Family affairs and other stories. With Laura Potts, and a Polished Gem: Rebecca Gethin

Putting together a post some weeks ago about ‘Sequences’ (thank you, Pascale Petit, Keith Hutson and Steve Ely) I said something on the lines that we could all write sequences about our own families, and that many of us do. I discover photos that were stuck in envelopes among my grandma’s effects in a desk I inherited. I know that her dad was a coachman, that she started work in a mill before she was 8, that her husband John had been a travelling asphalter ( among other things). I look  at these photos, and wonder if John is one of the gang of lads working on that pier, wherever it might be, or if my great-grandfather is in this group on the steps of what seems to be a grand house. We  tap in to the natural curiosity that drives TV programmes like ‘Who do you think you are?’ in which folk with varying degrees of celebrity discover, with what sometimes feels like theatrical distress, that folk they never knew were criminals, or were incarcerated in asylums, or were bigamists, or…well, you know the kind of thing. Programmes like this have no time for quotidian lives, ordinary lives, not liking to face up the the truth that there’s no such thing as ‘ordinary’, or recognising the truth of what Norman MacCaig spelled out

“how ordinary

extraordinary things are or

how extraordinary ordinary

things are, like the nature of the mind

and the process of observing.”

An ordinary day [1964]

 

We’ve got two guests today who demonstrate exactly what he was getting at. Laura Potts, first. I went to a reading at The Beehive Inn in Bradford a few months ago, when Laura, in introduction to one of her poems, said something about an unnerving discovery she made while exploring her NE roots. I asked her to write about it for the cobweb. And I’m delighted to say that she did.

Newcastle in the 1800's (10)

” I come from an unknown people.

Grandparents gone, siblingless parents, and none of my own. No cousins or uncles to speak of. That old, lost and probably long-dead aunt in the highlands or even entirely off this island ceased to be named years ago. It is a stranded existence to live in a city without ties at all. We were dropped here and everyone fled.

Stranded, maybe, but free too. I have never been bound by the figures and facts of family, or a history which is true and absolute. Doubt and endless hope have been the impetus behind my work. The sheer not knowing, and the search to find a past in which truth will always elude me, have formed the stimuli to write. That past can take a thousand forms and speak in countless tongues. Few photographs exist. It is a vacuum which promises endless creation, and I know nothing else that burns so brightly.

So how does the becoming begin? In this void, without the touchstone of truth (if such a thing even exists), from where does the narrative come? The process is threefold: observation, instinct and artefact.

Living between the same two people for my twenty-one years, I have come to see them as the only living gateways to my past. They think therefore they are much more than single sets of DNA, and for the last few years my end has been to study them intensely: from simple physicalities to interacting with the world around them, my parents are the opposite of ‘whole’ or ‘structured’ bodies. In sudden mood switches and changes of heart, in moments of pain or startling danger, and in their convergence/divergence from the different dogmas which move around them I find the fragments of many people. Even in the slightest idiosyncrasies and facial quirks I see the sparks of bygone lives. They may now embody two very different forms, but they live nonetheless.

Some may call this ‘people-watching’, and it is a process I find even more difficult to apply to myself. ‘Instinct’ is the rough word I give to self-appraisal and contemplation. Simply, this is the process of asking yourself how you might react in a given situation. When I have written of the past – of a dockland prostitute, of a grieving mother, of a cheated wife – I have taken long days to let the scene clot and grow in the subconscious mind before writing. Usually, this is a protracted period of pain and a series of feelings I have rarely felt before. I usually also find that this is where the structure of a piece might evolve: painful contemplation often produces a fragmented structure without regular rhyme or meter, for example. Often this is a time of pleasure-pain: as an intensely private person, long and lonely contemplation is more cathartic than anything else, but can also give the ‘thousand shocks’ of sadness.

And finally, much of writing is reading and I will always believe that the best writers are the best readers. Where else to find the life of art than in the living, breathing world outside? This is the ‘artefact’: the hours of reading and headached research that goes into each poem I write. This is never just art for art’s sake: my work has always been a historicist endeavour. Contemporaneous and secondary sources, from paintings and poems to historical and legal documents, are always at hand if you look long enough. True, I have few family photographs of my own. But that does not mean I cannot find those out there that do. There are endless resources right at your fingers: The British Library, The Oxford English Dictionary, The Carlyle Letters Online, Literary Manuscripts at The Brotherton Library (Leeds University), Vogue Archive, Project MUSE, The Times Digital Archive, Victorian Popular Culture, 19th Century British Newspapers… I could go on. But if (as unfortunate as the thought may be) I am going to take my place in Eliot’s ‘Great Tradition’, then I am going to do it knowing exactly what that Tradition is. And where I would like to be.

This should see me right.”

 

And so it should. It caught me off-balance, that flatly stated fact of felt dispossession. It caught my breath because I come from a big extended family full of cousins and aunts, who all, it seemed, told stories about the family. There were gaps and mistellings, and downright untruths. But, a lot of stories that somehow I belonged with. I had to read this more than once:

Grandparents gone, siblingless parents, and none of my own. No cousins or uncles to speak of. That old, lost and probably long-dead aunt in the highlands or even entirely off this island ceased to be named years ago. It is a stranded existence to live in a city without ties at all. We were dropped here and everyone fled.”

At the same time, I’m excited by Laura’s manifesto:

“But if (as unfortunate as the thought may be) I am going to take my place in Eliot’s ‘Great Tradition’, then I am going to do it knowing exactly what that Tradition is. And where I would like to be.”

What it’s made me think of is that argument thread on Facebook recently….the one about ‘writing what you know’. Laura reminds me that the best poetry comes out of writing from what you know into the unknown, the stuff you want to know, the stuff that helps you define your identity, the stuff that you don’t ‘know’ until you find what it is by writing it.

Which brings us to our guest poet for today. I’d ‘discovered’ Rebecca Gethin via Kim Moore’s wonderful blog The Sunday Poem’ and then finally met her this summer at the Lewes Poetry Festival, where she read from a new collection of poems All the Time in the World based on her discovery of a bundle of her mother’s letters, and from that, via her poems, the discovery of a mother she didn’t have enough time to know.  Rebecca Gethin’s mother died of cancer at the tragically early age of thirty-two, leaving two very young children. These poems are the poet’s response to the letters that her mother wrote when she was dying, which have only recently come to light. And here’s Rebecca to tell us about the process of that discovery.

All the Time in the World was written in one month while I was on a retreat at Hawthornden Castle.  If I hadn’t had that concentrated amount of time on my own to think and reflect and with no domesticities to do I’d never had written it.  I needed to enter into and stay attentive to that space in my head and heart.  The ordinary interruptions of life would have made this impossible.

Only two years before, I’d been given a small envelope of frail and flimsy letters written by my mother to her sister and her mother as she lay dying in hospital (60 years before).  A cousin found them in an attic. Before that I had never seen her handwriting so seeing her script gave me a massive shock in my heart.  It was as if her handwriting conveyed her voice to me.  The few scraps of letters answered a few questions and provoked more unanswerable questions.  I had actually put them away because it was all too much to take in.  But something made me pack them when I was leaving to go to Hawthornden as I did feel I wanted to write a poem or two about them and I was worried about running out of subject matter while I was there and this was to be my emergency fall-back kit.

As soon as I got there I read the letters many times and began to know them off by heart. I’d use her own phrases to start me off on a line of thinking which I’d write about.  There was no date order so I couldn’t be sure of chronology and I guessed that.  I deliberately cut out too much poetic technique as I wanted to stay as close to the experience as possible and not be distanced by metaphor, simile, rhyme.  One or two poems turned into a short sequence which morphed into more and yet more.  I wasn’t sure if any of them were any good and as I was determined to write at least one good one, I just kept going.  They were short on the whole, little flames of thought and feeling that came in response to her words. I wanted to bring her back to life for myself and leave out myself right out of it.  Over a period of time I began to think she was with me and, in fact, had been so all my life but I hadn’t noticed.  (I have no faith although she had bucketloads. )  I walked every afternoon and she came with me, just a comfortable presence. I remember wondering if I became her!

Along the way, I made discoveries, things like her doctor sister must have been asked to give her the bad news that she had a cancer which was terminal.  And I realised I remembered an incident she mentioned: my last visit to her in hospital although I didn’t know it was the last (so 2 year olds do remember things). They kept things from children in those days and I hadn’t a clue what was going on.  Strangely, I also remembered a perfectly ordinary bathtime and I wondered why. So that is also in the booklet but not strictly speaking part of the letters (okay, so I do sneak in now and then).

With growing excitement, I discovered I might have enough for a whole pamphlet so started shuffling papers around even though some of the poems seemed so incredibly small.  My confidence often left me however.  Even so, I decided on the order while I was in my bubble at Hawthornden where there was plenty of space to lay the poems out and I read them over and over again and found an inner logic. I thought that if I were writing a narrative I might well move the sections around to create suspense or mystery so I used what I had learned from novel writing. The title came from a phrase in a letter.

When I returned home I tried to edit them but found that having left the bubble I couldn’t fiddle with any of them apart from a little punctuation here and there: it felt like sacrilege. I tried to check on my ordering but it was fixed already and wouldn’t be altered. Helena Nelson read them and gave me a huge amount of encouragement for which I am very grateful.  But the title suddenly didn’t seem usable as there were at least two other books with that title and it was, I thought, a bit of a cliché.  But nothing else fitted half so well….

I never submitted any of the poems to magazines as I felt it was all one long poem and they stood or fell on their own.  And I also knew they weren’t to be a section in a collection. All together and separate or nothing.

all the time in the world

So there they are. I was astonished when Cinnamon Press published them and with the title ‘All the Time in the World’ (none of the other books of that title were poetry) and have been even more so when people say how touched they have been by something about my mother. It’s almost as if I am not there. ”

You can read a fine review of All the time in the world by following this link. https://thebelatedwriter.wordpress.com/2017/05/01/all-the-time-in-the-world-by-rebecca-gethin/#comment-232

And then you can buy it. In the meantime, you can ponder on the notion of a writer wanting to leave herself ‘right out of it’. The more I think on that, the more I want to emulate it. But it’s time for poems.

Frugality   

 

She likes to be of use, so in her hospital bed,

my mother is darning socks with fine wool.

With the needle she draws the yarn over

and under her warp thread without causing

a pucker, checking the tension to mesh a flat disc

across the hole. Smooth as an obol.

By the time each is done, she’ll have touched

the yarn all along its length as it moved through her hand,

felt its spring and bounce.   But before she finishes

her supply (there’s still two ounces left)

she asks her mother to bring in more wool

of the same colour so she can keep mending

enough socks to last.

 

Just like her –

 

She could read a book

do crosswords

or paint her nails

but she prefers to work.

So, on the subject of mending socks,

she writes I’ve all the time in the world.

 

I wonder if we have to wait to reach an age age where we can really imagine our parents. I think this is even more poignant because the actual memories stop when this poet is two years old, and what she brings to the ‘invented’ memory is an actual tactile, spatial, kinetic memory of the deft handling of yarns and needles. You really can’t write what you don’t know. Not well, that is.  What I love is the way the first poem turns on a phrase that’s right and surprising simultaneously:  Smooth as an obol. It carries the weight of practised ritual and ceremony, and anchors the apparently simple detail of what it is to darn a sock. I love that reflection that

By the time each is done, she’ll have touched

the yarn all along its length as it moved through her hand,

so that the wool keeps a memory of the hand, and the hand of the wool, the loving connection that underlies the understatement of having enough socks to last. To last for whom? we need to be asking. What will remain of us is love. That’s what outlasts the socks, the wool, the woman in the bed. This, it seems to me, is what gives the second poem its heft as a coda, and makes its last line so moving, so resonant. It lives in the same world as Eliot’s ‘these fragments I have shored against my ruins’ but makes them more real.

a-sprig-of-rowan

Two more poems now, the first from A sprig of rowan.

 

Apparition 

 

A wraith of the darkness drifted

down the twist of path ahead and hardly

was there time to believe it,

when it re-appeared

in a fluster of wings, tumbling

from between the trees and out

into the sunshine of open field –

nacreous, tinted with gold –

as if haunting the day

to hunt for the dusk it had lost.

 

It’s such a delicate-seeming poem, this, that if you only read it with your eyes, you might miss, at first, the the sheer frantic baffled energy of it, this bird, this owl (I suppose. It’s an apparition. It’s not named or identified),that belies it’s ‘wraith’ness, that twists and tumbles, flusters, haunts and hunts. I like the way the verbs get elided in the poem’s breathless moment, this thing that happens to fast and puzzlingly. And I like the way that the surprising word ‘nacreous’ sits naturally as does the ‘obol’ of the darning poem. I like the craft of it that doesn’t announce itself. But read it aloud, and try to figure out how fast or slow it needs to be. I like that. I like poems that make me look again at things… like birds that I imagine I know because they come into my garden, and because my dad was a birdwatcher. The thing that matters though is ‘this’ bird. ‘This’ moment. It’s in the same tradition as Hopkins’ Windhover. It’s what this last poem does

Blue

 

The colour of sky and sunlight

he acrobats

among the tree tops,

 

or with head on one side

he sometimes considers

the abracadabra

 

of the high twigs

where he splits open a seed

or spin-twizzles

 

a caterpillar

like a strand of spaghetti

and as he skitters

 

out of sight, you wonder

how his goblin wings

grew from the yolk of an egg.

 

 (published in The Broadsheet, 2016)

So that’s where we’ll leave you. Wondering. Thank you so much, Rebecca Gethin and thank you Laura Potts. I’ve had a great time writing this, this afternoon. I don’t invariably feel like that. I’ll leave more details about both at the end of the post, and then go and make something that’ll be good to eat at the end of a proper cold November Sunday. I’m not sure about the timetable for the next few weeks, but I’m pretty sure I can promise you a proper Advent sequence and also the celebration of a significant number. Thanks for your company.

 

Rebecca Gethin  won the Cinnamon Press Novel Writing Award with her first novel, Liar Dice, which was published in 2011. Her first poetry collection, River is the Plural of Rain, was published by Oversteps Books in 2009 and was followed by a second collection, A Handful of Water, with Cinnamon Press in 2013. What the Horses Heard is her latest novel and was published in May 2014. Her two latest collections are A Sprig of Rowan  [Three Drops Press], and All the time in the world  [ published in Feb 2017 :Cinnamon Press]

 

 

Wakefield-based Laura Potts was recently chosen from thousands of applicants to become one of the BBC’s Verb New Voices for 2017. The award, which includes a £2,000 bursary, expert mentoring and development support, will enable her to create a collection of poems Sweet The Mourning Dew. The poems will explore the nature of grief and examine the experiences of ordinary people living with loss as a result of war.

She was twice named a Foyle Young Poet of the Year and in 2013 became an Arts Council Northern Voices poet and Lieder Poet at the University of Leeds.

She appeared at Wakefield Literature Festival with Linton Kwesi Johnson and on  BBC’s Contains Strong Language Festival in Hull in September  and at Ilkley Literature Festival, in October

She is currently interviewing people in the north of England as part of her research. She will then be selecting around six stories to work from and is looking forward to getting started on the new poems which will be broadcast on Radio 3. “Writing is what keeps me going,” she says. “It is the reason I wake up in the morning.”

And she’s 22. Think on that.

 

 

 

 

2 thoughts on “Family affairs and other stories. With Laura Potts, and a Polished Gem: Rebecca Gethin

  1. Dear John,

    What an inspirational read. I’ve been following the Cobweb for a while and get so much from it. This one especially struck a chord. Thank you!

    Regina

    Like

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