Inertia, and Prize Nomination News

There’s 27 days left to listen to my new story, ‘Inertia’ on Radio Four iPlayer. Tim McInnerny reads the story which was produced by Jeremy Osborne and first aired on Sunday night. I was at the studio recording and was simply astounded by Tim’s ability to bring the characters to life, and I felt on listening to the show on Sunday that the finished piece was very much a team effort and the whole thing came together so wonderfully. I’m incredibly proud of the result, and grateful to have been able to work with such an astounding actor, and with such a wonderful producer. It is a dystopian story but very rooted in the all too real struggles of this era in political history.

Inertia: Radio Four

I also have some news to share. My poem, ‘i am very precious’ which was originally published in Prac Crit magazine has been nominated for the Best Single Poet category for the Forward Prize this year. The awards evening will take place on September 20th. You can see the poem, my interview by Michael Conley relating to the poem, and an essay on my work by John Clegg, here:

i am very precious by Melissa Lee-Houghton

The poem also features in Salt Publishing’s Best British Poetry 2015 Anthology, edited by Emily Berry, and will be a central poem in my forthcoming collection, ‘Sunshine’ which will be published by Penned in the Margins in September.

And the list of other shortlisted poets, poems and collections is on the Forward Prize website here:

Forward Prize Shortlists/Website

Please do follow me on twitter @MLeeHoughton

Photograph by Jinez Creative from ‘Reading The Other’ at Chorlton Proof 24th May 2016

Revolt from Recovery (Radical Recovery) by Jeremy Gluck

Victim Of Dreams by Jeremy Gluck

A friend who has written extensively on mental illness sent me the following piece of writing, and I felt I wanted to share it here. I’m very interested in finding other examples of pieces of writing others might feel appropriate to publish here – as I think it’s the individual voices of those who endure and suffer that should be heard – not politicians who do not value our lives and cause immeasurable further harm and suffering, and not those who work in the field necessarily, who perhaps haven’t experienced severe mental distress first-hand. I care about hearing the diverse, intuitive, intelligent, often radical and often acutely insightful pieces of writing the mad and the ‘mentally ill’ write, collate and construct though perhaps don’t share. In my own life, it is my writing which has found its way largely into a public arena, that has saved me from a premature death or a life of madness and reliance on a mental health system unequipped for my needs and disinterested in my unique experience. I imagine the immense power of what this clamouring of voices could sound like – those people locked up on PICU units and sat in endless appointments where they are told to think differently, that their experience is not normative, and their approach to solving their own problems is problematic for a world in which productivity and functionality are the two qualities that we are told are paramount to our belonging in the world. Often, those who don’t fit the neat diagnoses and discourses, and who resist treatments they know will cause them harm or who are unable to live in a world as a functioning machine with a uniform set of ideas, values and needs are maltreated, bullied, abused and supressed. To me, the question of care has nothing to do with the idea of a functioning system, either in the individual or the larger and rapidly deteriorating mental health system and the government who choose to bolster or destroy it. It’s about the individual, and how we can all make every person feel valued, and not based on our own ideas of normativity. That inevitably means listening to individual people. There is no common understanding amongst the mentally ill and never will be – no coherent message that each and every person would be happy to endorse – it’s completely unique from person to person, what they want and need, how they view the world and their treatment. There’s immense power in this, so it’s essential that every single person in mental health care throws away entirely the idea of a base-line normativity the mad have to get back to in order to fulfil the wants of larger society. Some will opt for medication and drug treatment, others will resist and refuse (as I have) and many will never be able to access or afford to access any kind of therapy or any kind of adequate support – so what do we have, each one of us? We can endeavour to vocalise our experience until we are heard. Writing it down is so vital. Reading others’ experiences is also vital, and powerful. Sometimes writing can give us permission to be who we are and permission to allow ourselves to voice our own concerns. If anyone would like to contribute to this blog in any way please let me know.

But for now, I welcome to the stage, Jeremy Gluck…

“Outside of society, that’s where I want to be.” Rock’n’Roll Nigger, Patti Smith

Revolt from Recovery (Radical Recovery)

To solve the problems of mind, and therefore mental health, we must go beyond the mind. No matter how well-intentioned or in some ways and cases effective, conventional – even at its margins, as in the current mantras of more adventurous “recovery” – ideas will be futile. Everything developed and delivered in terms of the mind – “mental”, therefore – will ultimately prove pointless. There must be freedom, not halfway houses and compromises and hypocrisy and inverted, converted self-pity and skewed self-regard. Everything now standing to do with “recovery” must be demolished and nothing put in its place and the unknown given freedom to manifest.

I don’t care how much better or more helpful the “recovery” movement and practice in services and for service users has proven. The radical is required. Something literally unthinkable because to go beyond mental illness we must go beyond the mind. Ideas, identities, all of it; in the sale of the soul everything must go. It is possible to be rid of mental illness: by having no mind. This is the absolute position. This is literally the unthinkable, the perspective without comparison or convention to moor and ground and pollute it. It is the pure and peerless place. Why don’t I want to be involved anymore and identified anymore with mental health and mental illness, even to help? I am in direct and radical revolt against it all. Against being “mentally ill”; against “recovering”; against it all. I am…sick of it…from it. The tame tyranny of drugs, the kindly and hopeless concern and sympathy of others, even of empathy and fellow-feeling. I don’t want to be human, a person, an idea, in your mind or my own; I want to not know mind. I want to destroy “me”; the idea of me, who is this person, who has and suffers and thinks and understands, who feeds their own ideas with more ideas and is sick and makes themselves sick and seeks freedom and escape from sickness. I am supposed to be grateful for my recovery. Why do I feel grateful for being more of who and what made and makes me sick? The entire being that is recovering is sick with itself, with what it is, which is a lie, sick or not, mentally ill or not, recovering or not.

I want nothing more to do with myself as “sick”, “mentally ill”, “recovering” and I radically reject and revolt from all such descriptions and self-descriptions. I am breaking with it all. I am not being held by it. Yes, there are drugs in my body that poison my brain, but my body and brain are not what I am. Yes, I am diagnosed and medicated, but the being to which those things happen is not created or recreated by them. I radically reject, destroy and transcend all these restrictions upon being. I factually don’t care any more for them. I am so much greater and more exalted than such descriptions. I have allowed myself to be enmeshed in it, and fed it, and made sick and somehow satiated with it, but it is ending. There is no more mental illness; no more recovery. There is nobody to which they happen.

I do not “accept myself”: there is no self to accept.

I do not “recover”: there is no recovery required; no being was sick.

I do not “heal”: all is instant and spontaneous.

I do not “reflect”: there is nobody there.

I do not “support”: all is free and empty; windows, no walls.

I do not want wellness: there is no sickness.

I do not regret anger: under the great sky the wind blows.

I do not seek help: Nobody wants it.

I do not reject or accept descriptions of me: Nobody here to receive.

I do not fear madness: Fear is madness.

 

You can read more of his work here:

 

we’re all gonna die/ in memoriam of Phil, Stephen, Jim

unalaska

My facebook timeline keeps reminding me of events last summer. The above pic is my husband, Steven’s band, Unalaska playing the Roadhouse, Manchester. The band members were his brother, Peter Houghton on guitar and vocals and Phil Riley on bass. Phil died in July last year from cancer and this time last year we attended his funeral. I didn’t know Phil well but had met him and spoken to him at gigs; all his friends spoke so highly of him, his authenticity, his sense of humour, his caring nature and his musical talent. I know he is deeply missed.

At around this time my Grandad Jim also passed away, and my friend Stephen Pickles who taught me how to paint and was very much a paternal figure in my life until recent years when we drifted, as people often do in life, also died. I found out he passed away because I’d been emailing him, and he never replied to any of my emails, then his wife wrote to me to thank me for them, that he’d appreciated them, and that he had, sadly, died from an enduring illness. To say I was shocked and heartbroken doesn’t really cut it. I attended both funerals around August last year.

This is me and my mum at my Grandad Jim’s funeral, celebrating the man we dearly loved:

me and mum grandad's funeral

Stephen was an incredibly gifted artist and some of his work can be seen here: Stephen Pickles Saatchi

I’ve written a number of poems towards my next collection in memory of Stephen. We had such a lot in common and I will always remember times we shared, and conversations we had, and the music he loved, the art and literature, the way he made me laugh, and comforted me. The way he wasn’t afraid of sadness, bleakness or pain, and how I trusted his insights and felt such an affinity with his outlook on life and love.

My grandad Jim suffered from Alzheimer’s and died with his wife by his side. He was a real character, and told awful jokes that were so bad they were good. He was dearly loved and is missed.

grandad me and beckie

This is me, my grandad Jim and my (upside-down) sister. Grandad Jim always wore short shorts, liked to have his shirt open or off and was our hero.


I’ve been gearing up for a summer event I’m going to and may not put a blog up next week with so much going on. The last three days I have written two short stories and a monologue. I don’t really know what drives me to write fiction but sometimes these things seem to write themselves, and I can have a stretch of fiction-writing buzz that lasts a while then fizzles out. I love to write poetry best of all but I find I can explore things through fiction: identity, human psychology, gender, sexuality, all kinds of concerns I have in my poetry but in fiction I can take things further in many ways, and in many more directions, because I can just make it all up, and there’s great freedom in that. I write what most people would describe as ‘confessional’ poetry but I think of it simply as having an authenticity to my own experience. I don’t write ‘fictional’ poems and nothing is posed; I have written maybe half a dozen poems in another voice in the past few years. I find that this can be problematic, not for me but in the way other people struggle to separate my real life from my poetry, (it both is and is not) and the way I feel people misinterpret me: I am writing about my own experience because I feel it has value as an artistic pursuit because it is real to an extent and yet it is art and not reportage or autobiography. We all have our own mythology, too, which may exist in our own heads, or in our personal writings, letters, journals, conversations; we have an image of ourselves which we are happy to perpetuate – I try hard to be as true to myself as I can be in my work; the good and the bad. But sometimes people who don’t know me act as though they do from reading my work, which is just bogus, and yet, saying this, my sense of identity gets all tangled up and I sometimes can’t even separate myself. 

So writing stories has helped me remove myself from my work. I have a nagging feeling each day I’ve not pushed myself enough, that I’ve not got to the bottom of what it is that’s eating me up, that I’ve not produced enough work, that time is of the essence and is running away. 

I’ve always had a terrible fear of panic, of flight, of being caught. I used to hate The Gingerbread Man when I was little because I’d get a pain in my chest almost from panic. I would have a recurring dream most of my life about being chased. Writing is what happens when my thoughts catch up with me and is flight and is an adrenaline rush. Often there is also a terrible comedown from that, when I haven’t managed to get it all out and the tumbling, churning, spiraling sensation of creating ideas begins again. Sometimes, too, there are the highs of getting it right on the money, of absolutely elucidating the terrific buzz in my head.


Before I go, a big thank you for all those who have left kind comments on my blog. I don’t check in regularly here, only to write when I have something to write about, but I appreciate the comments and the time people take to read my silly thoughts. I have so many books to write and only hope and pray I live long enough to write them all. This place is helping me keep track of the days, and the ebb and flow of my mood and the things I must try to remember. We are, absolutely hurtling toward death. We are. The time becomes precisely irrelevant when I am writing. All the rest of the time it speeds ahead, or it slows to an agonising speed, but in writing I exist. I exist as I feel I was always born to. We all have something which makes us feel this way. It’s about harnessing it. I only ever wish I had more time and space to write, something which I may never have and I count my blessings when I do have time as it is priceless to me.


Parenting and Bipolar

Yesterday I gave an interview to a trainee clinical psychologist for her thesis on parenting and bipolar disorder. I had been very nervous about it as I didn’t know what she would ask and what it might bring up for me, but it was a positive experience and it made me do a lot of thinking.

I thought I would write a little bit about what it’s like to have bipolar I diagnosis and be a parent. I have two children, one is thirteen and one is six, nearly seven. Both my children are doing very well at school, exceeding or matching grades in all subjects. They’re described as happy, kind, outgoing, capable and talented, at school. They are generally very well behaved and thoughtful, they have empathy and they’re creative in their own ways. Obviously, I am very proud, but I’m not trying to boast. When I said these things to the psychologist, I realized that despite this enormous issue: bipolar, we have all managed to get through it, and carry on.

The psychologist asked me about any difficulties parents with bipolar may face. There are endless difficulties. I said I thought being a parent with bipolar was almost like another form of bipolar in itself, as it has a whole other dimension. I’ve been a parent since I was seventeen, that’s thirteen years, and my eldest child has been through a great deal with me. When she was born I was very ill, depression mainly, and agitation. I also had racing thoughts and I self harmed regularly and habitually. I was suicidal. Basically I was going through a severe mixed episode. I fed her, cared for her in every way I could, but inside I felt so bad there aren’t words for it. This carried on for three years, then I was hospitalized and properly medicated, though I couldn’t say I had ever ‘recovered.’ At this time, I should have already been in services but had received a letter two years previous from my care co-ordinator to say she simply had too many people on her list and would have to pass me onto someone else, though she couldn’t say when this would happen. It never happened. This was gross negligence. The way I suffered during those years is not something I could wish on anyone.

When I was in hospital, my mum had to take care of my daughter. I was in for long periods of time, and when I would see her she would often go blank, and it was painful for both of us. She resented me for leaving her. I was ill constantly for all the years up to 2010, medications not working, and having my second child. After he was born in 2006 it was a downward spiral, and I felt it had no end. In 2010 I made a decision to commit suicide.  I had an elaborate plan, and it would have been devastating, but I was in so much pain I felt I was being tortured and I wasn’t rational, and I couldn’t think clearly about anything other than going through with it. My psychiatrist had been writing up a referral to a specialist bipolar unit and having tried all the medications they had to offer I felt completely defeated.  I wanted to give medication one last try, for my children, and thankfully, Depixol injections worked. They completely flattened my mania, my hallucinations, my agitation. Lithium has helped me to stop self harming, very effectively, and has stabilized my mood alongside lamotrigine which I believe has helped with depressive symptoms. I tell people I’m ‘stable’ but in reality it is a daily challenge and I have had to limit myself in so many ways to stay well enough to be a good parent. This past three years has been about building on all our strengths as a family, supporting each other and for me, keeping a routine and being focused on writing as my work and therapy. My psychiatrist asked me recently, do you think you’re a good mother, doing everything you can for your children? I could categorically say YES.

When I was manic my thoughts would race, colours and senses would be more intense, I would have a pressure to talk and talk, I would want to do lots of things and have lots of energy. My thoughts would be grandiose, and I would do anything for more stimulation, which for a lot of people would involve drink, drugs, sex or spending money, but in the case of a parent who has to stay and look after  children, I would ring people on the phone incessantly to talk, about anything, I would pace around the house feeling insane; I would need diazepam, and at one point, I was taking so much of it I was completely hooked .My body would be restless, I would need to move, I would shake, and not be able to lie down or sleep, and I would self harm because I couldn’t cope with the intensity of it. I would feel as though I was crazy; I remember a psychiatrist asking me what I wanted them to do and I told him I wanted them to take the top of my head off. When you’re with a toddler, or a teenager, it is the same: they are so over-stimulating, especially when you’re stuck in a house with them (and to be honest taking them anywhere in this state isn’t a good idea), it is overwhelming. My husband has had to take lots of time off work in the past to help me cope. A lot of people don’t want to be around you when you’re ill so you find a lot of your support is cut off. In hindsight, it can be understandable, because you’re irritable, you say things you wouldn’t normally say, you become enraged easily, you snap, you can’t hide your emotions.

When I was low the problems seemed endless: being so tired and sad, not having any motivation, crying, sleeping too much or too little, ruminating, self-persecutory thoughts and voices, hallucinations (when very high also), feeling a void inside nothing will ever fill. Pure despair. You have to cook, clean, get them to school/nursery, sort finances, sort shopping, go to parent’s evenings, after school events, wash them, clothe them, play with them, give them affection; and you think of nothing else all day but your own death and how you might accomplish it, how everyone would just be better off without you, how your husband will meet someone nicer who will make a nicer mother for your children (yes, this is how irrational you’ve become), but you’re too lost and exhausted to try. Either high or low, agitation and psychosis is something that would cripple me, and often, my husband would have to medicate me on chlorpromazine, which is a very old anti-psychotic but the only thing that ever worked, and lorazepam or diazepam, and put me in bed. When I’d wake it would begin again, the tension mounting, the anxiety, the agitation, the breaking down.

These episodes don’t last days, and even when I was ultra rapid cycling and very ill (mood-swings lasting hours and changing very erratically) it would go on for months. You’re probably wondering how the children coped. I tried hard to be there for them, talk to them, be open with them, and not let them down. But I have an acute sense of failure and every time I so much as had to go to bed to lie down, I woke up feeling like I had failed them and I couldn’t stand it and it fed into my bad feelings about myself. I believe very firmly that children are entitled to know what’s going on and should be allowed to be upset as it is a normal human reaction, to a parent going into hospital, or mummy getting upset, or being drowsy, or not being able to play, or being irritable. I found that others tried to pretend everything was alright, and gloss over things or sugar-coat them, to protect them. This, I have always thought, is damaging. Of course, you don’t want to devastate your children or upset them, but their natural emotions and reactions are an important part of their wellbeing, and shouldn’t be stifled. There are ways to comfort children, and be open and honest at the same time.

I believe that there needs to be centres for parents with severe enduring mental health problems, where they can take their children, receive treatment, and be around others in the same position. We need this provision, it is sadly lacking, adult mental health services have a huge chasm because they don’t make provisions for families. They make provisions for families whose children are suffering from mental health problems, as they did for me when I was a child, but not families in general, families who may feel very isolated and alone. I think that every family who goes through a parent suffering from mental illness should be offered family therapy as a matter of course. I also think that specialist personal assistants should be used in mental health services, especially for families. Practical support given for people who maybe haven’t got the support they need and need help doing practical things, while they are unwell. I think this could be even more beneficial that therapy in the long run, keeping families together and parents at home. It could save a lot of money on lengthy hospital stays, children having to go into care temporarily. Not once can I think of an instance when being a parent with bipolar was catered for or treated as an important thing, for me.  Even simple things like providing books and toys for waiting rooms in mental health clinics would make a difference, to people having to bring their children in with them. Otherwise, these places are blank, clinical and unfriendly. It’s almost as though professionals pretend your kids aren’t part of the picture, until they feel a need to involve child social services, which often isn’t necessary.

I recently took part in a computer-based bipolar support package, where I was filmed answering questions about parenting which would be made into a film which could be accessed online, to help other parents going through the same thing. I think this is marvellous, based at the Spectrum centre at Lancaster university. If anyone wants to know more they are on facebook. There are people out there trying to listen and make a difference, but as we all know, it all comes down to funding essentially, and I think we all know the situation there.

The psychologist asked me if there were any positives in being a parent with bipolar. Children are the best distraction the world has to offer. If I am agitated and I go walking with my son, who will talk to me about Spiderman and maths and Harry Potter, I feel ok, I get rid of some energy. We play scrabble, and although it is hard to stay focused, it keeps me focusing on something. We cook, we bake, we read books, we draw, we listen to music, we just get along. I have to stress that when it is severe none of these things are possible, but on a daily basis the children keep me in a good place with these distractions. My daughter and I have great conversations, about everything. I get so much joy from them, from seeing them happy, it is the biggest motivation I could ever have in my life. I write because I love them and want to do well at something in my life, and I stay reasonably stable, not just because of the medication, though it has helped enormously, but because I have them in my life and they are my purpose. The psychologist said she’s finding that a lot of people like me, as parents, are telling her similar things, that their children are flourishing, being labelled, ‘gifted and talented’ and are sensitive, kind and mature for their ages. I feel like I must have been doing something right, though obviously, these children have not been without their fair share of heartache over this. But I believe that children need experiences, and the emotional support and backing of their parent (s) or carers so that when they get older and things happen in their lives, they are prepared in part, and will learn quickly how to adapt and cope.

My daughter went to school one day and told the students and teacher in her Personal, Social and Health Education class that her mum has a mental illness. Later on, one girl sneered, oooh, your mum’s mentally ill! To which my daughter replied, ‘some people are. And?’

All My Dreams Alive While All The Rest Were Screaming

I’m listening to Radiohead in the car on the way to Liverpool…has the light gone out for you/ because the light’s gone out for me…I think of people I knew when I was ill and shaking and broken. I think they wouldn’t recognise me. I think of things I said or did five, ten, fifteen years ago and I cringe. I think of the work that I’m doing and how, if I edited it properly I would be left with 10 per cent of mediocre mumblings. I think of how often I have thought this. I think of how I wasn’t so anxious off anti-psychotics. I think of telling my husband who will tell me, again, that this started when our son was born, not because of pills and injections. I think of how he might be wrong. I think of how our son looked like he was turning blue even though he was really fine and just fast asleep. I think of all the women who made me feel inadequate because I couldn’t breastfeed anymore because they put me on the pills. I think of how my breasts are much smaller now, how they are redundant. I think of all the really real sad dreams I have about my brother-in-law and how even though I know he is very happy they trouble me all morning. I wonder who these dreams are really about. I think of my facebook friends and how I’d like to meet some of them in real life and how awkward it would be, for them. I think of how I’m too shy to post much on facebook because I have a neurotic fear of being exposed. I think this couldn’t be any more of a contradiction. I think of Shane because Radiohead is playing and the synchronicity of each of their album releases was insane. I think of the spectrum of emotions and experiences I had as a twenty-something and how different things feel now, how I’m insular and steeped in conscious and unconscious foreboding. I think of how I get on with people less and less, and how I smile more. I think about Carol at the clinic and how she saved my life and how I didn’t want her to, and how I’m grateful now. I think of songs I most associate with suicide. I think of Fresh Tendrils in my head and how that is my favourite song. I think of how Hell for me would be a closed room full to capacity of patterns and textures. I think of how this fear makes me visualize decay. I think of how the house might burn down because I’m not there to witness it. I think of things I’ll never be able to talk about. I think of how my husband knows these things exist. I think of our lad going around the house this morning with a pair of tweezers and a magnifying glass looking for stray bugs. I think of how Elizabeth worries I will get ill and have to go away again. I think of how I couldn’t promise her that will never happen. I think of how I know some truly beautiful people and how I am in awe of them. I think of how I never say the things I most want to in person. I think of the man who collapsed in Asda while I was singing The Perfect Needle to myself, how his teeth were all rotten and how we’re all going to die. I think of all the ways I might die. I think of executions. I wonder how my brain got so fucked. I think of Anne who is dying and the closest thing to a grandmother I have ever had and how I haven’t seen her in years for reasons that don’t really matter or make sense. I think of how she is sick and how I’ve missed her, and how I’m sorry. I think of how the dreams I have about my brother-in-law are really about me. I think of how this is the happiest and most stable I’ve ever been in my life. I think of how I’m glad the agitation is reasonable this morning. I think of how I’m nervous about the way I look today. I think of how I feel hideous most days and how this is pathetic in a world where disfigured people walk around regardless and get on with their lives. I think of how I feel disfigured inside, somehow. I think of how I don’t want to come across as self-indulgent. I think of how venomous a thought that is inside others. I think about how strange it is to go to Malaysia, blindfolded, and visually experience none of it, take lots of pictures and come home to see what you’ve missed, like the artist Pak Sheung Chuen did in 2008. I think of how a friend told me they’d rather lose an eye or a limb than have a mental illness. I think of how I’m sat in a French cafe with my husband. I think of how feelings of inadequacy permeate my day. I think of my too-small filter coffee and how good it tastes and how I’m drowsy and still wearing my coat and scarf. I think of Simryn Gill’s photographs of interiors and how I looked and looked for traces of anything warm or human, an empty cot for instance held my interest but how I as a viewer, felt abandoned, and how they seemed like a completely fathomless and cold apocalypse. I think of how I’ve lost the ability to play full albums in my head like I did on long journeys when I was fifteen. I think of how I’m sure all the pills have contributed to this decline in mental capability. I think of how ashamed I’ll feel if any of the parents from school read this, how there’s no reason I should, how I feel like a victim of societal repression, stigma, and my own self-consciousness. I think of how alienated I feel. I think of plunging my naked body into the sea, of freezing alive. I think of how remembering my dreams feels like clutching at vapour. I think of how unreal and unrealistic it is to accept advances in technology other people have created with themselves in mind, with money in mind, without knowing how they work or where their components came from. I think of all the people who don’t miss me. I think of all the people who are more valid than me. I think of all the people who are not more valid than me. I think about how my concept of validation is only reasonable in my head for a few minutes at a time and involves the occasional looks of people who don’t love me. I think of how my husband never wants to listen to what I want to listen to in the car. I think of the song Heaven by The Walkmen and how it makes him think of me, and how that makes me smile. I think about the plagiarist, Christian Ward and how I’d like to sit in a cold room with him for an hour and I don’t know why. I think of how I don’t feel sorry for him but how his audacity fascinates me. I think of how I’m amazed I’m thinking about it because I don’t really care. I think about my husband falling through the clouds. I think about him with perfectly formed, white wings. I think of myself as a harpy in the forests of the outskirts of my hometown. I think of how codeine helps. I think of how my brain feels like melting ice that freezes over without warning. I think of how that’s not very original. I think of how there’s not more to life than poems. I think of what a cold-hearted bitch I must be not to have cried for three years. I think about men on Death Row in Texas getting a glimpse of the sky on their way the their execution. I think of how maybe it is a primer for the afterlife, of Heaven and Redemption. I think of how insane this is. I think of how my husband and my daughter are committed in their atheism and how our six year old son believes in Heaven and how I don’t want him to be afraid. I think of how I used to dance in clubs and how I have a whole other body and sense of rhythm now. I think of how diazepam helps. I think of how I barely talk to anyone so it doesn’t matter what I think or what I need to say. I think of how The Pixies song I Bleed used to make me want to cut myself. I think of how before I took lithium lots of things made me think of self-mutilation. I think of how lithium dulls everything, reinforces apathy and inertia, dampens all the feelings that make you you. I think of how I wouldn’t dare not take it again. I think of how being overweight and having bad skin and no emotions is better than being dead or permanently in the agony of despair. I think of how many people have told me they don’t take medication because of the side effects, and I think of what it’s like to have a choice. I think about when I took that photograph that lit up the room and nobody wanted me to take it and I felt like an insult thrown back. I think about the swimming pool and the very hairy man who is always striding up and down and occasionally diving in and showing off all his hairy male-ness and how he must be giving someone a rash. I think about my boy tumbling in that time. I think about falling in sideways, a hundred times, hitting and hitting the pale blue surface of the water fully clothed, my mouth open. I hear the other mothers applauding. I think about how I’m empty inside and so nothing that anyone says to me can penetrate and I slump down in the deck chair and I feel my heart slow down. I feel my heart slow, slow. I think of how anyone reading this far must want more than I’ve got to give and will possibly see me in a worse light than ever. I think of how my father and I used to dream we were painting all the town’s houses primary colours in the night, how we both had the same dreams. I think of how my husband sometimes kisses me, like someone he hasn’t seen for a long while. I think of how he won’t understand why I’m writing this. I think I’m not sure either. I think of the girl stabbed and set alight in Blackpool. I think of all the screaming ones. I think of all the sad ones. I think of myself in wide, midnight dreams of nothing.

The Next Big Thing

I’ve been asked to give this interview for an expanding blog project called The Next Big Thing, by the poet Sophie Mayer. You can read her brilliant interview here.

The idea is I post mine and tag other writers to do the same on the 26th December.

…..

Where did the idea come from for the book?

The poems accumulated over a three year period of intense writing, yet intense in a very different way to writing my first collection. I wrote with more constraint, more routine. I wrote nearly every day, about whatever struck me in the moment, and I think it simply got to a point where it felt coherent and I said to myself, I might have a collection here. Once I had my title it was a case of carefully piecing it together, which has taken the best part of a year.

What genre does your book fall under?

Poetry

What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

Vicky McClure might play the part of the object of some of the love poems. I don’t know who would play the part of my husband, frankly, no-one’s up to scratch. I think the people I write about are so unusual and interesting in their own way that actors could never do them justice. A movie rendition of a poetry collection is certainly a very interesting concept.

What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?

When I was a little girl I read a book, a very unusual and rare illustrated book in which the a creature with a big heart dies at the end and goes to heaven and because I could never shake this beautiful story and because I once worked in an abattoir and once wanted to die I wrote this book in fits of semi-eloquent heartache from a room in a house in a town where all the skeletons come out to greet me and I bow to them and everything else I can make out in the dark, waiting for me with open arms.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

Three years. I had one year where I wrote very little, or very little of what I wrote was any good, and I felt as though I’d never write again, but this coincided with beginning treatment for what I regard as an illness, whether forward-thinkers like it to be called ‘illness’ or not. The past year has been especially fruitful and I’ve managed to knock a manuscript into shape, with plenty of work to choose from. This was an experience I’d describe as beyond satisfying.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

I was inspired by the place where I live now, which is the place I grew up, where I unleashed all kinds of Hell a decade and a half ago. I was inspired by the memory of someone I loved (love) who passed away. I think she deserves someone to write sad poems about her to the end of their days. Part of the book is devoted to my estranged father, his death and my unearthing of the past as a way of moving forward. Or you could muse that it is about lives almost lived, and the discovery that at every turn someone who you loved and who loved you in their way, who was absent for one reason or another, were themselves living a life clouded by absence. It is also about whether these kinds of thoughts are mere romanticism and a desperate search for resolution where there’s no closure.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

This book is not for the faint-hearted. You need to be ready for sex and death, suicide, mental illness…but in there is big, big love, in swathes.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

It is my hope that this book is published by an agency. I have sent it out to a publisher and am waiting to hear news.

My poets to tag are:

Leo Cookman

Jeremy Gluck

Kirsten Irving

Michael Egan

Make sure you check them out on the 26th!

Interview with Sheila Hamilton

The following is an interview with the poet Sheila Hamilton whose first collection, Corridors of Babel came to my attention a few months ago. The collection has a brilliant introduction by the poet and editor David Caddy, who celebrates the thoughtful and erudite poems written by this extraordinary ‘anthropological’ poet. Mythology, fairytale and surrealism are invigorated with a purposeful questioning of the world, both real and metaphysical, re-inventing its parameters. Seeking truths in the everyday and domestic as well as in often fragile familial relationships we are also asked to consider animals, dolls, puppets, unicorns and galloping horses alongside these turbulent pre-occupations.

Sheila has also written two pamphlet collections, one by Flarestack entitled The Monster in The Rose Garden and one by Original Plus entitled One Match, a sequence of poems after Jan Palach, a Czech student of history who committed suicide by self-immolation as a political protest in Wenceslas Square, 1969.

Why is poetry important to you?

I have always loved the rhythms of speech, and am drawn to music without having ever been a natural on any instrument. That’s one reason. And poetry has given me so much. When I was a teenager I found it very liberating to read the poems of Wilfred Owen, Sylvia Plath and also various Eastern European poets in translation, Polish poets, Czech poets, Hungarian poets. .. it was liberating to see people tackling big subjects: death, war, madness, totalitarianism. Poetry can be praise or lament, it can break your heart or make you laugh aloud. Because it is also about sound and cadence, it is closer to the heart than prose. (Though I do like prose.)

What was the first poem you wrote?

I can’t remember exactly but it was probably a haiku. We learnt to write simple haiku at primary school: meditations on the natural world, with some emotion of our own in the mix. It’s not a bad place to start though I realize now that haiku are actually very complicated! The first poems that I remember writing out of a creative need, let’s say, were written when I was 16 and in a psychiatric hospital. I don’t have them now, and I can’t remember their titles, but they were an attempt to process difficult material.

People tell me that I tackle big subjects in many of my poems. It’s true, but I would also say it is pretty much lethal to a poem’s success for the poet to sit down and say “Today I am going to tackle a big subject.” For me, a poem starts with a powerful visual image, or an intriguing phrase I’ve overheard somewhere. Many poems are born out of a sense of being bothered (and not in a Catherine Tate kind of way!).

What is the most difficult subject you’ve ever tackled in a poem?

Writing about Jan Palach’s self-immolation in Czechoslovakia was never going to be one poem. It appeared in the pamphlet One Match as 20 poems, though with a bit of re-arranging it could be considered one big uber-poem, I suppose. Writing about Jan Palach came out of going to Prague a few times and standing at the place in Wenceslas Square where he actually set himself on fire. (This place has been marked since 2000 by a bronze cross.) But once I began writing, this poem (these poems) began to address all sorts of things: the nature of political protest, how people behave in a totalitarian society, the tricky issue of martyrdom, how the living remember the dead.

I see most of my work as being a body of work, and running through that body is a preoccupation with trauma. Trauma can happen on Wenceslas Square, it can happen in the trenches of the Western Front, and it can also happen in your house.

In One Match you delve into someone else’s psychology, and not just Jan Palach’s but his mother’s and girlfriend’s. How did you go about achieving this?

. . .I have always been fascinated by how people tick, largely because no-one conforms to a template; even the most self-aware person can surprise themselves. When someone does something as extreme as immolating in a public place, it is only natural that others will try to find clues in the personality and circumstances of that person. Yes, Jan Palach’s protest was political in nature, there’s no doubt about that, but not everybody deeply disillusioned and angered by political conditions would do what he did.

So writing and researching about JP inevitably entailed finding out various things about people he knew. And this led in turn to a certain level of emotional identification with those people. This was not always a comfortable experience!

JP appears to have been emotionally involved with two young women. As far as I can infer (and this is an inference), he was close to Young Woman A but only viewed her platonically and he was romantically/sexually involved with Young Woman B. Young Woman B’s name was Eva, and there is an Eva in my poem “Jan Palach: Boyfriend” but the Eva in my poem is really a composite of both these women. In the poem, I imagine what she might have done if he had confided in her about his plan. I needed to explore that idea before I came to understand that, probably, he did not confide his plans at all, not to anybody. Doing so would have put the listener in an impossible position.

During his 3 days in the intensive care unit, Jan Palach was visited once by his mother (accompanied by his older brother) and once (separately) by Eva. His mother leant over him and said, “Janicku (note: a term of endearment), what have you done? What have you done?” Eva paced up and down talking nineteen-to-the-dozen before breaking down in tears and crying, “Please tell me that what you have done was a mistake.” Those are both cries from the heart in what is a visceral human drama. Running through my mind as I explored all this was the unanswerable question, “What would I myself have done if this had been me?”
One Match
And I’ll mention Jung, if I may. In the Jungian world of archetypes, Jan Palach is a Divine Child. A Divine Child is basically a young person who comes over as wise beyond their years and who stands out for the intensity of their ideals. (Jesus is the prime example within Western culture.) Such a person exists in difficult conditions and is, in a sense, made by them. A Divine Child has a huge impact on others, not because s/he is attempting consciously to “make friends and influence people” but because s/he has a lot of integrity.

Why did JP’s story compel me so much? Over the years, I have written quite a few poems inspired by folk and fairy tales and JP’s story contains several archetypal aspects (see above.) I have also over the years been able to exercise my democratic right to protest; what it would be like to live in a context where there is no such right, where attempts to march, lobby, distribute leaflets, etc. result in the person being carted off to prison or being put in a mental hospital? . .But these are what Palach as a philosophy student would no doubt describe as post-hoc rationalizations. When I was actually writing, I just knew I had to write. Some things just hit you in the face. ..

There is a line in your poem ‘ There is an asteroid named after Jan Palach’ which reads ‘Better, surely to be un-burnt, un-famous.’ But you don’t believe this. Often  I see in your work a celebration of what it is to be human and to suffer. Do you think, this not shrinking from the truth sets you apart as a writer and can you think of any particular influences or like-minds?

The whole sequence of poems on Jan Palach was born out of an ambivalence: did he do the right thing? On one level, the individual human level, it would certainly have been better if he had scrapped the whole idea. But we do not exist purely as individuals; we are a part of society. He felt compelled to make a powerful stand against repression and he knew quite well that setting himself alight in the main throroughfare could not be ignored or hushed up.

The human fascinates me, we are such a complex species! People can be courageous, creative, generous beyond all call of duty. .. and people can also be despicable. I think in my poems I try to honour the human. But I wouldn’t say that I celebrate suffering, no. Suffering is horrible. Getting badly burnt is horrible. Feeling that that is the only way you can be heard is hideous, it should never come to that. I feel suffering needs to be acknowledged as part of the human experience but I do get angry with people who make out that suffering per se is a form of nobility.

I feel poetry, and other art forms too, must concern themselves with honesty. Otherwise, why bother?

Particular influences? I think of Shostakovitch the Russian composer who attempted in his music to honour the experience and sufferings of his fellow-Russians, people living under Stalin during the purges, people in Leningrad during the siege. I wouldn’t presume to put myself in the same category as him because he lived in circumstances I can scarcely imagine.

In a slightly different vein, I love the stories collected by the brothers Grimm, stories which definitely don’t turn away from difficulty. They have hunger in them, and abandonment, jealousy, infanticide, incest. The German versions written down (and sometimes altered) by the Grimms themselves are more visceral than the English versions, which the Victorians sanitized. In the German versions, the stepmother in “Snow White” is set upon at Snow White’s wedding and forced to dance herself to death in red-hot metal slippers. And Rumpelstiltskin doesn’t just stomp off into the wood “never to be seen again” but actually splits in two. And it is clear in the German version of “Rapunzel” that Rapunzel is having a sexual relationship with the young man who climbs up her long hair into the tower. These are vivid stories that don’t sugar-coat the messiness of the human experience.

What are the main themes in your collection Corridors of Babel, and how long did it take you to write it?

Corridors of Babel grew, like many first collections, over a long period of time. The earliest poems in it date from the mid-Nineties; the most recent was written very early in 2007, the year in which the book appeared. (That 2007 poem is “The Children Who Transformed Themselves” and came out of a wonderful one-day workshop tutored by Pascale Petit. I love the way Pascale works with myth to explore difficult experience.) In the earlier stages, I had little concept of putting together a book; I was simply working on poems and getting acceptances in magazines. So there’s less cohesion in it than there is in my later work.

Having said that, some themes do emerge. There is a preoccupation with people who are on the edges, the margins. Linked up to this, and I see this more clearly now with the benefit of distance, is a preoccupation with violence. There is the violence found in the Grimm tales, and in the Greek myth of the Minotaur, but also the violence within history: the execution of a Scottish Covenanter in the seventeenth century, the disappearance of Genette Tate, torture in Chile during the Pinochet regime. In the Remedios Varo poems towards the end of the collection, I explore various sorts of quest: physical, artistic, spiritual. And there’s quite a lot of dream running through the book.

Corridors of Babel
 Which poems in Corridors of Babel are you most proud of?

That’s a difficult question. I think I am attached to all of them for some reason or another. . The Genette Tate poem, “Disappeared”, I am proud of because I had been trying to write of this for a long, long time. .. this is what finally emerged after lots of false starts. When Genette went missing in Devon in 1978, I was only a little bit younger than her and lived only a few miles away. The fact that she disappeared was disturbing enough; the fact that her body was never found, even more so. . .And a poem in some ways connected to this, “Freyja”, I am especially pleased with because it came to be a love poem. I’ve definitely decided not to sit down and try consciously to write love-poems; they happen by serendipity!

“Gretel” I vividly remember writing at a large table in the Arvon Centre at Lumb Bank in West Yorkshire in the middle of the night. The course was focussing on childhood and dream and though I wrote other things there, this was the poem where both those things came together and collided with those already-existing preoccupations with violence and with people who are marginalized. John Burnside was the guest poet (the tutors were the excellent Moniza Alvi and Susan Wicks) and he had suggested to the group the night before that we might want to go off and each get stuck in to our favourite fairy tale or myth. Well, I could think of several but I settled on “Hansel and Gretel” and the voice of Gretel presented itself. It was one of those special occasions when a poem appears to write itself.

If someone were to write a poem about you…

Ah, this would depend so much on who was writing the poem! My younger son is autistic with severe learning disability: what kind of poem would he write? Perhaps it would be about me teaching him how to make a cup of tea. Someone else might focus on my wanderlust. Or on how a confused child of Catholic convert parents has been, in turn, a free-ranging protestant (small “p”), an apprentice Buddhist and, latterly, an agnostic with a deep distrust of most organized religion. I think I’ll just say: I hope that I never inspire a revenge poem. All else, gratefully acknowledged!

What are you currently working on?

I very much hope that my second full collection will see the light of day in 2013. At present, I am deep into working on my third collection. At the heart of it is the whole business of transience: travel, migration (both animal and human), how fruit ripens, how it rots, how the living relate to the dead. There is a fair bit of archaeology in it. Inside me is an archaeologist trying to get out. . .Or an archivist. I love the work of archaeologists and archivists. . .it is so important, they really are unsung heroes.

My preoccupation with trauma continues. I think I’ll soon be writing more about shell shock/war neurosis/combat stress. Who was it who said, “In war, there are no unwounded soldiers”? . . And I have recently been writing a longish poem about Liverpool, focussing on how Victorian Liverpool nudges the Liverpool of today and finds echoes there. Also two longish poems about specific places in Prague. I’m very interested in cities as palimpsests, places of layers and of incongruity, the magnificent alongside the horrific, elegance in close proximity to squalor. (Note to self: read “Cities” by Elaine Feinstein.) I have really enjoyed writing these longer poems. . .and intend to write more.

What advice would you give to an aspiring poet?

Everyone says this but I’ll echo it: read a lot. Read all sorts of poetry, especially lots of contemporary stuff. (Keats, Shelley, etc. are wonderful but you can’t learn from them how 21-st century people write, any more than you can learn from them how to talk.  When Keats and Shelley were writing, they were modern.) Also read lots of things that are not poetry.

Go to workshops if you can but don’t presume that workshops can teach you everything.

Be prepared to write a lot of rubbish. If you tell yourself that each poem you write has to be great, you are setting yourself up for failure. . .and paralysis. All the most well-known poets past and present have written rubbish. . .over time, you tend to get a feeling for when something is good and when it is not, and when something can be reasonably improved.

Don’t write about something/anything that only vaguely interests you. Why would a reader want to read about something that even the poet can’t get enthusiastic about? Rather: what do you find yourself thinking about a lot? dreaming about? What keeps you awake at night? What do you find yourself discussing in great detail with friends? A lot of bad poems are vague because the poets are not sufficiently engaged with the subject-matter.

Draft. Re-draft. Re-draft again. If you find other poets who are 1) friendly and also 2) capable of offering constructive criticism, share your work with them. And pay theirs the same compliment.

Encourage other people who are writing; encouragement is not on ration. The suffering artist (or is that artiste?) languishing in his/her garret is a myth.