To absent friends

I’m looking forward to the To absent friends festival on 7 November, when I join other poets and storytellers taking part in the Marie Curie event Telling stories to keep memories alive. I’ll be reading some of my poems written in response to the death of my late partner (there’s a whole sequence in Wristwatch) and more importantly, I’ll be chatting to people about writing to celebrate and commemorate their dead.

To absent friends sets out to be a Scottish version of the Mexican Day of the Dead – I love this idea! As the website says, “People who have died remain a part of our lives – their stories are our stories…” Which is exactly what my poem Utility piece is trying to say.

 

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.

 

Advance praise for Wristwatch

From Jane McKie –

Jay Whittaker’s debut sizzles with feeling: feelings explored, and feelings held in check. In poems that explore love, bereavement, the survival of breast cancer and many other aspects of life, she is brave, astute, compassionate, and — where needed — witty. Throughout this debut, she demonstrates a keen eye for the natural world, a fine ear, and great sensitivity to our strengths and foibles as human beings. The result is a delightfully ambitious and humane read.

From Roselle Angwin –

Courageous and engaging, Wristwatch maps Jay Whittaker’s journey through some of the biggest transitions we can make: death of a lover, her own experience with cancer and its drawn-out treatment, and loss of parents and other relatives being core to the themes. Somehow, Whittaker manages to make these poems beautiful, and not depressing.

And then there is breakthrough: new life, love, hope.

Throughout, the natural world carries the themes; in and for itself, and also as metaphor. This gives grounding to the subtle nuances of Whittaker’s writing. Some poems are fiery, edgy (‘Risky Breasts’, ‘Baited’, ‘Thank You, Vera’); some are poignantly delicate (’Sea Defence’, ‘Singing Bowl’, ‘Wide local excision’, ‘What the Hare Knows’). All of them are compelling.

Wristwatch – Edinburgh launch

Wristwatch is a poetry collection about transition and transformation – about being widowed at 44, then getting a cancer diagnosis at 45. It’s about coming through all that and what the world looks like on the other side. It’s moving, funny and true.

The Edinburgh launch of Wristwatch will be on 12 October at Summerhall. More information and (free!) tickets available here via Eventbrite. For every copy of Wristwatch sold at the launch, I’m donating a third of the cover price (£3) to Maggie’s Centre Edinburgh, a cause dear to my heart.

You can buy Wristwatch online from Cinnamon Press. Please do order direct from the publisher – rather than one of the big online booksellers – to support this indy press.

wristwatch front cover
Cover of Wristwatch, by Jay Whittaker, Cinnamon Press 2017

The Proof

I received (by email) the first proof of Wristwatch, my first full length collection, a month ago. What followed was …

Exhilaration.

Then the fear. All these poems are shite!

(A glass of wine). Hang on. Various mags and competitions rated them. Cinnamon rated them.

A strange world of wondering about hyphens vs em dashes.

The editor and copy editor have done a grand job of tidying my inconsistent, misspelled and often botanically inaccurate manuscript.

Three iterations follow. I mark corrections on a pdf and email them back to the ever-patient Jan. She makes the changes and sends back a new pdf. I print and read again. We are resolving formatting, some full-stops become commas, some commas become full-stops, and (ahem) one poem moves from past to present tense.

On a sunny Thursday spring morning at 0515 I read through the latest version and realise this is it. It’s a wrap.

I’m choked. I can’t quite believe I reached this point.

proof

 

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.