Last summer I was chatting about poetry and YA fiction (online – I have never been to Paris, alas) with Stephen Thompson. He mentioned he was planning a literary review magazine: would I care to review poetry? I said, quite honestly (though with, I admit, a pang at letting slip an opportunity), that I don’t feel remotely qualified, since my background is not literary and I don’t know enough to place poetry in context. This discussion included a brief autobiographical detour. ‘Fascinating,’ he said. ‘Please would you write about your journey to poetry?’ So I did and in April I found myself in rather awesome company in the first ever edition of The Colverstone Review. Having mentioned it at the time, I think now I can publish the essay on my own site, here.
My contribution took me a few weeks to write – or, rather, not to write as I mulled and baulked. I don’t like personal writing. Finally I decided the only way to do it was to sit down and splurge for a few hours. That worked. I then cut by about 50% as I edited over several drafts. Below is my submitted text; Stephen tweaked it for a final polish in the published copy.
What is poetry?
As a child it never occurred to me that nursery rhymes, advertising jingles and pop lyrics were poetry. Poetry was the strange, grown-up, delicious word play my father recited –
Macavity’s a mystery cat – Macavity’s not there –
Dirty British coaster with a salt-caked smoke stack –
The mountain sheep were sweeter but the valley sheep were fatter –
Do you remember an Inn, Miranda?
I was scared of poetry: fabulous scenes, rhyming stories, dancing words but no context, no before and after; snippets that didn’t satisfy. How could poetry fit with my childhood life above a shop in a small rural town? I preferred stories: novels I could sink into, lose myself in completely, stories that took me to other worlds. Poems were too fleeting, tantalizing, leaving a sense of something missing – an anxious feeling I knew all too well from the playground. Poems did not offer a refuge; they heightened awareness of things I’d rather forget. Sometimes I lay on the grassy bank of the buried air raid shelter willing something to sweep me away from the inevitability of school, bullying, Sunday school, boredom eating, and guilt.
My background might have appeared to be solidly middle class – my parents owned and ran a small business, a television and electrical shop with a repair workshop behind – but on closer inspection that middle class normality was shaky. Sometimes my father could be wearing nothing more than home-made swimming briefs as he repaired a TV in the garden. Sometimes he forgot to get dressed before going into the shop. Once, after loading a TV into a car with the shop lad, Bill, two women – strangers – walked past, goggling at a nearly naked man on the high street. Dad asked Bill, “Which way to the beach?” Bill, not missing a beat, replied, “Down there, turn right, half a mile.”
Yes, my father was eccentric. When I was a painfully shy teenager, he sometimes made me feel sick from embarrassment. Yet I was also proud of him. When racist vitriol was spouted in a council meeting about gypsies he stood up for them: “Jesus were an Arab, / Jesus were a Jew. / Thank God he weren’t a gypsy / or us wouldn’t know what to do.”
His mother, the eldest girl in a family of thirteen, had left school at twelve to go into service as a parlour maid. Looking after her younger siblings, coping with her father’s gambling, living in two rooms crammed with other children, she dreamed of escape.
Whether Dad was an accident or not, I don’t know; she’d been married for more than ten years when he arrived. Either way, Gran doted on him, supported him and encouraged his enthusiasms. He scraped in to grammar school, which was remarkable for someone who grew up in a house with no books, whose only reading matter was the occasional copy of The Sun. He was soon working in radio and hi-fi repairs, developing along the way a passionate interest in Quakerism, classical music and poetry. Anyone participating in those things is axiomatically middle class, right? He had his poetry printed into pamphlets to raise funds for charities, approaching complete strangers to persuade them to buy copies of his verse.
And what of my mother? Gentle, quiet, self-effacing and stoic, she encouraged quieter reading, was something to cling to in the face of Dad’s exuberance. She died when I was nineteen. I wish I’d known her as an adult, not when I was a self-absorbed, traumatic teenager.
Our shop was next door to a butchers, which was run by a big – in every way – family of stalwart young men who made dragging a dozen terrified, shrieking pigs from trailer to slaughterhouse look easy, if enticingly brutal. We local children would watch and marvel; a bullock rising from the floor, throat cut, staggering as blood gushed; a dead white pig scrubbed in a vast galvanized trough of steaming water to remove its bristles. Once a week the skin lorry collected reeking, stiff, fly-covered hides, trailing bloodied slime across the yard as they were dragged to the flatbed.
Most teenagers are miserable at some stage, perhaps; it’s part of the job description. I hated secondary school but, after being bullied in my first year, I perfected the art of fitting in, being invisible, impervious, swotty; I sought the perceived certainties of science. After school I escaped to read biology at Leicester University – Hall life, youth theatre (great for overcoming shyness), boys, study, labs, the most massive library imaginable. And my husband-to-be, Dave.
Dave’s mother adopted me warmly. When he went skiing she suggested that she and take a trip together. I assumed she meant London but she had tickets for a long weekend in Istanbul: ‘Prague’s a bit too expensive.’
She’d chucked in her social work career and gone back to college to learn how to make theatrical costumes – tutus, corsets, merkins and all manner of wonders. I modeled her first firebird ballet costume. My legs are too short – I look ridiculous in her photos. She once appeared on the Clothes Show mothering a sheepish Christian Lacroix. She made my wedding dress; my step mother made the cake; my father a speech with a poem about his “beautiful, dutiful daughter” who could do “whatever she oughter”.
Fast forward a decade or more: Dave has a Cambridge PhD and we’re in Silicon Valley, California. He’s programming mass spectrometers in Redwood City, I’m a psychiatry research assistant at Stanford. My unit is moving from a decaying portacabin behind Rodin’s Gates of Hell to a gleaming, soulless concrete block. I’ll miss our skunk, the family of raccoons that live under our floor, the bare-foot, cigar-smoking professor who is retiring.
I am pregnant. Morning sickness leaves me exhausted for a few weeks but then it lifts; I am luscious, ravenous and glowing until I start bleeding. For three months I lie still, willing my womb to behave, to hold and protect my firstborn. The doctor tells my mother-in-law that I have an irritable uterus. ‘Irritable?’ she says, ‘Bloody belligerent, more like.’ She’s visiting in between chemotherapy for breast cancer: she can only stay two weeks. Poor Dave. He should be with her and he can’t leave me. Poor her. She’s unable to fly out to help us.
In hospital, drugged so my eyesight tunnels making reading impossible: moments pass slowly. I listen to a lot of music. After a week, Dave decides we should celebrate with cake in my windowless, queen bee cell. Can pregnancy last another week? It does. On the wall is a round white plastic painter’s palette with various sizes of holes, as if for measuring spaghetti portions; each measures a stage of cervical dilation. I am on six centimetres for a month.
The baby’s a tiny, skinny scrap of barely-breathing fur-eared life. We nickname him Yoda as they whisk him down to the Neo-natal Intensive Care Unit, covered in wires and tubes. I attempt to walk for the first time in three months and manage to make it to the ICU to see how he’s getting on. I pump breast milk for him, having been told that he needs colostrum to build his immune system. By the time he learns to suckle I am producing enough to feed a dozen babies. We all go home at last. Yoda’s going to be ok.
So is Dave’s mother. With her cancer in remission, she races to our rescue when we are mad enough to have a second go at parenthood and preterm labour strikes again. I avoid hospital internment but it’s a long four months of “rest” before our daughter arrives – full term. Somewhere in that four months I teach myself to crochet. And I write very bad, self-absorbed, depressing poetry, my first efforts since leaving school and the first I have ever written for myself. Later, I burn them. My daughter wears the crocheted dresses, sleeps under my hand-crafted cot blankets.
My mother-in-law’s cancer hadn’t really gone; it was hiding. Now it’s in her bones. Years ago, in Cambridge, we joked about buying a big house to share: her in the basement with her Guide Dogs For The Blind puppies-in-training; me and Dave in the main part with an entire cricket team of children.
It’s not going to happen like that. Childbirth isn’t my forte and my mother-in-law is actually dying. We make a traumatic hasty move from California to Worcestershire to care for her. The day we all move in she collapses. I have two jet-lagged children under the age of four, an alcoholic aunty and a terminally sick cancer patient in the house. We don’t have time to panic. We cope. Three months later Nana is dead. But at least she spent her final moments with us, not with strangers in a stark hospital ward.
There is a huge void in our lives, physically and emotionally. One eerily empty afternoon while my children are napping I sit at the computer and write. Nine months later I have a 120,000 word novel. It is rubbish. I begin another, discover a writers’ circle, am given homework. “Write a thousand word short story.” “Write a poem.” First attempts are appalling but I persevere. My second short story surprises me. I have that gut feeling it’s “got” something. It’s picked by Helen Cross and Sybil Ruth for Short Cuts.
Poems begin to wake me from dreams, come to me as I walk the dog, visit me in the shower. I join online critique groups and learn about form, history, how write to prompts, the importance of practice, etc. Phrases chase each other like fields full of excitable puppies, running, romping and rolling. Sometimes there’s just a paw print and it’s enough.
At first I battle my rational science-trained brain, then I realise it’s part of me, part of my poetry. Science and art are two ways in which we can make sense of life without resorting to superstitions. I am lucky to dip into both, to see – however dimly – two possibilities in my mind’s eye. Each has its own way of interpreting, its own way of thinking. They are not mutually exclusive. It’s just our education that separates them. Science needs creative brains. Flights of artistic fancy need foundations.
Poets celebrate our universe, even those that dwell on its darkest aspects. After a couple of visits to Ledbury Poetry Festival I find myself exploring the immediacy of readings and even performance. I like poetry’s subversiveness. As Basil Bunting says in What the Chairman Told Tom, poetry is best not mentioned in “normal” society:
Nasty little words, nasty long words,
I want to wash when I meet a poet.
They’re Reds, addicts,
For years I avoided poetry because it was my father’s thing. It was only when I dared to try that I found my own voice. Perhaps not writing for so long makes me more aware of how lucky I am now. And I can be grateful for his grounding in Masefield, Belloc and others, perfect for parody –
I don’t remember a thing, Rebekah –
For me, now, poetry spotlights something always known but never fully recognised. It’s a re-awakening, a quickening. Poetry is a way of bearing witness, of sharing other people’s lives, of holding things to account. It’s a way of offering hope. Ask another poet and they’ll suggest something different. Ask me tomorrow and I may, too.