Thursday, 3 December 2015

Review: The First Telling - A Contribution to the Literature of Hope

The First Telling

A few weeks after writing my post on Poems about Rape, I found myself, in a workshop with Pascale Petit, sitting next to Gill McEvoy who showed me her pamphlet which deals with a rape and its aftermath. Naturally I was interested and bought a copy from her. It was the beautifully produced The First Telling, published by HappenStance, which I'm delighted to say has just won the Michael Marks Award for best pamphlet. It’s a very powerful piece of work which stayed with me long after I’d closed the book.

From the beginning the reader is engaged and involved in the narrative. We hear the narrator's thoughts and have to orientate ourselves in the story as it unfolds. The language is sparse, sometimes ungrammatical, sometimes inarticulate, which by its very nature reveals something that more eloquent speech would fail to do. The printed poem works well visually - the dashes, italics, repetitions and slashes give a physical dimension to the telling enabling us to hear the incoherence, the sobs, the silences - how does one find the words to express such appalling experiences after all?

can’t run
can’t breathe
can’t breathe

Birds are present as a motif throughout with some short bird poems becoming a metaphor for what the narrator can’t say, adding texture and dimension to the sequence:


Stabs itself under its wing
with that great beak…

Hides the scars with feathers.

But the sequence moves beyond horror, pain and suffering towards the beginning of hope and healing. And this is more than welcome. All the poems I mentioned in Poems about Rape, apart from that of Farhan Akhtar (which calls on men to wake up to the treatment of women and oppose it), document the horror of rape and the way it damages lives. This is a powerful telling because when the knowledge of rape is hidden away and unacknowledged, society can ignore it. Added to that, in the words of John Berger: "Poems, regardless of any outcome, cross the battlefields, tending the wounded, listening to the wild monologues of the triumphant or the fearful. They bring a kind of peace. Not by anaesthesia or easy reassurance, but by recognition and the promise that what has been experienced cannot disappear as if it had never been. Yet the promise is not of a monument. (Who, still on a battlefield, wants monuments?) The promise is that language has acknowledged, has given shelter to, the experience which demanded, which cried out.” ― John Berger, And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos

But the poems I highlighted do not move beyond this acknowledgement and shelter to offer a way forward, bar perhaps through the unstated hope that society might listen and do something about its treatment of women. The First Telling, however, does show us something more. Through the means of objectifying the experience of rape and its aftermath in language and telling it to a wise listener who hears and understands, rather than being condemned to live in isolation with the raw, unspoken and unedited re-living of what happened, the narrator is able, in small, realistic steps forward, to find a path out of the ever-present prison of the unresolved past; the colours, the images, the thoughts start to change. We are left with the possibility of healing:

So bright the blue.
Like new air rushing in.

The writer Barry Lopez has said that he wants to “contribute to a literature of hope… to help create a body of stories in which men and women can discover trustworthy patterns. Every story is an act of trust between a writer and a reader; each story in the end is social. Whatever a writer sets down can help or harm the community of which he or she is a part.” Elaborating, he says he has to believe “that imagining a story will somehow help people to imagine a way around difficulty. And that by encouraging a sense of hope, some woman, some man, will exercise their imagination in a way we could not have foreseen and that will be our blessing and our release from pessimism. Somebody will see a different way to do things. Stories, in some way, work as blueprints for the imagination”. ― Michigan Quarterly Review

I recommend The First Telling to you not only as a welcome contribution to poems about rape but also as a contribution to the literature of hope and a blueprint for the imagination.

Friday, 3 July 2015

Keeping the Channel of Creativity Open - Martha Graham

Martha Graham (1894 - 1991), the American dancer, who created a movement language based upon the expressive capacity of the human body, is quoted as saying something I have often thought but ne'er so well expressed. Read it when you need to dispel the demons of self-doubt, feelings of inadequacy and the sense of futility about one's work that most writers seem to visit at some time - it acts as a kind of charm against them:

There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening, that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique, and if you block it it will never exist through any other medium and be lost; the world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is, nor how valuable, nor how it compares with other expressions, it is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work, you have to keep open and aware directly to the urge that motivates you. Keep the channel open... 
(As told by Agnes de Mille in Martha: The Life and Work of Martha Graham. A Biography.)

And this is helpful too:
Practice means to perform over and over again in the face of all obstacles, some act of vision, of faith, of desire. Practice is a means of inviting the perfection desired.

Saturday, 13 June 2015

The Goddess and The Gardener - now available here

 Poet and writer, Jane Whittle, explored Britain alone on foot for many years before settling on the coast of West Wales, where she began to make a garden from a patch of un-tamed mountainside 'in a place where rainbows land'. The poems in this book arose from that mysterious space between dream and reality experienced in the landscape, first by solitary long distance walking and then by sinking a root in one unspoiled place. They are accompanied by the author's own illustrations.

The poems are divided into two halves. The first half are in the voice of The Gardener, the woman who has stopped her physical journeying and has settled, finding 'new strength/to stay at home'. We are taken on the Gardener's inner journey through the seasons, from spring when 'New arrivals/crowd their neighbours/budding intermezzos drown in brazen greens' to winter, when 'The earth is hard on new flowers/broken by gales and frost'. Through her we meet the Goddess in different guises as she allows the Gardener to see the magic of the garden emerge and to experience her at the source of much that is around us - in a faltering stream, in the colours of the rainbow, in a leaf uncurling, in the cycle of elderberries from flower to wine.

In the second half we are privileged to hear the voice of the Goddess herself, first as Eurynome from early Greek myth who created the earth with the help of the serpent Ophion but banished him when he tried to take all the credit, then as she reveals herself in water, in wind, in a poem but above all in the earth. 'Lay yourself down/ and become land' she says, 'Listen - you will hear me'. 'As I turn and re-turn/, I return you to life.../  Remember my story.'

Jane Whittle's language throughout is skillful, simple with the simplicity of archetype, conveying in a few well-chosen words a depth of meaning that offers us new insights and delights.

Copies of The Gardener and The Goddess published by Brigit's Forge ( ISBN 978-0-9574106-1-9) are available to buy from this website (see sidebar) whether or not you have a PayPal account.

Saturday, 30 May 2015

John Agard: Poetry to Energise the Soul

I was interested to hear the poet John Agard talking to Kirsty Young as a guest on Desert Island Discs in November 2014. Born in Guyana, Agard came to the UK in the 1970s with his partner, the poet Grace Nichols. Carol Ann Duffy says of him: “John Agard has always made people sit up and listen. He has done this with intelligence, humour and generosity... He has the ability to temper anger with wit, and difficult truths with kindness... In performance he is electrifying – compelling, funny, moving and thought-provoking. His work in education over the years has changed the way that readers, writers and teachers think about poetry,” 

His poems are often satirical, addressing subjects such as slavery and, as the BBC website puts it "the historical myopia of a shared past judged solely through European eyes". His humour is sometimes achieved by provoking an abrupt change of perception in his audience, a disruption of an accepted way of seeing. His readings are, as Duffy says, electrifying, giving language an almost physical quality in which words are played with, emphasised and delivered for maximum impact. Have a listen to him over on the Poetry Archive if you haven't heard him before.

Asked about how he felt about being awarded the Queen's Medal for Poetry he says that that the medal is given for your contribution and oeuvre as a poet and that it would be ungracious to reject it. Young people, he says, both black and white, need to be motivated by people who channel the word with positive energy; they need models who can energise the soul, beacons who give them a positive hope that poetry is also something that is worthy of being honoured. For that reason he says he had no qualms in accepting the medal and felt honoured and touched to be in the company of many great poets.

He talks of the process of writing poetry, how the poet uses the same 26 letters of the alphabet as everyone else but there is "a magical moment when you happen to put the right words in the right order and this can trigger off a verbal chemistry that can touch your depths and language begins to fly". A line might come to you, he continues, like a benediction, like grace, like it's a gift. It has spiritual overtones but is not divorced from the mundane of life.

He says he believes that "the poet keeps us in touch with the vulnerable core of language that makes us what we are."

That's certainly something to ponder on.

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

International Women's Day: Poems about Rape

In the latest edition of Mslexia, the magazine for women writers, Sarah Hesketh writes that deeply intimate poetry collections are a form of feminist activism. She mentions the series of poems Against Rape on the Peony Moon blog and, reading the poems, I remembered that I’d planned to write a post last year for International Women’s Day on poems about rape. Here it is, a year and a day late.

As Moniza Alvi, writing in in her Foreword to the anthology Feminism, Literature and Rape Narratives points out, although rape is increasingly in the public eye, it still bears the stigma of taboo – “of that about which we dare not speak or write”. She goes on to say:

“Rape is an unsafe subject for poetry, while war is a wholly accepted category, and yet rape is constantly reported as a facet of war. Primarily, rape is considered a women’s issue, though this is, of course, hardly the case, and perhaps this is partly why it is considered a literary taboo, particularly when conveyed from a female viewpoint.”

The poems in Alvi’s book Europa contain many poems about rape as well as other trauma. She believes that any subject can be suitable for poetry and because poetry has potential for “the piercing and memorable” it seemed important to her that it is used to influence this particular instance of trauma.

Yet there are concerns. If, as Alvi posits, one aspect of poetry is to give delight, should rape poetry be a different kind of poetry? Her answer is to use myth to explore rape and trauma, “giving a kind of delight through the imaginative qualities of the story”.  I find myself uncomfortable with the word ‘delight’ in this context even though I know what she is getting at. I think it might be more suitable to say that myth and metaphor are able to make the poem ‘aesthetically pleasing’. I am aware that some of those who hear accounts of rape enjoy them salaciously, delight in them, as in Adrienne Rich’s poem Rape where the speaker has gone to report her rape to a cop who has grown up with her brothers:

…And so, when the time comes, you have to turn to him,
the maniac’s sperm still greasing your thighs,
your mind whirling like crazy. You have to confess
to him, you are guilty of the crime
of having been forced.

And you see his blue eyes, the blue eyes of all the family
whom you used to know, grow narrow and glisten,
his hand types out the details
and he wants them all
but the hysteria in your voice pleases him best…

Using myth and image to create distance is a useful device for discouraging such voyeurism and trying “to bring a kind of beauty or artistry to a discordant subject”. Alvi’s poems are beautiful, clear and sparse, sparkling with suggestion, and no less hard-hitting for addressing the subject from a distance. Particularly notable is the poem Mermaid, based not on the Hans Anderson story but on the painting by Tabitha Vever entitled When We Talk about Rape which is the cover image for the Europa collection. Here's an exerpt:

            he slit

down the muscular length
exposing the bone in its red canal.

She played dead on the rock

             dead by the blue lagoon
             dead to the ends of her divided tail.

He fell on her, sunk himself deep
into the apex.

Then he fled
                      on his human legs.

Human love cried the sea,
the sea in her head. 

Some poems, however, are more blunt and explicit, as in Marge Piercy’s Rape Poem:

There is no difference between being raped
And being pushed down a flight of cement steps
Except that the wounds also bleed inside.

There is no difference between being raped
And being run over by a truck
Except that afterward men ask if you enjoyed it.

There is no difference between being raped
And being bit on the ankle by a rattlesnake
Except that people ask if your skirt was short
And why you were out anyhow.

There is no difference between being raped
And going head first through a windshield
Except that afterward you are afraid not of cars,
But half the human race…

Alvi thinks it possible for rape poetry to rise above the confessional and quotes Pascale Petit: “When I read out my poems that have very personal and sometimes shocking content, I still concentrate on them as art rather than statements or “confessions”. That’s what I’m interested in, the transformative aspect, the image-making, chant or song of them. Afterwards, when people ask questions or react to the subject matter, I remember that they were rather revealing”.

My own poem about rape is packaged in the form of an intimate “confession”; the speaker confiding in the audience. I have crafted it - based on an actual rape - to convey its insidious nature, how its tentacles may reach into language itself even when the survivor thinks she is free of it. I have also given the rapist some individual attention, making him more than the stock shadowy sadistic figure. Not all rapists are the same. I hoped by this to provoke a discussion: What makes a man rape? What is he thinking and feeling? It’s time the focus was turned on men rather than just on the victims of rape. Society teaches ‘Don’t get raped’, not ‘Don’t rape’. If women's behaviour is scrutinised why not men's? We need an honest and searching debate to look at the problem.

A rare poem by a man concerned about rape is this by Farhan Akhtar, a Bollywood film director and actor, who set up a social campaign in India, Men Against Rape and Discrimination or MARD. The poem, with its insistent rap structure, is surely ripe for performance:

What is this country that I live in?
With no equality
And the quality of life
Differs from husband to wife
Boy to girl, brother to sister
Hey Mister, are you the same?
Contributing to the national shame
Replacing your mothers
With the bent ideology of another's
perception that women have a particular role in society
Fills my heart with anxiety
Where is all of this going?
What will emerge from these seeds that we're sowing?
It makes my head spin
But I'm not giving in
Will keep asking the question
What is this country that I live in?

What is this country that I live in?
That takes away her right to love
Brutalises her with an iron glove
Rapes her without fear
of there being justice for her tear
We've demeaned our goddesses
Gone back on all our promises
Become a gender distorted nation
Given our conscience a permanent vacation
what do I tell my daughter?
That she's growing up to be lamb for the slaughter
we've got to make a change
Reboot, reformat, rearrange,
and never give in
no matter how much our head may spin
Just keep asking the question
What is this country that I live in?

I am beginning to have some qualms about reading my own poem in public, important though I think it is not to hide these poems away as if they are not a suitable subject and as much as I like the idea of intimate poems being a kind of feminist activism. As Sean O’ Brian has said, “The poem is an event happening in the act of reading” and Moniza Alvi asserts “It is important that the poem itself becomes an experience, rather than being merely a vehicle for something” - with a spoken poem therefore, the audience may be given an experience of rape.

I have read my poem at a number of events but the last time I read it I noticed out of the corner of my eye and the corner of my mind that as I introduced it a woman in the audience looked uncomfortable, shifted in her seat and then looked down at the floor, a pained expression on her face. Thinking about it afterwards I realised that she was trapped in the situation, that the poem might have triggered memories she’d rather forget and that she couldn’t simply get up and leave without announcing something she would probably rather not say. My poem starts with the memory of a rape being triggered by an article so I felt I should have thought more about the possibility of this happening through a spoken poem. Even reading poems about rape on the page or screen may be triggers, as the Peony Moon blog warns its readers.

But at least on page or screen the reader has a choice to look away and being silenced is not an option if things are ever to change. I remember what W.H.Auden said, in his poem in memory of W. B. Yeats:

For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth. 
(My emphasis)

When I was raped… I discarded certain assumptions I had held about how the world worked and about how safe I was. Alice Sebold (from Lucky)

Caught by an article in the Guardian
I thought I’d write a poem about a rape
from many years before.

I meant to tell how he’d driven to the Common,
forced my head back when I tried to scream
till I thought my neck would break
and my decision then to just give in
and hope he didn’t kill me.

And how he dragged me to the ground
broke into me and yelled at me to ‘move’ –
as if he thought there could be any rhythm
between his act and me.

How afterwards he fell apart,
became a shrunken thing,
leaning over the roof of his car
like a wilting plant,
crying and begging for forgiveness.
And I then standing still intact
because somehow in the decision to surrender
I had kept possession of myself.

But that night – of the day I planned the poem –
I had one of those dreams I sometimes get
where there’s menace and someone in the room.
I fight – I always fight – and grab his face
and twist and smash and wake
to hear soft footfalls stalk the bedroom floor.

So though I kept possession of myself
something was born of that encounter
that slipped unseen into my future,

insinuates itself between me and safety,
contaminates innocent words like
'neck' and 'car' and 'common' and' move'
and not so innocent words like
scream and scream and scream.