The Intentionality Behind the Work: An Interview with Christopher Paolini

By Akshay Gajria

Eragon, the first book in the Inheritance Cycle, which established the World of Eragon as we know it now, holds a special place in my heart and my bookshelf. It is the second book I’d ever read in its entirety and where my love for books and stories started. I was around 7-years-old and it left a mark. Fantasy remains my preferred genre of exploration and I’m forever grateful to Christopher Paolini for penning the entire Eragon series.

In 2023, Christopher returned to the World of Eragon with his latest book Murtagh. After reading that, and having attempted writing fantasy of my own, I had several questions about the book, magic systems and his writing process. So, of course, when I got a chance to interview him, I jumped at it.

Christopher Poalini is the author of the Inheritance Cycle (Eragon, Eldest, Brisingr, Inheritance) and creator of the World of Eragon and Fractalverse (To Sleep in a Sea of Stars and Fractal Noise). He holds a Guinness World Record for youngest author of a bestselling series.

 

This interview is divided into four sections:

Writing Process
A Little Bit of Magic
Book Lore
Book/Film Recommendations



Writing Process

AG: Can you walk us through your typical writing process, from idea conception to finished manuscript?

CP: I could talk about this for a couple hours, if I were really delving into the nitty-gritty, but a sort of a broad overview would be: I get an idea. The idea could come from anywhere. Most of my story ideas tend to involve an image or a scene associated with a strong emotion and it is usually either the beginning of the story or the end of one.

Often it’s the end, which is helpful because it’s difficult to write a book if you don’t know where you’re going. In fact, I refuse to write a book if I don’t know what I’m shooting for for the final scene because if I know what that final scene is or at least what the culmination of the story is, then I can tailor everything leading up to that moment to serve that moment. Whatever that idea is.

Assuming the idea is something that engages my passion and interest, I start developing the characters and the story. This happens concurrently. In the past, this involved a lot of worldbuilding for the World of Eragon or the Fractalverse but now that I’ve created both of those settings, I don’t have to do as much worldbuilding, if much at all. If I’m creating a new setting then I would concentrate first and foremost on how this new setting differs from the real world, specifically with physics, whether that means magic which involves physics or science technology. That will determine what is and isn’t possible in the story from travel times to warfare to politics.

This process could be anywhere from two weeks to two months to longer. But assuming it’s a setting I’m relatively familiar with, like in Murtagh I had the story nailed down in about two weeks fairly solidly. So once I have a good idea of the plot and the characters then I’m ready to write. At that point, it’s just a matter of consistency, patience, persistence. Putting in the hours — assuming I have a good solid outline. Then the writing usually goes fairly quickly. I’ll average about one to three thousand words a day, give or take. At that rate, the first draft of Murtagh took me about three and a half months and that was with Christmas and New Year and a couple of birthdays thrown in there. Not too bad. And that’s pretty much how I tackle it.

Those that would be sort of the broad overview of how I would go about writing a book. The older I’ve gotten the more of these I’ve done the more willing I’ve become to put in a lot more prep work in each book just because it saves me a bunch of time down the road.

AG: 
Is there any book in the Inheritance Cycle that you did not have an outline for and you just wrote?

CP: No, because I had tried writing stories without outlines before Eragon and I never got past the first five or ten pages because all I had was the inciting incident. Before writing Eragon, I actually plotted out an entire fantasy book and created an entire world for it just as an exercise to see if I could plot out a story. I never wrote that book or story. I just shelved it. (Maybe I should go back to it someday.)

When I decided I was gonna plot out an entire trilogy, I wrote the first book as a practice novel. Just to see if I could and that ended up being the Inheritance Cycle. So even before I wrote Eragon, I had the broad framework of the entire series and I can prove that: If you go back and reread Eragon after he drags his uncle to Carvahall, he has a night of bad fever dreams after that and one of those dreams directly describes the very last scene in inheritance.

Now, the novel that I did attempt to write without a really strong outline was To Sleep in a Sea of Stars. And that’s the reason it took me so many years to write and revise it. I personally cannot plot and write at the same time.

AG: That gives me a very good idea of what your writing process looks like and I’m so glad you touched on To Sleep in a Sea of Stars because in the acknowledgments you state how your sister who read the first draft said that you need to rewrite a bunch of it. I always wondered if the success of Inheritance Cycle changed your writing process or did that make you a lot more conscious about what you are about to write?

CP: Ultimately, it made me more conscious knowing that I have an audience. Knowing that it’s my career and not just a hobby. And also just wanting to be good at it.

AG: Has your writing process evolved because of how well received Inheritance is or do you still stick to the same bones?

CP: Well, it become more structured. The way I approach each story is a lot more organised and I try to be a lot more organised with my thoughts, my intentions. I suppose that’s a good word. Intention. There’s a lot more intentionality behind everything I do because this is my life. This is my career and that’s important to me and I want to write good books. So you’re never gonna go wrong by putting more thought into a book.

AG: That’s a good way of putting it. Intentionality. All of your books since To Sleep in a Sea of Stars are a lot more structured and I noticed this vividly when I was reading Murtagh and also Fractal Noise. I wondered why the initial four books of Inheritance Cycle were not as heavily structured or maybe this was an indication of your growth as a writer?

CP: Now it’s funny, you mentioned that because the first draft of Eragon, or one of the couple of the first drafts actually, had no chapters. I wrote the entire book without a chapter, without chapter breaks because I wanted to provide readers with no excuse to stop. But of course the flip side is that short exciting chapters with little cliffhangers do a wonderful job of pulling people through a story. Thriller writers have known this for ages.

The Inheritance Cycle is very classically formatted. I won’t say structured just formatted, with chapter titles and book titles. There is sometimes a little section breaks when you switch point of views, although later on, I rarely switched point of view within the same chapter, usually one chapter for Eragon, one for Roran.

With To Sleep in a Sea of Stars, I wanted to shake things up. I had read The Dark Tower series by Stephen King and he uses a lot of the formatting tricks that I used in To Sleep in the Sea of Stars, which I liked. Now, with Murtagh, I dialled it back a little from the science fiction. It’s not as heavily formatted. It has has a lot more section breaks though, which I didn’t do in The Inheritance Cycle. Part of that was to just give me an opportunity to do some more maps but also to give the readers a little bit of a break and help the book stand apart from The Inheritance Cycle. But I wouldn’t want to do the full formatted style that I did for the Fractalverse in the World of Eragon. It just doesn’t feel appropriate.

I think for my next book, I’m gonna go with much shorter chapters. I want to experiment with that.

AG: What does your research process look like? Does it change when you’re working with fantasy and when you’re working with sci-fi?

CP: I’ve probably done a lot more research for the science fiction because with fantasy, at least the type of fantasy I write, involves things that we are fairly familiar with in the real world, you know. Horses and trees and mountains and castles and politics and people. Whenever I feel that I’m not familiar with something, I’ll always go spend some time reading up on it to make sure I’ve got some idea of what I’m talking about and I’m not perfect with this. There’s plenty of things I should have done more research on and I only realised after the fact. It’s a balancing act between research and writing time so I just try to make sure I’ve got a good feel for the subject material and then just attempt to be internally consistent with it.

AG: In Murtagh, the dragon and rider relationship was easily comparable to Eragon and Saphira. But at the same time while I was reading it, it felt unique. Was there anything on the craft level that you did to make it feel unique or was it just subconsciously those were the characters?

CP: I made conscious effort to write them differently than Eragon and Saphira and to have their relationship be different than Eragon and Saphira and I got about 80% there on the first draft and then did a lot more tweaking on the second draft to get it even further. I can give you a couple of small examples: Eragon and Saphira will often speak to each other with their minds and Saphira rarely will speak to other people with her mind. She’ll usually speak to Eragon first. And you know, it’s a big thing if she decides to touch someone else’s mind. With Murtagh and Thorn, Murtagh usually speaks to Thorn with his voice. Because he’s always guarding his thoughts even sometimes from Thorn. And Thorn is a little more open to just speaking to anyone who’s around him. Their interaction in general is as I say in the book, it’s more thorny, a little more prickly than Eragon and Saphira and I think Murtagh is a little more protective of Thorn. The relationships are different and that was important for me to try to capture.

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A Little Bit of Magic

 

AG: So I want to switch topics to a little bit to magic. There’s a lot of conversation specifically about hard and soft magic systems. Before I ask you about those I wanted to ask your opinion on what do you think is the purpose of magic in fantasy or any other genre? Why does magic exist in them and why are we so very intrigued by it?

CP: That’s an interesting question. No one’s asked me that before. My gut reaction is that there are many different reasons for having magic in a story. You know, someone could approach magic in a very scientific manner. Brandon Sanderson does it in a very mechanistic manner so to speak. Then there’s magic that’s used like Tolkien’s, which is much more in the mythic vein of things and one could argue that it’s emotional magic, you know, it occurs when it needs to occur. You can’t really logic it. Or maybe you can logic it on a really deep level but that level isn’t shared with the reader explicitly.

Gandalf’s powers come from, essentially God or gods and he’s an avatar and a representative of that power on Earth or Middle Earth. There are limits to it but we don’t know what those exact limits are and that’s always the problem. That old style of magic can be incredibly powerful in a story because it works on the level of emotion. It’s almost like dream logic.

But without the constraints of logic, or mechanics, it’s very easy for it to get away from the writer or the storyteller and it ends up feeling like a crutch. Also if magic existed, then you have to ask does it come from a deity or is it like a naturally occurring thing? And that’s a big division because if it’s from a deity, then you have to think about it differently, but if magic existed then I think that people would want to understand it and they would want to exploit it and they would want to wield it. Then you’re essentially moving into the scientific method.

I always talk about it like exploits in a video game. [Magic is] doing something that is normally forbidden by the rules of the universe and in video games, you see how many people will use exploits and glitches once they discover them. I think people would do the same in the real world if magic allowed for that. You could argue that science and technology is our version of that.

So why do we use magic? Well, it serves a lot of different storytelling purposes. Also a lot of people — I am rambling here, but it’s an interesting topic — a lot of people think about the world in a magical way. It makes sense to include that in a story. But why do we keep coming back for it? I don’t know, I think because it makes the world interesting. To be able to do things that are normally forbidden. Perhaps it also satisfies that emotional logic within us. You’re out walking and a thunderbolt strikes something in a field and you think well, there must be a reason that thunderbolt struck there and boy wouldn’t it be cool if I could use the thunderbolt and the lightning bolt and strike there.

So, I think ultimately it appeals to our emotions.

AG: That that’s a great way of looking at it. I sometimes think of the physics that we have as a hard magic systems that we are just bound by these rules. But we are very keen to try and break them.

CP: I think we lose appreciation for what we have gained through technology sometimes because we get so used to it. I mean we are currently speaking to each other via magic mirrors.

And computers! We took some rocks and we put lightning in the them and made the rocks think.

Right on my desk. I have a light bulb that suspends itself over a magnet. It hangs in the air and rotates and if I were to go if I were to go back a thousand years and show people they would go, that’s magic. They would think our computers are magic and they’re not entirely wrong.

AG: If you’ve ever read The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan there’s one scene where the character lights his candle with the use of his magic and he just thinks that it’s these small little conveniences that he loves most about the power. Now we have the same thing in smart devices where we can just switch off the light with the tap of a button. Is convenience then, what we look for — through magic or science?

CP: Well, we get so separated because of our technology. We get so separated from the things that actually allow us to survive. Food production, commodity production, resource production, and energy production. There are no rich countries with low amounts of power consumption. Or production. If you look at the graphs of the rich countries, they produce and consume a huge amount of electricity and energy and there is no way around energy. The Industrial Revolution is harnessing the energy of steam and coal and electricity. Without that we don’t have modern society.

I’m going on a tangent here but if we were really truly serious about climate change and about kickstarting our progress as a species, we would embrace nuclear energy left right and centre and until we do I don’t take anyone seriously about saying we got to fix it. We got to fix it, yes but they’re not willing to go that route because that would allow us to advance enormously and especially if in the long term if we’re going to be jetting around in the solar system.

We’re going to be doing it with nuclear rockets because chemical rockets just don’t have enough room. Thank Delta-v for that.

AG: Speaking of energy — in Eragon, you showcase a hard magic system where Eragon has to have enough energy to cast any kind of spell. How did you craft this entire system of magic within the world of Eragon? While you were crafting it, did you have to sort of change any of the story beats because the magic could have just solved the problem?

CP: In retrospect, I would have put more restrictions on the magic system because I find restrictions interesting. They lead to interesting and complicated situations, which are wonderful for dramatic storytelling. I started with the assumption that conscious living creatures and even some non-conscious creatures but living creatures in the World of Eragon can directly control energy with their minds or with their will. Not all of them but you know good chunk of them can do this.

To do anything with that energy requires the same amount of effort as it would to do it via any other means whether it was steam power or your muscles or electricity, whatever. Of course, there is no such thing as energy. It’s electricity. It’s momentum. It’s heat. There’s always a form. There’s not some abstract thing that’s energy. So that was my initial assumption and then everything after that came from those two assumptions. Living creatures can control manipulate energy with their minds and it takes the same amount of energy to do things via any other means. What come after has just been a natural extension of those assumptions. There have been some artificial constraints such as postulating that one of my species bound Language to Magic/Energy in an attempt to avoid the negative consequences of casting a spell and having a wandering thought pop in your brain that alters the intended spell and causes an explosion or something else.

But everything else came from those two initial assumptions and I just tried to follow the logical consequences.

AG: I really enjoyed the extension of the magic system in Murtagh which felt like a coding language. If this happens then that happens. It felt like a natural extension of the magic system and it was great to see that evolution.

CP: Thank you.

 

 

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Book Lore

AG: In the acknowledgment of Fractal Noise, you wrote about how you don’t want to write anything dark and nihilistic. The first draft of Fractal Noise was dark but you turned it, I wouldn’t say into a happy ending, but you gave it a positive spin. How did you form that philosophy and why do you not want to write a story which ends in a dark place?

CP: Well, I think my philosophy, not my philosophy necessarily, comes from my experience with myself and those I love and watching others. Life is often extremely hard for people. Even those who seem to be living a charmed life often have struggles that are not immediately apparent. I don’t want to make that worse for anyone over the years. I have heard from hundreds and hundreds of readers who have told me that they’ve been touched by Inheritance Cycle, that it helped them in the difficult times of their lives.

Whether that was with depression or grief or any number of other issues. It’s made me think that if a book can help you when you’re in those dark places, then it could just as easily hurt you. I don’t want to be responsible for that. You know, I’m not saying that every book has to be sunshine and roses. Fractal Noise certainly is not sunshine and roses. It is a dark book, but I tried to say something worthwhile and tried to ultimately, if not on sunny note, at least leave it in a place where the main character is starting to move in a better direction. Because I feel like the great challenge of adulthood in many ways is figuring out how to deal with the adversities that life presents us. Given the societies have become increasingly secular over the years, I actually joked with my editor that Fractal Noise is not a book that would necessarily exist in anything resembling the current form in a more religious society. The question that the main character is wondering would be if it’s God’s will, trust in God, the faith which he could wrestle with. Those questions have a long tradition in literature, but it would be a very different type of book. But if the answer is not one’s faith, then it goes in a different direction. Regardless of how one chooses to ask that question, the real question is how to deal with adversity in life? I still think that question is perhaps the defining question of adulthood in many ways.

AG: Obviously, it is beautifully written. That thud. It has a rhythm of its own which I absolutely enjoyed reading.

CP: Thank you! The funny thing is on Goodreads people are either giving it like one star reviews or four or five stars. People are very very split on the book. And I totally understand. I mean if I didn’t if I weren’t in the right mindset for it, I would hate it, absolutely hate it and also I could see how it could come across as thuddingly obvious to some readers. All of which I think would be  fair criticisms. But at the same time, it was one of those things I had to write to get out of my brain. And that was the only way I could write it so…

AG: I’m glad you did. Oh, are there any other one off books that you’re planning?

CP: Many and that’s one of the big reasons for creating the Fractalverse. I want to write books that are not explicitly World of Eragon, so those can go into the Fractalverse. But I also have some big series books in that world that I need to write first, so people have a better idea of what I’m actually doing in the Fractalverse.

AG: When you were writing the the Battle of the Burning Planes (in Eldest), you tweeted that you were listening to Woodkid. Is there any music that you’ve been listening to that inspired scenes in To Sleep or Fractal Noise or even Murtagh?

CP: Nothing that inspired it. But while I was writing To Sleep in a Sea of Stars, I listened to a lot of the Tron Legacy soundtrack. Also, especially the latter part of working on the book, I listened to the soundtrack to the video game anthem, which I know wasn’t a particularly successful game, but the soundtrack is gorgeous, especially like the first half of it. I absolutely loved it, it’s great for writing science fiction.

For Murtagh, I actually went back to stuff I was listening to while writing The Inheritance Cycle. So I was listening to the Lord of the Rings soundtrack. I was listening to Andean folk music which reminds me of the elves. Although there were a few places, I listened to the soundtrack for Aliens, which felt appropriate.

AG: In Murtagh, there were a lot more maps and in The Fork and The Witch and The Worm there was the extension of Alagaesia which revealed a lot more on the east of the continent. Are there more maps?

CP: Well, I literally finished this weekend revisions on a global map for the World of Eragon in full colour like a NASA satellite rectilinear equidistant projection. There’s a NASA program that lets you take a rectilinear projection and apply any other projection like this or that and so we’re getting that fixed up and all fancied up for a release later on.

So yes, that’s the big one that hasn’t been released.

AG: Amazing. I look forward to that! Will that be launched as a standalone map or will that be with a book?

CP: It’ll be released as part of one of the additions of the book. I can’t tell you exactly but I’ll share it once it’s actually out in public. I’ll release the map itself, so people can access it. The fandom can have their hands on it.*

AG: I won’t ask you what the next book in the World of Eragon will be but is there sort of a rough estimate when you would want the book to come out?

CP: I would like at least one book to come out next year but I have two television shows in development right now and I am contractually obliged to participate in both the shows. Of course, film and television tends to be all consuming. So I just don’t know how much writing time I’m gonna have for books this year. And that’s just the reality of it, but I would love to have something out next year.

AG: You don’t have to answer this but I wonder will you be writing from Arya’s perspective whenever you write the next book, maybe?

CP: No, not in the next book, but I have a book plan. That’s about 50% her point of view. So I just got to get there.

AG: I’m excited and rooting for you. Aside from the books you’ve planned, there’s this growing genre of fantasy fiction right now which is like cozy fantasy where you have a fantasy world, but the characters are just sitting around in the coffee shop drinking coffee and talking about life. Would you consider writing something in either the World of Eragon or Fractalverse which has a similar cozy vibe to it?

CP: Maybe… but I tend to like stories about exceptional events, epic stories. Fractal Noise is kind of the biggest divergence from what I normally write. When I do Tales from Alagaesia vol. 2, there might be some more of the type of story you’re talking about but the stories that have always appealed to me as an audience has always been, you know epic stories, big stories. And that’s what I’m drawn to writing.

AG: Would you be open to ever in the future opening up the World of Eragon or Fractalverse for other writers to come in and write?

CP: I’ve considered it. I did look at it one point, especially when I was trying to figure out if I could get Murtagh out the door when I wanted to get it out. The problem is I, for good or for ill, have a specific writing style which doesn’t necessarily read like any other author at the moment. It may be something I do down the road, but at the moment I’m still at a stage in my career where I’m just continuing to build the world and building the story of both the Fractalverse and the World of Eragon. That’s something I want to maintain control over.

The book is the Deluxe edition of Murtagh. See here: https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/753245/murtagh-deluxe-edition-by-christopher-paolini/

BOOK/Film Recommendations

AG: Are there any fantasy books you read in the last few years that have stayed with you or you wish you’d have written it?

CP: No, I have been horribly deficient in my reading in the past few years because of the writing deadlines and having two kids in two years. So I read Fourth Wing** recently. In the past few years, Kings of the Wyld*** was fun.

I really haven’t read any fantasy that’s really stuck with me recently. Probably the book that I read that stuck with me was Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy, which kind of reads like fantasy in places? Aside from that I’m reading a book called Traitor. And it’s fantasy. It’s kind of all about trade wars and imperialism. I can’t remember the author’s name unfortunately.

But I read so much fantasy growing up and in teens and 20s and I really would love to read more but I find as I’ve gotten older it’s harder and harder to get into books. And that’s a failing of my own. Perhaps it’s just having read so much and I spend every day writing, sometimes the last thing I want to do is look at more words at the end of the day.

AG: Do you ever listen to audiobooks?

CP: No, no, I hate it. It’s too slow for me. I don’t absorb the language well listening to it for whatever reason.

AG: Fair enough. When you were learning the craft of writing stories, were there any books that helped you understand how to tell a compelling story?

CP: Oh, yeah. I could not have written Eragon without a book called Story by Robert McKee, which is a classic screenwriting book and goes deep into the mechanics of storytelling. And that was incredibly helpful for me because up until that point in my life. I hadn’t really considered the fact that there was a mechanical aspect of story and that one could study it and attempt to master it. That was really responsible for my success to start with.

Since then books that have been helpful are Shakespeare’s Metrical Art by George T. Wright that really helped me with incorporating various poetic techniques into my prose. Other books that I’d read on poetry just failed to answer certain questions. I’d had very technical questions and that book answered them. So I’m a big fan of it.

Then there’s a book called Style by F. L Lucas which to my mind is the best book on prose style that I’ve ever read. [Elements of Style by] Strunk and White have some various inconsistencies and Style is much more organised, much more useful and does a great job of explaining why different eras have different prose styles like the victorians versus other eras. I’ve also read Into the Woods by Thom Yorke and examination of a 5 act story structure. I’ve really enjoyed that because it talks about the 5x story structure which was used by Shakespeare and quite a few others. A lot of playwrights use that. That’s what I did in To Sleep in a Sea of Stars. I used a five act story structure, which is why some readers have felt like it has one beat too many. I did it on purpose to specifically create the feeling that it was almost like a series within one book. It was a longer story than you would normally get with a 3 act structure. A lot of Bollywood films also use the 5 act structure, which is interesting. So I’m I really enjoyed that book.

Also Anatomy of a Story by John Truby. I think the fun thing about Into the Woods is he starts his book by criticising Anatomy of a Story. So there is no one way to write a story but it helps to read all of these books. They have all been enormously helpful and it does help to read about how other people approach that art and craft of writing and storytelling.

AG: Makes sense. I’m Indian and I’ve grown up on Bollywood movies. And is there any Bollywood movie that you’ve enjoyed?

CP: Well, let’s see: DDLJ, Jodha Akbar, Lagaan. I know it’s Tamil, but Bahubali One and Two, Main Hu Na — that’s such a funny film. I’ve seen a lot of Bollywood films. Oh all the Krish films. I mean those are better superhero films than most anything coming out of Hollywood and I love the colours.

I started with Lagaan because it was nominated for the Oscars the year it came out and then after that it was like this cricket match was as epic as any of the fights in Lord of the Rings. I need to see more Bollywood and I am going back to a bunch of the films by Guru Dutt. Boy, those like Pyasa — those are powerful films. If you’re a storyteller, it is helpful to see stories told from different cultures and different parts of the world.

In Western culture, there’s essentially no reason now why two people can’t be together. You’re black you’re white. You can be together. Oh, you’re Jewish. You’re Catholic Oh, you can be together. Oh you’re poor. You’re rich. You can be together. But in Bollywood, well, mommy and daddy don’t approve of this match. Guess what? You’re not getting married. Or you’re different castes or religions and it’s a big deal. It creates such a great conflict for a romance.

Western stories just don’t have that at the moment. We also don’t do romance for men anymore. I’ve watched an enormous amount of Hollywood films. Western films going back to the silent era with classic Hollywood romance movies for men. They used to be: a young man leaves home from the farm and goes to the big city and gets a job. There he meets a nice young woman who’s a sales lady at the store where he’s working. He has to prove himself to her and win her hand and impress her doing something. But it’s from the man’s point of view instead of the woman’s. When was the last romance movie for guys made?

I remember when I showed my wife Bahubali and she was like, oh, it’s a really long film. It’s kind of late in the day. I said let’s just watch a little bit and see what you think. I think that might have actually been the first Bollywood, no, Tamil film that I showed her. We got about 15 minutes in and I look over at her and she’s just locked in. We watched the whole first film. Then she looked at me and said we have to watch the next one. We watch both of them back to back. They are so epic. It’s amazing.

** Fourth Wing by Rebecca Yarros 
*** Kings of the Wyld by Nicholas Eames 

 

Akshay Gajria is a London-based storyteller, writer, and writing coach. He holds an MA in Creative Writing from Birkbeck, University of London and completed his Computer Engineering from NMIMS, Mumbai. He has ghostwritten two books and his writing has appeared in Skulls, The Writing Cooperative, The Written Circle, Bluegraph Press, The Coffeelicious, Your Story Club, Futura Magazine, The Book Mechanic, Poets Unlimited, StoryMaker, Whiplash and more. He usually struggles to finish his sentences… but gets to them eventually.

 

An Interview with Anthony McGowan

By JB Smith 

Anthony McGowan was born in Manchester, went to school in Leeds, and now lives in London with his wife, two kids and a dog. In the past he has worked as a nightclub bouncer, a civil servant and a tutor in philosophy at the Open University. He is the author of over 40 books for children and adults.

 

Authors are a strange breed. They dedicate their lives to creating things of beauty, spinning webs of enchanting lies that show us the way towards truth. And yet to do this requires dedication verging on masochism that leads an otherwise sane individual to turn up day after day, week after week, as they attempt to pin the slippery threads of story to the page like trying to wrestle an eel into a jam jar.

I can’t think of anyone who embodies this split sense of character better than Anthony McGowan, the award winning author of over 40 books for children and young people, yet a writer whose career encompasses everything from literary thrillers to a treatise on how to teach philosophy to your dog. His books often draw on classical literature and he has a PhD in the philosophy of beauty, and yet to talk to him you get the sense of an unpretentious, no-nonsense writer who +++++. We meet on Zoom and he speaks in a rapid-fire stream of anecdotes propelled by self-deprecating humour and enthusiasm.

For McGowan the theme of contrast began right back in childhood. He grew up in the sleepy village of Sherburn nestled among the fields and fells of North Yorkshire, but went to a tough secondary school in the sprawling outskirts of post-industrial Leeds. His parents were nurses, which marked him out as distinctly middle class compared to the poor kids around him. But rather than dwell on the difficulties, he tells me that it was at Corpus Christi Secondary School that the spark of writing was first kindled.

“There wasn’t a great culture of learning at school,” he says. “But I was one of the brainy kids.” And the early encouragement he received created a positive feedback loop. “When you’re thirteen and you get praised for something, you want to do more of it.”

The trickle of encouragement swelled into a lifelong love of writing. Promising essays became promising stories, and then came the dodgy teenage poetry which apparently is in the contract of every author to have written to impress girls/boys (delete as applicable).

By his mid-teens he knew that his future would involve “something to do with words.” But on leaving school that “something to do with words” was hazy and undefined.

His undergraduate degree turned into an MPhil and a life plan unfurled ahead of him. “I thought I would carry on in academia, then probably write one literary novel per decade.”

But instead of a comfortable academic job and a leisurely output of literary works he was spat out of university into the grinding boredom of the Civil Service. And if there’s one thing you can be certain of, it’s that office drudgery will either wring every drop of creative juice out of the dishcloth of your soul, or light a creative fire under your backside. Thankfully for McGowan it was the latter.

The dullness of work was the impetus that began McGowan’s journey into publishing, but the route he took was circuitous, bizarre, and completely unreplaceable.

 

While still a Civil Servant McGowan began work on his first novel, Hellbent, a wonderfully unhinged retelling of Dante’s Inferno in which a teenager dies and goes on a journey through Hell. And this first foray into writing fiction felt like the bursting of a dam. “It just poured out of me,” he says, eyes gleaming with the memory.

So far, so relatable. But this is where McGowan’s story veers off into the leftfield.

“The rejection was completely dispiriting,” he says. “I was determined to get into publishing, but I totally hit a wall. And then there was, well, kind of a funny swerve in my career.” He pauses for a moment, and looks away from the screen. I wonder if he’s about to change the subject but he smiles back into the camera and ploughs on with the story. “So I reinvented myself as a woman.”

This was the late 90s, post Bridget Jones landscape and so McGowan wrote two novels under a female pseudonym which landed him first an agent and then a book deal. I wonder if this might be even more bruising to his self-esteem, having been rejected under his own name but accepted with a false persona. But that wasn’t the way his mind worked. Instead of simmering with resentment, he sent Hellbent to his agent, who had no idea about the pseudonym, under his own name. She loved it and took him on in his own right.

Once again Hellbent was sent out. Once again it was rejected across the board, but this time with far more encouraging, personally written rejections. The general consensus being “this is amazing, but it’s unpublishable because it’s so weird”.

“So my agent suggested I write something more commercial, and I went away and wrote a literary thriller called Stag Hunt.” Off the back of two chapters and a synopsis he signed the biggest book deal of his life and success seemed all but assured. But here is where his story veers out of the leftfield, crashes through a fence into the ditch of downright horror. I’m surprised to see that he’s still smiling as he relates the story.

“Stag Hunt was published by Hodder and Stoughton. Beautiful edition. Nice reviews. Tesco bought tens of thousands of copies.” But here’s the kick. “The barcode had been misprinted and wouldn’t run through the tills.”

Tesco returned tens of thousands of copies and, in the blink of an eye (or the bleep of a till scanner) he went from being the hot new thing to the guy who got Hodder and Stoughton stuck with 40,000 copies of his debut novel. I’m about to suggest that the blame might lie with the person responsible for printing the barcode rather than the author but I think it best to let sleeping dogs lie. Instead, I ask if this left him feeling as utterly crushed as I would be in that situation. But it turns out a healthy dose of naivety saved him from becoming a gibbering wreck.

“The exhilaration of getting published at all meant I just thought, it doesn’t matter. It’s only a small set back. But what I hadn’t realised was how crucial a step it was. Tesco would have made it a best seller, and my career would have been underway.”

McGowan’s status was obliterated. The sequel came out with no press and sold effectively zero. And here we reach another point in McGowan’s journey at which most sane individuals would abandon writing and take up knitting or competitive marrow growing. But, to paraphrase Octavia Butler, the most valuable attribute for an author isn’t erudition or literary flair, but downright bloody mindedness.

Now that he was a known author, Hellbent was picked up by a publisher. The book was reworked for a YA audience, and McGowan had unwittingly stumbled into the career that would lead him to write over 40 books and win the Carnegie Medal, the most prestigious award for children’s literature in the country.

I ask if this was perhaps a more fitting career path given that his first inclination had been to write a YA novel without realising it. I can feel the follow up questions bubbling about the psychic landscape of childhood marking us out as writers for young people but McGowan gently smothers my armchair psychology with his pillow of cheerful pragmatism. “I would have been quite happy as a literary thriller writer,” he says with a wry smile. “It’s just that my books for younger readers are what got published.”

The next few years saw a steady stream of novels in which McGowan continued to hone his trademark humour, offbeat storytelling and vivid imagination. After Hellbent came Henry Tumour about a boy with a talking brain tumour, then The Knife That Killed Me which was made into a feature film. But the sales of YA fiction just weren’t quite enough to sustain a career. So his agent suggested he try his hand at writing for younger readers.

And so after his initial aspirations to academia and the odd literary novel, McGowan now found himself the author of such titles as the Bear Bum Gang, Einstein’s Underpants and the Donut Diaries. Many would see this as a demotion but that couldn’t be further from the truth. McGowan brought all the same intelligence, humour and imagination to his books for younger readers, yet still driven by the pragmatism of a writer who needs book sales to pay the bills. “A teenager might get through one or two books a month,” he says. “But a seven-year-old gets through three books a week with their parents reading to them.”

After he had a few books to his name, McGowan was approached by Barrington Stoke, an independent children’s publisher focussed on books for reluctant readers. And it was this relationship that would see McGowan write the series of books that became The Truth of Things, arguably some of the most moving and memorable novels for young people written in recent years, and would ultimately land him the Carnegie medal.

The stories follow two teenage brothers, Nicky and Kenny, navigating an incredibly difficult childhood in rural Yorkshire. Mum has left, dad is a recovering alcoholic, and the older brother Kenny has severe learning difficulties meaning Nicky has to act as his carer. But if that sounds like a litany of misery, then think again. Each instalment sees the brothers tackling life’s challenges with humour, love and resilience. Each story centres around an encounter with the natural world such as rescuing a badger who was attacked by terriers, and nursing it back to health. But this act of healing goes both ways, and gives them access to stores of resilience within themselves, and connects them to the larger webs of nature and landscape that elevates them beyond the humdrum of their lives.

But if my unashamed outburst of sincerity makes the books sound worthy or trite, then once more it’s time to think again. Nicky and Kenny are gushing torrents of the usual potty mouthed buffoonery that characterises most teenagers and there isn’t a shred of sentimentality to be found.

The books are told though Nicky’s voice which is a funny and deeply authentic encapsulation of a working class teenage boy. I’m keen to know more about his process of finding that voice on the page.

“I kind of think with my fingers,” he says. “It just comes out through the hands when I’m writing.” But that moment of “thinking through his fingers” is accessing a whole lifetime of experience. “You’re drawing on all of your memory. All of the things that have happened in your life which get squished and compressed by the geological forces of time in your brain.”

Talking about meaning in a story is always a bit queasy. Whenever Ursula LeGuin was asked what this or that story “meant” she would “smile politely and shut my earlids”. But story and meaning are inseparable, and the Nicky and Kenny books are some of the most and meaningful books I have read in the last decade. So I take a deep breath and tiptoe towards the subject.

The final book Lark sees Nicky and Kenny lost in a snowstorm on the Yorkshire Moors, following a stream as they try to find their way back to safety. McGowan weaves together so many threads of meaning and significance, with the river connecting to story, to the flow of our lives, to confronting the hardships of life with family at your side. I wonder if he’s thinking about those layers of meaning as he writes, or if he just follows the story and leaves the rest to his reader.

“I don’t think I did consciously think about those layers,” he says after a pause. “My whole process was about getting into Nicky’s mindset. At the end you discover that he’s the author of the story, so he has his own poetic sensibility. So if there are layers, they are Nicky’s layers rather than mine.”

No matter whose layers they were, they certainly resonated with readers across the country. Lark went on to win the Carnegie medal, which he understandably describes as the crowning moment of his writing life.

Having spent four books with the same two characters rooted in the soil he himself sprung from, McGowan understandably felt the pull of new horizons. And this led to his most recent book, Dogs of the Deadlands, which leaves the rolling hills of Yorkshire for the depths of the Ukrainian forests in the aftermath of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. But while the landscape had changed, McGowan’s fascination with the natural world had grown even stronger.

The story opens with the meltdown of the reactor that tears Natasha Taranova from her home, leaving her new puppy Zoya behind. From here the narrative splits, following Natasha’s attempts to adjust to life in Kyiv, but mainly focussing on Zoya and her pups who are thrust into a wild world of hunger, survival and wolves.

If the Nicky and Kenny books are close focussed and intimate, Dogs of the Deadlands is a sweeping epic; a post-apocalyptic Animals of Farthing Wood, where Fox rips Badger’s throat out in the first chapter.

The book had a long gestation period for McGowan, and the details of its conception are hazy. “I’ve told so many stories about the book’s origin that I can’t quite remember what’s true and what I’ve made up. I’m 90% sure that the idea began when I saw a National Geographic documentary about the rewilding of Chernobyl.” His eyes light up as he relates a scene where a wolf pack has taken over a deserted farmyard and one of the wolves jumps onto the roof of an outbuilding and howls. “In my memory you could see the ruins of Chernobyl in the background,” he says with a wistful smile.

From that image the seed was planted, but the soil was already fertile. McGowan was captivated by nature from a young age, and it was the natural world rather than the human tragedy that attracted him to the story.

“My fascination wasn’t so much the accident but the rewilding. When the humans left, the big herbivores moved in, then the big predators. So, because there are no people, it’s a fantastically rich and exciting place.”

And the book that grew out of McGowan’s fascination is equally as rich and exciting. It’s gripping and heart breaking, violent and life affirming, and the interior lives of the canine protagonists are brilliantly rendered on the page. I wonder how hard it was to balance making the animals understandable to a human reader while not anthropomorphising them beyond recognition.

“I didn’t want my animals to speak like little humans like the rabbits in Watership Down. I couldn’t make them completely animal, but I wanted the book to be true to the brutal reality of their lives and not romanticise them at all.”

And he certainly doesn’t romanticise the lives of the dogs. Their existence is a constant balancing act between evading starvation whilst not becoming a meal themselves.

As we reach the end of our allotted time, I try to give the interview a semblance of structure by asking a question about endings. There is something incredibly special about the feeling of getting towards the end of a good book. The sense of propulsion towards the narrative conclusion, the bittersweet feeling of a good story coming to an end. I wonder if he feels the same as he’s approaching the end of writing a book, or if he’s just happy to get the dratted thing done?

“Generally speaking, when I start writing a book I already know the ending, and usually there’s a momentum building as I get closer.”

He circles back to the ending of Lark which is one of the most beautiful yet heart wrenching endings I can remember. The series appears to come to a climax with the return of the boys’ mother, but that scene ends and there are a few pages left. We flow forward in time and see the life of Nicky blurring past, and we end beside the hospital bed of Kenny who is dying of cancer, at the very moment Nicky decides to pick up a pen and begin writing the stories we have been captivated by for four incredible books. When I first read that scene I must have looked like I had been chopping onions for days, but the emotion didn’t just go one way.

“A couple of years after the book came out I did a school visit and the teacher asked me to read the final part. But I had kind of forgotten what happened. When I got to the last bit, I actually started crying in front of all these kids. So that was when I realised that yeah, the ending worked out ok.”

Illustration from Dogs of the Deadlands by Anthony McGowan
JB Smith is a writer of both fiction and non-fiction who grew up in Shropshire and is now based in South London. Over the years his journalism has taken in topics such as music, art, science and mental health. HE is currently studying for an MA IN CREATIVE WRITING AT BIRKBECK, UNIVERSITY of london.
Breaking Kayfabe by Wes Brown

Breaking Kayfabe: An Interview with Wes Brown

By Craig Smith

It takes awareness, intelligence and creativity to compete professionally at sport. Its exponents have to process multiple sources of ever-changing information in real-time and react accordingly, trusting their body to back their decisions. It’s arguable sportspeople are not given enough credit for how good they have to be to compete at the highest level; they are judged on post-match interviews and PR-filtered press conferences, and only their counterparts and opponents truly know what it takes to survive and thrive in any given sporting arena.

Some sports are given more licence than others. No one is surprised when a cricketer speaks eloquently about landscape painting, nor when a loosehead prop quotes Greek, but these are sports most readily associated with expensive educations. The wider world expresses amazement when a Rugby League player has Grade 8 piano, or a footballer is studying GCSE Maths. There’s snobbery involved.

Professional wrestling might be the sport we expect least of. For many people, wrestling is Mick McManus fighting Kendo Nagasaki of a Saturday teatime, or a mulleted loud-mouth from Idaho smashing a tea-tray across an opponent’s head. We don’t imagine there are participants deconstructing the sport, examining its many layers of reality, and dreaming new ways to blend its combination of performance, athletics and theatre. There are people who don’t believe it hurts.

Wes Brown is a professional wrestler from Leeds, the son of wrestler Earl Black; he’s also a novelist and poet, and the Programme Director of the MA in Creative Writing at Birkbeck. Wes grew up grappling with his brother in his dad’s front room, and piling through book after book at Leeds Modern, the alma mater of Alan Bennett and Bob Peck. His novel, Breaking Kayfabe, published by Bluemoose, is a retelling of his career as a wrestler and his growth as a writer, as he developed his strong style of wrestling and his ‘no style’ of writing.

Were you always a writer?

I began to get creative in my teenage years. I was in a short-lived band that didn’t go anywhere. Film was my main thing. We made a short film that was the only non-funded short film to be included in the Leeds Young Persons Film Festival.

But the bother of getting a location, getting equipment, working with people: it was a logistical nightmare every time I wanted to create something new. It got too much. You could have a vision for a piece but it might require a CGI budget of $700 million, or something ridiculous, yet if you write ‘thunderstorm’ in a story, there it is, a thunderstorm. I realised I didn’t need all those other people.

So that’s how I started writing. I wrote poetry to begin with, and weird genre stuff. I saw an advert for an Arts Council-run writing programme called the Writing Squad, that was open to writers in the North. I got on as a wildcard entry. They’re still going today. It’s become a bit of an institution; all sorts of writers have come through it. There’s an analogy to football, to a youth academy, the idea that you can take people’s skills to another level if you create an intensive environment to support them. Otherwise, they’re left to their own devices.

From the age of 16, I had some poems published through the online version of Sheath magazine, which was connected to Sheffield Uni.

Was that run by Ian McMillan at the time?

It was, yeah. I also had poems published in Aesthetica, and one or two other places. When I was 18, I sold a short story as part of an anthology for Route publishing, who were a Pontefract-based fiction publisher who switched to publishing music books. I did an internship with them. I was quite young – eighteen, the same age as Wayne Rooney. I’d sold a story for 50 quid. I was the Wayne Rooney of the writing world, both breaking through. Nothing could stop me.

And then there was a period in the wilderness where I was experimenting, writing nonsense. When I was 24, I published a novel with a small press. And it was just bad: the novel wasn’t fully finished, I didn’t like the production, there were proofing issues. It just felt fake.

Round that point, there were other things going on in my life. I had a massive identity crisis for a few years, which lasted till I was offered the opportunity to train as a pro wrestler. The Writing Squad offered to pay my training fees, so long as I wrote something about it. And I thought ‘I’ve got nothing better to do. I’m pretty depressed. I’ll go be a wrestler’.

I got into wrestling training and literally became another person, Or at least, I pretended to be.

Wes Brown
Wes Brown


Were you still writing?

I went to Birkbeck at the back end of that. Doing my MA got me back on track with fact-based fiction, blending fact and fiction, as I felt that’s where I needed to be. The novelly novels and the fiction I had written felt cartoonish and fake. Birkbeck got me into a space where I felt my writing was a lot better. And that became the book, Breaking Kayfabe.


What was the benefit of the MA for you?

I spent a long time not being able to control my writing. Some good stuff would come out, and some bad stuff would come out, too. And people would be into the bad stuff or pretend to be. I thought people were Kayfabing me. I was thinking, ‘Do you really think this is good? Or are you just being nice?’ I had that doubt.

I was doing what a lot of new writers do, where they want to show that they can write. They don’t write normal sentences, because everything has to be about dazzle. And nobody is impressed. ‘That’s all very well, but tell us a story.’

And it wasn’t until I went through the workshop process on the MA that I realised what people really thought, and found I knew what I wanted to do.

Describe the connection between strong style wrestling and no style writing.

Sometimes I’ve wanted to write in a high literary style, and people have gone, ‘but that’s not you’. It suggests that if you’re southern middle class, you can write like that but, if you’re from the north, you can’t, and I thought, ‘Well, what if I want to have a literary style?’ But on the other hand, there is a kind of truth to it.

And through the MA, when dazzle didn’t work, I developed this new style that I call the ‘no style’ style. I wanted to write invisibly. I didn’t want my fiction to feel laborious. I wanted it to be a rush that I got into, that didn’t feel like writing. Weirdly, people reacted better to ‘no style’. I have a no nonsense, direct, colloquial way of speaking that I’ve grown up with, which I bring to my style of literature. It’s that flatness that makes the style different and literary in a way.

So I wanted to be strong style in the ring. And I wanted to be strong style on the page as well. In wrestling, there’s a phrase that no one’s going to believe it’s real but you want to make people forget that it’s fake. I wanted an MMA vernacular that would be plausible, that would be realistic and would look like it might hurt somebody, something you may use in a fight, to create that reality effect.

And so that’s what the ‘no style’ was. I wanted it to seem spontaneous, to deliberately not write well. And that was a risk because if you want to purposefully write with a little bit less gloss and a little bit less polish, it could come off like you just can’t write. But I wanted it to be a bit rugged, you know.

William Regal is a British wrestler who trained people in a WWE Performance Centre. For him, the aesthetics of good wrestling should be a little ugly. It shouldn’t look too choreographed. It shouldn’t look too clean, because it should still look like a proper fight. That’s what I wanted in the book. I wanted it to be a bit ugly. I wanted it to be a bit sort of rough and rugged. It wouldn’t be too pristine.

There was a macho man match in WrestleMania 92, or something like that, where they choreographed every single movement in the match. That was largely unheard of at the time, but it went over really well. Over time, that has become the template. Everything’s highly choreographed.

The alternative is to do it spontaneously. You call it on the fly. You feel the crowd. You feel the story of a match and just run with it. And I wanted some of that spontaneity in the book because I love calling it on the fly. In the ring, it adds a sense of unrehearsedness. There’s the thrill of the real.

And with the book, I wanted that flow. I wanted it to flow out of me. And it wasn’t always possible because it’s a difficult state to get into, but I didn’t want to do it in too cogent a way. So for the most part, Breaking Kayfabe doesn’t have chapters, but it’s got collections of scenes that constitute chapters, and I wrote each in one go. I did everything in one sitting. And if it didn’t work, I did it again the next day. I just did it again until I got it. So almost all of it is written spontaneously. I tweaked it a little bit, and the editors added stuff, but by and large, that’s how it came out.


If you’re blending fact and fiction, does that affect the reader’s assumptions about you?

There’s a Nabokov quote: ‘You can always count on a murderer for fancy prose’. And you can always count on a pro wrestler to be an unreliable narrator. They’re slippery and you never know when a pro wrestler is working you or not. That’s one of the joys of the book for me, because people don’t know. I like to see how much have I worked you. This could be a work, it could pretty much all be fiction. It could be a shoot – this is a wrestling term where it’s legit – or it could be a worked shoot, where I make it look like it’s a shoot, but it’s actually a work. Or it could be just a shoot, that I’m pretending is a work. Or it could be elements of all those things.

And people will want to know how much of it is true or not. One reviewer said I was greedy because I was trying to have this pro-wrestling character protagonist, who is also literary, making literary allusions. And I’m like, I am Dr. Wes Brown, literary critic, novelist, programme director of a Birkbeck MA: it would be unusual if I weren’t to think of literature. What am I to do, self-censor, just because he wanted some sort of wrestler who doesn’t think about these things?

Pro wrestling likes to introduce real-life elements, or sometimes real life intrudes into it as well, when people start fighting for real or real feuds come to the fore.

I want that slippery slope of how much of this is real, and never really give a conclusive answer.

Breaking Kayfabe by Wes Brown
One of the things that made me think the story was true to your life was the short story you drop into the middle of the narrative. It seemed such a writerly thing to do: you’d written the short story and didn’t want it to go to waste, so you found a home for it.

At the time I was writing that section, I realised it was about my dad. So, the current protagonist in the story feels like it should be my dad, but actually that’s me. And the bear is my dad. And I let go of the bear, foreshadowing what’s to come. But also at the time, that was a very fictionalised way of dealing with some of these same things.

The whole story is a search for approval – as a writer, from the narrator’s father, from his girlfriend. It’s that about validation and acceptance.

It’s to do with status, and family as a micro society. You’ve got your own status in there: I’m now really important to those people. I’ve got people who depend on me, who I need to take responsibility for. I’ve got people I need to, in the best possible manner, be a dad for. I need to be a husband. I need to be a more whole person. Status is huge.

And I think, coming from a lower social status, and having difficulties in your upbringing – it’s not directly coming from my parents, but from circumstances as well, that you weren’t really wanted. Nobody really thought anything of you. It was all polite and there’s nobody really actively discriminating against you, it’s just nobody thought you were special. You were nobody’s favourite.

And you wanted to be the man you want to be. You wanted to be the champion. And then growing up in the big shadow of somebody like my dad: when you’re the son of a wrestler, that’s all you are.

What are you currently working on?

I’m working on a true crime book about Shannon Matthews, who was kidnapped by her mother. This happened in Dewsbury, not far from where I grew up.

The book started out as faction, as a David Peace-style story, which had the same themes as Shannon Matthews’ story, but which was not specifically about her. But I could never make it work.

And then I tried to make it an oral history, like Norman Mailer’s Executioner’s Song, but I found nobody in the community would talk to me.

I ended up doing it as some sort of true crime thing. I was worried it would be artless, merely a document of what happened, but actually, what I’m finding is, in writing this way, even though it’s nonfiction, all my skills as a novelist are coming to the fore. I’m trying to let the story come through the characters as the events happen, so the tension builds and any reflection or knowledge is revealed naturally. I’m not necessarily going into the heads of the characters because obviously I don’t have access, but you can safely assume that say, this person finds out this given fact at this given point. And I’m gradually pulling the story out, like a string, and not just bombing everything with exposition and knowledge and opinion.

I moved to this format because I wanted it to be as real as possible. I wanted nothing to be fictionalised.

That’s why it’s taken me 13 years to write it.

Breaking Kayfabe is published by Bluemoose Books

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 recently received an MA IN CREATIVE WRITING AT BIRKBECK, UNIVERSITY of london.

TWITTER: @CLATTERMONGER

‘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
TWITTER: @CLATTERMONGER
Scarlett Sabet

Poem and Interview: Scarlett Sabet

Poetry exclusive for MIR and interview with Scarlett Sabet.


A Flag for Hope

Revolution and execution,
obscured the view
of a land
my Father would never return to
the lines of the body a battle ground,
strands of hair a flag for hope.
I can feel it when words are close,
reach out
hold a seance between pen,
finger and thumb,
resurrect the relatives whose voices came undone
and remember,
all the blood that was shed
before I was an idea
in my Mother’s head

Thank you for sharing your new poem, ‘A Flag for Hope’ with MIR. What led you to writing this poem?

Poetry is the language and form that is the most immediate to me, it is magical and enables you to express what is difficult, what is dangerous. What is happening in Iran is heart-breaking, and this poem is testament to that, it is also paying homage to my Father and my Persian heritage, of which I’m so proud.
Normally, all new work I save for the next collection I release. All four books that I’ve self-published since 2014 are kind of like time capsules in that sense. This poem and its message have a sense of urgency, so I wanted to release and share it immediately, so I’m grateful that you have published it and given it a platform.


Writing, for a lot of people, is very insular, though poetry seems to be a much more performative way of writing. Do you enjoy the performative element? How did you find the difference between reading live – performing to an audience, and doing readings online over lockdown?


Performing and writing are different animals, but they feed each other, and I love both. I’ve always been happy in my own company and a bit of a lone wolf, so to have a day alone to write is an exciting prospect. I’ve written a lot whilst travelling also, on trains and planes, because whilst you’re on a journey, in some sense, time is suspended and you’re in a vacuum.

During lockdown, I recorded a poem every week and shared it on Instagram, it was a fun way to share my work and reach out to a community of poetry lovers, and really it was incredible to have technology during that time, to connect creatively, and to facetime with family members you couldn’t see. But I was so happy to be back to in person readings, there is an energetic give and take with the audience that’s powerful.

That performative element was very much a part of the Beat poet scene, could you tell us a bit more about your interest in the Beat poets?

My parents had a lot of Bob Dylan albums on vinyl in our home, and I grew to love him too, through Dylan, I learnt about Allen Ginsberg, read his poem Howl. I wanted to discover more about the Beat poets, and then I went to my local library and borrowed a copy of On The Road, and it had a profound effect on me.


How did you get into writing poetry? What were some of your first influences?

As a child I was an obsessive reader, I read all the books my parents had in the house, my mother had a lot of Margaret Atwood novels, I read the Handmaids Tale, and The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath when I was about 12. When I was 16, I got a scholarship to a really wonderful college, that was particularly good for the arts. It was whilst studying English A- level there, that certain poems really started to fascinate me. We were studying the classics, Coleridge, and W.B Yeats, and then I was asked to attend Advanced English which was a great excuse to read even more and not leave the library. I really enjoyed analysing the written word, trying to work out its alchemy. I’ve always written a kind of diary, a non-linear, random lyrical documentation of my life, experience and perspective. My poems were rooted in that and crept out. Poetry just became the language that made the most sense. I organised my first poetry reading at the World’s End Bookshop in Chelsea in 2013, I was ready to finally share the poems I’d been writing, that night was really important and clarifying, because I knew I would dedicate my life to poetry, and walking home that night back to my apartment, I cried, because I just felt very grateful.

You’ve had a busy year! How was performing at Cheltenham Literary Festival alongside Geoff Dyer, A.M. Holmes and Daniel Hahn?

It was an honour to be invited to perform at Cheltenham Literary Festival, and also talk on a panel and discuss the impact of Kerouac’s work 100 years on from his birth. What was interesting was that all of us accessed On The Road at around the age of 19, that book in a way is a rite of passage. It was really interesting to discuss Kerouac’s impact and hear the perspective on the legacy of his work from the other writers, who are all so prolific and talented. During the course of the discussion, I shared that when I first read On The Road, I put myself in the shoes of the lead male character and experienced the book from his perspective and journey, A.M Holmes concurred that she had felt the same when she first read the book, when I got the train home, I was approached by a woman who attended our event and she said she also related to that. I think that is the power of books and writing, your own life dissolves, you forget yourself and you go on a journey through a character, and experience a different perspective. Books such as To Kill A Mockingbird are testament to that as well, that book made me cry and is one of my all time favourites.


You also performed at the Kerouac Centenary festival in Lowell, how did that come about?

It was my third visit to Lowell, in 2017 I was invited by Dan Chiasson who is the poetry critic for the New Yorker to read at Wellesley College where he is also a professor. As we were in Massachusetts, we made the pilgrimage to Lowell, as I was interested to see Kerouac’s hometown. We laid flowers at this grave and visited some monuments dedicated to him. In March 2018, I read at City Lights Bookshop in San Francisco, which was a dream come true, after the reading a man from the audience called Chris Porter, invited me to perform at a festival he was creating, called “The Town and the City”, that he was holding in October that year in Lowell to celebrate Jack Kerouac. In the run up to performing at “The Town and the City” festival I wrote my poem “For Jack” as a kind of elegy, that was also featured on Catalyst. Chris was helping organise the celebration in Lowell for the centenary of Kerouac’s birth, and invited me to read with Anne Waldman and Paul Marion, it was great to be back in Lowell and part of the celebration there was a wonderful atmosphere

How was it putting out an album as opposed to a pamphlet or book? Was it more daunting releasing it into the world?

When we released Catalyst we were both so ready for it to be out in the world, I was just so proud and excited. Around the time I released my first collection of poems in 2014, Jimmy said it would be interesting to do a record together, in 2019 he said he wanted to create something radical and create a sonic landscape that focused on the power of the spoken word. It was a really intriguing idea, so, I was happy to follow his vision. As well as creating and producing one of the greatest bands of all time, I also really loved the work Jimmy had done with Françoise Hardy, Marianne Faithfull, and Nico, I found those tracks really beautiful. He has created some really original and avant-garde film scores too; he’s a genius. Creating Catalyst was one of the best weeks of my life, it was so much fun, so inspiring, and also a real privilege to see Jimmy in the studio in his role as producer. The end result was unlike anything anyone has done before, we’ve made a new kind of language. I gave a reading at The Library of Congress last year and then Jimmy and I spoke about creating Catalyst together, that was a surreal moment.. the first track on Catalyst is called Rocking Underground, I wrote it on the District Line tube one Sunday night back in 2012, I certainly couldn’t have imagined then, that one day a version of that poem, would be played at the Library of Congress.

Who are some contemporary poets that you’ve been enjoying recently?

I bought “Things You May Find Hidden In My Ear” by Mosab Abu Toha, which was published by City Lights, it’s a collection of beautiful, haunting poems, I really recommend it.


What can we expect from you in 2023?

I’m looking forward to writing more new work. I spend most of my free time with family, so I’m looking forward to more time with them, and also spending as much time as I can in nature.

 

Photo by Scarlet Page

AMY RIDLER IS A WRITER AND ENGLISH TEACHER IN EAST LONDON, WHERE SHE RUNS THE LGBT+ SOCIETY. SHE HAS WORKED WITH THE QUEER, FEMINIST, LIVE ART THEATRE COMPANY CARNESKY PRODUCTIONS AS AN ASSOCIATE ARTIST SINCE 2009 AND CONTINUES TO BE A MEMBER OF THE COMPANY’S ADVISORY BOARD. SHE IS CURRENTLY AN MA CREATIVE WRITING STUDENT AT BIRKBECK. AMY IS THE MANAGING EDITOR OF MIR ONLINE.
TWITTER: @AMY_RIDLER

Review: Rising of the Black Sheep

Zahrah Nesbitt-Ahmed reviews Rising of the Black Sheep, by Livia Kojo Alour.

As I journey with Livia Kojo Alour in Rising of the Black Sheep, the first thought that pops in my head – this is one unapologetically Black debut poetry collection.

Rising of the Black Sheep challenges. There is anger, passion, hope, and figuring out questions of identity, belonging and love. It screams at you and demands of you, to listen carefully and pay close attention to how every word is framed and positioned.

As for Alour’s writing! It is exciting, engaging, enticing, and enraging. This is a fearless poetry collection, which I absolutely love. Alour comes across as someone unafraid to say out loud the things that need to be said about colonialism, racism, patriarchy, white privilege, and how they shape (and have shaped) the everyday lives and identity of Black womxn in the Diaspora. The writing is honest and perceptive, and in that I offer thanks and appreciation to Alour for being so open in sharing intimate parts of her life with the reader, including the struggle, pain, and endurance.

Rising of the Black Sheep is told in five parts. I read it as sharing the different layers of Alour’s life from childhood to present day. The collection starts with Alour’s childhood – raised in suburban Germany in the 1980s and 1990s by an adopted white family. The challenges of feeling and being othered, and the conflicting emotions that came with loving and trying to be a loved in a very white setting where your otherness is extremely visible. This is captured aptly in ‘The Beginning of All Times’, fusing German and English, and which is dedicated to Alour’s mother:

growing up wasn’t easy
life ended early
society gaslit me out

And in ‘A Letter’, in which Alour explores her relationship with her mother and father. From a mother who ‘adopted a black child’, about which the father ‘had no say’. To the anger and frustration Alour felt as a child, trying to be noticed by her father:
The only way to your attention
was shouting very loud
to break through to you
the result was only blame
Of course I turned aggressive
after watching you
ignoring me
Alour’s otherness goes beyond the home to other white spaces. First, during childhood, as captured in ‘Blue Like Denim’, and then onto adulthood and Alour’s work as a performer, and the institutionalised racism described in ‘Oh So Other’:
For every door
that was pushed into my face
declaring me not worthy
of entering a sacred white space
for every time getting paid less
being called names
In the second section of the collection, Alour’s tiredness and anger born of repeatedly experiencing racism and microaggressions is expressed with full force. The reader is primed for what is to come: ‘Try to embrace being uncomfortable in the next chapter.’ Alour flips ‘otherness’, making sure those who ‘other’, who are prejudice, sit in their discomfort.
Cover_Rising of the Black Sheep by Livia Kojo Alour
Cover image by Verena Gremmer, designed by Peter Collins.

Alongside Alour’s own individual experience of oppression, Rising of the Black Sheep highlights systemic oppression and institutional racism experienced by Black people in the Diaspora. ‘Riot Poem’, for example, is dedicated to George Floyd. While many lines stick with me, a line in ‘Riot Poem’ soothed my soul, especially during times when all felt lost and there was no way out:

As long as we can walk / we can walk out
As long as we can run / we can run away
This is one of the many things about this collection that stands out for me. Amid anger and pain, there is always hope, which is needed to keep on going. Beyond hope, there is love. Love is something Alour gives to the reader in abundance, particularly in Part III, covering ‘Black Queer Love’, which is the section I connected most emotionally to. ‘I Quit Love’ has been me on too many occasions:

because I’ve believed for too long that love wasn’t made
for me. Decades of hope shattered by failure to ignite
my heart the way literature speaks of love.

The romantic dream, poets describe like walking heaven
on earth.

It scares me.

(I send an open request to Alour, that I may use ‘a love lost’ should an ex ever try to slide back in. The poem is short, sweet and straight to the point, yet cuts deep.)
Livia Kojo Alour at the launch of Rising of the Black Sheep
Photo by Sarah Hickson

In the final section, Alour declares that enough is enough. Alour has risen and will no longer be quiet. Alour embraces hair, skin, and a Black womxn’s body (inside and outside). Alour is also saying enough is enough to racism and patriarchy, calling for solutions, for white spaces to be decolonised, claiming a seat at the table, maybe even getting rid of it entirely, because we really do need new tables.

I began reading the collection feeling it was unapologetically Black, and it is. But I should have known that by opening with the words of Audre Lorde and bell hooks, this would also be a Black queer feminist journey. It is about finding, embracing, and loving yourself unapologetically, especially as a Black womxn in a world where too often your everyday reality tries to make you believe that you are not worthy of receiving love or being loved.

ZAHRAH NESBITT-AHMED IS A RESEARCHER AND WRITER INTERESTED IN WOMEN’S RIGHTS AND CAPTURING WOMEN’S LIVED EXPERIENCES. SHE HAS RUN A LITERARY BLOG, BOOKSHY, DOCUMENTING AFRICAN LITERATURE ON THE CONTINENT AND THE DIASPORA SINCE 2011 AND IS THE LITERARY MAGAZINE EDITOR OF REWRITE READS, FEATURING WRITING BY BLACK WOMEN AND WOMEN OF COLOUR. SHE IS CURRENTLY AN MA CREATIVE WRITING STUDENT AT BIRKBECK.