Photo credit: Carly Etherington | Interview by Zoë Brigley
My poet mind is far wiser than I am. It takes me awhile to catch up with it.
Each Morning, New Leaves
‘Dear Forgiveness, you know that recently/ we have had our difficulties and there are many
things/ I want to ask you’ from ‘Litany in Which Certain Things Are Crossed Out’ by Richard
There are so many things left to say. Every morning I wake up with the word, Dear..../ and then words stick in my throat—even your name I cannot say. Forgiveness/ is a feeling: you can't force it or you'll be forever playing catch-up. It's what you/ demand, as if I can undo the past for you. All those arguments, me wanting, when I know/ even now, you're not willing to own it. We sat in a counsellor's room talking this, then that/ but mostly knowing it was over, irretrievable. But it's only recently/ after letting it sink into a pattern of not telling you my thoughts that we/ have stopped dancing. The red shoes still sit in my mind, on waking I have/ the rhythm like a tattoo behind my eyes but I can see now it's as if I had/ an illness. Our life together, the way we lost ourselves to the idea of an 'our'/ was a dis-ease. So now, in the middle of what can seem insurmountable difficulties/ my back is straighter and neighbours have stopped calling me your shadow and/ even though everything is hard from getting out of bed in the morning, there/ is an indescribable bubble starting to rise from my inside and I think it's me. There are/ so many things about me that I don't know. And of the many/ I wonder, if deep down, I couldn't bear the idea of all the things/ I'd lost: the box of many sorrows, waiting for Courage to knock at the door. I/ with the biggest lie on my tongue, believing I could recognise the patterns. Want/ with its jackboots when it should be barefoot drawing minerals from the ground. To/ be here now, on my knees, is peace at last. There's nothing from you I need to ask. / The box is open. Everything I need to say now is not about you. //
This is a very moving poem and the epigraph signals to us that it is about forgiveness. Do you often use epigraphs and could you tell us something about their usefulness?
I use epigraphs fairly often, and for different reasons. My poem may be a homage, response or a challenge to the one cited. Or it will borrow a phrase or the structure from that poem. In this poem, I’ve used the epigraph quotation as part of a ‘golden shovel’ form, so each word of the quote is the end word of each line in my poem. So my poem writes inside this quote, towards and away from it. I am responding to and challenging the original poem. And the ‘I’ in that poem can then stand in for the ‘other’ in my poem.
I found Richard Siken’s poem on the Poetry Foundation website during the first year after an acrimonious breakup and it spoke to me. It wasn’t that his ‘I’ was exactly like my ex, but that there’s a commonality of emotional landscape after a difficult break up. I was also listening (somewhat obsessively) to Gotye’s Somebody I used to Know which features Kimbra who, in the second half of the song, gives a different perspective on the breakup to the one sung by Gotye in the first half. I wanted to work with the idea of a call and response in this poem, so using the epigraph made that part of the structure of my poem.
In Siken’s poem, the ‘I’ is making a poor attempt to apologise whilst simultaneously trying to wriggle out of taking responsibility by trying to blame the other person in a long internal monologue. The part I’ve quoted comes towards the end of this poem when perhaps the ‘I’ is recognising that they will not be able to talk to the ex directly and therefore has to come to some sort of independent resolution with ‘Forgiveness’… of the other person, and of themself, too. This moment passes immediately and the ‘I’ tries to order ‘Forgiveness’ to sit down at the table, which infers why the other half of this relationship might have stopped talking to them and why the ‘I’ is stuck with their own mirror image.
In my poem, the ‘I’ is talking both to the ex and to the concept of ‘Forgiveness’ too. ‘Our’ is given air quotes which are not in the source poem. The ‘I’ in my poem is making it clear that the relationship with the ex and with Forgiveness has been resolved for her. She has moved on with her new life and she’s undoing the process of addressing and interacting with the ‘other’ and making it clear that the issues remaining with Forgiveness are no longer hers to resolve. She has made her peace with ‘Forgiveness’ and with herself. The poem shows that process which is within the context of the ‘other’s’ framework but which, by the end of the poem puts a very emphatic stop to the other’s framing.
The title of my poem Each Morning, New Leaves is also a re-visioning of the opening to Siken’s poem when he opens with:
‘Every morning the maple leaves.Richard Siken, Litany in Which Certain Things Are Crossed Out
Every morning another chapter where the hero shifts
from one foot to the other’
I liked the idea of taking the opening and using to suggest a new beginning, rather than an endless rehashing of the old conversations.
The slash at the end of the line has an interesting effect. What inspired that?
This started as an accident. I’m a member of a Poem a Day group which has a closed group on Facebook. Each day we post a new poem and Facebook’s settings often mess up the formatting. Because the lines in the poem are long, each line was being truncated and so the last part of the line was appearing as a following shorter line. This made it difficult to show it was a golden shovel so I added the slashes to make that clearer. They were meant to be temporary.
When I came to edit the poem later, restored to the proper line length, I realised that the slashes were adding a lot of meaning to the poem. I’d been using slashes, dashes and asterisks in other poems I was working on, so I was able to slow myself down enough to interrogate what was happening with the slashes here. I realised the ‘she’ of this poem was chopping up the words used by the ‘I’ in the first poem… dissecting them so that they became manageable; or like she was decisively not allowing the usually fluency of the speaker who had had such a hold over her. I added a double slash at the end after ‘you’ to emphasis that sense of decisive clarity of an ending for her.
My poem is also navigating between conventional poetry form and prose poetry and slashes are often used in that form. I wanted to highlight that her thinking is discursive, like prose, but that she’s also structuring poetically… that there are three-dimensional, imagistic, metaphorical and meta-levels of meaning working through the poem. We often think things through in our own minds, having internal conversations but everything we are saying to ourselves is steeped in connotation, personal history and meaning-webs. Chopping the end of the lines is the way she is stopping a habit of thoughts going round and round in her head, trapped in a box. So the slashes are ends but they’re also doors that can open out of the relationship and out of her internalised situation too.
When I realised the slashes were working so well for this poem, I actually got up and started drumming a beat on my table with some cutlery at the end of the lines as I read the poem out loud. I used to be a drummer and slashes have a musical meaning there too.
I enjoy in this poem how you write in an almost private language which we know has great significance for the speaker and the person they address. How difficult was it to capture both the intimacy and estrangement that happens when breaking up with someone?
The difficulty wasn’t in the writing of the poem. The difficulty was in the emotional work which led up to the understanding that underpins it and not getting in the way of that to ‘write a poem’. I have tricks that work for me which seem very counter-intuitive. Whilst I’m writing this kind of poem, I distract myself. I answer emails and messages, look up definitions of words whilst in the middle of writing a line, accept interruptions from my children, make a cup of tea or bring in the washing etc. Then, without consciously thinking about it, I continue from where I left off. My back-brain does the work. So, ironically, I have to have a level of self-estrangement in order to write about my own intimate feelings without the noise of my own critical voice or grandiose expectations. To be vulnerable, I have to silence my own reasoning protective shields. This was especially true when writing about a relationship within which I had lost so much of myself and yet expressing things that I’d no longer be willing to actually express to the ‘other’ person.
At that time, I was processing a lot of difficult emotions, trying to make boundaries with my ex, having therapy, re-connecting with friends, interacting with neighbours, spilling personal information onto random strangers etc. Everything was messy. Writing poems was one of the ways I made sense of everything. My poet mind is far wiser than I am. It takes me awhile to catch up with it.
If I’d consciously tried to capture intimacy and estrangement, I don’t believe I could have done it. Most of the poem came as a first draft. I was in the process of re-integrating old parts of myself and, around the time I was writing this, I was listening to music I’d listened to before the relationship and I can see that bits of those seeped into the poem with old stories, poems and psychology books I’d read when I was younger and that I was allowing myself to re-dis-cover.
Most of the poem came to me through spontaneous writing to each end word, which I’d already right-justified in a word doc. I stopped myself, at one point, to rifle through an earlier unsuccessful poem and used a half line from that. Then I spent some time over the next few weeks tidying, texturing, looking for echoes and resonances within the poem.
When I look at the poem now, I can see myself then as if I was waking up after a very long sleep and dusting off old connotations and decorating my newly single room with them. It’s very much a poem of a particular time in my life. I put the poem away for years because I didn’t want to share it until it was no longer how I felt. So this is the first time I submitted it anywhere.
Hannah Linden won the Cafe Writers Open Poetry Competition 2021 and was Highly Commended in the Wales Poetry Award 2021. Her debut pamphlet, The Beautiful Open Sky, was published 2022 by V. Press. She is working towards her first collection.
You can find her on Twitter @hannahl1n and Instagram @hannahlindenpoet
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