Baring all – writing poems about breast cancer

There are three sequences of poems in Wristwatch, and the central sequence, Risky breasts, contains sixteen poems about my treatment for breast cancer in 2013-14. As I’ve written elsewhere, my cancer diagnosis followed the death of my late partner Morag with brutal speed. I was reeling.

Some of these poems were written at the time. I’m a compulsive journal-keeper, so I was writing daily for my own sanity and this spilled into my creative writing. I realised I wanted to write honest, unsentimental poems about what was happening to me and how I was changed by it. I was too feeble to do much else. So I wrote about waiting for pathology results, about guidewire insertion, my first chemo, hair loss, anaphylactic shock, hormone treatment – and all the long hours in-between. It proved to be strangely uplifting. That was the unexpected thing about incapacitating illness. I came to appreciate the simplest things. The title poem of the collection, Wristwatch, is about exactly that.

I honed these poems in the months of recovery that followed. I wrote other poems long after treatment ended, drawing on my diaries and also my changing perspective as time passed.

I know some people must think “But don’t you want to just put all that behind you? Why keep raking it up?” Ah, I’m one of those people who works things out by writing. And I wanted to transmute this awful, rich experience into something else. To quote Audre Lorde, whose Cancer Journals were an inspiration to me during treatment, “I had known the pain and survived it. It only remained for me to give it voice, to share it for use, that the pain not be wasted.”

As I prepared the sequence for publication, I realised these poems are simultaneously mine, of me, and a sign I have achieved some detachment from that terrible, revelatory time. Although I wish these things had never happened, I would never want to unknow what I learned. I want to retain this knowledge, the insights I gained. After all, one day I may well find myself in treatment again.

 

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