‘I am a different person in one language than I am in another’: L.Kiew on combining Teo Chew, Hokkien and English in ‘The Unquiet’ – then rewriting privilege by letting words become ‘beasts that rub up against each other’.
‘I am a different person in one language than I am in another’: L.Kiew on combining Teo Chew, Hokkien and English in ‘The Unquiet’ – then rewriting privilege by letting words become ‘beasts that rub up against each other’.
Identifiable in any gathering by her scarlet hair, L. Kiew is not a poet who seeks to conform. Her pamphlet, The Unquiet, was published by the prestigious independent publisher, Offord Road Books, earlier in 2019. A Chinese-Malaysian living in London, and working as an accountant, she is someone whose work I have loved for a number of years – for its originality, and willingness to take risks to arrive in new places, and open different ways of seeing and speaking. Over coffee in the Poetry Café in Covent Garden – ahead of a reading by her publisher Martha Sprackland – we spoke about her rebel great-grandmother refusing to have her feet bound, Chinese ghost stories, diaspora experiences, writing in multiple languages and dialects, arriving in England from Malaysia, and what feminism means outside of America and Europe. To give readers a sense of her multi-lingual poetry live, L. Kiew recorded three of her poems, which are available at the end of this interview, with more on her website.
AH: Your biog says that you’re an accountant and a dancer. Were you always a poet as well – and when did you start actually writing the poems down?
LK: I probably wouldn’t have thought of myself as a poet until my late teens. As a younger child I was happily writing little stories. In my late teens and early twenties I began to think a lot about language, and about the people I was speaking to, and about the challenges of communication. That is when I moved into poetry. I was very influenced by the more experimental work.
AH: Were there any poets who particularly inspired, encouraged or supported you?
LK: Very early I found Lisa Robertson. She was very very influential. I stumbled across Reality Street Press, so I was reading a lot of work from them. That really opened up things for me and made me think about language in quite a different way.
AH: When you are starting out, if you can find someone who is working in your area, it radically expands the field, and your sense of the possible. When it’s on the page, you can engage with it at your own pace. If you are taught in class, often it is being slightly pulled out of you – whereas sometimes you need to work more quietly.
LK: The curriculum was always quite conventional. The canon of English poetry. Obviously it is changing now. I read English at University.
AH: Likewise. Sylvia Plath was as close as we got to contemporary poetry.
LK: She was for me too. Sylvia Plath was quite a big influence on my work, as were a lot of the Imagist Poets.
AH: I really loved HD.
LK: That was a kind of beginning.
AH: Did you have any kind of mentors – or were you just writing on your own?
LK: Pretty much writing on my own. There was a writer in residence at the University. I saw her once. I felt very outside the thing that everyone else was doing so it didn’t really gel. All of my engagement was pretty much on the page.
AH: ‘Swallow’, the first poem in The Unquiet is about working within a multi-tongued framework. You write about “overeating from the dictionary” and “nouns as sticky as langsat”, but also that “The words I swallow become/ feathers poking through my skin.” Would you say that language learning can be a form of migration in itself, separate from travel?
LK: Yes, because I think when you learn language, you move from one view of the world into another. It is about a change of state. I am a different person in one language than I am in another. Jennifer Lee Tsai write about this in her poem ‘Another Language’, published in Wild Court this year. It is a poem about being different in Cantonese and being in English and I feel that very much too.
AH: I grew up speaking French as well. Your thoughts take different shapes, reflecting the word containers that are available. I wondered if it was important for you to allow your readers to make this journey as well, into a different language, through the physically embodied textures and sounds of Malaysian dialect words with which your poems enact themselves?
LK: Language is a visceral thing – because it comes out of your body, and you experience it through the body as well. I wanted that to be in the writing. I also wanted that sense of when you walk down the street, and things are partially heard. For me, language is all about the lines between one kind of experience and another. I think of conversations and literature and your experience of reading as beasts that rub up against each other. You may rub a little longer some times than others. Sometimes you rub, and you move on. I wanted all of those to be possible in the experience of reading The Unquiet.
AH: When you read words that you don’t understand, you pronounce them in your head because you are trying to get the physical feel of them, to make an engagement. That is definitely a kind of rubbing that also opens your head to different sounds.
LK: I think you can engage in things in all sorts of different levels. One level doesn’t have to be privileged over another.
AH: Absolutely. Would you be able to say a few words about your own childhood – because that is where your understanding of the world originated? You were born in Malaysia, where both your parents were scientists?
LK: Yes, I grew up in Malaysia until I was 10. I came to the UK to boarding school – only going back in the school holidays. Both my parents are scientists. My mother is a botanist and my father is a zoologist. Nature plays a really big part in my writing as well, because of that experience.
AH: Once you started to come to England for boarding school, you were cutting between Malaysia and England, so you were having parallel but very different climates and landscapes?
LK: Yes. In Malaysia, my parents would do field work at the weekend, so we often went on expeditions with them, when they were collecting locally. When my parents went on longer expeditions, we went too. My father ran a field study station for the University for many years, and we spent a lot of time there as children. People in Asia are very tolerant of children so the university students let us be underfoot. I had this wonderful experience – of playing there all the time.
AH: This was in the rainforest? With that density of sound and heat and visual stimuli?
LK: Whatever the students were studying, we were looking at too. We were alongside when they were trapping and collecting things in the rainforest. It was all very close.
AH: It sounds really fantastic. Like Natalie Linh Bolderston, whose pamphlet The Protection of Ghosts has just come out with V. Press, your poems occupy the voices of people from multiple generations. I’m thinking of Ląomà and Ah Jek in ‘Haunts,’ but also ‘Pitched in’ and ‘The Catch.’ Could you say something about those three poems?
LK: Some poems in the book are about ghost stories that I remember – family ghost stories. ‘Haunts’ is a series of ghost stories that I was told about people in the family. The Chinese love ghost stories. I really wanted to explore that because it’s not a genre that translates into English much. I was really wanting to write a whole series of ghost story poems.
‘Haunts’ is also about my great grandmother who came from China. I have been thinking a lot about her life, because she moved at a time of great transition. When you look back, she was an incredibly strong woman. For her time, she made very very difficult choices. She chose not to have her feet bound and she came all the way across to Malaysia. Because her feet were not bound, she had to marry a much much older man. He died very early and then she had a whole brood of children that she needed to bring up. She was a very successful matriarch in that way – but also so incredibly tough.
AH: She would have had to be tough from the start to be able to resist foot binding at a young age?
LK: She had an iron will, I have to say. You have to admire those people who get through life with that strength when so many around them are, in a certain respect, powerless around certain things.
AH: What period did she come over to Malaysia?
LK: I don’t really know. Sometime between the turn of the century and before the second world war.
AH: There is real sorrow, and pain in ‘Pitched in’, which ends simply “dragging steps/ msa”msĭ/ the water is dark”. The words feel wrung from the speaker, but also flinty. You begin:
kangbāng covered in dust
a worn shirt on the line
with no one to fill it
Father at the door
I refused twelve
this was all that was left
kiaogià empty rice bowls
anguish springs like bamboo
on steep slopes
LK: ‘Pitched in’ covers choices about whom you marry. I was thinking of my grandmother’s generation, where those choices were not great. ‘The Catch’ comes from a family story about my great grandmother and how she didn’t have sons until quite late, and she adopted one son.
AH: ‘The Catch’ has this wonderfully direct, but also swimming-with-feeling, emotional language. Its metaphors are viscerally embodied, and through this, inclusive of the reader. We get the mood of the poem, its love, combative-ness, and wounded-ness, because we can intuit them from the diction. I’m assuming ‘our little fish’ is her son? The poem in total reads:
When he brought that stinky parcel
of catfish home from the market,
Mother-in-law turned her eyes away
like swifts swimming across water.
My heart was an empty
house with its red door swinging wide.
I held our little fish
safe from the monsoon, the gossip
of storm clouds hurled and smashed papayas
against the shutters.
It’s impossible to wash the face of
our house clean.
LK: In Asia, it was quite common that if you don’t have a son of your own, and somebody else had an abundance of sons, then you would come to an arrangement. It is a rumoured in the family that is what she did, so one of my great uncles is apparently adopted. As with all family stories, only half of it comes down to the next generation.
AH: Children come into families in many ways. What matters is the welcome that they receive, rather than the door that they entered through.
LK: Yes, and in Chinese culture a son is very very important. A son is always treasured.
AH: I love all the physical textures in the poem. The “storm clouds” and the “smashed papayas” – and how they speak to a world of unarticulated, but deeply felt emotions around this tiny baby coming into the house from a different background. You’re making in your words a very different world to what some readers in London know – and making it very tangible and palpable. Having been born in Singapore, I really appreciate it. You register heat, and humid atmosphere. That level of physical detail makes different realities three dimensional – rather than saying one place is real and everywhere else is ‘on the map’.
LK: It’s very real for the characters in the poem. I wanted it to be the same for the readers.
AH: That really comes across. There’s also a strong strand of feminism which runs through The Unquiet, again spanning generations, and social classes. ‘Francesca’ pays a beautiful tribute to a housekeeper “who walks to church/ daily, strong as bamboo// as persistent.” Elizabeth Bishop also wrote about women in positions of service, and more recently the film Roma honours a woman obliged to take this role in her employer’s family. Was it important to you to give space to this area of working lives? You say also that she “makes sweet/ and sour pork better than anyone” and “tends/ the avocado tree, […] picks its fruit”.
LK: We privilege experience in different ways. I feel that work is equally valid regardless of where it is done. Everybody has a thing they do incredibly well, that is very valuable. I wanted to foreground that because it’s very easy, when you read from a position of education, to say ‘They weren’t educated. They didn’t have great options, so their lives must be less rich’. I don’t that is true. It is really important to show that all of these experiences are equally valid –regardless of their relative socio-economic position, regardless of the position that we read into it coming from the west and being educated, and with a certain reading of feminism as well. It is really interesting to be asked about feminism in relation to this because I read feminism as a western concept. I don’t think my great grandmother or Francesca would recognise it in the articulation that exists. They would say ‘well of course we do these things but there are constraints’. But you know you can get around these constraints. It’s just a different articulation.
AH: I think if you have Francesca’s role, you are a functioning economic unit and that gives you agency. Every being needs agency. Having a value put on your services gives you the ability to pay for food, to pay for housing, to educate your children. It’s a very powerful way of claiming your space as a human being.
LK: There were people who chose domestic work as a career path. That’s not any different from any other career path you would choose. You know I would say Francesca, from the stories that she told me, chose it deliberately. It wasn’t that there were no other options. This is a path she deliberately chose.
AH: That was a real profession and a respected vocation. I just love that poem. It’s really beautiful and unapologetically celebratory. It really chimed with me.
LK: She is a marvellous and again, a very strong woman. Lots of strong women in my background.
AH: ‘Learning to be mixi’ is one of several poems which suggests that acquiring English language and culture can be a bruising, as well as enabling, experience, socially and personally. You write:
I was buckled in, and taken off
to England, the boarding school
(not like Enid Blyton, not at all) and
Cambridge, the colleges,
the backs and the hate,
suppressing the suffix-lah,
being proper and nice, cutting
my tongue with that ice.
Could say something about this? It sounds as if you were not necessarily treated in the kindest way?
LK: England was a huge culture shock. I considered myself a speaker of English. My mother was English. I didn’t perceive myself as being unfamiliar with the culture, having read English storybooks. You have an expectation – then you arrive. It is so so different. As a child you just go through life. It happens to you.
AH: You live in your skin; you get on with it.
LK: It is only now that I am an adult, and have contemporaries with children at that age, that I look back and think that was actually quite a bruising culture shock. Behind this writing, there has been a lot of reflection – to do with reaching a certain point in my life and seeing other people’s children.
AH: The boarding school I went to very hierarchal and very prioritising of social class and conformity. My father was dead, and I was in a dormitory with girl whose mum was a single parent. The third girl was from Northern Ireland. We felt marked as different.
LK: There were a lot of children who went home every weekend. The ones that were left behind at the weekend had our parents very very far away. It made a barrier.
AH: Certainly in the 70’s, when I was growing up, English people were not very tolerant of difference. There was a reluctance to allow people to integrate in the schools that I went to. Hopefully that is shifting now.
LK: Yeah, it has shifted a lot. Not everywhere to the same extent but there is certainly a lot more openness. Moving from England to Scotland was a really interesting dynamic. Scotland was very mono-cultural but with a very strong self-identifying of itself against English. As long as you were not English, you were in. It’s been interesting to move around the United Kingdom.
AH: ‘Speech’ begins “Ah Ba speak red: liddat tone/ of voice sure salah wan.” The poem goes on to enact a merging of dictions, and dictionaries, ending:
And I let my words landslide,
ferrous, carrying both stone chips,
rice and tapioca roots.
I dig down, ah, I speak lah,
pearl and pebble, new shoots.
Did this combining reflect an act of healing that has taken place within the pamphlet by bringing in so many different sorts of words?
LK: As I wrote the pamphlet, I began to really embrace that movement across languages and through languages. Recognising it very much as the identity that I came from – because in Malaysia people are usually multilingual to varying degrees. That kind of dropping between languages is very common. Going to Malaysia with my partner was a lightbulb moment. I realised that shifting between languages within a sentence – something that I took as absolutely normal – was not something that everybody else experienced or practiced. I wanted to embrace that part of myself as I think in different languages. I grew up speaking different languages all simultaneously.
AH: My father was half-French so I have French and English. I learnt Italian, and can follow Spanish, so I’m quite happy to shuffle languages. My Italian and my Spanish are not particularly good but but I can get by and listen to radio or tv in all those languages. It gives you a different mindset.
LK: In England people tend to view a language like EU customs tracks. You are put into lines, but life is not like that. There is a lot of movement with the writing across languages. It is much more common than it used to be, and also in more of the poetry coming out of America, with writers who grow up with additional languages.
AH: Although you don’t give translations, because the words that you use are phonetically spelt, rather than written in ‘Chinese’ characters, and can be sounded out, I didn’t feel closed out as a reader. I could still get their sound quality. It didn’t feel that you were putting up icy walls that I couldn’t go across.
LK: I chose romanisation for The Unquiet because actually for me there is an interesting politics around the learning of characters, especially now when the only way to be able to learn them would be through Mandarin. And the primacy of Mandarin is a kind of construct that has come out of the rise of communism in China, and the development that they describe as Mandarin being the common language. That wasn’t the case previously. You can write all Chinese dialects in characters but when you do that, what tends to happen is that most readers will then attempt to read them as Mandarin, which they are not. I didn’t want that at all. I wanted to foreground the primacy of dialect in that space.
AH: Which is also functioning much of the time within the spoken space anyway?
LK: Yes. It is also about levels of literacy and levels of education which sit behind the text on the page. I am English educated, but I am not Chinese educated.
AH: You presumably hold the dialects primarily orally? As sounds in your head?
LK: For me, Teo Chew, Hokkien and other dialects were always oral languages. A lot of the older generation would never have completed school, so would read little or nothing. There is not much literature in dialect available outside of China and I’m not sure how much there is within China itself.
AH: So in fact the ghost stories you re-tell are political, in that they are a form of family literature, and shared storytelling. They may not be written down but they are your heritage and a resource. When we have stories in common, or stories that echo each other – even when you said read Enid Blyton and I got it – there is bonding over those common imaginative currencies.
LK: Yes, I think stories are common currencies across a lot of cultures. We all have a degree of archetype. They get changed according to the context – but there will be things that people recognise.
AH: I felt it with the “red shantung” dress in ‘Haunts.’ ,
Ląomà believes the dead
cling to their possessions.
My dress is red shantung;
its last occupant is
heartbroken and tugging
on my hem.
The widower holds me
at arms’ length, cold and stiff.
I waltz around, around.
When I sink down, a white hand
strokes my feet, smearing black
blood over my cracked heels.
It is saying that clothes which pass between owners carry stories, but the dress is also the vessel in which you choose to pour a meaning, that is probably an archetypal, universal one – which each culture, and reader, will particularise. It is a story about past and present, and difficult relationships, and strange things, but also how we make, and find, images to understand our lives. On that note, would you like to say something about your decision not to give any translations, so the English language reader has to try to hear and feel the words they don’t understand, rather than simply dismissing them into meaning? Poetry has that ambiguity built into it. When you don’t translate a word – are you making it an extreme poetry moment?
LK: The whole thing with poetry for me is the consciousness of language. I am foregrounding of it, and foregrounding the sound and the shape. For readers who can’t access the meaning automatically, they have to engage in it quite differently. I wanted those things not to be that smooth. I like your phrase ‘dismissing it into meaning’ because there is sometimes a tendency in how literature works that everything is made easy for the reader. That is, easy for the educated reader. So again there is a sort of dynamic of privilege that is in language. Choosing not to translate was partly about undermining. I want to privilege people who come from that multiple dialect background, and who can recognise some of it. I didn’t want to privilege the reader who has gone to Oxford and who has Latin and Greek but not any other languages. In their text, they might not translate classical Greek on the assumption that all the rest of us should understand. I wanted to shift that dynamic. We have Google translate these days and so actually it’s easy to find out.
AH: Yeah, I really loved it as it was. I think your realisation was a great triumph. Towards the end of The Unquiet, in ‘Cryptography’, you write about words which lie “like a forgotten cellar/ under the house of your childhood”. In ‘Lassaba’ there are “paper wings/ filling the hall with their shadows”. Whereas the earlier ghost poems called up histories in which there was suffering and cruelty, this seems like a more nourishing form of haunting – allowing the past also to be present in a sustaining way, and establishing a form of equilibrium. Does that seem fair?
LK: The past is who you are, and you can’t change it. Those stories form who you are. It’s about reaching an equilibrium, because you have to acknowledge it, and take where you are, then grow from that soil.
AH: If you said to me cheese soufflé, I would straight away see the cheese soufflé in my French grandmother’s house, because that’s where I ate it. Whatever that word means to anybody else, to me it means a kitchen in Normandy, how we beat the eggs, grated the Gruyère, the way the spoon broke the crust when it was served. Soufflé is just a word – but it holds so much for me.
LK: And it informs all your future cheese soufflés doesn’t it?
AH: I made it when my elder son came home from university for the first time. It was a deep celebration. I wanted to reach back into the good part of my past and have it with us. On that subject, I know you were with Nina Mingya Powles and Natalie Linh Bolderston on a Bi’an retreat for writers of Chinese heritage. Nina tweeted that there was a lot of food talk. How was that as an experience?
LK: It was actually amazing; I have to say, completely, completely amazing to be in a diaspora group.
AH: Nina is New Zealand Chinese. Nat is Vietnamese Chinese English.
LK: It was amazing to meet people who come from different places in the diaspora, in different the waves of diaspora. The commonalities and the differences were extremely interesting. Those sorts of things are really enriching and so very fascinating – because it wasn’t just a retreat for poets. I only really interact with poets on the whole, so it was fascinating to meet people who write fiction, who do life writing, who write for the stage and who write for the cinema. It was a really broad experience. We did some fascinating workshops around translation – which was also really interesting. Working with a group of people with different language levels to read across languages in terms of translation was absolutely fascinating.
AH: Nat and Nina I know came back very happy.
LK: It was an amazing experience.
AH: Have you taken part in any writers’ activities in Malaysia? I know that Romalyn Ante has been really supported by a programme, which she won a place on in the Philippines, for Filipino writers. Did you ever participate in anything like that – or maybe there aren’t those kinds of programmes in Malaysia?
LK: Not that I’m aware of. Malaysia until fairly recently had a small publishing industry. So most Malaysian writers you would come across, Malaysian writers in English, tend to have come overseas and are published overseas first.
AH: Before we go down to hear Martha and Jean Sprackland read, can I ask, in conclusion, where are you headed next, creatively and geographically?
LK: Creatively I am working towards my full collection. I have been exploring the language that people use about the natural world, and what is a native species and what is non-native species. It is very much about belonging – but also drawing on that heritage that I have, from my parents’ scientific background.
AH: That sounds really good. Are you going back to Malaysia, working on this?
LK: I don’t go back that often – every three to five years or so. The more I thought about it, the more I realised lots of things migrate. If you look in your garden, and see where your plants originally came from, you suddenly discover that they are from all over.
AH: I have this ferocious yucca – which is definitely not from an English hedgerow.
LK: Lots of plants we think of as very common, or that have become very common like cyclamens, are not from here originally. Cyclamens are from around the Mediterranean and down to Middle East. Tulips are as well. Lots of plants that we think of as native to the UK are naturalised. They weren’t originally from here.
AH: That sounds like a perfect note to end on. Thank you very much, and thank you also for give us live readings of some of your multi-lingual poems, featuring Chinese dialects, Malay and English, which readers will be able to hear with these links.
L. Kiew will be performing at Rich Mix in London’s Bethnal Green on Saturday 13 July – ‘with a sword on her head’. More details here.
There’s also a link to L.K’s website with more information about publications and performances. L. Kiew is shown with fellow poet and Westminster Library collaborator Joanna Ingham – whose debut pamphlet is due out with Ignition on 22 July.
Natalie Linh Bolderston has just published her brilliant, moving debut, The Protection of Ghosts, with V.Press, exploring life before, and after, her family’s departure from Vietnam as refugees in 1978 through three generations of women. The first time we met, I was struck by Natalie’s observant, centred quietness, and natural generosity. As I got to know her work, I came to understand how these qualities have been nourished by the multiple heritages which her poems honour. Together, in our conversation, we explored creativity, trauma, and healing – and the poets whose works have helped Natalie find her path. Still only in her mid twenties, while a student at Liverpool University, Natalie copy-edited Nuar Alsadir, under Pavilion’s internship programme, and was encouraged to develop her own poems by Deryn Rhys-Jones. Now working as an editor, Natalie Linh Bolderston has already been the Silver Winner for the Creative Future Writers’ Award 2018, come second in the Timothy Corsellis Prize 2018, been placed as a runner up in the Bi’an Award 2019 – and most recently won the Young Poets Network’s 2019 Golden Shovel Competition. As key new voice in poetry, I’m honoured to be able to share Natalie Linh Bolderston’s first in-depth interview.
AH: Can I ask when and why you started experimenting with poetry? Were there any mentors, or teachers, who encouraged you, or was it more DIY?
NLB: In my second year at university, I took a creative writing class with Deryn Rees-Jones. I hadn’t written seriously before, and just wanted to see if I could. At the time, I didn’t know what form my writing would take, but I had mainly read fantasy and literary fiction by women. My experience of contemporary poetry was limited: in my previous education, a lot of emphasis had been placed on the canon – specifically the white, male, British canon – which didn’t resonate with me.
Early on, Deryn introduced us to the work of Mona Arshi and Sarah Howe. I felt an immediate connection to both poets: I loved the vibrancy of their images, their use of myth and narrative, and their explorations of family and cultural heritage. I was interested in contemplating family history, traditional stories, and cultural identity in my own work, and reading their poems made me feel more able to do so. As a young woman of colour, it meant so much to me to have two modern female writers of colour to look up to – and to know that there were so many more to discover.
Since my ideas seemed to come to me in intense moments, images, and fragmented lines, poetry felt like the right form to express them. Deryn was very encouraging from the beginning, as well as being very generous with feedback – I owe a lot to her.
AH: Were there any other writers who helped call forth your voice? I know you connect imaginatively with poets outside the UK.
NLB: My two ‘gateway’ poets were Mona Arshi and Sarah Howe. But once I started following poetry accounts on Twitter, I found so many other brilliant poets – the ones I return to most are probably Ocean Vuong, K Ming Chang, Warsan Shire and Romalyn Ante. All four write about migration, sense of place, cultural identity, family, trauma and survival in very different ways, and have made me think about how I can approach these themes and other difficult subject matter in my poems.
I’m also in awe of them from a technical perspective – I find their images particularly astonishing. For example, one of my favourites by Ocean Vuong is: ‘one spring / I crushed a monarch midflight / just to know how it felt / to have something change / in my hands’ (from ‘My Father Writes From Prison’). I love the eerie, tactile beauty, and the emotions captured in that one moment: namely isolation, aggression, and longing. Reading work like this showed me the beautiful and extraordinary possibilities of poetry, and encouraged me to keep going.
AH: How did it feel when you heard that V. Press had accepted your first pamphlet, The Protection of Ghosts, published on 23 April 2019?
NLB: It was a mix of disbelief, joy, and gratitude! As a young, emerging poet, I was prepared to wait many more years to get to the pamphlet stage, so I felt very fortunate and very grateful to V. Press (especially to Sarah Leavesley and Carrie Etter) for their belief in my work.
I was also excited for my poems to appear together, as a lot were written in conversation with each other and form a sort of fragmented arc. Gathering them into pamphlet form made me feel more able to provide a ‘fuller picture’, as the narrative threads that have been passed on to me by my family began to join.
AH: The poems in The Protection of Ghosts speak from your own position and generation, but also through your mother’s and grandmother’s voices. They both lived in Vietnam until 1978. Did you always plan to have a chorus of mainly female voices speaking in and out of each other, ghosted by the past?
NLB: I don’t think it was a conscious plan at first, but when I started setting down my family’s stories the multiple voices came quite organically. Anything that I create is a collaborative effort, because so much of what I write is inspired by what my family have told me – particularly Mum and Bá Ngoại. I think that highlighting this through the chorus of voices enhances the emotional truth of what they have said, and gives me space to consider how I interact with that. For example, in ‘When Bá Ngoại tells stories’, I list quotes from her alongside my own interpretations and contemplations of these.
AH: How do your family feel about featuring in your work?
NLB: My mum is very supportive, and reads everything I write. She’s one of the first people who I send new poems to – so many stem from her stories, and I want to do them justice emotionally. A lot of poets mention having an ‘imagined reader’ when writing: for me, my mum is always the reader I have in mind. She’s told me that it moves her to see how much I’ve held on to her words and experiences over the years – she actually sent me a message about it, which I keep with me:
Bá Ngoại is the same, although she sometimes needs help from me and Mum to fully understand my poems (my mum provides Vietnamese translations for some parts).
I’ve only recently felt brave enough to start showing my work to the rest of my family. The response has been very kind – like Mum, they’ve been interested to see how I’ve interpreted, interacted with and reproduced their stories.
AH: The opening poem, ‘I watch my mother peel longan fruits –’ is both a beginning, and an ending. It slides in a series of present tense scenes from your personal experience in England, to Saigon. On “a long-ago rooftop” for your mother “longans taste like sour rain/ and street dust.” The action then moves to leaving Vietnam: “The family drives through back roads // dark as the mouths of dogs.” You embed thought and memory into taste and texture so the reader also lives the experience. Did recreating these scenes from the past also help you to inhabit them for yourself?
NLB: Yes – I think that poems like this help me get to know a version of my mother who I have never met: a young girl growing up in extraordinary circumstances, uncertain of her future. Starting with an image of food felt like a good way to conjure this part of her life, as tastes – and other sensory experiences – have a way of making the spectral very vivid.
I don’t hold these memories first hand, but do I have the fragments that my mother has shared with me over the years – memories of memories. Therefore, my piecing them together in my poems always feels like an act of ‘recreation’, rather than setting down verbatim fact. I think that that would be impossible. So poems like the one above are visualisations of the past: collaborations between my mother’s stories and my internal lens, with a shared emotional truth at their core.
AH: The second poem, ‘Divinations on Survival’, uses the I-Ching form, devised by K Ming Chang. Each of the stanzas takes the form of an I-Ching hexagram, and can be read top to bottom, or bottom to top, always from left to right. One of the images is of the speaker’s “body/ like a cooked fruit unravelling across the sea. in sagging boats.” It is a really powerful way of responding to the dislocations of exile, and forced migration. Did you experiment with any other forms first – or was it always going to be this one?
NLB: The poem came after the form. After I read K Ming Chang’s poem, I was first of all awestruck by what she had created with such imaginative self-imposed restraints, and by the very contemporary way in which she had honoured an old tradition (I-Ching is a Chinese method of divination). I then realised that the sense of enigma and fragmentation created by the form would work well as a way to express certain moments in my family’s history. The stanzas in ‘Divinations on Survival’ alternate between the voices of Bá Ngoại and my mother. They are moments of fear and uncertainty, when they had to put their faith in fate and their own courage in order to survive. I think the content also references the original basis of the form – divinations give a glimpse into the future, but the readings can be unclear and open to interpretation. Likewise, my poem depicts two women facing a precarious and unpredictable future, and trying to keep going long enough to see a better life.
AH: Did you grow up speaking Vietnamese as well as English? I think your family heritage is also partly Chinese?
NLB: I didn’t grow up bilingual, which is one of my biggest regrets. I treasure the fragments of Vietnamese that I do pick up from Mum and Bá Ngoại – my mum helps me record them, which is why they end up in my poems. I feel nourished by the sounds and conversations I grew up listening to, even if I didn’t understand them. My mum taught me a little bit when I was young, but she worked full time as a nurse so it was difficult. Now, I’m making more of a DIY effort to learn, which I think will be a lifelong process.
Ông Ngoại grew up in Xiamen in South China. He could speak Mandarin and Hokkien – as well as English and some French – and so can Bá Ngoại. Ông Ngoại died when I was very young, so I don’t have many memories of hearing him speak. But my mum has told me that he and Bá Ngoại mostly spoke Hokkien together. They didn’t teach my mum or her siblings any varieties of Chinese, so speaking Hokkien was their way of keeping things private.
AH: Like many of your poems, ‘Divinations on Survival’ uses both Chinese characters, and transliterated Vietnamese words. You also had multi-lingual work published in the inaugural issue of harana poetry . Can you say something about using these linguistic markers to evidence your multiple cultural heritages?
NLB: When writing about things that my family have said in Vietnamese (or in a mix of Vietnamese and English), I never like to translate them fully – it would feel wrong, like leaving out an important part of who they are. Mum had to leave so much behind when she fled Vietnam, but she never forgot her Vietnamese. At family gatherings – and when Mum meets up with her Vietnamese friends – most of her conversations are held in her mother tongue. And that’s so beautiful to hear and witness, which is why I want to celebrate this multi-lingual environment in my poems.
Bá Ngoại can speak Mandarin and Hokkien (in addition to Vietnamese and English) but I hardly ever hear her speak any variety of Chinese while in the UK. When we visited Ông Ngoại’s side of the family in China, she spoke with them in Hokkien. She had not seen them for many years, but they were conversing and laughing so easily. It was like the revival of another self, which again was beautiful to see.
We’ve been finding out more and more about Ông Ngoại’s and his family’s life in China from letters and photographs, so this aspect of our family history has also started to feature in my poems. For example, one of my harana poems – ‘Photograph’ – is based on a picture of Ông Ngoại as a baby, sitting on his mother’s lap. It’s actually part of a sequence of poems I’ve been writing, exploring his mother’s life and his early life. This was a time before he learned Vietnamese or English or French, so it feels right to use Chinese linguistic markers when writing about this part of his history. Chinese was part of his identity, and I want to acknowledge and commemorate this.
AH: Your poems never shy away from recording the challenging experiences which your family went through in occupied Vietnam, and then travelling to the UK as refugees. They also acknowledge the lingering impact of trauma. But the people you describe are always presented with dignity and agency. I’m thinking about your poem ‘Bá Ngoại’, about your grandmother, who teaches you to crochet, and “fastens gold” around your wrist. Could you say something about this resilience and life force?
NLB: When writing about trauma and resilience in my family, I keep in mind this quote from Ocean Vuong:
I’m trying to preserve the acts that made us possible. And so for a poet writing out of violence, it is on one point a moment of creation like the word poet from the Greek says, but also a point of preservation – you’re doing both at once. […] To honour their survival is to record it, and keep it from being obliterated.
This is something that has stayed with me, and helps me situate my writing. I’m also trying to write the stories not only of how my family suffered, but also how they survived. I want to record what they overcame to make a better life possible – for both themselves and the next generation of children.
I think intimate moments like the one you mention show the shadows of that survival instinct: my family’s impulse to pass on their knowledge, beliefs, traditions and heirlooms (physical or otherwise) to the next generation. By doing that, they pass on something of themselves: their strength and history. In ‘Bá Ngoại’, the gold bracelet holds a lot of memories – in Vietnam, my grandparents once owned a jewellery business, and Bá Ngoại was able to make chains herself. So it felt as if she was symbolically sharing that aspect of her past with me.
AH: Buddhist practices, along with the rituals to celebrate key festivals, and the offerings made on the family shrine at different times, are all lovingly recorded. Do they feel like places of strength for you?
NLB: Yes – I would say our shrines are places of strength, preservation, peace and comfort. I was thinking about them a lot when choosing the title for my pamphlet. When we pray, we are asking for the protection of ghosts – that is, guidance and protection from our ancestors. However, by keeping their stories, traditions and rituals alive, we are also protecting those ghosts by preserving and honouring their memory.
The shrines are also places of unity and celebration – some of my earliest memories are of my family coming together and leaving food at the shrine in Bá Ngoại’s house for Lunar New Year or Ông Ngoại’s remembrance day. Those are always special and loving times.
AH: ‘Typhoon in Xiamen’ and ‘Hạ Long Bay’ both refer to a visit you made with your family members to Vietnam and China a couple of years ago, which I believe was your mother’s first visit back since 1978. Would you like to say something about the experience of that trip, for you, and for her?
NLB: We visited Vietnam for the first time in 2014. For me, it was strange and wonderful to finally experience a place that I’ve held in my head for so long. Of course, it has changed so much since my mum left, but I could see shadows of her stories in the streets, markets, cafés, and food. It was also lovely to finally meet the members of my family who stayed in Saigon – they were so kind and welcoming.
For my mum, there were a lot of feelings. Mostly, she was so happy to spend time with extended family who she hadn’t seen for thirty years, and to meet the new generation. However, she was also a little sad – she didn’t feel like she belonged there anymore. In many ways, Vietnam isn’t the same place she remembers: she told me that it sometimes felt like her life there had been erased, or like it had never existed at all.
We visited my grandparents’ old jewellery shop in Bạc Liêu, which was a bittersweet experience for Mum. It was still a jewellery shop, but it had new owners – they turned out to be the people who used to live a few doors away from her, on the same street. They were friendly, and actually remembered my grandmother. Mum was happy to see that the place had been taken care of after so long, but I think it was hard to return to a place where she made so many memories, and where her life changed so suddenly and irrevocably.
We visited China (Beijing and then Xiamen) in 2016. That was a very new experience for both of us. Again, it was wonderful to meet more family, and find out a little more about my grandfather’s early life there. Xiamen has never been a physical home for me or my mum, but it did feel a little like an ancestral home – especially when we visited one of the family shrines, and the mausoleum where my great-grandmother’s ashes are kept. We burned joss paper in a barrel and prayed for her and my grandfather.
AH: The way you describe it in ‘Ha Long Bay’ suggests Vietnam woke something new in your own voice? You write:
Mangroves lean in,
knotted to the rockface
with swollen roots –
their rings, I think,
as many as our fingerprints.
A black kite springs alive
from the mist,
its call in my throat.
NLB: The details I included in ‘Hạ Long Bay’ give voice to my astonishment – it is a very beautiful and peaceful place. However, I think that there is also a sense of distance there. It was my first trip to Vietnam, and I was very aware that I was there as visitor rather than a former resident. So, in a way, everything was unfamiliar and astonishing to me. Despite that, it is still a place I feel deeply connected to. That’s why I tried to allude to the relationship between place and identity by linking the landscape to our bodies, as shown in the lines you mentioned.
Hạ Long Bay is also a site of historical violence: during the Vietnam War, the US Navy placed mines in many areas between the islands. So I also wanted to allude to the lingering presence of that violence beneath the beauty, with lines like: ‘Children wave / from wicker coracles / like upturned shields.’
AH: ‘Operation Ranch Hand’ won the Silver Award in the 2018 Creative Futures competition, and is named for the codename “for a chemical warfare campaign carried out by the US in the Vietnam War” according to the note below the title. It begins:
And just like that, the trees fold around them.
Gas snarls at a woman’s shoulders,
presses her belly to dirt.
She does not know about the scar
that is forming inside, that her daughter
will be born wordless on a stretcher.
That she will carry the smell
of dead leaves on her skin,
her name already cremated.
I think that this poem steps out of your family’s direct history, into the wider experience of the war, and I wondered how you researched it, and the impact on you of doing so?
NLB: When reading about Operation Ranch Hand, I concentrated on civilian accounts – from both victims and witnesses. I think that the methods behind military atrocities are often designed to feel very removed or distant, so that it’s easier for the perpetrators not to hold themselves accountable. So I wanted to show the painful impact of this particular cruelty by removing that distance and focusing in on one life. Even now, it’s hard to know the full extent of the damage caused by the US’ chemical weapons in Vietnam, but the health effects include death by agent orange poisoning, birth defects, and various cancers. Stories like this can be harrowing to read, but I think it’s very important to acknowledge that this happened, confront the impact, and not to forget the harm and destruction that chemical weapons cause.
AH: ‘Triệu Thị Trinh, or the Lady General Clad in Golden Robe’ and ‘Jingwei’ are two poems which both speak through legendary and mythical women. Did you find that this opened a new dimension for you within your work?
NLB: Yes: I’ve become interested in poetic ‘resurrection’ – researching and amplifying the voices of historical, legendary and mythical women from Vietnam and China. In this way, I want to find my own wider lineage of women to look up to, as well as those in my family.
In the cases of Triệu Thị Trinh and Jingwei, I was interested in the multiplicity of their identities. A lot of the accounts of Triệu Thị Trinh focus on her as a military leader, and as a woman who was desirable to men. But I wanted to get to know her other selves: her identity as an orphan, as a girl coming of age under extreme conditions, and as a protector of other women. So while my poem does depict her legendary battle persona, I also tried to show a layer of vulnerability, expressed through her sorrow over the absence of her mother. I’ve since decided that I would like to write a sequence of poems about her. I’ve already written the next poem, which focuses on a particular coming-of-age moment: her period. The third poem is as yet unwritten, but I’d like this to detail her visits to the graves of and shrines to women who were lost in the war she fought, and the conflicting emotions attached to this.
In Chinese mythology, Jingwei is a bird reborn from the Emperor’s daughter, who drowned in the Eastern Sea. In my poem about her, I wanted to zero in on the process of transformation – the phasing of one self into another – and the sense of loss and estrangement associated with this. I think that I’d also like to return to her story in the future.
AH: ‘My mother’s nightmares’ begins describing how they “taste like seawater and vomit, handfuls of spat blood. The sky is a paper/ bruise, and it is always 1978.” The poem is in three sections. The second is the daughter’s dreams – “There is a garden where her skin is drying on the line.” The third draws mother and daughter together – “We both know there are some things we can only/ consider with our eyes closed.” Was it important for you to explore, and record, how trauma can speak through generations, even within the context of the very warm, and nurturing, connection between yourself and your mother, which shades so many of these poems with a movingly deep love, and tenderness?
NLB: Yes: I think that in this poem, I wanted to show one of the many ways in which my mother has taught me how to love. Although my mother has always been a figure of strength in my life, one of the ways we express our love and trust is through our mutual willingness to share our vulnerabilities with each other – and her willingness to share even the most painful aspects of her past. I think that trauma can manifest in very intimate moments, when you are allowing yourself to be most open. That’s probably why these recollections sometimes come at times of particular closeness, like the one described in the poem.
More generally, I also think that the stories my mother tells me are testaments to the strength and solace of familial love: it is her family’s love for and their determination to protect each other that kept them going through impossible circumstances.
AH: ‘Reflection’ is another poem which enters difficult spaces, describing a time when your mother apparently revolted against her own body while still in Vietnam by trying to stop eating, and then later sought to rub out visual traces of herself in you:
Asks if I remembered to pinch
my nose that morning,
as if I could exile her
from my face.
It suggests that one of the after-effects of trauma can be to alienate people from themselves, and their own bodies. I wondered if that was something which you wanted to draw attention to?
NLB: Yes: when my mum told me the story, it seemed like an expression of pain at a time when she felt voiceless. When your voice starts to disappear, I think that there’s an impulse to attempt to make the rest of your body disappear too. I wanted to show that feeling of powerlessness and isolation can manifest in the silence.
In the section you mention, I was contemplating the effects of intergenerational trauma, and how that feeling of self-alienation can be passed on. It was as if my mum thought that I’d be better off if I looked less like her – that I wouldn’t experience the same level of estrangement from my body if I could somehow assimilate with exclusionary western beauty standards. But of course there was no way to truly erase our internal and external similarities, and I’m grateful for that. She has always been someone who I look up to for her strength and kindness, and who I seek to emulate. I allude to this in the final line of the poem, when I ‘begin to stitch her skin over mine.’
AH: ‘Questions for My Mother’ identifies the racism which she faced within her nursing career in the UK on occasion, but also the danger which originally “chased” the family from Vietnam, after first “lining their clothes with the family gold” to travel. You draw together both the lack of choice which makes people refugees, alongside the hostility which their need for refuge can engender. Do you feel a sense of connection to the current generation of people obliged to flee their countries?
NLB: I think that everyone should: it’s a matter of empathy and compassion. Unfortunately, a lot of people fail to extend that. Everyone’s story is different, but I do see some parallels between my mother’s experiences of coming to the UK and the experiences of refugees now, especially in terms of the way they are treated as ‘other’.
My mum was generally expected to take this racist treatment in silence – especially in her profession – and in this poem I wanted to break that silence. I used multiple scenarios to emphasise that such acts of discrimination are not isolated incidents – they are incessant and exhausting. They make your everyday environment a more dangerous and terrifying place, and solidify the feeling that you don’t belong.
I know that this is the reality for so many current refugees – both in everyday interactions and at a governmental level. I think it’s important to listen to their stories and to think about what it’s like to be forced into that position. Warsan Shire bears witness to this kind of trauma in much of her work – for example, in her poem ‘Conversations About Home (at the Deportation Centre)’ – which I find so powerful.
AH: The final poem, ‘Aubade’, is a healing dawn song, addressed to your grandmother. It shows her surrounded by her generations of children and grandchildren, who have made full, loving, nurturing, valued lives in the UK.
Let your daughters cook stick rice, egg rolls, soup,
thirteen cups of jasmine. Notice how they look less alike these days:
some lipsticked, grey-flecked, others ageless. See the chrysanthemums,
lilies, wild roses awaken at their silk shirts, the gold peeking
from beneath their sleeves.
The Asian American ceramicist and writer, Jade Snow Wong, made food one of the symbols of her creative, cultural and intellectual identities, writing in America in 1950, and I wondered if it was similarly resonant for you?
NLB: Yes – I think that food is so central to ceremony, unity and nourishment across generations. When we leave food at the shrine, we are inviting ancestors – both distant and recent – to share in our celebrations. It’s a way of remembering who we are, and honouring who came before us.
‘Aubade’ is about my grandfather’s death anniversary, which we observe every year – so in this poem it is mainly his memory that is being honoured. The anaphora was intended to sound both prayer-like and ritualistic. Grief can be a chaotic and disorienting experience, so I think that some comfort can be found in following set ceremonial practices. Ritual restores some measure of order, if only for a short period of time. Preparing and sharing food is part of this: it’s a practical, necessary task that you can get on with when you don’t know what else to do or say. In this poem, it felt like a very active way of processing loss.
Food is also tied to love. My mum is very openly affectionate anyway, but one of the ways in which she expresses her love is by constantly checking if I’m hungry, if I’ve eaten enough, if I’m eating well. It’s the same throughout my family – I allude to this towards the end of ‘Aubade’, when Bà Ngoại is being encouraged to eat: ‘Surrender to a bowl, / a fork.’ I think of this as my family’s way of strengthening and restoring each other.
AH: You have recently spent a week on an Arvon retreat with Bi’an, the UK Chinese Writers’ Network. How was that as an experience?
NLB: It was lovely and inspiring to meet so many Chinese-heritage writers creating work across so many genres. It felt like a very warm and supportive community, and the tutors – Jeremy Tiang and Yan Ge – were very inclusive and encouraging. Jeremy held a poetry translation workshop, where we translated an old Chinese poem as a group – Jeremy provided the literal translation, and we came up with variations on this. It was a great experience – I hadn’t considered trying translations before, but now I’d like to try translating some Vietnamese poems with my mum.
We were also fortunate enough to have Sarah Howe there as a guest tutor for one evening. It was wonderful to have the opportunity to watch her read and to chat to her afterwards – I told her that she was one of the first poets who made me want to write.
AH: Have you made any contacts with contemporary Vietnamese or Chinese poets outside of the UK?
NLB: I managed to meet Ocean Vuong at his Forward Prizes reading in 2017, which was a very special moment for me. I don’t think I’ve met any others personally, but I follow and have briefly interacted with several on Twitter. These include Đỗ Nguyên Mai and Cathy Linh Che, both of whom I admire very much. In an interview, Đỗ Nguyên Mai said that many of her literary heroines are ancient Vietnamese female writers and political figures. I love how this manifests in her work, especially in her poem ‘From Phùng Thị Chính to Her Child’.
AH: Where to next? I know that as I write these questions, you’re currently travelling in Vietnam again? Is this somewhere you would like to spend a more extended period of time?
I think that my next creative destination will be an eventual full collection, but I think that this will be quite a gradual process. Poems come to me in lines, fragments, and images, which I then gather, edit and fit together. So I tend to write quite slowly.
I’m not sure what my next physical destination will be, but I’ll definitely go back to Vietnam and China at some point in the future. My April 2019 trip was my second visit to Vietnam. I tried to be more observant this time around – the first time, I think it was all so new to me that I struggled to take everything in. But this time I asked my family a lot of questions and made notes wherever I went, so I feel like I managed to learn even more about old stories, legends and traditions as well as our family history.
Because I didn’t grow up there, I don’t know if Vietnam would ever feel like home – although I know that we can have many kinds of home. I think of both Vietnam and China – specifically Bạc Liêu, Sóc Trăng, Saigon, and Xiamen – as ancestral homes, and so I’ll always feel very connected to both countries in that way.
Natalie Linh Bolderston will be reading in Bath at St James Wine Vaults, 8pm, Friday 14 June as part of a joint launch with Jinny Fisher and Luke Palmer. Tickets can be booked through Eventbrite here.
The Protection of Ghosts can be ordered through V. Press here.
If you’re new to ‘event promotion’, as I am, and stumbled into it by accident – a rainy Thursday evening, and a non-central London venue, look daunting. And I was daunted, setting out for Burley Fisher Books on the Overground, with an hour in hand, and my bag rustling with family packs of crisps, bought to sustain our poets and their audience. But I didn’t need the spare pair of shoes, packed in the event of a sudden downpour. And the warmth with which I was greeted, and offered a barista coffee from behind the Burley Fisher counter, lifted my heart, and steadied my nerves.
Even before our 7.00 door time, people were piling steadily into the Hackney/Dalston booksellers. Some I knew from our workshop, and others I didn’t. Each person through the door was a fist punch of joy – because they had come from all parts of London to join in our workshop’s first MASS PUBLICATION CELEBRATION, and to hear our ‘less welcome’ poets read from their debut pamphlets.
We ended up with so many people that we had to carry all the cafe seating downstairs, to supplement the event chairs. People still ended up ramming the basement venue to its back wall. What followed was extraordinary – fierce, warm, challenging, unafraid, readings, and energised, flowing discussions, right up until we had to leave at 9.30 when Burley Fisher needed to close.
To make a record of this extraordinary night, and share it with supporters who were not able to be there, I’m uploading what I said about our creative project, followed by the introductions for each of the poets who read, with a single poem from their set, to give you a flavour of their work, and a buy button for their pamphlet.
Below: Natalie Linh Bolderston and Edward Garvey Long, ready to go at Burley Fisher.
A huge thank you to everyone here tonight – and to Burley Fisher for welcoming us so warmly to host our first MASS PUBLICATION CELEBRATION. I’ll be introducing our poets individually – but I wanted to begin by saying something about our stanza workshop group, which has been running for 18 months now.
Our tag is ‘the less welcome’. It relates directly to the difficult elements which our work engages with – and which we support each in realising, technically, editorially, and emotionally. We do this not for therapy – but because we want to get our poems into print –so we help can change how the world understands itself.
If you write about your complex experiences of migration, or of class-based exclusion, there will be people within the dominant cultures who perceive that as an act of aggression. If you write about your queerness, religious and hetero-normative groupings will be quick to come back at you. If you write about mental health, sadness, or difficult family situations, many will suggest that it’s better to keep quiet. And if you write about your experience of sexual abuse in childhood – as I do – then work on your resilience. Because you’re going to need it.
But these all ‘less welcome’ things have to be said – and, just as importantly, heard – as you are hearing us tonight. They have to be said because they are our lives. They also have to be said because the act of saying them, and claiming their rights to be represented, is beautiful and powerful, as we who stand before you to speak them in our own voices, and witness to them with our own beings, are beautiful, and powerful.
Above : Audience piling in.
On that note, I am honoured to introduce Natalie Whittaker, who will also be reading with Julie Irigaray and I at the POETRY CAFE poem-a-thon on 18 May. Natalie is prize-winning poet, and secondary school English teacher, fresh back from reading at the Newcastle Poetry Festival. The poems in her debut pamphlet, Shadow Dogs, published by Ignition, grow out of South London’s tower blocks, bus routes and public parks, but move through them into a darkly witty, surreally symbolist, landscape – and much larger, wilder, stranger worlds.
Natalie Whittaker has chosen ‘Not Again’ from her pamphlet Shadow Dogs published by Ignition Press.
Above: Joanna Ingham and Isabelle Baafi
Isabelle Baafi, our next reader, is one of our many rising stars. A writer, poet and filmmaker, so far she has published in magazines, but her pamphlet and collection are only a matter of time. Isabelle’s part of the London Library’s Emerging Writers Programme. and recently performed at the Battersea Arts Centre. Taking beauty as their currency, Isabelle’s poems question what is done to, and said about, those who have no say in how they are treated and spoken of. Her poems give those people, and places, back their voices.
Find out more about Isabelle Baafi’s work here.
Our third reader, Karen Smith, is another London girl, now living near the South Coast. A cataloguer at the Poetry Library, her pamphlet Schist was chosen by Carol Ann Duffy to be one of the final Laureate’s Choices, published in February by Smith Doorstop. Karen’s poems whirl us round fairground rides, and lose us in sea fogs, the better to understand the complex and fragile mental health of her parents, and its impact on herself and her sisters growing up. Karen’s poems also show what it means for radiance to enter our daily lives.
There is also an interview with Karen Smith on this blog .
Here is the link to buy Karen Smith’s ‘Schist‘.
The final poet of our first half, Edward Garvey Long, is launching his debut – The Living Museum – with Selcouth Station Press today. On twitter, Ed fabulously describes himself as a “poet of queer feelings, gif queen, and crafty bitch.” His poems encounter queer love in London, the Fenlands, and Stockholm, negotiating tilted cathedral towers, and arctic chills. Probing the murky recesses of queer taxidermy, they also hang out with George Michael and Kenneth Williams. It goes without saying that you’re going to love them, and him….
You can buy The Living Museum by Edward Garvey Longman here.
An editor by day, Natalie Linh Bolderston is our other poet launching tonight. Nat was asked to copy edit Nuar Alsadir’s Fourth Person Singular when an undergrad at Liverpool University, was a Silver Award winner at Creative Futures last year, and today brings us her stunning debut The Protection of Ghosts, from V.Press. Working with three generations of female voices, Nat looks back to Vietnam before her family were forced to flee as refugees in 1978, and questions who comes with us when we migrate countries, and cultures, how we are welcomed, and what we leave behind.
You can buy ‘The Protection of Ghosts’ by Natalie Linh Bolderston here.
Joanna Ingham’s pamphlet Naming Bones, is coming out with Ignition in July, so she’s giving us a preview of the really wonderful, original poems it features. Like Isabelle, Joanna is a cross-genre artist, encompassing poetry and prose. Her work has been published in many magazines, including The Sunday Times. The poems she’ll be sharing question how we inhabit our bodies, what it means to know love – as a parent, as well as a lover – and why the the places through which we pass remain present within us.
Joanna Ingham will be launching ‘Naming Bones’ at the Poetry Cafe in Betterton Street in London on 22 July at 7pm. Book your free tickets here.
Jeffery Sugarman with Natalie Whittaker before reading.
Our closing reader, Jeffery Sugarman, is launching his debut Dear Friend(s) with Emma Press tomorrow. One of this year’s Jerwood Arvon mentee’s, Jeffery came to writing through his practice of architecture. Dear Friend(s) maps the geographies of Jeffery’s life from a complex Florida childhood, to a queer coming of self in New York, and then London, where he now lives with his husband. Through all the parts, runs the “long elegaic poem, ‘Dear Friend’, addressed to one young man, but a paean for all those lost to the genocide of AIDS.”
You can buy ‘Dear Friend(s) by Jeffery Sugarman here.
Alice Hiller introducing our MASS PUBLICATION CELEBRATION No. 1 at Burley Fisher Books.
Photos by Julie Irigaray, Mary Mulholland and Alice Hiller.
With thanks to everyone who joined us.
Less welcome poets feeling warmly welcome. Ed Garvey Longman is out of shot.
Growing up is seldom easy – but sometimes it can be considerably more difficult. For Karen Smith, claiming her voice as a poet involved exploring a family history shaped by the mental illness experienced at times by both her loved, and loving, parents. How she did this, and the moving, deeply original poems which respond to her childhood and teenage years in the suburbs of South London, and now living near the South Coast, were the subject of our conversation in the Royal Festival Hall, where Karen works as a Poetry Cataloguer in the National Poetry Library. We talked about imagined landscapes as a form of psychic 3D printing, the challenges of coming to a creative life in the aftermath of complex beginnings, how trauma can be redefined through bringing the light of your adult life to the dark places of your past, and the healing, and the sense of release, that may ensue.
AH: Can I begin by asking you about your journey into poetry, Karen?
KS: I’ll never forget writing about Ted Hughes in an exam at school. He was writing very graphically about the wind “flexing like the lens of a mad eye” against the house. As I deconstructed the poem, which felt like climbing in, my body responded to it physically – as if it was real. I read English at Goldsmiths after that, and took an optional module on Modern Poetry because I’d been fired up by Moderns the year before (plus I hated long books!). I was shy and always more of a listener in the seminars, and the more I listened the more I could see in the poems. That surprised and excited me. It was like a beautiful bomb had gone off in my head. Part of my internal world suddenly had the music to dance to. During my MA at Kent I read John Ashbery. He grew on me. Sometimes it can be like with that with relationships too. He had a quieter voice, but it was such a beguiling voice. The more you looked into what he was saying – it was like a transformation. You were seeing at a different level. It actually changed your mind. There’s something so special about that experience. And even though Ashbery has lots of references in his work, and you don’t always get those, it doesn’t matter because of how it makes you feel, and see differently. To me, that really carries weight.
AH: I remember you telling me you were starstruck about hanging out at the Poetry Library – around the world that the books represented.
KS: Yeah, definitely. It was a little bit of peace from the world, but where you could be receptive and settle into yourself, and explore your mind going off in these different directions. I found it therapeutic I suppose, but also just so exciting. I enjoyed the fact that there was this quiet space in the middle of London where you could see virtually everything that’s been published in poetry, in modern times, and discover new voices that spoke to you. They seemed to articulate parts of yourself you were barely yet aware of.
AH: You recently published your first pamphlet, Schist, as one of four Laureate’s Choices for 2019 through the Poetry Business and smith/doorstop. When did you turn from being a reader of poetry to also being a writer of poetry?
KS: When I left university and did various jobs, I really missed that sense of intense connection to literature I had when I was studying. After a number of years, I started to feel, maybe I can try to write, as one way back in. I dipped my toe in. I went to a very short course. It was four weeks in the summer at Evolution Arts Centre in Brighton. And it wasn’t a poetry course, it was just creative writing. It didn’t feel great at first, because I didn’t feel I knew what I wanted to say. The other participants picked up on that. And so that was a little bit painful. But I thought I’d keep going because I knew that feeling of being excited and connected – and maybe I could get back there. And then, the poem ‘Schist’ came to me. I went to see my uncle. I was away from home traveling and I woke up one morning with the words playing in my head. I just started writing it down quickly because it felt like the poem was coming to me rather than me generating it. I had been working the previous day on different poem, so I think it kind of loosened something. That’s the first time that I felt a poem again in my body. I felt excited. The writing group were all very excited too. So I thought maybe there is something in this that I can do – even though I’m not sure how I’ve done it.
AH: Schist names your English teacher, Mr. Grey with his “antique-shop air”, (leading to the beautiful admission “I was hot for you, /Sir”), as an early source of inspiration. Were there other teachers, mentors and writers who led you forwards?
KS: Mr Grey was an enthusiastic teacher and his love for literature was very influential and inspiring. He was appreciative of my essays, but we didn’t really do creative writing very much. It was more criticism and analysis.
AH: In your writing life, it was really Carol Ann Duffy who really recognized your ability?
KS: I’d been to a couple of creative writing courses in Brighton before I met Carol Ann, led by Gary Mepsted and John McCullough. They were very encouraging and nurturing. I owe a debt to them. When you’re starting out, to have someone who guides you gently is really important, if you’re self-doubtful. But when Carol Ann recommended me to smith/doorstop, I hadn’t published anything and I didn’t even really think of myself as a poet. It was a real shock, but a nice shock. It was after I went to her five day “Starting out in poetry” course with Michael Woods at Moniack Mhor. It wasn’t a master class. That’s something I admire about her. She’s teaching at every level. She’s supporting right to the grassroots.
AH: We talked about John Ashbery. Are there any other books that have spoken to you over the years?
KS: I’ve always loved Alice in Wonderland. I keep going back to it because it’s mesmerizing to me – that surreal world. You know, what it feels like to be a child and the craziness of the world – all the playfulness in it.
AH: It’s a book that also captures powerlessness. And incomprehension – and the sense of there being no rules. That’s one of the things that your adult work addresses. Can I ask you about the title and opening poem, ‘Schist,’ which returns to a sun-filled seaside afternoon on the rocks at Mullion, in Cornwall. It begins:
One in a million, you said,
that summer in Mullion.
But we could never agree.
And we bickered all afternoon
between beach and lagoon,
the tide began to carry
more than it gave,
redrew the lines of flint
along the splay-veined shore.
Already, a boat was listing,
letting the water in.
You afterwards remember how the couple “bathed like lizards. Double spaced” – but the next line finds “In the light, a certain angle of extinction, / fulsome but unforgiving.” I know your work quite well, and you have that ability to capture beauty – but in the other hand to hold darkness. I wondered if you wanted to say something about those two forces being present in Schist?
KS: Very nice question. I like to try to capture all those elements, but I’m always conscious of the dark sides of things. And even at school, my teachers sometimes used to recommend things that were a bit strange and disturbing, because I’ve always been drawn to that. There’s a complete experience where you can try and hold everything – to be true to all aspects.
AH: In the dictionary, ‘schist’ signifies layered, metamorphic rock, whose “twist of minerals, caked and forged/ under an ocean of heat and torsion” is the backdrop for your poem. I wondered if there was a reason you felt drawn to this geological imagery, over and above the actual Lizard Peninsula location of the memory?
KS: I am really interested in geology. There was something about the landscape there that was really arresting and just stayed with me. And so I thought, well, why not explore that? I did a bit of research and then came across these geological terms, which are very beautiful in themselves. The language around the rock was so evocative – that kind of steered me towards playing with it. I think it made a path for other things to come to the fore in my mind. I didn’t set out to write about relationships, but as I was writing about being there with that landscape, the poem emerged in that way quite organically.
AH: One of the topics which your pamphlet explores is the experience of growing up in complex family circumstances. You write about some of the mental health challenges your parents faced. While as an adult, these are things that we can look at with compassion, as a child, it’s very different. When I read about the layered metamorphic rock and the twisting and the pressure and the compression, I thought about some of your other poems about children feeling squeezed and twisted by enormous epic, forces – like the earth’s plates – that they have no control over. Does that seem fair to you?
KS: Yeah, definitely. I think when the experiences are so deep and strong in your psyche, they emerge in that way. You don’t consciously say I’m going to choose this particular symbol, but you find yourself drawn to things. Sometimes, after I put it in the poem, I realized there was some kind of analogy for my own experience. I think it’s good not to be too conscious of that at the time.
AH: I think sometimes we need to look away to see. If you really absorb yourself in the material detail, when you have something very difficult to write about, actually not writing about it often, paradoxically, makes a space for the difficult thing to come into the writing. If you go at it straight on, you lose it. Whereas if you look studiously to one side, there’s always a potential for it to infuse your thought. What made me think about that particularly is Schist’s second poem, ‘Orthorexic Creed.’ It opens with an epigraph from the Catholic Nicene Creed, which it subverts, to address your own father – in the grip of an apparently remorseless eating disorder:
We believed it was right, Christ,
the only kind of love,
eternally forgotten by the father,
no word or song, night after night,
tuned out from tuning in,
forgotten, not savoured,
of being one with the illness.
By him all food was weighed.
For us kids and for our staycation
he came down from Croydon:
by the power of the catamaran.
Eating disorders within families are deeply difficult to write about, but here, as very often your work, a dry wit, and emphatic sound-play – “right, Christ” – leaven the darkness, and help both writer, and reader, to regain a measure of creative agency. I wondered if you could comment on this as a strategy? Did the echoing Nicene Creed give you a way of making space to talk about something else?
KS: Yeah, I think it definitely did. I’ve taken the structure of the Nicene creed, and kept quite close to the form and the sounds. It was a very powerful structure, or container, for an experience that was very hard to talk about and to explore. I was having therapy at that point, talking about my father and my mother. I was ready to reconnect with that time in my life, a time when I felt very vulnerable. Writing the poem kind of dovetailed with that process. I woke up with a line for the poem in my head. It was the line “Eternally forgotten by the father”. This is part of the Catholic mass. If you grow up Catholic, it’s very ingrained in you, it becomes fundamental to your language.
AH: Although I am a Buddhist, I still have the Anglican psalms from my childhood. They are programmed like a rhythm into my body, so I know where the beats and the emphasis falls.
KS: It’s kind of a music isn’t it? When that line hit me, I felt, oh, this is something different. It has lot more to say, you know. It didn’t come to me all at once. I remember I was ill that day and I couldn’t attend my poetry course. I was able to instead to write most of the poem. The form seemed to hold what I was trying to say so well. It was exciting because I felt that something inside me needed to be said. It needed to come out – and this was my way of doing this. Having the vessel meant it could come out safely.
AH: You say really devastating things in the poem. “no word or song, night after night,/ tuned out from tuning in,/ forgotten, not savoured”. These are very painful things to admit in relationship to parents. Somehow, because they are within the music of the poem, it has a measure of resolution at the end. It’s like the humour keeps life in the poem? Even in very sad bits, because there’s this dry wit, and the sound-work, life is always present. Even as it’s looking at its own dark, places, life is also resisting them.
KS: I think that’s pretty important, for the reader obviously too. But mostly actually for your self. The work needs to find balance, just as a person does. If you’re going to let the weight of the darkness in, you need to counter it with light. The humour says I can take that forward in my own way. You know, there’s a kind of affirmation.
AH: We’ve both talked about bearing witness to things that people find very difficult to talk about. I feel one of my responsibilities is to keep the reader safe, if I’m showing them something very scary. I say this darkness exists in life – but I’m alive, and I’m telling you about it, in a way that also has beauty and agency. And it seems to me that is part of your process?
AH: The sea, but also the imagery of seaside towns, and funfairs, are threaded through Schist, making a first appearance in ‘How to Survive a Blackgang Chine.” The poem addresses a child “staggering/ round the black planks of the Crooked House.” Do you think it can be freeing for writers to create imagined landscapes, in which we site our younger selves?
KS: I’ve found it really useful to use space with my imagination, to plot out an area that somehow expresses your inner world, and maps itself onto the landscape.
AH: Like psychic 3D printing?
KS: Yes. It’s not just something inside you, that has to be hidden or withheld from the world. It’s actually this place that is real to you. I find that useful – to use places that I’ve been to as a mental landscape. It becomes something that your mind uses to plot the narrative of what you’ve experienced. You bring it into a physical space because emotions live in the body, and bringing that emotional experience into a physical form makes it comprehensible.
AH: Definitely. Like the sea, anger is recurrent energy throughout Schist, where it seems to function as a centreing force, which can return the speaker to herself when her identity is threatened. I’m thinking particularly of ‘Miss Etheridge’, which answers back down through the years to an unfair school teacher – guilty of playing favorites. It ends “I still think of you and your flags. The pig that got in.” Could you comment on some of the ways anger moves within your work?
KS: I think it’s something that I’ve been able to harness more recently, because in my family anger wasn’t something that was really accepted. But of course it’s a natural human emotion, and despite religious or cultural ideas, I think it has a strong energy and you can harness it in your poems. Learning how to do that is a real spur to get that material out. Those are the kinds of experiences – whether they’re anger-inducing or not, things that are very emotional – that can come from such a deep place and be very sustaining, in the sense that energy wants to find its way out. It’s a question of finding ways to allow it.
AH: I found it very difficult, for decades, to connect with my own anger. When I finally did, it seemed to me as if I was reaching out, and finding my own hand waiting for me. It was like – so that’s who I am. It was part of me. It had very deep roots that I’d really been cut off from –because it had been too dangerous. As you know, I was sexually abused by my mother, as a child, and my first focus was simply to try and stay alive. And once I did express my own anger, as an adult, it severed me from my family of origin. In real terms, it was a very dangerous force. For children who come from difficult backgrounds, it can be hard to own your own anger.
KS: Absolutely. Yeah. I think it sometimes it takes a long time for it to be able to come into your consciousness really. It’s a survival strategy. But if you cut it off, you’re cutting off part of yourself, so it feels first of all healing, actually, to connect with anger, and to say this is a part of my experience. This doesn’t mean that I’m a bad person. It doesn’t mean people are going to judge me. It’s just one of many human emotions. One that helps to guide you back to yourself and to say, well here are my boundaries. This is my identity and this is my experience. You know, it just helps you to take ownership of that.
AH: In my own case, it allowed me to define that what shouldn’t have happened, did happen. Your mother had periods of being really very unwell, and behaving in ways that were not maternal or nurturing. Because she was very unwell, they were not in her control either.
KS: Yeah, exactly. It wasn’t a question that she didn’t want to be a mother. She had two sides to her, where she could be very sweet and caring and nurturing, and then some of the time be a completely different person, sort of unrecognisable. I’ve lost boyfriends because I brought them home, and then I didn’t realise that she’d been in one of her psychotic states, and she would just go completely beserk, be really paranoid. It was hard to explain to people really. They didn’t understand that it wasn’t that she hated them. She was the same to me, you know. It wasn’t that she rejected me or my sisters, or that we’d done anything to provoke her, she just wasn’t well. I think there is a process of coming to terms with that. Part of you is angry – angry because it hurts, because it ‘shouldn’t be’. You come to understand that in the context of, somebody’s illness – as opposed to a negative intention towards you.
AH: Absolutely. One of Schist’s plainest, saddest – and most moving – poems, is simply titled ‘Her’. Structured within two only subtly different sections, its unstable boundaries suggests porous states of mind, reflecting and shifting points of view between a mother and a daughter. ‘Her’ begins:
You walk up the white corridor.
Smile at the nurse. Fix my hair.
I am trying not to look like you
and not take offence at what everyone says.
This is what it means to hear hell.
They put me in one room, you in the other.
This time we hear the same sounds,
though they make a different message.
The pills help you realise that
voices have no bodies. You’re real mum,[…]
Could you say something about the doubling and mirroring structure you created, which refracts, and blurs, the poem’s two halves, and generations, into each other?
KS: I wanted to write about my mother for quite a while. When I wrote ‘Schist’ I wasn’t thinking of her but, but it made me think of her later – because of the etymological roots of schist, the idea of being split and doubled, and schizophrenic.
AH: This is one of the conditions that your mothered suffered from?
KS: Yes. Since I started writing seriously, I wanted to say something about her, but I stayed away from it for quite a long time, because it just felt like such a big thing to write about, and how was I going to approach it? And you know, when your mother is being unmotherly, it’s taboo to show that. How are people going to react? And there was always this repression of it within the family too, you know, my mother having schizophrenia and my father having an eating disorder. It felt very risky to actually start to talk about it, on the page. Very unknown territory.
AH: I can relate to that. Whenever I tell someone that I’m working on a collection about being sexually abused by my mother – half the time, it’s like I shot myself with an invisibility gun. Suddenly, I cease to exist.
KS: I don’t think they know how to react. It doesn’t fit with what’s safe to think about. We’ve created that figure in society of the ideal mother – or what we think all mothers should be. And, it’s very upsetting to people to pierce that really. You struggle with your own feelings about it. Am I doing her damage? Am I harming her and the family? But if we don’t acknowledge suffering, we can’t change it. I wrote this years after she died and I think that that did free me up. I had a lot of love and happy times too. I felt close to her and respected her. One way I kept myself safe was to try to live up to her expectations. But I also wanted enough space to be me, to be different. When someone’s ill, it helps to remember they are still present as a person, it’s just that they get obscured by the symptoms. As a society we’re beginning to not be so hesitant to voice that now.
AH: It’s also part of a larger project to de-stigmatise issues around mental health. For people with mental health challenges, certainly historically, it was much more difficult to manage them. I think the medication now is less impactful. ‘Ghost Train’, following immediately after ‘Her’, shows a younger sister hanging onto her elder sibling as they rush into a scary ride – which hurtles them headlong through the fears of their unstable childhood. The rhymes in the first stanza have a lock-down effect, predicting the inescapability of the lurching upsets which will follow:
Even before we clattered
into the blackness, I was
already there. Eyes shut
head buried in your hair.
Ruffling and screeching like hens,
our bellies cracked like eggs.
My insides strained to escape,
to get between us and them.
You use rhyme with considerable impact in your work. I wondered how consciously you reached for it, and whether you felt there could be a reassurance in the linguistic control which this provides when writing about difficult material, over and above to the sound-pleasures which it affords?
KS: I’ve always enjoyed rhyme and the oral qualities of the words. I enjoy making those sounds quite consciously, but I think in this poem it was more instinctive.
AH: Often poems for children rhyme?
KS: I think it’s putting yourself back in that place isn’t it, which can be difficult? But if you can put yourself back there physically, almost try and remember how you felt bodily, and then sometimes you instinctively reach for those structures – the rhyme and the more simple language. I think it did help me as well – to enter that territory. It’s not very enjoyable to go back there. It’s only human nature to want to avoid those feelings again. It definitely helped for me to feel okay, knowing I’m going to have a predictable structure here at least, in the beginning, to ease myself into this very uncomfortable space. And so the rhyme felt like a safe way to do it really. It enabled me to travel through unstable ground, which was more the experience I had as a child. In the poem, I’m able to find my way to that point where I could connect with the trauma of it really. It did take me a while to actually get this poem finished, because lots of it felt blurred in my head. That’s just part of going over that material, and parts of your brain trying to keep it locked away. And you can’t always quite see the full reality of what you experienced. The poem really helps to diffuse that kind of memory and allow you to reconstruct, to re-member parts you might have ‘resolved’ by forgetting.
AH: When I write things down, and I have to face them, I can find it devastating. But afterwards, once I’ve made a piece of work, it becomes a repository for that very difficult thing which it holds. Each poem is a box, and I can shut the lid and then open it again when I want to look inside. The work allows me not to forget, without requiring me to remember each day.
KS: Exactly. Yeah. It’s a kind of processing, isn’t it? You’ve really engaged with it – but transformed it at the same time.
AH: The three line poem, ‘In Search of the Pepperpot’, deploys a delicately wrenching compression of alliterations and assonances to bring to mind a medieval lighthouse lost in fog on the Isle of Wight, ending “Wrecked souls, pray for me.” Like ‘Schist’, and ‘Poseidon’s Trident’, it finds its forms of expression through English, and specifically South Coast maritime landscapes, and I wondered if you could say something about your imaginative and real relationships to them?
KS: Again, this poem is another real experience. I was lost in the fog on the hillside, looking for this medieval lighthouse. I had that feeling of being completely lost. I could not even see my hands. There was the irony of looking for this lighthouse and not being able to see it. And I just felt that it said something about my experience, you know, as a child but also as an adult, really and within this landscape of the collection.
AH: Which is also the landscape of where you live now near the South Coast, and you have family roots going back, it seems, a long time?
KS: We grew up in Croydon. We always used to holiday in the Isle of Wight. It was very familiar to us – almost like another member of the family. It’s been a canvas really for some of the things that have unfolded in our family. It has a real meaning to me over and above just being a place. I wanted to include that in the work.
AH: Like many poets, your work also directly addresses its own forms, and relationships to its materials. I’m thinking of ‘The Contortionist’, and ‘Schizophrenia Test (amended for poets)’ and ‘Drawing Lesson’, which includes the wonderful couplet “Imagine you’re a child/ wearing your eyes for the first time.” Is this process of reflection a particular interest for you? Would you like to say something about those poems?
KS: I think that reflection has always been important to me. You can gain a lot of insight into yourself and not only in your work, but you know, generally being reflective about your own mind.
AH: But this is also poetry thinking about how it is made, holding the mirror up to its own self?
KS: It’s always something that I want to reflect on – the process, and what it means to be a poet, and the process of making, and how that can sometimes be very uncomfortable and painful really. And there’s another poem written, called ‘L’Oeuf’, about a hen laying an egg very slowly. In that poem too, there was something I needed to incorporate – because the experience of writing was intense too. I knew I wanted to touch on these very personal, very painful things. I had to incorporate what that felt like, that feeling of trying to embody this experience into words. You know, it’s trying to make it come alive on the page and really be truthful, incorporating all aspects and, and doing that, doing that fully, you know, to feel that you’ve really gone as far as you can with it. As well as the trauma of talking about these difficult things, part of the process of writing is difficult too. It’s all very painful and risky, and even though my parents aren’t alive anymore, it’s still feels dangerous. They’re not here physically, but parts of them are inside of you, and you can still hear their voices and, and you can still get a sense of what they would think and what they say, and so it’s still a very, very present danger.
AH: Yeah, absolutely. I really recognise that from my own work. While there is deep sadness in Schist – and clear witness brought to the challenges for children of growing up with parents whose mental health is fragile – there are also repeated moments of sheer delight and radiance. I’m thinking of ‘Driving in Iceland’, which is laid out over two pages, so the stanzas ring an empty whiteness. It begins “It was like being born/As if a lamp had fallen on its side/ leaking light.” Would you like to say something about these poems – which often include the figure of your partner as a co-presence – and about the idea of healing, and creative self-regeneration, more generally?
KS: Despite difficulties in childhood, I was always a really happy child. I often remember thinking I’m really happy!. And I think there’s something about that joy that we need to celebrate really. And I think that helps to cope with the darkness too. There’s a real joy in being alive and to my mind, it’s also the joy of language itself and, just a feeling of those sensations – laying in a field with friends after an exam – pure freedom. And so those moments really were very important to me and I think that’s why they’ve come out in my work. Sometimes when you have intense traumatic experiences, I think you may also find an intensification of the joyful ones. There’s so much so much pleasure in just being.
AH: Yes, definitely. The penultimate poem, ‘Burning the years’, is addressed to a “you” which the footnote identifies as the “Protestant martyr & East Sussex ironmaster Richard Woodman, brother of my paternal ancestor, who was burned to death in Lewes.” You describe his torture, using “iron finery/ forged by your own hand”, and the poem ends
walk with me in the dark hours,
tell me what we don’t share,
what we do.
Would you be able to say something about the sense of kinship here?
KS: My aunt did some family research about this figure, our ancestor, and uncovered his suffering. It was a terrible, terrible death. I now live quite close to where he lived and was burnt. I wanted to connect and to say something to him. As a historical person, he’s still very alive in the imagination. He came into my head, and I felt that there’s something very comforting about being able to speak to somebody else who has been through something really traumatic. He was persecuted for his religion. He was part of the family. I wanted to move beyond the confines of time and space to feel as though I could talk to him like people do, when they’ve lost someone.
AH: We were talking earlier about looking at something, or someone, else to see yourself.
KS: I think it makes it easier to digest, for both the writer and the reader, because you don’t really need to have it spelled out. It’s really hard to take if it’s too raw. Poetry especially has this compressive quality, this kind of indirect approach, where you’re able to take on these big subjects, you know, without frightening people away. It’s about communication and connection. Finding whatever way you can to empathize with the subject, with the reader, with yourself.
AH: The final poem ‘Calling Pluto’, returns in the present tense, to your father – using tangy, everyday language to remember the stories he would tell you over the phone when you called him, and “that last night in the hospital.” It is a poem of tenderness, which celebrates a mutuality of care between parent and adult child, and suggests that with their new-found equality comes the possibility of reframing past hurts, and conferring grace on both parties? Could you comment both on the process of creating Schist, and now of sharing your work with a wider readership?
KS: It’s been a difficult process, but it’s really changed the way I feel about the things that I’ve spoken about – in a very healing way. I’ve come to settle them somehow. It feels like I’ve really worked with them, you know, really engaged with them – with the things that were inside my head and, and wanting to be spoken. And so it feels different now. Somehow the pressure has been released from keeping it inside, that kind of burning feeling – that’s released. And that they might bring a touch of joy and insight to another mind, or change just one angle of vision… that’s all I hope for as a writer.
AH: That’s wonderful. Your poems are really extraordinary. I think they’re going to speak to many people, very deeply. Thank you Karen Smith.
To celebrate Midsummer, Karen Smith will be reading with Yvonne Reddick, Victoria Gatehouse, and Natalie Burdett at the Yorkshire Arboretum. More details here.
Karen Smith will be reading from Schist at Burley Fisher Books on 9 May 2019.
Copies of Schist can be ordered here
In these hard times, it can be tempting to pull back from what is strange. For poets, writers and artists, this may limit our parameters, and make it more difficult to connect with new audiences. To resist this narrowing, for the past eighteen months I’ve been facilitating a workshop for poets who address themes found to be less welcome or easy.
My poems respond to same-sex, sexual abuse in childhood, and its aftermath in adult life. Others among our group explore migration, queerness, mental health, class privilege and exclusion, gender rebellion – and our beautiful, bodily beings.
Multi-national, complexly oriented, and variously aged, each of us is also a poet of witness. Political in our awareness, we are committed to creative innovation and experimentation – and the realisation of beauty in multiple forms and tongues. Because of its subject matters, our work can feel vulnerable and exposing in draft. To be part of a community of fellow poets, who have your back, is powerful – and necessary.
Our workshop, and its network of mutual nurture, came about when Paul McGrane offered the space above the Poetry Cafe in Betterton Street to anyone wanting to set up the Covent Garden Stanza group. For me, that represented an opportunity to bring together individual poets that I had met through different classes, readings and workshops.
Within nine months, we had outgrown our first home, and moved to a free access public space. We operate a ‘yoghurt culture’ of co-creation and practice shared, collective promotion. Now that some of our poets are publishing their debut pamphlets, it seems logical to extend our conversation of difference into the public sphere, initially through two live events taking place in London this May – although we hope also to travel further afield.
On May 9, I will be hosting our free MASS PUBLICATION CELEBRATION NO. 1, at Burley Fisher Books between 7-9 pm. Edward Garvey-Long, Joanna Ingham, Natalie Linh Bolderston, Karen Smith, Jeffery Sugarman and Natalie Whittaker will be reading from their debut pamphlets, with a short ‘rising start’ slot from Isabelle Baafi, another of our poets. The link is here:
On 18 May, three of us will be performing within the Poetry Society poem-a-thon at the Poetry Cafe in Betterton Street, where we first met as a group. I’m on at 2.10, followed immediately by fellow poet Julie Irigaray at 2.20, with our third member, Natalie Whittaker on at 5.00. The event, which raises money to support the work of the Poetry Society, runs from midday until 10p.m, and features 60 amazing poets.
If you would like to donate to support work of the Poetry Society, Julie Irigaray, Natalie Whittaker and I are raising funds jointly under our Covent Garden Stanza group name. The link is here.
18 May at the Poetry Cafe in Betterton Street Poem-a-thon details here.
We would warmly welcome anyone free to join us on either 9 May at Burley Fisher Books, or 18 May at the Poetry Cafe in Betterton Street, to further our project of hearing the less welcome. Celebrate the powerful work being made by our poets – and be part of changing how people perceive the world we share.
Alice Hiller on ‘Leaving Neverland’ – and writing about her own experience of sexual abuse in childhood in her poem ‘elegy for an eight year old.’
In common with most people, I was deeply impacted by watching Leaving Neverland. It made me think about the work of witness – which each of us who has been subjected to sexual abuse in childhood must go through, if we want our experiences no longer to be hidden. As someone who does not share this history, Amanda Petrusich on the New Yorker nonetheless found it a “gruelling and devastating film that asks viewers to reconfigure how they think about both Jackson and potential victims of rape.”
Like James Safechuck and Wade Robson, I was subjected to same-sex, sexual abuse in childhood. However, my abuser was my mother, not someone ‘famous.’ All the same, I felt as if I was watching a refracted version of myself as James and Wade spoke. They described gradually coming to a place in their lives, and within themselves, where they were able to be open about the sexual abuse that had been inflicted upon them when they were too young to understand, or resist. There was a necessity to their courage, both personally, and morally.
Neither of them had been able to testify against Michael Jackson while he was still alive. This was their chance to create coherence between their inner knowledge of themselves – and how they appeared to the outside world. It supported other young men who had previously given witness to similar alleged experiences with Michael Jackson. James’s and Wade’s open-ness also supported the larger community of people making their lives in the aftermath of sexual abuse in childhood.
My own acts of witness about being sexually abused by my mother are of course less publicised, but ongoing. They take place within my poems, performances, essays, and life-writing. I also speak about this subject with members of the public, and medical practitioners. Like most sexual predators, my mother was unknown beyond her immediate circle of family and friends. To my child’s eyes, though, she was as powerful, and compelling, as Michael Jackson was to the boys he allegedly sexually abused.
While it is less common for a mother to perpetrate sexual abuse on her child, my experience nonetheless aligns with many other long-running, private and domestic acts of sexual abuse on children. Knowing this, helped me understand that my writing could potentially be of service to my community – by allowing other people to find elements of what also happened to them represented in my words. These include the confusing experiences of being groomed, our feelings of powerlessness and shame while the abuse is ongoing, and the potentially troubled aftermaths. Barnardo’s Charity estimate that one in twenty children are sexually abused, and at least half of them have ongoing problems in adulthood, requiring help.
I had that ambition of representation for my poem ‘elegy for an eight year old’, when I entered it for the 2018 Creative Futures Awards. The first lines came to me when I was walking through Brompton Cemetery in London, early one cold January morning. I saw the rows of ranked graves. Some were tilted and leaning, with their names eroded almost to nothing. Others stood upright as soldiers, with pin sharp lettering, refusing to let their dead be forgotten. The light was a flat, yellow grey – as it would have been at that time of year, back in January 1973.
It takes ten minutes to walk across the cemetery. Passing between the graves, it seemed that the rows of silent, buried human remains lying beneath that earth, were somehow also the layered, hidden memories of the uncountable numbers of people who have been sexually abused – in the present day and historically. Their unwitnessed, unspoken lives and histories surround us.
In the quiet, empty cemetery, I felt as if I was walking with them – as mourners walk with the body at a funeral, to keep it company, and let it not be alone. My awareness of this became a candle, lighting my way. I also had the sense of my own deep, layered memories, waiting to rise. And then, into my head came the words:
she perches upright as a needle
before morning break
I knew straightaway they were about the shocked, painful winter mornings, early in 1973, when I was eight and a half, and the penetrative abuse had recently begun. The building where I was remembering myself was a single storey, village primary school. I was driven there every morning from the rented cottage on the main street of a nearby village, where the abuse took place in my mother’s double bed. We had moved to Wiltshire when we came to England, right after my father’s death in Brussels, late in 1972.
Each night in our new home, my mother would expect me to be waiting for her in her bed, or to cross the landing from my bedroom when she came upstairs. What happened next was devastating. It left me sore and stinging. When I wiped myself the next morning, after using the toilet at school, the slippery, tracing-paper-like tissue, was sometimes streaked with bright, red blood.
I remember so clearly the cold mist, sheeting the ghostly winter fields and skeletal trees, that we drove through on the way to school. Then came the welcome, bright, yellow light, and solidity, of my teacher, Mr Ward’s, open-plan classroom. It had a show-and-tell table in the corner, and painted papier maché animal masks on the wall, left over from a performance in Salisbury Cathedral. Even there, with my mother faraway, I could never shake off my sense of fear, and feel safe, or fully integrated.
Following my father’s death, my mother and I had moved from a flat in the busy centre of Brussels, to an English village with three shops and a post office. My father’s body was transported to Wiltshire after his funeral, and buried in the graveyard of the Norman church. In this new life, I had to learn to say that my daddy was dead, whenever people asked about him. Coming from another country, and having only one parent, were enough to make me ‘different’ from the other pupils in 1973. But what really cut me off from them, and everyone around me, was the shameful, painful sensation inside my ‘bottom’ that I could tell no one about.
Some days it prevented me from sitting properly on the hard school chairs. At breaks, I used to go into the tiny school library, which had padded benches, so I could lean sideways. In the library, as at home, I read constantly to take my mind elsewhere. Somehow, the books I kept coming back at school to were full of terrifying ghost stories about people being pursued by cruel, vengeful supernatural presences – whom they could never escape.
These 1970s Wiltshire mornings provided the details that seeped, and crept, their way into the poem that began life when I was walking through Brompton Cemetery on that cold, quiet January day in 2018. I called it ‘elegy for an eight year old’ – in memory of the little girl I had been at that time. I have always known that part of her, and part of me, died as a result of what had happened, at our mother’s hands, in that dark bedroom.
As I worked on my ‘elegy’ over the next months, I knew it had to be simple, and quiet. It needed to be spoken in words my eight year old self would have used, if she had been able to speak out, about what was being done to her. I also wanted it to be accessible to other people, whose minds, and bodies, were broken into during their childhoods, as mine had been.
I was lucky that Lemn Sissay, the judge for the 2018 Creative Futures Award, chose the poem for one of the awards. I was therefore invited to read at the ceremony. It was held in one of the performance spaces at the Royal Festival Hall on the Southbank in London, as part of the London Literature Festival. All that October day, I was deeply nervous. I was also determined to do the best job I could, not only for myself, and my poem, but for the larger community of people sexually abused in childhood.
When it came to my turn to step up onto the podium, with the view of the London Eye behind me, I explained how my work seeks to change awareness around the difficult subject of sexual abuse in childhood, arising from my own experiences. I spoke briefly about those mornings in primary school. Then I stood up straighter, looked directly into the audience, and said my:
elegy for an eight year old
she perches upright as a needle
before morning break
outside cold fog
is vanishing all the trees
there are fossils on the show and tell table
blue birds’ eggs clay pipes someone dug up
in the library iron fingers
are climbing out of the haunted book
their classroom is beginning to smell
of cabbage and mince
the girls will be skipping
in the playground soon
tiger masks with no
eyes frighten the wall
Mr Ward says she’s moving
onto the Green Book for Maths
underneath her wool tights
the hurt place stays on fire
As my words moved into the space, and the minds of the audience, my small self was no longer left in the dark. She was there, with us, in the light, sharing what she had been through – as James Safechuck’s, and Wade Robson’s, younger selves did when they spoke about their histories in Leaving Neverland. After I stopped speaking, the clapping was hard and furious.
People brought their hands together, filling the room with noise, showing that they stood with me – and with my eight year old self. What she and I had been through, in that double bed, and afterwards on those wintry school mornings, had entered into the experience of transformation that my ‘elegy’ represents. Speaking it out loud, I knew that she and I had both been heard – and that others would be also be after us.
Whether ‘famous’, and being broadcast round the world, or communicating our experiences quietly and privately, in a doctor’s, or counsellor’s consulting room, or to a friend or family member – each of us brings our whole selves to our work of witness. Speaking out is the only way our community can heal. We need to defy the silences and shame, in which our abusers seek to imprison us – even decades after the events. This is how we can seek to protect future generations of children. It is also what will ensure that all people, making their lives in the aftermath of sexual abuse in childhood, are given the respect and care which is their right.
I have recorded myself reading ‘elegy for an eight year old’ here.
Details of the 2019 Creative Future Awards are here.
Please seek appropriate professional help if reading this work of witness has been difficult for you in any way. Below are links to Victim Support and The Survivors’ Trust who can offer guidance in this area.
Survivors Trust here
Victim Support Child Abuse here