Annual scanxiety

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.

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 horrible shit that can 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 new offering 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

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Reading at Maggie’s Edinburgh

I’m joining my fellow Other Writer Angus Ogilvy in a reading at Edinburgh’s Maggie’s Centre on Thursday 16 November, 1800-1930. I’m planning to read the whole Risky Breasts sequence – not something I usually do, but it seems appropriate in the safe, welcoming place where I went on courses, retreated to wait for appointments and results, and where I’ve met so many other people affected by cancer.  Do join us!

maggies

 

Risky breasts

It has not escaped my notice that my debut collection Wristwatch, which contains a sequence of 16 poems about my breast cancer treatment, launches in #BreastCancerAwareness month (October).
 

Risky breasts is the title poem of the sequence. I wrote it because I was told that my family history and a few personal factors mean I have what’s known in the medical profession as “risky breasts.” The phrase tickled me, and a poem followed.

 

There is no pink in this post. It’s really not my colour. But please, everyone, including men, keep an eye on all your dangly, wobbly bits. Be breast aware. 

 

 

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.

 

Permission and Audre Lorde

alcoversI’ve spent the last couple of months intermittently chasing permission to quote the late, great Audre Lorde as an epigram to one of the poems in Wristwatch.

My poem Possibility (you’ll have to wait for the collection to read it) is a direct response to the epilogue of A Burst of Light (1988, now collected in I am your sister). Lorde, facing death, urges engagement with every hour of life. I want to quote and acknowledge Lorde partly to give my poem context, but also because I hope it will send more readers to her original writing. I find her as necessary in 2017 as she ever was. Read her poem Who said it was simple.

At the start of my chemo (2013) I remembered Lorde had written extensively about her own cancer treatment, and there, waiting for me on my bookcase were The Cancer Journals and A Burst of Light. Struggling to make sense of my own illness and mortality, I found her words were incisive, challenging, fierce, particularly about the intersection of breast cancer, race, and sexuality. Lorde doesn’t mince her words. She also faces her disease and prognosis with courage and dignity. I’m proud to call her a role model. How old fashioned that sounds!

So began my quest to identify the literary estate of Audre Lorde.

I initially emailed Harper Collins, the publishers of my (now out of print) UK edition containing Burst of Light, using the format recommended by Jane Friedman.  I was referred on to a literary agency, which referred me back to Harper Collins. The trail went cold. I was issued with a letter from Harper Collins saying I could use the quotation at my own risk.

I tried another tack. As  lapsed librarian, I suspected that the archives holding Lorde’s papers might be able to help. After some googling, I emailed the archivist at Spelman College. By return she put me in touch with Lorde’s literary executor and within 24 hours I had the permission I need. Another pre-publication job done.

And today I am once again engrossed in my Audre Lorde books. They are as powerful as ever.

UPDATE March 2020. For permissions requests relating to Audre Lorde, please contact the Charlotte Sheedy Literary Agency. The contact information is on their Information page.