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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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.

The mentoring life

Throughout all my varied experiences of teaching creative writing, I always knew I liked giving feedback. To look closely at someone’s work and be able to give constructive, critical advice enabling a poet to move their work forward is incredibly rewarding.  I don’t set about telling my mentees what to write, or how to write it. The mentor and mentee instead enter a conversation about the work. From that conversation come so many things: insight into the writing process, themes in the work that are starting to make themselves clear, how to free a poem if that poem is stuck.  We discuss wider reading and recommend texts to each other. There is focus on the contemporary poetry scene. I consider long and hard where my mentees might want to submit their work.

I offer ‘sessions’ looking at batches of poems over a short or extended period of time.  With each session, mentees get extensive written feedback from me, the time to submit rewrites and then a Skype call to discuss rewrites and any questions they may have. The Skype contact really cements the mentor/mentee relationship, especially if I’m working with that poet for several months.  Getting to know the writer a little helps me to understand their work more.  Providing an online mentoring service has enabled me to work with poets, regardless of their location. My mentees have come mostly from the UK but also Germany and China.

I’ve worked with a variety of writers, at different points in their careers as poets. Some are at the exciting, early stages of getting published.  I also work with established voices, poets who have published books, and my role is to edit a forthcoming collection.  I want to continue to build my reputation as a mentor. I keep in touch with all the poets I have worked with, on a regular basis. Many of them have provided great testimonials for my teaching page of this blog, for which I am very grateful. It has been wonderful to see them thrive.  They’ve all worked so hard and achieved great things, so I thought I’d focus on each writer here, in order that the poetry world can see what they’re up to:

LIZ HALL

In 2014, artist and performer Liz Hall was beginning work on her Arts Council funded performance, ‘This New Land She Has Reached’ focussing on her experiences of being a mother to a young woman with Down’s Syndrome. Hannah, who was 28, performed with her in the piece, which involved the spoken word, projection and movement.When Liz approached me the project was still in development.  Liz wanted some creative direction for both the written and performance aspects of the piece.  She worked with a director regarding the performance, and with me regarding the spoken words.  I loved working with her.  I’ve never forgotten the poems. Her writing was bold and moving and Liz was feisty.  She often disputed some of my suggested edits, and I loved our conversations that came from that.  The finished performance of  ‘This New Land She Has Reached’ was very well received.  An artist and performer based in Sheffield, Liz blurs the boundaries between visual art, poetry and performance. She has an MA in Fine Art and has been shortlisted for the Bridport Poetry Prize and the Pighog Pamphlet competition. She is now working on a series of poems extending her interest in female familial relationships that she also intends to take through to a future performance. Find out more at: www.lizhall.co.uk

VICTORIA KENNEFICK

Victoria is a bit of a force in poetry.  Dynamic, knowledgeable, engaged in the contemporary poetry community, her work is imaginative, elegant and poignant. It was a pleasure to work with her over a period of six months, seeing her become sure of her voice, and the poems she was writing.  Victoria Kennefick’s poetry pamphlet, White Whale, (Southword Editions, 2015), won the Munster Literature Centre Fool for Poetry Chapbook Competition and the Saboteur Award for Best Poetry Chapook. Her work has appeared in Poetry, Prelude, Poetry News, The Irish Times, Poetry Ireland Review, The Stinging Fly, Ambit, Copper Nickel and elsewhere. She is a recipient of a Next Generation Bursary from the Arts Council of Ireland and most recently her poems have featured on RTÉ Lyric FM’s Read Victoria’s poems: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/victoria-kennefick

 JO BURNS

Jo came to me at the start of 2017, with a manuscript for a prospective pamphlet. We ended up working on over 70 poems together.  I know her work well, and I’ve said before that to read Jo’s work is to feel exhilarated and enthralled. Incredibly easy to work with, wise and astute about her own creative process, Jo is an intelligent, important new voice.  I’ve enjoyed watching her achieve much success since we met.  Jo lives in Germany. Her poetry has been published widely in journals such as Acumen, Oxford Poetry, The Stinging Fly, Southword, Popshots, The Tangerine and Magma. She won the McClure Poetry Prize at the Irish Writers Festivalin Los Gatos, CA and the Magma Judges Prize Poetry Competition 2018. Her pamphlet Circling for Gods was published by Eyewear Publishing in March 2018. Turas Press will publish her first full-length collection, White Horses, in November 2018. Helena Nelson’s review of Circling for Godscan be read here: https://www.sphinxreview.co.uk/index.php/688-jo-burns-circling-for-gods

 SIMON COSTELLO

Simon approached me at the beginning of 2018.  Beginning to get published, he was considering applying for a place on a Creative Writing MA but wanted to hone his work before he applied.  From his first submission, I was impressed by Simon’s obvious skill and creative energy. I always sensed that Simon really enjoyed writing.  He’s conscientious and well-read, good traits in any writer. We worked together for 8 months.  In that time Simon matured as a poet, gaining conviction about what he was writing and how.  Simon’s poems are published in Rattle, The Stinging Fly, And Other Poems, The Galway Review and elsewhere. In 2017 Simon was one of the winners of the Ekphrastic Poetry Challenge & editor’s choice for US poetry magazine Rattle. Next month he begins an MFA in Creative Writing at Manchester Metropolitan University. It was a high point to conclude our work together knowing he had gained that place at MMU.  https://stingingfly.org/product/summer-2018/ 

 RACHEL BOWER

I discovered Rachel’s work when co-judging The 2017 Flambard Poetry Prize. As I said in my judge’s report, her winning poems portrayed early motherhood with startling originality, exploring the natural world in new and sensual ways.  I was very taken by it.  Rachel approached me several months after the prize giving about mentoring and I’ve loved having the chance to explore her poetry further.  Rachel is a Leverhulme Research Fellow at the University of Leeds. She is the author of Moon Milk (Valley Press, 2018) and Epistolarity and World Literature, 1980-2010 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017). Rachel is the editor of Verse Matters (with Helen Mort, Valley Press, 2017), and various special issues of academic journals. Rachel’s poems have been published in Stand, The Interpreter’s House, Frontier, Popshot Magazine and many other places, and broadcast on BBC radio. Her poems have won several prizes, most recently in the 2018 York Literature Festival Poetry Prize and the Mother’s Milk Books Writing Prize 2017. Website: https://rachelbowerwrites.wordpress.com

WENDY FRENCH

Wendy French is an established poet.  She plays an important role as a writer working in the field of medical humanities, and for the past twenty years has worked with children and adults with mental health problems.  Wendy was Poet-in-Residence at the Macmillan Cancer Centre at University College Hospitals NHS Trust from 2014-15 and wrote a collection of poems resulting from that residency.  You can read my review of that book here. Wendy won the Hippocrates Poetry and Medicine Prize (NHS section) in 2010 and was awarded second prize in 2011.  She demonstrates great scope as a poet, with three collections, two chapbooks, and a collaborative collection, Born in the NHS, with the poet Jane Kirwan. She is co-editor of three poetry anthologies, including Fanfare, published by Second Light in 2015. Each of her collections is unique, inventive and able to address difficult subjects with grace and unsentimental restraint. Her new work skillfully explores form, language and complex personal histories.  It’s been fascinating to see how she is continuing to evolve and challenge herself as a poet. Read recent work here: https://andotherpoems.com/2018/06/22/two-poems-by-wendy-french/

NANCY MATTSON

An established poet, active on the contemporary scene, Nancy wanted me to edit the full-length manuscript of her fourth book, Vision on Platform 2 which will be published by Shoestring Press in November 2018. Nancy and I both have early collections published by Flambard Press but have got to know each other more latterly. It was a privilege to spend time on her forthcoming collection.  Nancy wanted me to look closely at sections of the manuscript, whilst considering the order of poems and the ultimate arc and focus of the book.  I loved immersing myself in this manuscript. Nancy has written a book of rich reflections on nature and love and childhood, and it is very accomplished. Nancy Mattson moved from the Canadian prairies to London in 1990. Her most recent collection, Finns and Amazons (Arrowhead Press 2012), begins with poems about early 20th century Russian women artists but moves to a search for her Finnish great-aunt who disappeared in Stalinist Russia. Nancy’s previous collections are Writing with Mercury (Flambard Press 2006) and Maria Breaks Her Silence (Coteau Books 1989; shortlisted for Canada’s Gerald Lampert Award). She co-organises Poetry in the Crypt in Islington, north London. See also http://www.poetrypf.co.uk/nancymattsonpoems.shtml

ROSEMARY APPLETON

Current mentee Rosemary Appleton lives in Suffolk. Her DPhil (St Cross College, Oxford) was on medieval women’s contributions to manuscript poetry anthologies.  At this early stage of her poetry writing career, she has already seen her poems published in Mslexia, The Fenland Reed, Spontaneity and #refugeeswelcome (an Eyewear Press anthology).  Commended in the Four Corners Poetry Competition and Highly commended in the Shepton Mallet Snowdrop Festival Poetry Competition judged by Alison Brackenbury, Rosemary is starting to enjoy competition success. Her poems are full of tender observations and sensual description. I look forward to seeing more of her work in the future. Read poems here:  https://verse.press/author/rosemary-appleton-3552037586280371894

 ELISABETH SENNITT CLOUGH

Elisabeth approached me after receiving an Arts Council grant and used some of the funds towards mentoring costs.  We are currently working on her next full-length collection, At or Below Sea Level and will soon be coming to the end of a five-month mentoring plan.  Dedicated and extremely hard working, Elisabeth has been great to work with. I had come across Elisabeth’s work before, when I taught for The Poetry School and I’ve loved seeing the bold, new direction her work is taking. As I say in my endorsement for her book, her poems dissect physical and emotional landscapes with a captivating intensity. The poems will stay with you long after reading.  Elisabeth Sennitt Clough’s pamphlet Glass (2016) won the Paper Swans inaugural pamphlet competition. It became a Poetry Society ‘Top Pick’ (2016) and was ‘Best Pamphlet Winner’ at the Saboteur Awards 2017. Her debut collection Sightings was published by Pindrop Press and won the Michael Schmidt Award. Her poems appear in the Forward Prize Anthology, The Rialto, New Welsh Review, Mslexia, Poetry Salzburg Review, Magma, Poem, Stand, and The Cannons’ Mouth. She is an alumna of the Arvon/Jerwood and the Toast Poets mentoring schemes. Her second collection At or Below Sea Level is forthcoming with Paper Swans Press and is a Spring 2019 Poetry Book Society Recommendation. Website: www.elisabethsennittclough.co.uk

ALISON BINNEY

Alison Binney is an English teacher from Cambridge who has recently created more space in her life for writing poetry. A current mentee, I really like Alison’s work. She’s skillfully economical with language, able to reveal so much in a short poem. The work is candid, clever and touching.  Alison is at that exciting stage of starting to get published, and is doing extremely well. You can find her poems in recent issues of such established journals as The North and Magma.  She has poems forthcoming in Under the Radar and The Fenland Reed. http://www.poetrybusiness.co.uk/shop/992/583/north-60

If you would like to know more about being mentored or have any questions about working with me on your poems, a full manuscript or a creative project, do get in touch: gosspoems@hotmail.co.uk

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

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.

The Jupiter Project

Last year, my friend and writer Chris Routledge asked if I wanted to work with him on a poetry/photography collaboration. It’s been great to work on something very different. I loved browsing his images and waiting for that ‘hit’  – the moment I saw something that I knew I could turn into a poem. Sometimes I gave Chris poems, to see if he could ‘illustrate’ them with a photographic image. The whole thing has been really enjoyable.  We thought World Poetry Day would be a good day to launch. It’s called The Jupiter Project. Take a look.

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).