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.
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.
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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We’re already almost halfway into January 2021. More pandemic restrictions, this time with extra cold. As I write, it’s the dark moon – and yet this afternoon I noticed there was usable light in Edinburgh until 1645. The nights are fair drawing out …
On New Year’s Day I had the pleasure of reading (virtually) at Utrecht’s Poetry Lit!, and our host, Milla van der Have, asked me to reflect a little on how 2020 had changed my writing process or my poetry. Well. I’ve continued to write my journal, essential for my sanity, but otherwise I’ve written less and submitted less than I usually do. Like many others, I’ve found everything in the pandemic more tiring than usual. My day job has shifted online, and I’m hugely grateful to still be in work. I notice my creative process is the same – though I have to make a conscious effort to prioritise creative work. But without a doubt, I find the the boundaries between my creative work and my day job much harder because everything takes place in the same space. (Clearly this is nothing compared to those who are juggling home schooling and / or caring along with everything else. I salute you.)
Like so many others, I find my attention span is less than it was – so it’s easier to read poems and short stories or essays than novels or long non-fiction.
Milla also asked what I would bring with me in 2021, poetically?
I love being able to take part in online events – watching Natalie Diaz & Ellen van Neerven in the Edinburgh Book Festival event Voices of Indigenous Resistance, or catching many excellent poets reading at the Stay At Home Literary Festival. And of course, reading in open mics all over the place, or being a featured poet for Poetry Lit! in Utrecht, for example, and knowing that friends living in other countries were able to join complete strangers in the audience. I do miss in-person events and the mingling, but there’s an intimacy about a Zoom or Crowdcast reading, and an immediacy in audience reaction to poems in the chat.
I also miss face-to-face meetings of The Other Writers, the poetry collective which usually meets in Fountainbridge Library, but many of us have continued to meet online fortnightly since March. That I have any poems written at all is because I wanted to bring something to workshop. Community remains, even in the imperfect on-screen environment.
I would also bring with me several books that have sustained me through 2020:
The good people of Poetry AF have pulled together a series of interviews with poets and spoken word performers about strategies for standing up on stage and sharing this material. There’s a broad spectrum – bereavement, holocaust survival, mental health, illness. I found something fascinating and something to learn in all the other responses.
Shamelessly I will link to mine, but please do read the whole set.
Earlier this month I had the great privilege of attending Roselle Angwin‘s retreat in Cape Cornwall, The land’s wild magic. As with her Iona retreats, I found this a rich and productive week of reflection, writing, walking in silence, and convivial company in liminal places and ancient sites.
Roselle set out to create a week where we could explore our inner and outer life and where they meet – through a mix of slowing down, observation using all senses, free writing, silence, walking. I went hoping to immerse myself in an ancient landscape to see what new writing might emerge. I filled pages of my notebook with raw material, which is now composting. Batteries recharged, I’m back in the fray in Edinburgh. A few poems from Cornwall have already found their way onto my laptop…
Utility Piece is a poem addressed to an ugly sideboard that was part of my life for years. I’m not talking about a mid-century modern sideboard, the sort you see in lifestyle mags or boutiques in Leith or Bruntsfield. This sideboard was utility furniture, and belonged to my late partner’s parents.
I wrote it when I realised (some years after Morag had died) that there was no need for this piece of furniture to stay in my life. I sat down with my notebook aiming to write a letter to the sideboard (yes, I love all such self-therapy) and ended up with a poem instead. The early drafts were pure invective, but later versions calmed down somewhat, and it’s become a meditation on my relationship to the stuff I inherited – and the shared history bound up in said stuff.
It’s time to rehome you,
squat in the corner
the colour of the eighty a day
you absorbed for decades.
I never liked you.
I can say that now.
You came when I married
the youngest daughter.
No-one else had room for you
so we took you home,
fed you a terrible diet —
crammed you with board games
a tangle of connectors, adapters, chargers.
You belch booze-reek when I open your doors.
And now I’m widowed.
I wonder why I tend you,
You were part of her childhood, not mine,
yet you’ve outstayed flat-pack and two sofas.
Oh Hippopotamus, handles chipped,
bulbous gnarly legs, too heavy to lift –
do you remember
after her funeral, in our home for the first time,
her brother said, outraged How did YOU get that?
And I, the unhappy inheritor,
retold our story.
I enjoy reading Utility Piece at open mic and readings, and I’m delighted people respond so positively – it’s fun to find myself at the bar having chats about other legendary, sometimes resented items of furniture.
“If you want the truth,
I’ll tell you the truth:
Listen to the secret sound,
the real sound,
which is inside you.”
For the last three years I’ve been part of Roselle Angwin‘s Islands of the heart writing retreat on Iona. I attend to recharge my writing batteries, to spend time on a remote Hebridean island, for community with other writers and thinkers, and to benefit from Roselle’s adept group leadership. The retreat reminds me of one way to lead a writer’s life. I like to rise early. Keep a notebook to hand. Walk. Spend time in silence. There’s a lot of free-writing, reading , and play (writing exercises; games). Community with the other writers present is a huge part of the experience.
In part, I go to Iona to revisit the insights I found when I was effectively penned in my flat for ten months during cancer treatment, so easily lost in the hurly-burly of daily life with “no evidence of disease.”
I find the words flow so easily in Iona. This year I’ve come back with over 20 embryonic poems. Of course many will be discarded, and they all without exception, need to compost in my notebook / laptop before I work out what’s reusable. There’s no doubt it’s a huge privilege to be able to travel to Iona to write. On this remote island, this year, I seem to have written some of my most political poems yet.