MEANWHILE TELEPHONES CROUCH

Recently I was chatting with two poet friends, and we remarked on how we did enjoy rain in a poem. 

Well, I feel the same way – actually, more so – about telephones.

Often, mentions of phones in poems can be immensely lonely and forlorn. There are of course famous examples. Philip Larkin’s ‘Aubade’ draws towards its wonderful close via:

Meanwhile telephones crouch, getting ready to ring   
In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring
Intricate rented world begins to rouse.

Selima Hill’s ‘Cow’ has, in passing, 

unscrupulous restaurant-owners
who stumble, pink-eyed, from stale beds
into a world of lobsters and warm telephones

I never seem to forget these insomniac glimpses / images. Both also feature (almost horribly) real, physical telephones – in work spaces left empty and dark at night. Phones ringing in our lonelier lives.

In Sarah Jackson’s poem ‘The Red Telephone’ a small boy’s enormous impulse to get through to his mother almost overcomes the insurmountable obstacle – that he has only a toy phone, ‘red plastic with a curly white cord’, with which to do so.

Other telephones in poems can be (even more) symbolic. WS Graham has this, for instance, in ‘Malcolm Mooney’s Land’:

I heard the telephone ringing deep
Down in a blue crevasse.
I did not answer it and could 
Hardly bear to pass. 

At least here that phone is ringing, and someone is registering (though not answering) the call. (Sometimes a communication can be too much?) 

I love and attend to that ‘I did not answer it and could / Hardly bear to pass.’ The ‘and’ says so much: that both these things are true, painfully. This in itself is a complicated, difficult to read, communication.

Perhaps a telephone in a poem is always symbolic – representing some bid to communicate something, by someone? Or, our failure to. Our poor connections. 

I don’t only like stumbling on phones when reading poems: they also arrive when I’m writing.

In Noir, I have a series of dream poems. The first is a recurring theme in my bad dreams. The not-being-able-to-even-dial (in the days of dialling) let alone get through to someone:

She has to ring someone
but can’t read the number.
Type melts into itself, dripping
from the directory’s thin pages.

Later there’s a nightmarish poem, for me, about getting through but it being all wrong – getting through, essentially, to the wrong person. (Maybe the first, dream poem masks this fear: we can be more ‘comfortable’ yearning than facing reality?)

Every evening I call.
I’m with you, you say. When
the pips go, the dark wave inside me
swells.

(Of course, these are all telephones from the old days – pre-mobile phone. Mobiles seem to operate somewhat differently, in my poems. As in life.)

In The Girl Who Cried – which is all about trying to get through – sometimes phones hinder, sometimes they help.  

There are a number of occasions where phone calls do occur. One, for instance, where two people are failing to see eye to eye – but at least they’re communicating:

When I heard your voice on the line,
and you said ‘Look, at least let me tell you
how it seemed to me,’ frankly I felt relieved –

here was someone else alive inside these
looping telephone wires.

The collection also ends with a short poem that starts:

Love. The word I said
into the telephone.

I shut the book not knowing if that word has been caught – heard, received – but I guess at least the ‘Girl’ has formed it…

THE UNDERSTORY CONVERSATION

‘The Understory is the group I so badly needed and didn’t know how to find.  How could you possibly look this up on the internet?  And now here it is:  the beginnings of an innovative, experiential, inclusive conversation about what it means to be human, as a poet, in a flailing but wondrous world.  I can bring a poem to a meeting.  I can bring a problem or a thought, about writing or about my understory.  I can bring all of these things – or none of them.  This is utterly liberating.  How many poet-group-spaces do that?’

An Understory group member

I wrote my poetry collections Noir and The Girl Who Cried from what I’ve called my ‘Understory’: I’d always had a distinct sense of life running along two parallel lines, even as a child. And I learnt very young there were things it was acceptable to talk about, and things it was not. On the whole, unhappy things were the ones that caused trouble.

I think in terms of having an ‘elephant’ that decides what I actually do in life, whatever my rational brain might say. It makes the big moves. 

And I, or my elephant, ended up shaping my collections around the subjects I’d found most painful in my life, and most difficult to talk about. Noir (HappenStance, 2016) explored vulnerability as a teen, and the fallout from exploitation; and The Girl Who Cried (HappenStance, 2020) probes a lifelong struggle with attachment.

Writing these made more sense of things, somehow. As though the invisible suffering wasn’t all for nothing.

Ongoing group

So then I decided to set up an ongoing online group under the banner ‘The Understory Conversation’ – for other poets who are also curious. The group has been meeting since autumn, and feels truly nourishing. 

Here’s what a couple of members have said:

‘The Understory, for me, is first and foremost a space:  a space into which I can step, as my human self as well as my poet self, and share and talk and listen to and with others who have chosen to step into that space.  As a member, sometimes I want it to be a head space;  other times I want it to be a heart space;  and – actually, most often – I want it to be both:  a head and heart space.

The Understory is unique because it facilitates all of these spaces, all at once, for all of us:  it’s multi-dimensional, it’s open, it’s fluid – it is a fully human space for poets.  But it’s not wishy-washy or groundless.  It is tied together by a single golden thread:  a mutual intent to meet around a theme, The Understory.  That’s it; simple and as vast and as layered as you want to make it, on any of the occasions that you take part.’

‘I couldn’t come up with one phrase that distils my experience of the group. But therein lies its richness. I often feel rather pressured in ‘normal’ writing groups – to write well, to share my work and opinions, or sometimes even to keep those opinions to myself. However productive and stimulating they may be, and they often are, I find writing groups exhausting and tense. Not helped by Zoom, I’m sure. But I leave our group feeling reinvigorated and reconnected – to myself and my writing. It’s a safe space to share anything that’s pressing on my creative mind – a poem, a draft, a phrase, a thought, a feeling, a dilemma, a discovery – and I know that whatever I bring will be welcomed, listened to, nourished and returned to me with deeper understanding and compassion.’

‘The Understory is a unique ongoing conversation that is endlessly thought-provoking.  Charlotte provides a wonderfully open and nourishing space in which to explore and share thoughts about what motivates us to write and how our life experiences influence, enhance or, indeed, sometimes hinder our work.  It’s a rich seam of revelation, every session.’

The thing I think we most value is the fact we meet with a shared understanding that having an Understory is part and parcel of normal human experience. So we start from there, without pathologising.

It’s liberating. 

Common themes emerge in a way that’s almost uncanny. We learn so much from hearing from each other. We really listen.

And the group offers some refuge – as each member wends her way through the processes of writing, submitting, publishing.

New groups

I’ve now decided to explore setting up new groups – if you’re interested please let me know. (There will, necessarily, be a small charge for these. But the whole spirit is one of collaboration.)

These aren’t therapy groups. They are reading and writing groups, and they are experiential groups, which reflect as they go.

Email me, in the first instance. On ckg [at] seestep [dot] com.

I am also very open to critical partnerships – one-to-one Understory Conversations with me, while you write. A companioning along the road.

Will you join The Understory Conversation?

From The Girl Who Cried, and appearing, here, on its back cover.
Poem first published in The North.

TWO SHORT LINES OF POETRY

Last week I noticed a poem shared by Blue Diode Press on Twitter. ‘Meditation’, by Eunice De Souza, appeared in the collection A Necklace of Skulls: Collected Poems (Penguin).

The poem’s first two lines leapt out at me:

The lonely ask too much and then
too little

I love how the form reflects its content: how these two lines mirror what they’re describing.

All those words (relatively) crammed into that first line, in haste and at too great length; only to fall away into the sad stump of the second. 

How differently it would read if the line break fell in the obvious place – after ‘too much’. I really FEEL it this way.

I see a baby who cries and cries, then gives up crying.

I also think about ideas I’ve explored before – people thinking they know what they want (read ‘lack’) but that familiar yearning masking an ambivalence, or terror. 

I explore similar concerns myself – to all of these – in The Girl Who Cried.

Because I can feel I’ve spent my life rushing towards people, then retreating. Asking ‘too much and then / too little’.

So there it is: the magic. 

A whole lifetime’s dilemma distilled – understood, reflected back – in two short lines of poetry.

The front world, and the back

In The Girl Who Cried I have a poem about a ‘house with no door’. Tom Duddy’s wonderful poem ‘Doorways’ is very different – but, for me, it touches on related themes.

by Tom Duddy, from The Hiding Place, Arlen House, 2011.

I wrote recently about my sense of living ‘a double life’, or two lives running in parallel: the visible, and ‘the understory’. And Tom Duddy here – with all his characteristic gentleness – helps my thinking.

Such an intriguing layout – those three long lines representing the ‘three doors across / the middle of the old house’. I love the term ‘the old house’ – so many of us have one, and I think it instantly transports us, if not to our own, to some imagined place.

Tom Duddy often opens magical doorways in his poems. For me, this one works beautifully literally. But it also works as a metaphor. Just occasionally – and how ‘rare’ it is, and therefore precious – we see a system or person clearly, as they really are: both what’s visible on the outside, and what’s led to that, or is working away behind the scenes.

And there’s gentle comedy too, an empathic poking of fun at us all. So much we defend against needn’t be feared.

In this poem we ‘see framed / in the third doorway a back world / of hen-run, dunghill and dock-leaf clump, / far removed from the front world / of pathway, clipped hedge and rose.’

The lists he’s chosen are wonderful, and slightly absurdist. How can we not smile at all the human effort that goes into tending ‘the front world’?

At the same time, that final word, ‘rose’, pricks. And a ‘clipped hedge’ may make a great straight line – but ‘clipped’ itself is such a loaded word. Clipped wings. Clipped speech – which we deliver to each other when frosty and hurting.

It’s curtailing. While out back, there is so much of value. The ‘hen-run’ where we get our eggs, the ‘dunghill’ which nourishes the soil, the ‘dock-leaf clump’, which can calm a sting.

And I love those slamming doors. Whatever is seen here, it’s a fleeting glimpse – it happens rarely, ‘on a halcyon day’, and lasts only ‘for awhile’. One ‘draught’ and ‘without warning / from nowhere’ those doors all slam ‘shut in one go.’

It’s like the boundaries slamming closed inside us, and between us. We can’t help it: we all respond involuntarily to the subtlest currents. (Again, I think of my ‘house with no door’ – or with a door so closed it’s like no door at all?)

Which may make it ‘rare’ for us to catch sight of each other as we really are.

But once seen, we’re never forgotten, we never forget. And there is, at least, tenderness in that.

The Girl Who Cried is available from HappenStance – and on special offer for December.

PARALLEL LINES

Both my poetry collections – all three, if I include my pamphlet, The Long Woman – tell what I’m increasingly thinking of as my ‘understory’. There’s the public account we generally give of ourselves – the ‘how are you?’ ‘Coping, thanks’, ‘how’re the kids?’ version. The job. The family. The background. The how we look – ‘The smile I wore – my kind of clothes’ – as I put it in one poem in The Girl Who Cried. So, there’s this public face – our LinkedIn Profile. And then, well, for me certainly, there’s been a totally other story.

This is not to say the life people generally see is a lie: it’s not. Both are true. That’s the point. My family life, work life, social life – these are all crucial and crucially precious to me, and I’m honestly myself within them. BUT there is – and long has been – another true story. And this one isn’t so often told, and isn’t (probably, though what do I know?) nearly as visible.

It’s like my life has run along parallel lines. And I’m pretty sure this is more than the natural, and necessary, divide between outer and inner life. Noir, my first full collection, explores a time when that divide widened – when I was a teen and then a young and (yes, I now know) vulnerable woman. And The Girl Who Cried trawls right back to my very earliest difficulties, and then tracks their impact throughout my life. Both books attempt to surface and express the things I’ve found nearly impossible to say in other ways. Because I’ve felt I’m living this double life, of sorts, ever since I can remember.

I’m reminded of a strong image that emanates from childhood, when I suffered from double vision. One poem in Noir recalled the experience of repeated visits to Brighton Eye Hospital to attempt the seemingly impossible task of putting ‘the lion’ in one eye into ‘the cage’ in the other. I’d always wanted to write about this as it felt such an apt metaphor for my bigger difficulty: to bring my story and understory into the same frame, and hold them there, steady, together.

I, like millions, have watched and been moved by Brené Brown on her excellent evaluation of ‘The Power of Vulnerability’. I’ve taken on board, and taken seriously, her definition of ‘whole-hearted’ people being those who accept and acknowledge their vulnerability, know it’s ‘necessary’, and what makes them ‘beautiful’. And her insight that what stops us from managing this is, universally, shame.

Well, we can experiment with suspending shame, for a time. I really appreciated this review of The Girl Who Cried by Alex Josephy, on London Grip. She wrote: ‘Avoiding sentimentality and refusing shame, Charlotte Gann opens the box.’ And I’ve begun to wonder what it would be like to form writing groups – or be a companion, or critical friend – with others also curious about exploring their understories. Forge contexts where this stuff could be talked about – as naturally as what we’ve watched on Netflix recently, or what’s coming up in the garden. Where we write thoughtfully – with great care, and conversation – opening up (not blindly inhabiting) our understories. 

You may read this and recoil, think I can’t imagine anything worse. I, however, think this is a group I would like to belong to. A group where we explore what normally stays hidden and invisible: unsaid. Where we say it. And see where that takes us – and our writing.

A no-particular moment

IMG_20200726_111847006It’s funny isn’t it, how individual photos can really move us? A photo that’s in no way spectacular: an old blurred print, only 3½ by 4½ inches, taken at a no-particular moment. One we’d have discarded as uninteresting when the holiday snaps came back from the chemist.

Here’s one such, for me. Taken, I know, in summer 1981, when I’d just done my O Levels. We’re in Denmark: I’m standing; my sister Sarah (who was then in her mid-twenties and living in Amsterdam) is seated, in a white T shirt; her Australian flatmate Anne, in yellow beside her.

I’ve no idea why this photo so stirred me when I found it yesterday, but it did and does. Something about it looking like a film still? I really like the brown and yellow, almost sepia, colour scheme. I find it touching to catch this glimpse of us so much younger. (What am I even doing? Maybe putting a cassette into a tape recorder? Or opening a bottle of wine? Gawd knows…) 

A photo we just stumble on, in an old bag, stuffed between pages of a book, one of a bunch in a torn brown envelope, out of focus – not even taken in a place that means much to us. 

And no one smiling into the camera, not posed; just caught in some random moment. Three people. Being alive. Thirty nine summers ago.

TRUSTING QUIET

I’ve been thinking about this phrase. It seems potent to me. A relief. Especially for someone who has hungered for resonance.

I think about how it says – on the back cover of The Girl Who Cried – ‘Gann’s poems, which tackle risky subjects, do so quietly.’ (John Challis, Poetry School.) And of how small some of those poems are, crouched there on the page.

Family b&wI think of growing up the youngest of a big family, and how my two earliest cherished memories are of being alone in the quiet: once, in our sitting room, watching a spider plant cascade into the dusty sunshine; another time, when I was very young, out on the pavement watching snow fall by streetlight.

I think of the relief I felt finally living alone in a flat in my twenties in London – after that full house of childhood, and multiple shared flats and houses.

Of how much I’ve sometimes talked as a way of coping with awkwardness and empathy. How instinctively I mistrust ‘social media’, at a visceral level. 

How much of my life I’ve spent invisible, and silent about the things that have really hurt and shaped me.

How difficult it is for me, at times, to trust silence – and not reach out across it.

But how the Quiet trusts me – with its pillows and cat and light falling through a window. And how I trust it back: the gentlest, safest thing I know. Where work gets done.

One Point of Interest

One role I have in life is as co-editor of the Sphinx site where we publish OPOI – or ‘One Point of Interest’ – reviews of poetry pamphlets. I’m really pleased that one of our new reviewers, Jane Thomas, has taken the same approach, and written an ‘OPOI review’ of The Girl Who Cried. I can’t post this on the Sphinx site, of course – that’s only for pamphlet reviews. But I love this as an approach to reviewing anyway: it means just focusing on one aspect that you’re particularly struck by, and that only briefly.

Jane said she was happy for me to share her review – so here is what she wrote:

TGWC coverThe child inside

The crux of this glorious collection for me is:

How can I wake at fifty
with the same pain I woke with aged five? (p45)

The realisation that we always carry the child we were within us, with its most basic fears and traumas. That the adult version is just a build of years and experiences, like the stream of poems we find here.

Each page has a small square instead of a title. I think they may be small empty frames relating to the frame references – ‘unframed photographs’ (p60), ‘Your frame is f***ed’ (p53), and ‘Jesus Christ Almighty, I’ve been lugging this thing’ (p41) – but for me they also look like tick boxes: every year survived and ticked off. All the time the poet is just trying to survive: ‘Can I float?’ (p35).

It also feels like a study of the alienation that we all feel (maybe even more so in recent times). And the oft held belief that it is ours to deal with alone:

Nobody wants to know about me, or this.
Nobody. You want ‘an easy life’. (p9)

But when you read this collection you do want to know about the poet and her experience.

I grabbed your sleeve. I slipped pebbles
in your pockets: weighed you down. (p11)

Each poem slips a pebble to the reader, some shiny, some rough but they make you feel lighter – the assurance of common human experience. Some poems make use of psychoanalytic language hinting that the poet is speaking to someone and by the end of the sequence there is hope. It feels like now that the little girl has had a chance to cry, grieve and speak she is less likely to ‘drown silently’. In the final poem the poet is both loving herself and another and is being heard in the wider world. I suggest you join the audience and the journey in this inspiring book for alienating times.

Jane Thomas

 

How to frame a Conversation?

new frame_1One of the things I love most about poems is how they’re like little frames on the page. A poem can be like a picture on a wall: here is a scene, often with a twist. A collection can be like a gallery of one person’s work (an anthology, or magazine, is a gallery of a range of artists’). Of course the pictures have been hung in a certain order, in certain spaces, and in conversation with each other, as well as hopefully with their reader (viewer, as she wanders through). 

By writing The Girl Who Cried I’ve taken a gamble: I’ve hung an exhibition that’s tried to frame something fundamental from my own experience, and see if anyone responds with recognition. There’s the gamble: on it not being just me who carries this intruding burden, which is a particular kind of severe, anxious loneliness.

And frames have been important in my thinking. The thing I’ve yearned for, or think I’ve felt myself lacking, has been a kind of ‘framing’: a wish for someone’s understanding to ‘frame’ me. Hold me together. (This is matched by an equally primitive terror: the fear that I’ll get trapped, perhaps inside that person’s ‘frame’. A space that’s far too small and confined. A space that’s dangerous.) 

So, frames play out in this drama I am also trying to find a frame for. (A drama whose very nature feels pre-word.) How to find words to frame my experience?

IMG_20200617_093840021 (1)

I’ve tried – in my book. I’ve tried to document a lifetime’s navigating. With its title-less poems, each their own shape on their page. I’ve even added drawings – the thing looks rather like a room in a gallery, as you come in through the door, into its frame. And there are a couple of notices at the entrance: two epigraphs, and opening poems that sound an alarm, and lay the ground: The work you’ll find in this exhibition, they alert, concerns the artist’s preoccupation. And there are two key poems in the book which make explicit use of the frame-image, and a number more that do so obliquely.

But… things don’t fit neatly into frames. It’s been a long work-in-progress, a to and fro. How to find words to frame these things, when the experiences are themselves without the frame of words?

Another thing I love about poems: that they can frame sensation, felt sense, bodily trauma, not just thoughts. 

I find my poems wear their frames quite closely. There’s a claustrophobia perhaps – well, that is pertinent. A confined space inside the frame I allow myself, (too fearful to expand and speak).

But the other thing is this book is a conversation. It’s trying to provide the frame as well as explore the search for it: to be, or provide precisely the kind of connection it seeks. At the same time as keeping safe.

Everything passes_1And actually, yes, in writing the poems I have been having that conversation with myself. Crucially. And attempting, eventually, to render my wordless experience intelligible: to frame it in words. 

These poems are also in conversation with each other: albeit separated by the white wall between their frames. And they hope very much to be in conversation with a reader. A conversation that has started now.

I’m taking part in HappenStances Conversations with Poets series (a Zoom webinar), on 2nd July. See here for details, and to register.