Cordelia Feldman Prize for Life Writing WINNER : Bediye Topal

Cordelia Feldman Prize for Life Writing

Birkbeck Creative Writing and the family of Birkbeck alumni Cordelia Feldman, are delighted to announce the inaugural Cordelia Feldman Prize for Life Writing.


Statement From the Feldman Family

This prize is awarded in commemoration of the writing life of Cordelia Jade Feldman (15th May 1979-8th January 2022), who completed the MA in Creative Writing at Birkbeck in 2007. Diagnosed with breast cancer in 2013, after many years of suffering and debilitating treatment, which Cordelia confronted with indefatigable courage and humour, she eventually succumbed to the illness, but not before she had published two books. In Bloom (Dandelion, 2021), Cordelia’s first book, was conceived and took shape during her MA at Birkbeck. An autobiographical novel, In Bloom is work of young adult fiction concerned with teenagers’ experiences of recreational drug use on the 90s techno and drum n bass scene, and their psychiatric consequences, depicted through the richly imagined interior life of the novel’s protagonist, Tanya.


Cordelia’s second book, a memoir entitled Well Done Me (Dandelion, 2021), is an intimate portrayal of the illnesses from which she suffered and the strategies she evolved to cope with them, mingling pain and humour, the stark realities and indignities of Cordelia’s everyday life and the surpassing optimism and bravery with which she confronted them, retaining always a sense of the beauty of the natural world that surrounds us, the animals and birds and flowers with which she shared her life, and in which she found solace.

In a life bedevilled by illness—Cordelia suffered from bipolar disorder for twenty years as well as cancer—writing gave Cordelia purpose. Writing helped her to structure and narrate her existence, providing a focus for her energies, diminished though they were during her final years, and allowed her to experience forms of productivity and accomplishment denied to her in other spheres of her life. No single experience was more positive or formative in this pursuit than her years on the MA at Birkbeck, where Cordelia found inspiration among her tutors and peers, found community, companionship and a sense of shared endeavour among her fellow students, and a wealth of techniques that would inform her writing process for years to come. Cordelia’s mother and father, Teresa and Keith, and her brother, Alexander, make this award to a Birkbeck student in Cordelia’s name, in recognition of her dedication to life writing. We believe that Cordelia would be delighted by such a legacy, supporting writing as writing always supported her.

You can read and Extract from Cordelia’s memoir Well Done Me on MIROnline.

Statement from Julia Bell:

‘I remember Cordelia well and we stayed in touch after she graduated. I was always in admiration of the way she handled the hardships life threw at her, but also how well and honestly she wrote about it. She had a talent for straight talking prose and I’m so pleased we can keep her presence with us at Birkbeck with this award. I also remember that while she was on the MA she played a prominent role in Stephen Fry’s EMMY award-winning documentary The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive, which was also filmed at Birkbeck.

The Prize:

 

The prize is awarded at MA Creative Writing Exam Board each year and is the sum of £150. The prize-winner is chosen from the top 3 highest graded pieces of life-writing from across the Writing the Self and Creative Non-Fiction Courses. The Feldman family choose the winner from the 3 pieces they are sent.

 

The Winner:

 

The winner of the inaugural prize is Bediye Topal with her piece X and I.

Bediye was born and raised in a village in Southern Turkey and came to the UK as a refugee in her early twenties. Her piece X and I is about that experience. You can read and extract from her winning piece on MIR Online.

Well done me, by Cordelia Feldman – extract

I’m sitting up in bed at my parental home, writing this on Mum’s computer.  At the moment I spend about four days per week here, and three days at my flat.  This house, where I spent the first thirty years of my life, is in Radlett in leafy Hertfordshire, just on the edge of the green belt.  My cat Spitfire, also known as the Fluffy Monster, or more recently, Precious Angel Fluffball lives here as I am too ill to look after him. 

 

At the moment, my life looks like this: personal training once a week; two regular dog walking clients, Pilates once a week, Barre Pilates twice a week.  No actual job since being sacked from my dream one at a new bookshop in Radlett.  Before that I worked part-time at an authors’ and actors’ agency for nigh on fifteen years.  Seb, the love of my life, split up with me at the end of March five years ago. We’d been together on and off over a period of eleven years.  More, no doubt much more, to come on Seb later.  My new man is called Film Chap. We will meet him soon.

 

This is the house where A Clockwork Orange was filmed. Designed by Richard Rogers and Norman Foster, it was hailed as a modernist masterpiece and Stanley Kubrick saw it whilst scouting for locations for the film and fell in love with it.  It’s the house of the writer who is injured and whose wife is raped by Alex and the Droogs.  Spitfire has just turned seven and a half.  My brother lives in Haifa in Israel.  The panther is here now.

               “What’s the point of you writing a Memoir?” the panther says, gazing at me with amber eyes.  “Who do you think is going to want to read about your life?  You don’t do anything or…”

               “It’s going to be a book about living with mental illness, living with cancer, living in recovery from addiction,” I say.  “People say that I’m brave and inspirational and…”

               “But you’re not,” the panther says.  “You’re fat, unemployed and unemployable as far as I can tell, lazy…”

               “If I write it, and it’s good they will read it,” I say, feeling unsure about this. The panther returns to grooming his flank with his sandpaper tongue.  I stroke the soft back of his neck.  He rests his enormous head on my shoulder.   His breath smells of rotting meat.

 

I used to suffer with Writer’s Block until I completed a Nanowrimo Write A Novel In a Month challenge, set up by a group of techies in San Francisco.  It’s an output challenge, the aim is to write fifty thousand words of a new novel in a month.  That first November I wrote sixty thousand words.  Ever since then, I haven’t had a problem with writer’s block.  Also: for the last few years I’ve been writing a blog.  First it was a Dating after Breast Cancer Surgery one called Scars, Tears and Training Bras, and now it’s one about exercise and my life, my Bipolar Disorder and Secondary Breast Cancer called The Rapid Cyclist.  So, I write every day.  And people read my writing every day.  As to whether it’s any good or not, I try not to worry about that.  I’ve just published my first novel “In Bloom” to rave reviews.  It’s doing really well.

 

This, though: this has to be good or no-one will publish it.  And no-one will read it.  And ever since a whole army of publishers rejected my first novel some thirteen years ago, I’ve been putting off starting another major project due to the fear of writing hundreds and thousands of words that no-one will read.  But in recent times I have been reading a lot of memoirs: Amy Liptrot’s brilliant The Outrun about her recovery from alcoholism, A A Gill’s Pour Me about overcoming alcoholism and  Bryony Gordon’s Mad Girl about her obsessive compulsive disorder.  I’ve just read the Karl Knausgaard series which begins with ‘A Death in the Family’. There’s been a thought at the back of my mind that I’m reading these memoirs for research, that perhaps a memoir rather than another novel is what I will write.  And so at last I’m starting.

 

My psychiatrist Dr Joshua Stein, who I’ve been seeing privately for nearly twenty years – put me on Librium to stop me drinking when I went into hospital for a major cancer operation on 30th August 2016, so I’ve been sober for almost five years now.  Part of me thought that it was the drinking stopping me from doing proper writing.  I no longer have that excuse: I have a clear head, space, time and writing to do. Now is the time for action.  I’m almost forty-two, I wanted to publish a book by forty and managed to publish In Bloom just a year later.

 

I’m tired, so very tired.  I’m on thirteen I think different medications for my breast cancer and my Bipolar and other things.  Let me list them:

1.     Latuda/ lurasidone: antipsychotic for my Bipolar, as a mood stabiliser.

2.     Venlafaxine: SSNRI antidepressant. I can’t take SSRIs due to the ‘manic switch’.

3.     Gemcarbo chemotherapy: gemcitabine and carboplatin.

4.     Fexofenadine: a non-drowsy antihistamine: for my allergies.

5.     Clonazepam: an anti-anxiety benzodiazepine to help me stay off alcohol.

6.     Sodium docusate: for constipation caused by the cancer drugs.

7.     Zolpidem to help me sleep.

8.     Bisphosphonate implant: to seal my bones against cancer and to strengthen them as osteoporosis is a common menopausal side effect.

9.     Colecalciferol and calcium carbonate:  Calcium and vitamin D supplement to go with the bisphosphonates.

10.  Vitamin C to guard against colds, from which I suffer due to abnormally thickened nasal passages.  The result of allergic rhinitis which I have had all my life.

 

So, the cumulative effect of all these treatments is to make me exhausted and nauseated.  Plus I do Pilates or Barre or personal training on Zoom every day.  I tend to sleep for up to three hours in the afternoon.  This book will be written in one late morning session and one early evening session every day.  I’m starting to worry about it.  And my shoulder is hurting.  But I must focus, and write.

 

When he found out that my cancer had spread to my lungs, my oncologist gave me two years.  I’ve already survived another seven years on top of that, so I’m living on borrowed time.  All the more reason to start this book.  It’s going to be tough going though: due to feeling so ill most of the time.  The medical treatment described in this book is a mixture of NHS and private: NHS Breast Care Clinic: Cancer diagnosis at Accident and Emergency; NHS chemotherapy; private surgery; private radiotherapy; ongoing check-up appointments with private oncologist and breast surgeon; private appointments with plastic surgeon, private psychiatrist for the last twenty years and later private psychologist; bisphosphonate and Gemcarbo chemotherapy administered privately  Like various other cancer patients I know, my treatment has been a mixture of some treatments available on the NHS and others – like bisphosphonates – that at the moment are just available with health insurance.

 

As I write this I’m in a period of hypomania which has been going on for six weeks.  Now my mood has come up, writing and life have become easier.  I’m going to do two thousand words of this before turning to the blog, which I have to write and post every day without fail. One second: I must find some lemon squash.  Now I don’t drink alcohol I consume vast quantities of lemon squash and fizzy water, Diet Coke and coffee.  It’s swings and roundabouts once you’re sober.

CORDELIA FELDMAN

SONY DSC

Cordelia Jade Feldman (15th May 1979-8th January 2022), completed her MA in Creative Writing at Birkbeck in 2007. Diagnosed with breast cancer in 2013, after many years of suffering and debilitating treatment, which Cordelia confronted with indefatigable courage and humour, she eventually succumbed to the illness, but not before she had published two books. In Bloom (Dandelion, 2021), Cordelia’s first book, was conceived and took shape during her MA at Birkbeck. An autobiographical novel, In Bloom is work of young adult fiction concerned with teenagers’ experiences of recreational drug use on the 90s techno and drum n bass scene, and their psychiatric consequences, depicted through the richly imagined interior life of the novel’s protagonist, Tanya.

 

Cordelia’s second book, a memoir entitled Well Done Me (Dandelion, 2021), is an intimate portrayal of the illnesses from which she suffered and the strategies she evolved to cope with them, mingling pain and humour, the stark realities and indignities of Cordelia’s everyday life and the surpassing optimism and bravery with which she confronted them, retaining always a sense of the beauty of the natural world that surrounds us, the animals and birds and flowers with which she shared her life, and in which she found solace.

X and I, by Bediye Topal

‘Once while the soldiers were asleep a man broke out of the letter X. He burst through its centre and emerged into the world in a loincloth and began to run.

Robert Priest

I belong to a race whose alphabet contains the letters Q, W and X. They are letters. Just letters like any others. But for the Turkish state, these aren’t just letters. They banned them.

****

My journey with the X began with the death of my father. He slipped away quietly in his sleep. We took him to Hançıplak, a village in Southern Turkey, where he was born. The crowd made a circle around the rectangular hole dug into the ground. Men lowered the coffin slowly until it hit the bottom of the grave. The ropes with which the coffin descended wrinkled like ribbons on the coffin. My grandmother said to the men with spades, “Put me there too.” They didn’t. Instead, they held her shoulders to stop her from leaping into the hole like a lizard. When we went home, my grandma said, “Your father wanted to call you Xeyal. From now on your name is Xeyal,” announcing it with a voice soaked in grief. I was fifteen. I knew nobody whose name started with X. I rolled the name on my tongue like a sweet. I wanted it to melt in my mouth and mix with my body. I said out loud, Xeyal, Xeyal, Xeyal. I did not belong to it, nor did the name belong to me.

That day, I wrote an X on plain paper. I stared at it like I was expecting it to talk to me. I remembered:

I was in Year 5 in my Grandmother’s village, Hançıplak. When the school bell rang, we ran outside to play hide-and-seek. I was the seeker. I put my hands on the wrinkled mulberry tree in the playground and placed my face on my hands. I began to count up to ten. Slowly. Yek, du, sê, car, pênch, seş, heft, heşt, neh, deh. Ready or not, here I come. I turned around. To my horror, Mr Mustafa stood in front of me like the bark of a tree. He began to move his eyebrows. They looked like bird wings getting ready to escape from his forehead.

“Come inside with me,” he ordered me.

Hiders stuck out their heads from their hiding places, peering at me.

“At school, we only speak Turkish. Nobody is allowed to speak in Kurdish.”

“I forgot. Cos my grandmother doesn’t know Turkish. At home, I speak… Kurdish… all the time.”

“Get me the punishing stick,” he commanded again.

“Hold out your fingernails.”

I brought my fingers together, facing up. They looked like children making a circle with their heads. Then I extend my hand out to Mr Mustafa. 

****

I began to listen to my grandma’s laments and catch the letters Q, W and X like a cat seizing a mouse, twisting them on my tongue.

I often wondered if these letters could have made themselves invisible among the other letters. Q could have hidden behind O and curled its tail around it. W could have folded its body in half, pretending to be a V. X could have straightened its diagonal lines into one and settled itself behind I. But that would have meant denying their identities, losing their sound, and uniqueness, and living in fear of being discovered. Q hidden behind O would have forgotten its qeh sound, W concealed behind V would have lost its weh sound, and X buried behind I would have lost its kheh sound.

I imagined Q, W, and X locked away behind barred doors and declared guilty for removing their veils.

Would it have been worthwhile to have been veiled and lived?

****

The next time I heard about X alongside Q and W was when a friend from Istanbul visited me. She told me a man got arrested for asserting his name started with an X. I was sixteen, and I was on the lookout for X. But, of course, he did not go to prison solely for that reason. The authorities claimed he was a terrorist, wanting to split the country into two like a watermelon: Turkey and Kurdistan. But people who knew the man said, “He was a poor man who knew nothing.” In fact, he did know P for Politics.

****

When I was seventeen, I met a man and fell in love with him. He was twenty-five. He was a Kurdish activist working for HADEP: People’s Democracy Party. He called himself Kawa. Of course, that was not his real name. On our first date, he took me to a stinky restaurant. The smell of rotten meat escaped from the kitchen and hovered in our nostrils. I wanted him to see me as a girl fiercely passionate about the Kurdish language, especially the letters, Q, W and X. Kawa taught Kurdish to people behind the closed doors of HADEP, filling their heads with dangerous letters like Q, W, and X.

“Would you teach me how to read and write in Kurdish?” My heart was beating against my chest like it wanted to leap into Kawa’s.

“I would be delighted,” he said.

“Let’s start.” I looked into his oval-shaped face like it was a mirror held for me. Just for me.

“What would you like to know?”

“Everything,” I answered immediately.

Kawa scanned my face. I fidgeted on my chair and crossed my legs under the table. My right foot touched his lightly. With the touch, my heart sizzled like butter in a pan.

I looked under the table and said, “I am so sorry.”

He said, “It is ok.”

Kawa began to fill my head with politics and poetry. I did not understand either. The most poetry he gave me was by Murathan Mungan. The first poem he gave me said, ‘If I was a poet, I would have beaten you with each of my sentences.’ And You would have hung yourself from each letter.’ The beating and hanging made me shiver like a branch trembling in the wind, and I thought the poet was very sick and needed immediate psychiatric treatment. But it made me realise something: I wanted to do things with sentences and letters, especially Q, W and X. I wanted these letters to hammer my consciousness.

“Do Kurds have poetry?” I focused my eyes on his knowing face.

“Ahmedê Xanî’s epic poem Mem û Zîn is an extraordinary love story. Better than Romeo and Juliet,” he said.

I looked into his wide eyes and long curved lashes.

“Do you know any lines from Mem û Zîn?” He flapped his long eyelashes like butterfly wings.

“Oh, yes,” he said.

Kawa’s eyes moved to remember lines: they made a pattern as though they were swaying on a swing that swung from side to side.

‘I wonder at the wisdom of the Lord

The Kurds in the State of the World

For what reason is their deprivation

For what purpose is their condemnation.’

Kawa stopped and his eyes focused on me like klieg lights; I returned his gaze with confusion.

“Are you sure this is a love story?” Maybe the love was hidden behind the sentences, I thought.

“Ahmedê Xanî is more complicated than William Shakespeare, at least as a thinker. The pages … are full of thoughts, often dominated by philosophy, particularly Sufism, shades of meanings, double-meanings, metaphors, and symbolic expressions, play a major role.”

I still didn’t understand where the love was. Love must have concealed itself in the language like Q, W, and X. Or maybe the Kurds are shielded in the Love story.

“When was it written?”

“1692.”

We, the barbarian with a language that contains Q, W, X have a poet, and he wrote in 1692, and he is better than Shakespeare, I must let the world know, I murmured to myself.

“Pardon me,” said Kawa.

“Let’s go. This place stinks.”

While we strolled, Kawa gave me facts with no poetry.

‘In March 1924 … the Turkish state had officially prohibited the use of Kurdish in schools and law courts … traditional Kurdish clothing and music were also banned.’ If you publish anything in Kurdish, without doubt, you would be imprisoned, tortured and killed. The official began to describe Kurds as ‘mountain Turks who have forgotten their own language.’ Kurds were told ‘You are not Kurds, but Turks, and we are going to make you see that … You are enemies of the state, and should be destroyed, but instead, the state has decided to educate you, to make you good Turks … We will fit you for society.’

Kawa stopped and looked at the ground wordlessly. Then he peered into the sky, and new words landed on his tongue.

“Call me Xeyal,” I said.

Bediye was born and raised in a village in Southern Turkey and came to the UK as a refugee in her early twenties. Her piece X and I is about that experience.

‘A defining message of education and acceptance’ : Dale Booton in conversation with Matt Bates on his debut poetry pamphlet, Walking Contagions.

Dale Booton, Walking Contagions, Polari Press, 9781914237102

MB: Walking Contagions strikes me as being not just a beautiful suite of poems, but also a political act through its – to quote the blurb – ‘defining message of education and acceptance.’ How did you begin to conceptualise the collection and where did your research take you?

DB: When I accepted my own queerness in my late teens, I went on an research expedition into queer history. Obviously, a huge part of recent history has been the AIDS epidemic. It has been a medical, emotional, social, economic, and political topic for so many including those we have lost, and those living with HIV/AIDS who are still stigmatised today. I read everything I could on the subject and watched as many documentaries and films as I could. I just wanted to know everything, nerd that I am! There was a whole history that had been kept from me in education, so I had to find it.

When I sat down to plan the pamphlet, I made so many notes, little scribbles of oh, what about this… or this? I accumulated quite a stack of random pieces of paper, and then, after a couple of my previous poems about HIV/AIDS had been published, I decided to write Walking Contagions. I wanted to mark a journey from the 80s to present day, drawing on the experience of the past to investigate how the medical, emotional, social, economic, and political segments of the epidemic might have changed – or not – over the last few decades. Because I had already written a few poems about HIV/AIDS I didn’t want to just repeat the same content. I had an idea of what I wanted to include: aspects of sexual health, of pain, trauma, a family scene, loss; but I also wanted to have some poems in there that explored queerness in society today as well as the educational side of HIV treatment.

Finding a publisher like Polari has been amazing. Peter Collins, who runs Polari Press, was so wonderful and kind with my work, and Polari have created an amazing cover for the pamphlet. Polari is a queer publisher run by a queer person publishing queer things – what more could a queer writer wish for? The pamphlet I originally sent was very different to begin with, and whilst editing I destroyed some poems completely and wrote new ones because I didn’t like what I had created. Then I sat back down and started to write again, looking at the gaps I thought I had missed, or where I thought I had strayed too far from my concept. My final editing was done over one weekend. I locked myself away in my flat and rewatched AIDS: The Unheard Tapes, then re-read the poems. It took a lot out of me until I was eventually pulled out by some friends and taken out for the night. I just sat in a local club crying, thinking about all those who were lost because society was too ignorant to care and too unaccepting to help.

I wanted to write in a way that was bold, brash and blunt. I didn’t want to overuse metaphor but to say what I really thought on the matter. If my pamphlet expresses an element of the ‘defining message of education and acceptance’, then I have succeeded in what I wanted to do.

MB: A number of the poems are in dialogue with other poets’ works. I really enjoyed the way you use a line from another poet to “push off” into your own poems, offering a multitude of new possibilities by evolving a line. Can you tell us more about this method and how it helped you shape the collection?

DB: I think poets are at their best when they consume other poets’ work, internalise what they appreciate about the poetry, and, – because not everything fits everyone – what they might have done differently if the poem were their own. This is something I have done with various poems and poets’ work, whether that be a specific poem idea or a form, or even just the poem itself. For example, my poem ‘Blood’ is after the poem ‘Blood’ by the wonderful Andrew McMillan, who was such an inspiration when I first started out as a queer poet. Previously, I just rambled on about society and randomness and avoided all ideas of my own queer identity. Reading Andrew’s Physical really helped me to come out of my poetry closet, so to speak. I had moved back to Birmingham for university, I was trying to take my own poetry more seriously, and Andrew’s poetry really helped with that.

So, when I decided that I was going to try and work on more poems in relation to AIDS. The first, ‘Journal Fragments ’82 -’86’, had been published in the We’ve Done Nothing Wrong. We’ve Got Nothing to Hide (2020) Diversity anthology by Verve so I was inspired to keep with the theme. Lockdown had just hit, and I was suddenly very aware of the time that I had to write. I had been re-reading Playtime by Andrew McMillan, which discusses sexual identity, and there is a poem in the collection called ‘Blood’ that I just adored. It explores sex, sexual health, and AIDS history in such a contemporary way. At the time, it had been announced that the twelve-month deferral ban on donating blood for gay and bi-sexual men would be decreased to three months of celibacy, and it really made my blood boil. There was still so much stigma around queer sex and HIV/AIDS, so, I wanted to try educating people about HIV/AIDS through poetry.

I have many friends who are HIV+ and there is still such a lack of education for those that may know little about it. And, sadly, there is still a lot of ignorance within the queer community too. If anything, you should feel safe within your own community, but unfortunately that isn’t always the case. The poems are also for those: the ignorant amongst us who perhaps need some education and reflection of their own. Stigma is dangerous; knowledge and education can help eradicate that. Education is the key, but unfortunately there are people that fight the kind of education that can help save lives, whether that be about HIV/AIDS or about the queer community in general.

I read Arthur Rimbaud’s A Season in Hell in lockdown, which is about love, loss, and the destroyed possibility of happiness as being interconnected with another person. As soon as I read it, I thought of Grindr. I wondered how I might merge the two together in some form; and I ended up keeping the title and stealing the first two lines from Rimbaud’s poem.

I did a similar thing with ‘Exposure, Part II’, taking the last lines of Wilfred Owen’s stanzas and using them in a reconstructed effort to show model the “fighting a war but losing the battle” adage, exploring the onset of the AIDS epidemic with activism and an ignorant government. The poem plays on Owen’s ideals of being neglected by those who you once thought might help you, until you are just sat around waiting for death.

‘Wounded I Stand’ is after زخمستان (wounded-i-stan) by Suhrab Sirat. I fell in love with this broken idea of society and efforts within war that Sirat discussed within his poem. It was for a Young Poets competition – as was ‘Exposure, Part II’, actually – and I started working with the ideas of queerness being broken throughout history by those who want to oppress and eradicate, but still we carry on, we fight on, we love on…because we must.

As for ‘Epilogue’…well, that began in a workshop with the magnificent Joelle Taylor, whom the opening line belongs to – from the poem ‘Got a Light, Jack?’ in C+nto & Othered Poems – and it is one where I left the workshop thinking ooh, I’ve really got something here. It didn’t have a title at first, but as I started editing the poem, I knew it would be about passing on from life, in an oddly sweet and sensationalist manner, rather than some negative damnation of misery. The poem rather encapsulates how I would like to go, looking back at life, love and intimacy, rather than in fear of what is beyond the eternal darkness. Quite a few of the poems throughout the pamphlet are rather morbid, but I wanted to end on a note that was looking back with joy and gratefulness for all the men one has known, rather than regret.

MB: ‘Another Season in Hell’ and ‘Epilogue’ seem to express an acute disappointment with the instantaneous sex-based apps of today (such as Grindr), whilst also feeling simultaneously resigned to them. Do you see there being a tension between digital spaces and the (lack of) physical spaces today such as the bar, club or cruising spaces?

DB: I think that a lot of social activity is now done online – there is no denying it, whether that is merely communication (like Twitter, etc.) or for other forms of gratification (such as Grindr, etc.). We are in a technological age, and that often forces us to struggle with the reality of what is right in front of us. In particular, with recent global events, such as COVID-19 and lockdowns, we have been forced to find new ways to stay in contact with those we care about. Coming out of lockdown and going back into bars and nightclubs, I think there was a bit of shift in how life is approached. I mean, I have seen gay men messaging each other on Grindr while being a metre or so away from one another on the dancefloor and I just think, why don’t you go talk to each other and dance? Then again, I wouldn’t be the person to go up to someone in a club really, either, so, I’m a bit of a hypocrite like that!

I don’t know… perhaps it is a safety net, that idea of possible rejection: it isn’t so bad when it is conveyed in a message rather than to your face. These poems sort of fall into the modern idea of intimacy through anonymity. There is always a risk that comes with social media and dating apps, and sometimes that risk is isolation or mental health issues, but we still use them, delete them from our phones, reinstall them, use them again. It is like a little cycle of hope and despair at finding something in a place that perhaps we know might not be good for us. Like the Rihanna song ‘We Found Love’, we move with the times, and sometimes that means putting yourself out there in ways you never though you might, just as one does with poetry.

Dale Booton

MB: Following on from the previous question, I was very moved by the narration in ‘Encounter’ which connects sexual joy to sexual terror under the shadow of HIV. In a state of fever, the narrator sits ‘like The Thinker recounting the faces | of the men I have loved and have been loved by for a night’. There seems to be a further tension on display here between promiscuity and the search for love…can you expand?

DB: Promiscuity is believed to be a very modern idea, and it is also very much connected with the queer community. There is this idea in heterosexual society to find a partner and settle down – but that is utter garbage. Promiscuity has been witnessed throughout history for all sexualities. There is no gene coding for promiscuity. Levels of promiscuity change through a person’s life and emotional states. Some people may have sexual intercourse with one person in their life, others may have sexual intercourse with thirty, seventy, three hundred. Neither is a problem – so long as you are knowledgeable.

By this, I mean, safe sex, regular sexual health screenings, communication with the partner. Promiscuity may have been scarier during the onset of the AIDS epidemic due to the risk that was associated with it, as well as the stigma that wasn’t only caused because of AIDS, but because of the sexuality it was most closely aligned with. However, I do believe that fear has led to queer people being more educated on sexual health than perhaps a lot of heterosexual people. Often, as I have discussed with numerous university friends and secondary students, because a lot of heterosexual people believe that sexual health isn’t something for them to worry about. There are times when students have said to me: “Only gay people get sex diseases.”

Education is a tool, but often it is not being used correctly. Relationship and Sex Education (RSE) has come a long way, but it still has so much further to go, and poetry can help with that. I wrote ‘U = U’ after a conversation with a HIV+ friend of mind, and they described the virus as being trapped in a rosebud that doesn’t open, which I then took, used, and developed. I did an assembly for World AIDS Day last year at my school, and I was deeply shocked by the minimal information at hand, lack of understanding, and, indeed, tolerance around HIV/AIDS from staff alone. Undetectable means Untransmittable, and that is a message RSE and Biology lessons need to reiterate.

As for love – I wouldn’t say I am very successful with that topic. My poems – although they do have romance throughout them – often fail to attribute anything to anything as definitive as ‘love’. But maybe that is what love is – as it is very different to everyone – an undefinable abstract that is woven throughout what we do, rather than projected and instilled in one person or poem. Within ‘Encounter’, perhaps it is that desperation for love that defines the speaker: I am fully aware of my longing for love in my youth, of the desire to fall head-over-heels for a guy, to feel a connection…but, it doesn’t always work out that way. The poem holds that anticipation and fear of what comes next? especially for the poem’s setting in the AIDS epidemic.

MB: I love how this collection of poems is in dialogue with the past, present and future. Focusing on the past, for a moment, I was reminded of Heather Love’s (in Feeling Backward: Loss & the Politics of Queer History) argument that narrations of queer suffering are an embodiment of queerness itself. For Love, texts that narrate queer suffering and ‘insist on social negativity’ can be useful because they ‘underline the gap between aspiration and the actual.’ How do you feel your collection both memorialises the past and articulates a hopeful future?

DB: For me, history in words is a current we have captured, contained, and given a new home. My pamphlet is a little home – it houses change as well as lack of change. To me, queer history is an essential part of growing up as a queer person, no matter when you are born. Perhaps I’m just a nerd but I think that you need to know the history of your own community.

At school, you are taught history – often flawed and Eurocentric – but history, nonetheless. Why then, when you discover who you are, do you not want to know that history, too? There are many young queers oblivious to the history that our queer ancestors have fought through and for us in order for the freedoms we have today, and that fight still goes on. I can’t understand how you wouldn’t want to know about all that. It should be taught in schools as a part of history. I know that in the school I taught at, there wasn’t even an LGBTQ+ History Month until I developed a scheme for it; and that was in English, not History. Queer history is a part of history, so it must be taught.

While my pamphlet mostly deals with HIV/AIDS, there is a current of development and change within society. For example, the development of treatments has meant people living with HIV can live long, prosperous lives…something that those in the 80s didn’t have. Education and activism are the couple that can end the stigmatisation of HIV/AIDS around the world, which is exactly what we need. As I said before: Undetectable means Untransmittable. Education is the key.

MB: More generally, which poets do you particular admire and draw inspiration from?

DB: As I said earlier, a huge inspiration for me has been Andrew McMillan and to whom I am very grateful to for blurbing my pamphlet. He has been very kind about my work, and he is someone I always go back and read. Andrew also introduced me to the work of Thom Gunn and Mark Doty, both of whom have been inspiring. Their exploration of the onset of the AIDS epidemic, of loss, but also of love, is actually really chilling. Their poems aren’t poems that are quick to leave you.

I mentioned Joelle Taylor, whom I adore. Jemima Hughes. James McDermott. Caleb Parkin. Mary Jean Chan. Ocean Vuong. Jericho Brown. Danez Smith. Fiona Benson. Raymond Antrobus. These are all poets I constantly go back to, are constantly re-reading and they aren’t all queer. They each have a different purpose to me, if that makes sense. For example, if I am writing about mental health, I return to Jemima Hughes; if I am writing about family, I re-read Mary Jean Chan or Fiona Benson; queerness…I have a whole deck of poets to keep going back to and re-reading. I always try to think: What have they written? What haven’t they written? What can I write?

I also have some poetry friends and acquaintances that I draw inspiration from such as Piero Toto, Simon Maddrell, Stanley Iyanu, Juliano Zaffino Ashish Kumar Singh, Luís Costa, JP Seabright. These are people I talk to about poetry: their own, my own… or some that I just read the poetry of and adore.

MB: Finally, what’s next for you Dale, writing-wise?

DB: I am currently editing a second poetry pamphlet, which will be published with Fourteen Poems early next year, exploring queer friendship and nightlife. It is kind of based around some of the events in the past two years of my life, moving away from a relationship and falling into a safe queer space. I haven’t really written any poetry in a while, so it is good to push myself back towards it through some editing.

I also have an idea for a novel, but that is something that will need fleshing out before I start writing it. Hopefully, in the near future, it will become a little clearer in my mind…

Dale Booton (he/him) is a queer poet from Birmingham. His poetry has been published in various places, such as Verve, Young Poets Network, Queerlings, The North, Muswell Press, and Magma. His debut pamphlet Walking Contagions is out with Polari Press; his second pamphlet is forthcoming with Fourteen Poems in 2024.
Twitter: @BootsPoetry
 
Matt Bates is the Poetry Editor of MIR.

Neptune’s Projects: An Interview with Rishi Dastidar

Neptune’s Project is the third collection of poems by the poet and editor, Rishi Dastidar. It looks at climate breakdown from the point of view of Neptune, the Roman god of fresh water and the sea. It is published by Nine Arches Press.

 

What’s your background as a writer?

Briefly, as I have been at this lark for a while: lots and lots of student journalism, then a failed dabbling with actual journalism for a few years, before I discovered copywriting for advertising and brands. While that was (and continues) to pay the bills, I was trying and failing to write fiction, and trying and failing to write essays. And then when I was about 30, I discovered poetry. Still failing at that, but remarkably, readers appear to be prepared to join me as I do.

How did you get into the concept behind Neptune’s Projects? What were the stages in its development? How did you settle on the idea of using the voice of a God to explore the destruction of the planet?

There was no planning or forethought. About 2018 or so, a few poems emerged that had the sea at their centre, as an object to be ruminated on (not much like what I was writing at the time) – sea as confessor, sea as destination to bring lovers together. And then when ‘Neptune’s concrete crash helmet’ arrived, that was when a light bulb went on: is there something in adopting the voice of a god, but giving him very human qualities and frailties? It turned out that adopting a persona that revolved at once about both being powerful and powerless was a great parallel for exploring subjects like climate change.

I should stress: I didn’t set out to write eco-themed poems; they came from this voice, and diving into it. Clearly my subconscious was worrying away, but it wasn’t like my conscious brain was telling me: you must write this. The book is a result of some of my far more submerged fears rising without being bidden all that much.

Rishi Dastidar
Rishi Dastidar

What can poets hope to achieve in the fight against the destruction of the planet? Do artists have an obligation to contend with the issues of society?

On the latter question: no, they don’t at all, and I’m not going to go round telling other artists what to be concerned about. But for me, as someone living and working in a society that feels – is – fucked up in so many ways, but with so many wondrous things that would have baffled and delighted our ancestors, too – why would you not want to examine that? Bluntly, I don’t think me and my travails as an individual are all that interesting; I’m far more interested in turning my creative energies and insights on what’s around me, and asking: what’s going on? Are you seeing what I’m seeing? Does this thing make you feel what I feel?

On the former: short of retraining as wind turbine engineers and/or living off grid? Practically – not much. But then: no one ever turned to poetry for policy-driven solutions for anything. We’re here to do what we always have been here to do: to tell stories about who we are as humans, what it means to be humans, to be in the world around us, the one we’ve inherited, the ones we’re making and destroying; and to make some noise about and around all of that. Confirm a few priors, shatter a few prejudices; make people think, look again. Expand the imaginative possibilities for all of us, about how we might live, and not destroy our civilization in the process. All of that helps at the margins of change, I hope. But I’m pessimistic as to how much that actually does to avert the wars and societal collapses that I think we all know are coming. All of us need to pull our fingers out to make a dent in that challenge.

There’s a palpable anger in this collection, but also playfulness and humour. How do you balance the two? Is one a function of the other?

I think so. The balance between the anger and the humour was a happy accident, but the striving for humour was not. It was a very conscious decision I took as Neptune’s voice was emerging. I felt that, through being sarcastic, world weary, through exaggeration, overclaiming and declaiming, maybe even the odd one liner or two, I could access and approach subjects and ideas in ways that I hadn’t see done before in poetry that looked at the environment.

A parallel: from my work in advertising, I well know that humour is a tool, an approach that can be deployed with some success when it comes to raising awareness, attempting to persuade. If we agree that the climate crisis is the most important challenge facing us as a species, why wouldn’t we use every potential tone or shade on the communicative register, to try and reach people? Maybe, just maybe, a black, gallows humour might change a mind or two. I appreciate that might be as useful as giggling into the apocalypse, but I felt – still feel – it’s worth a try.

Are there particular ecologists you look to to help you understand what’s going on in the world?

As hinted at in the book’s subtitle, ‘Now That’s What I call Hyperobject Ballads’, it wouldn’t exist without the work of Timothy Morton, and especially his Being Ecological. I think one of his successes is to show us that we are not separate or unconnected from what is around us. We might think – act – as if we are destined to forever bend the world to our species’ desires. But we’re not. And we’re starting to be able to see that, through the fact that we’re realising that some of what we have created – the hydrocarbon industry for example – is both bigger than we can grasp, and has more ramifications than we realised – emergent, unintended consequences.

I’ve found his way of foregrounding the fact that what we are thinking about is so big that it can’t be looked at in a straight-ahead fashion actually liberating. To me it means that we have to take – and accept – a kaleidoscope of views, approaches, beliefs that we’ll need to save us: which, when you think about how diverse humanity is, isn’t actually all that surprising. Yet it still can feel that way.

What is your attitude to form?

If I tell you that, right now, what my brain is mostly thinking about is: “I haven’t written an Onegin sonnet for ages…” that hopefully gives some indication. I’m neither virulently against form nor frothingly for it. I am boringly prosaic in that I hope that, as the language emerges, it gives a clue as to what it wants to become: a sonnet, a prose poem, a sestina (though if it is going that way, I do feel the need to give the words [or me] a bonk on the head, to tell it to stop being so silly), a roll of free verse down the page… In some pieces the pentameter or tetrameter hits you quite quickly, and it can be hard to resist finding the vessel for that; others are much more opaque, and so the listening and looking for the ‘what are you?’ clues are a lot harder.

What I love doing, whatever form I end up working in, is see how much I can cram in before the structure breaks; not for me one perfectly observed moment of stillness. Rather, the hope that the lyric is groaning full of goodies. Life is full of information, I like poems that are full to burst too.

Neptunes Projects
Neptune's Project, by Rishi Dastidar

There’s a movement toward collections of poems with a strong concept, theme or narrative. (for example, Fiona Benson’s Vertigo and Psyche, Joelle Taylor’s Cunto, Helen Mort’s The Illustrated Woman, among others). Neptune’s Projects is similarly an extended work. What are the advantages of building a collection around a single idea?

That’s interesting, as I’ve not been thinking of ‘Projects’ in that way, rather poems that are brought together – and maybe closer than I might have otherwise thought – by the voice deployed… are there advantages to this? Hmmm. To me? It’s hard for me to frame it in that way. I certainly didn’t set out to write a whole series of themed poems dealing with the end of the world in a bumptious voice; as mentioned above they emerged, or rather Neptune’s voice did; and when I realised then, it was that I leaned into rather than the subject.

The fact that that voice is capacious enough to handle planetary heat death and football relegation battles is a happy chance, and I suppose that is advantageous to me as an artist, to show that you can have many variations in approach, attack, perspective as you circle around whatever the big idea is. All that said, I’d hope there is some advantage to a reader – a clarity about what they might be picking up at least – and then hopefully lots of surprises as they move through the work.

Which contemporary poets do you particularly enjoy? Any specific collections that have moved you of late?

So many! Right now, what’s lingering includes: The Trees Witness Everything by Victoria Chang; Will Alexander’s Refractive Africa, which is language put in the service of an intellectual pursuit in the most dazzling way; and Holly Hopkins’ The English Summer is still making me laugh. Oh and Michael Conley is a voice new to me, but one I’m very excited by. Absurdism and political satire delivered with a deft, winning touch.

CRAIG SMITH IS A POET AND NOVELIST FROM HUDDERSFIELD. HIS WRITING HAS APPEARED ON WRITERS REBEL, ATRIUM, IAMBAPOET AND THE MECHANICS’ INSTITUTE REVIEW, AS WELL BEING A WINNER OF THE POETRY ARCHIVE NOW! WORDVIEW 2022. CRAIG HAS THREE BOOKS TO HIS NAME: POETRY COLLECTIONS, L.O.V.E. LOVE (SMITH/DOORSTOP) AND A QUICK WORD WITH A ROCK AND ROLL LATE STARTER, (RUE BELLA); AND A NOVEL, SUPER-8 (BOYD JOHNSON). HE IS CURRENTLY WORKING TOWARD AN MA IN CREATIVE WRITING AT BIRKBECK UNIVERSITY, WHERE HE IS THE JOINT MANAGING EDITOR OF MIR ONLINE
TWITTER: @CLATTERMONGER

Five Poems from Speculum, by Hannah Copley

Juice

All through Tuesday the air smelled like one big orange slice

as if I could dip my fingers in the bedroom wall and bring them back coated in syrup.

I could eat all the oranges I wanted:
I was twenty-one and home for the summer and my dad was dead and love was oranges and the dark red post-box
rusting on the corner of the street

and I was pregnant by mistake.

It was like I was sick and oranges were the cure. Oranges and women’s magazines with names like Time for a Break and Chat that had spa day giveaways

next to headlines like Drugged and Raped
by Jack the Ripper’s Ghost! and Married to my Mother!

and My Amazing Sex…with a Wall!

that I could skim while I pressed my thumb nail
into another orange globe. I didn’t even need to look up

to make a hole big enough to suck out all the juice.

I could just put my mouth to the rind and keep going until there was nothing left inside.


=====


Speculum [2]

Problem (2) is one of metaphor.
What is the appropriateness of fistula
to describe the hole in the archive
between the body of writing and the body of the patient?

Follow the sign for the tunnel between
the perfected gynaecological procedure
and the agony of the bondswoman whose vagina
is repeatedly penetrated by the curved end of the spoon.

This is a test. Perhaps only the description of the act itself,
as in, I am free enough to ball up my writing hand,
and tear my way to sympathy. Sonnet as hand-

crafted speculum tried and tried again;
as curved needle and gauze. Here I am placing fingers
in other people’s wounds; here I am wounding.

Speculum_Hannah Copley
Speculum: Hannah Copley. Published by Broken Sleep Books, (9781913624556).

Polish Aubade

for Stanislawa Leszczyńska 1896-1974.

To never wish
    through two

Polish winters
    for morning

is astounding.
    But then, why

would anyone
    when it arrives

in black boots.
    And why would

anyone when
    it only speaks

in numbers
    and why would

anyone when it
    brings the barrel

to drown them.
    There are so few

ways to be unruly
    when there are

no rules, but better
    frost lit black

than an iron-
    wrapped sun.

You say later
    that when

the second gong
    sounds and

the lights
    are put out

you are free
    to watch

each icicle glimmer
    you are free

to watch
    them shine

as a great crystal
    chandelier in an

extinguished house.
    Sixty

no a hundred
    branches growing

through the roof.
    One for every five

Patients to pull
    down and suck.

Better moonlight
    to lay kidney bowl

and scissors
    and your labour

out on the stove
    and work

And when
    they come free

in the darkness
    you can wrap

them up in paper
    rag     and hand

and place them
    down onto

the quiet bodies
    that bore them

small ice cold
    unnumbered


=====


Lost boys

“I can say that without fear of contraception”. Hylda Baker, Nearest and Dearest

At Brinsworth we do the cabaret
every other Wednesday. I’m wheeled in
for the ‘stimulation’ and the nurses say
give us one, Hylda, tell us another
even though they know. I’ve lost
them all. They’ve taken off and left me
like every other scoundrel in a pinstripe.
They were always so ready
to unzip, always so eager to leave.

Go on, the others heckle,
as if they could get up,
leering from their wheelchairs
like black-robed judges from the bench,
You know, Y’ know, and the silence chimes
like a pin drop through my empty head.

I’ve lost enough lovers to fill
The Queen’s Theatre twice through.
Some ran on foot, others sped away
in the Bentleys they were meant to chauffer,
their buffed hats left on the hallway table,
aftershave mingling with the others on the sheets.
Many simply couldn’t keep up.
One tried to take my Cha-Cha with him
when he ran. All those lost Cynthias. All gone.

And I lost a child once, and then I lost another
. I kept them safe in all the wrong places,
mislaid them like keys hidden in a fireplace.
They were stones in a champagne flute
, I was always bound to smash.
But they were there for a while,
hanging on, two faceless punters waiting
for the gag, and then it all slipped out
of me as easily as a giggle. Once is a mistake.
Twice is careless. By the end of it
you could hear a pin drop in my heart.


=====


An Archive

Named Extreme Cure, or, On the Misnomer
of the Term Heroic Medicine. There is a rolling stack

dedicated to the wax each child dons to face the crowned light.
Cabinets for all the coaxed substances: colostrum, milk, placenta,

the shed lining of a womb. A microfilm that discusses how blood
can cover a table and a floor without the presence of a blade.

One file records how pushing is its own emetic – during,
and later, gingerly, amidst a fractured tailbone and each raw wound.

There is a city of death certificates, with new tower blocks
built every year, and a room with an ancient projector that loops a film

on how the women used to midwife and do still. Thirty hours
of work produces forty-eight centimetres of bawling result;

of vellum skin tucked into its proper place. See in this file
this spooling marvel of vernix and flesh.

Bodies in Transition: An Interview with Hannah Copley on her poetry collection, Speculum

1. The poems in Speculum cross continents and truly inhabit universal spaces. They also move through time – narrating voices from the past as well as present. Spatially and temporally, Speculum disrupts at every turn of the page. I found this fascinating because it forced and reminded me to read the collection as always being in dialogue with its other composites. Can you tell us more about your approach to the collection as a whole, as well as how you decided on the order of the poems?

Thank you for reading the collection so carefully. Alongside the fun and instinctive act of putting together what just felt right (laying everything out on the floor and seeing what words and images reached out to grab hold of each other) I also spent a lot of time thinking about how both the individual poems and the wider form of the collection could echo and challenge the subjects that it was attempting to engage with. They needed to both speak for themselves and talk to each other in an equal and fruitful way.

In the case of obstetric and gynaecological history, it felt important to resist chronological or medical linearity. Working towards a happy ending would have been too easy and would have felt like a formal parroting of the unstoppable trajectory of ‘scientific progress’ that I wanted the book to question. Of course, I am not against research, innovation, and medical advancement, and I am also acutely aware of my place as a beneficiary of inventions such as the Sims Speculum and my privileged position within a global healthcare system that still threatens the lives of black and indigenous mothers and their children. So much has been forgiven or forgotten in the journey towards ‘progress’ – so many lives and stories have been erased – and by collapsing time, continents and putting different histories in conversation with one another, I wanted to go some way to creating the littered archive that the first poem in the collection describes.

The other thing I noticed as I started to write about my own pregnancies and medical procedures (and as I read memoirs on the topic of pregnancy and motherhood) was the narrative pull of my subject. It seems to me that pregnancy – or rather the literature and representation of pregnancy – has a particular formal momentum. It offers you a template in its ‘idealised’ state. You have your nine/ten chapters or stages. You have a clear beginning, middle and end. You have trials and tribulations but ultimately there is the happy ending. Everything is resolved with the neat exclamation point of birth. Perhaps this is the same with any literature that attempts to capture a body in transition? I didn’t want that. I didn’t want the book to start with the early stages of pregnancy and then work steadily towards birth. I wanted things to feel a bit messy and unresolved. Life and death and loss and ‘expecting’ are never that simple, and the great thing that a poetry collection can do is disrupt that timeline and create a new form.

2. You weave historical fact and archival research alongside personal experience and reflections throughout the collection. In your end notes you mention that during your own pregnancy ‘all the gender theory and archive theory and body theory and disability theory that I’d devoured as an academic tasted different in my mouth.’ Can you elaborate on how your own experience(s) intersected with the archival research you undertook for the collection?

John Whale, who is the managing editor at Stand magazine and one of the best poets I’ve ever been lucky enough to work with, once gave me a great piece of advice, which I promptly ignored. He suggested that adding notes to the end of a poetry collection runs the risk of getting you labelled as an academic-poet, rather than just a poet. His first collection, Waterloo Teeth (Carcanet), which was a big influence on Speculum, weaves together the personal and the historical, but he lets the poems speak for themselves. I not only include a notes section, but a whole personal essay! I sometimes worry that it sounds like I was writing a thesis and not a poetry collection. I hope Speculum works on its own – as poems and images and pieces of language – and not just as a vehicle for something else!

I’ve always turned to archives and critical theory (and poems) as a way of making sense of – or perhaps hiding behind – jumbled ideas and experiences. When I get the impulse (and it’s usually an impulse rather than a conscious decision) to write about something, then the first thing I want to do is turn the other way from my own individual experience and look at something or someone else. This was true with Speculum, but I also knew that I wanted to do the research. It was vital from an ethical and historical standpoint, and it felt like a way of understanding and helping to reclaim the experiences and histories that had shaped our families.

3. I was deeply moved by ‘Polish Aubade’. Can you tell us more about Stanislawa Leszczyńska (to whom the poem is dedicated), and how you encountered her story in your research?

Thank you for picking that one out. Stanislawa Leszczyńska was a Polish midwife who, along with her family, was arrested for forging documents and providing assistance and food to Jews living in Warsaw. She and her daughter were sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1943. Leszczyńska asked that she be allowed to continue as a midwife and was sent to work in the ‘maternity ward’, which was a filthy and disease-ridden barracks where pregnant prisoners were sent to die and babies were automatically labelled as stillborn before being taken outside and drowned. Leszczyńska refused orders to kill newborns, instead doing her best to care for each mother and child. She survived the war and went back to working as a midwife until her retirement. It was only in 1957, when she was asked to write a report on her time in the camp, that her incredible actions – and the awful realities of obstetrics within Auschwitz – began to be better known. In her report, Leszczyńska estimates that she delivered 3000 live babies during her time as a prisoner. Only 30-60 babies survived liberation. The conditions that she and other prisoner-doctors describe are impossible to comprehend. As is the fate of those thousands of children and mothers who passed through her care. But what stands out, and what made me want to write about her, are the small and profound acts of love and care that she gave to those around her, even in the midst of such horror. She and her fellow prisoner-doctors knew that they couldn’t change the fate of the children or their mothers. All they could do was love them and guide them through labour, wash and bless them, and allow mother and baby to stay together until the morning. The word midwife comes from the middle English ‘mid’ (with) and ‘wif’ (woman) and so literally means a woman who is with the woman. It seemed to me that she embodied that idea.

Before I started to focus on creative writing, I did my PhD on English poetry of the Holocaust and the Second World War. At that time, I almost exclusively studied (and therefore wrote) about male war poets and memoirists. Perhaps because of this viewpoint, I encountered very little about pregnancy and labour in the camps. At the time I stupidly didn’t even notice that gap. It was only a few years later, when I started to write about pregnancy and read more literature about pregnancy and birth (which incidentally has lots of crossovers with war writing!) that I began to look again at that period. It was then that I came across Leszczyńska’s 1957 report on her experience as a prisoner and midwife in Auschwitz-Birkenau. After reading her account, the Aubade arrived fully formed. Her translated testimony is available to read online, and I would recommend that anyone who is interested in her story go and seek it out.

4. One of the most important things that Speculum does is to never shy away from any subject matter in relation to women’s bodies, its potentialities and distresses. The poems refuse ‘erasure as a lack| of back story’ (‘Statue’). Reading through the poems, I felt a real commitment to bring forth a sense of reparation, justice and representation for the bodies you are writing about – those that have been betrayed, abused, refused, and discarded. Can you tell us more about how you dealt with this authorial responsibility, and at times, presumably some ethical questions that you encountered?

You’re right that I felt a great deal of responsibility, and I’m not sure I always got it right. In some ways there is an inevitable failure. Who am I to represent? This is one of the main reasons why I include the notes in the back of the book. I felt, given the difficult and ongoing nature of some of the topics I was speaking to, and my own background and position, that it was important not to (again) silence the women in my collection by enacting a kind of ventriloquism without self-reflection or introspection. Then there would just be more erasure. I also try to consider my own violence as a poet and put on display the ways that we’re all continually curating our own and other people’s stories. By making the archive visible in the book, and by grounding poems in research and documents that the reader can also access, I am (hopefully) being transparent about my own interventions and poetic incisions, as well as my own and my family’s relationship to these histories.

Speculum_Hannah Copley
Speculum: Hannah Copley. Published by Broken Sleep Books, (9781913624556).

5. ‘Juice’ and ‘Hyperemesis Gravidarum’ are very sensory/gustatory poems relating to the tastes, cravings and nausea experienced by the female body. I loved the modern, urban narration that simultaneously felt desperate, concealed, resentful and angry. I feel like concealment is potentially the continuous thread which connects each poem in Speculum – not just the concealment of the unexpected child, for example, but also in regard to the concealment of feminine desire, emotion, female subjectivities, sex, grief…can you elaborate on how concealment is, contradictorily, revealed through your poems?

Gustatory is such a great word! I wanted ‘Hyperemesis Gravidarum’ to enact a grim sensory overload for the reader. Hopefully it goes some small way to showing what the condition tastes like. And that’s such an interesting observation about concealment. I think a lot of my early twenties seemed to revolve around keeping things concealed: grief, real desire and sexuality, emotional and mental turbulence – these were all things to be contained in order to not make anyone too uncomfortable. A common kind of (self) concealment, I know. And then my experiences of pregnancy have all revolved around the desperate need to keep things in – be it food and water or the pregnancy itself. And I often failed on both counts. I could not contain, and I could not conceal. But there’s an odd liberation in that. You spill over the edges of your body again and again until you are not embarrassed anymore, and you realise that the borders are not fixed and so you may as well lay everything out in the open. That idea of spilling over became a driving force behind so many poems, and I hope it’s a metaphor that resonates beyond writing on pregnancy. It’s one of the reasons that sonnets became such an important form to play with. I love how they seem to promise containment and resolution and yet the best ones often exceed the limits of their ‘cell’. The lines might have stopped but the ideas continue to nag. In that way they are fantastic to explore the messiness of grief and sex and desire and self and subjectivity and history.

I should also add that ‘Juice’ was terrifying to write. It was like nothing I’d done before, but it was also hugely cathartic. I often start readings with it, precisely because it scares me and because I hope it gives permission to readers and listeners to talk openly about abortion and grief.

6. ‘Lost Boys’ is a deeply moving poem which articulates Hylda Baker’s ectopic pregnancies in first person. The final verse opens with the lines, ‘And I lost a child once, and then I lost another’ before ending with ‘Once is a mistake | Twice is careless | By the end of it you could hear a pin drop in my heart.’ This poem made me think deeply about how notions of maternal failure and personal culpability are potentially overlooked or misunderstood factors in cases where biological mishaps occur and the terrible psychic damage and distrust of the body that this must cause…

I’m so glad you liked this poem. It’s one that I’m particularly attached too, partly because of what you describe.

I wanted to write this poem about (or to) Hylda Baker partly because she is so fabulous and sad. I can imagine some awful sitcom set in the Brinsworth Home for Retired Performers – I bet they put on an excellent Christmas Panto. And yet her many losses – of her memory, her health, her money, her lovers, and of course her two pregnancies – tell a story so far from the bawdy comedy that she is usually associated with. You mention that I chose to do the poem in the first person, much like Haworth 1855 and Pup. I love dramatic monologues and the way they can reach through time and space, particularly when you have some common ground to stand together on. I hope they are always respectful and ‘true’ to their subject. So much of the time they allow me into a topic that I don’t yet have the ability or strength to face head on. Through Hylda Baker I wanted to address this notion of physical, mental and maternal loss as a kind of carelessness. The rhetoric of productivity and failure when it comes to the body is something that fascinates and appals me, and I hope that it’s a theme that pervades in different ways throughout the collection. In some ways it is a companion piece to ‘Games’ and ‘Denim’, but I had to write it first before I could use the ‘I’ in a different way. I remember being startled by the rhetoric of blame and responsibility that seemed to surround me when I lost two pregnancies in quick succession. Everyone seemed so desperate to find a cause, and often they looked to my body and my actions for answers. Hormone production had a moral and cultural dimension, and I had failed in both respects. There is a fantastic poem by the American poet Dorothea Lasky that speaks to this culpability. In ‘The Miscarriage’ she repeatedly includes the directive to ‘Work Harder!’, and in doing so identifies how maternal health is bound up in Capitalist notions of (re)productivity. Sandeep Parmer also writes beautifully about this subject in her Poetry Review essay ‘An Uncommon Language’, where she describes the poetry of miscarriage as the ‘minor note in the canon of women’s writing’. It’s a topic that I don’t feel I’ve fully ‘finished with’ or resolved even now, perhaps because it’s something that carries on and exceeds the publication date of the collection. But I wonder whether I need to think about my own failed (re)production in prose… But how do you approach returning to a topic that you’ve supposedly already ‘finished’?

7. The word ‘speculum’ traces its etymology from the Latin ‘specere’ (to look), reminding me of the construction of the female body as ‘public’ and the male as ‘private’. In Testo Junkie, Paul B. Preciado writes that, ‘The West has designed a tube with two orifices: a mouth that emits public signs and an impenetrable anus around which it winds a male, heterosexual subjectivity, which acquires the status of a socially privileged body.’ The vagina, he argues, is constructed as a ‘public orifice’, due to its function as ‘a reproductive receptacle’. The tension between the public and private female body is on display in Speculum, particularly in the poems that discuss and evidence the practices of James Marion Sims – the ‘so-called’ ‘Father of Modern Gynaecology’. Can you elaborate on this suite of poems?

This is such a fantastic quote. Here’s where I admit that I haven’t yet read Testo Junkie. Clearly I need to. Preciado’s tube reminds me a little of Susan Bordo’s discussion of bodily subjectivity in Unbearable Weight. She writes of how our subjectivity can be stripped from us in ‘states of emergency’. The body is no longer a privileged (or private) territory. In the case of pregnancy, overnight the body changes from ‘hallowed ground’ to a mere ‘fetal container’; a public box in which to grow the ‘super subject’ of the fetus. And of course, this shift is even more pronounced when it intersects with existing racial, social, cultural and economic inequalities. Unbearable Weight was published in the early nineties, so there are parts of it that feel dated, but its chapter on pregnancy feels horribly relevant given the recent overturning of Roe v. Wade.

The suite of poems that you describe – those relating to Anarcha, Lucy, Betsey, and the other unnamed enslaved women at the hospital and the experiments that would lead to the invention of the Sims Speculum and the treatment for fistula – are a small attempt to look at this particular moment in medical history through the lens of their lives and subjectivity rather than through the instrument that they helped create. Even before they became pregnant, they had already had their agency and subjectivity denied to them because of their status as enslaved women, and James Marion Sims continued and exacerbated that denial in his medical work. He went on to be hailed as the father of gynaecology, and indeed his inventions have helped millions. However, it is only relatively recently that the women who he effectively bought (or rather borrowed) and spent years experimenting on have been more widely acknowledged. There is now a huge monument to them in Montgomery, USA, created by the artist Michelle Browder. It’s less than a mile from the statue of James Marion Sims and is called ‘The Mothers of Gynaecology’. I would also recommend everyone go and read Deirdre Cooper Owens’s fantastic book ‘Medical Bondage: Race, Gender and the Origins of American Gynaecology’.

8. Where there any particular poets from whom you drew inspiration whilst writing Speculum?

So many! The collection took shape over many years of reading and listening so it’s hard to pin down all the poems and poets that sparked something, but there are a few that stand out.

Two contemporary poets who write incredibly well about and within history are John Whale and Jeffrey Wainwright. John in particular has been hugely important as a mentor too. His first book, Waterloo Teeth, is a masterclass in embodying different stories with care and feeling. But both do extraordinary things with historical subjects. And in their writing you can see the influence of Geoffrey Hill, who is one of my all-time favourite writers, and also to a lesser extent Tony Harrison, another great. Jon Glover is another vital influence on the book, both as a poet and as a mentor. In fact, I wouldn’t be writing poetry at all if it wasn’t for John and Jon.

Rebecca Goss’s ‘Her Birth’ (Carcanet) has been hugely important as a source of inspiration. I was an MA student when I first saw Rebecca read from her brilliant second collection and it took my breath away. At that time, I was just starting to think seriously about writing, but most of my immediate influences were (white) men. It was the first contemporary collection I read that gave me permission to write deeply personal, intimate poems about the body, motherhood and grief. I often return to it. Likewise, there are poems and collections from Deryn Rees-Jones, Shivanee Ramlochan, Tiphanie Yanique, Liz Berry, Helen Mort, Hannah Sullivan, Vahni Anthony Ezekial Capildeo, Alice Oswald and Alice Notley and Anne Carson that I return to again and again and which shaped how I approached ‘Speculum’ in terms of its style, voice and language.

In terms of writers doing amazing things with archives, the biggest influences for Speculum were Jay Bernard and Kimberley Campanello. Surge is a masterpiece, and I love the way Bernard considers their own position within the archive. Campanello’s MotherBabyHome came out when I was in the middle of yet another redraft of the manuscript and it led me to think in new ways about form, and how the poem exists as another piece of historical documentation. Roy McFarlane’s The Healing Next Time (Nine Arches Press) is another collection that uses poetic form and the page itself as a vehicle for witness and activism. His sonnets about deaths in custody are so important. I also love David Dabydeen’s Turner (Peepal Tree Press) for the way it engages with art and history and creates as it rewrites.

This isn’t an exhaustive list of my favourite poets (although everyone I’ve mentioned also features on that list) and there are also some brilliant collections that I’ve read after finishing Speculum that I know would have inspired it. Holly Pester’s long poem ‘Comic Timing’, for instance, is fantastic. Three collections that I’ve recently enjoyed are Anita Pati’s Hiding to Nothing (Pavilion Poetry), Caitlin Stobie’s Thin Slices (Verve) and Joanna Ingham’s Ovarium (Emma Press). All think about the body, abortion, fertility, pregnancy and pregnancy loss and use their poems to consider how poetic form can echo and speak to these issues.

9. What’s next for you, Hannah, poetry/literature-wise?

Next is something quite different – a book-length poetic sequence about birds, fathers and daughters, extinction, migration, love, etymology, and personal and ecological grief! I began it years ago, and thought it was finished when some of the poems were published as a long sequence. But even before Speculum had come out, more and more lines had started to creep into my phone notes. Poems kept adding themselves to the sequence and the weird voice of the poem kept intruding when I was trying to write other things.

1. The poems in Speculum cross continents and truly inhabit universal spaces. They also move through time – narrating voices from the past as well as present. Spatially and temporally, Speculum disrupts at every turn of the page. I found this fascinating because it forced and reminded me to read the collection as always being in dialogue with its other composites. Can you tell us more about your approach to the collection as a whole, as well as how you decided on the order of the poems?

Thank you for reading the collection so carefully. Alongside the fun and instinctive act of putting together what just felt right (laying everything out on the floor and seeing what words and images reached out to grab hold of each other) I also spent a lot of time thinking about how both the individual poems and the wider form of the collection could echo and challenge the subjects that it was attempting to engage with. They needed to both speak for themselves and talk to each other in an equal and fruitful way.

In the case of obstetric and gynaecological history, it felt important to resist chronological or medical linearity. Working towards a happy ending would have been too easy and would have felt like a formal parroting of the unstoppable trajectory of ‘scientific progress’ that I wanted the book to question. Of course, I am not against research, innovation, and medical advancement, and I am also acutely aware of my place as a beneficiary of inventions such as the Sims Speculum and my privileged position within a global healthcare system that still threatens the lives of black and indigenous mothers and their children. So much has been forgiven or forgotten in the journey towards ‘progress’ – so many lives and stories have been erased – and by collapsing time, continents and putting different histories in conversation with one another, I wanted to go some way to creating the littered archive that the first poem in the collection describes.

The other thing I noticed as I started to write about my own pregnancies and medical procedures (and as I read memoirs on the topic of pregnancy and motherhood) was the narrative pull of my subject. It seems to me that pregnancy – or rather the literature and representation of pregnancy – has a particular formal momentum. It offers you a template in its ‘idealised’ state. You have your nine/ten chapters or stages. You have a clear beginning, middle and end. You have trials and tribulations but ultimately there is the happy ending. Everything is resolved with the neat exclamation point of birth. Perhaps this is the same with any literature that attempts to capture a body in transition? I didn’t want that. I didn’t want the book to start with the early stages of pregnancy and then work steadily towards birth. I wanted things to feel a bit messy and unresolved. Life and death and loss and ‘expecting’ are never that simple, and the great thing that a poetry collection can do is disrupt that timeline and create a new form.

2. You weave historical fact and archival research alongside personal experience and reflections throughout the collection. In your end notes you mention that during your own pregnancy ‘all the gender theory and archive theory and body theory and disability theory that I’d devoured as an academic tasted different in my mouth.’ Can you elaborate on how your own experience(s) intersected with the archival research you undertook for the collection?

John Whale, who is the managing editor at Stand magazine and one of the best poets I’ve ever been lucky enough to work with, once gave me a great piece of advice, which I promptly ignored. He suggested that adding notes to the end of a poetry collection runs the risk of getting you labelled as an academic-poet, rather than just a poet. His first collection, Waterloo Teeth (Carcanet), which was a big influence on Speculum, weaves together the personal and the historical, but he lets the poems speak for themselves. I not only include a notes section, but a whole personal essay! I sometimes worry that it sounds like I was writing a thesis and not a poetry collection. I hope Speculum works on its own – as poems and images and pieces of language – and not just as a vehicle for something else!

I’ve always turned to archives and critical theory (and poems) as a way of making sense of – or perhaps hiding behind – jumbled ideas and experiences. When I get the impulse (and it’s usually an impulse rather than a conscious decision) to write about something, then the first thing I want to do is turn the other way from my own individual experience and look at something or someone else. This was true with Speculum, but I also knew that I wanted to do the research. It was vital from an ethical and historical standpoint, and it felt like a way of understanding and helping to reclaim the experiences and histories that had shaped our families.

3. I was deeply moved by ‘Polish Aubade’. Can you tell us more about Stanislawa Leszczyńska (to whom the poem is dedicated), and how you encountered her story in your research?

Thank you for picking that one out. Stanislawa Leszczyńska was a Polish midwife who, along with her family, was arrested for forging documents and providing assistance and food to Jews living in Warsaw. She and her daughter were sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1943. Leszczyńska asked that she be allowed to continue as a midwife and was sent to work in the ‘maternity ward’, which was a filthy and disease-ridden barracks where pregnant prisoners were sent to die and babies were automatically labelled as stillborn before being taken outside and drowned. Leszczyńska refused orders to kill newborns, instead doing her best to care for each mother and child. and allow survived the war and went back to working as a midwife until her retirement. It was only in 1957, when she was asked to write a report on her time in the camp, that her incredible actions – and the awful realities of obstetrics within Auschwitz – began to be better known. In her report, Leszczyńska estimates that she delivered 3000 live babies during her time as a prisoner. Only 30-60 babies survived liberation. The conditions that she and other prisoner-doctors describe are impossible to comprehend. As is the fate of those thousands of children and mothers who passed through her care. But what stands out, and what made me want to write about her, are the small and profound acts of love and care that she gave to those around her, even in the midst of such horror. She and her fellow prisoner-doctors knew that they couldn’t change the fate of the children or their mothers. All they could do was love them and guide them through labour, wash and bless them, and allow mother and baby to stay together until the morning. The word midwife comes from the middle English ‘mid’ (with) and ‘wif’ (woman) and so literally means a woman who is with the woman. It seemed to me that she embodied that idea.

Before I started to focus on creative writing, I did my PhD on English poetry of the Holocaust and the Second World War. At that time, I almost exclusively studied (and therefore wrote) about male war poets and memoirists. Perhaps because of this viewpoint, I encountered very little about pregnancy and labour in the camps. At the time I stupidly didn’t even notice that gap. It was only a few years later, when I started to write about pregnancy and read more literature about pregnancy and birth (which incidentally has lots of crossovers with war writing!) that I began to look again at that period. It was then that I came across Leszczyńska’s 1957 report on her experience as a prisoner and midwife in Auschwitz-Birkenau. After reading her account, the Aubade arrived fully formed. Her translated testimony is available to read online, and I would recommend that anyone who is interested in her story go and seek it out.

4. One of the most important things that Speculum does is to never shy away from any subject matter in relation to women’s bodies, its potentialities and distresses. The poems refuse ‘erasure as a lack| of back story’ (‘Statue’). Reading through the poems, I felt a real commitment to bring forth a sense of reparation, justice and representation for the bodies you are writing about – those that have been betrayed, abused, refused, and discarded. Can you tell us more about how you dealt with this authorial responsibility, and at times, presumably some ethical questions that you encountered?

You’re right that I felt a great deal of responsibility, and I’m not sure I always got it right. In some ways there is an inevitable failure. Who am I to represent? This is one of the main reasons why I include the notes in the back of the book. I felt, given the difficult and ongoing nature of some of the topics I was speaking to, and my own background and position, that it was important not to (again) silence the women in my collection by enacting a kind of ventriloquism without self-reflection or introspection. Then there would just be more erasure. I also try to consider my own violence as a poet and put on display the ways that we’re all continually curating our own and other people’s stories. By making the archive visible in the book, and by grounding poems in research and documents that the reader can also access, I am (hopefully) being transparent about my own interventions and poetic incisions, as well as my own and my family’s relationship to these histories.

5. ‘Juice’ and ‘Hyperemesis Gravidarum’ are very sensory/gustatory poems relating to the tastes, cravings and nausea experienced by the female body. I loved the modern, urban narration that simultaneously felt desperate, concealed, resentful and angry. I feel like concealment is potentially the continuous thread which connects each poem in Speculum – not just the concealment of the unexpected child, for example, but also in regard to the concealment of feminine desire, emotion, female subjectivities, sex, grief…can you elaborate on how concealment is, contradictorily, revealed through your poems?

Gustatory is such a great word! I wanted ‘Hyperemesis Gravidarum’ to enact a grim sensory overload for the reader. Hopefully it goes some small way to showing what the condition tastes like. And that’s such an interesting observation about concealment. I think a lot of my early twenties seemed to revolve around keeping things concealed: grief, real desire and sexuality, emotional and mental turbulence – these were all things to be contained in order to not make anyone too uncomfortable. A common kind of (self) concealment, I know. And then my experiences of pregnancy have all revolved around the desperate need to keep things in – be it food and water or the pregnancy itself. And I often failed on both counts. I could not contain, and I could not conceal. But there’s an odd liberation in that. You spill over the edges of your body again and again until you are not embarrassed anymore, and you realise that the borders are not fixed and so you may as well lay everything out in the open. That idea of spilling over became a driving force behind so many poems, and I hope it’s a metaphor that resonates beyond writing on pregnancy. It’s one of the reasons that sonnets became such an important form to play with. I love how they seem to promise containment and resolution and yet the best ones often exceed the limits of their ‘cell’. The lines might have stopped but the ideas continue to nag. In that way they are fantastic to explore the messiness of grief and sex and desire and self and subjectivity and history.

I should also add that ‘Juice’ was terrifying to write. It was like nothing I’d done before, but it was also hugely cathartic. I often start readings with it, precisely because it scares me and because I hope it gives permission to readers and listeners to talk openly about abortion and grief.

6. ‘Lost Boys’ is a deeply moving poem which articulates Hylda Baker’s ectopic pregnancies in first person. The final verse opens with the lines, ‘And I lost a child once, and then I lost another’ before ending with ‘Once is a mistake | Twice is careless | By the end of it you could hear a pin drop in my heart.’ This poem made me think deeply about how notions of maternal failure and personal culpability are potentially overlooked or misunderstood factors in cases where biological mishaps occur and the terrible psychic damage and distrust of the body that this must cause…

I’m so glad you liked this poem. It’s one that I’m particularly attached too, partly because of what you describe.

I wanted to write this poem about (or to) Hylda Baker partly because she is so fabulous and sad. I can imagine some awful sitcom set in the Brinsworth Home for Retired Performers – I bet they put on an excellent Christmas Panto. And yet her many losses – of her memory, her health, her money, her lovers, and of course her two pregnancies – tell a story so far from the bawdy comedy that she is usually associated with. You mention that I chose to do the poem in the first person, much like Haworth 1855 and Pup. I love dramatic monologues and the way they can reach through time and space, particularly when you have some common ground to stand together on. I hope they are always respectful and ‘true’ to their subject. So much of the time they allow me into a topic that I don’t yet have the ability or strength to face head on. Through Hylda Baker I wanted to address this notion of physical, mental and maternal loss as a kind of carelessness. The rhetoric of productivity and failure when it comes to the body is something that fascinates and appals me, and I hope that it’s a theme that pervades in different ways throughout the collection. In some ways it is a companion piece to ‘Games’ and ‘Denim’, but I had to write it first before I could use the ‘I’ in a different way. I remember being startled by the rhetoric of blame and responsibility that seemed to surround me when I lost two pregnancies in quick succession. Everyone seemed so desperate to find a cause, and often they looked to my body and my actions for answers. Hormone production had a moral and cultural dimension, and I had failed in both respects. There is a fantastic poem by the American poet Dorothea Lasky that speaks to this culpability. In ‘The Miscarriage’ she repeatedly includes the directive to ‘Work Harder!’, and in doing so identifies how maternal health is bound up in Capitalist notions of (re)productivity. Sandeep Parmer also writes beautifully about this subject in her Poetry Review essay ‘An Uncommon Language’, where she describes the poetry of miscarriage as the ‘minor note in the canon of women’s writing’. It’s a topic that I don’t feel I’ve fully ‘finished with’ or resolved even now, perhaps because it’s something that carries on and exceeds the publication date of the collection. But I wonder whether I need to think about my own failed (re)production in prose… But how do you approach returning to a topic that you’ve supposedly already ‘finished’?

7. The word ‘speculum’ traces its etymology from the Latin ‘specere’ (to look), reminding me of the construction of the female body as ‘public’ and the male as ‘private’. In Testo Junkie, Paul B. Preciado writes that, ‘The West has designed a tube with two orifices: a mouth that emits public signs and an impenetrable anus around which it winds a male, heterosexual subjectivity, which acquires the status of a socially privileged body.’ The vagina, he argues, is constructed as a ‘public orifice’, due to its function as ‘a reproductive receptacle’. The tension between the public and private female body is on display in Speculum, particularly in the poems that discuss and evidence the practices of James Marion Sims – the ‘so-called’ ‘Father of Modern Gynaecology’. Can you elaborate on this suite of poems?

This is such a fantastic quote. Here’s where I admit that I haven’t yet read Testo Junkie. Clearly I need to. Preciado’s tube reminds me a little of Susan Bordo’s discussion of bodily subjectivity in Unbearable Weight. She writes of how our subjectivity can be stripped from us in ‘states of emergency’. The body is no longer a privileged (or private) territory. In the case of pregnancy, overnight the body changes from ‘hallowed ground’ to a mere ‘fetal container’; a public box in which to grow the ‘super subject’ of the fetus. And of course, this shift is even more pronounced when it intersects with existing racial, social, cultural and economic inequalities. Unbearable Weight was published in the early nineties, so there are parts of it that feel dated, but its chapter on pregnancy feels horribly relevant given the recent overturning of Roe v. Wade.

The suite of poems that you describe – those relating to Anarcha, Lucy, Betsey, and the other unnamed enslaved women at the hospital and the experiments that would lead to the invention of the Sims Speculum and the treatment for fistula – are a small attempt to look at this particular moment in medical history through the lens of their lives and subjectivity rather than through the instrument that they helped create. Even before they became pregnant, they had already had their agency and subjectivity denied to them because of their status as enslaved women, and James Marion Sims continued and exacerbated that denial in his medical work. He went on to be hailed as the father of gynaecology, and indeed his inventions have helped millions. However, it is only relatively recently that the women who he effectively bought (or rather borrowed) and spent years experimenting on have been more widely acknowledged. There is now a huge monument to them in Montgomery, USA, created by the artist Michelle Browder. It’s less than a mile from the statue of James Marion Sims and is called ‘The Mothers of Gynaecology’. I would also recommend everyone go and read Deirdre Cooper Owens’s fantastic book ‘Medical Bondage: Race, Gender and the Origins of American Gynaecology’.

8. Where there any particular poets from whom you drew inspiration whilst writing Speculum?

So many! The collection took shape over many years of reading and listening so it’s hard to pin down all the poems and poets that sparked something, but there are a few that stand out.

Two contemporary poets who write incredibly well about and within history are John Whale and Jeffrey Wainwright. John in particular has been hugely important as a mentor too. His first book, Waterloo Teeth, is a masterclass in embodying different stories with care and feeling. But both do extraordinary things with historical subjects. And in their writing you can see the influence of Geoffrey Hill, who is one of my all-time favourite writers, and also to a lesser extent Tony Harrison, another great. Jon Glover is another vital influence on the book, both as a poet and as a mentor. In fact, I wouldn’t be writing poetry at all if it wasn’t for John and Jon.

Rebecca Goss’s ‘Her Birth’ (Carcanet) has been hugely important as a source of inspiration. I was an MA student when I first saw Rebecca read from her brilliant second collection and it took my breath away. At that time, I was just starting to think seriously about writing, but most of my immediate influences were (white) men. It was the first contemporary collection I read that gave me permission to write deeply personal, intimate poems about the body, motherhood and grief. I often return to it. Likewise, there are poems and collections from Deryn Rees-Jones, Shivanee Ramlochan, Tiphanie Yanique, Liz Berry, Helen Mort, Hannah Sullivan, Vahni Anthony Ezekial Capildeo, Alice Oswald and Alice Notley and Anne Carson that I return to again and again and which shaped how I approached ‘Speculum’ in terms of its style, voice and language.

In terms of writers doing amazing things with archives, the biggest influences for Speculum were Jay Bernard and Kimberley Campanello. Surge is a masterpiece, and I love the way Bernard considers their own position within the archive. Campanello’s MotherBabyHome came out when I was in the middle of yet another redraft of the manuscript and it led me to think in new ways about form, and how the poem exists as another piece of historical documentation. Roy McFarlane’s The Healing Next Time (Nine Arches Press) is another collection that uses poetic form and the page itself as a vehicle for witness and activism. His sonnets about deaths in custody are so important. I also love David Dabydeen’s Turner (Peepal Tree Press) for the way it engages with art and history and creates as it rewrites.

This isn’t an exhaustive list of my favourite poets (although everyone I’ve mentioned also features on that list) and there are also some brilliant collections that I’ve read after finishing Speculum that I know would have inspired it. Holly Pester’s long poem ‘Comic Timing’, for instance, is fantastic. Three collections that I’ve recently enjoyed are Anita Pati’s Hiding to Nothing (Pavilion Poetry), Caitlin Stobie’s Thin Slices (Verve) and Joanna Ingham’s Ovarium (Emma Press). All think about the body, abortion, fertility, pregnancy and pregnancy loss and use their poems to consider how poetic form can echo and speak to these issues.

9. What’s next for you, Hannah, poetry/literature-wise?

Next is something quite different – a book-length poetic sequence about birds, fathers and daughters, extinction, migration, love, etymology, and personal and ecological grief! I began it years ago, and thought it was finished when some of the poems were published as a long sequence. But even before Speculum had come out, more and more lines had started to creep into my phone notes. Poems kept adding themselves to the sequence and the weird voice of the poem kept intruding when I was trying to write other things.

MATT BATES IS EDITOR-AT-LARGE FOR MUSWELL PRESS AND THE FORMER FICTION BUYER FOR WHSMITH TRAVEL WHERE HE CURATED THE AWARD-WINNING FRESH TALENT PROMOTION. HE HAS JUDGED THE COSTA PRIZE, THE JERWOOD PRIZE, THE BOOKSELLER’S ASSOCIATION, THE ROMANTIC NOVELISTS’ ASSOCIATION AND LOVEREADING SHORT STORY PRIZE. HE COMPLETED A BA IN ENGLISH LITERATURE AND CREATIVE WRITING AT BIRKBECK AND STUDYING AN MA IN ENGLISH LITERATURE AT GLASGOW UNIVERSITY. HE CO-EDITED THE ANTHOLOGY QUEER LIFE, QUEER LOVE WITH DR GOLNOOSH NOUR.
Kate Wilkinson

Interview: Kate Wilkinson

Kate Wilkinson grew up in Sussex. She began her career in Theatre in Education in Manchester, famously playing the part of the ‘large intestine’ in a science show. Kate joined BBC Schools Radio where her first commission was children’s stories for the Listening Corner. She worked for BBC Radio 4 as a reporter and producer, primarily on arts programmes, literary features and readings, such as Book at Bedtime and Book of the Week.

In 2016, she applied for the MA in Writing for Young People at Bath Spa University. Edie and The Box of Flits and Edie and the Flits in Paris are her first published books.

Kate Wilkinson

What’s your background?
I originally trained to be a teacher before turning to radio journalism and I have worked in radio for the past thirty years recording everything from boiling spaghetti and a greyhound race to slippery politicians and a poet in a broom cupboard. I was on the staff at BBC Radio 4 for about twelve years and then became a freelance audio producer in the early 2000s. I still work for Radio 4 mostly abridging books for Book of the Week and Book at Bedtime, but I combine this with producing audiobooks for publishers and podcasts for museums and heritage sites.

Have you always written? How did you get started?
As a child I had an imaginary chicken that figured in a lot of early adventures and also had a tendency to perform rambling, surreal stories (usually about a walrus that flew) to my poor mum. The seeds of my children’s writing really began in the early days at the BBC. I worked at Schools Radio and was commissioned to write a long-running series of children’s stories for a pre-school slot. I realised at the time I was hugely drawn to writing for children, but there were few slots in radio devoted to it. So I moved into production and began to work for the Radio 4 Arts Unit and was sucked into the giant wheel of a daily arts magazine programme.

How did you get into writing childrens’ literature?
A few years ago I joined a part-time MA in Writing For Young People at Bath Spa University as the deadlines and last minute stress of my radio life began to pall. It was a very pragmatic course which appealed to me in that we learnt a lot about the industry as well as having our work rigorously picked over by co-students. Having spent a lifetime editing scripts and squeezing material into a timeslot, I really enjoyed cutting my stories down to size and re-drafting – in fact I probably spend too much time doing that in the early stages – obsessing over a paragraph before nailing a first draft!

How did you get your idea for Edie and the Box of Flits?
I’ve lived in London so long that it has become the backdrop for all my stories. It’s so full of curiosities and unexpected scenes that it’s the perfect inspiration. The Edie stories actually came out of the endless time I spent waiting for my connection home at Highbury and Islington. I’d sit on a bench watching the grubby, streetwise Underground mice hauling old sandwich crusts and crisps from the platform back to their holes and I decided to create a parallel world of small people who lived in the deserted stations and tunnels of the London Underground and existed by foraging. The London Transport Museum has brilliant tours of Hidden London including all the ghost stations which helped with the research.

How did you settle on writing for an age group that is no longer toddlers, not yet teens?
The 7 – 11 age group is for me the most joyful of childhood – their imagination is boundless, they are brave and unjudgmental, and the self-consciousness of the teen years has not yet set in. Whenever I go into schools, I read my first chapter and ask children to come into an imaginary Bakerloo line carriage with me and act out some of the characters. They do it with so much commitment and spark. The Edie stories are actually about growing up and losing some of that.

Edie and the Box of Flits

How did you find a publisher? Was it a quick process or drawn-out? Did you have an agent?
Part of the MA course was to have a chapter of our ‘work in progress’ published in an anthology which was circulated to agents and editors. I was lucky enough to be taken on by Helen Boyle at Pickled Ink who took a punt on me as she had only read part of my manuscript before she signed me. It took a while to wrestle it into shape and to send it around publishers, but eventually Piccadilly Press (Bonnier) offered me a two-book deal. It was an advance the size of a postage stamp though!

Did you and illustrator, Joe Berger, find each other, or did the publisher bring you together?
The publisher commissioned Joe to do the illustrations and at first it felt as if they were trying to keep us apart as we never actually met face to face and all the communication was via the art director. As we were going to be working on two books I emailed Joe and sent him a London Transport postcard asking if he’d like to meet for a coffee. Now we are firm friends.

What are you currently working on?
I’ve decided that all my stories will in some way be connected to London so I’m working on another chapter book about a boy called Davy Larkin who lives on the banks of the River Thames. He makes friends with a boy who arrives in London on a cargo ship and a girl who lives by London Bridge and wants to be a magician’s apprentice. It’s not quite as light and fluffy as the two Edie books, as it’s about a journey and confronting one’s identity.

What does success look like for you as a writer?
At first I found it very hard when I realised that I would never make enough money to give up the ‘day job’ and, also, that publishers don’t market your books in the way that you might expect. I don’t think I had appreciated how much I would have to generate interest in my books myself, organise school visits, trawl around bookshops and battle with social media. At times it has felt quite lonely. Success as a writer for me will never be shiny or glittery, but when I start a new book and make time to wander about London thinking about my characters, I feel happy.

Edie stopped to listen.

There it was again – tap, tap, tap. It was coming from somewhere high up.

She dragged a chair across the floor and levered herself up until her head was level with the top shelf. She ran her fingers along the surface, feeling her way until they rested on the sharp corners of a wooden box.

She felt certain it was the box. Her box. The one she had found on the Bakerloo line.

Sweat prickled on her forehead as she slid it off the shelf. She could now see that there was a small pane of glass on one side. The tapping became louder and more frantic. Edie held the box up until the pane of glass was level with her face. A tiny creature was beating its fists against the glass. It was about the size of Edie’s thumb. It had wings that were whirring furiously and a puff of hair that was like the fur on the tip of a cat’s tail.

The creature stopped banging and started to wave wildly. Then, clear as a tiny. bell, words began to form.

‘I want to come out RIGHT THIS MINUTE!’

CRAIG SMITH IS A POET AND NOVELIST FROM HUDDERSFIELD. HIS WRITING HAS APPEARED ON WRITERS REBEL, ATRIUM, IAMBAPOET AND THE MECHANICS’ INSTITUTE REVIEW, AS WELL BEING A WINNER OF THE POETRY ARCHIVE NOW! WORDVIEW 2022. CRAIG HAS THREE BOOKS TO HIS NAME: POETRY COLLECTIONS, L.O.V.E. LOVE (SMITH/DOORSTOP) AND A QUICK WORD WITH A ROCK AND ROLL LATE STARTER, (RUE BELLA); AND A NOVEL, SUPER-8 (BOYD JOHNSON). HE IS CURRENTLY WORKING TOWARD AN MA IN CREATIVE WRITING AT BIRKBECK UNIVERSITY, WHERE HE IS THE JOINT MANAGING EDITOR OF MIR ONLINE
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