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.

 

 

 

Rebecca Goss on Alison Watt — The Carcanet Blog

This week on the blog, Rebecca Goss discusses one of the primary influences behind her new collection Girl – artist, Alison Watt. ‘All you know for sure is how a painting makes you feel inside, and that can be incredibly powerful.’ – Alison Watt… 732 more words

via Rebecca Goss on Alison Watt — The Carcanet Blog

Carousel

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It’s publication day for Carousel.  The book is the result of a very gentle and enjoyable eight year collaboration with my friend, the writer and photographer Chris Routledge.  It started as a blog, with posts published erratically. The project experienced long dormant periods, but I’ve always loved every photograph Chris has ever sent me, and loved the conversations we had, resulting from seeing our work placed side by side.

Luke Thompson, editor of Guillemot Press approached us last year, interested to see the work, with the option of turning it into a publication.  Luke was aware of my poems having commissioned me for his unique Triptychs project in 2017. I knew that Guillemot Press made very lovely books.  Luke’s interest made Chris and I sit up and sort ourselves out. We returned to look closely at the work we already had. Chris took more photographs, I wrote more poems. The collaboration gained some coherence.

I’ve spent eight years looking at this project on a screen.  Now I can hold it. Guillemot Press has made a beautiful, tangible thing and I thank them very much.  It’s being produced as a limited edition, only 200 copies. Do take a look at Guillemot’s site to find out more about it.  Thank you.

https://www.guillemotpress.co.uk/poetry/rebecca-goss-amp-chris-routledge

Chris and I will be launching Carousel at The Open Eye Gallery, in Liverpool on Thursday December 6th, 6-8pm. We will be joined by special guest, Guillemot Press poet Amy McCauley.

Stealing Stories

I will write more soon, about various poetry projects in progress, but wanted to update on courses I am teaching locally, in East Anglia.  Details here of a new one, at a great venue in Colchester, starting July 1st.  Seven places remaining….

“STEALING STORIES: A short creative writing course, exploring narrative and poetry.”

The aim of this course will be to seek out the stories that come from within us, or stories we glean from others. We will explore ‘other voices’ and look at how to use these voices in your writing, paying attention to poetic language, character, narrative – pushing the creative boundaries of truth and lies. Designed to liberate the imagination using a wide variety of stimuli, and an opportunity to work in a small, attentive group, we will focus on how to entwine tales with poetry and turn them into unique pieces of creative work.

Location: The Tree Room, 12 Trinity Street, Colchester, CO1 1JN.
Time: Doors open 2pm, for refreshments. Prompt start: 2.30 – 4.30pm.
Dates: Saturday 1 July, 15 July, 29 July.
Cost: £85
Number of places: 10

If you would like to book a place, please email Rebecca for a registration form on: gosspoems@hotmail.co.uk

Pain

Pain is not a word I would use in a poem. It’s not specific enough. It’s not precise. But two months on from a bout of pleurisy, that left me feeling wretched and bewildered, I want to write about pain.

While I was ill, all I could think about was the hurt, as it moved around my upper body. To steal Jo Shapcott’s word, I was shocked by pain’s ‘mutability’. Pleuritic pain doesn’t stay in one place. It sneaks around your back and shoulders and chest. Some days you can’t walk properly, your frame crippled by a cough. Some days you can’t breathe calmly, because there’s something skulking in your ribcage, with a knife. It’s the closest I’ve come to feeling anything remotely hallucinatory, so intense was its burn.

Having never been ill before, the only pain I’ve really experienced is the pain of childbirth. But that was entirely different. It was quick and purposeful. This pain was explicitly unkind. I spent a lot of time in my sick bed, mentally trying to articulate what I was feeling.  I convinced myself I was onto something. Where was the language for pain? Of course, a quick Google later, and I discovered this to be a well-mined subject, but it made for some interesting reading.  My favourite quote came from American essayist and academic Elaine Scarry saying that “physical pain does not simply resist language but actively destroys it”. Nothing has ever made more sense to me. But there was no way I was going through all that agony and not writing a poem about it.

The only thing I enjoyed about any of this, was the challenge of writing poems about pleurisy. All my work tries to avoid sentimentality, but with pain, it could be easy to slip into cliché. Trying to be original and believable made me really think about the words I was choosing.  Our similes for pain can be so heightened and ‘unreal’. It’s only in the past week that I haven’t woken up and not bored my husband by (yet again) stating that I felt like I inhabited the body of a ninety-year old woman. But I don’t really know what it feels like to be a ninety-year old woman. The challenge for me, came from wanting to remain ‘true’ to the experience. Or maybe I just wanted to eschew self-pity, and ask you to believe me that it really did hurt.

So my new collection, almost done, will contain a few pleurisy poems. Here’s one of them. Not quite finished.  And it still doesn’t nail the pain I felt.  As I said at a recent reading (managed the twenty minutes without coughing, thank God), I actually think the best poem would begin: ‘It’s like being in labour for thirty days, but with the baby trying to get out of your ribs……’  That’s believable for some, surely.

Pleurisy

At its most acute,
she pictured an orb,

phosphorescent,
in its snare of rib.

It eased to the pressure
of a handstand,

executed
by someone fully grown

on her chest,
and every cough

discharged small bombs
across her back.

In her most breathless
state, there was a tree –

cankerous and scratching,
malevolent in its reach

around her frame.
She wanted it uprooted,

hauled outside her body,
just to pick off the lungs

snagged amongst branches.

Poetry & Communication in the Medical World

‘In the din of medicine, what are the voices of our patients, what are our voices, that they become so hard to hear?’ (1)

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Last week I spent a truly enlightening day at Manchester University’s Medical School. I was there to contribute to a day of seminars on the topic of Significant Illness, run by Dr. Sarah Collins. Brilliant and inspiring, Sarah is course director for the MSc Medical Humanities and Senior Lecturer in Communication. Students come to Significant Illness sessions to hear former/current patients talk about their experiences of living with a ‘significant illness’. Two women came to speak about being diagnosed and treated for cancer. I was there to discuss patient/carer/doctor dialogue and palliative care, but also, as the first poet to visit the centre, to run poetry workshops exploring poems about the body.

The day was all about communication. It was set in the Consultation Skills Learning Centre, where Sarah teaches Clinical Communication. She aims to encourage a relaxed and informal atmosphere. There was lots of food and drink provided, to sustain us throughout the day, and we needed it. The talks are frank and can be distressing, but Sarah provided a safe place for everyone, including the students, to talk openly about their views. We started with a discussion in small groups about what ‘palliative’ means. I admitted to the students that I have always interpreted ‘palliative’ as a hopeless word. Its connotations for me are negative and desperate. The medical students however, saw its meaning change, and adopt different levels of significance depending upon the age of the patient. If the word was attributed to a child, they understood my interpretation, but when applied to an elderly person, then the word became more positive. ‘Palliative’ became about making people ‘comfortable’, about enhancing the quality of a life, however limited, not a failure to save one.

In workshops that followed we discussed poems about diagnosis by Raymond Carver, Sharon Olds, Jon Glover. I had to remind myself I was not working with creative writing students, so acute was their understanding of the texts, so engaged were their responses.

One thing that really struck me is how much I assumed the students inherently understood the patient experience.  I was surprised how much they welcomed not only the poems but also Debbie’s story, about her diagnosis and treatment for breast cancer. I began to realise she was telling them something ‘new’, when she explained the impact of diagnosis, on her and her husband. I expected a medical student to already appreciate the range of emotional reactions, or to foresee what oncologist Samir Guglani, Director of Medicine Unboxed has described as the ‘charged world of the medical encounter’ (2) This is not a negative observation.  I’m beginning to understand, that just because it’s happened a lot in my family, not everyone has experienced ‘death’ and ‘dying’.  For some medics, the world of hospitals may be their first encounter with serious illness and bereavement.

Poet and editor Jon Glover, has written about living with Multiple Sclerosis in his collection Magnetic Resource Imaging. He and I have talked about the ‘alien world’ of the hospital, and people’s behaviour within it.

He says: ‘I am always amazed that they (medics) can seem interested, calm, helpful, sympathetic, gracious when they have just said something that changes one’s life. And they have said it to five people that morning and five more that afternoon, no doubt. And then they go home to tea.’

The poems led to an interesting discussion about how to communicate ‘bad news’. How acceptable is it for doctors to reveal their ‘human’ side? With that come questions of vulnerability, professionalism and respect. In a telephone call with Samir Guglani, I told him about the consultant who came to see my husband and I within an hour of our daughter’s death. She had been part of the team trying to save her, or rather prolong the little life Ella had left, at what was a very traumatic time in intensive care. Whilst talking to us, she began to cry, but abruptly stopped herself. She said she was being unprofessional. I wanted her to cry. We had looked to doctors all through Ella’s life for advice and help and knowledge. For them to cry, surely that would prove to my husband and I, that what had happened was terrible? We shouldn’t have to accept it. I felt cross that she chose to censor her response. When explaining this to Samir, he asked me to consider what right did she have, to intrude on our grief in that way? Could it be be detrimental if she was to place her own sadness upon us?

On sharing this with the students, they agreed that ‘getting it right’ was challenging in the complex world of communication within hospitals.  They were keen to overcome it, find an answer. In the end, we decided that time was an important factor. Although time is the most difficult thing to claim more of, we agreed it was needed for initial reactions to be understood, not misunderstood, between doctor and patient. Time spent in a room with a clinician is almost suspended in some way, it doesn’t feel real, especially at that moment of explaining bad news. There is almost a freezing of time, when the patients’ senses become extremely heightened. Glover’s poem ‘Back to the Diagnosis’ ends with him leaving the room, after an appointment with his consultant, and going ‘out to the corridor/and the waiting room and the files and the right time.’

After a writing workshop in the afternoon, where students read poems about all kinds of bodies by Jo Shapcott, Jean Sprackland, Neil Rollinson and Clare Best, they then began to write their own ‘body poems’. The day ended with a reading from Her Birth. I read to medical students and clinicians, writers and writing students from the city, actors who are ‘simulated patients’ at the hospital, as well as music and art therapists from hospitals in Manchester.  The setting was the most unusual I’ve read in so far: mock consultation rooms, where the students learn and practice. Nothing like a full-size skeleton as backdrop.

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The students seemed keen for more days like this, where they are given the opportunity to learn from ‘the voices of our patients’ and express themselves creatively.  I spent the day with intelligent young people, who absorb a vast amount of knowledge daily.  They learn intensely, but many of them miss literature. There is ‘no time’ for it in their studies and yet they feel they could learn so much from it. It was wonderful to see the students responding so vibrantly to the poems they read and heard that day.  I am very grateful to Sarah for inviting me to the centre, and for letting me devise workshops for the day. It was a day of learning for everyone involved, myself included and it felt so positive to be using poetry in this way.  It was a privilege to spend time with the students. I will leave you with some of their revealing thoughts about the day.

“As a former literature and languages student, it was really refreshing to dip back into that world an indeed learn more about the bridge between art and medicine. I feel that my arts degree has truly enriched my view of our world and of people and of ‘the human condition’ – and as such has added so much to my study of medicine – coming to the reading has enabled me to reconnect with this.” (Olivia George, Year 2 Medical Student)

“It was really nice to have something involving literature as this is an interest of mine that it is hard to explore while doing a medical degree.” (Sam Button, Year 2 Medical student)

“I believe that introducing the power of poetry into medical education can make a difference in the way medical students approach their patients….Coming to the session really helped me consider how we as medical professionals can make a difference to families affected by bereavement – empathy is fundamental for healthcare workers and this form of poetry really helped me revisit its importance. The role of poetry is hugely underestimated in medicine and medical communication – needs to be promoted and encouraged!” (Sargam Vohra, Year 3 medical student)

“I really enjoyed attending the workshop. It was very comforting to listen to poetry about medical conditions. Being a medic means I think about medicine for a long time, so it can sometimes get overwhelming. But looking at medicine through poetry is healing and restoring. I think poetry gives medicine a more humane perspective. The workshop gave me an opportunity to think deeply and philosophically. I would love to attend more workshops like this.” (Zarat Queen, year 2 medical student)

“An interesting session……relevant to our studies but also cathartic and helpful personally. A useful reminder of why we are going into medicine! Something different, enriching our experience of the course.” (Bethany Butcher, Year 2 medical student)

“We were taken through a whirlwind tour of real patient experiences of hospital life and treatment at the same time as considering the ethical, emotional and philosophical aspects to debilitating illness, death and bereavement. As well as being fantastically enjoyable throughout, it was a brilliant way to introduce second year students to the lay person views and the importance and significance of understanding death and the roller-coaster ride involved for patients.” (Matthew May, 5th year medical student)

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Dr Sarah Collins and I during the post-reading Q&A

Dr Sarah Collins and I during the post-reading Q&A

Notes:  Quotes (1) & (2) from ‘The Art Of Medicine: Medicine’s Human Voices’ by Samir Guglani, The Lancet, Vol 384, Sept, 2014