Liz Berry and Mona Arshi discuss their latest collections of poetry, the act of transformation and writing the poems they needed to read.
Morning dear Mona, here we are at last. My sons are at school and nursery and the house is an unearthly quiet. I know you know that odd enchanted quietness too.
It feels very strange, and self-conscious, to be writing to you knowing that this won’t be a private letter so I’m going to have to pretend that we’re not being eavesdropped upon, that I’m going to write this and put it in the post to you and you’ll be reading it in your house alone, in that unearthly quiet. I still love to write letters as they feel so very intimate. Now we type so much I find it beautiful to see someone’s handwriting.
I also love seeing the handwritten drafts and notebook pages of other writers. Again, that intimacy. My notebook is where I feel the most uninhibited, the most free. So much so that the other night I had a dream that I had died and I woke thinking I must certainly destroy some of my notebook pages as I’d never want anyone to read them. Yet they’re the documents through which I might be best known. Sometimes the self of my poems feels very far from the self that is pushing a swing in the park or chatting at the school gates. Do you ever feel that too? When The Republic of Motherhood came out I felt almost pained that people I knew might read it and know me so intimately, see beyond the circle of privacy which I draw around myself, and yet I wrote those poems and chose to put them out into the world.
Yes here we are. Unearthly quiet . . . but I always find once the children are off at school that there’s a heavy sense of expectation hanging in the air, as if the walls are whispering, Well come on then Ms Writer show us what you’re made of?! And yes it’s somehow easier to pretend that I am writing you a letter, which I now so seldom do. I used to keep a diary (I am not going to call it journal which sounds far too artful-literary!), just a book which I would use as a kind of repository for all sorts of things. I would diligently paste cinema tickets and sweet wrappers in it and random thoughts and then when I was eighteen I think I found it and was so embarrassed by I threw it away. Oh how I wish I had kept it! It’s interesting what you say regarding the intersection of the private and public. This is one of the issues that causes me much struggle as it does many poets I think . . .
I feel I wear lots of cloaks in my poems (interestingly I reached for ‘cloaks’ and not ‘coats’ which provides a little insulation). I hate to think that parts of me (or too much of me) have been left in the poem. Sometimes after I’ve written the poem I go back into the room of the poem and try and scrape out any evidence of cohabitation. We have to leave something of ourselves behind of course I accept: an echo, a dirty fingerprint; but it would pain me too if huge chunks of me were laid bare and also I would feel a little embarrassed. I wonder actually if this is what Elizabeth Bishop meant when she said there is nothing as embarrassing as a poet! I also feel that as a female, Indian diasporic (and mother) poet so much is imputed into my creative act in the first place this is inevitable, so it’s a question of control too. Having said that of course Small Hands is brimming over with poems about a sister’s grief, but the experience itself is filtered, changed and transformed into the poems, which again insulates me a little. However, in my new book Dear Big Gods I feel I am going closer to the bone, which is more unsettling for me so there’s been a clear shift.
I love that idea of ‘cloaks’, the cloaks we wear in our poems. Normally people speak of masks, don’t they, when they’re thinking of the way poets hide or speak through others in their poems. Masks seem more primal and dangerously secretive, more powerful, to hide one’s face entirely and channel another being.
‘Cloaks’ suggests a gentler, slyer, more magical way of being in a poem, a slipping in. The poet’s cloak of invisibility, to allow you to move through your poem, to tell the story, to say those things, to conjure, while remaining hidden to the reader. But is it ever really possible to remain completely hidden to the reader in a poem? I don’t think so because as readers we’re all so curious about the souls that create the writing that we love, we can’t help but think of the poet – that’s what helps to give poetry its electricity, its intimacy; especially as so often we meet poetry when it’s being spoken aloud by the poet.
It’s interesting to hear you say that Dear Big Gods feels closer to the bone, a shift forwards. I can feel that when I read it. I see that in a lot of excellent second books – a push into something more tender, difficult, bare. I’m thinking of Emily Berry’s Stranger Baby or Fiona Benson’s brilliant Vertigo & Ghost. I wonder if it’s to do with readiness, with a growing sense of fearlessness, of power?
It’s interesting what you say about second collections, I wonder what it is? With Dear Big Gods, there is a further pushing at something. One of the central poems in it, ‘Five Year Update’, was a tornado poem . . . have you experienced a tornado poem? Because The Republic of Motherhood seems to have that quality and nature. ‘Five Year Update’ came to me when I was out running a few years ago, I wasn’t writing at all then I had these lines in my head quite unexpectedly that came to me from a strange angle in my peripheral vision and before I knew it the poem was in me and around me and I got home quickly and scrawled it down with a pencil. It came out in long wild lines, actually the poem has a wild ungovernable mind of its own and I thought long and hard about trying to control it and realised I could not, I do feel a bit more exposed in that poem, but the poem has to be what it is. I would almost go far as saying that I was scared of the poem for a long time . . . do you have similar feelings, dear Liz?
Tornado poems, tornado books! I love that way of describing it and I can definitely feel that in ‘Five Year Update’, that energy and those rolling lines, the surreal thoughts and phrase-making that feels wilder then in your other poems, more greatly infused with anger. And you were afraid of it too. That’s good, I think.
I was definitely afraid of ‘The Republic of Motherhood’! When it was accepted by Granta, I rang my friend, another poet and mum, in tears as I wasn’t sure if it was the right thing to do to publish it. I was afraid that everyone would tell me I was a terrible mother or that one day my sons might grow up and read the poem and think I didn’t love them. Yet in my heart I knew that it was a poem that I’d had to write.
I had such a hard time when my first son was born. We’ve spoken of that time before – hard pregnancies and the shock of little babies – and I longed for poems to meet me in my sorrow and help me know how to live in that new world, how to survive it. Yet there were hardly any poems about that, so I felt that these feelings, this new world of mine, must be trivial or embarrassing (nothing more embarrassing than a poet!) or something to be ashamed of. Awful! So when I was ready to write again I wanted to make the poems I’d needed to read. It seemed no good hiding behind masks or monologues as that felt like a way of disowning it and pushing it away, pretending it wasn’t my feeling because I was ashamed of it. I didn’t want to feel ashamed any more. I wanted to write those poems barely and openly, as I might speak to a friend or another new mother, and let them know that they were not alone and that there was nothing to be ashamed of, that in sharing these poems we might share the heartache and also the joy, find solace.
Yet it can feel utterly terrifying to do that, especially if you’re writing about your family as you have to think how you can protect them too, not put their lives out into the world in a way which exposes or hurts them. Tell me about that for you, as both your books have explored your family and the death of your brother. How do you navigate that?
Cloaks can provide a veil of protection as you suggest and also provide a role in transformation. It brings to my mind Anne Sexton’s retelling of fairytale in her Transformations and how use of monologue maintains a distance between the body of the speaker and the body of the poet. I think I am a very slanty writer and prefer the peripheral and the angle to the direct and I often use the surreal. This obliquity gives me another cloak or perhaps a layer of protection? I don’t know entirely . . . I was reading Deryn Rees-Jones essays recently Consorting with Angels where she examines the use of the surreal in female poets’ work. I often use the surreal in my work as its affect is to disrupt the ‘I’ or as Deryn Rees Jones puts it ‘it gives a means to dramatise anxiety rather explicitly articulating it.’ So I have a poem in the new book about the birth of my twins, ‘Delivery Room’, which is more like a dream (or a nightmare!) of a birth but then I am very aware of the whole experience in a hospital when the doctors take over your body feeling like a messed up dream . . .
Just today I saw something that Shivanee Ramlochan said, ‘Everything I write, I give access to devastate me first’ and I though that is hugely powerful – so searingly honest. Of course as poets we are making things and we are using the experience as a mode of enquiry in order to transform the experience into something else. It’s interesting because I think the terrifying part that both you and I are discussing is perhaps the part of the poems’ nature we can’t control because the poem in the end takes off in its own direction with all its rage and despair and agonies or in the case of my poem ‘Five Year Update’ the unexpected unearthing of anger. The poem has a mind and I see the poem’s face once it has unravelled itself and spent its energy; you are left with this strange creaturely thing you no longer recognise and need to have a relationship with. Well it is a bit scary and then what’s more terrifying is that you start listening to its music and some of it sounds quite beautiful. Should a thing that came from such a place be so beautiful is something that preoccupies me sometimes, terrible/beauty.
I have written a bit about my family, my brother of course in both books, but there is a lot that didn’t make it into the books. I do think that when you are writing you have to think about the walking living. I have read all the poems about my deceased brother to my mother including the most recent work and some of it is difficult for her to hear of course but she has also said ‘you know what if that poem helps someone else you should publish it’ which is actually a really generous statement. She has an understanding of what a poem is and what it can do for others.
That’s so open-hearted and brings us to that question of what poetry can do, for ourselves and for others. For me, there’s always an underlying niggle that my poems should do a useful thing in the world. I know that sounds a bit strange but I used to be an infant school teacher before I had the boys and then I felt very much that I was doing a job which was purposeful and made the world better, even in a very small way. Now my ‘work’ outside of the children is poetry, I can’t shake the feeling that that’s somehow indulgent if it doesn’t also have some positive, helpful effect. You used to work as a human rights lawyer so I wonder if this same anxiety about purpose and value concerns you too?
We’ve spoken before about our ‘other’ jobs. Like you I had an occupation where I was trained to put my skills into the service of the community. I was a human rights lawyer and I have always felt that overwhelming feeling that I wanted to be useful in some way. And of course now I write poems for a living and live in political and cultural conditions where a relatively small value is placed on the act. But I think this is a conflict that presents itself to most poets. I don’t know about you but I have tried (tried but not succeeded!) to square it all in this way; that the poet’s task has always been to provide a sort of counterweight, that poetry and poetic language are different, because we are involved in restlessly interrogating the language and lifting up those stones in the garden when most people look away. I like to think that the whole enterprise is necessarily a counterweight but that also poetry or song exists and flourishes in the most resistant soil for a reason. That and basic empathy of course, I think children get this intuitively, what poetry is for and its use and value . . .
Poetry or song exists and flourishes in the most resistant soil for a reason – that’s beautiful and very much around us at the moment, helped also by the way the internet can now send a poem around the world in an instant, help that poem to find people who need it, people who might not normally turn to poems. I was teaching some brilliant young women in Brum yesterday and we were looking at Tishani Doshi’s amazing performance of ‘Girls Are Coming Out of the Woods’ and how that poem seemed to speak so powerfully at just the moment it was needed, how it articulated and confronted so many things, beautifully and devastatingly, how it helped people to talk. The girls were from really varied inner-city backgrounds but all smart and engaged and many of them had come to poetry through the internet. There’s been a lot of chat of late about young women/poetry/internet/blah blah blah, hasn’t there? But I thought what a drier, poorer poetry world it would be without these clever, fiery (in their own words ‘bare deep’) girls coming in to keep it singing.
Yes I agree – and that Doshi poem has a sort of energy that stirs something in the body. But I’m still trying to get to the bottom of why the hell we write poems when everything in our logical brain tells us no! And all the conditions in our world make it nigh impossible?
Oh that question, why, is on my mind again this morning too. I’m at home trying to get some poems right and just can’t seem to finish them. I’ve been thinking a lot about the why. When I was a teacher I felt so strongly that I was doing a good and purposeful thing in the world. I knew that I helped little children and their families and did my best to pass on knowledge and, perhaps even more importantly, kindness and care. Poetry can sometimes seem very flimsy in the face of that and I’m always apologising for not going back to teaching after Tom was born and also feeling guilty for the time I take away from my children to make my own work. I think I justify it to myself by thinking about the small good things my poems might be able to do or have done – celebrating my undersung region and dialect, or for the motherhood poems, helping other moms to feel understood or less lonely. I think my poems are accessible (something which weirdly makes me feel quite inferior in the intellectual and academic poetry world sometimes) and so welcome general readers in rather than shut them out. But what of the poems and poets who make their work without concern for a wider audience or any audience at all? Is that some kind of purity of heart or just not caring? Should poetry and poets feel any kind of duty at all to the wider world, in terms of their work? Or does that belong to your life outside poetry?
I hear you . . . all these apologies! And I think female poets apologise most of all! Hardly surprising when you consider how difficult it has been for female poets and female experience to become the material of the poems. Yes – I can’t tell you how many times I have been asked ‘when are you going back to law’ aka your proper job! I have to say that when you travel abroad to the Indian Subcontinent and other parts of the world poetry has a very different sort of value (though that’s changing too). Working with words, making something from words and and then also listening carefully, opening up your ear to the lines and its connectivity to our bodies is understood in very different ways. But you know what I am astonished by Liz, that despite the very inhospitable conditions and soil, somehow poetry gets written and flourishes! That must surely tell us something? I honestly do feel that what we do is important. Language and truth are important and a poem is the perfect vehicle for telling the truth, it’s such a wondrous creature a poem, a little capsule for grief one moment or a little flint of anger or as you identify how they can dissolve loneliness . . . like your fearless poems around childbirth. You know that feeling when the atoms in your being shift when you hear a poetic line, what else can do that as truly as a poem?
Photographs © Lee Allen and Svetlana Cernenko