‘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.
Mstyslav Chernov, Houses destroyed by a Russian attack in the Saltivka district in Kharkiv, Ukraine, 25 April 2022. Visual interpretation for Ukraine Lab, September 2022.

Interview: Sasha Dovzhyk

An interview with Saha Dovzhyk, from the Ukraine Lab project.
Mstyslav Chernov, Houses destroyed by a Russian attack in the Saltivka district in Kharkiv, Ukraine, 25 April 2022. Visual interpretation for Ukraine Lab, September 2022.
Mstyslav Chernov, Houses destroyed by a Russian attack in the Saltivka district in Kharkiv, Ukraine, 25 April 2022. Visual interpretation for Ukraine Lab, September 2022.

What is your background?

I was born in Zaporizhzhia, the industrial city in the south-east of Ukraine which has been popping up in the news because of Russia’s occupation of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in March, and daily bombings of residential areas which have started more recently. This is not the way I would prefer the world to learn about the place I am from, but I can’t say I didn’t see this was coming. Zaporizhzhia – with its industrial complex, transport connections, and the largest nuclear power station in Europe – has been close to the frontline since Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014.

2014 is also the year when I started my PhD in English and Comparative Literature at Birkbeck. I came to London after taking part in the Revolution of Dignity in Kyiv and witnessing the beginning of Russia’s military aggression in Ukraine. At that time and during the next eight years, I felt there was very little understanding of what Ukraine was, what our fight against Russia’s invasion meant, and what implications it had for the world. I designed Ukraine Lab to address this lacuna in understanding.

How did Ukraine Lab come about?

By 2021, I was confident that Ukraine was a blindspot on the western map of the world and that this fact was detrimental to our ability to tackle global issues. To think about the climate crisis or global security meant taking into account the looming possibility of Russia, the world’s third largest oil producer, setting on fire Ukraine, Europe’s largest country. And yet, Ukrainian perspectives were underrepresented in the public sphere. Moreover, those people who could help us reimagine these conversations often struggled with precarity and gatekeeping.

At the Ukrainian Institute London, we were keen on addressing both issues by running a paid residency for emerging writers who would explore global challenges through the prism of Ukraine. It was crucial for us to recruit writers from Ukraine and the UK so that they learn from each other. We wanted their pieces to possess Ukrainian experiential knowledge while speaking to a global audience. With the team of the Ukrainian Institute London, we developed the Ukraine Lab project, established partnerships with PEN Ukraine and Ukrainian Institute in Kyiv who helped us select Ukrainian participants, and secured funding from the British Council as part of their UK/UA Season of Culture.

Who are the main people within the organisation?

Initially, the educational programme of the residence was shaped around three thematic seminars on Ukrainian responses to global challenges: war (led by the writer, theatre maker, and director of the Ukrainian Institute London Olesya Khromeychuk), disinformation (led by the author and researcher Peter Pomerantsev), and environmental crises (led by the literary scholar Tamara Hundorova).

The curator of Slavonic and East-European Collections at the British Library, Katie McElvanney, has introduced the participants to some of their Ukrainian treasures.

The creative part of the residence included workshops on writing about Ukraine from abroad (led by the poet Iryna Shuvalova), on empathy (led by the writer and lecturer David Savill), on nonverbal representations of Ukraine Lab themes (led by the psychodynamic therapist Khobir Wiseman-Goldstein), and on creative nonfiction (led by the writer and lecturer, who is no stranger to MIR, Julia Bell). Another indispensable part of the project is the award-winning translator Nina Murray, who has worked on the English versions of Ukrainian texts and vice versa. But the core of the project are the writers themselves: three of them are based in the UK, three are either based in Ukraine or displaced by the war. The residency was held online for security reasons but all the UK-based writers did travel to Ukraine on their own. They are deeply committed to the cause of Ukraine’s fight against Russia’s invasion.

How did the collaboration with Birkbeck come about?

Birkbeck is my alma mater and I’ve been reading the Mechanics Institute Review for years. MIR addresses the audience that the Ukraine Lab also wants to engage: diverse, politically active readers interested in exciting new writing, with no obligatory prerequisite knowledge of Ukraine.

When I realised that the most fitting genre for Ukraine Lab pieces would be creative nonfiction, I immediately thought of Julia Bell. She is one of the most inspiring authors writing and teaching creative nonfiction, who also happens to be the project lead of MIR. From the very start, her response to Ukraine Lab was very enthusiastic. Our message about the existential urgency of learning the lessons of Ukrainian resistance for the rest of the world has resonated with her. Julia not only supported the publication of Ukraine Lab pieces but also taught two incredible workshops on creative nonfiction for the six participants of the residence and for twelve shortlisted applicants who had not entered the final selection.

What goals do you have for the future of Ukraine Lab?

Currently the pieces have been published across six platforms in English and Ukrainian. The next step is to issue them under one cover in the bilingual Ukraine Lab anthology. This will allow the readers to absorb all the texts as well as their visual interpretations created by the brilliant photographer Mstyslav Chernov. Mstyslav has been documenting Russia’s military aggression against Ukraine since 2014 and has been at the very frontline since the full-scale invasion. He reworked some of his award-winning photos in response to the pieces produced by the participants of Ukraine Lab. It has been an honour to work with Mstyslav on this project.

We will present Ukraine Lab at an online event held collaboratively by the Ukrainian Institute London and the British Library on 9 November. We invite everyone to join us!

Sasha Dovzhyk is a special projects’ curator at the Ukrainian Institute London and Associate Lecturer in Ukrainian at the School of Slavonic and East-European Studies, UCL. She has curated Ukraine Lab.
Eva Verde

Interview: Eva Verde

Amy Ridler interviews writer, Eva Verde


Eva Verde is a writer from Forest Gate, East London. She is of dual heritage. Identity and class are recurring themes throughout her work. Her love song to libraries, I Am Not Your Tituba forms part of Kit De Waal’s Common People: An Anthology of Working-Class Writers with Unbound. Eva’s debut novel Lives Like Mine, was published by Simon and Schuster in June 2021.

I read an interview with you for Mixed Messages, and one particular line really stuck out for me – ‘I write for the brown faces in white spaces.’ Do you feel with that comes responsibility?

I’ve often felt isolated, in the sense of not having anyone who shared or properly understood my lived experience, navigating most of my life as the sole brown face in the room. Since moving to Essex from East London at ten years old, I’ve been hyperconscious of the skin I’m in, trying to gauge how someone’s judging me, altering myself for their comfort. Naturally assuming I was less, because I’d no other tangible vision beyond the white lens.

I’d started challenging this mindset in real life, so it was easy to pour that all out through Monica. LLM was so much about getting stuff off my chest, that I never really thought past writing for myself. It’s been real therapy.

When publication became a possibility, the thought of other readers scared me stiff! And I did wobble and question whether it was my place to write about racism – being a light skinned black woman brings a different dynamic and its own dysfunctional privileges. The way my book’s been received I find very hard to express, but I’m glad I wrote it without any sense of responsibility because that allowed me to be honest. It’s only one story, once experience, but it’s an honour to represent and highlight the gaps that exist within our otherness.

Can you tell me about the process of writing Lives Like Mine – and your writing process in general?

LLM began life as a short story for an OU creative writing module and grew into an idea that wouldn’t leave me. I’d write scraps here and there, scenes more than anything else, that I stitched together for an attempt at chronology and gave to my first writing tutor Sarah Armstrong to read. She pointed out that yes, it was just a load of scenes stitched together that would need real help to become a novel, but she loved the story, especially Monica. She said, if it ever did get published, people would get it, which makes me feel quite emotional now. If it wasn’t for her encouragement, I’d never have considered myself any good, let alone publishable.

Early drafts were overexplanatory, as if I was writing for an exam; lovely sentences but without much feeling. Every redraft, I grew braver – plus things were happening politically that were really pushing my buttons, so I began to write from my viewpoint and my furies, and I think that’s when the story came alive.

Making a book from scraps of scenes makes life very difficult. I don’t advise it and is certainly not the sort of thing I hear on podcasts and interviews from other authors! I am a chaotic creative, who binge writes when the emotions come. There’s no pattern.

When I was reading Lives Like Mine, there were points that felt so familiar, I had to reach out to you just to thank you/raise a fist in support of the representation you are bringing. How has the book been received?

It made my day when you did! I can’t begin to tell you how gratifying it is when someone messages to say the book chimes with their experiences. After being so ethnically isolated it is like finding family. LLM is simply the seed of a dream that went nuts. If you could ask the five-year-old me what I wanted when I grew up, I’d have said to have a book I’d written in a library. It’s odd when your dreams come true! But I still can’t believe the response it’s had. Some nights I run through in my head all the fantastical things off the back of it – a mention in the Independent, endorsing books, speaking at London Book Fair, writing a new foreword for a Jackie Collins novel, and I get palpitations. It’s baffling that somehow this is my life.

Have you had any negative reactions to your shining a light on the microaggressions that people ‘like us’ face every day?

Fortunately, the negatives aren’t in any significant number, but I am very aware that if you are of a certain mindset and ideology, you’re going to find Monica detestable.

Part of me quite likes that, because I didn’t write her for everyone. I wanted her complex, at odds with her identity, but throughout the story there’s never a moment where she’s not proud of where she comes from. I am still on that journey, still learning, so when people say, I feel this, I know this, I just never had the words to explain, it truly eclipses the negatives.

Are there autobiographical elements to Lives Like Mine?

Lives Like Mine is exactly that; a life like mine. But not my life. They do say write what you know, and as a new writer finding my voice, using myself as a template I found very comfortable, and added, I hope, a sense of believability.

When my oldest friend read it, she said, ‘this is so you, it’s like I’m reading your diary.’ Writing Monica was like walking out of my life and into another. Apart from the attack towards the end of the book, every other bigoted moment and microaggression are true – moments that have happened to me or my circle. I set the book in a similar place, we’re both married to white men. So, in loose situation yes, but I don’t have a posh lover, I’m not estranged from my parents, and I had a fantastic Mother-in-law, Glennie, who sadly never got to see LLM published but was my number one champion. I dedicated it to her.

But the hoops and the curves and the big black hair being all about rebellion? That’s absolutely me.

How did the Common People anthology come about?

I believe it came about as a result of Kit De Waal’s Guardian piece – ‘Where are all the working-class writers?’ I’d been subbing LLM to agents with no luck, so thought I’d try writing something else. What really stood out, besides the free entry and the possibility of being published alongside some seriously impressive writers, was the mentoring. I was starving for professional attention on my work, for someone to tell me why agents weren’t ‘quite feeling passionately enough.’

I remember scrapbooking with my daughters when I got the email from Norwich Writer’s Centre. I was one of two writers from the region that had been picked to form part of the anthology. It changed my life. My self-perception and my self-belief. I wrote out a little telephone script to follow the first time NCW rang to discuss next steps, such were my nerves. The nerves almost had me backing out of a workshop to meet the other new writers in the book, too. I couldn’t fathom that I might belong. Walking into that room was one of the most difficult things I ever did and became the most life altering. There was no explaining ourselves, no pretenses, we were simply ordinary people who could all write our socks off. We became a family.

Who are your go-to writers?

Cash Carraway’s memoir Skint Estate was so fantastic I’m sure I think of it every day, and it’s become my thing to make sure I read everything she does. And lately, Heidi James can do no wrong. Her book The Sound Mirror touched me in places I’d not known existed – isn’t it fantastic how stories can do that?

My most read author is Toni Morrison. Pick any book, any para, and you’ll find something wise and beautiful. But my favourite book is Stephen King’s Carrie. Though he sits pretty jarring against pretty much everything else I’d normally read, I’ve always loved Stephen King. I read Carrie, and a short story of King’s called Rage when I was about 13, and I’ve read both pretty much every year since. They make me feel. There’s no other way I can explain it.

When was the first time you felt represented in a book – (or did you have to write it?)

I’ve had very emotional reactions reading characters of mixed ethnicity, for example, in Kit de Waal’s My Name is Leon. My family set up is identical; white mum, white siblings. I was seven when my sister Jenny was born, and just the same as Leon, instantly besotted. For the grace of stability, Leon’s story wasn’t mine, yet his left me devastated. It is always the world that makes colour the issue. Never love.

I did write Monica to create my own representation, yet I’ve been so touched by the people who feel she stands for them too; people who’ve struggled with their identity, or sexuality, all the folks who don’t cut the mainstream, and found a kindred spirit in Monica’s journey to self-acceptance. Anyone who feels like an outsider will forever be my kind of person, so this aspect really is next level special.

Are you working on something new, can you tell us about it?

I swore I’d be more civilized with the next and write a proper start to finish draft of this second novel – but no, I was back piecing together scenes. It’s been an even more chaotic way of doing things, as it’s a three-person perspective…with flashbacks. My head’s been in some terrible tangles lately!

It’s out next August. We have three generations of women, who between them have a whole lot of shit to overcome. If only they were all on the same side, they might just conquer the world…

I was worried that I wouldn’t feel the same love for another book the way I did for LLM. But now it’s done and I’m editing, I clearly see my heart in it all over again; these new women also carry little pieces of me. It is darkly domestic, and triggering, but I think that’s how I like to do things. Write a flawed character and trust readers will get it and love them anyway. Fingers crossed. Because that’s another scary thing, having the debut do well; will this next book fly, or will it mark the end of this beautiful purple patch? The anxiety of what’s to come is very real.

But it’s beautiful. I wouldn’t swap it. I’m self-sufficient, doing something I love – and at last unanswerable to the people who have thrived in my discomfort. Proof also, that it’s never too late to trust your ambitious heart.

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 CO- MANAGING EDITOR OF MIR ONLINE.

Interview: Lily Dunn

Nilgin Yusuf interviews Lily Dunn


 

“Everyone has a right to their story.”

Lily Dunn is a writer, teacher and lecturer in Creative Writing and narrative non-fiction at Bath Spa University and recently completed her PhD at Birkbeck. Her novel, Shadowing the Sun was followed by A Wild and Precious Life, an anthology of recovery stories, co-edited with Zoe Gilbert. Her recent memoir, Sins of My Father: A Daughter, A Cult, A Wild Unravelling, (Weidenfeld & Nicolson) was described by The Spectator as an ‘astonishing and valuable’ contribution to the genre. 

I met Lily Dunn when I attended her course at the London Lit Lab entitled Writing Compelling Memoir in 2021. As I prepared to write my own dissertation, an exploration of childhood and formative influences on my future as a writer, the course brightly illuminated this personal form of creative non-fiction. 

Dunn’s recently published memoir, Sins of My Father, was driven by a single burning question. Why, when she was six years old, did her father leave the family home, including her mother and brother, to join a cult in India? Through personal memories, interviews with family members, the examination of photographs, dreams and reading around alcoholism, addiction, abuse within public schools and coercion within cults, the author is simultaneously detective, psychoanalyst, therapist and scholar.  But crucially, she is a daughter who needs to understand. Here, Lily Dunn discusses her process, catharsis and why the hybrid memoir is making its mark on contemporary literature.

Why is the literary memoir gaining popularity right now?

When we hear ‘memoir’, people often think of the celebrity memoir or misery memoir. But I’m interested in the literary memoir, which has sub-genres and might be seen as a hybrid memoir, one that combines the life story with literary criticism, cultural commentary, or art history. Memoirs may, for instance, venture into biography, travel writing or literary criticism, so it’s becoming a more expansive field.  

Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun might be placed in the nature section but it’s a memoir about alcoholism and self-realisation. Sinéad Gleeson’s Constellations looks at femaleness, illness, feminism and art.  A Ghost in the Throat by Doireann Ní Ghríofa is a beautiful memoir about being a mother in a domestic space but is combined with the translations of an Irish poet whose story has not been explored in history, so Ní Ghríofa reclaims this woman’s story. Thin Places by Kerri ní Dochartaigh is deeply ingrained in her own traumatic childhood but also the political situation in Ireland. By reading these books, you’re getting wonderful, personal emotive stories while learning something of history, culture or politics.  

Can anyone write a memoir?

There’s still some stigma around it. Some people think, ‘well, who are you? Why are you writing a story about your life?’ Everyone has a right to their story. I think people increasingly turn to real-life stories. Social media is part of this but also, the sheen of celebrity becomes too superficial, uncomfortably so, in times of strife. For obvious reasons, there’s been recent interest in the stories of care workers like Adam Kay’s, This is Going to Hurt, based on diary entries of his life as a doctor, which was also dramatised for TV. 

 

Describe the craft of literary memoir.

I always tell my students they need to write with the reader on their shoulder and ask themselves, ‘why does this matter beyond me?’ It’s imperative it goes beyond a personal story. When I read Educated by Tara Westover, I realised the form could be powerful and affecting and change the way people think and feel. 

When I teach memoir, I focus on how to make a story compelling, how to apply fictional techniques to non-fiction including scene-setting, drama, dialogue and engaging with the senses. You must feel compelled to interrogate something within and be prepared to expose parts of yourself and explore what some people may feel is private, not for publication.  

How has the process of writing, Sins of My Father, helped you? 

There’s something profound about going through the process of researching, writing, rewriting and crafting a personal story, and it becomes more detached from you the longer you live with it. Through the process of trying to understand somebody and reading around certain behaviours, whether that’s addictions or joining a cult, you start to see that person as a type and that can be helpful because it somehow depersonalises it, taking away its power to hurt you.

What was the most challenging part?

In the early parts of the process, stuff was churned up. But, once you get through that, you have the material there, then the crafting and making of it into a beautiful thing becomes really empowering and satisfying because it starts to give something back to you.

When I was going through my marriage separation, I felt compelled to write out some of the more traumatic events of my past, particularly those that involved my dad in the last years of his life, when he was dying of alcoholism. They came out in a fit of inspiration and a need to get the experience on the page but it was painful and I often ended up crying. 

It must have been cathartic?

The book evolved with my natural curiosity and the whole process of facing up to difficult tasks can teach you a lot. I was also going through therapy and having to face things because my life had been turned upside down. Writing changes as you change but it’s important to take your time. You can’t knock something like this out quickly. You need to take care; the longer you give yourself to reflect, the better it will be.

Can you speak about the role of imagination in memoir writing?

I had to reimagine things I hadn’t directly witnessed, so this was a process I engaged with a bit. But the trick with non-fiction is to always be upfront and honest. As long as you tell the reader what you’re doing, you remain a reliable narrator and that’s imperative.  You could argue I don’t have the right to step into my father’s skin but I wanted to get close to him in order to understand him, so I had to do it this way. 

In the opening scene, I desperately needed to understand how my father could get himself into the state where he responded to a scam email, which proved to be his undoing. I’d visited him many times in that house in California and so I knew of his routine. He was very deluded by the end of his life, lived a repetitive existence and we were in close contact. So, I wasn’t creating something I didn’t know.  There’s something about committing to the detail in an intimate way which almost takes you closer to the truth. I wanted to give as good and as whole a picture of his life as I possibly could, and I’ve been told that the attention to detail in those imaginary scenes brought another layer of compassion and love. 

Although this is a book primarily about your father who is largely absent, your mother is a constant presence. How has your relationship evolved?

It’s hard to write about someone you’re close to, but I asked her to read the final draft before it went to the publisher which allowed her to feed in some small details or say if she wasn’t happy with something, and that process was important because she was a part of the production of the book. 

As a child, me, my mum, and brother were a unit. There were fractious times when I blamed her for my pain, but like so many single mothers she was the ‘unsung hero’. My dad was the starry one who had always taken my attention, which I imagine was hard for her at times, but I hope this book is something of a tribute to her. She remains fiercely protective and proud of my brother and me. It’s the world against us. So if anyone is unhappy with the book or the way I’ve articulated or depicted something that has affected them, it’s not just me that has to deal with it, it’s all of us. 

The mother is often the one who stays, therefore unglamorous and underappreciated. But this book was also about allowing her personality and character to come through. I feel it honours her and is the story of so many women who are left with the children, and rarely acknowledged for the important role they have. 

This memoir isn’t about settling scores. I found it deeply empathetic. Was that important to you?

Empathy is important to any writer. We’re all drawn to faulted characters because faults make a person more real. This book was never about blame. It’s more interesting to present the facts as they are and let the reader make their own decisions. I’ve never stopped loving my dad. I wrote this book to give myself a voice, in the shadow of my father’s choices, which so often were noisy in their selfishness and destruction. 

Has writing Sins of My Father brought you peace?

I’m no longer in the shadow of the grief over my father, and my life is in a more settled place. My publisher made me realise I didn’t have to forgive him and it’s more about freeing myself from his influence. It’s possible to hold somebody in our hearts but understand what they did was unforgivable yet not let that ruin our lives.  I sometimes have pangs of guilt that I did this without his consent, but then I remind myself my voice was hidden for much of my childhood because of his disregard. I also attempted to really understand him through the process of writing this – it could have been such an entirely different book – and through writing this, I’ve dignified him. It’s not necessary to forgive in order to free yourself.

 

 

Nilgin Yusuf is a London-based author and journalist who recently graduated from Birkbeck’s BA in Creative Writing. Her monologue, George which explores isolation and human connection was selected for the Lost Souls Monologues podcast and can be heard at https://lostsoulsmonologues.com  An extract of her own memoir, Ink: An Alphabet Book recorded for Birkbeck Arts Week 2022 can be heard at nilgin_yusuf on Instagram. Currently working on her play and first novel, find her on Twitter @nilgin or contact nilgin@nilginyusuf.com