THINGS WE’RE DYING TO KNOW…
Let’s start with the book’s title and your cover image. How did you choose each? And, if I asked you to describe or sum up your book, what three words immediately come to mind?
The title is the last line in the book, and I felt it summed up the collection: something that had been kept in the dark for many years, emerging into the light. The cover is a standard cover that my publisher uses for pamphlets, but I like the simplicity of it and think it suits the poems very well. Three words that come to mind to sum up the book: Trauma, letting, go.
What were you trying to achieve with your book/book? Tell us about the world you were trying to create, and who lives in it.
I’d had this awful year, and carried it around with me for twenty years but not really got it out and properly looked at it. So that’s what the poems enabled me to do – look at it and say, that was awful, it was really tough, but I got through it in the only way I could at the time, by carrying on going, looking after my babies and not falling to pieces because they needed me. I was trying to show the reader this world of mine from twenty years ago in a rural part of Nineties Britain – how isolated this young single mother felt, how scared, how these terrible things just kept on happening to her and her family. It’s very much about me, the two children I had (or was about to have), my sister, the men who died, (and my Mum’s in it a bit). There are also the people who seemed to be against us, who blamed my sister for her boyfriend’s suicide, even though she was only a nineteen year-old girl and he was a grown man. And my racist neighbours, who wanted to drive us out. I remember being in the flat we’d moved into, on the first floor, and looking out of the window and feeling as though we were trapped in this tower, looking down on the world outside.
Blinking in the Light tells the story of the hardest year in the narrator's life -- her boyfriend died during her second pregnancy (from “The phone call,” “My daughter's dad has died./ It was vodka and a bag of smack.) and her sister's boyfriend died from hanging himself (from “The week she turned 19,” “...he dangled upstairs/ with broken neck and broken dreams”). We learn in the last poem that these events had occurred 20 years prior, and yet in the preceding poems, the event details are so precise, and feel as if they had just happened recently; the grief and other associated feelings are so cuttingly on point. What is it that you want readers to learn about the grieving process from the time reveal in the last poem?
(It was actually my ex-boyfriend who died as we weren’t together at the time, although he was my first love and I was still very emotionally connected to him.) The time reveal in the last poem wasn’t meant to have a significant impact on the reader, it was more that the poems were written chronologically so that was just how it ended up. I wrote nearly all of them after a therapy session during which I realised that I hadn’t processed what had happened properly yet, so writing them was part of that process. I suppose readers can take from this something that we all know, and is a cliché: that time can heal, and also that sometimes it isn’t safe to look at trauma, but maybe there will come a time later on when it is safe.
This chapbook covers some hard-hitting social issues: suicide (could it have been prevented, and the guilt it leaves with the living) and drug overdose that causes death. Also, in just one poem, “Our new neighbours,” the narrator says, “They don't like 'blacks.'/ They bang on their ceiling with a broom/ every time my daughter runs/ across the room.” Despite the chapbook events occurring two decades ago, these issues are still relevant today. Do you see the poems as being a social commentary? Did you want the poems to feel polarizing to readers, as if they should take some type of action after reading them?
I think it’s incredibly sad that the issues in the pamphlet are still relevant across the globe today, if anything, they could be seen as being worse. The poems are a social commentary, yes, as I feel a lot of my work is. I want to write about the experiences of marginalised individuals, people who feel as though they are on the outside, looking in. I have belonged to a number of marginalised groups, and I hope to encourage readers to think more about equality and social justice generally, and by hearing stories such as this one, to be less judgemental. We all have a story to tell – we all have made bad choices which have ended up with difficult consequences. I was a young single mother on benefits (welfare) during the period in which the poems were set, but there were a number of factors which led me to be in that position – experiencing domestic violence and abuse as a child and adolescent; gravitating towards other damaged young people because we had something in common; living in a time when women had the freedom to have their babies without being forced to give them up, and so on. I hope readers can have empathy with others who find themselves in difficult positions like this one, and not judge them harshly.
In the poem, “Fireball,” the narrator's new baby is growing and thriving, and lest readers be lulled into thinking that the recent deaths and hardships are receding into memory, the narrator closes the poem with these lines: “I have to make sure death/ isn't just around the corner/ I have to make sure it won't come/ and crash into our lives again.” Many of the poems have poignant moments like this, ones that individuals in similar circumstances can understand. Did you see this chapbook also as a tool to help others who've lost loved ones to suicide and drug overdoses? Have you had responses from readers to this effect?
I hope that the poems could be used as a tool to help others in similar situations, in two ways: one by showing that there is hope, that we can overcome challenging and traumatic events and reach some kind of peace with them, and two, that traumatic experiences can be transformed into Art – whether that be writing, the visual Arts, performance or any other genre. We have the ability to take suffering and turn into something others can appreciate, relate to, find beauty in or taking meaning from. I haven’t had many responses from readers so far (as the official publication date is February 2016) but I look forward to hearing from anyone who the poems have helped.
Can you describe your writing practice or process for this collection? Do you have a favorite revision strategy?
I had already written ‘Blue-eyed Boy’ and ‘The year she turned nineteen’. After a therapy session I decided I had to write about the year, and came home and got my old diaries out. They had a few entries from that year, and I jotted down details, like the onions on a kitchen floor, or the sound of seagulls, a green rucksack, then I wrote for hours. I then spent the next couple of days revising the poems, sent them to my best friend to look at, and left them for a while. It’s always good to have a little break and go back to something with a fresh eye. I revised them a little more, then sent them off to a few competitions.
How did you order the poems in the collection? Do you have a specific method for arranging your poems or is it sort of haphazard, like you lay the pages out on the floor and see what order you pick them back up in?
These poems are in chronological order so it was easy to order them. With my first collection it was a bit harder, but as they were also autobiographical, I ordered them according to time, in three sections: childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. I think it’s going to be quite hard doing this for my next collection, as there are a variety of themes and POVs, and I’ve written them over a long period of time.
What do you love to find in a poem you read, or love to craft into a poem you’re writing?
I love a poem to provoke a strong emotion in me, whether it’s happiness or sadness, it’s the intensity of the emotion that I like to experience. I recently read ‘Stand in the Light’ by Elizabeth Rimmer and it made me so happy and tearful I had to share it with people! So I sent it to my best friends and shared on social media. I loved it so much, and read it over and over. It was so full of hope, and light, but acknowledged the flaws in us as humans. It was really beautiful. I hope I can write like this one day, give people hope. Perhaps my writing will evolve like this, I hope it will, as I get older and perhaps have less of a need to examine my own life.
Can you share an excerpt from your book? And tell us why you chose this poem for us to read – did it galvanize the writing of the rest of the collection? Is it your book’s heart? Is it the first or last poem you wrote for the book?
First day of the year: a spill
of onions on the terracotta kitchen floor.
I stare at their brown skins, trying
to remember how they got there.
Last night my sister’s boyfriend
tried to hang himself. I kissed
my friend’s good-looking husband
on a boat. Our friend’s still asleep
in the sitting room. It’s half past three,
and very cold. The night storage
heater’s broken, and I’m short for the rent.
Although I want to want him,
I’m not sure anymore.
I chose this poem because I feel it is the heart of the collection: the beginning of a terrible year, although I don’t know it yet. Everything feels messy, and it’s going to get worse. The onions all over the floor sum up my life: a mess, but I don’t quite know how it happened.
If you had to convince someone walking by you in the park to read your book right then and there, what would you say?
I’d be too scared to try and convince someone to read it! I’ve always been rubbish at promoting my work although I am getting better, you have to! But if I absolutely had to, I might say, (nervously) these poems could show you that we as human beings can get through anything. Although by global standards of suffering, the problems I faced could be described as ‘First World problems’.
For you, what is it to be a poet? What scares you most about being a writer? Gives you the most pleasure?
To be a poet is to tell the truth of me, and to hope this truth resonates with others. I’m a very open person and my poetry reflects this, and it enables me to say things I might otherwise struggle to say. What scares me most about being a writer is not getting where I want to be, which is successful, and receiving recognition, although even if I don’t quite get there, I will never stop writing, I will never stop being a writer. Recently I had a conversation with other writers about whether you are still a writer without readers. I said, Yes, you are. Obviously we want readers, but the act of writing is essentially for us, putting words onto a blank page to create something, to release something, to explore something, in the best way we can. What gives me the most pleasure is seeing the words on the page and thinking, Yes, I’m pleased with that, that’s worked (because it doesn’t always!). And of course publication or being placed in a comp. When I got the email through to say ‘Blinking in the Light’ had won a competition along with three other winners and would be published, I kept reading the email to make sure it was real. It was so exciting. Even though I’d imagined the poems being out in the world, I couldn’t believe it at first. After the high came a low point, when I thought about the impact the poems could have on people who were directly affected by the deaths that occurred. I really didn’t want to hurt anyone, but I didn’t feel I could withdraw the pamphlet. I do worry about upsetting people, especially my family and extended family, but I also need to explore things that have happened through my poems, and inevitably other people are involved.
Are there other types of writing (dictionaries, romance novels, comics, science textbooks, etc.) that help you to write poetry?
I don’t think so, although I suppose in this case diaries helped shape the poems. Reading other poet’s work which I love helps because it inspires me. I suppose even reading fiction may help – I read a lot of novels.
What are you working on now?
Lots! I’ve nearly completed my first novel although I’m not quite happy with it so still playing around, I’m 50,000 words into my second, which decided to put in an appearance before I’d finished the first, like an insistent child saying, What about me? I’ve got lots of poems I want to pull together into a second full-length collection, and I have a number of short stories I want to put together into a first collection. I’m applying for grants so really hope I get one, so I can pay a mentor. I feel as though I’ve got as far as I can on my own – I’m largely self-taught – and want some professional guidance. I want to understand what I’m doing more, instead of just doing it and hoping for the best. I’ve got ideas for a young adult novel; a third novel; and future poetry collections (I want to use my diaries from the 1980s for these).
When a poet is writing his or first (or second or third) chapbook, the question often arises early: What's going to hold this mini-collection together? Sometimes, each poem has the color blue in it. Sometimes it's a narrative. In your case, you used the narrative angle extremely deftly. For me as a reader, I felt as though I was reading a story in verse, so multi-layered and yet also so clear (I didn't get confused with the different characters and poems shifting between events). Can you talk about using narrative as a way to unify the chapbook? And what tips (and things to avoid) do you have for poets looking to write a narrative chapbook?
I didn’t plan to write this collection so hadn’t thought about themes that might hold it together. It is very much a story, and that is often how I write poetry, as though I am telling a story, whether it be about my life or the lives of others. Possibly this is because I also write fiction, and am obsessed with stories, I don’t know! This is a hard question to answer as I tend to write very much from the heart, not the head, and never plan what I’m going to write in any detail. The idea forms itself in my head, I think, Oh, I want to write about that, and ponder on it for a few days, then sit and write and see what comes out. I guess I’d describe myself as an instinctive writer, in the same way that I’m an instinctive person – I go on feelings and emotions. As for tips to other writers – just listen to the essence of what you want to say. Don’t aim for clever tricks. Just let your voice speak, let the words form themselves. Then you can go back and play around with what you’ve produced.
What book are you reading that we should also be reading?
‘The Flying Man’ by Roopa Farooki. She is brilliant; I love her. I love the way she paints portraits of flawed characters and dysfunctional families so beautifully, and that her fiction is almost like poetry.
Without stopping to think, write a list of five poets whose work you would tattoo on your body, or at least write in permanent marker on your clothing, to take with you at all times.
Jackie Kay; E E Cummings; Linton Kwesi Johnson; Mary Oliver; Derek Walcott…but there are so many more!
What’s a question you wish I asked? (And how would you answer it?)
None – you asked loads of brilliant questions! Thank you so much!
Purchase Blinking in the Light from Cinnamon Press.
Louisa Adjoa Parker is a writer of Ghanaian/English heritage who has lived in the South West of England since she was 13. She writes poetry, fiction and black history, and began writing to explore feelings of difference. Her first poetry collection, Salt-sweat and Tears was published in 2007, and she has recently had her pamphlet, Blinking in the Light, published by Cinnamon Press. Her work has appeared in various publications including Envoi, Wasafiri, Ink Sweat and Tears, Ouroboros, Closure (Peepal Tree) and Out of Bounds (Bloodaxe). She was highly commended by the Forward Prize. Louisa is currently working on two novels.