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.
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.
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.
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!).
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.
It’s February, so in recognition of and solidarity with LGBT+ History Month, I’m posting a link to me reading Radical, my poem about how a radical bookshop helped me work out who I was and how I might come out in the days before the internet and in a time of wholly negative disinformation about LGBT+ folx. It was first published in Shooter, and is republished in Sweet Anaesthetist.
I was a teenager in suburban Nottingham in the early 1980s, a few years younger than the characters in It’s a Sin, and remember the iceberg leaflets about AIDS landing on the doormat and the casual, pervasive homophobia that was usual at the time. In the papers, on the telly, at school, in the street, at home. My family wouldn’t tolerate racism but “nancy boys” and “mannish women” (chapwench was my Dad’s word) were fair game. At home, as at school, I shut down, kept my head down, played Bronski Beat’s Age of Consent on repeat, and took a long time to join the dots. A friend introduced me to Mushroom, Nottingham’s radical bookshop at that time. In a world before the internet a radical bookshop provided access to information otherwise unavailable, and my world began to open up.
“At once I was viewing evidence; I was the victim’s relative; the victim of violence and legal agent. The four poems provide a thoughtful and well considered insight into lost perspectives – most importantly, that of the victim – permanently silenced.”
The Scottish Feminist Judgments Project is the Scottish incarnation of a global series reimagining key legal judgments from a feminist perspective, looking at how laws can be made and applied in a more gender equitable way. As recently explained in a feature in the Scotsman:
“…three academics – Sharon Cowan, professor of feminist and queer legal studies at Edinburgh University, Vanessa Munro, professor of law at Warwick University, and Chloë Kennedy, lecturer in criminal law at Edinburgh University – co-ordinated the Scottish Feminist Judgment Project, an initiative which involved re-examining 16 important legal judgments from a feminist perspective. They found the decisions the judges had reached were by no means inevitable, and that, in many cases, a feminist perspective would not only have altered the outcome, but taken the law in a different direction.
When I was asked to be part of SFJP I was interested, but not entirely sure what it entailed. I attended an early workshop with a large group of academic lawyers as they discussed the project. I admit I was struggling to see how I might make poems from the legal cases themselves, but I was intrigued by the dilemmas and debates of the lawyers and by the possibility for change. For their part, the academic lawyers were welcoming but clearly not certain what the artists would produce, or how the artworks would connect to the wider project (more of that later).
It was difficult to choose one case to focus on, but in the end I felt driven to choose Drury v HM Advocate, 1998. The Scotsman article summarises it succinctly:
“Stuart Drury had been stalking his ex-partner Marilyn McKenna – there were interdicts against him – when he turned up at her house and found her with another man. He took a claw hammer and bludgeoned her multiple times … she died in hospital the following day. Drury insisted that, though they no longer lived together, they were still in a relationship, although his convictions for stalking make this unlikely. He was unanimously convicted of murder, but not before the judge had ruled that it would be appropriate for the jury to consider a defence of “provocation by sexual infidelity”. In England and Wales, provocation by sexual infidelity is not enough in itself to ground a defence, but it is enough in Scotland.”
How to write about it? What could poetry add?
It took me a while to find my approach. I’ve long admired poems by Muriel Ruykeyser, Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde and June Jordan which engage with political themes, so I reread some of their work. I was very conscious that my voice is not, cannot be, the victim’s voice. That would be appropriation of the crassest sort. I decided to focus on my reactions to the original judgment and the feminist judge’s report to the project group members in April 2018.
Four poems resulted.
Provocation: is a found poem. I sat with a 36 page printout of the original judgment and highlighted words and phrases that struck me. I felt that the appalling end of Marilyn McKenna was buried in the judgment, and using only words extracted from the original judgment, this short poem tries to cut through that.
The Institutional Writers: I was very struck by the comments of the feminist judge (Prof Claire McDiarmid) about the institutional writers (ancient legal authorities), in particular Hume, who looms over the argument in the original judgment. She asked, do you quote Hume, work with him, or shove him aside? (I should add this took place in the University of Edinburgh’s New College, in a room full of ornate, venerable furniture and under the watchful gaze of any number of portraits of white men in gowns and robes.)
Not here: describes how I started to think about the victim, who seemed to have been overwritten by the lengthy, arcane arguments.
Fragment is a short poem focusing attention on the absence of the victim in the lives of those who loved her. Ali Burns has written a very beautiful 4 part choral composition, Absentia, using my words. I’m absolutely thrilled, not least because it’s been sung at Law and Medical School graduations at the University of Edinburgh in 2019.
I’m very grateful to SFJP’s Sharon, Vanessa & Chloe for recruiting me to this project, not least for ensuring that the artistic contributors were paid for our work. Huge thanks too to textile artist Jill Kennedy-McNeill, the artists’ coordinator, who herded the cats – no mean feat, given we numbered a textile artist, two writers, a photographer, an illustrator, a composer and a theatre director. I found it fascinating to work alongside artists from other art forms, though we worked in tandem rather than collaboratively.
It’s gratifying to hear that my poems have been used to stimulate discussion and as teaching aids by the academic lawyers involved in the project. I hope they stand on their own, too.
The SFJP book, a hefty and expensive academic tome, is published in autumn 2019. The SFJP poems will be republished in my (rather more reasonably priced) next collection in autumn 2020.
I remain humbled by the gravity of this case. I’m proud to be part of a project that has created a new spark of connection and creativity between legal and creative worlds. Long may that flourish.
I’m just in from the Edinburgh launch of the new 404 Ink anthology We were always here – what a celebration of current queer writing in Scotland. Congratulations to the editors Ryan and Michael, and to all the contributors. I’m thrilled that my voice is one among many contained in the pink, faux animal print covers. Get yourself a copy if you haven’t already!
Anyway, it seemed a good excuse for one of my occasional posts on how I came to write the poems in We were always here.
Not this again was written in summer last year, in the wake of some homophobic yelling that I thought was long behind me at this age and in this age. Ha, if only. The incident played out pretty much as per the poem, though in the interest of brevity I left out the bit where we drove home rehearsing all the come-backs we should have made. I wish I’d gone back and bollocked them like naughty school boys but that didn’t occur to me until 20 minutes later. Ah, l’ésprit d’escalier.
I wrote Not this againin the immediate furious aftermath, let it rest, reworked it several times, took it to an open mic at the Fringe (the pic below shows me in full flow – possibly just after shouting “lezzies” at a surprised audience), and I’m delighted to see it in print.
A different take on power, Mausoleum, is the final poem in the anthology, and I wrote it after shivering through a long meeting in one of my employer’s hallowed portals, surrounded by white marble busts of dead white men. It’s my take on assimilation and still feeling at odds with (and within) the establishment, even though arguably I’ve been part of it myself for many years. Not that we should take our place at the table for granted in these times.
I’ve had four poems published this month – if that seems a high success rate, you should see the number of rejections on my submissions spreadsheet! My success rate ain’t that great, if you look at the bigger picture. The trick is to keep sending poems out, as advocated by Jo Bell . Keep writing new poems, and keep sending poems out.
So this is the first in an occasional series of posts How I came to write …
Scrabble deluxe, which you can read in The North 60. This is one of my party pieces, and I’m delighted to see it in print. It harks back to my teenage years in the 1980s and painful inter-generational family games of Scrabble, in which we passive-aggressively mirrored our political stances. This was Nottingham in the 1980s, at a time of the miner’s strike, AIDS iceberg leaflets, and the News of the Screws taking a homophobic agenda. My family was divided on a number of those subjects. For the record, my grandmother (UDM, homophobic) played quim on a triple word score and completely nonplussed my father (NUM, homophobic at that point in time).
(Yes, this is the actual scrabble board, and tiles are really this worn.)
Intrinsic, which you can read in Gutter 18 (and which comes bundled with the must-read Freedom Papers). I’m so pleased that Gutter has not only survived but is flourishing, so I’m thrilled to be in this particular issue among so many excellent pieces. I wrote Intrinsic initially to take to Edinburgh’s God Damn Debut Slam, at which you have to perform something written in the previous month. The germ of the poem was a horrible moment at work where I found I completely lost the word intrinsic in a meeting where I really needed to NOT experience memory failure. It’s an occasional side effect of my anti-cancer medication. Usually I have strategies to deal with it but on this occasion, late on a Friday afternoon, I was too tired (another post-cancer phenomenon). Awkward as it was, there was a poem in it. My father is in this poem too.
Cowrie, which is available in issue 4 of the excellent online journal of LGBTQ+ poetry, Impossible Archetype. Cowrie is an Iona poem, superficially…
And last but not least Night walker, published in the first issue of the new Scottish zine Nitrogen House. This poem was also first drafted on Iona, and it’s about a transformative night walk in the pitch black of the island, when I met a cat and we, well, melded …