The Work of Witness: Testifying to Sexual Abuse in Childhood by Alice Hiller

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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.

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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.

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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.

shadowedAs 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

every way
she shifts

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.close up

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.

Survivors Trust here

Victim Support Child Abuse here

‘I wanted to think about the possibility of a revolution based on female principles’: Rebecca Tamás speaks with Alice Hiller.

Above: Rebecca Tamás reading from WITCH at the London Launch, supported by Jane Yeh, A.K. Blakemore and Lucy Mercer.  Photo Madeleine Rose Photography

I first met Rebecca Tamás on the page. Specifically, in her pamphlet SAVAGE, published by clinic. In ‘BDSM,’  I found “telling is a careful/ dance of pleasures.”   And the room reconfigured itself around me. I knew, as Rebecca herself says of Anne Carson, that I would thereafter always read anything she wrote. We first met face to face at a Saturday workshop Rebecca was running at the Poetry School in London. Her exercises facilitated acts of self-divination, and opened us to the world, in all its naked vulnerability. Reading WITCH’s cunt-positive, historically-enraged spell and hex poems, I realised this ‘opening’ was also part of Rebecca’s own creative and political process. Born in London, she currently lives in York, where she lectures at York St John University. On the day of the interview, I left London in heavy rain, with Brexit grindingly updating itself on my phone. But as my train bumped its way northwards, the weather, and my spirits, began to lift. Finally, I pulled into York under a clear blue sky.   Our meeting later that same evening, in a North African restaurant on one of York’s narrow medieval passageways, extended my sense of hopefulness.

AH: I’d like to begin by asking when and why you first engaged with poetry, Rebecca Tamás? Was it always your intention to re-form language into more egalitarian, and potential states?

RT: Somehow I ended up getting my hands on ‘High Windows’ by Philip Larkin. Even though he is a poet I’m pretty allergic to now, it was the first time I had interacted with a contemporary poem, and realised what it could do. It absolutely blew me away. I was 12 or 13. From then poetry was integrated into my life, and I wanted to know more about what it could do. I loved the fact that you didn’t need a story, a plot, a stage – you could just make something happen for the reader out of nowhere!

AH: Who were the first writers who really resonated with you – who you felt brought alive by?

RT: It was a mixture of older poets like John Clare, and Gerald Manley Hopkins – that combination of the bodily, sensual and the philosophical I get excited about to this day. Also Wallace Stevens. Even though my mum is not a big poetry reader, she enjoyed Wallace Stevens, and that was a huge opening for me. Stevens is the poet that I have continued to think about. I still draw from him now. For all his troubling nature, I keep going back to his spectacular, philosophical, rangy poems. To make thought that electric, that bursting with teeming life, is an aim for me. The next real poet for me was Anne Carson. Once I read her work – I started to understand what might really be possible for the form.   Every time I read an Anne Carson poem, I’m reminded that there are no boundaries. Poetry can be anything, and contain everything.

AH: When you find that writer, it is nourishment going down to the roots you never knew you had.

RT: Totally – I read anything Anne Carson writes. It’s always a deep connection that she creates with her readers, a really potent magic –

AH: Having had the privilege of reading a proof copy of WITCH ahead of time, some of the many things I have come to love are its capacities for sensuality – and wit. They offer delight for the reader, but they also make the darkness which your work addresses the more desolating. ‘/penis hex/’, the first poem, begins:

the hex for a penis isn’t really all about
the penis
the penis is not an issue all fine doing its own thing
ink blot semen             sweet white plaster
pale peach tartlet
but when it goes you see        you see a lot of things

to hex a penis off means taking a laugh out for a walk
long and blue
cold as Russia
laughing and laughing your mouth is open
let your girlfriend see your tongue

to hex a penis off wrap yourself up
in a warm bed and no one is there
intellectual persuasion
hand in the unowned air
peeling strips of dull bleached sky

The opening stanza swoops pleasurably to and fro – until we hit the ski jump between the doubled “you see” in the final line.   In that gap, we drop down into a wilder, stranger, more dangerous world – “long and blue/ cold as Russia.” It was there all the time, waiting for us beneath the bourgeois “pale peach tartlet.” This double perspective seems to be fundamental to WITCH, and I wondered if you would say something about it?

9781908058621 (1)RT: It’s funny that you mention that. It’s something that I have been talking about with Ariana Reines. I am interviewing for The White Review, and we’ve been discussing her new collection – A Sand Book – and the way it thinks about the possibilities that poetry offers for digging underneath the surface or ‘normal’ reality. Poetry allows us to connect with the possibility of freshness and agency, that is still there underneath all the societal capitalist constructs – the constructs of oppression. There is the possibility that we don’t have to be defined or controlled – that we can make things new – that we don’t have to label ourselves. I think ‘/penis hex/’ is interacting with that – chipping under the surface of gender.  It’s not even about valorizing the female.   It’s about removing the carapace of the gender entirely and getting down into the mulch where new things grow. Poetic language, interacting with imagery, can create a momentary clash and you see the possibility new shapes of being.

AH: You are taking a feminist doorway through to a space where gender is no longer a defining factor.

RT: Absolutely, it’s not about losing everything we are as a woman, or rejecting it – but being amorphous, open.

AH: When our brains try things out in poetry, we can extend them into real life. The brain forms expectations – but it can also un-form expectations.

RT: Something that is important to me is the possibility of thought spaces existing outside of rationality. The poem is a good space to do that.

AH: Can we talk about the starting point of WITCH? Your recent essay ‘Songs of Hecate”, published in White Review 24, reveals that you wrote your first spell/poem after visiting the Witches and Wicked Bodies exhibition at the British Museum in 2014. The show explored witches and witchcraft from the Renaissance to the end of the nineteenth century, through paintings, drawings, etchings and art works involving familiars, rituals, uninhibited, multi-valent sexualities – and images of younger and much older women’s bodies. The essay presents the experience as transformative for you. I wondered if you could say something about allowing yourself to sink into that messy, exposing, sexualised ‘degenerate’ WITCH space – and finding within it a deep energy source? It seems that feminism was one gateway, as well as questioning the patriarchy and capitalism, but the figure of the witch was another?

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Agostino Veneziano The Witches’ Rout c. 1520 from 2014 ‘Witches and Wicked Bodies.’

RT: Everyone has a different relationship to Witchcraft. For some people, it is part of their actual ancestral historical practice, and daily lived practice. For me, the witch was something new to explore. What I found exciting about the exhibition was that it is very tiring to think about feminist thought if you only live among your contemporaries. In the past women, had so little space to occupy, and we find it so hard to access that – but witchcraft allowed me to. To connect with the angry part of myself was also important in writing this book. You have to experience fury to break down the rigidity of what has held women down for so long. To see that represented in images of women, not usually constructed to be pleasing to men, and to connect with it, was really potent. It was a joy to see lots of nasty, scary women.

AH: If you’re thinking about female agency, the witch offers a world of possibility.

RT: Looking at the images of naked women of all ages performing rituals in Witches and Wicked Bodies was like looking at a refracted history of what has always been there – a female power that overflows. It’s a kind of female power which isn’t obedient, isn’t tidy, isn’t well behaved, isn’t nice necessarily. To see those images was so unbelievingly nourishing even though they were often intended to be negative. The images were of women working their will on the world.

AH: Younger women are not given much space by society to be angry. They are supposed to be ‘nice.’

RT : These witches are angry but also funny and cheeky and sexy and normal. It’s not always this pure righteous anger that dignifies them. They can become messy in their anger and flawed in their anger. Not nice.

AH: And witches can be post-menopausal. From my own experience, I can say that being post-menopausal is a very liberating space for women – because your whole physiology alters. You respond differently to society, and society responds differently to you.

RT: Totally. Often there would be pictures in the exhibition of a mixture of very, very old, post-menopausal women mixing with younger, ‘sexier’ women, intending to offer a kind of titillation in the contrast.   But actually to see that kind of community, to see that kind of shared relationship, where solidarity is depicted, was powerful and fruitful for me. These were female spaces – almost without men. Occasionally there were horned devil figures. There weren’t straightforward situations where men were controlling the scene or defining what it might mean. It’s a witch’s Sabbath. It’s women plotting together, with love. I enjoy playing on the edge of misandry if that’s what’s necessary. I am happy to make people feel nervous and afraid.

AH: Historically woman have spent a lot of time been made to feel afraid. Don’t go out after dark!

RT: For the woman to be the scary one, hits you on a deep psychic level – that’s almost hard to put into words. Equally, to think that when a man hurts you or your sisters, that you might be able to hit back – to even imagine that – has power, whether you believe in witchcraft or not.

AH: This goes back to what we were talking about of entering a space of ‘being differently.’ And at a universal level, this thinking is simply responding, intellectually and emotionally to our whole life experience. Your essay defines your own witch-practice as operating through language, and specifically how “it might turn our fury, and our knowledge and our desire, out into the teeming world through the mouth of a poem.” Could you say something more about that?

RT: One of the things that was exciting about writing WITCH, was that I could access specific historic hexes and spells. Being able to borrow that power was really exciting because it encourages a newly potent way of thinking about language. Witches are not liked, they don’t insinuate themselves. Witches don’t fit into female ‘nicey nicey’ paradigms. It gives you a certain confidence and space to experiment with pushing the boundaries in the material world, in a way we often feel a bit shy to do in poetry.   Sometimes we don’t want to be pretentious – or over-egg what we do it in writing. But being able to consider the power of change is important. It allowed me to access different types of writing, and be true to what I really wanted to talk about. That aspect of witchcraft was really helpful in bringing my WITCH project about. The world of witchcraft made the collection possible.

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AK Blakemore reading at launch photo Alice Hiller

AH: The preoccupation of the poems is to express their intentions. The realisation of intention becomes their criteria. I have this sense of great freshness about your writing. How you set about it, is part of why that freshness has come into being.

RT: What is useful about creating a world through witchcraft, is how impersonal it is. In some senses, WITCH is the most personal thing I have ever written. I am very, very deeply implicated in the poems. But they are not autobiographical. I could move into this space and I could talk about everything I wanted to talk I could feel it with my entire self. Part of what women feel fragile about, is being confident that our personal experiences are relevant and important and worthy of serious literature. To be able to put all the questions aside and just work in a space completely outside of my own life, was unbelievably freeing. You don’t have to worry about reviews mulling on whether the poems are about ex-boyfriends, when they’re about the suffragettes and the witch trials. That was great for me – because it allows me to be more creatively open.

AH: Do you have other witch-poets with whom you feel yourself to be acting in concert in this mission? I know Sophie Collins cited you in Small White Monkeys, and that Rachael Allen also lives in York, where you are now teaching.

RT: Yes and no. There are a lot of writers around I am lucky to know, whose work supports my own through its originality and dynamism. With Sophie and Rachael, they are friends – but their books are creating paradigms in thinking about female and feminist experiences in very different ways. One of the poets that I relate to with this book is the American Dorothea Lasky. She about the occult, astrology. In brilliantly fresh, new ways. Another is Ariana Reines, whose book ‘Mercury’ explores, alchemy and the spirits. And CA Conrad, Bhanu Kapil. There are a lot of incredible writers who are making that new space for the un-rational.

AH: When I think of you, Sophie Collins, and Rachael Allen, I see you as lines starting close together, but going out in radically different directions on the map. Knowing you are supporting each others’ projects empowers you to go miles and miles in your individual directions.

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Jane Yeh reading at launch, photo Madeleine Rose Photography

RT: I feel so privileged to be writing at the same time as these amazing writers , not just in the world but here in the UK – also Lucy Mercer, Will Harris, Wayne-Holloway Smith, Amy Key, Rebecca Perry, Rachel Long, Jane Yeh, AK Blakemore, Daisy Lafarge, Helen Charman – phenomenal writers. You can just go on and on naming, it’s an unbelievably rich time for the form. And to be a small part of that, makes my work possible. If I felt I was off in my own little cave or tower, I don’t think I would have the creative courage to do what I do. The fact that they are doing work that excites me and ignites my imagination so much, makes it feel possible.

AH: It’s being supported in a project of change where everybody is enacting variously and individually – but with a shared goal of re-creating and expanding the landscape. While many of your poems refer to contemporary life, they operate within the historical framework of the persecution of witches.   Did you research this in detail within your PhD, which I believe was the forming ground of the project?

RT: I actually did research it, but quite separately. I wrote the poems for WITCH as part of my PhD, but my critical project was about ecological thinking in poetry. I was thinking about Adorno, who was my big theory love and Wallace Stevens, and the ecological possibility in his work. The possibility of writing difference was the connection. I did quite a lot of historical research into the witch trials. There is a great book called Witchcraze, edited by Ann Barstow, which is about the European witch hunts, and not specific to UK. I did feel a responsibility to have a sense of what actually happened. The other really central text was Silvia Federici’s Caliban and the Witch. She suggests the witch trials were a way of capitalism suppressing women’s agency as it tried to make society accept the fact that women’s work would not be waged labor, and that they should stay in the home as their natural destiny. For her, the witch trials were part of this reign of terror – to make women fall into line. Certainly for me, reading the book joined a lot of dots in relationship with the historical legality of witchcraft and witch trials. This is not the same as the witch as the occult and folkloric kind of symbol, but it is still a great big part of my book. The witch trials were run by men, certainly in Europe, and were an assault on women. So, understanding the explosion of female murder – hundreds of thousands of women were killed –  helped me understand the deep societal forces behind the trials. I felt very lucky to be able to use this text. And my research was beautiful and important in itself – into witchcraft , paganism and occult practices – a lot went into it.

AH: Your poem ‘WITCH SCOLD’ combines past and present, making the literal metal bridle forced onto purported witches a figure for wider female silencing, and the principle of enforced inequality within society which capitalism would also later exploit. It begins:

she looked at the hard bridle
saw it running with its own capture
red and
blue and
black
stop
witch attempted to be separate from her own body
witch attempted to unwoman
witch was not a wife but they could hear her going on
and on and on and wow and on
he held her arms and she kicked and someone else did
it went over her head the metal bar over her tongue
cages latches she stopped struggling she could not get away
so she made her eyes black holes dragging gravity
the tongue’s flesh was spongy and wet it was raining
so in the marketplace of course she waited one arm
tied to a post and all of that metal on her head her brain
people did their early capitalist accumulation
people said things and there was no saying back
[…]
from far away witch could see a ship moving
it was taking voices in soot boxes

Would you be able to say something more about this in the context of what you were telling me about the witch trials?

RT: I am happy that you mentioned this poem. It is not necessarily the one that draws most attention to itself, but it meant a lot to me. When I first saw a picture of a scold’s bridle – something put in the mouth of a ‘scolding’ woman, someone who talks too much – the feeling that it gave me was horror but also shame. The shame of being part of a group who had been treated like animals, not even like animals, worse than animals. There was a societal titillation in female pain.   I found it really hard to look – but I did not want to push that response down. The metal bridle shouldn’t cause shame – it should cause anger. I can’t undo what was done to women, but to be able to explain that in language and refigure it with agency, was very important. It was also an important part of me being able to write, because it was material evidence. Most of WITCH is about is that silent gap. We know woman have been treated cruelly for thousands of years and when you see these material pieces, they give you a small way into that continent of pain. To be able to bring it into the light was part of what I was trying to do.

AH: It seems to me, you had to try and imagine yourself back into the space of what it was like to feel that metal in your mouth, to become the body that was being silenced in that way.

RT: Absolutely, and yet at the same time, the way she responds is with extreme distaste and a kind of calm, partly because she is a witch. She really is. I was fearful of creating a poem that was titillating, or larger than life or violent. I was just keeping it calm and low key, allowing her to reflect in an intellectual way on what was happening to her, even though she was upset. At the same time, I felt I needed to return the perspective to the female body in that moment, to be able to imaginatively get into it, and reclaim it.

AH: When I write about sexual abuse from my own experience in childhood, one of my primary criteria is never to write anything that would arouse a paedophile. I always take out any details that might do that, because I am not going to replicate in my created world the crime to which it responds. In a sense you have avoided replicating the impact on the victim –

RT:  I wanted to avoid anyone deriving pleasure from female pain. I remember talking to Denise Riley when she was my supervisor. There were moments where she encouraged me to tone the poems down – because they could become exactly that, something imaginatively titillating She never wanted WITCH to become a spectacle of female pain –

AH: Of all the many extraordinary and powerful poems in this collection, one of the most moving for me is ‘WITCH EUROPE.’   At just over 7 pages long, it takes as its framework an instructive conversation between “the witch” and “the petrol station boy” who, unlike pretty much everyone else, is “too small to hunt the witch”, and therefore suitable for sharing “coconut pecan muffins” with.   The poem moves through European history with slow-burn irony – “military parades/ where the hats distract you/ to a certain extent from the killing element.” It covers the wrongful accusations levied against witches, and the processes of interrogation to which they have been subjected. A key segment makes a common cause of all the ‘othered’ dead, who have through the centuries been denied rights and voices by dominant groupings, for reasons of political gain, and social control – within Europe and beyond:

the witch tells the boy
that she used to dream about a hill
covered in lumps of earth
the lumps stuck up and so you couldn’t walk
properly over the hill or sit or look at the view
under each of the lumps someone was buried
and the earth wasn’t thick at all over the dead people
so the witch got on her knees and pulled some of
the corpses up to the surface which were at different
stages of putrefaction
because she really wanted to see their faces
and to remember as much as she could about their hair colour
their bone structure or clothes
or to fish out personal artefacts from their graves
and work out their names
but the hill didn’t end and every time she pulled out a body
more stretched out in front of her
so that even those she had looked at were starting to blur together
in her mind
the witch decided that the only thing to do was to eat
some dirt from every grave so that even if she couldn’t remember
who was who then at least some of their bacteria might get inside her
and so she went along and stuffed handfuls of soil into her mouth
without stopping on and on even though she felt sick and knew that she’d never
get to everyone before night came and made it impossible

Would you be able to say something about this poem, and your own sense of connection to European history? It seems to be a poem that engages beyond the witch genocides to waves of genocide in Europe.  It was incredibly resonant for me.

RT: This was actually the first poem I wrote in the whole collection. It was the first poem I wrote about historic pain.  I was constantly thinking about the European destruction of witches as a kind of historical poison that seeps into the present. The personal resonances are also there. I come from a Hungarian family on my Dad’s side, and they have been through the ups and downs of the European history. When my grandmother was born, she lived in Hungary and then it actually became Romania. She became part of the Hungarian minority in Transylvania. All the rest of her family were lost in the Holocaust. The only reason that my grandmother survived was because she was in prison for being a communist. In the Sixties, in Romania, my father became an anti-communist dissident, which she fully supported. He was eventually exiled from Romania. I don’t talk much about it because I didn’t go through that myself. But knowing my history, and speaking to my family about it, certainly informed my understanding.   When you hear stories about your grandmother going back to the house where her family used to live, and seeing people who have taken over from her dead family finding a few of the things that had their names, like photograph frames, and sheets, and giving them to her, it impacts you. I do link those histories to the witch trials, obliquely – societies and systems so often use violence for their own gain, and it degrades all of us.

AH: Both my family of origin, and the family of my first husband, Falcon Stuart, lost members to the Holocaust. His father was the sculptor, Oscar Nemon. Nemon lost his mother, brother and grandmother, and almost all his other relatives. Like you, someone who was part of my daily life, had relatives who had been murdered. I am always aware that those people who sit in countries feeling safe and untouchable, are deceiving themselves. We need to tell them Because it hasn’t happened to you doesn’t mean it can’t happen. It is here and it is waiting. Only by attempting to safeguard everyone’s rights, can we safeguard our own. And it seems that ‘WITCH EUROPE’ is a ‘guarding against’ poem. It is a poem saying that we all live with this communal grief. We have to use it to think with empathy, about how it must be for all those people facing these threats now, when they seek their own safety, and that of their families.

RT: The final thing I have to say about ‘WITCH EUROPE’ is that as well as confronting some specific parts of European history, is that it’s a form of poetic grief for the millions of women who have been killed because of misogynistic violence. The witch hunts are an example – but it’s not even the tip of the iceberg. Numerically, globally, one of the biggest massacres throughout history is men’s violence against women – on an incomprehensible scale. There is no memorial or place we can go to mourn it.   There is no particular type of knowledge we can draw on. It’s too mammoth. That hugeness, and the possibility of containing that hugeness, is what the witch is trying to do, climbing over the hill of bodies. She is trying to find a way to bring that kind of huge silencing into reality and make it visible.   But she can’t do that. None of us can. I certainly can’t bring all that to the surface – but I can point to it.

AH: The poem spoke deeply to me. It’s a great achievement. In addition to the two hexes, WITCH also harbours twenty-one spell poems. Their operational mode seems to be that of momentarily cracking open normal categorisations and perceptions – to let the reader see differently. I’m thinking of ‘spell for friendship,’ which includes the lines “when everything pulls back from its sheath of flesh/and the staggering weirdness flows and pulses like/ a lash.” Could you say something about this, and also about the shimmer of queerness, and same-sex closeness, that illuminates WITCH?

RT: Those poems are an area in which to play with a spell – and cause transformation in the world. ‘spell for friendship’ is a moment of pure beautiful weirdness. A lot of the spell poems don’t come from a specific source. There’s no kind of obvious life event or text that I can reference. But that one does come from a real relationship with my friend, Rosie Dunett. I remember us having a conversation about the world coming to an end via climate destruction, or something more supernatural and occult, whatever it might be; and we organised a place to meet if that did come about, to help each other through it! That poem is about friendship and the deep bonds, especially with female friends, that we form. The dream is that for the reader, spells can give that experience of breaking free from the rational, and going into unexpected imaginative spaces.

Lucy mercer
Lucy Mercer at launch photo Alice Hiller

AH:   It really works. There are channels of understanding that link us, as female-identified beings, that are political and as much as they are physiological. There’s a kind of a space of comprehension without the need for explanation.

RT: If we are thinking of things in the occult sphere, the non-national and anti-rational, it’s with woman that we have historically been able to share these things. Up to this day, it is with women that I can really dive into hexing, into astrology, into tarot. They are open to it. They are not scared of it. They give it dignity and respect.   The witch doesn’t really believe in gender. She doesn’t believe in straightforward heterosexuality in any way. I have absolutely no time for thinking that you must be one gender all the time. It’s a multi gender being, not one not the other. Witch is male. Witch is female. I find joy in the spaces around the rigidity of gender and their resulting poetry. I find joy in the people that I know and the way that they challenge those kind of binaries, and help inspire the work.

AH: I did a great workshop with you and Nina Mingya Powles and Anita Pati last year. You used tarot cards. They were really about creating ways we could be, and think, and respond, more freely. They were an opening.

RT: Opening is always good. Putting things into boxes is usually not so good – it’s true for life and for poetry

AH: Along with dancing, eating, experiencing beauty, resisting, and other ways of hexing and spelling, WITCH is committed to acts of witness. ‘WITCH TRIALS’ ends “even if it took every piece of eye meat/ she would develop night vision/ for this long night.” I know you co-edited Spells 21st century occult poetry with Sarah Shin, which contains many poems of witness.   Are the two projects linked in your mind?

RT: Yes they are linked. WITCH was written before Spells – but editor Sarah Shin had an interest in the occult too and that’s how we found each other. She is someone with a real understanding of art and poetry, but also a very sophisticated political knowledge. Her starting point was the political relationships in the occult. We agreed that the occult in all its different forms was absolutely connected to witness, and to drawing attention to life experiences, which are not always given the space. Often people who have not had the space to express themselves use the occult as a medium, and that deepened my belief that the occult is a really interesting tool to think with. Some of the people in Spells were occult practitioners. For others, it was purely an imaginative space.

AH: WITCH also works to redefine the sacred outside of a religious context. In ‘Songs of Hecate’ you write “the sacred, for me, is the strange holiness of being alive in a world of living things.” ‘spell for midsummer’s day’ begins “burn the fire and jump // dear heart// under all this is a centre of human jam/ red and pulsing” and ends “this earth is so // remarkable.” Could you say something more about sacredness within your work?

RT: Sacredness is a big element of this collection, which is quite hard to talk about. I want there to be a kind of seriousness that religion brings to sacred, but without religion. I think the material world itself contains sacred power. That’s what the poem is saying. The fact that we are alive is momentous and surprising.   We don’t know everything and we have absolutely no idea what’s under the surface. I think there are things going on which we can’t just sum up in a spreadsheet and that’s probably the best way I can describe that in non-poetic language. Apart from to say that I am very interested in female mystics. They have been very influential in this project – people like Hildegard of Bingen. They have a very esoteric thinking about spirituality, that is revelatory, strange, lacking in rigidity.

AH: But those mystics, seen in another light, might have been hanged as witches – without the protection of the church.

RT: A lot of them had a lot of trouble. Margery Kempe was constantly getting into difficulties. She was called a heretic by some, drove everyone up the wall with her constant amazing weeping. So yes, they were absolutely on the edge of what they could get away with. That’s what I find exciting about them.

AH: WITCH closes with ‘\cunt hex\’ – another poem which marries beauty and ugliness, and enacts its anger as a restitutionary force, to bring about change and healing.   In a collection replete with extraordinarily fresh images, this poem has some of the most fully embodied, and arresting.   It begins:

all the attention & cold love
waiting at the finland station for the trains to rush in
oh
this cunt is a commie red until the very end
this cunt is a commie with its heat set onto surplus value
be as afraid as you can be afraid
be afraid until you tremble the cunt wavering through concrete
so hardly and so softly

Could you say something about the creative process of endowing “the cunt” with so much power, without forfeiting its inherent vulnerability?

RT: You have definitely picked up on what I was trying to achieve. Yes, it is an angry poem. It’s about the profound need for a shift in systems. It did come from anger – seeing how men treated the woman in my life. In that sense it was quite specific. I wanted to create a spell that would undo their damage, undo them everywhere and in every way. At the same time, I didn’t want to refigure the cunt, or the images of female power, so far that it lost its identity. I always think, I don’t particularly care about women losing their ‘vocal fry’ or becoming CEO’s, or ‘breaking balls’ or being ‘tough’ or really taking on any of those clichés of maleness – rather I want men to become more like us. It would be fantastic if everyone on earth was crying all the time, and allowing their own emotions out, and being free and messy; if all the cliché attributes thrown at women were valorised and respected and enjoyed. These are not bad things.  I wanted the idea that the cunt was terrifying for those being hexed – very strong and very potent – but that at no point did I want it it let go of its vulnerable, emotional commitment to love and feeling. I wanted it to be able to hold those things dear, at the same time as saying You better get on board because this is where we are going, so get on the train or you will be crushed. Women’s chosen versions of reality will become the new reality. And whether that is true or not, we don’t know – but in the poem I wanted it to be true. I wanted to think about the possibility of a revolution based on female principles.

AH: Your acknowledgements give thanks both to your “beloved Mum”, and to “Denise Riley, without whom this book would not exist.” As women, we are formed by our foremothers, but we also offer the future, and future generations, the products of our minds, as well as our bodies. Would you be able to say something briefly about how you hope WITCH may speak to readers, now and in the years to come?

RT: I want everyone to read and enjoy it – if they want to. I feel a little jealous of men having the epic poem as a form sometimes. As a human I don’t have that swaggering confidence, but if the book could steal a bit of that confidence, and refigure it into a female context, it might give other women the confidence to do something weird and offbeat themselves. That would be an amazing result. In general, whatever people get out of it I’m very happy with. I want it to be it’s own animal, making its own life out there without me.

AH: My own experience of reading WITCH was one of intellectual excitement and pleasure, sparking lots of senses of possibility. It’s a book that I cherish because it’s sensual, because it’s funny, as well as being hard-hitting – and it speaks to me at so many levels.

RT: Thank you. To go back to what you were saying about the elements of ‘womanhood’ – they are often degraded, but I revel in them all the same. I feel very happy to be full of emotions and to be weird, and to be sexual and strange and out there. To me there is joy in that, so the joy in the book is real, there is real pleasure in there, and real kind of excitement.

AH: Thank you very much, Rebecca Tamás.

Rebecca York
Rebecca at the end of our interview in York: photo Alice Hiller.

Rebecca is the editor, with Sarah Shin, of the anthology Spells: Occult Poetry for the 21st Century (Ignota Press, 2018). She has published three pamphlets of poetry: The Ophelia Letters (Salt, 2013), Savage (Clinic, 2017) and Tiger (Bad Betty Press, 2018). WITCH is her first full-length collection.

You can buy a copy of WITCH from Penned in the
Margins here

Rebecca’s forthcoming live appearances as below:

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Belinda Zhawi: I started writing fundamentally because I felt represented when I read Black writers, and then I felt that it was my duty as well to contribute.

Belinda K. Zhawi
Tu: http://mamoyobornfree.tumblr.com/
Tw: @mamoyobornfree

Belinda circular

Winter was turning to spring when I met Belinda Zhawi in a pub not far from the Cutty Sark and the Greenwich Meridian line. For someone who came to London as an “immigrant child” aged 12, and whose work responds to the impact of colonialism on Southern Africa, Zimbabwe, and the wider African and Black diaspora, it was a fitting place to talk.   Frank about the moral stain of racism, and the barriers that ‘white’ society can put in the way of articulating your identity as a person, and woman, of colour in contemporary Britain, Belinda shared with me her process of claiming and making her own unique voice, as a poet and performer. We explored why the poems in her pamphlet small inheritances came into being, how she faces down her own insecurities and why, as women, we cannot be afraid of confronting our own fears and sadness if we want to heal.  A former London Laureate, and ICA Associate Poet, who has run BORN::FREE for five years, Belinda celebrated the energy she finds in the London jazz and beat scenes.  She also spoke of what it means to work out of the Thamesmead Estate in South East London, as a creator, and community activist.  Paying tribute to other Black voices which feed into her work, and give her the determination to keep going when times are hard, Belinda described the lineages and blood lines which are integral to her work.  Found in her Shona and Southern African heritages, and the works of other Black writers, these are key to her creative agency in music, performance and on the printed page.  We sat outside as the light faded, and sensation slowly vanished from our feet, talking and sharing our experiences for the best part of three hours – and I left feeling both strengthened, and inspired, by a woman who speaks with extraordinary power, and reach.

AH:Can you tell me about how and when you got started as a writer, Belinda?

BZ:I was reading from a very young age, because Mum was a primary school teacher.  I always knew deep down I wanted to write books. At boarding school in Zimbabwe, I was reading everything.  When I came to England, aged 12, the love of reading was there.   Because my mother was so stressed about young people in this country, the first thing she showed us was the library in Woolwich.  Woolwich Library became my sanctuary. I remember reading pretty much everything in that children’s part of the library and then noticing the Black and Asian and gay interest section.   I mean – what were they doing together?  But it was a revelation.  At 14 I decided that I was only going to read Black books. That was when I realised that I really wanted to write – because I was reading characters that looked like me. Even if I couldn’t always deeply relate, because some of them were American. I thought I could tell my own story, and represent myself.  I could write about people who looked like me, my friends. So, I used to write these little stories for my friends.  When I was about 15 or 16 I became really interested in poetry because for GCSE we got this anthology with all the poems for the exams.

AH: I still have mine.

BZ: We started with Seamus Heaney.  I just couldn’t believe his language.  There was a section of poems from other cultures.   I read the John Agard poem ‘Half-caste.’  At the same time, I was watching Def Poetry Jam videos on YouTube as YouTube was a new thing at the time. I bypassed a lot of things that a lot of people thought was important to read just because I wanted to read James Baldwin, I wanted to read Toni Morrison.

AH: Their work is essential, world-class writing.

BZ: Exactly so.   On Wednesdays we had to bring a book we were reading.  My teacher, Miss Bruce, she was just about done with me saying ‘This is about racism in the 60’s.’   She was supportive but she was also like, ‘Come on child.  You should read other things.’  She was a great teacher –  one of my favourite teachers – but for me it was realising that these Black voices were representing a centrality I hadn’t really seen since I left Zimbabwe. I had that desire to read and write things that other people that looked like me could relate to, or feel connected to.  It has snowballed into other things since then – but I started writing fundamentally because I felt represented when I read Black writers, and then I felt that it was my duty as well to contribute to that.

AH: You wanted to keep the conversation going?  Be the next generation of those voices?

BZ: Yeah, yeah.

AH: Were there other creative role models and teachers?

BZ:Next there was Polar Bear.  Steve Camden he goes by now.  He writes young adult novels.  He was a spoken word artist for many years.  He started off as a rapper from Birmingham but he was central to the spoken word scene in London throughout the 2000’s.  Everybody loved Polar Bear. He was a fantastic teacher at the Roundhouse Poetry Collective.  We used to have weekly workshops on a Sunday afternoon.  There was just a room of other young people and Polar Bear.  It was unlike other workshops I have been in since.  Polar gave us themes and topics and we would have long discussions. The first hour was just chatting. Polar is quite young at heart so he got us.  We got him.  We were just honest.  Some of my favourite poets are people from that group – Deanna Rodger, Dean Atta and Bridget Minamore.  We were in this room, knowing stuff about each other that we would never tell anyone.  One of the most important things Polar  said to me was ‘Write for your voice.’ I was like, ‘What is he talking about?  Now I’m writing for my voice and a lot of that is rooted in music.  After I had Jacob Sam-La Rose who just taught me loads about craft, loads, but also loads about life as a poet, sustaining yourself financially, sustaining yourself emotionally, spiritually. He treated me with a gentleness and a kindness that was rooted in his understanding of the work I was writing and the things I was giving him.  He was my one-on-one mentor for a while.  I ended up doing Barbican Young Poets and then I when I did the MA at Goldsmiths he was a course leader on the Spoken Word Educators program.  I had Moira Dooley as my dissertation tutor.  She gave me a lot of confidence and made me feel calm when I really felt that my writing was a fluke and I had been pretending all of this time.  She grounded me.  She made me read stuff out loud that I had sent her.   I remember reading one poem.  Afterwards, a storm broke outside.  She said – ‘See what you did.’  And I was just like, ‘Me?’ She recommended a lot of reading that I don’t think I would have really looked at for myself.

AH: These poets were your stepping stones?

BZ: Yeah.

AH: Since then you have been involved in Octavia as well?

BZ:Octavia is a community.   Rachel Long leads but it’s more of a sharing and learning space on a mutual level.  It’s more like a space of safety.

AH: It’s valuable to have a process of mentorship as a poet – but then you have to take the trainer wheels off.  Otherwise you are looking to a mentor for validation.  It’s scary to make that transition.

BZ:Jacob Sam-La Rose never really over-complimented me, but one time he invited me to his book launch in Lewisham Library.  And I got there and he introduced me to somebody that he knew, he was like ‘This is Belinda, an amazing young poet.’ I was like, wait, what?!  You never wrote that of my poems.’  He would be like ‘I read a lot of good poems and this is a good poem. But I want to read a great poem from you.’ It was about me finding myself.  Sometimes he said things to me, that I didn’t get at the time.

AH:People used to tell me about my voice.  It took me years to understand. I couldn’t see it and didn’t know what it was. But I realised it is rooted in my spoken words.  And the rhythms of my body as well.

BZ: Yeah.  That was what Polar was teaching me, which Jacob solidified in a different way later.  Which is that your voice on the page, is your voice as a speaker, and your voice in your everyday regular life.

AH:The first time I heard you read, there was both a looseness, and tightness in your voice – a kind of freedom and control.   It’s very beautiful what you achieve. It’s like you learnt to walk a tightrope, without noticing that you are doing it.

BZ:Jacob taught me to make my own forms and to trust my own intuition.  I want to speak the way I speak with my friends in small inheritances, but I also want to speak as a scholar of poetry, a scholar of Black writing, specifically because that is what I have been for so long.  

AH:Can I ask you about when you were the London Laureate and then the ICA Associate Poet?

BZ:The London Laureate was the name they gave to the short-listees of the Young People’s Laureate. It was a great experience for me.   I wanted to apply twice before but I didn’t – because I was terrified of not being picked.  Man, the things that insecurity can do to you right? I wanted the things that come with this award, leading up to when you find out who gets the to be the Laureate.  There were retreats and workshops – things that I knew existed, but nobody was teaching me how to get access to them properly.   The ICA thing came at a time where my confidence was lowwww. I’d finished my MA at Goldsmiths. I had started a job as a book seller.  I remember checking my emails on the way from that job and I had an email from the ICA saying they would like to interview me.  Kayo Chingonyi had done it before.  I got really excited because it was affirmation. Within a few days the ICA were saying ‘We would like to have you on board.’ That was a responsibility I wanted – the element of freedom.   The end of that residency was amazing because I pushed through a project I really wanted to do collaborating with artists in Southern Africa which became my cross-continental BORN::FREE. With the British Council, we brought these South African poets over and it was amazing, beautiful – and then I could get to South Africa.   What happened in South Africa was really life-changing for me.  I had been to South Africa many times but I had never been for work and I never really sat down with other artists in that way.  I would always go to see family or my friends’ families. Meeting with other Southern African artists set into motion a new confidence in myself.  I think it started from just being offered that ICA residency – which got me back connected to South Africa, and really changed my perspective in a deep way.

AH:Do you want to say something about BORN::FREE?

BZ:  BORN::FREE was started as an events night and a Poetry Event between me and my friend Chima Nsoedo nearly five years ago.   We actually met at The Roundhouse during Polar Bear days.   Born Free started off as a monthly night then became a bi-monthly community project.  Right now I’m finding ways to expand it outside of events.  I want to make it a platform where we talk about Black literature in an interesting way. I’m still trying to solidify those ideas and get money.  You want to pay poets properly. I’m trying to get a radio show as well.  I want to start a writing platform that celebrates Black writing.  It’s getting slightly better, but numbers in publishing are still low and these things make a difference.

AH:You need to look after the pipeline.

BZ: Exactly, who are the gatekeepers?  I want to ask different people from all walks of life about a Black writer that they really identify with.  If you read James Baldwin’s One Day When I Was Lost when you were 21, what did that mean to you?  I want to write essays on these things – so we can get the conversation out there, and there is a paper trail when you Google.  Before Alice Walker drew attention to Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God was out of print.  Alice Walker did that legacy work about the lineage of writers who you come from, and then the lineage of family you are making.  I really want to make BORN::FREE a very Black-centred project – but without being exclusive.

AH: I think that is a strong place to be.  You claim your home ground – but say others are welcome too.

BZ:This year I have been waking up early to do funding applications to do the work the way I see it.  I want the vision to come out right. I paid my dues in other ways – and then with time you learn you don’t have to pay them any more.

AH:You shift from being mentored to saying ‘I am the next generation.’

BZ:  Yeah.  We have Malika Booker and Salena Godden to look up to.  As they say in the US, they had to walk so we could run, you know.   Right now we are kind of jogging.  We need to be allowed to sprint.  How do we help others get through without unnecessary struggle?

AH: You told me earlier that the Arvon course you did was a booster pack to your career and your creativity?

BZ:It was with Caroline Bird and Roger Robinson.  I was like, ‘C’mon the blessings of the universe!’  I really had given up on writing. In that week, I was awakened literally from the third eye.   I was like  ‘I am a writer!’ How do we make this easier to access?  How do we help people to hear about it?

AH:If you have to come through difficulty, it gives you empathy for other people.  When you have an easy path, you may not be aware of other people who can’t access that path.  In different ways, we are both trying to act for many by going forward.

BZ:Yeah.

AH: Writing about my experience of sexual abuse in childhood, which a lot of people over the years have told me that no one wants to hear about, I know that following a community-minded approach gives me strength on the bad days.  You can say to yourself, ‘I’ll keep going for them – if not for me.   I’ll take this ton of shit.  I’ll face this rejection – because if I get through, others will come after me.’

BZ: Exactly.  That’s so important.

AH:When you come from a hard place, it pushes you forward.

BZ:Got to, man. Just don’t see any other way.

AH: The first poem of small inheritances – thamesmead estate (dregs of south east London)– is a ‘we’ poem, not an ‘I’.  It seemed to me that you were claiming community?  It begins:

We know this city wouldn’t spit on us
were we flagrant
red & ablaze, top deck of a bus.
We learn to hear our screams walk
thru walls before they’re cast into concrete silence.
This city wouldn’t even spit on us.

BZ: I am really pleased you picked that up. It was about setting in place this sort of ‘south’ connection –  Southern Africa and south London.  I live on this estate man, but I was born somewhere else.  But you have people who were born on this estate, whose parents were born on this estate. It really started as a poem about Grenfell.

AH:You used the Master P quote saying – “Black kids …we don’t have rehabs to go to … You gotta rehab yourself” as your epigraph to set it up?

BZ:It really stuck with me when I heard it on Seat at the Table by Solange Knowles.  Towards the end of the album he says something like Black kids – you gotta really help yourself.  I really started thinking about that, particularly in my personal experiences, which are related to people I am close with from the area.   Sometimes you can’t go to your parents with your problems because they’ve got things to worry about. Some of them are working all kinds of hours.  So you have to figure out for yourself. Your own rehab can involve getting past actual drug abuse, or it can involve maybe just travelling.  Rehab can go in so many ways.   But what is expected of you really – coming up in that space of grey? A place of concrete, like you know you can’t win.  You’re expected to pull yourself out of that, and if you don’t it’s your fault – because others pulled themselves out.  No one wants to talk about the fundamental, structural problems. Black boys are dying every day in the city, and nobody wants to talk about the real causes behind this knife crime.  Nobody takes care of the places they come from.   Nobody presents alternative options for them.   If that lifestyle without opportunity is normalised – then you wake up to grey because you don’t have any way to look outside of that. 

There is no real victim status given to these young people, but they are victims.   They are 14-year olds running around with serious mental health issues.  Serious home issues going on. To talk about it will damn the government or damn people in power so they’d rather not go there.  It is such a white system – so inward and so obsessed with itself – that we need to say these boys are being vilified. There are a lot of young Black people dying in this country – incredibly talented and incredibly intelligent. They are also being matched up to their Black counterparts who have managed somehow to figure their way out.   I also wanted to point out this outskirts-of-London experience as well, because we talk about the inner city but Thamesmead is not really.  It’s like Kent.  It’s like Croydon, all that stuff. These brutalist estates, Zones 4-6, can be complete chaos but also like complete cohesion because of our common experience.

I have mates who I grew up with, most of them have a Southern African connection.  Because of our backgrounds and our love of reading, accessing different things from a different country, many of us were leading a kind of interesting middle class life – not necessarily myself – but a lot of my peers have become school teachers, heads of department, lawyers and doctors whatever. But we are aligned with the Black community.  Grenfell messes me up every day.

AH: People are still struggling to get heard around Grenfell.

BZ: Heard yeah, and then it’s like whose voices get heard right? It’s the construct of class.  When we leave the estates we still are not listened to properly, we are still not treated with the same dignity that we deserve as human beings.  I really would never know what it is like to be given the benefit of the doubt outside of my own community, yeah.  And the constant watching over your shoulder – like ‘why did that person behave that way towards me?’  Sometimes they just behave in that way because they are a prick. It’s like ‘Are you doing that because you are a bit racist – or are you doing that because you are just not a nice person, or you are just having a hard day?’ You don’t want to go through life like analysing people’s behaviours like that.

AH: You had a different experience in Zimbabwe?

BZ:I lived 12 years of my life not being scrutinised.  Then I came to this country –  and the constant scrutiny really fascinated me.  I didn’t feel inferior ever at any point.  If anything, I became more and more open-eyed to denigration.  The ‘we’ in ‘thamesmead estate’ also comes from an accepting that I am also from this place, I contributed to the British narrative.  A lot of British people don’t want to hear is that Britain is not only for white people and hasn’t been for a long time.  There was a time that Britain was colonising half of the world, and also contributing to my narrative as a Zimbabwean – which is about the exit, and migration, and what caused that.

This country is full of Black kids who are first generation or no generation whatever – either just come back from their parents’ countries, or their parents were the last ones to leave, so there is always a connection with our cultures in this way, but then also a disconnect from them as well.

For  Black children in London – first, second, third or fourth generation –  there is limbo. You feel like this is your home, but your home is not entirely accepting of you, but then your other home is not entirely accepting of you.  A lot of the time we just want to be one thing – because we want to belong somewhere.  I  think that ‘we’ was really an angry lamentation, but also compassion.

AH:‘thamesmead estate’  is a rightly enraged, pain-filled poem, but its power derives also from its imagistic and sonic beauty.  Did the act of creating help to reframe a difficult experience? You didn’t surrender the pain – but you gained agency by writing about it.

BZ: That’s it. And as soon as I learnt that word – agency – I was like – oh my god, that’s sexy.

AH: Yeah, I felt the same.  It was a breakthrough word for me.

BZ: Before I had that word in my vocabulary, I understood the importance of agency but I don’t think I was exercising it. Sometimes I thought maybe I’m being arrogant, who am I, this little Black girl – and all that shit. Fundamentally, this whole pamphlet is about agency.  Writing for me is about agency. Nobody can tell me what do to and I can really transform what I am feeling.  I can work with these things in any way I want.  I can tell you a story.  If you noticed, there are a lot of ‘you’s used in the poems, which are really ‘I’s.

AH: ‘You’ makes a little bit of space for the reader – and for yourself.

BZ:Yeah, it really does.

AH:Mary Jean Chan often identifies herself within her poems in a hurry of english. She chooses to – because it’s a narrative about queerness, and she needs to inhabit her own queer body to speak about it.   It seems to me that by using ‘you’ and ‘we’ you are making space which is both your life, and a collective life.  It is a space for other people to enter.

BZ: I am also creating images that people can relate to.  I’m trying to get that longing and yearning that most people have.  The essence of the poem should just have that.

AH:I was going to ask you next about ‘rye lane (foul ecstasy)’ which is a stunning ‘drugs poem’. It starts out with B and D sounds –“Black girls don’t do drugs/ said the bouncer/ at Bussey”  – this percussive battery – so you know you are in club world.   And then it goes inwards.  The drug usage becomes a portal to these different selves.  It’s not a poem advocating drugs – but it is a poem which suggests they can be a way into meeting yourself.  There are real moments of psychic, physical and linguistic beauty that you are giving space to –

Buzzed smiles
under drooped eyes
sharpened towards
blue lights
which flood the wet
dance floor.

Our skins
stay open, each
touch from the bass
sending us
in upward spirals
of blue starlight.

We beg
the night not
to end.

BZ: I wrote that on a come-down.  It was really about writing about my feelings and that space and really kind of writing from a personal perspective, but bringing in other girls I had done that with, been out with. We’d talk about it, and this is how we feel, you know. I’m sure that you know the facts about drugs. Let’s say this is about MDMA.  You come up and you feel at one but you feel incredibly sad at the same time – because you don’t always feel that happy every day. I wanted to kind of bring that across, the ecstasy, but also how this is so sad.

I was trying to create some aesthetic of yearning you know – the longing for something.  I think it is the longing for a deep, solid self-acceptance, and a joy, a continuous happiness, but I am also saying these moments are beautiful because you get to really see yourself.

AH:Often with severe depression, people are put on drugs as a short-term measure so they can experience ‘normality’, and then work their way towards it.  The take I got from ‘rye lane’ was notthat you were a ‘drugs missionary’, but more that that experience of MDMA, good and bad, with all its sadness, had let you see something new in yourself which, in the rest of the collection, you work towards in a much more anchored way.  I love that poem. It’s a poem about big experiences, and being human.

BZ:I will go into it further in other things I will write, but I grew up very Christian and thinking I would never do drugs.

AH: ‘holstein way (reclamation song)’ and  ‘evonlode house (self-care)’ look inward to the body for salvation.  Ecstasy comes from “sweet communion with self” – not drugs.  Was that a next step for you?

BZ:  I think when things happen to you as a child, or growing up, that seem like abandonment, neglect, or abuse whatever, you separate from your body.  Maybe that’s why I’m always in my brain. I’m not necessarily like in touch with with what is going on – even though my heart is right here. D’you know what I mean?

AH: Yes, I do.  In ‘holstein way’ you write:

Learn to touch yourself      again & yet again
till you wander into those moments of ecstasy,
sweet communion with self, begging you
to fulfil a wish, to no longer erase yourself.

BZ:When I took MDMA, everything was unleashed in a very beautiful way like.  I was around friends and I was loved – a lot of touching. I always had issues with touching.  A lot of hugging.  I’m working on those things – initiating affection, telling people how I feel and not caring about rejection.  That one night showed me that I didn’t necessarily need to do that drug again.

‘holstein way’ and ‘evenlode house’ are really about deep, deep introspection.  I want absolute freedom in my body.  I want freedom between my mind and my body.   In the past couple of years, that has really led to to this other journey of yoga every day and meditating and training the mind.  I want to be in control in a way that is free.  I want to be able to really get myself.  I want to hear my body but I also to hear my mind.  But I didn’t have those tools. I had to get the tools to combine everything and feel safer in myself.  I am not completely there yet but I am starting that journey. ‘evonlode house’ is about living by myself.

AH:  You wrote about buying flowers as “a weekly ritual when you learnt/ no one was going to heal for you/ so you figured it best to start small.”

BZ:I have plants instead now. These are the two newest poems.  A lot of the poems I was starting writing from very young, and then I just edited the fuck out of them. These two particular poems, I wanted to put across this feeling of a little of where I am now.  I think I really got to that stage where ‘joy is imminent – joy is there.’  I can go and get it – and there is work to do. Those two poems are really about looking into what that work entails.  I think that a lot of that just entails stillness.

AH:You also write about the inner darkness: “Teach her to pray with precision/ for there will likely be days/ when her breasts will search for ripeness/ but black rot might come easier.” It’s like locating sort of psychic calm in the body – but also expressing the whole of what you have to work with to get there. We talked before about the couch in ‘evenlode house’ which held you like a womb and allowed change to happen.   It’s that whole process of being held in stillness and letting yourself change through that. Almost breaking down into yourself.

BZ: Yeah, it’s just like so alone but I love it.  I love self-indulgence in that way.  It’s just like – ‘I’m so saaaadddd’ – and then just like, yeah, ‘I am’, and just kind of doing it.

AH: But not being scared of the sadness.

BZ: No.

AH: Not having to run from it, just like being ok to sit with it and let it pass when it does.

BZ: That is hard too – because you don’t know that it will pass.

AH: Exactly.  It can be very tough.  Do you feel as women, and as writers, it’s important for us to have strategies for restarting out lives – symbolically and actually – to embody our intentions.

BZ:I do yeah.  I cut off my hair. I didn’t do it to be a woman writing or whatever.  I did it because it was hot and I was fed up.

AH: When did you cut it off?

BZ: Summer of 2017.  And that’s the summer I moved in alone so that’s the point.

AH: A new beginning – yes, a new self.

BZ:It’s scary to change things, you know and move things forward, so I think it’s very important to find out little rituals where we can hold ourselves without thinking about what other people think.  My mum had to restart her life when she left Zimbabwe.  She had to change her career from being a teacher.  I wrote about it in ‘reasons for leaving home’, after the Patricia Smith poem ‘Because’.  You know Patricia Smith followed me on Twitter?  And then I DM’d her and I was like ‘I love you, thank you’.  I sent her the video of me reading ‘reasons for leaving home’.  She didn’t reply for a month – but when she did, she said ‘thank you.’ It’s so interesting how sometimes we just need simple structures to kind of express the different disparate thoughts in our heads.  I want to say all these things about Zimbabwe. I need to make a comment on like what Zimbabwe really was at that particular time, which was chaos.  But I wanted to make a personal case.

AH:You wrote a poem out of your own experience based on a model that had been given to you by a Black writer – and then, she picked up on it and, affirmed the heritage. You are drawing lines from yourself, to America and Zimbabwe.

BZ:It was also an exercise in lineage that Jacob taught me.  What lineage of writers are you from?  What are you contributing, and what are you learning from them?  The connection was what Patricia says about being a young Black girl.  A lot of her poetry resonates – even though the geographies are different – because those feelings are just so alike. The diaspora, the Black diaspora is so linked from the Caribbean to North America to Asia.  We are everywhere.  We are absolutely everyone.

AH:The last two poems in the ‘small inconveniences’ section look at the reasons for and costs of migration.  In ‘bantuland (dear whinchat)’, you imagine the migrating whinchat flying “Over former colonies still scarred with leftover pain; over red/ dust roads and broken railways.” Did you want to make the post-colonial legacy something people could feel and see?

BZ:I’m always writing about Africa or African issues.  It’s very tricky and sensitive. When I write I know that other Black people are going to read it, and I want I want fairness to be there always. It was for an anthology about British birds.  I found this bird and the poem didn’t actually make the cut because the lady who commissioned it was saying ‘No, you need to write about the bird specifically’.  I was like, ‘There is no other way I can write this poem’ – once this poem came out.  I couldn’t change it. I backed out of the project. In the first part I really talk about the beauty and the pain of the continent. I didn’t want to make it sound like we were suffering and sad, because that’s not the truth, but we are suffering and sad in the most part.

AH:  ‘dear whinchat’ also catches what is unique to Zimbabwe and Southern Africa.

It has been ten years since I left home.
I’ve forgotten how at dusk the sun slowly sinks
into the ground & the sky becomes still, ablaze.
I’ve forgotten how the night spreads itself
in the folds of a light cold wind;
I’ve forgotten the sound a metal pail,
tied to thick long rope, makes when it falls
into wells swollen with a full night’s rain.
I’ve forgotten the feel of early morning,
how the eastern horizon would birth the sun
til the skies spun themselves violet, as a cockerel
spread its wings wider than its wake-up crow.

AH: The poem makes something extraordinary visible in words – more visible than in a travel documentary because the reader takes your words and plays them inside their head. I see those images much more clearly than something that flashes on a television screen because I have imagined them.  In the same poem you also write “my first language’s started to wilt on my tongue.”   How does it feel to work as well in a second language?

BZ: Shona is my favourite language.  You understand more and more, the older you get, because everything is straightforward, but it’s also so like so elusive at the same time, because you can say so many things without saying anything.  The Shona language is really also tied in with culture and tradition which is about respectability and how you look you know all these things. They find nice ways to say really ugly things.  I think that is what I love about it the most.  It’s so full of like wisdom and history – but at the same time it’s direct.  That is something that would be hard to learn if you weren’t born into it because of its nuances. It’s about the underlying message as opposed to actual words so yeah, it’s a fascinating language to me in that way.

AH: From how you talk, it sounds as if the brain that you developed to speak Shona informs how you function in the English language as well – because you have experienced Shona as a space of possibility.  Even if you are not actually writing in Shona directly, you still have that heritage informing your work?

BZ:A lot of stuff I write has strong imagery.  I think Shona is really about images. Everything is shrouded in like imagery and comparison.  That has really informed how I approach the English on the page – feeling through images.  How can we create images that make you feel things you know?  Specific images but also universal feelings.

AH: We talked about Black poets and writers as models.  It seems to me that you are also taking Shona and African culture as a literary model.   You are using its frameworks to shape your work.  It’s not just the Black, and other, writers you read – but it’s also your own living culture that you using to claim agency within the English language and also to make it new.  You give it something that it wouldn’t have otherwise.   From the start, I found your poems incredibly powerful and magical.  It’s really interesting to think that Shona is partly making them work like that.

BZ: I think some of my favourite writers are Bessie Head, Dorothy Masuka, Yvonne Vera and Chinua Achebe –  these core African writers. Toni Morrison as well.  She writes poetry in novel form.Belinda Zhawi

AH:Beloved was one of the most important books that I ever every read.  I read it when I was in my early 20’s, in the 1980’s. It just stopped me in my tracks, completely.

BZ:Whenever you are reading any Toni Morrison you are suspended.   I feel that’s a thing that I also get from a lot of my favourite African writers.  Chimananda Ngozi Adichie as well – whom I have loved since I was a young woman.  She was a writer of my time.  There is a simplicity in approach that’s really a simplicity in language as well.  An openness in language, but a depth in image, and a depth in the underlying themes.

AH:Toni Morrison was accessing African imagery, storytelling and culture through her African American heritage and oral heritage.

BZ: There’s a distance and compassion in a lot of my favourite African writers works. In The Bluest Eye Toni Morrison is writing about these difficult subjects, but she affords everybody humanity and space – and for me that is very African. It feels like it’s in the bloodline.

AH:That’s a powerful response.  African countries and their peoples may have been looted through colonisation, and also slavery – but the heritage resists and persists.

BZ: You can’t take people’s stories away.

AH: The final section of small inheritancesis set mostly in Zimbabwe – where you lived until you were 12.  It uses Shona words alongside English. Did it feel like a form of home-coming, using the two languages in your work?

BZ: For sure. A lot of my work is really about trying to solidify numerous narratives of what Zimbabwe means for me, which includes that that particular migration.  I think it is going to be written about a lot in the future by other Zimbabweans you know. I want Shona people to read this. I want to write in Shona one day.  I am reading a lot of Shona literature at the moment. I’m reading this guy called Solomon Mutswairo, who published the first ever, full-length Shona novel.  I’ve got this amazing book of his novels and then the last part is his poetry, with other poets who were writing in Shona at the time, who we study now in Zimbabwe within the education system.

It is really nice to be in that space of my literary ancestors – showing me the possibilities of our language – because what they have also shown me is that our language has got these superior vibes.  They can’t come into English with the purity that they have in Shona.  I’m in the space of learning that from people who did it before. From people who were really concerned about wide readership but also about clarity.

AH: We were talking about stillness and self-healing.  Part of the self-healing is necessary nourishment.

BZ: I am hungry for it when I am reading, I am literally devouring it, and I am inspired at the same time, and amazed – and then full of respect and appreciation.

AH: It sounds like you’re anchoring your own sense of identity – claiming what is you and what is yours.

BZ: Which feels like a birthright. Every time I am reading Shona writing, it makes me a voracious learner in terms of my own traditions and my own cultures.  You’ve got to understand that I’m kind of divorced from those cultures because of Christianity.  Some of these things were seen as dark and devilish and demonic.  The religion the colonisers brought said only the Christian way is valid. My mother’s father was a preacher.

AH: A Christian preacher?

BZ: Yeah, he was a Pentecostal minister who was actually really powerful in in his like energy, his spirit. He was the reason why my Mother and her sisters are incredibly spiritual in this particular way.   They passed on something to me to do with spirituality that is very important. They taught me about the possible existence of other realms and all these things that I hold dear despite how I choose to enter their spaces.  But the Christianity they taught me was really about divorcing from traditional African ways.  In my Shona reading, I am being taught that there is a union, in the organic way my ancestors worshipped. In direct translation, the Shona name for god is ‘creator of people’, ‘creator of humanity’.   My people were also spiritual and holistic in their approaches to everyday life – and those cultures don’t exist today.  The more capitalist we get, the more global we get, the quicker and easier it is to let go of the Shona language.  Some of my cousins born and raised in Zimbabwe don’t speak Shona because their parents put them in very expensive schools where English is the lingua franca.

AH: It’s like identity-genocide.

BZ: It’s like ‘Guys – stop!!’ When I was younger, I felt this heroic responsibility.  Now I feel more responsibility towards myself as a Shona woman to be consistently telling my different versions of what it means to be valid. All these nuances are really about solidifying and documenting that culture, because a lot of it is rooted in oral culture.

AH:It seems to me that you have the possibility, through language and through heritage, to access and comprehend that Shona space and articulate it – because its are values about connection to environment, integrity and accountability, which the whole world needs. In a sense, you are a channel.

BZ:  I used to sing in a church choir and what they taught me was when I hear the entertainment, the singing, it’s actually the ministry.  It’s about serving people. In my approach to my work, if I’m going to ask people to listen to this or read this I feel this responsibility to be this best I can.

AH: As a performer and enabler of other performers was this a model for you, that whole idea of of a kind of sacred performance?

BZ: I think maybe in my writing I make that space, because I’m trying to talk about an acknowledgement of ancestors.

AH:Before we end, can I ask what you are doing next?

BZ:  I am working a lot with music at the moment. I am trying to say things that I feel the rules of the page might not allow me to do in a way that I am satisfied with. Working with music affords me the space to experiment with how I say things and what I mean when I say those things.

AH: Are you recording the music yourself or are you working with musicians?

BZ:I’m recording myself but working with musicians.  I’m working mostly with beats at the moment.  There is a lot of interesting stuff happening in South East London.  Shout out south east London as an amazing Jazz scene  – Steez, Trinity Laban alumni, Tomorrow’s Warriors and Steam Down, other creators.  For me that’s a space where I am meeting a lot of interesting creators – Brother Portrait, Nadeem Din-Gabisi, Footshooter.   Some of them approach me  and say ‘Hey would you like to do some poetry over this beat that I made?’  For me it’s all been a challenge, like yeah, why not let’s rise up to the challenge?  It really expands how you read things and how you deliver things, and in terms of what I was saying earlier about economy on the page, economy in speech, especially on top of a structured piece of music.  I like creating textures that people can feel.   You can do it on a page but I find that there is something about also hearing music and being alone with that you know.  Not having to read and make notes and understand – but constantly re-listening.

AH: Music is three-dimensional for me.  Somehow, it’s a form, like sculpture.

BZ: Please go deeper!

AH: Sometimes words are like a painting, and music is like a sculpture.

BZ: I agree! Depending on what kind of music it is, it’s about emotions and feeling.  I love jazz.  A lot of a lot of stuff I am interested in doing next in terms of music is working with contemporary UK jazz because they explore the things I explore through words, through sound, and I am just amazed at like what they can do with that.  You know how sometimes it can sound so disparate, but so harmonious, at the same time. Jazz is so structured and so textured.  You can almost touch it – like you can touch a sculpture. It can be in your body.

AH: And you can touch it with your mind.

BZ:I love the completeness of music. I think that words can always be edited.  Whereas with music, you can change it, but it might not be the same emotion, it might not be the same feeling, but it might also not be the same sound.  A lot of the time when musicians are saying this is done, it is pretty much done you know.

AH: All the sounds are relative to each other.  It’s like they’ve met their matching point. They are all intersecting – once those intersections have happened, that is the energy.

BZ:With music, I relate specifically to beat makers because I think they are poets.  They are sound poets. And it’s funny because a lot of producers will send me those beats and I might be like, ahh I think this just feels like a city poem you know, like a night time you know.  Because of the energy they are giving me, that feeling that I am taking about, and then you go and talk to them – and somehow it’s always linked.  What works best about music and poetry is that they are both about distilling emotions and feelings into particular, almost tangible things, that your senses can access.

AH:. So would you be looking to do some live sets and record a CD as well as write a collection?

BZ:I have been working with a harpist since around this time last year.  Through Spread The Word I applied for a small grant where you could work with another artist.  She goes to Trinity – Maria Osuchowska.  What a legend!  She is in her early 20s –  but she has been playing harp since she was 11.  When we meet, the pieces that she has composed match exactly what I am trying to achieve. We don’t have to rehearse too much.  It’s that connection. It was meant to be a one-off thing, but we have performed so many times now that at the last gig her mother said ‘Now you must record.’  Maria came from Poland at a young age and we were both immigrant children in London. London is both our home and our other home.  I do a lot with her also inspired the jams that I attend at a weekly night of improv jazz in Deptford.  I have also been working with two producers who I have known since I was in my early 20s.  We have got two EP’s coming out this year.

AH:Really looking forward to those.  We’ll put links up on this blog when they come out.  Thank you very much, Belinda Zhawi.

You can buy ‘small inheritances’ for £5.00 here

Search youtube for Belinda Zhawi’s performances – here Belinda reading an earlier draft of ‘dear whinchat’

Belinda will be performing live on 27 February 2019 with Maria Osuchowska at Accidental Power Cut at the House of St Barnabas in London, UK tickets by donation.

Review of small inheritances by alice hiller for harana poetry here.

“Everything I write, I give access to devastate me first” : Shivanee Ramlochan, on ‘saying the difficult thing’ with “weapons of conjure.”

shivanee

Sunday night, I attended the T.S. Eliot award readings at the Southbank Centre.   Each performance was intensely alive. With care, and precision, ten poets walked across to the podium to give themselves, and their work, to the audience. I had been on a different floor of the same building a few months earlier, to take part in a workshop organised by Spread the Word with Shivanee Ramlochan at the National Poetry Library.

In that quiet, afterhours space, surrounded by shelves of books, Shivanee Ramlochan had shared with us as generously, and as memorably, as the T.S. Eliot poets I watched on stage. The impact of Shivanee’s first collection, Everyone Knows I Am a Haunting, on the UK poetry scene was evidenced by the number of people who came to find me after the readings – to ask when the interview about ‘saying the difficult thing’ would be published. Imminently, I promised them.

When I got up Monday, it was waiting like magic in my inbox.   Without delay, I read Shivanee’s answers to my questions, and then read them again, more slowly, more carefully, letting her take me through Everyone Knows I Am a Haunting, and the life which gave rise to its powerful, beautiful, uncompromising poems.

Coloured by desire, unafraid of rage, or terror, aiming hard at redemption, Shivanee Ramlochan’s work, written out of Trinidad, as a queer woman of colour, looks at topics – including infanticide, and rape – which many would prefer to deny, or at least avert their gaze from.   The poems also witness loves, and lives, which have had to assert their right to be, a path that has led to “scorched wings” at times, as Shivanee admits.

As someone writing about making life in the aftermath of sexual abuse in childhood, Shivanee Ramlochan has long been a hero of mine. I am honoured to give you – our readers, our collaborators – the words she has entrusted to me with in this opening interview about ‘saying the difficult thing’. Please share them, and join with us in the work of challenging silence:

 

Shivanee, part of the project of the ‘saying the difficult thing’ interviews is to help poetry feel more approachable. I’m interested in people’s different ways in. Can I ask how, and why, you started writing and performing?

Thank you for taking the time to talk with me, Alice.

I began writing because it never felt like I had a choice: from the age of five onwards, everything in me compelled me to tell stories – strange, dark, pleasurable things – on paper, for myself first and alone. The idea of writing as public performance didn’t present itself to me til my eleventh or twelfth year, and though I’ve grown in my capacity to read my work aloud, I’m no trained performer. So much of what I write now, at thirty-two, are strings of words I still can’t believe I’m allowed to say out loud.

Were there people, on the page, or in the flesh, who encouraged you?

My mother is my first true encourager. She wouldn’t choose for me the poems I now choose for myself, but she’s never suggested my life would be better, or happier, if I were a doctor or lawyer. The opposite, in fact: she knows this business of wanting to write is precarious, uninsured, often thankless, and has assured me I’m more than welcome to take parental loans if I ever need them (and you know I’ve needed them over the years. Dental bills, alone…)

How long were the poems for Everyone Knows I Am a Haunting, in the making?

Five years.

Your opening poem, ‘A Nursery of Gods for My Half-White Child’, suggests that we can claim and inhabit our heritages, but also remake them. I’m thinking of the last three lines:

drown me to sleep with the names of the gods you have made

shrieking, floating, bastarding into birth
called to the world of the living between the harvest of your thighs [p11].

‘Nursery’s’ strongly female, and bodily, image of making is particularly impactful in the context poems which follow, spoken in the voices of “The Abortionist’s Daughter”, and then her “Grand-daughter”.  Abortion is currently still illegal in Trinidad and Tobago?

Oh, yes.

The first of these poems, ‘The Abortionist’s Daughter Declares her Love’, deploys the heart-breaking aphorism “Never give a woman more sadness than she needs” [p13]. It holds millennia of female struggle. I wondered if you wanted to say something about your use of a detached, authoritative voice for such potentially devastating material?

Everything I write, I give access to devastate me first. Maybe there are easier ways to perform that transaction, writer to poem, but I don’t know them, and I’m not convinced I’d ever want to learn how to do it easier, to make it easier on myself. I don’t think I can make a poem I can trust (or mistrust in totality/in part, but still find necessary) through perfect ease.

That’s true for the Abortionist poems in Haunting. They’re some of the earliest works in the collection, in terms of when they were written, and I was still struggling with asking permission in some specific ways that I’ve since shed. (I still ask, but mostly now, I ask myself.) I knew then that I had to write about women doing dangerous work, and to ask each of these poems to contemplate why that work was dangerous: was the labour inherently damaging, or were the women who worked at it menaced by external evils, expectations, cruelties? I wanted, too, to explore how dangerous working women differed in how they performed labour across generations: would the same salve suit a granddaughter, as it did the grandmother who invented it?

I say this to say that even in seeming detachment – even in the use of a narrator-as-curator, a narrator as observer, there is pain, and I trust that. I believe you must pay what you owe to the work, and each work demands something different, calls for its specific tithe in blood or lots and lots of bad lines, til you get it right.

‘My Sister of the Coral Mouth’, follows the first two ‘Abortionist’ poems and presents an infanticide committed after rape. The grief, and rage, of a “daughter who drowned her wrong child/ at our ocean’s worse fault” [p16] enters the erasing movements of the weeds and waters – but the poet also holds the difficult memory irrevocably present:

I carry your son’s name under my tongue in a barbed suture.
You wanted my speech to keep his first memory safe [p16].

Do you feel that the work of witness is part of your role as a writer?

Without question.

Everyone Knows I Am a Haunting occupies multiple resisting perspectives, rather than speaking exclusively from your own position. I’m interested in the impact on you, personally, of giving yourself creatively to so much dark material.

Have you seen Chilling Adventures of Sabrina? Mild spoilers below for those who haven’t.

So half-witch, half-mortal Sabrina’s been struggling all season with the directive – an order, really, that she wants with all of her being to reject – to pledge allegiance to the Dark Lord Satan by signing his official ledger. It’s an act that would make her greatly powerful, but also bind her to his will. This is exactly what I think of when you so searchingly ask about giving myself creatively to so much dark material. Because there’s no way you get a halcyon happy ending from that equation, right? Which is why, much like Sabrina, I turn more and more to definitions of my life outside of happiness. My tendencies are dark, and often disastrous, and it makes me smile when readers who profess themselves deep admirers of my work are stunned, not always for the better, by ‘Shivanee in real life’. What’s more real life than a book of poems? And where do people think it comes from?

I love happiness, but my objective isn’t to be happy. I haven’t signed my name in any sepulchral ledger, but let’s just say I understand the impulse. Whether I’m writing poems or doing off-the-record deviations, my curiosity always gets the better of me – that’s the core of the dark surrender we’re discussing. I’m that Pandora, that Icarus, that intrepid sinner who knows better and risks it anyway, to see what I can learn. So many of my poems are scorched wings: investigations into what happens when you push too hard at the envelope of your own luck.

In ‘Duenna Lara’, the poem where the title line occurs, you write, graphically, ‘I take the four rivers of the forest by throat and algal sinew,/ pump the waters into my lungs.” Could you say something about the Caribbean landscapes in your work?

The Caribbean is indivisible from anything I write about anything. I used to think I belonged anywhere but here. Now I know that at least in this lifetime, here is where I’m from more than any other place. So it became mountingly important to inhabit the terrain of the places I used to reject out of the inherited colonial curse of self-hatred, to take those places – mountains, markets, rumshops, rivers – and call them by their names, for everyone to see.

‘The Red Thread Cycle’, which makes up the collection’s second segment, has been personally valuable to me, as someone who was raped in childhood. Can I ask you about the work done by the beautifully controlled language in the first poem, ‘On the Third Anniversary of the Rape’. I’m quoting the opening lines:

Don’t say Tunapuna Police Station.
Say you found yourself in the cave of a minotaur, not
knowing how you got there, with a lap of red thread.
Don’t say forced anal entry.
Say that you learned that some flowers bloom and die
at night.   Say you remember stamen, filaments
cross-pollination, say that hummingbirds are

vital to the process [p35].

Was there a reason you chose to write this poem as a second person set of instructions, as opposed to a first person account?

Thank you, Alice, for your sharing here. It means so much.

I talk sometimes about the distinction between poems that come, seeming-unbidden, and declare themselves with such assurance on the page – between those poems, and others that require more slow, methodical finessing. ‘On the Third Anniversary of the Rape’ has always been a poem that belongs in the first category. Because it announced itself to me with such certainty, I used to think that I hadn’t worked for it. It took a reminder from the consummately kind, searingly intelligent Abigail Parry to show me that, in fact, I’d been working on it by living with the inhabitation – the very haunting – of that poem, riveted and tattooed by its imageries, for months before it was written.

The instructions of the poem – the poem as its own instruction – is me speaking to myself. This goes beyond the question of whether the events in this poem happened to me, as they are laid out. What I have always hoped ‘Third Anniversary’ does is to speak where all other speech fails. I turn to it when I find I can say nothing else, and it has never failed me.

The officer to whom the rape is reported, is portrayed as a “minotaur”, and linked to the crime by the length of spooled red thread. What led you to create this suggestion of a second assailant?

Rape is an underreported, misbelieved crime. I wanted to speak directly to the faces of those people put in positions of authority who do not believe survivors of sexual assault, who compound that assault with their refusal to witness that violation, to treat with its aftermath with compassion, care, and mercy.

The six poems which follow respond to different facets, and instances, of rape. You write in the second poem, ‘Nail It to the Barn Door Where It Happened’

Use your mother’s scissors to cut out the words
[father] [minister] [boyfriend]   [wife]
Pick the right word, and nail it to the barn door
where it happened [p37].

Could you say something about how your writing works with decoupage, and nailing Shivanee?

I can speak to it directly in this poem: the cut-out and assembly of bracketed words in ‘Barn Door’ was another direct act of speech. I wanted to address those complicit in assault. I wanted to show that often, the most beloved and venerated amongst us – those in positions of familial and socio-religious power – corrupt their influence by raping and sexually subjugating those in their care. Nailing or bolting acts as a form of signifying here: a way to designate, to point the finger at the hooded assailant, to tear the mask off, to declaim – here, right here. This is the one who did it. They will not, thank the Goddess, be allowed to flee.

You shift towards agency in the final two poems in this central sequence, which are spoken in the first person. The last one, ‘The Open Mic of Every Deya, Burning’ states “I lit hurricane lamps with the lucifers of the stake he splintered/ six inches inside me” [p45]. It’s an amazing transformation of darkness into light, without denying the pain at the core of the image. I wondered if you would comment?

Working towards redemption became one of my primary goals as I worked on the Red Thread poems, which were not written consecutively, though ‘Third Anniversary’ was indeed written first. I went through many interior, often conflicting cycles of emotional travel with this series, over the years – so much of it might forever be past my power to fully articulate. One of the points of recognition on that journey was learning that I wanted a narrative arc that could, and would, tilt towards sovereignty. ‘Open Mic’ isn’t the original ending I devised for the Red Thread poems, but it’s the right place for those poems to loop back to themselves, to take their own temperature and declare themselves all survivors. I came to understand this as my duty of care to the work: to not only present the future as viable, in the face of such shattering trauma, but to manifest the future as an active catalyst, the future as present and viable and full of agency.

I don’t know if trauma can be cured, but I do know I believe in alchemy. Moving towards the deya reminds me of my own personal favourite form of magic: holding all the light I can, on Divali night. I’m humbled that the poems brought me there, and let me hold their light.

‘Open Mic’ also sets up a cathartic, healing reaction between performer and audience, and by implication poet and reader:

Each line break bursts me open
for applause, hands slapping like something hard and holy [p.45].

The third, untitled section of Everyone Knows I Am a Haunting explores queerness within the shifting histories and politics of our embodied identities. I understand that homosexuality was decriminalised in Trinidad and Tobago by Justice Devindra Rampersad on 12 April 2018, following the lawsuit initiated by LGBTQ+ activist Jason Jones?

Yes!

It was therefore still illegal when the poems in the third section affirming and exploring queer identities were written, and indeed when your collection was published in 2017?

Yes.

The first poem of the third sequence, ‘All the Dead, All the Living’, celebrates and reclaims the covert identity of an unnamed “public servant”. She wears “sensible slingback heels” to the office – but has a night-time, carnival patois self of “curry-gold battyriders” and “breasts swinging under electric tape nipples” [p49]. Are concrete, tangible things a valuable creative resource for your work?

Absolutely. The sensory memory of objects I have loved and feared has stayed with me all my life, from my earliest recollections to the present day. No doubt the images have been transmogrified, but they persist, and so many of them, gleaned from my most private encounters, have found their way into Haunting. I love that you ask this question in relation to this poem, because curating the tangible in my poetic practice is how I both hold onto my beloved dead, and vouchsafe my fidelity to my beloved living. It’s a secret act of service that I choose to make public-ish through the work, immersing my own material archive into the realm of the fictive. What emerges is a non-binary catalogue of memento mori, talismans, tricks and trinkets, wards and relics, weapons of conjure. Are they all a part of my life? Yes. Do they all belong to me? Oh, no.

‘All the Dead, All the Living’ understands the “wetness” from the public servant’s aroused, dancing body as a healing “purgatory-unction”.  You make her embodied sexuality a source of identity – and salvation – which allows her to be “turning wolf/ to woman/ to wolf again.” [p.50] Is that something you wanted the reader to feel transformed by?

This is a poem of Trinidad & Tobago Jouvay, a part of my country’s annual Carnival. I’ve written extensively about the craft of this poem for Poetry School, where the full poem can also be read. Jouvay and Carnival are acts of ultimate shapeshifting. In islands so often hemmed by conservative and orthodox rhetoric, this festival represents for so many of its revellers a chance to ‘play a mas’, to perform and inhabit and exult in their chosen manifestations of good, evil, or one of the innumerable stations of love and excess in between those moral poles. So many of the optics of how Carnival is produced and consumed make me uncomfortable, as a fat woman, but when I strip my love for this festival to its bare, beating heart, I see an island of shapeshifters, shedding their skins, and I’ve never known any power that pulses to that specific, exceptional rhythm. It feels like, and is, rebirth.

You write organically, and powerfully, of erotic desire between women in ‘Catching Devi & Shakuntala’.

your daughter’s darkmouth on her lover,
their hair in oiled snakes weeping bright, [p51].

Is this something you choose to make visible?

I am as queer as the day is long, as the world turns, as salt brines on the tongue. Even now, this remains something I never feel I can say easily without looking over my shoulder, without balling my fists in anticipation of self-defense. I have played the long, tiring game of self-cloaking my queerness for so many reasons, ever since I came into the knowing of myself as non-heteronormative. I determined that I wouldn’t ask my poems to enact that same dance. The queer inhabitants of my poems may, and do, feel earth-shattering conflict, but the truth of the queer poem as an active, evident, self-sustaining reality in my work? I will never, not ever, deny that.

‘Good Names for Three Children’ speaks with compassion to those still “feeling filthy for the way you love”, and warns against this form of self-hatred? Was there a context to this poem?

The earliest written poem in the book, “Good Names” was, though of course I didn’t know it at the time, to become a kind of manifesto for how I hoped I could proceed, and grow, in poetry. It belongs to that era in which I found myself asking permission for the spaces I entered, including allegedly safe territory, and it is a gentler sort of poem in many ways than the work I’m making, right now. I feel tenderly about it, because as you say, it moves towards compassion, and is unafraid of the kind of gentleness that is so often stripped, beaten, exorcized and educated out of us when we are either innocent or young.

The final poem, ‘Vivek Chooses His Husbands’, is a fierce celebration of love and desire felt by men for each other, and includes the stunning image

You cling to the backs of his knees
and let the temple peal bells of bright orgasm over you.

After so much darkness, was it a deliberate decision to end in beauty?

More than that, I wanted to offer the truth of darkness, too, as that which is beautiful: the idea that, though the darkness can cut and bruise you, that the instruction you receive from your wounds can be, often is, the very inheritance that keeps you alive. That’s frankly gorgeous to me, the fact that we can, and do, survive the onslaught of unspeakable terror, that we are wound up in mobius strips of displacement, desecration and refuge from the danger. The danger is always, always with us. Sometimes, we are the danger. I know I am, to no one more so than myself. Yet if I’m that, then I’m also my own foul-mouthed, foul-minded, imperfect, incredibly imprecise cure. So if we always carry the danger, then we chemically, scientifically, might never be far from its antidote.

Besides being a poet, I know that you are an editor, blogger, legendary leader of workshops – and of course performer. What are your plans for 2019 Shivanee Ramlochan?

In response to Zora Neale Hurston’s wisdom, I believe this is an asking year for me. I admire and am even slightly envious of poets who can, and do, produce a new volume each year, but I’m not of their prolific ilk. I set myself the mission of reading 219 books in 2019, and I think this, primarily, is how I will do my asking: at the feet of other writers, living and deceased, with a specific focus on trans and nonbinary literatures; works produced by incarcerated writers; books that come from underserved communities in the global south; all poetries of brown and queer politics. I’d also like to interrogate and amplify the ways in which I critically engage with what I read, and to write about as much of it as I can at Novel Niche.

Shivanee-Ramlochan
Photo by Marlon James

Buy Everyone Knows I Am a Haunting from Peepal Tree Press here.

Shivanee Ramlochan is a Trinidadian poet, arts reporter and book blogger. She is the Book Reviews Editor for Caribbean Beat Magazine. Shivanee also writes about books for the NGC Bocas Lit Fest, the Anglophone Caribbean’s largest literary festival, as well as Paper Based Bookshop, Trinidad and Tobago’s oldest independent Caribbean specialty bookseller. She is the deputy editor of The Caribbean Review of Books. Her first book of poems, Everyone Knows I Am a Haunting, was published by Peepal Tree Press on October 3rd, 2017 and was shortlisted for the 2018 Felix Dennis Award for best first collection.

 

 

‘Writing with’ Lila Matsumoto

Reading different poets, and thinking about how we each find our own ways of ‘saying the difficult thing’, or simply creating an open-ness, and possibility of voice, I was very grateful to find this account of Lila Matsumoto’s feminist-creative practice of ‘writing with’ the objects of her poems – rather than assuming dominion over them. Very often, when we stop trying to ‘control’ our voices, and our subject matters, we become more able to enter the energetic heart of what we are trying to make – as Lila Matsumoto does in her collection ‘Urn & Drum’ , published by Shearsman in Bristol in 2018.

Sally-Shakti Willow

On Friday 7th December, poet Lila Matsumoto visited the University of Westminster to talk to our Creative Writing BA students, as part of the Westminster Writes Speaker Series.  Lila’s talk, ‘Objects aren’t Torpid’, focused on ekphrasis (writing in response to an artwork or object).  For Lila, ‘ekphrastic response can be a democratic process’ – an image or object’s openness to interpretation means that any poet or writer’s response will be just one of many possible ways to understand and engage with that stimulus.  For this reason, Lila often presents her poems with images of the original stimulus, to encourage imaginative and interpretive engagement from the reader/viewer.

A feminist engagement with poetic practice means that Lila performs ekphrasis as an act of ‘writing with’, rather than writing through, on, about, or around.  In ‘writing with’ the objects, Lila’s poetry is intended to enter into a relationship with those objects, instead of…

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‘vulnerability as power’ : Romalyn Ante speaking with Alice Hiller

Two years ago, I met Romalyn Ante for the first time at the Jerwood Arvon Totleigh Barton retreat, in Devon, run by the inimitable Joe Bibby. The medieval building, with its thatched roof, and creaking, wooden floors, lies at the end of a long drive, encircled by green hills and fields.   Neither of us had ever stayed anywhere like it before. We were there to meet our mentor Pascale Petit, and our two fellow poetry mentees – now sisters-in-words, Seraphima Kennedy and Yvonne Reddick – for five days’ work together, alongside the brilliant fiction and drama mentees, and their mentors Tim Crouch and Jacob Ross.

All of us talked, work-shopped, performed, ate and walked together, laying the foundations of friendships which have continued to deepen and grow. Later that same year, Romalyn become the joint winner of the 2017 Manchester Poetry Prize, won the 2017 Platinum Creative Futures Award, and was selected for Primers 3 with Sarala Estruch and Aviva Dautch. In 2018 she was awarded the Poetry London Prize – judged by Kwame Dawes – for her poem ‘Names’.

Romalyn Ante can be viewed reading ‘Names’ here.

roma reading poetry london
Romalyn Ante reading ‘Names’ at the Poetry London autumn launch at Kings Place.

For those who don’t know her personally, it can seem as if Romalyn’s  success has come out of nowhere. In fact, the poems which have brought her recognition are rooted in her childhood in the Philippines, when Tagalog was her primary language, and her grandfather told her their ancient myths during power cuts. Having started writing in the Philippines, Romalyn continued when she followed her nurse mother to the UK when she was 16, to complete her studies, and train as a nurse herself.

‘Names’, Romalyn’s Poetry London prize-winning poem carries this journey within its stanzas. Romalyn and I spoke about how it came into being on the evening of the prize reading at King’s Place in London, and again the next morning over breakfast in my kitchen, before she took the train back to Wolverhampton. We both share the desire to represent our experiences on behalf of our communities, and make them available to the wider world.

Remembering how she came to write ‘Names’, as we talked, Romalyn looked back on growing up in the Philippines, and her experiences of migrating to, and making her adult life in, the UK. We swapped notes on our different journeys into poetry, the value of Pascale Petit’s mentoring to us as writers, what it is like to be with someone who is dying, why loss can become a catalyst for growth, and how we let our words find their shapes.

Ahead of launching my first ‘saying the difficult thing’ interview, with Shivanee Ramlochan, on this blog, Romalyn has generously given me permission to upload our conversation:

 

AH: You told me that you first heard the music that words can carry in English when you were growing up in the Philippines, but that your work is also deeply nourished by its oral culture?

RA: My uncles and aunties would play music every night. My uncle always played the guitar over a table full of gin. Sometimes my Dad would come home and join them. They would sing in English. They would sing American love songs or American pop rock. I think that is how I learnt the music of words. I never read any English poetry when I was growing up, except for my high school diploma. I read literature in Tagalog. At home, my family didn’t really read many books. What got me into storytelling was my grandad – every time there was a blackout. We call it a brown-out. The brown-outs over there don’t just last for less than a minute. They last for an entire night or maybe an entire day. Every time there was a brownout, and say it was at night, my grandad – who is a barber by day, and was a porter or kargador when he was younger – would gather us on the terrace. He would light a candle and all of us would just sit there and he would tell stories about Filipino mythology in Tagalog. All this folklore, legends. My Grandad didn’t realise that he was a storyteller. During the day, and for everyone, he was just a barber who never even finished primary school. Looking back now – all those experiences fed in. I used to think I wasn’t well read.

AH: Your sources were different – oral stories, told myths. You actually had this extraordinary deep, rich background. Even if people read those stories as adults, it’s completely different to being told them as children.

RA: When you are a child, you are like ‘wow’ – and your imagination is going berserk. But I really agree with you. There was also a point when I asked myself if I should get a Poetry MA – because everyone seemed to have an MA and everyone seemed to know what they were doing. I’m thankful that I didn’t because I feel it might have marred the way I write poems now. I think that intuition is very important. I’m glad that I didn’t take any formal training in writing and got what I needed to learn from my mentors who have been extremely helpful.

AH: You told me you started writing initially to process your nursing experience – without a thought of publication?

RA: It started as journal entries. Then I realised that there were some words in my journal that sounded nice, almost like music. I think that really kick-started me into writing poetry.

AH: I remember that in my own work. You come across something that has an energy which you didn’t give it.

RA: It’s as if those couple of words, or let’s say that line, is very alive. It says: ‘There’s something here. You need to explore me. You need to get me out of this journal and put me somewhere I can be fully alive.’ It’s a breathing creature. Pascale Petit said that as well when we were being mentored. She said don’t give up on your poem even, if you think it’s bad, if you see a draft that has that one sentence that’s alive. You can explore it more.

AH: You must have been aware that what you were writing as a nurse wasn’t being written by anybody else?

RA: Kwame Dawes said yesterday, ‘I’ve known a lot of doctor poets but never known a nurse poet.’ I hoped something good will come from that.

AH: It has already. Primers – the CFLA Platinum Award. The Manchester Poetry Prize. The Saboteur Award for your pamphlet, Rice and Rain. I’m writing about sexual abuse in childhood. I just read Paper Cuts by Stephen Bernard. It was really helpful to recognise patterns that I found in my own life. You are the first person writing contemporary poetry about nursing. You had to open the conversation.

RA: Yes. I want my poems to be accessible for everyone.

AH: That’s very important to me. I’m trying to write for everyone who is making their life in the aftermath of abuse. I don’t want there to be any barrier to walking into my work – and that’s a political decision on my part.

RA: Yes, definitely. Can you explore that?

AH: Society has always turned away and denied sexual abuse. I’m standing up to say what it feels like to be sexually abused in childhood, how you try and operate afterwards – the fear, the bewilderment, the difficult teenage behaviour that people who have been abused tend to manifest. I stand before people and say: ‘All these things are in me.’ I don’t want to be the cardboard cut-out of a smiling child. You don’t want to be the cardboard cut-out of the smiling nurse. We want to say: ‘This is us in our wholeness.’

RA: We are putting ourselves in the centre of an arena, naked and saying: ‘This is the real me.’ After that, hopefully someone in the stadium or in the benches would stand up and say, ‘I am also this. I can relate to you, we are the same,’ and someone over there will stand up and say, ‘This is me – and I can relate to you as well.’ And that is what we are doing. We are ‘daring greatly’ – which is a phrase from the writer Brené Brown who believes in the power of showing others your vulnerability.

AH: Aged 23, you realised you had something to say to a wider audience. There was an energy in your words that you wanted to develop. How did that come about?

RA: I found Vera Brittain, who was a nurse in World War I. That was the first English poetry book I read in the UK. She wrote about her nursing career. Her fiancé went to the war and never came back. I read her poems. I felt their raw emotion. I was really inspired that it still rung true to me –  her sense of loss. That was when I started writing in a poem form rather than journaling.

AH: How did you come across Vera Brittain’s work?

RA: I was browsing in a book store. The title captivated me. Because You Died. [Poetry and Prose of the First World War and After, edited by Mark Bostridge]. The title was such a heart-breaking thing. I had a patient who had just died. Every single time a patient – a person, a human being – died in front of me, that changed something in me.

AH: I was with my first husband, Falcon, when he died. To see a body that is alive and has a being in it become just the container of that self, is incredible. Such a small margin between life and death. There is a one-breath margin.

RA: With repeated deaths of patients who I got to know, and who I got to be close to – every death I felt took something away from me, but it also gave me something. After I found Vera Brittain, I joined a local writing group. We met every month and then it came to a point that the facilitator left, and then I had to take over for two years. At that point, I was working as a dialysis nurse and my brother was having dialysis. I left the writing workshop, and then after everything settled down, I said to myself, ‘I need to do something for my writing.’ In 2016 I went on my very first Arvon Course with Ian Duhig and Mimi Khalvati. I had been working on my poems for three years. 2016 was when I also had the courage to really submit work.  I first submitted to the CFLA in late 2016. I got commended and I was very chuffed because that was my first recognition. Late 2016, I submitted my pamphlet to V Press, then in 2017 I got the news that V Press would like to publish my pamphlet. I also had an email from Joe Bibby saying that I was shortlisted for the Jerwood Arvon Mentoring scheme.

AH: And Pascale Petit, our shared Arvon mentor, was your lift-off?

pascale freeword centre
Pascale Petit reading from her forthcoming collection ‘Tiger Girl’ at the Free Word Centre

RA: Pascale was like a cannon blasting me into the sky. She is so generous, isn’t she? She asked what kind of goals do you have? It is very easy for people to assume that I am a nurse, I am a migrant, I am telling my own story. What might not be so obvious straightaway is that it’s not just my story. It happens to every single Filipino who comes here as a nurse. It happens to any migrant – not even Filipino – who leaves their country to work somewhere else. So even though this is so personal to me, it is not just my story. It is a story of people who had to leave something behind. You can’t moan. You have no choice. I want my experience to be able to evoke something that others can relate to. When I was reading Kwame’s Report [for the Poetry London Clore Prize], I was really touched. I didn’t expect Kwame would relate to ‘Names’ so much. He said it was ‘the poem that moved him’. That is his guiding principle. I thought OK, this is it. Even though you weren’t necessarily a nurse – it moved you to the point that you trusted in my work enough to choose it. He felt that something was happening here and something important was being said here – and this is what I need to do, really.

AH: ‘Names’ is a poem of questioning your sense of your own identity. You look at your beginning as a child of your parents, of the adjustments you had to make when your mother had to go abroad to work, and what her departure meant for your identity. You name your other mothers, the mothers that followed your birth mother when she went abroad to work – the supplementary mothers. Many of us are cared for by more than our birth mother. Other than health professionals, most of us only visit hospitals and nursing settings at a time of crisis. Because hospital is your place of work, you have a different way of seeing it. So, in a sense in those poems you are not only speaking for nurses who have to come to England from other countries, but you are also speaking –

RA: – for anyone who cared and for anyone who has lost, I think. We have all lost a loved one, a friend, a country, an identity.poetry london poster

 

AH: One of the questions that you bring up in ‘Names’ is, how do we survive in the face of loss? How do we remake ourselves? How can it be that loss doesn’t diminish us? How can we live creatively with loss, continue to grow in the face of loss –

RA: – so how can loss be a start of our own growth?

AH: I think that’s really valuable. The poem ends on a hopeful note. It ends on a note of acceptance of loss and change and still finding energy to go forward.

RA: Yes definitely. So, the last lines are: ‘I have the first syllables of my parents’ names, / that is why I am not scared. // I can trek the mountain of Makulot my father’s rifle hanging from my back. // I can carry myself / not how someone carries a cytotoxic drug / but how my mother hooks, / with her finger, a drain bottle / with blood clots / the weight of gemstones.’ The final lines are hopeful – an appreciation of life, the life you know that is going on, and the lives that were lost. It’s hopeful but it’s almost in a tone – for me, when I was writing it – of convincing myself that I’m strong. I’m strong because I’ve had so much pain before – so I can do it. It’s an act of trying to convince yourself of something that may not be necessarily true – you may not be as strong as you think. And I think that is a very normal, that’s a very human thing to do, you know. There are loads of times in our lives we have to convince ourselves.

AH: You were telling me about your grandparents?

RA: My grandad is actually half Spanish and half Filipino. His father left him. He had to bring himself up. He had to be a shoe shiner as a kid, and he worked as a kargador, which is like a porter in the market. After that he married my grandma, who worked at a dress shop in the market, and then he became a barber. I think my grandad finished Grade 3 – when you are an eight-year-old.

AH: Can he read and write?

RA: Yes. It’s very basic – and count. He brought up my uncles my aunties and my Mum.   He worked really hard throughout his life. All the things that he managed to invest, he had to sell when my grandma had kidney disease and she had dialysis. So it was really important to educate my mum as a way of giving her opportunities they did not have and lift her above the hardships of poverty.

AH: When you were a certain age, your mum decided to work abroad?

RA: She was originally a nurse in the Philippines in a local hospital. When I was about 11 or 12 – I was still in primary school I remember – she left for Oman first. She spent about three years in Oman before she came to the UK. And that’s the reason I became close to my aunty and to my granddad. I felt like they were the ones who cared for me. At one point my mum was talking, and she said: ‘When I had to leave I had to kill a part of my heart because I wouldn’t be able to survive’. It’s as if you almost have to forget that you have a child but then you are doing this for your child, really.

AH: How often did you see your mum when she was away working?

RA: She’d probably come once every two years.

AH: But you spoke to her on the phone?

RA: I spoke to her on the phone. Growing up, I was really surrounded by lovable people anyway. I think when my mum was away, I was more vocal about how much I love her. I’m shy face to face.

AH: All this work that you mother was doing was with the goal of being able to bring you to England. She had you in mind all the time she was away from you. She was working to open your life chances and give you different possibilities.

RA: You would have thought that it’s the person who is left who is lonely – but I think it’s much, much lonelier to leave. You don’t want to leave and risk losing the most important people in your life. She would say that sometimes she would call, and she knew I was sick, and in the hospital, and it was so hard for her because her work is to care for the sick.

AH: ‘Names’ is not a poem that takes the easy way out. One of the patients is misdiagnosed and dies.

RA: Yup.

AH: He is assessed in A&E. That figure of the nurse in ‘Names’ also represents your mother and represents many nurses who are struggling to maintain links with home, in a working environment which gives them a three-minute lunch break. It’s not a sugar candy and roses poem by any means, but it’s a poem that seems to be saying that by identifying and connecting with your identity – in your case, your identity as someone who grew up in the Philippines and whose parents grew up in the Philippines – you find yourself. And it’s really about making an honest connection with your own identity to give you strength to go forward.

RA: With the patient who died, it was John Moore-Robinson. He was actually recorded in the latest Staffordshire Hospital scandal. As a result of that, there was a report that came out called the Francis Report. It was an inquiry. So many patients died at that hospital. ‘Names’ is an honest interpretation of our struggle as nurses.

AH: Your poems also address some of the racism migrant workers can face. You write about having to shorten names and simplify names and anglicise names.

RA: I am careful about showing in my poems that I have been attacked by racism – because I want to celebrate resilience, hope and goodness despite bad things. Sometimes it just comes out and I want to delete it, but I can’t. Then it has to be there. The poem is telling me it has to be there. A brave writer is someone for me who can look unblinkingly at the truth.

AH: If we don’t say when people have treated us wrongly, if we don’t bear witness to that, then we are allowing them to continue.

RA: Definitely.

AH: It is important and courageous that you bear witness to these very difficult things in your work.

RA: I guess what I am trying to do is have some subtle hints. But at the moment I am just writing as I remember, then reading it. If that is how your brain wants you to write or how your body wants you to write, then let it be. Because I believe as writers we are our whole body. Holistically we know how to write and what to write and sometimes we just need to let the poem come out.

Alice: Let it have its energy and its truth.

roma and alice photo
Romalyn Ante and Alice Hiller the morning of the interview.

Roma: Yes, exactly.

 

Romalyn Ante is currently practising as a counsellor within the NHS, working with children and adolescents, while writing her first collection.

Her pamphlet Rice and Rain won the 2018 Saboteur Award and can be purchased via V Press.

Primers 3 can be purchased via Nine Arches Press.

Romalyn Ante co-founded the online journal harana poetry, for poets and poems who resist singleness of tongue and thought, with Kostya Tsolákis.   Alice Hiller is the Reviews Editor.   Our first issue will launch in February 2019 at www.haranapoetry.com

‘saying the difficult thing’ interviews 2019

If I have taken one thing from 2018, it is the deepening of my belief that each of us needs to speak out on what matters. We also need to listen – and support others in being heard.   It is therefore a joy to announce that Shivanee Ramlochan has generously agreed to be the first interviewee of my ‘Saying the Difficult Thing’ project, which will be launching in January 2019.

Shivanee-Ramlochan
Photo by Marlon James

The project will run all year on this blog, to resist silence, and enable change.   Known throughout the world, Shivanee Ramlochan is an inspirational poet, editor, blogger, enabler and activist based in Trinidad. Their first collection Everyone Knows I Am a Haunting was published by Peepal Tree in 2017.

Each interview will ask the featured poet to explore some of the ‘difficult things’, their work addresses. Our conversations will touch on personal biography, political consciousness, and creative and aesthetic strategies, using quotes from the poet’s work to bring their words to the reader.

The first ten ‘saying the difficult thing’ interviewees will all be women or female-identifying poets, to counter the ways in which both society, and the family, have historically conspired to silence women’s voices.   Known, established poets will alternate with voices beginning to publish and make themselves heard. Interviews will feature links to published works, performances and reviews as appropriate, and the conversations will be conducted live, in person, if the poet is in the UK, or via Skype.

Shivanee Ramlochan’s interview will be posted in January 2019, along with the list of the remaining nine initial interviewees. We will ask everyone to share the text of each interview through social media. Together we can link round the world in changing awareness about the ‘difficult things’ which need to be said – and heard – throughout 2019.

Everyone Knows I Am a Haunting