‘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

 

 

saying the difficult thing

 

Performing, and writing, generate anxiety. It is as inevitable as adrenaline. You worry if your work is original. Does it communicate? How will it will be received? For those of us who explore difficult material – there is also conflict. We fear, or have been warned off, distressing our audiences. But we also know, from personal experience, the greater dangers of remaining silent.

The recent launch of The Dizziness of Freedom by Bad Betty Press, brought this dilemma home to me. By virtue of their strength, elements within the material were difficult to bear. But the searing, fierce, sometimes painfully funny performances by poets from this anthology responding to mental health, resolved many of my concerns – through their ability to transform creatively a raw subject matter into work no one could ignore.

Dean Atta gave us depression in formal mourning clothes in ‘No Ascension’. Rachel Nwokoro made OCD the logical response to growing up queer, short-sighted, and female in a Nigerian/London household in ‘School Days’. And then it was Joelle Taylor’s turn to raise her hand above her head like a pistol – and proclaim an only half-laughing “trigger warning”. She told the audience, with absolute seriousness, if you feel the trigger, you hold the gun – and the power is yours.

Joelle Taylor’s blistering performance – of work about her own experience of having been raped as a child, and its aftermath – bore out her words. I was deeply impacted by hearing her, as someone who, like Joelle, was raped in childhood.   But I was also strengthened. And I jolted home on the train feeling so much less alone in the poems, and memoir, I am creating on this subject.

Joelle Taylor

When I write, or perform, poems about my own experiences of sexual abuse in childhood, I question my right to bear witness on a topic which people may feel disturbed by – no matter how much care I take to engender agency and safety within the work. From past experiences at live readings, and with contacts made through this blog and twitter, I know that there many of us out here. Either we have our own histories of sexual abuse in childhood, or we are connected to people who do, simply as a consequence of the widespread nature of this crime.

But I have found that it is this same group – my group –  who can be most relieved to hear, or read, my work. We discover within it forms of verbal and imagistic play which we recognise as making comprehensible an experience which is difficult to speak of, even in a private or therapeutic conversation.

While my poems appear simple, operating largely through layered imageries, and using direct, accessible language, it took more than a decade of creative experimentation in prose, then poetry, to find out how to write them. Before even getting going, I needed nearly a decade of psychotherapy to begin to able to articulate and resolve what had happened to me, and thereby gain enough separation from the sexual abuse to exercise a measure of creative agency.

I was already 32, with sons of 14 and 8, and researching a PhD at University College London, when I first met the psychotherapist to whom my GP referred me in order to discuss my troubled childhood and adolescence. I had recently discovered legal evidence of other harmful actions, which my abuser had taken concurrently to the abuse in the mid 1970s. This gave me the spur to open up a part of my earlier life which had always seemed too devastating to re-connect with.

I can still see that murky, grey November afternoon when I stood on a doorstep in Earls Court in London, feeling more numb than scared.   After a few moments, the grey-haired, soberly dressed therapist opened the front door of the apartment block to me, and led me up a dark stairwell, and along a narrow hallway, into her consulting room. Small, lined with books, it looked out onto the grey backs of other houses.

I had been confined to a similarly view-less room when hospitalised for anorexia aged 13.   That period of my life, during which I had first received psychiatric care, was one the psychotherapist asked me to discuss, along with the events that had caused me to stop eating as a teenager. I gave her a factual, slightly detached summary of my childhood, including my father’s death when I was eight, and our subsequent move from Brussels to Wiltshire in 1972.

And then she dropped the bomb. She said You’ll have to go back there.

From my 32 year old mouth, a terrified 8 year old whispered Don’t make me.

At that moment, with the light falling, and the darkness seeming to press its way in through the net curtains of the consulting room, a third person was present with us – ashamed, dirty, frightened, barely able to make a sound.

For twenty-four years I had kept this hurt child locked away inside me. Inaccessible, and silenced, her only medium of expression had been my regular, terrifying nightmares, which made me, and continues to make me on occasion, fearful of sleeping.

When our first session was up, I found my way down the stairs, and out onto the street. I was shocked – and deeply shaken. After I got home, time started to run in parallel. I was a mother, feeding my sons, asking them about their school day. I was also a cold, scared little girl, who wanted to curl up and lie absolutely still under heavy blankets.

That same night, I dreamt I was standing alone, in darkness, on the edge of a shingle beach. The stones shelved steeply down into navy blue water, the colour of a silk petticoat my abuser sometimes wore. With the pebbles sliding, and giving way, I stumbled forward into the sea. I was immediately out of my depth. All round me – dark, chilled water, and the pink-orange whiskery antennae of shrimp, touching my skin, entering my mouth, going between my teeth. I smelt a distinctive, fishy smell that I recognised from before.

The following week, with the psychotherapist’s support, I connected the dream with the textures, and colour, of my abuser’s slippery pubic hair, when I was forced to put my face in her aroused genital area. Our work of articulating my experience, and slowly, slowly, finding some degree of healing, was underway.

Many years later, I came to understand that the imagery within my poems could operate as a transmitter of meaning in the same way that the shrimp whiskers had. Back in 1996, the dreams simply intensified as we worked more deeply.  I continued the practice I had already evolved of writing them down, to separate them from myself, and gain some sense of control.

I was simultaneously trying to research and write up my funded PhD, be a partner to my husband, and raise our two sons as best I could. The dreams offered me a space to re-engage very deeply with my childhood experiences of sexual abuse, while also granting a degree of safety in the other parts of my life, where I needed to continue to function for the well-being of our family.  My poems now offer this for other people.

There was always a backlog of material, but I would print out two copies of each dream, and then bring them to my therapy session, so that the psychotherapist and I could respond to and interpret them together – in much the same way that I did the texts which I was writing about for my academic research. The difference was that the psychotherapist would then channel my responses to the imagery that my dreams had generated.

Although it was a slow and halting progress, which invariably left me devastated for several hours after each session, the dreams helped me locate feelings which I had not been able to experience at the time of the abuse because they were too dangerous. They also gave me a language in which to speak about the regular anal rapes, the implement used to effect them, and the emotional impact of living within the climate of secrecy, shame and fear both during the abuse, and afterwards as a teenager.

Heart-breakingly, as the psychotherapy was reaching a measure of resolution late in 2000, my husband Falcon was diagnosed with terminal cancer. For the next 14 months I cared for him full-time, in and out of hospital. After his death in 2002, my priority was to put life back together for our sons, then both in their teens.

Losing Falcon additionally led me to re-engage with the death of my own father when I was 8, which had been the precipitating factor for the penetrative phase of the sexual abuse. Through the Royal Free, I received further counselling. The more I took on board how much what had happened in my childhood had hurt me, the more I realised the need to try and change awareness around the crime of sexual abuse in childhood.

In 2007, once my younger son had left for university, I began to ask if I could find a way of articulating what had happened to me creatively, with all the personal risk this entailed. With younger my son away during term times, and his brother working outside London, I could afford to risk laying myself more open to my past. I was also fortunate to have formed a new, deeply supportive relationship, with the man who later became my second husband, which also helped sustain me.

My first attempt at writing took the form of a novel, which I worked on for seven years, while also working, and undergoing surgeries for ovarian cancer, diagnosed in 2011. The gynaecological surgeries had the effect of opening up more tissue memories of the abuse – a common response according to my surgeon. Although very difficult to bear, this extra layer of memory ultimately hardened my resolve to continue to agitate creatively for change.

Having always been a hungry reader, and previously been a features journalist, the novel initially seemed a good way to explore my story.  I could see its scenes, and hear its voices, and I valued the ability to tell a longer story, and show my narrator at multiple ages, alone and refracted through others.   But then as time went on, it began to feel as if I was working with thick gloves – speaking through a ‘character’.

I came to believe, for political, as well as personal reasons, that I needed to bear witness directly to my own experiences.  At the same time, as I wrote towards the novel’s climax, I found the scenes breaking themselves into shorter and shorter fragments, due to the power, and difficulty, of the material, and the need to contain and offset it within white space.

From here it was only a small step into poetry. Not knowing quite how to negotiate this new terrain, I signed up for Pascale Petit’s final workshop course at the Tate, in conjunction with the Marlene Dumas exhibition. Pascale’s encouragement, and that of poets on the course including Karen McCarthy Woolf, and Seraphima Kennedy, when I shared my draft work, told me that I had found where I needed to be – and set me on the path of developing my craft, and honing my voice as a poet.

I have since taken classes at The Poetry School, and Spread the Word, and was lucky to be awarded a year-long Jerwood Arvon mentorship with Pascale Petit, which also gave me the opportunity to collaborate on poems with fellow mentees Romalyn Ante, Seraphima Kennedy, Yvonne Reddick and Rachel Burns.

I will be shortly sending out my pamphlet – spectroscope – while continuing to work towards my first collection, aperture, and a volume of essay-memoirs, album without photos.  The poems may contain refractions of grooming, sexual abuse, and my troubled teenage years as a bisexual girl trying to find her identity after same-sex abuse – but I see them as jewelled musical boxes. They can be opened up, and allowed to play their harshly beautiful, sometimes shocking tunes – but they do so with all the resourcefulness and surprises of precise, beautifully made objects. When the song is done, and the tiny dancers have stopped revolving, the poem-boxes can then be closed down again until they are next needed, whether by myself, or another reader.

Although the materials at the poems’ hearts are given the resolutions of form and imagery, they nonetheless retain the danger, and terror of what happened to me as a child, which I re-experience every time I work on them. Without this, they could not do their work of speaking out on behalf of all those sexually abused as children – to help change how people perceive this global crime.

 

Alice Hiller will be reading at the Creative Futures Awards at 6.45 pm on 26 October at the Southbank as part of the London Literature Festival Book your Ticket

 

and at the Poetry Festival Aldeburgh with Mary Jean Chan, Richard Scott and others within the Queer Studio at 17.30 on 3 November https://snapemaltings.co.uk/tickets/book/?eID=93002

 

There will be two further live launch events for the The Dizziness of Freedom anthology by Bad Betty Press featuring different poets as follows:

 

3rd Oct: Waterstones, Birmingham TICKETS
with Luke Kennard, Mary Jean Chan, Antosh Wojcik, Anne Gill & special guests, in partnership with Verve Poetry Fest

9th Oct: All Saints Church, York TICKETS
with Rob Auton, Jackie Hagan, Kat Francois & Maria Ferguson, in partnership with Say Owt

 

 

Sharon Olds : Trauma and the Secreted Self

 

How can art made in the present re-engage with past experience? The question has a particular urgency for works responding to severe trauma – because their task is to bring into the reader’s domain material that may seem incomprehensible, and therefore alienating.

Sharon Olds signs up for this challenge in ‘How It Felt’ – published in the April issue of Poetry. [1] The poem’s business is the severe beatings experienced in the first twelve years of the speaker’s life, when “my breasts-to-be/ accordion-folded under the skin of my chest”.

In a similar way to how Fiona Benson’s translation of rape in ‘[Zeus] Anatomical Dolls’[2], conjures “details under their pants you wouldn’t believe” – Olds’ description confers a de-familiarising strangeness on the pre-pubescent body, and through this lays down a marker for the qualities of resistance and survival that ‘How it Felt’ explores.

Organised into four continuous free verse sentences – respectively 12, 5, 5, and 13 lines long – ‘How It Felt’ opens with gestures of folding and unfolding as the speaker states “Even if I still had the clothes I wore,/ the clothes would take off before my mother / climbed the stairs towards me: [….] I think I could not get back to how/ it felt.”

The clothes themselves form Proustian receptacles of memory – a marvellous “glassy / Orlon[3] sweater”, smocked, sashed dresses, and the “cotton / underwear like a secret friend.” Registering the innocence of the child who wore them, the clothes also bear out the resonance of even the smallest details in childhood, whether good, or bad.

‘How It Felt’s second sentence questions whether the difficulty of return hinges on the changes brought about by the gap of years between ‘then’ and ‘now’, or the alterations effected by each beating.

 

I study the stability
of the spirit – was it almost I who came back
out of each punishment,
back to a self which had been waiting, for me,
in the cooled-off pile of my clothes?

The fracturing recognised as inherent to trauma is here posited as a strategy of survival – as if the clothes themselves anchor their wearer to the upper world no matter where her naked body may have been taken by her mother.

Having gifted both reader, and speaker, the ‘safe place’ of the “cooled-off pile” from which to inhabit the action, the poem then drops down into its core, which is held within the third sentence.

As for the
condition of being beaten, what
was it like: going into a barn, the animals
not in stalls, but biting and shitting, and
parts of them on fire?

Where better to site the betrayal that is an assault by a parent on a child than in the farmyard – traditionally the source of life-giving nourishment? With a terrifying doubleness, which embodies a world where all safe boundaries have melted, the animals are both abuser and abused – beater and the beaten. Because we cannot determine whether the “biting” and the “shitting” figure the acts of desecration and violation of the beating, or the terrified attempts at self-defence of the child/animal/victim, meaning oscillates in a moment of continuous horror.

After making a form of expression for the experience of being severely beaten – by holding it within a sequence of imagery which bears witness and makes it accessible to a wider audience – the poem concludes by working towards a final thirteen line sequence of tentative redemption.

Having the speaker check herself “10 fingers, 10 toes”, and also “whatever I had where we were / supposed to have a soul”, the poem shows this act of self-cognisance, and bodily reclaiming, as the gateway to the child’s final, hesitating, speculation that “in some / tiny chamber my mother could not / enter – or did not enter – I had not been changed.”

Veteran excavator of personal history, Olds in this poem speaks beyond herself to the millions, past and present, attacked as defenceless children. She offers them a form of language which has the capacity to interrogate, and illuminate, the “ground” of their being – and still find a safe way home.

 

 

 

 

 

[1] https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poems/146221/how-it-felt

[2] published in the Spring issue of Poetry Review

[3] a durable, synthetic fibre, introduced during the 1950s, capable of holding its shape, and taking richly coloured dyes.

 

Our launch line up – 4th November 6pm at the Poetry Cafe

Anna Kisby is a poet to follow – her work is as delicious to consume as it is fierce in its energy and critiques. Anyone with £5.00 to spare should invest it in ‘All the Naked Daughters’ from Against the Grain and buy themselves the privilege of spending time with a deeply interesting, original mind whose thought enacts itself in visceral, radiant close-up.

Against the Grain Poetry Press

Launch

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Art as hope

Last Saturday I spent two hours in a Word Factory workshop with writer and community artist Dave Lordan.  He spoke about the ways in which his online podcasts and videos are widening the access base of his work.  16,000 people have so far logged onto a recent filmed poem – as opposed the few hundred who might buy a book.

Hearing Dave speak made me feel as if walls round the houses of art were dissolving like barley sugar, allowing work to reach hungry people who would never experience it through the established channels.

For someone who wants to change understanding around sexual abuse through the art I make, this was a powerful experience.  Right now the world seems like an increasingly harsh place. Being able to connect with people who have the potential to be informed or nourished by what you have to give is good news.

Below is a photograph of ‘Humanity’, a sculpture which my father-in-law, the sculptor Oscar Nemon, made to commemorate victims of the Holocaust.  They included his own mother, brother and grandmother.  It was unveiled in 1967 in Osijek, in Croatia, from where they and their fellow citizens were deported.

Nemon created ‘Humanity’ as a piece of public work and an act of resistance to genocide.  He wanted to bear witness to what had been taken from the town, and the world. It was a composition that he sketched and worked on for two decades. Creating the sculpture sustained him through dark years. It sustains everyone who stands beside the mother as she lifts her child to the future, hoping for better times.

If you want to know more about Oscar Nemon, his website is http://www.oscarnemon.org.uk

Heredity Park.

Two poems about anorexia

 

For many years I wanted to write about anorexia. But every door handle I turned came off in my hands, and I was left on the outside. Eventually, poetry gave me a way in.

When I stopped eating in 1977 there was no social media or internet. I hadn’t heard of the condition. After nearly four and a half years of being sexually abused, I made the decision to refuse food in order to take control of my entrances and exits.

Although I wouldn’t have been able to say this, I also believed that my body had forfeited the right to be fed as a result of what it had participated in. To starve it would be to clean myself.

There was additionally a pleasure in saying no. I remember liking food with defined edges like oatcakes and fruits with hard borders like oranges – as if by eating them I could grow my own rind.

The decision came upon me all at once when we were staying in a rented holiday apartment near Stranraer in Scotland at Easter. It was entirely white and modern. Outside there were deep green pine trees and blue lochs. It seemed as if the world had become a different place and I could choose my own path through it.

My feeling of empowerment was heightened by the copy of History Today that Mrs Webb, my teacher, had lent me. An adult publication, it made no concessions for nearly teenage readers.   I remember holding it in my hands and thinking ‘I can follow this. I am someone.’

To enact my decision, when we went shopping for food I bought myself two flat stick figures of a man and a woman. They were facing each other, connected by his peg penis that slotted into her wooden midriff.

The first thing I refused to eat after buying the tiny 2cm dolls was white mashed potato. I can still see the undefined, helpless mound it made on my plate.

Over the next six months, my weight dropped to four and a half stone and fine down grew all over my body, which began to resemble that of a concentration camp victim. When I went back to boarding school for the autumn term, the nurse weighed me daily.

I used to get up at five in the morning, unable to sleep for hunger, and alternately pace the wooden boards of the single room I had been moved to, and get down on my bony knees to pray. I felt I had been given a direct line to God, who would soon be lowering the ladder up which I could climb to Heaven.

It was only when I was admitted to hospital, at my school’s insistence, that I discovered that there could be a way out which didn’t involve my death.

 

The two draft poems which follow are designed to be printed one after another so that ‘salvation’ lies under ‘almanac’ as a reminder of all the bodies of all the children and young people who starve themselves.

 

almanac

that April when I first
refused her I shut
my mouth
to mashed potatoes

we went in June
to France for half-term
at her insistence I
ate pintade

like a raptor
she flew
at my first hairs
my new breasts

come August my skeleton
walked backwards
she watched me
from her deckchair

that September I spoke
with God directly
soon I’d step off the school
scales straight to heaven

the headmistress sent
me home in October
hospital pills melted
my mind like tallow

come November
I ate from plates
as big as straw hats
when Dr Daly said

 ‘Alice, you’re not your mother’
like fruit which the knife opens

it peeled off my old self

———-

anorexia nervosa

I have no place

at the table

I erase
until           all

I

am         is

gone

 

Pintade means guinea fowl in French.

 

Thanks to Ellen Crannitch’s ‘Fresh Approaches’ workshop members at the Poetry School to whom I read these drafts.