In Which I Make A Confession
I used to be a bit scared of poetry.
Not in the same way I used to be scared of snakes. I mean, I don't have a panic attack if I see a poem in a book and then have to turn over two pages to make sure it isn't going to bite me through the page. That would just be silly.
It's more a sense that somehow I'm not quite worthy of it. I think, if I attempt to analyse why this is the case, it stems from the inferiority complex I developed at school. I did English Literature A-level and although I could always hold my own in literary analysis of prose, the others in the class always seemed to have a better grasp of the poetry (unless it was WW1 poetry, in which case I was in my element). With hindsight, I suspect that they didn't, it's just that when you're surrounded by people who are incredibly intelligent and you're constantly wondering whether you belong in the place anyway, it can be a bit overwhelming. If I could go back in time and tell my teenage self anything, I think this would be the thing I'd choose - everyone else feels as much of a fake as you do. Having talked to the friends I've kept in touch with from those days, many felt exactly the same as I did and their remembrances of those times are very different to how I perceived they were coping at the time. It's funny - if only we'd all had the confidence to tell each other back then, maybe we'd have felt less like the proverbial fish out of water.
I've got over this fear now and can read poetry and just enjoy it for what it is. However, when it came to selecting the poetry for Makarelle I cheerfully handed over the poetry submissions to my colleagues, feeling utterly inadequate to judge whether they were good, bad or indifferent. However, canny women that they are, they pushed it back to me and told me (kindly of course) to put my big girl pants on and stop being such a baby about the whole thing. 'It's no different to judging and critiquing prose and we know you can do that!'
To my surprise, I realised they were quite right. I might not have the eye for the technicalities, I might not necessarily know the terms for the different poetic structures, but I can see when something has the potential to be publishable. The fear receded a little. It receded still further when my 15yo pointed out that he regularly asks me to check his poetry analysis for his GCSE English Lit and I can always suggest extra points to consider. I don't even think of that as being poetry analysis - in my head that's just helping him with his school work!
And then Jane announced she'd just published an anthology of her poetry, entitled Blood Kisses. I'd read some of her poems online and enjoyed them and besides which - she's my friend, so I bought a copy. She'd warned me that there were some dark themes, but when I actually read it, there was also a lot to uplift and inspire. I found myself moving from one poem to the next thinking, OK so that's my favourite. Then I'd find another one I loved even more. And then another. Some moved me more than others - I think this is inevitable when someone writes about something you've experienced yourself - and some made me laugh, but most of all I was proud of my friend. She's captured so many of life's experiences within this anthology without becoming mawkish or sentimental and without allowing the truths of the darker sider of human nature to overwhelm the beauty of it. A.A. Milne Has Some Explaining To Do had my husband and I laughing, while My Mother's Hands and Forgot made me cry.
I found it hard to choose a favourite, but in the end I think the one that resonated the most with me was You're my Bitch - Or an Ode to Depression. It's no secret that many people are struggling with their mental health at the moment and I loved that this acknowledged the struggle, but ended positively. The imagery made me smile as I imagined a wobbly, trainer wearing Depression slouching away angrily down the street and that's an image that will stay with me I think. It didn't get its own way. It didn't win.
I asked Jane if she'd mind answering some questions for me about Blood Kisses and as well as recommending some non-scary poets for me to read, she kindly agreed to the interview, so here it is.
A lot of your poetry is quite dark in tone. What is it about the medium of poetry that lends itself so well to these experiences?
I think, for me, poetry and fiction fill two different aspects of my writing.
Fiction, I make up stories, then fill them with elements of my own experiences or people I have known.
Poetry is all me. It is the things I feel and need to express. I have never been a particularly emotional person around friends etc, I think this may be because I tend to use my poetry as a way to resolve my thinking and feelings.
As for the dark tone, that’s just my nature. I am quite a positive person when it comes to the day to the day. But what runs beneath is a churning hell-mouth…Ha! (Joking) No, I think as I said before it’s about dealing with the emotions that I don’t tend to share with others.
What made you decide to put these particular poems together in the anthology?
I have hundreds of poems, some better than others, and some better than those in the anthology (in my opinion).
I wanted to put a real mixture into this. Some of the poems, like Incineration and Numb, I wrote when I was twenty-one. Blood Kisses, I wrote for my Masters (a slightly different version of it) and Digital I wrote about six weeks ago.
I wanted to show a life lived, and the various aspects of that for women. Some poems talk about my own experiences at the time. Others are just my own reflections on life.
As with any writing, many of your poems are open to interpretation with regards to their meaning. Do you think it matters if the reader ‘reads’ the poem differently to how you intended?
Not at all, everyone gets something different from a poem. For example, I lived through the cold war as a child and a young woman. We felt there was an imminent threat of a nuclear explosion. We were taught what to do in the four-minute warning (none of those things would have actually helped!) So, when I read, Edwin Muir’s The Horses, which is one of my all-time favourite poems. I will feel something different to a person who reads it today.
Some of your poems are intensely personal to you. Does it worry you to have such raw emotion laid out for everyone to see? Was there any concern that people might view you differently after reading them?
This is a tricky question for me, I am not comfortable talking about a lot of the things I talk about in my poems. I play it down and make less of it. However, as I have got older, I have realised it is important to talk and important to share your experiences. I think of my daughters and worry about the world they are entering; I can’t stop them from experiencing things, but I can raise red flags and say… try not to do that.
I have just realised I completely avoided the question – No, I am not worried about people’s opinion of me may change. The few people who really know me and matter to me won’t think differently.
Also – as I say to my girls – Don’t be a sheep. Stand up, be counted, be an individual.
What do you gain from committing your experiences and emotions to paper?
Ah, you say that as if I have a choice. Pen, paper, me. I suspect I will die with a pen in my hand.
I thought about editing some of my earlier poems, some of them don’t scan as well as some of my newer ones. Then I thought, you know what, I should leave them. I want them to be exactly as I was feeling them at the time. Visceral and real. Poetry should never be about getting the grammar right and the having the right rhythm or being fashionable, it should be about emotion and the magic you can conjure with words.
If you read Patricia Lockwoods, Rape Joke – that is a masterclass in great poetry, to me.
So my conclusion is this: whilst I rarely write poetry and when I do, it tends to be comic doggerel with dodgy rhymes or an outpouring of teenage-style angst (I recently found notebooks containing some very bad poetry from my teenage years!), I am no longer scared of it and will be re-introducing it into my reading pile.