeii
The penetrative abuse began in England. My erasure ‘and now came the ashes’ is from Pliny the Younger’s account of Vesuvius :
and now came the ashes [performed]
Traumatic events such as rape fracture our consciousness. Scipio Maffei’s 1747 account of excavating Herculaneum offered a way of suggesting the injuries arising from raping a child, along with the difficulties of voicing this. The reader gets to puzzle out the imagery. They can determine how far to engage.
proceeding blindly through tunnels and through narrow passages much will be broken much will be destroyed nor will it ever be possible to see the noble buildings in their entirety
Scipio Maffei 1747
Even in very difficult times, the memory of my father, and my bonne maman’s love, gave my spirit a space of nurture. This is critical for all of us who are subjected to wounding experiences. ‘Rue de l’aurore’ was my grandmother’s address in Brussels. It means street of the dawn.
rue de l’aurore [performed]
I escaped the physical element of the abuse when I was thirteen by stopping eating. I was admitted to hospital – but this was 1977. Eating disorders were not recognised as a possible indicators of childhood sexual abuse. I wasn’t asked about, or able to speak directly of, what my mother had done. The psychiatrist who saw me understood something terrible had happened. Writing ‘tesselation’, I instinctively sited myself between worlds, like water becoming vapour.
My mother ended all contact with this psychiatrist when I was released from hospital. I was left very vulnerable. With time, I reconnected with life and love again and began to reclaim my body. My final poem moves between capture and release, remembering when I was seventeen.
becoming your channel of pearl [performed]
I dedicate it to all of us who turn our faces to the light, no matter what darkness we have come through [end of set].
The Festival brought together a rainbow of poets from Andrew McMillan, Sean Hewitt, Kim Moore, Victoria Kenneflick, Dom Bury, Colette Bryce, Rachel Long, Vidyan Ravinthiran, Momtaza Mehri and Sarah Westcott, to name but a few. The podcasts will be up on the Poetry in Aldeburgh website over the next days. I really recommend checking in with them.
If you live in or near London, I’ll be performing live for Outspoken at the Southbank with Nick Mahona and Wayne Holloway-Smith on Thursday 25 November at 7.45 pm. I’ll be sharing poems about the bumpy teenage years that follow grooming and childhood sexual abuse, but also how these are the freedom trail that leads to reclamation and healing.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’ 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
When I think of adolescence, the unruly rush of spring growth, that transforms woodlands after winter comes to mind. Trees burst their buds into leaf, and plants grow towards the light following months of dormancy. Walking with my dog Ithaca in Shotover woods, above Oxford, as the seasons changed this year, I observed and photographed this almost ecstatic transition close up. I saw it with senses made more acutely responsive by the restrictions of lockdown. Like everyone, my daily life through the winter was defined by ‘sameness’ – without access to the visual stimuli of museums and films in cinemas and the different landscapes that travel and social contacts can open.
At the time, I was getting ready to launch bird of winter with my brilliant fellow Pavilion Poets Alice Miller and Sarah Westcott in May. The collection responds to my childhood experiences of being groomed, and then sexually abused, by my mother. It also documents the difficult teenage years beyond this as I found my uncertain way towards reclaiming myself and living again. When I was writing the individual poems, I would necessarily be in a single emotional space or remembered time. It might be reconnecting with my late father and grandmother, whose love helped me come through, or finding ways to bring much more complex memories of the grooming and the abuse, and their aftermaths, to the page.
With the poems orchestrated into their structure by my brilliant poet-editor at Pavilion, Deryn Rees-Jones, what became uppermost in my mind was the movements between them. Divided into three parts, the collection flows together like waves rising up a beach to lift their tide of moods and images into the shore of creative witness. Then it rallies its forces to carry the darkness of the abuse far out to sea – revealing the gleaming seaweed and new sands of the healing with which the final poems close.
Holding the sea-coloured book in my hands, turning its pages, I saw, and felt, how the way I was groomed set up and fed into the abuse, making it impossible to refuse. I also recognised with a new clarity how even when it was over, the abuse left me acutely vulnerable as a teenager, through having broken down any boundaries I might have had. But reading over bird of winter’s teenage poems, I also re-experienced the ferocious life force that puberty awakened in me, along with a hunger for the world beyond what I had known. This helped me reach towards my future like a plant towards the sun, in many different ways. These included forming new friendships, deepening my interest in books and the arts more generally, and beginning to travel alone. Adolescence also gave me the confidence to experiment, however awkwardly, with my reclaimed sexuality, and through this begin to separate myself emotionally from my abuser.
Once bird of winter was launched and out in the world, with many warmly generous responses from readers and people who watched the launch online, my thoughts kept going to my teenage self, surrounded by danger and possibility both at once. On my woodland walks with Ithaca, the foxgloves we spotted seemed like young girls, flamboyantly delicate, standing out from the foliage around them, but also susceptible to injury – as a flower can be picked and broken because it is not able to defend itself. When I turned sixteen, in the summer of 1980, I had a short white playsuit that I wore all the time. The bells of the white foxgloves in particular, cupped one on top of the other, brought back to me my own young body within that light cotton, and my unawareness of how I might be perceived.
During those teenage years, I faltered in my education, and was harshly judged by those around me as the impact of the abuse started to shape my behaviours and choices, as many young people are still today. Reconnecting with those times made me realise that it was not enough only to publish poems. I also needed to write and speak directly about the experiences held within them to expand the discussion. Children and teenagers who have been subjected to this crime deserve to be understood compassionately and respectfully as they work to reclaim their lives. Creative witness, and the discussion it engenders, are powerful tools for supporting this. Even, and especially, if recovery is necessarily messy and stumbling at times.
To further the work of changing awareness around sexual abuse in childhood, and help generate engagement, I wrote a performance text for Neptune’s Glitter House, which I also recorded as a podcast, exploring adolescence as a time of reclamation for those of us who have been subjected to sexual abuse in childhood. It features live readings of nine of my poems including ‘sea level’, ‘tessellation’, ‘wall painting removed from the house of the surgeon’, ‘mirror’, ‘when they begin to have feathers’, ‘sagittae’, ‘becoming your channel of pearl’ and ‘quadrant’. In addition to the poems themselves, I speak about their contexts, and the subject more generally. These words which are lifted from my introduction to the podcast:
As a bi-queer woman, club culture is something that resonates with me. I love its strobed shadowiness, and potential for transformations, and discovering new selves through playing with refractions of your identity. And of course all that glitter, ironic and otherwise. When I was a teenager in the late 1970s and early 80s, the time I’m going to explore, punk and two tone gave way to the ruffles and swags of the new romantics, and glitter balls were mainly synonymous with low-fi seaside discos in unfashionable towns, often along hot European coastlines. There time slowed to a trickle. Adventures could open into the night like strange flowers.
If you would like to listen to the full podcast, please follow the link below. In terms of safeguarding, be aware that it contains references to the aftermaths of sexual abuse, but opens and closes with poems of healing. If you need support with anything the podcast touches on, the Mind website has valuable links.
Following up from recording this podcast, I also wrote a memoir-essay for The Friday Poem website, published in August, which looks closely at four of the teenage poems in bird of winter. Titled ‘I think she is beginning’, (from a comment in my medical notes by the psychiatrist who treated me for anorexia when I was thirteen), this tracks how the poems enact my journey from the darkness of abuse towards the new light of healing. Again, it’s a journey that millions of people around the world are making every day. The essay begins:
Adolescence is seldom tidy or straightforward. Trying to locate ourselves beyond the lives we knew and lived as children gives rise to exploratory behaviours that outsiders can be quick to condemn. For those of us subjected to the crime of sexual abuse in childhood, the challenges and potential dangers are inevitably greater. This was my own experience. My abuser was my mother. Without appropriate support, the changes of puberty may push us back towards our places of injury, and emotional disassociation. If we have not been able to articulate or process the original trauma, there is also often little to mitigate the destabilising impact of reconnection with complex energies.
If you would like to read on, the full article can be found here. As before, I refer to the aftermath of sexual abuse in childhood, and the Mind website is a valuable source of support should you need any.
While I write these words in London, beyond the city the woods are moving from the heavy, green vegetation of high summer, towards the very first intimations of autumn. In the next months, leaf fall will reveal the bones of the trees, and the shapes their branches print onto the sky, as their roots co-link underground. Working alone, but with Ithaca close by, I hope what I say here may speak to all of us making strong lives beyond sexual abuse in childhood, and give support to the larger societies within which these works of reclamation and transformation take place, as communities of trees share their resources in order to grow and flourish.
I will be reading from bird of winter online on 9 September at 7PM UK time with Alice Miller and Sarah Westcott for Chener books. Tickets are free, but you need to email Chener Books in advance at email@example.com.
When I was first experimenting with poems, five years ago, I was working blind, like a mole digging upwards. Coming from a prose background, all I knew was that I had to find words able to hold what I needed to write.
Like millions of other people around the world, I was groomed, and then sexually abused as a young child. In my case, this took place in the late 1960s and 1970s. I then stumbled through the messy teenage aftermath as Punk gave way to Two Tone and Margaret Thatcher took power. Nearly forty years later, memories of what happened can still flood my dreams. Physical symptoms replay old injuries.
Nowadays, sexual abuse is discussed extensively in the media. Measures are in place to identify, make safe and support children who have been subjected to predation of this sort, even if these have been compromised during the recent lockdowns. But there is still limited comprehension of what the crime entails, and how it impacts people, not least because it is so difficult, and painful, to think or talk about.
Changing awareness, and giving witness, were two things I had in mind as I shaped my fledgling poems. I wanted to make compact pieces of art. They needed to contain and express what had happened to me, but do so with a degree of agency and protection for both writer and reader. Like seashells found on a beach, they had to be small, beautiful fragments that you could pick up and hold to the light – while thinking of the depths in which they grew.
Aside from a transformative Jerwood Arvon mentorship by Pascale Petit, and generous insights and readings from other poets along the way, three key elements fed into the poems that will be published by Pavilion as bird of winter in April 2021. The first was my own long-standing fascination with Pompeii and Herculaneum. I visited the two sites in the summer of 2000, along with the Naples Museum which holds many of the key finds. I also subsequently saw, and bought the catalogues of, exhibitions at the British Museum and the Ashmolean. From the plaster dog, cast out from the void left in the ash by his evaporated body, to wall paintings and brothel graffiti testifying to lost lives, the findings gave forms to my excavations of my own past.
bird of winter was also shaped by the notes I salvaged from my childhood and adolescent medical records. They corroborated my hospital stay as a teenager. They additionally reflected how doctors saw children like me, at a time when sexual abuse was almost always missed. Finally, two trips to Dieppe in the summer and autumn of 2019 let me reconnect with what had sustained me through those very difficult years – namely the love I received from my French grandmother, and my father until his death when I was eight.
When bad things happen to you growing up, they can choke and pollute the waters of your life like an oil slick, and cause immense local damage. But they are not the whole story, any more than an oil slick is the whole surface of the sea. Healing comes through cleaning up the damage, and then moving beyond it, to clearer waters and moments of love and joy, which more truthfully define us and let us know who we are. I wanted bird of winter to honour these good elements, which enabled me to resist, and ultimately reclaim myself.
First in the July sunshine, and then in October rain, I travelled across from Newhaven on the ferries like those I used to sail on to see my grandmother. I stood outside the gates of what had been her clifftop house, along the coast from Dieppe. I climbed down to the beach where I paddled and swum with her and my father. To be there again, to know the movement of the sea, to hear the waves ringing through the shingle, was to feel a tide of strength flowing through me, as I worked on what proved to be some of the core poems of bird of winter.
When I was asked by Pavilion to choose the cover colours, I knew immediately that they had to be from the Channel off Normandy. They needed to wrap the darkness which the collection addresses in a transformative mantle of light. Some of them can be seen in the photos that run alongside these words, which were taken on those two trips in 2019.
In the months to come, I will be writing more about bird of winter, and the real, and imagined, birds which take flight from its pages, alongside the objects excavated from Pompeii and Herculaneum which inspired some of the poems. I will also write about what it is like to take back your medical notes, and see how you were seen, when you could not see yourself.
For now, I want to thank Deryn Rees-Jones, currently recovering from Long Covid, for making me a Pavilion poet, on a list which includes many writers who speak to my heart. Nuar Alsadir, Mona Arshi and Bhanu Kapil, to name only some, occupy sacred spaces on my shelves. I am honoured to be appearing alongside Alice Miller and Sarah Westcott in 2021 and hope we will be able to read together.
In closing, I express solidarity with all of us who have been impacted by sexual abuse in childhood – whether at firsthand, or because it has come into the lives of those who matter to us. By giving witness, by supporting each other, by making art that reclaims agency and beauty, we can work together across our communities. We can help the world to see and think differently.
If you would like to order a copy of bird of winter please follow this link.
To find more about the other amazing Pavilion Poets please follow this link.
Traveller, writer, theatre-maker, and freestyler, Arji Manuelpillai is a poet whose work has always derived energy and resonance from its live components. While Mutton Rolls, his debut pamphlet from Out-Spoken, was launched online from his living room in lockdown, this in no way diminished audience numbers, or the warmth of their appreciation. Mutton Rolls’ poems find their subjects in UK raves and garage forecourt shops, but also on Sri Lankan beaches and in the aftermath of bombings and tsunamis. Like strobe lights flashing moments of visibility, they illuminate growing up in Britain with the double consciousness that derives from knowing your parents and family once lived somewhere else, and explore what it means not always to be made to feel welcome. Witty, joyous, and irreverent, the poems we talk about do not hesitate to call out the unacceptable. They can spin in a second to catch your heart – and hold it in a net of words that makes it beat differently when let go again.
AH: I’d like to start by asking you about your experience of the last few months Arji. You launched Mutton Rolls within the full UK lockdown. You also ran free poetry workshops with special guests on zoom which attracted huge attendances during the months when we were largely unable to meet in the physical world. How has this been for you?
AM: Such a pleasure to be here with you Alice and thanks so much for taking the time to chat to me. It has been a whirlwind few months. With so much of our collective futures turned upside down, I’ve found it difficult to manage my own expectations and keep the positivity up. However, in another way I have lived my whole life as a freelancer and with that sort of lifestyle comes an ability to adapt to the challenges with innovation and creativity. I can think of nothing worse than being furloughed at home being unable to work on new projects. So I was thankful for the opportunity to start Arji’s Poetry Jam, to continue with workshops with young people, help create a Refugee Week education resource for Kazzum Arts, and to plan and deliver a great release party for the pamphlet. It has been interesting as I feel like the online thing has provided people with greater accessibility in many ways. It creates a global playing field with fans for the workshops appearing in NZ, Finland, Canada and New York. It also made me feel like anything is possible with a little creativity. Right now, I’m spending a whole lot of time on Zoom but I’m really missing the real life groups, the community and the love of people connecting and creating together. I’m praying for the future, that we will return and still create wonderful work someday.
AH: I understand that. I feel the same way. It’s really fantastic that you have been able to continue to reach out and deliver to so many different groups against all the odds. People who want to find out more about these projects can check out the links on www.arji.org. Coming back to the current situation, you tweeted your uncle was one of the first doctors to die from COVID 19. The poem ‘after being called a paki’ confronts the racism which your father and his generation were met with on arrival in the UK. I wondered what it’s been like to publish a pamphlet which calls out UK racism past and present, and then have the #BlackLivesMatter movement rise up so powerfully here and round the world, speaking to and with so many of your themes?
AM: It has been so interesting to see how people respond to the poems about race. I’ve been surprised by some animosity towards poems like ‘white people’ and thenI’ve had some really heartfelt messages from other South Asian people who connect with the work. I hadn’t really realised how important it was to speak to my community and capture those feelings until it was actually out there. This was highlighted by a good friend of mine who doesn’t ‘do poems’, (those are the people I really love to reach). He told me how he had never found the words to say how he felt growing up as a British Asian but now suddenly the book had captured them. I felt moved by that. As the BLM thing started to rise I was fully engrossed, angry, unsurprised, pretty much like most of the minority communities – but as it moved forward I started to unpack some of the racism within the South Asian community. I think we have to remember that the racism that black people feel in this country is unique to this country and the people within it. Black people deserve this space for discussion and the recognition of the racism they face and it is up to us all to face that head on and bring sustainable change. That’s not to say the South Asian experience isn’t important or valid. It is just accepting that the grouping together of races doesn’t help any of us. I am fortunate to have worked with inspiring black men and women and will continue to fight for change and equality. I believe that this is a movement of hope and change is possible if we are willing to keep trying.
AH: I absolutely agree with you, and I think your work is unquestionably part of that larger movement, and has been for many years. Calling into question the stability and integrity of contemporary identities, and the pressures to which people can be subjected, your opening poem, ‘credit card’, begins “someone pretended to be me/ filled my details out online”. The intercepted card is imagined/described as being used to facilitate an impeccably ‘middle class’ spending spree which includes “crème fraiche” for leek and potato soup, and ends up funding a seat at a shared table in a café “on the white side of Peckham” where the thief is supposed to have:
had a tea and carrot cake read the paper, lent back in their seat
so their hands fell to their sides and the lady to the right casual as breathing pulled her handbag close
The only skin tone that is mentioned is “white”, but the “casual as breathing” action of the woman has the effect of putting the “someone” under suspicion for no reason that can be deduced from their tea drinking, paper reading or carrot cake eating. Would you be able to say something about the relationship between the speaking “me” and the observed “someone” in ‘credit card’, and why you chose to open Mutton Rolls with this poem?
AM: This poem is one of those poems that fell out of my head on a long walk. Someone actually did fraud my debit card and went to Morrisons and spent a small amount of money on groceries. I couldn’t get this idea out of my head, that someone was just hungry, no drugs, no alcohol, just hungry. All of those preconceived prejudice I had were thrown away. Almost in the same week I was in a theatre show, it was a play set in South Africa. In the middle of the piece I sat back in my seat and the lady beside me suddenly reached to her side, grabbed her bag and put it in her lap in the most awkward position. I sat there for 2 hours wanting to ask her why she had done that but I didn’t have the guts and it probably would have seemed over-the-top. As with many of my poems, it is the coming together of two contrasting ideas that gives birth to a real ‘charged’ feeling. So, let’s go back to the debit card thief. I started imagining a whole world for this thief, I created short vignettes of them all round town and the question kept coming up as to why they might have stolen the card. I was moving towards the ‘someone’ wanting to feel like they were part of the elitist class, like they could dine in the places the middle class dine but at the bottom of all that, they never truly belong. I combined that idea with the concept that no matter how well the thief works, he can never shake his class away. Hence the lady pulling her bag in at the end. I love that poem as it is all about wanting to belong and that’s the reason I put it at the opening of the pamphlet.
AH: Wanting to belong gets imagined in a different way in ‘brown boys in Kavos.’ The poem begins among a “tulip-topped spliffs” and “the backwash of cheap vodka” at “4am in a balmy Greek heat.” A hymn to the hedonism of “rumbling dance floors”, its heroes are “four brown corduroy-coloured boys” who are “failing to get laid/ in the ‘getting laid’ capital of Greece.” Their charms are coming off worse to “sweaty charisma and beautiful blackness” on the one hand, and “glitter soaked torsos/ all fearless and normal and slavemastery.” Against this temporarily disheartening outcome, their salvation, and reclamation of themselves comes in their solidarity, as the sun calls into life a new day:
brown boys think themselves ugly
but not yet ugly because they are brown the sun is reaching over the rooftops brown boys light cigs and laugh an orgasm is caught in the breeze
I wondered if the idea of working collectively, and in concert with others, resonated with you, as part of a creative and transformative process?
AM: Everyone who knows me knows that I believe creativity is best enjoyed together. The camaraderie, the sharing of ideas, the spontaneity, I believe it is at the centre of a healthy mind and spirit. I have spent most of the last 15 years in participation arts because I truly believe making art together is integral to a happy society. In other parts of the world participatory arts is just art, by which I mean, everything is focussed around making art together. This is really true when we think about poetry.Poetry communities are integral to the scene, taking a poem to a group and sharing process is everything. Without it I really feel I would not be half the poet I am. This is one of the reasons why I feel there needs to be more mentorships for minority groups to encourage collaboration and connection. It is these communities that will nurture and grow Britain’s best new poems. Many publishers at the moment are asking for BAME poets to come forward but we need ‘quality’ – and to make ‘quality’ poets you need quality mentoring spread over long periods of time.
If you are interested in finding yourself a group perhaps start at The Poetry School where regular bursaries are available. Alternative options are Malika’s Kitchen and Covent Garden Stanza (run of course by you Alice). These are free groups but you will probably be asked to send samples. Loneliness is affecting us all at the moment so don’t sit in silence, connect with others and use art as a vehicle for transformation.
AH: Again, I can only agree. The Poetry Society co-ordinates Stanza groups up and down the UK, with further groups available in a few other countries, or with online membership. I’ll put details at the end of the interview. I know that the support of our stanza group really helped me personally during a very difficult few weeks in lockdown, It’s also been a fantastic place for me to try out new work in a safe place. Going back to Mutton Rolls, while ‘brown boys’ has a sunrise ending, ‘half catholic’ strikes a more sombre note. The first person speaker reveals himself to be a man who, while attracted to women, also responds to men with desire. As a woman who is drawn to both women, and men, this is a duality which I recognise. Reflecting how Catholicism can become a force which risks alienating people from themselves, the speaker remembers how:
at fifteen I touch a man in a way that makes me wish God didn’t exist
throw up behind a Ford Fiesta brush my teeth till the toothbrush snaps
“in Lourdes years later” he promises “not to want/ a man again” and prays for this to happen. Returning to the motif of theft, also present within ‘credit card’, the poem ends:
after the tsunami I watch a man
pickpocket a corpse quietly as though hiding it from the sky
The pickpocketing is presumably a matter of economic necessity, in order to ensure survival. I wondered if you could say something about why you chose to set those two narratives consecutively, and whether the reader was being asked to think about the historic thefts and appropriations of colonialism, and their enduring impacts through time?
AM: This poem is the coming together of a series of moments in my life. All of them are strung together through a feeling of humiliation and shame, a sense of not belonging and being unable to conform to a system that didn’t necessarily fit me both religiously, ideologically and spiritually. Landing in Sri Lanka during the Tsunami was one of the most pivotal moments of my life. It came at a time when I was turning to activism and God, observing the situation unravel was painful. I was amazed by the level of blind faith that many of the victims had, even after they had often lost their family, friends and livelihoods. Their faith gave them strength, it was something I envied but also something I ridiculed. This for me, connected the two parts of my upbringing. One side of me is always in awe of my heritage as a Sri Lankan Tamil, half Catholic and half Hindu. With that side comes all of the myths and stories and the rich cultural history of tradition and ritual. But the other British side was often disillusioned, faithless and sceptical of it all. That dichotomy is at the centre of the poem and a great deal of my work. I dabbled with the ending for a long, long time. Finally I came to this idea of a man stealing money while only caring about God watching. It seemed to connect to the British impact in Sri Lanka, it shows the power of capitalism and it also illustrates shame and it also connected with the desperation to survive.
AH: That’s an incredibly rich explanation Arji. It really captures how poems can hold multiplicities without forcing a single or simple resolution. Belinda Zhawi talked to me earlier in this series about the impacts of colonialism in Zimbabwe which was similarly powerful. There is an ongoing, and fruitful, tension in your work between narrating your experiences as a person, not least in several powerful break-up poems, and as a person of colour. Many writers are responding to this, not least the poet Cathy Park Hong in her study Minor Feelings, whose work speaks to many of us. ‘nominated for a BAME prize’ tackles this complexity head on, beginning “it’s always in capitals/ like someone is shouting it.” The speaker states “I feel almost unBAME// in my M&S shirt and trousers”, and seems to position the BAME branding as something which risks diminishing and ghettoising artists, and over-simplifying complex, nuanced narratives. Is that a fair reading?
AM: I think that is an extremely astute reading. I feel like BAME as a title has a truckload of problems associated with it. It boxes us all together, which dilutes the differentiation of culture between countries and religious groups. It gives people the perception that we are ‘all the same’ when in actual fact the continent of Asia is as diverse as you can get and Sri Lanka is a place made up of so many different minority groups. I totally sympathise with those that have tried to champion the representation of minorities in the arts but BAME is starting to feel a little dated. On top of this I’ve seen the term become quite divisive within the arts sector. Artists like me get a role or new project but it feels rather shadowed by the idea that ‘I only got it because I’m brown’. Often other artists may think me not deserving of the opportunity and that hurts. By segmenting us off, and doing call outs and competitions just for specific groups, it ends up feeling like we are in some way not applicable to the same rules of quality as our white counterparts. This is the opposite of what we as a society are trying to achieve. The funding and grant system in this country is creating divisions amongst artists, from those that do or don’t get funded, to those that can or can’t write an application form. Sometimes it feels like we spend so much of our time divided instead of innovating together.
I’m not sure what the answers are, but I believe the start is to have a universally clearer understanding of the differentiation between countries, cultures and traditions. When we begin to accept our own ignorance we will begin to move into a space where we are ready to grow and learn. This space is a position of true power.
AH: Undoubtedly your work is helping this transformation. The back cover of Mutton Rolls says you , like the speaker of ‘nominated for a BAME prize’, were “shortlisted for the Burning Eye BAME Pamphlet Prize 2018.” I wondered if I could ask you here something about the first person “I” of your poems? Do you see it as primarily specific, that is linking the work with you, Arji Manuelpillai, as a series of statements of witness? Or is it more a ‘first personal universal’, so that the I becomes a portal through which the reader can look with a greater degree of empathy and understanding? Or both?
AM: You are the first person to call this out. Yes, much as I love and respect Burning Eye, they did inspire that poem. After I was shortlisted I found it interesting how I didn’t tell my parents it was a BAME prize. I was almost embarrassed by it. So I create vehicles for the personal messages to travel through. I do feel like the work is reflective of where I was at during that time. I wanted it to be like a calling card for my style and voice. The voice is very much me, the situations (though not always completely true) are very much like me and I’m proud of that. I hope that they will provide a greater understanding and empathy from the reader but I also feel they are fragments of myself and not designed to lead or coax the reader into any set reaction. I think in the newer work I am creating I am more interested in the ‘I’ taking a back seat, perhaps even disappearing and allowing the reader space to walk around, wander and discover. I hope that doesn’t sound too over-the-top. I feel like my new work is going to discuss life in a whole new nuanced way and I’m super excited about it.
AH: I really look forward to those poems Arji. Many of your Mutton Rolls poems explore the emotional lives of men. ‘Cecilia says we’re all fucked up’ is an unpunctuated prose poem that explores the conversations between a psychotherapist and her client. There is a surface play of humour and irony, riffing on the neutral décor and demeanour of the therapist. This anodyne professional setting elicits the revelation “my friend died when I was 24 I never got to say goodbye.” After the apparently desultory meandering leading up to this, however, the closing lines have all the impact of being dropped down through a trap door
I was busy being strong that’s why abstract paintings work so well she’s leaning back must be time wipe the tears away like face paint how long before I’m wandering drunk down the Old Kent Road not knowing how I got there
Could you say something about the poem’s ending, and what it means to you to find forms through which to speak of things which can’t easily be said, but are powerful forces within our lives?
AM: This poem was a real turning point to me. The Cecilia in the poem is actually Cecilia Knapp and the poem came out of a need to connect many opposing internal dialogues with the running dialogue with a therapist. After I finished it I took it to a feedback session and I literally wasn’t sure whether it was good or really rubbish. I think the poem began to unpack a need I have to move towards reflecting the way the mind moves without the need for set narrative. My favourite poets are doing this currently, the work of poets like Jericho Brown, Chen Chen and Morgan Parker have led the way in this, but poets like Wayne Holloway Smith and Emily Berry have paved the way in England too. I feel that this poem was the start of that hunger and movement. The final lines took a lot to muster, the balance was integral and it was discussed over many a cup of tea with Hannah Lowe, who helped me learn about the soft step off. She always says ‘go in hard and get off lightly’ (or something like that). Finding this form and flipping the camera upside down allows us to capture the intricacies of this complex world that we live in. During this answer I’ve name-dropped a bit. I am doing this because it is important to remember that these poems are the product of many discussions, feedback sessions and books by other poets.
AH: You mentioned Wayne Holloway-Smith in the roll call. I know you’ve taken workshops with him. Wayne is concerned to investigate and call out how the complexities of masculinities are represented, and to challenge cultural and class stereotyping. To what extent do you feel your work is in conversation with his poems?
AM: Wow, I never thought of it like that. I’d be honoured for people to even consider them in connection with Wayne’s work. He has been a real inspiration to me. His work unpicks so much about being a man and growing up but it also deals with emotions in an incomplete and broken linear. The real admiration I have for Wayne is his attitude to poetry itself. His mindset is settled around feeling, process and freedom, not necessarily making sense or clarity of narrative. He isn’t bothered whether things look or sound like a poem, he is just about how it makes an audience squeal or turn in their seat. He has taught me to be the sort of poet that doesn’t give a f-ck, to innovate, challenge preconception and industry notions of acceptance, to dig into process, to grow, discover, play with it all and take nothing for granted. Everything we read in the Monday night class we question, poke fun at, pick apart, no one is on a pedestal, everything isn’t about what’s happening but what is ‘working’. Some people say ‘oh it doesn’t seem much like a poem’ and that really doesn’t bother us, I want to make people think and Wayne has taught me that. Thematically, any connections between our work is simply because I have spent too many Monday nights in his group.
AH: I’m sure Wayne will be happy to read that. Your wonderful poem ‘regret’ was placed in last year’s Oxford Poetry Prize. It offers a vignette of “my mum chatting in Tamil to the boy at the petrol station counter.” Snatches of their conversation are represented in Tamil, and the mum is shown as being completely at ease and lost in this moment:
she is Aunty, he is Thamby and the queue behind us can wait
The speaker, however, is excluded, catching only snatches of the conversation, “plucking subtitles from their eyebrows”. Yet it is from this sense of not-fitting that the poem’s voice and consciousness grow. I wondered if you would like to say something about the creative potential of dislocation and exclusion as a generative force for you as an artist, in this poem and more generally?
AM: I feel like not belonging drives the majority of my work. We spend most our years growing up hoping to fit into the system only to realise our uniqueness is what makes us special. In my workshops with young people I’m always encouraging people to think about their exclusion as a force of creativity. Ask yourself, what makes you unique, different and amazing. This poem is a very truthful representation of my mother and I in a petrol station. My Mum is an amazing conversationalist. Whenever we go anywhere she is talking to the cashier or catching up with someone in the queue. In England, India or Sri Lanka she’s always speaking to people and often I wish so much I could join in. I mastered the English language but perhaps in doing so sacrificed my Tamil heritage. This poem isn’t just about language though, it is also about the love I have for my Mum.
AH: Another important woman in your life has been the poet Hannah Lowe, who was your mentor on the Jerwood Arvon Scheme, and who, like so many of us, works from a place of cultural multiplicities. I was massively helped by having Pascale Petit as my mentor on the same scheme. Could you say something about your experience of being mentored by Hannah?
AM: Getting the Jerwood Arvon mentorship was probably one of the biggest achievements of my writing life. It provided me (and you too) with a community of artists, a space to create and a mentor who really believed in me. Hannah has been completely instrumental to my growth as a poet and artist. Her work transcends cultures and backgrounds, her control of narrative is second to none and her ability to mentor is truly masterful. Hannah is always focussed on clarity of image, constantly pushing me to make even the abstract hold true conceit and is always encouraging me to take the reader by the hand and lead them from line to line. This has been so influential to me. When I’m lost, I often see her on my shoulder asking ‘I don’t really get this bit’ or it’s not really clear enough’. She is also a poet who believes in accessibility of the work, so she pushed me to make sure the poems reached the readership I wanted to reach instead of tumbling into abstraction. In many ways Hannah and Wayne sit on opposite ends of a poetry spectrum. This was a wonderful thing to experience, it allowed me to see how poetry could pull and shift in different directions, it allowed me to ride a very thin line between being abstract and being very clear and it also showed me that finally my own choices had to be made. As Hannah once said to me ‘just be confident with what you’re trying to do’. Hannah’s passionate, down to earth, giving nature is something that I will always be thankful for.
AH: ‘after the Sri Lankan bombing that kills 360 (after the 20 year more than killed significantly more)’ uses the powers of miniaturisation deployed by Elizabeth Bishop in her poem ‘Brazil, January 1 1502’, and by Rachael Allen in her poem ‘Banshee’ – to name but two other poets of the tiny. Elizabeth Bishop is describing the rapist-conquistadors who are “hard as nails/ tiny as nails, and glinting, in creaking armour.” Rachael Allen (interviewed last year in this series) is reanimating the murder of a woman whose aggressor works “like a small model forester/ axing up plastic logs.”
Your poem begins “after the news my skin feels darker”, and uses responses to the bombing in the Grand Cinnamon Hotel as a prism to make more visible the complexities of only being “Sri Lankan / at weddings and funerals or for inquisitive white people”. The poem ends by distilling its contradictions into three singing lines:
from here (on the toilet) it’s all just a cluster of tiny red faces wailing in a language I don’t understand in a country I can’t oh look! that’s where Mama and Appa first met
I wanted to ask you to what extent the miniaturised space of the poem – which takes huge subjects and telescopes them down – creates a measure of safety for dealing with difficult or otherwise unmanageable materials?
AM: I think you’re really onto something there. I’m really interested in pulling big political constructs into my poems and sometimes that can be a very daunting thing. Finding methods to do this is tricky. I’ve found that keeping the subject of the poem down-to-earth and ‘local’ allows the overriding message to have its own open plain. In this poem it all centres around the speaker watching a video online yet the focus is bigger. All political problems have a microscopic impact on our lives, that means taking a subject like war and persecution and asking yourself where does that sit on a local level. This can be a very fruitful task and I feel it allows you an ability to not seem ‘over-the-top’ or ‘self-righteous’ which is always the problem of political poetry. I want to take risks and over the last year since the pamphlet has been released I have been researching political poets. Most of them from USA. Tracy K Smith creates letters charting the journey of black slaves from varying people in history. Patricia Smith tells the story through accounts from victims and family members of violence. These poets are a real inspiration to me, they take the human, local situations and show how they are the repercussions of larger political problems. I believe poetry needs to reflect our politics and begin to unpack some of the complexities of our political system. Often these systems seem too much to deal with, too complicated and too daunting but it is important we find ways to do it, it’s important we do not turn away, but instead create vehicles to promote discussion.
AH: I can relate to that, albeit in a slightly different field. As you know, in my current work I am trying to use my own direct experiences of being abused as a child to give witness to, and change awareness around, the global crime of the grooming and sexual abuse of children, and look at its aftermath for vulnerable teenagers. To make the poems, I have to find or open myself to imageries and forms that can hold the materials so they become accessible to, and safe for, the reader, notwithstanding their potentially very difficult subject matters.
More generally, poetry is about control, but it’s also about the reverse – abandoning and opening yourself to let complex things enact a form of authentic aesthetic identity in language. Could you say something about how, when, and where your poems come into being, and your process of working with them to their published forms? I know you also freestyle, where improvisation and being able to trust yourself and go with the energy, is a key?
AM: I am a true believer in play as a means to creation. I believe that being playful will allow us to open ourselves up and throw away the inner voice obsessed with judging our success. Freestyling is the epitome of this. A rapper freestyling is a magical, spontaneous force of creativity. For me, I freestyle best when I am relaxed, when the audience lack judgement, I can move into a space where my brain seems to work outside of itself, where I don’t think of the words, the words just fall together like bubbles pulling together in a bath.This feeling is as much about the people around me as it is about my presence in the moment. I believe that workshops and feedback groups should adopt this way of thinking. The workshops should initially focus on connecting people, creating a relaxed and free space full of love, while allowing people to express and discover themselves in a wholly present way. After this, the poems will simply flow naturally. I chase the feeling of freestyle when I am creating poems. I’m always looking for experiences that bring the playful from me, that pull me out of my usual surroundings and throw me into a space where I must be fully present. I’m all about the process, the feeling of building a poem like a house, and living in it, taking risks and pushing it to see how far it can go. In terms of practise, I try to wake up each day and put something into being. Anything, just accepting whatever comes out can be really rubbish or be the start of something really good. Recently I have read more as this has been a weakness for me.
AH: I wanted to ask about your brilliant final poem, ‘because it’s in the Lonely Planet top five places to visit’. The poem intercuts a couple telling the speaker about how the husband proposed “as the sun / licked the sea red and birds punched shrapnel in the sky”, on the sand outside their beach hut, with the speaker’s account (thought, not spoken within the live conversation) of the island’s recent bloody history, to which they appear oblivious or indifferent :
will you – I used to march to make change but since then I march just to sleep at night that country changed me she says the bars the sea-views biryani kothu roti plus the people are so generous they don’t hassle like Indians they’d drop a bomb wait five minutes drop another to kill the rescue party they spent the whole evening staring out to sea she says it’s their paradise they made a pact to go back there every ten years to that bar in that country where bombs rained into no fire zones where bodies are hidden sixty to a hole it’s hard to put into words he says as their fingers weave together it’s somewhere we could call our second home the soldiers were spread across Tamil land few tried for war crimes I don’t know why you don’t move back there
In your opening poem, ‘credit card’, identity is precarious, deniable, steal-able. Here the only two points at which the speaker uses the “I” pronoun come around his attempt to assert a contradictory narrative, as quoted above. The reader is given the sense of a narrative about Sri Lanka which is being repeatedly drowned out by the denials of history and blithe rewritings of the tourist industry. The final phrase first person phrase, spoken by one of the members of the couple, – “I don’t know why you don’t move back there” – is moreover one used by people challenging migrations globally. Would you be able to say something about this poem and its ending?
AM: The poem was originally built in a train in India. Remember when I talked about the local situation being used to talk about global issues? In this poem the local situation is a Californian couple. Yes, they did indeed speak in detail about how they loved Sri Lanka. I actually spent a little while explaining my mixed feelings about the place but it didn’t seem to faze them. The recent groom said ‘well you could say that about a lot of places’ and that message stuck with me. I wanted the poem to capture this conversation in a new way with multiple perspectives. To create a range of conversations happening simultaneously. That is the spoken words, the internal dialogue, as well as the dialogue to the reader. There is a line that I really battled with ‘I used to march to make change…’ that line is a clinical line for me as it is the speaker’s internal dialogue, it comes from a different place. The ending has gone through many different stages, it used to have more of a back and forth but I found that pulling it back left the reader on more of an edge and let the poem live on after the poem was finished. This is a real life situation for a lot of second generation migrants. There is conflict between our own feelings and those that go there, there is a conflict between the politics of oppressors and the politics of our supposed mother land. I attempted to capture this conflict in the use of this cut and splice form.
AH : It really works for me, Arji. Can I end by asking where to next? What are your plans for 2020, and beyond?
AM: I’ve been really productive since lockdown from writing to workshopping and I’m looking forward to an August break in Wales. I’m also about to become writer in residence for a pub in Dorset where I will be writing a series of poems in conjunction with local patrons of the pub. I’m also currently commissioned by Stockton Council to write 40 poems for isolated people across the North East so I’ve been writing poems and ringing people up out the blue to share them. I love that so much.
In terms of poetry I want to be pushing my process and work as far as it can go. I feel like I’m only just reaching my stride and I have a whole lot left to give. I am really excited about the new work I’m writing connected to race and hate crime. I’m messing with the ‘i’, writing from a range of perspectives and most importantly, still enjoying it. It’s a risky, deep vat of possibilities so at the exciting part of the process. I want to be more political in my poems and create work for those without a voice. I want to push the boundaries of what we can say and how we say it with regards to race, it’s a dicey game but also very exciting. There’s a lot to keep an eye out for, you can follow me at @theleano, or Arji Manuelpillai on insta or you can join the mailing list at www.arji.org. Thank you so much for having me on here Alice, you are an inspiration to so many of us poets.
AH: Thank you so much for such an amazing set of answers Arji. As always with these interviews around the idea of ‘saying the difficult thing’, I feel I have gained so much by being given an insight into to the workings behind your poems. I’m really excited for your new work and so happy to have had the chance to share the poems in Mutton Rolls with our readers.
Alice Hiller on ‘Leaving Neverland’ – and writing about her own experience of sexual abuse in childhood in her poem ‘elegy for an eight year old.’
In common with most people, I was deeply impacted by watching Leaving Neverland. It made me think about the work of witness – which each of us who has been subjected to sexual abuse in childhood must go through, if we want our experiences no longer to be hidden. As someone who does not share this history, Amanda Petrusich on the New Yorker nonetheless found it a “gruelling and devastating film that asks viewers to reconfigure how they think about both Jackson and potential victims of rape.”
Like James Safechuck and Wade Robson, I was subjected to same-sex, sexual abuse in childhood. However, my abuser was my mother, not someone ‘famous.’ All the same, I felt as if I was watching a refracted version of myself as James and Wade spoke. They described gradually coming to a place in their lives, and within themselves, where they were able to be open about the sexual abuse that had been inflicted upon them when they were too young to understand, or resist. There was a necessity to their courage, both personally, and morally.
Neither of them had been able to testify against Michael Jackson while he was still alive. This was their chance to create coherence between their inner knowledge of themselves – and how they appeared to the outside world. It supported other young men who had previously given witness to similar alleged experiences with Michael Jackson. James’s and Wade’s open-ness also supported the larger community of people making their lives in the aftermath of sexual abuse in childhood.
My own acts of witness about being sexually abused by my mother are of course less publicised, but ongoing. They take place within my poems, performances, essays, and life-writing. I also speak about this subject with members of the public, and medical practitioners. Like most sexual predators, my mother was unknown beyond her immediate circle of family and friends. To my child’s eyes, though, she was as powerful, and compelling, as Michael Jackson was to the boys he allegedly sexually abused.
While it is less common for a mother to perpetrate sexual abuse on her child, my experience nonetheless aligns with many other long-running, private and domestic acts of sexual abuse on children. Knowing this, helped me understand that my writing could potentially be of service to my community – by allowing other people to find elements of what also happened to them represented in my words. These include the confusing experiences of being groomed, our feelings of powerlessness and shame while the abuse is ongoing, and the potentially troubled aftermaths. Barnardo’s Charity estimate that one in twenty children are sexually abused, and at least half of them have ongoing problems in adulthood, requiring help.
I had that ambition of representation for my poem ‘elegy for an eight year old’, when I entered it for the 2018 Creative Futures Awards. The first lines came to me when I was walking through Brompton Cemetery in London, early one cold January morning. I saw the rows of ranked graves. Some were tilted and leaning, with their names eroded almost to nothing. Others stood upright as soldiers, with pin sharp lettering, refusing to let their dead be forgotten. The light was a flat, yellow grey – as it would have been at that time of year, back in January 1973.
It takes ten minutes to walk across the cemetery. Passing between the graves, it seemed that the rows of silent, buried human remains lying beneath that earth, were somehow also the layered, hidden memories of the uncountable numbers of people who have been sexually abused – in the present day and historically. Their unwitnessed, unspoken lives and histories surround us.
In the quiet, empty cemetery, I felt as if I was walking with them – as mourners walk with the body at a funeral, to keep it company, and let it not be alone. My awareness of this became a candle, lighting my way. I also had the sense of my own deep, layered memories, waiting to rise. And then, into my head came the words:
she perches upright as a needle
before morning break
I knew straightaway they were about the shocked, painful winter mornings, early in 1973, when I was eight and a half, and the penetrative abuse had recently begun. The building where I was remembering myself was a single storey, village primary school. I was driven there every morning from the rented cottage on the main street of a nearby village, where the abuse took place in my mother’s double bed. We had moved to Wiltshire when we came to England, right after my father’s death in Brussels, late in 1972.
Each night in our new home, my mother would expect me to be waiting for her in her bed, or to cross the landing from my bedroom when she came upstairs. What happened next was devastating. It left me sore and stinging. When I wiped myself the next morning, after using the toilet at school, the slippery, tracing-paper-like tissue, was sometimes streaked with bright, red blood.
I remember so clearly the cold mist, sheeting the ghostly winter fields and skeletal trees, that we drove through on the way to school. Then came the welcome, bright, yellow light, and solidity, of my teacher, Mr Ward’s, open-plan classroom. It had a show-and-tell table in the corner, and painted papier maché animal masks on the wall, left over from a performance in Salisbury Cathedral. Even there, with my mother faraway, I could never shake off my sense of fear, and feel safe, or fully integrated.
Following my father’s death, my mother and I had moved from a flat in the busy centre of Brussels, to an English village with three shops and a post office. My father’s body was transported to Wiltshire after his funeral, and buried in the graveyard of the Norman church. In this new life, I had to learn to say that my daddy was dead, whenever people asked about him. Coming from another country, and having only one parent, were enough to make me ‘different’ from the other pupils in 1973. But what really cut me off from them, and everyone around me, was the shameful, painful sensation inside my ‘bottom’ that I could tell no one about.
Some days it prevented me from sitting properly on the hard school chairs. At breaks, I used to go into the tiny school library, which had padded benches, so I could lean sideways. In the library, as at home, I read constantly to take my mind elsewhere. Somehow, the books I kept coming back at school to were full of terrifying ghost stories about people being pursued by cruel, vengeful supernatural presences – whom they could never escape.
These 1970s Wiltshire mornings provided the details that seeped, and crept, their way into the poem that began life when I was walking through Brompton Cemetery on that cold, quiet January day in 2018. I called it ‘elegy for an eight year old’ – in memory of the little girl I had been at that time. I have always known that part of her, and part of me, died as a result of what had happened, at our mother’s hands, in that dark bedroom.
As I worked on my ‘elegy’ over the next months, I knew it had to be simple, and quiet. It needed to be spoken in words my eight year old self would have used, if she had been able to speak out, about what was being done to her. I also wanted it to be accessible to other people, whose minds, and bodies, were broken into during their childhoods, as mine had been.
I was lucky that Lemn Sissay, the judge for the 2018 Creative Futures Award, chose the poem for one of the awards. I was therefore invited to read at the ceremony. It was held in one of the performance spaces at the Royal Festival Hall on the Southbank in London, as part of the London Literature Festival. All that October day, I was deeply nervous. I was also determined to do the best job I could, not only for myself, and my poem, but for the larger community of people sexually abused in childhood.
When it came to my turn to step up onto the podium, with the view of the London Eye behind me, I explained how my work seeks to change awareness around the difficult subject of sexual abuse in childhood, arising from my own experiences. I spoke briefly about those mornings in primary school. Then I stood up straighter, looked directly into the audience, and said my:
elegy for an eight year old
she perches upright as a needle
before morning break
outside cold fog
is vanishing all the trees
there are fossils on the show and tell table
blue birds’ eggs clay pipes someone dug up
in the library iron fingers
are climbing out of the haunted book
their classroom is beginning to smell
of cabbage and mince
the girls will be skipping
in the playground soon
tiger masks with no
eyes frighten the wall
Mr Ward says she’s moving
onto the Green Book for Maths
underneath her wool tights
the hurt place stays on fire
As my words moved into the space, and the minds of the audience, my small self was no longer left in the dark. She was there, with us, in the light, sharing what she had been through – as James Safechuck’s, and Wade Robson’s, younger selves did when they spoke about their histories in Leaving Neverland. After I stopped speaking, the clapping was hard and furious.
People brought their hands together, filling the room with noise, showing that they stood with me – and with my eight year old self. What she and I had been through, in that double bed, and afterwards on those wintry school mornings, had entered into the experience of transformation that my ‘elegy’ represents. Speaking it out loud, I knew that she and I had both been heard – and that others would be also be after us.
Whether ‘famous’, and being broadcast round the world, or communicating our experiences quietly and privately, in a doctor’s, or counsellor’s consulting room, or to a friend or family member – each of us brings our whole selves to our work of witness. Speaking out is the only way our community can heal. We need to defy the silences and shame, in which our abusers seek to imprison us – even decades after the events. This is how we can seek to protect future generations of children. It is also what will ensure that all people, making their lives in the aftermath of sexual abuse in childhood, are given the respect and care which is their right.
I have recorded myself reading ‘elegy for an eight year old’ here.
Details of the 2019 Creative Future Awards are here.
Please seek appropriate professional help if reading this work of witness has been difficult for you in any way. Below are links to Victim Support and The Survivors’ Trust who can offer guidance in this area.