Susan Wilson explores the creative space of poetry, writing through grief and loss, poetry as identity, and words as ‘the hope in brilliant darkness of a flame’.
Prior to January 2018, the last time I had written (or read) a poem was in 1976. When my mum died in November 2017, the Catholic priest who conducted her requiem mass suggested I keep a journal of my thoughts. I then met a gentleman at the Hospice who was a member of a grief writing group, and he showed me one of his poems. Shortly afterwards I wrote my first poem entitled Why Can’t I? It was the first of over 300 poems.
Maybe I was trying to make sense of the loss, but it felt as if a door had been flung open in my head. Some weeks I wrote 20 poems – on one Saturday morning I was writing five at once. The front room was full of post-it notes, and notepaper covered in shorthand to be transcribed. It felt urgent. I’d lost my identities (both professional and personal, ie my role as daughter and carer) and it seemed as if the poetry had come to create a new one. The first 250 poems I wrote were pure grief and loss. There is no doubt that writing poetry helped me through the darkest days after my mum died, and so in that sense it was a very personal endeavour, but when I shared my words with others they would tell me the poems had touched them too.
By mid-2018 the words were slowing down, and I felt a bit sad. Writing after a traumatic event like bereavement is not unusual, but normally that is as far as it goes – once the person feels better able to cope they stop writing. I wanted to continue. I didn’t want to lose what had come to comfort and support me so I kept on writing and when I couldn’t write, I prayed for inspiration. Without formal training I felt like a person coming in through the tradesman’s entrance rather than the front door, but I was in the building and I wanted to stay there. If I had something that could communicate to others, it gave me a purpose.
Now, over three years on, I’m doing my second Poetry Masterclass course at City Lit. I have continued writing. However, my ability still feels fragile, especially when I compare myself with other students who seem to write so much better than I do. I still feel very much like the “tradesman” – but I am also beginning to realise that everyone writes from their own place. This is mine.
I say that I write from my sub-conscious mind. I’m not the type of writer who can sit down and consciously “work” on a poem from scratch. Instead, I use the inspirational phrases that come through the open door in my head. Sometimes, when I am doing homework for the course, I’ll have an idea and I’ll ask my sub-conscious mind to go away and work on it and then come back. And it always does! (Usually when I’m lying the bath, sitting on the toilet or mopping the flat…) Walking also helps to bring more phrases through the door. There are always times when I sit and wait and nothing happens, and I worry that my sub-conscious mind has deserted poetry for something else, but the door still opens and I am managing to keep it open with a kind of door wedge. Writing poetry of any sort is a gift that I’m not sure you can really lose. I hope it’s improving with use but it’s like my face, I can’t see it and when I do (ie in the mirror), it’s the wrong way round so it’s not the real version. Even in a photo it’s not what you expect, is it?
One thing I have learned is that with poetry you can never be absolutely sure what transfers from your mind into the mind of your reader or listener. I have been submitting to various publications over the months with occasional success, and have learned that even editors don’t always know what they like until they read it. A reader will also pick things out from a poem that I had never seen – it touched me in one way when I was writing it, but it touched them in a different way when they were reading it. This is what encouraged me to continue writing in the first place – the fact that my words could touch someone else, even if I don’t know about it.
This whole experience can be summed up in a homework piece from my Masterclass called Ars Poetica: Poetry as a Grief Survival Tool. Its opening line is: “A most unlikely poet. Yet I am”. Yet I am indeed. And if I can get published, anybody can!
Ars Poetica: Poetry as a Grief Survival Tool
A most unlikely poet. Yet I am.
A sudden door, unlatched, let in the words,
interpreting an imagery so pure,
a channel for this linguist to receive.
The words were slow and quiet in the breeze
placed deep inside my head to draw a line.
Their meanings would emerge as time walked by
to help me make some sense of all the pain.
The touchpaper, the catching of the match,
the hope in brilliant darkness of a flame,
the weeping, wincing candles lit at speed,
in memory of lives I leave behind.
I feel creative space. Where is the wedge
to keep the door to inspiration wide?
I pray for an identity reborn
awaiting God’s voice, abstract like my art.
It teaches patience, writing my reward
in poetry purporting to be mine.
A most unlikely poet. Yes I am.
I’m picking up a pen to start again.
More recently, my poetry has changed. I worry sometimes that I’m not writing so well, that my early inspiration is wearing thin, but then I am changing as a person and poetry is a part of me, so I suppose it’s natural that I am writing differently. The following poems illustrate my journey. I believe them all to be some of the best poetry I’ve written, but in different ways. The Witness, for example, was written in September 2018, the witness being the door to my flat which had seen so much change and loss, while At Home With The Writer and My Open Reach are recent Masterclass poems that came from a very different place. Not necessarily better, just different.
Exhalation down to stillness is not death
for me, but a waiting without breath.
My shiny shadow stands within your glaze,
hard brushed and spyhole pierced in glossier days.
The years of changing furniture on floors,
’til care for her created other chores.
Reliable and solid we’re both here,
but yearnings for my past are ever near.
This sole reflecting image I maintain,
while others have crossed over I remain.
At Home with the Writer
Come in, sit down
have a read or a listen
decide what you like
leave when you want to
or just stay and stay.
There’s nothing ornate
no perfumed Earl Grey
no rich chocolate cake
no cryptic crossword –
I wouldn’t have a clue!
Relax in my clean lines
simple and open.
A space to be shared
because right now
I really need the company.
My Open Reach
I must have had at least eight engineers
and when they come I give them the history:
the flood, the dinghies, the submerged manholes,
that’s what rotted the copper wiring.
It’s all copper from the box to here.
Forget all this talk of full fibre broadband,
straight from the exchange to your door,
they call it ‘to the prem’ – I know all the jargon.
I’ve had ‘one leg dis’ – must be short for disappeared,
my phone line hopped it and left the broadband standing.
The broadband is narrower so it still gets through
and today it was another day, another engineer.
I expected something solid, like a hard back book
and then he came in looking like a pamphlet.
Funny spelling, Ben Shephard, must have been an error,
good spelling’s more like a luxury these days
and as for grammar – don’t mention that apostrophe!
So I gave him the history and that added a few more pages.
It was his first time here and I know so many –
there are 56 engineers for this area alone.
I showed him my new hub, my new socket on the wall
and the box and the manholes where they changed all my copper.
I’ve knelt beside those manholes, I like to have a rapport,
should be an engineer – some old girl climbing a pole.
All okay but he fitted a better socket – we’ll see.
Then some lavender disinfectant for a quick mop around.
I used it for my mum’s commode because she loved the smell.
Hard to find now. That smell of comfort and protection.
It’s the closest I can get to her, since she’s been gone.
I don’t want to be an expert on corroded copper wiring,
I want to be a poet reaching my mum with my words
and to be writing something much more interesting than this.
Feature image: The Pink Door by Georges Valmier, 1927 (fair use).