Making a poem Polly Clark
Interview by Colette Bryce
So many things in my life changed at once. I moved to the west coast of Scotland, a landscape completely alien to me, and I didn’t have any reason to be there apart from being married. Being married created a huge shift; my husband is very different from me – and quite a bit older – so, suddenly, I was in a new group.
Because I was only there as his wife, I started to think, ‘Who am I?’ I felt I had vanished, so a lot of the poems are dealing with that. You know, I am physically still here, people can see me, but…
I tried various things. I mutated into a country wife for a while and was trying to copy what the other country wives would do. I was neat and tidy and smiled at everyone. And then I thought, ‘This is how you turn into a Stepford wife, this is what happens!’ So I stopped doing that. But poets can be like that, they just engage with everything far too much, so whatever I was trying to do, I was going to do it properly. And then, when the baby came, I saw how you can disappear in a different way.
I’d read somewhere that if you have your head cut off, you remain conscious for several minutes after. That image was so awful, it haunted me for ages. The idea seemed to connect to the act of childbirth, that complete removal, separation, of the self.
The poem articulated perfectly what childbirth was like for me; it didn’t matter that it’s not necessarily a visible part of the poem. If people do think it’s about birth, they tend to think it’s the baby talking, which I suppose is less shocking. I didn’t think of it being the baby. In my own mind when I was writing it, it was me: I had been beheaded. It was very profound, the change in that moment.
It’s also about not being young any more. When you’re younger, there’s a certain amount of role-playing going on, flirting and such. But this role came so suddenly. I would say to my husband, ‘But this is my actual life! You know, we’re sitting here and I’m being a wife in the middle of nowhere, this is my actual life ticking away….It’s real!’ The book is a document of all this. It’s virtually chronological.
Looking back I think, ‘You’ve made this transition: it’s about becoming a woman, an adult. You feel quite sad about your former self, and see her as a separate thing. I don’t feel the same as that person who lived in Oxford. A woman came up to me after a reading and said, ‘Those poems are like epitaphs.’ She was right.
The house we live in needed a lot of work, and I discovered building. That made me feel a lot better. I’ve built a load of stuff – a carport and a patio. I transformed the space. You don’t realise how symbolic it is.
POLLY CLARK was born in Canada in 1968 but raised in the UK. She has won a string of writing competitions including scooping First Prize in the 2004 and 2005 Mslexia Poetry Competitions. Her second collection, Take Me With You (Bloodaxe, 2005) was a Poetry Book Society Choice and shortlisted for the TS Eliot Prize. Her new collection, Farewell My Lovely (Bloodaxe), was published in 2009. She reviews for The Guardian and runs the Fielding Programme for new writers in Scotland.
I hear perfectly: the thud onto linen, the strange gasp like the cry of a premature baby, just once and then silence.
And I see perfectly: how my lashes scratch the light, a hair glittering in shadow, the winded hollow
where my lips rest. I still have all my words. I move my mouth, like someone begging for water.
Fingers grab my hair and I soar high above my sad old body, slumped and tiny. Tears of pity for it fill my eyes.
They are tending it, the blank women in blue. They are washing it, as if they loved it.
Look, the people are cheering me, look, they are glad to see me, now that I’ve been removed without a single word of protest.
Bottom Drawer the book Jane Gardam never published
Jane’s latest book is The Man in the Wooden Hat (Chatto & Windus, £14.99)
I wrote poetry when I was a child. I hid it up the chimney in my bedroom – it was one of those old-fashioned grates. Then I got chicken pox and in my day they always lit a fire for you if you were poorly, so I was lying there covered in spots and the fire was roaring away and I remembered that my poems were up the chimney. I jumped out of bed and put my hand up the chimney, but they were gone.
I do still write poems now. I could say that I have poetry that I hope will one day be published. I don’t publish or try to publish them, not yet – I’m not sure they’re good enough. But I don’t
hide them up the chimney; they are very boringly in a filing cabinet.
The poems are much more personal than my novels; my novels are not about myself – I don’t write biography or autobiography in my novels, no, I don’t. The poems are about different aspects of my life. Certainly about the present moment.
I’m not a poet. I write poems when the light strikes, but I am very interested in poetry: I was talking with someone the other day about its popularity, and they said, ‘Well, you see, poetry is cool now.’ And it’s true – it is. We had a very good Poet Laureate
in Andrew Motion who started this poetry archive, a wonderful thing to have done. And now we’ve got Carol Ann Duffy – terrific, I think. Our first woman Poet Laureate.
I would like to have written a play. I’d love to be 20 years younger and just start writing for the stage. I love dialogue – my books are half dialogue. I think it’s a very good way for the novel to go in future, it’s good to mix and mingle forms of narrative, it keeps people alert. My play would be a comedy. I enjoy life’s comic moments – well, who doesn’t? There aren’t enough of them.
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22 | Mslexia.co.uk | Oct / Nov / Dec 09