On Becoming a Poet
The first contemporary poet I read was Jackie Kay. It was her collection, The Adoption Papers, which spoke to me. I should say that I wasn’t adopted, that’s not the reason, although quite a lot of the time I wished, fervently, that I had been. I was always a bit of a round peg in a square hole for most things, especially in school where I was okay at most school subjects but shocking at PE and dreadful with languages. Let’s not even mention maths. However, I excelled in English.
The only poetry in my life was the poetry taught in school. I felt my heart turn for the war poets, Owen and Brooke, but their lives and their themes were so far away from my life that there was no connection. There was no introduction to contemporary poetry, and certainly very little free verse. I never imagined that anything that wasn’t rhymed or metrical could be poetry, and I didn’t understand any of the forms except the sonnet which I tried to make beautiful with awful archaic language and flourishes because the only sonnets I had read were those by Shakespeare. I started writing rhymed, tortured pieces of poetry that twisted themselves into knots to fit a meter which I imposed religiously using syllables as a means to count the beats. I went on writing like this for years, through bad relationships, personal crises and eventually my current marriage. I wrote a poem for our wedding day in 2003 that, although rhymed with bludgeoned obviousness and metered and twisted, was actually not bad. Years of practice had allowed me to feel a degree of freedom with imagery, simile and metaphor. It’s just a pity I was beating it half to death with my imposed meter. My life was uneventful and my writing was too.
Then I had a mental breakdown. It was a proper breakdown. My husband and I had been trying to conceive our first child for years and had eventually been told we would not conceive naturally. It was like my world had been turned inside out, that the whole life I had planned had gone in a blink. I felt like an idiot for believing that we would get pregnant. I became so depressed that I wanted to die. I was waking up and wishing I hadn’t. And I was disappearing. Bit by bit. I had kept diaries and journals since I was nine and my journals now became somewhere dark where I wrote about death and my desire for it. I have always written compulsively, I can’t stop, but at this time it became something more.
I found, being so unwell, that my concentration had completely gone. It meant I couldn’t read novels any more. I felt useless, even my reading pleasure was gone. And it was then that I remembered poetry, the war poets at school and I went searching for poetry in the library. I came home with, I think, five collections: Jackie Kay, Paul Muldoon, Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and Dylan Thomas. And it was as if I had been washed up onto an island where the inhabitants spoke my language. I read Plath’s Ariel with my breath caught in my chest; Hughes’s description of death and life rang through me when I went back to my journal. And Jackie Kay had planted the idea in my head that I could write about the personal, I could write about myself in this new way, this free verse where lines broke naturally and the power was in the images and the metaphor and the simile and the brutal truth. It was like my pen came out of a cage when I started to write again. I wrote a huge amount of free verse crap but amongst all this were little nuggets of good poetry. I began to study the poems of others to understand how they were injecting the power into their pieces and, to help me, I joined a creative writing website where work could be shared. After that I started writing in structured forms; I wanted to learn all the tools and the rules so that I could break them with confidence.
I met people on the site who have become real life physical friends. In 2008/9 I worked up the courage to submit my first poem to a literary journal. I think if it had been rejected that first time, I might have stopped there and then. But it wasn’t. Acumen accepted my poem and even paid me for it. I had a little seed of confidence and I wanted to be a writer. I have not looked back.
I went on to be published in various different journals and magazines. I also decided that I wanted to do an English Literature degree with the Open University, which I have just completed, and somewhere in the middle of all this we had our first cycle of IVF which was successful. And it would have been a beautifully happy ending, except that our beautiful, precious daughter, Matilda Rose was stillborn in April 2010 after complications in the third trimester. Again, I thought I would die from the pain. But I didn’t. Instead, I used all those tools and I wrote – I wrote about my daughter, about grief and I found an alter ego, Nan Hardwick, to speak for me. Nan was a witch, she became my channel, she dealt with pain through magic, she did things I wanted to do but couldn’t. I started putting a pamphlet of poems together, I explored grief through the eyes of others, found love and a little hope among the debris of my daughter’s death and suddenly, in 2011, Prolebooks were publishing my little pamphlet, Nan Hardwicke Turns into a Hare, and it was being reviewed in the Times Literary Supplement. I had found my place in the world and I had made sure that my daughter would be remembered, always.
In 2013/14 my first full poetry collection, Museum Pieces, also published by Prolebooks, went to print and is selling well and gaining very favourable reviews. It’s a work that I am immensely proud of and I am forever grateful to Prolebooks for taking the chance with an emerging writer.
Right now I am working my way towards another collection, just ideas at the minute but I want to write something about the North, about bread and tea, about Viking place names and the way industrial towns sit beneath the beauty of the moors; about the North sea, about rain and about the dialects and hard love that is the North. Of course, my daughter will be in it, my husband will be in it, love and death and life will factor, always. I am writing my story over and over and I want to continue writing it as long as I can hold a pen. This is my place.
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