“Tamoxifen 20mg tablets”  – a poem about a common hormone treatment for breast cancer.

It’s ten years since I was diagnosed with breast cancer in Edinburgh’s Western General Hospital (sitting in the hessian chair mentioned below). It’s a big anniversary – I’ve been up and down emotionally as a result – but I was buoyed this weekend by a reunion of the good friends I made in an online forum for those who started chemo in June 2013. Eleven of us met in Cambridge, and it was celebratory, sad, defiant – many of us are still living with the aftereffects of our treatment – but we are alive, and having lost some dear friends, we know that is the main thing.

I’ve been taking Tamoxifen for almost ten years, too. My side effects have been tolerable. When I wrote this poem, it was still early days; at time of first publication in Wristwatch the number of pills I’d taken was a mere 500. When I perform this poem at readings, I always update the number – and I’ve done the same here.

Tamoxifen 20mg tablets
(Take one daily for ten years.)

3,285 of you down the hatch so far — 
I pop you from green film,
oval crevice on one side
inscrutable as a cat’s iris.

I no longer read your potential, 
spelled out in minuscule print, 
and folded into every box. 
I know well what you do to me:  

skin thins, cracks; the hot seethe
rises through me exactly like terror 
of hospital ceilings, the doctor’s serious face, 
the box of tissues, the worn hessian chair. 

© Jay Whittaker. All rights reserved.

Jay at the Hidden Door Festival, Edinburgh

I’m thrilled to be part of the 2023 Hidden Door. Hidden Door is a volunteer-run charity that opens up forgotten urban spaces for the public to explore and discover incredible music, art, theatre, film, dance, spoken word and more. Their festivals reveal hidden parts of Edinburgh and showcase new and emerging artists, musicians, theatre and film makers.

Hidden Door  will be back from 31 May – 4 June 2023, transforming the former Scottish Widows office complex on Dalkeith Road for a five-day spectacular event more immersive and atmospheric than any Hidden Door so far. (Which is saying something – I remember the excitement of first being inside Leith Theatre!)

This year’s event is themed around Environments, and the whole programme is looking very exciting indeed. I’m creating a set tailored for Hidden Door, which will include poems about LGBTQ+ life as experienced by this middle aged queer cis woman,  about Edinburgh as an environment in its own right, about environmental issues through the prism of the minutae of everyday life and the other creatures that live alongside us. I’ll also be performing new work about office life, informed by my recent switch from office-bound employment to becoming a freelance writer.

Tickets available here.

A writing process (around the edges of a day job)

Writing in a blank notebook with a roller ball pen

From the archives … I’m sharing a guest blog by me on my writing process as it was when I worked a busy day job. Actually, my process remains much the same now I’m a full time writer – but there are fewer competing demands on my time, attention and energy.

This piece was originally written for and shared via the Kith newsletter. Kith is the holistic writing community hosted by Jan Fortune, the founder of Cinnamon Press.

Circling back

It’s a winter morning in south-east Scotland, at the cusp of daybreak. I’m watching the shape of the hill gain definition against a steel sky. I’ve been writing for an hour or so already, nudged awake by moonlight.

My urge to write is fierce at this time of day. Which is fortunate – I’m a poet who has an unpoetic day job, and I’ve learned to be bloody-minded about carving out enough space in my life for creativity. I’ve evolved a way to make sure I spend a little time on all parts of my poetry writing process, and so I keep trundling forward.

My foundation is (of course) the generation of raw material. Space and time dedicated to freewriting, reverie, noodling, dreaming, watching how the sunrise plays on fallen leaves, how sunset stains the sky, and cricking my neck to watch stars and space hardware. I sit with a notebook and just write – filling pages of notebooks with screeds of utter rubbish. Except … here’s a glowing ember. I grab that word or phrase, and I write into it.

The second stage, where I review and edit this raw writing, has a completely different energy. I read my notebook with a critical eye, sifting for some spark, anything I can push further. I transcribe longhand, type up, edit, print out and scrawl further edits by hand. Sometimes this stage is repeated multiple times. I have been known to reverse-engineer a poem by re-transcribing it from my laptop back into my notebook longhand. I’ve learned not to overthink and to leave a gap on the page (at least overnight, sometimes longer). Something usually occurs to me when I return.

These iterations can take hours, days, sometimes months. I work in pulses – an intense phase (often focused on a deadline, perhaps a submission window, or a date in the diary when I’ve promised to share work with others). The fallow is also key, like leaving dough to prove, or waiting for compost.

This is also the time to fact check and research, to dip into the dictionary and thesaurus, my trusty writing companions. It suits a short break over a coffee, though it can just as easily engulf an afternoon.

Eventually I begin to let the poem into the world. To understand the sound world and music of a poem, its mouthfeel, it’s essential to read it aloud. Reading aloud to others reveals even more – reactions are crucial to understanding further changes the poem might need. What’s missing, what’s unclear? I’m a member of a poetry collective in Edinburgh, and we regularly read and critique each others’ poems. Grabbing an open mic spot at a spoken word event is another place to air almost-ready pieces, if that’s a space you’re comfortable in.

And then, perhaps, there’s a more formal, final phase, the outward presentation and performance of your polished work. This calls for a different energy again. It’s the lottery of sending poems to journals and entering competitions, or as part of other applications. There are many rejections and with luck and persistence, some acceptances. (I consistently place about 10% of what I send out). I’ve long since learned to put my ego aside and to treat it as a game – some I win, some I don’t.

This promotional stage might be classed as marketing and networking in other spheres, and includes writing blogs, social media (if you do) posts, or reading at poetry and spoken word events. This more public, exposed stage isn’t for everyone. I happen to enjoy it. And yet it’s a real treat to return to the generative stage, raw free-writing in my notebook. Or to enjoy a spot of editing, polishing and whittling.

There’s different enjoyment to be found in all the stages, and the interplay and momentum between them. Too much of one aspect and I feel unbalanced, lop-sided. I’ve come to trust the process, to balance my efforts, to spend enough time attending to each stage.

Egg Case: a poem about being a DES Daughter

Dried-out whelk case in close-up
Whelk egg case, beach-combed some years ago

My long prose poem sequence Egg Case was originally published in Sweet Anaesthetist. I’m thrilled that a recording of me reading it is now available on the excellent Iambapoet (Wave Ten)

I started writing Egg Case when I found a dried-out common whelk egg case on Sandeels Beach on Iona – not that I knew what this desiccated husk was, but I was fascinated and pocketed it. This was summer 2018 when I faced further surgery to remove my ovaries and Fallopian tubes, a procedure initially planned as a risk-reducing measure (given my family history of cancer), but more urgent when pre-surgery checks revealed an ovarian cyst that needed to come out.

I found the egg case sparked a rich variety of connections. I birthed a knotty lump of secrets and miscommunications, family secrets, the guilt of mothers and daughters onto the pages of my notebook. Egg Case is a very personal piece, albeit (as always) lightly fictionalised. It draws on the story of how my mother took diethystilb(o)estrol (DES) in good faith to prevent miscarriage, which left us both with a whole series of unforseen complications and consequences.

Hopefully you’ll find some belly laughs, too.

In Sweet Anaesthetist, Egg Case sits at the end of the collection, glossing and throwing additional light onto some of the earlier poems. But it was always intended to stand alone. It’s a bit long for most readings, so I’m delighted to share it in Iambapoet. I’m hugely grateful to Iambapoet’s editor and curator, Mark Anthony Owen, for his work in bringing this (relatively long) piece to your ears.

The shock of rat shit on the camshaft: a poem about finding rats in your car

Cartoon line drawing by JW of 2 rats on a pile of stones. One is saying to the other, I wouldn’t nest in that car. She’ll write a poem about us.

If you have a phobia about rodents, I apologise for this post.

It’s almost a year since the strange rattling in my car was revealed to be an engine full of stones placed there by rats. There was a lot of semi-hysterical banter about rats wanting a hot stone massage, the Andy Goldsworthy of the rat world (etc) but we concluded they were stashing bird food in the crevices and covering it in loose gravel from the drive. “Happens more often that you think,” said the mechanic, which wasn’t very reassuring.

I knew this was likely to provoke a poem and lo, Clearly, something was up spilled into my notebook in the initial horrified aftermath. I am majorly chuffed it was published in The Rialto 97 this December, along with another poem about living alongside rats, Rubbish day by Jo Bratten.

There’s a wealth of great poems in this issue of The Rialto – well worth getting your hands on a copy.

</End of rat post>

We were all agreed … a poem about cancer, dementia and love

When I saw the call for submissions for Hair Raising, a fund-raising anthology of poems in support of Macmillan on the theme of hair, I knew the poem I wanted to write, on the intersection of dementia and cancerland.

Like some of the poems in Wristwatch, We were all agreed is a poem about visiting my late aunt Lillian in her nursing home, set during the time I had lost my hair to chemo. Lillian and I were close, and she spent her final years in an Edinburgh nursing home near me. During my cancer treatment she was my nearest family member, and this poem is a tribute to the support she unwittingly gave me. I chose not to tell her about my cancer, which led to some interesting moments. I have only recently felt able I could write about this in the way I wanted – connecting with the humour latent in the situation, which was absolutely in keeping with Lillian’s personality (and my own!).

Selfie of Jay and her aunt Lillian, laughing heartily, in 2015. Hair poet’s own.

Instead of a launch event, Nine Pens has created a launch page where contributors to Hair Raising to video ourselves reading our poems. A video of me reading We were all agreed will appear there soon – alongside several excellent contributions from other poets. Please do buy this fine anthology, and support this great cause.  

Annual scanxiety: poems about cancer check-ups

Pink elderflower blossom, East Lothian July 2021

My annual mammogram now falls in July. Eight years out from diagnosis of breast cancer and the ensuing year of treatment, I’m still in annual follow up, still taking tamoxifen. I’m keeping well, and side effects are manageable. Mostly these days I look forward and not back, but there’s nothing like the appointment letter and psyching myself up for the waiting game that follows. I tell myself these days, I’m more worried about secondaries, bone liver or brain mets, and those won’t show in the mammogram. Even so, stepping back into the hospital for a scan that might just reveal a recurrence or a new primary cancer always requires a deep intake of breath.

Maybe it’s not surprising that I’ve written poems about this. Here’s one from Wristwatch, written when these sensations were new.

Annual check-up

The Pentlands have been wheeled closer.
Inigo Jones couldn’t have devised a better fancy:
the sun picks out Caerketton’s every crevice,
vivid grass ices Allermuir’s softer slopes.

These hills are always there, in the gap
between church and trees, sometimes hazed
by cloud, haar, or my own distracted gaze.

(c) Jay Whittaker, all rights reserved

Here’s a later poem from Sweet Anaesthetist.

Back in the waiting room

Another fork in the road.
One route loops back to needles,
bad news, pain. The other stretches
to foothills; its end hidden
under low-lying mist.

Truth is, we’re already set on a path.
Our bodies have already chosen to blossom,
wither in their own season.
Eyes, don’t register what’s ahead,
feet, keep on walking.

(c) Jay Whittaker, all rights reserved

As they say on the telly, if you’ve been affected by any of the issues in these poems, I recommend Breast Cancer Now as a source of information and support.

Jay’s newsletter: An Illustrated Guide to the Ruins

Maybe you’ve read my poems, and you share some of my approach to the mundanities of life and / or the highs and lows that just happen.  Maybe, like me, you read or write poetry as a way to navigate, reimagine and attempt to make sense of the world.

An Illustrated Guide to the Ruins is a newsletter for my readers. 

It’s also the title of a key poem in Wristwatch, one which ends the Risky breasts sequence about my cancer treatment, leading into the new-life-and-love part of the story.  It’s about rebuilding your life after disaster, and although it’s deliberately wry and self-deprecating, it’s ultimately positive.

An illustrated guide to the ruins

This bombed-out husk (established 1968),
roof sheared by the initial blast,
internal fittings razed by subsequent fire,
appears as derelict as a structure twice its age.
The shell remains serviceable.

Further excavations reveal pervasive rot
spreading through timbers.
An extensive course of damp proofing
reinstates the original look and feel,
but note: joists permanently weakened.

And of the future? The occupier,
once tempted to abandon to lichen,
ivy, has realised the space
(no longer fit for its former purpose)
has fabulous potential for parties.

All rights reserved. Jay Whittaker

If you’d like to receive more in this vein in your inbox, please do sign up! In return I’ll send an email once a month – containing news of coming events and publications, brief reviews of what I’m reading, exclusive insights into my creative process and life, and (of course) featuring Pan, my trusty canine poetry assistant. Nothing too long, I promise! I’d love you to join us

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April round up

East Lothian river scene with lurcher

This is the second spring I’ve spent in the shadow of covid restrictions. At least this year I was able to smell the wild garlic. I have a canine poetry assistant (in the picture above). I’m grateful for my first vaccine. I’m planning to visit family for the first time in over a year. And I’m watching the news from India in horror, with a sense of desperate impotence.

It seems trivial, futile to type “and yet…”

And yet. An unexpected lifeline in 2020 was the emergence of the online literary event, and one of the first I encountered was the Stay-At-Home! Literary Festival. So I’m delighted that April ends with me reading in the 2021 festival. I’ve been working on the setlist this weekend, choosing poems from Sweet Anaesthetist, plus a few new and a few from Wristwatch.

On my reading pile: Claire Dyer’s heartfelt collection about transition, Yield; Scots-Yiddish fusion in David Bleiman’s Kilt of many colours, and Jen Hadfield’s exceptional new collection, The stone age. And I’ve island-hopped from Jen Hadfield’s Shetland to Orkney, rereading George Mackay Brown, getting into the zone as I write for an anthology celebrating his centenary this year. More of that another time …

February round up

Late February colour in the garden

I made the most of pandemic poetry life, joining online launches and readings far beyond my usual haunts. I caught a few events at the Kendal Poetry Festival, and particularly enjoyed Alison Brackenbury‘s supple, precise poems with a focus on the natural world, & Ian Humphries‘ engaging, lively and poignant poems about gay life. I appreciate the practice of screensharing poems during the Zoom reading – I certainly benefit from seeing the words on-screen. Other readings included Anthony Anaxagorou at the Grasmere Readings, and Joelle Taylor performing compelling poems about the 80s dyke scene from her new collection C*nto at Incite Poetry (London).

It was a privilege to read a very personal feature set as part of LGBT+ History month for the event I have a que(e)ry about LGBT+ Disabled representation.

Last but not least, I was thrilled to be interviewed about Sweet Anaesthetist, political poetry, feminism (and more!) for Lighthouse bookshop’s Life Raft …