Something Strange and Wonderful

I’ll get to the strange and wonderful part in a minute, but firstly I wanted to briefly look back at 2019, which has felt pretty whirlwind so far.

January to March was spent completing my thesis, which I began at the University of East Anglia in 2018. The shorter timeframe of a PhD by Publication is intense, but I met the deadline, and could not have written my thesis without the help, guidance and support from my supervisors Rebecca Stott and Sophie Robinson. Both women were wise, frank and astute at every meeting and with so many things I wanted to say, they made sure I never lost my way. I passed my viva, with no corrections, in May. Poet Denise Riley and Professor Neil Vickers, Co-Director of the Centre for Humanities and Health at King’s College London were my examiners and to talk to them about Her Birth, grief and disclosure was illuminating. I spoke about my research for the first time publicly, at the Postgraduate Contemporary Women’s Writing Network conference in Hull at the start of September, and an extract from my thesis has just been published in the autumn edition of Poetry Review. I am still thinking about what to do with the thesis next, but for now I’m reassured by Rebecca Stott’s recent and accurate words to me, that the act of writing the PhD ‘did its immediate work.’ There were things I needed to explore closely, as a writer and as a bereaved mother, and I achieved that I think.

Three days before my viva, I launched my latest poetry collection Girl at the Parafin Gallery in London, where Girl’s cover artist Alison Watt, was exhibiting her work. I think most people know by now about my slight obsession with Alison’s work. (I wrote a piece about how her paintings have inspired me for the Carcanet blog several months ago). Despite feeling hugely anxious about the looming viva, the launch was a lovely night. A gathering of friends and family, with my bigger kids running the bar, John Clegg as LRB bookseller extraordinaire and my eight-year old Molly working the room, chatting to more people than I did. I am very grateful to Parafin for letting me use their gorgeous gallery space. To read my poems, surrounded by Alison’s paintings, meant a great deal.

Girl has had some nice reviews and has gone on to be Highly Commended in the Forward Prizes 2019, with the poem ‘Rachel’. The book has also been shortlisted for the 2019 East Anglian Book Awards alongside Lavinia Greenlaw’s The Built Moment and Helen Ivory’s The Anatomical Venus in the Poetry category. I’m honoured to stand beside them both. Carousel, my collaboration with photographer Chris Routledge, still feels like a new book, but is almost a year old now. There’s a lovely review at London Grip.

In July, I began the collaborative project Science, Poetry and the Brain, at Cambridge University’s Lucy Cavendish College. Eight poets have been paired with a scientist each, to discover more about their field of research and write a responding poem. The poems will be aired at an event with all the poets and scientists present, on October 26th, as part of Cambridge’s Festival of Ideas. ‘My’ scientist is the virologist Nicola Rose, and she wrote an excellent piece for the Lucy Cavendish College blog about the day we first met. You can read it here.

August began with a week long residency for Suffolk Libraries as an artist in residence at Hadleigh Library. It was part of the arts programme BLOC: Building Libraries on Creativity and involved five East Anglian artists being given the time to develop their own creative practice, as well as working together to share ideas and think about how libraries can become creative hubs. I was the only writer there that week, and loved being around visual artists for five days, watching them work. After that, the coast. For the Gosses, August is about birthdays and sad anniversaries, but this year we managed an overdue holiday, our first in four years. We didn’t go far, liking this county as we do, but just to be able to wake up and walk to the shore with dog, daughter and a crabbing bucket was enough.

My Suffolk Poems are (still) ticking over, and September has seen a new one published in the first issue of Bath Magg, an exciting online magazine from editors Joe Carrick-Varty and Mariah Whelan. The autumn continues with several readings coming up, including Manchester Literature Festival and Poetry in Aldeburgh. See my events page for more information. I’ve been mentoring some great poets this year. It’s wonderful to see their successes and I’m finding the role of mentor to be more and more rewarding. I’m still a regular at the Poetry Cafe, providing Poetry Surgeries to give feedback on poems in progress. Slots are available for my next session in a few weeks time. I’ll be back at Arvon too, tutoring ‘Discovering the Tools’ alongside Kei Miller in February 2020.

And the strange and wonderful part is that for the first time, in a very long time, I have felt happy. I mention it because I experienced it as a real physical sensation. No different from being aware of a headache, or an oncoming sneeze. Several months ago, I felt waves of genuine happiness rush through me, and I realised I had not felt anything like that for over a decade. There are lots of reasons why I think this is happening now, including feeling very settled here in Suffolk after our move from Liverpool, the people important to me are well and thriving, and I dealt with so much when writing the thesis. I have never believed in ‘moving on’, or ‘getting over’ grief, but I want to tell other bereaved people that one day, you might be out walking, maybe with a dog, the weather will be irrelevant, but you will feel happiness return to you. It may only be fleeting, but it will feel like the start of being restored.

 

 

 

Demons and what to do with them

Six weeks ago, after a twenty two year gap, I became a student again. I’ve begun a PhD by Publication at the University of East Anglia. I’ll be focusing on my body of published work, the poems in Her Birth particularly, and looking at the consequences of projecting a personal narrative into the public sphere. I could have written a blog post about how I feel. I could have written a newspaper article about what it’s like to publish a personal narrative on the subject of grief. I chose this particular route because it gives me the scope to explore and research in more detail things that have been bugging me for some time now. I want to examine the shift that took place. Her Birth began as a love story to my daughter and a testimony to loss that I wanted, almost urgently, to take into the public arena. Within three years of publication I was unable to open its pages, wanting only to retreat. Something happened. I want to look at back at that period of time, to understand it.  Hopefully I’ll have something interesting to say about life-writing and memoir. Hopefully the result will see me being able to engage with the book in a new and enlightened way.  I have some demons to sort out.  But I also need to remind myself of the good that book did.  It’s a short, intense period of study.  I’m reading some fascinating stuff. I have terrific supervisors. Onward….

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On reading Karen McCarthy Woolf

This is not a review. This is a short piece about spending eight hours on trains last week, getting to and from a reading, and having uninterrupted time to open several neglected books, including Karen McCarthy Woolf’s An Aviary of Small Birds.

The collection, about the poet’s stillborn son, is something I have been keen to read. For obvious reasons, some may say, and yes I was deeply curious to see how another poet and mother writes about the death of a child. By the sixth poem, and the ‘tiny white vests, unworn’ I was crying so much I had to put the book back in my bag. I was surprised to be upset. That may sound naive but I’ve got used to keeping myself together for Her Birth readings. I thought I could cope with the subject matter. Talking to poet Martin Figura once, about his performance of Whistle – a mesmerising, autobiographical piece about the death of his mother, we both agreed that keeping a boundary between how we felt about our experiences and what we revealed to the audience was essential. It would be detrimental for the audience to see us upset. He did make me laugh when he said, ‘Nobody wants to see that Rebecca.’ True.

But this time, reading An Aviary of Small Birds, I was in the audience. I did finish the book, later, at home, and at the end of it, I was thinking about the poet’s dead baby, not mine. I was immersed in McCarthy Woolf’s acute, sensory images. I was immersed in all the beauty she has been able to create. I was immersed in the water ‘…because it is a comfort,/this return to water, to the stream, to the earth;//the mindless torrent of the brook,’ (from ‘Hawk’).  It made me think of Robert Peake’s moving, elegiac pamphlet The Silence Teacher with its many watery images and scenes. I mentioned the connection between water and bereavement to Robert. ‘I suppose grief is fluid somehow’, was his response. The fluidity of McCarthy Woolf’s book carries us through her experience. Rivers ‘press, insinuate, overwhelm, insist, endure,’ and we are passengers, sometimes clinging to the sides, sometimes peering over the edge to look more closely.  There were harrowing parts:

‘Under Other requests or concerns:
hands, feet, face, hair – all must be left intact.
Brain restored to head, skin
stitched neatly and correctly.’

(from ‘The Paperwork’)

Harrowing yes, but it felt right to read them, because such experiences need to be exposed and discovered if we are to understand ‘difficult’ things. McCarthy Woolf’s poems have made me understand more about this very particular grief and its impact. There was a lot I could relate to, obviously, but the experience was so uniquely hers, the poems became illuminating. I may not have gained comfort from reading An Aviary of Small Birds, but what I did glean from its pages was knowledge.

 

Karen McCarthy Woolf will be appearing at The 2014 Aldeburgh Poetry Festival this weekend.

Motherhood, poetry and loss

‘I think my poems are full of words that I’m afraid to say’ – Pam Rehm*

In the weeks following my baby daughter’s death, there were days I could not speak. One particular day, my husband and I went for a drive, in silence.  Not the silence we had sometimes known before: both of us sulking, after a petty row.  This was a dumbstruck silence.  We were dumbstruck by what had happened to us.  It had taken courage from my husband that morning to pull me from our bed, get me upright and out of the house.  Still I couldn’t speak.  My mind however, swirled.  It wouldn’t rest and five years later there would be a book of poems.

That book is being published this year, in August, the month that stores the anniversary of her death.  It is finally going to be a tangible thing and of course, I’m pleased. I have a great publisher, a fine editor and feedback so far has been kind.  But all of that has come at such a cost.  The book would not exist if my daughter was still alive.

Writing the poems has given me a certain amount of control over my grief.  I have been able to express, share, reveal things – often difficult things – that I would have struggled to “say”.  By that I mean, say to people around me, in conversation.  If asked questions about my daughter, I give brief answers, because I’m terrified of upsetting people.  I avoid situations where I might be asked how many children I have, or general ‘baby talk’.  I feel I am the ‘bad news’ in the room – the death of a child is just too awful to explain.  So I keep quiet, but it doesn’t feel right.  Writing the poems has liberated me from that self-censorship.

I was once asked ‘Why didn’t you just write a memoir?’  Well, I’m a poet and there is a place in poetry for this type of autobiographical collection.  Look at Christopher Reid, Tim Liardet, Jill Bialoksy, Julia Copus, Penelope Shuttle – the list for ‘loss’ is endless.  Poems offer up a huge amount of information in a small, intimate space.  That’s what I love about them.  They are also an invitation to look very closely at something and that’s what I want to do with this book.  I’m asking people to look closely at the details of child loss.  I promised myself I would write this collection.  As a mother I long for my daughter, as a poet I am inspired by her.  It took me four years to write.  It’s a manuscript of only 6,438 words. But if I hadn’t written those words down, I’m not sure I would have ever said them.

 Her Birth by Rebecca Goss, Carcanet/Northern House, July 2013.  Shortlisted for The 2013 Forward Prize for Best Collection. You can read ‘Lost’ from the collection here.  And my interview in The Observer about the book here.

 

*From:The Grand Permission: new writings on poetics and motherhood, ed. Patricia Dienstfrey and Brenda Hillman, Wesleyan University Press, 2003).

Perfect Places

October saw the launch of Perfect Places, a Time-To-Read initiative aiming to encourage poetry reading and borrowing in libraries.

I was delighted to be one of the twelve poets from the North West selected to take part.   We each submitted a poem, set in the North West.   The poems were illustrated and made into posters, postcards and then shared in libraries, community centres, surgeries and so on.   My poem, taken from my forthcoming collection, is titled ‘A Child Dies in Liverpool’.  I am aware how bleak that sounds, but was heartened by the selection panel’s decision to accept it.  We do turn to poetry at times of distress, I certainly do.  Poetry addresses sad and difficult topics.   The poster version of my poem is displayed at The Alder Centre, at Liverpool Alder Hey Hospital, where help and support is provided for bereaved families.  A poster is also at the Head Office of Child Bereavement UK and in the offices of Dying Matters.  I am grateful to the support of all these organisations.

As part of the project each poet gave readings at libraries.  I had two very enjoyable afternoons at Blackburn library and Bebington library.  Both libraries had full and interesting calendars when it came to hosting a range of literary events. I met some incredibly nice people through this project – and remain inspired by the enthusiasm, passion and commitment shown by librarians.

To see the poster, read the poem and listen to me reading it click here.