Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Parallax with Sinead Morrissey: perspective through poetry in prison

For the last 8 months, read.live.learn, a community-focused literary initiative, has been running a shared reading project with the women in Hydebank Wood. During this time, we have established an engaging and dynamic weekly group who read and talk together. Primarily, we read for the sheer pleasure of the text, but the reading experience offers much more. Often, it is (unpremeditatedly) a catalyst for many things – identification, evaluation and re-evaluation, reliving, feeling, experiencing. We read, not to find some presupposed ‘truth’ of the text, but to discover its meaning potential – what it means for and to us.

We read good literature – books and short stories with depth that challenge us to think beyond the words on the page to what is often inexpressible or difficult to articulate in everyday discourse. We read Dickens (well, who hasn’t felt like Pip in Great Expectations, reappraising themselves when an impressionable character points out their flaws):

He calls the knaves Jacks, this boy!’ said Estella with disdain, before our first game was out. ‘And what coarse hands he has. And what thick boots!’ I had never thought of being ashamed of my hands before; but I began to consider them a very indifferent pair. Her contempt was so strong, that it became infectious, and I caught it.        

And, of course, there is always poetry, the ‘digging’ pen of Seamus Heaney precipitating the excavations of our own collective and individual consciousness.

It is 11th December - almost Christmas – and today we are welcoming Belfast’s first Poet Laureate, Sinéad Morrissey, to our weekly group. Given the context, a bit of seasonal ambivalence – antipathy even - is to be expected here (Christmas is a time for families, from whom these women will be separated), yet the women are pleased to see her. She begins by greeting every woman in the room – conversation is effortless. We have non-native English speakers in our group who, at times, struggle to make sense of the readings and the often fast-paced conversation. Yet, as Sinéad chats to them about where they’re from, she discovers that she shares memories of their hometown. ‘I’ve been there!’ she tells us, engaging the girls in a conversation about this lake, that bridge, this town, ‘Is that the one near the village…’, ‘Yes, Yes, that’s my village!’ squeals one lady. They are as excited as I’ve ever seen them, frantically translating Sinéad’s revelations to each other, chattering and laughing at their pleasure in connecting, so unexpectedly, with ‘home’.

Over polystyrene cups of tea, Sinéad offers out copies of a poem that she learnt as a child, Robert Frost’s ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’. With no copy of her own to read from, and in spite of what might well be its hundredth outing, Sinéad speaks it anew. In a room normally filled with the babble of voices (the women don’t get to speak to each other often as they don’t share the same landing) you could hear a proverbial pin drop. Jenny* is listening intently, eyes closed, head back. When she finishes, I half expect Sinéad to talk about the poem, its poetic cadences, what it means to her, to us. But she doesn’t. She says, simply, ‘well, did I get it right?’ This humble question, so incredibly powerful in a room full of women from whom opinion is rarely – if ever – sought, floors me and I can see the impact of its sincerity on the group. ‘You did’, confirms Maria*, ‘perfectly!’ offers Kate*. Attention turns to the poem’s theme as Jenny interjects, ‘I could see that – the snow, the cottage, the trees – feels like I’m there. It’s nice’. Nods of agreement follow, and Jenny’s comment momentarily transports me to the lines of another poem, this time by Caeiro, 
           Because I’m the size of what I see
          And not the size of my stature.

After some discussion, we move from the sublime to the sex. A few weeks previously, we read Sinéad’s poem, ‘Blog’, from her recently published collection, Parallax (“whereby the position or direction of an object appears to differ when viewed from different positions”, OED). The poem begins:

I don’t have girlfriends but I do have sex
with a different woman about three times a month.

During our initial reading, we had a range of responses from schoolgirl giggles (‘look at that bit, “It’s easy and clean and consensual”), to quiet reflection (‘but look there, he’s not that happy“Then it happens again. Loneliness’s overblown”it’s like he’s glossing over whatever pain that sex is covering up’). So, with Sinéad here, the women are straight in with it – ‘tell us about that poem, Sinéad’. Hoping for some salacious response (or maybe that’s just me), Sinéad talks about her inspiration for the poem (you’ll have to read it – no spoilers) and we are reading it again, a different story against the backdrop of the story that Sinéad has just shared with us. It is different, somehow. Even more felt.

We turn our attention to ‘Fool’s Gold’ and as Sinéad talks about the poem she is interrupted by Jenny who begins to read it aloud in full. Its ekphrastic form and (sometimes) archaic vocabulary (“glint and heft”, “the famed alchemical ingot”) mean that this poem is not the easiest one to read aloud for the first time, but she goes for it:

[who stole]
a rose from my
buttonhole, smilingly,
and then lifted it out transmuted
into gold – you proffered
the key and did
not know it

to a blissful
plenitude, my soul’s
ultimate, jubilant relief.

On finishing (‘did I do that ok?’) both she and Sinéad seem justifiably proud. The room is calmer, the women are thoughtful, all of them quietly engaged in poring over the words, drinking them in, feeling them.

This is not an English literature lesson or a linguistics class, for Sinéad is not here to teach. I can’t help wondering if it’s precisely because of that, that the women are so eager to learn from her, to know more (more than poetry), to discover how ‘Fool’s Gold’ comes to life, to understand how the form of the poem (‘I wanted it to look like a candelabra’) becomes part of the poem’s substance.  Everyone contributes and there are no wrong answers. We all feel like we have learnt something, not just about poetry, but about life. 

This is what powers our group every week - a sort of 'parallax', if I may graciously borrow from our poet. Sinéad's visit has brought a different perspective, a way of seeing in words and images the potential of what's out there, outside the page, outside the cells. Something good has come of this, something enduring. Appropriating her own words, in a way, Sinéad’s infectious, uninhibited wonder at the words on the page has been for us a kind of rejuvenative and fulfilling "noble elixir".

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

reading with Lucy Caldwell in Hydebank Wood Prison

On 18th September 2013, our shared reading group at Hydebank Wood Prison welcomed a much anticipated visit from Lucy Caldwell, author of the Arts Council's 'One City, One Book' choice, All the Beggars Riding. We have been reading the novel in our group for a few months now, a few pages one week, swathes of it the next. I read the novel aloud, as I do in all my groups, because we feel it better, that way. We savour the words, the sentences, the pauses and the gaps as they come to life through the simple act of being read ("no book 'exists' without a reader", says Caldwell). And we talk. We pour our own experiences into our reading(s) of the text; the text projects for us a new set of experiences that we map on to our own, and we keep going with making meanings until, somehow, we have reached a dynamic, multi-layered reality of which we are all a part, because it is one that we, organically and unselfconsciously, have all helped to create.

The women have really connected over the book, and Lara, the central character and narrator, is regarded as a 'friend', someone we have got to know, and to whom we offer suggestions, perspectives and reassessments - all this for a fictional character. Yet fictional, for us, does not mean unreal - Lara, like us, has to face real-world challenges, has real emotional responses; she endures, regrets, celebrates.  Feeling part of something is central to what we do in our shared reading groups and fiction, as Caldwell tells us, "allows you to live other lives", to participate in the realities that, were it not for this or that, could just as easily be ours.

We are sitting in the prison library, and Lucy has said hello to everyone individually. When she talks or reads from her book, she addressees each person by their name - not their surname, as is the usual habit in a prison, but the names by which these women are known by the people that care about them. There are some questions, tentatively, at first, then the eager, excitable chattering gives way to an immediate, voluntary hush as Lucy reads from the opening page: 

'You've waited for this day, counting down each morning, as you wait for every second Thursday. Sometimes the waiting - delicious, unbearable - is almost better than the day itself, when it finally comes. The waiting, now, is like a bubble in your chest, and you are light and breathless with it'.

This beginning is almost an ending, too. It suggests a kind of validation of the life Lara's mother led, that we as readers have yet to encounter: "You wouldn't change anything, you suddenly think"
In preparing for today, Lucy has included some material from authors that inspired her as a writer. Reassuringly unpretentious, she is comfortable with just leaving it with the women to read in their own time. One of the writers she refers to is Anne Enright, whose observations on literary openings and the worlds embedded within them reflect the simultaneity of beginning and ending that Lucy has just read. Enright puts it like this: 

"The beginning of a good book contains the entire book: your job as a writer is to look at that first page until you see what you have done; to stare and stare until your fractal sentences yield their inner fractals and you fall into the world that you have made."

'Falling into the world' is what we, as readers, do every week. A lady, for whom that world is very real,  asks Lucy to talk about the inclusion of the 'Chernobyl effect' section, which takes up the theme of unconditional love introduced in Lucy's reading; "I read this as Lara's way of proving - to herself, maybe - that her mother's love was real, that it was all worth it", our group member says. Herein lies our beginning and ending.

Explaining why reading is so important and why we need to be able to exercise our intellectual and emotional  'muscles', Lucy tells us that "the more you read fiction, the better those muscles get". One member of the group asks her about the writing process, where she gets her ideas from and whether she knew she wanted to write this particular story. Considering this "wonderful question" thoughtfully for a few seconds, Lucy responds with "you write, not because you have something to say, but to discover what you have to say". For us, reading is a discovery, too. We read to discover a way of saying, of knowing - of living, maybe. To know what it's like from somebody else's point of view. Mr Rawalpindi, Lara's creative writing classmate sums it up nicely - speaking about the writing process, and the need to make sense of the realities that Lara is trying to fix, desperately, into fact, he says this:

[Don't get] hung up on hunting and pinning down exactly what happened. Like a butterfly collector, you know, those poor dead creatures stretched and skewered to a wooden board. Let yourself be free. Imagine yourself into your mother and write from her perspective, what it was like, being her. When you don't know something' - he tried to snap his fingers - 'like that, just make a decision, use what comes most naturally to fill the gap, and if it doesn't work, replace it with something, until the thing seems to hold together, to ring truest'.

'Whatever rings truest'. That's it. We read to discover our own truest truth.

Friday, 12 July 2013

I've been reading with Sam H in the Helping Hands Centre in Belfast for almost a year. Like the other people in our small group, Sam meets with me weekly as part of a Lloyds TSB funded shared reading project. We read stories, poetry, books - literature that is deep enough to make us think. We've read Shakespeare, MacNeice, Smith (Stevie and Zadie), Dickens and Edward Thomas, to name a few. I read everything aloud stopping often to chat about what we're reading and to share the varied meanings it - and the chatting - generates.

When we talk, we discuss what the texts might mean; for us they are not existential, decontextualised black and white marks, but rather, they are reflections, invocations, reconstitutions, even, of lives that often intersect with our own. So we appreciate these stories, not just for their literary and linguistic qualities, but more importantly, for what they mean for (and to) us, and what we feel when we read and explore their meaning potential. We learn, too. Always something about, and from each other, and crucially, about ourselves. It's an incredibly powerful experience.

Currently, we are reading Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog In The Night Time. The story is Christopher Boone's, a teenager with Asperger's syndrome, who takes things literally and for whom metaphors are a kind of lie. He doesn't like his food to touch and won't eat brown things. Physical contact is rebuked and sometimes violently reacted to. Consequently, his world is, as my group put it, 'locked'; his perception of concepts, things and emotions is for the most part inaccessible to others; his dad and his teacher, Siobhan, come closest to understanding him.

Yet, this story is not just Christopher Boone's. It is the story of Sam H, locked in reality in a prison cell, most of his 26-year sentence spent in solitary confinement, 53 days on hunger strike, rendered 'emotionally empty' by bullish prison officers, hitting back by not communicating and becoming, instead, an elective mute. This story, is Sam's story.

Like the others in our group who are trying to find their way back to something that is both a semblance of, and better than their past lives, this story cuts across their own. At times, and perhaps more directly, it is the story of Sam's brother - understandable to few (mainly Sam) and understood to even less - for Sam, it tells of his brother's (and his own) frustration at the barriers to communication.

We have reached the part of the story where Christopher learns that his mother, whom he believes to be dead, is actually alive and living with an ex-neighbour in London. This prompts a surge of negative opinion that centres on the mother’s motivation for leaving and the father’s motivation for keeping it from Christopher. Up to this point, the group are - at best - derisory about the mother, particularly Sam H.  Poignantly, Tom, a young guy of about seventeen, offers a kind of rationale for the mother’s departure; 'maybe she couldn't cope with him and that could be why she had the affair and left'. We talk all of this out and acknowledge a difference of opinion in the group about the mother. Sam H believes her to be 'selfish', Sam M considers what may have 'drove her away', and at one point, a view is espoused that 'the da may have hit her' as it is recalled that he struck Christopher earlier in the story. A few 'Mmmms' follow this and Sam H emphatically intones 'He did that, yes, but he was trying to protect him [from discovering his mothers death was faked]', he said. 'You would do anything out of love'. We sense without it being said that Sam H is thinking about his own 'anything' - the years he spent in prison for the crime that he maintains was carried out 'to protect my son'.

But then we read the letters Christopher finds in his dad's wardrobe. They are letters addressed to Christopher and they are from his mother (he knows this before he opens them because of the childish circle over the ‘i’). His 'dead' mother. With almost childish honesty (both in form and substance), they relate, in part, her struggle with motherhood. As we read along with Christopher, something, almost imperceptibly, happens when we get to this:

“And then you and me had that argumant. Do you remember? It was about your supper one evening. I’d cooked you something and you wouldn’t eat it. And you hadn’t eaten for days and you were looking so thin. And you started to shout and I got cross and I threw the food across the room. Which I know I shouldn’t have done. And you grabbed the chopping board and you threw it and it hit my foot and broke my toes [...] And afterwards, at home, your father and I had a huge argumant. He blamed me for getting cross with you. And he said I should just give you what you wanted, even if it was just a plate of lettuce or a strawberry milkshake. And I said I was just trying to get you to eat something healthy. And he said you couldn’t help it. And I said well I couldn’t help it either and I just lost my rag [...]
          And I couldn’t walk properly for a month, do you remember, and your father had to look after you. And I remember looking at the two of you and seeing you together and thinking how you were really differant with him. Much calmer. And you didn’t shout at one another. And it made me so sad because it was like you didn’t really need me at all. And somehow that was even worse than you and me arguing all the time because it was like I was invisible.
          And I think that was when I realised you and your father were probably better off if I wasn’t living in the house. Then he would only have one person to look after instead of two.”

Sam M shifts uncomfortably in his seat. He says nothing. Syd barely voices a 'wow', but we catch it. It is Sam H who breaks the silence - at first, with a few words I can’t understand. He is trying to say something and for the first time in a year, I see that the text is openly affecting him. ‘See that’, he says, ‘that’s...’ and his voice trails off. Sam M gets up and goes to the other end of the room and turns his phone over in his hand a few times before coming back to his seat. Syd remains where he is, going over and over the lines. Suddenly everyone speaks at once and I can make nothing out. Then Sam H. confidently proclaims, 'I was wrong about her. I judged her. All this time...I thought she was a s***, but she's not. She's the opposite. Look at this...' He draws our attention to the letter and reads aloud (I look up, almost expecting to see him standing, but he is not):

“We [Christopher’s mother and father] had a lot of argumants like that. Because I often thought I couldn’t take any more. And your father is really pacient but I’m not, I get cross, even though I don’t mean too. And by the end we stopped talking to each other very much because we knew it would always end up in an argumant and it would go nowere. And I felt realy lonley”

‘It must have been really difficult for her’, Sam H says. ‘And the da doesn’t seem to be giving her much support. You can’t do that on your own. And if he gets on a bit better with the da, then she must have felt that’. At this point, Sam M interrupts, ‘she felt a failure - she thinks he did everything right for his son but never really supported her - that’s gonna make her feel crap’. Although Sam H is nodding in agreement, I can see that he is thinking about something else. I ask him.  He takes his glasses off, puts his book face down on the table and says in a confident, but quiet voice, 'I'll tell you something...THAT...is the first time in 30 years that I have felt emotion.' As I look at him, I can see the beginnings of tears in his eyes. But he was smiling.She sacrificed herself in a way, because she thought it was for the best. Look - (he points to the lines) And it made me so sad because it was like you didn’t really need me at all. Now that’s putting your kids first.’

We talked a bit more about this before Fleur Adcock’s ‘For A Five Year Old’, brought the session to a poignant, thoughtful close:

A snail is climbing up the window-sill
Into your room, after a night of rain.
You call me in to see, and I explain
That it would be unkind to leave it there:
It might crawl to the floor; we must take care
That no one squashes it. You understand,
And carry it outside, with a careful hand,
To eat a daffodil.

I see, then, that a kind of faith prevails:
Your gentleness is moulded still by words
From me, who have trapped mice and shot wild birds,
From me, who drowned your kittens, who betrayed
Your closest relatives, and who purveyed
The harshest kind of truth to many another.
But that is how things are: I am your mother,
And we are kind to snails.

As is normally the case in most of my groups, the personal stories become shared issues, brought to life through identification with the fictional characters, events, places, a word, even. I didn't know about Sam's brother before reading this book with him. Nor did I know about Sam's experiences in a Belfast prison. I had no idea of his claim to be emotionally empty before we read together. Yet all of these deeply personal and troubling issues found a means of articulation through the book. For Sam, as for most people in our groups, the stories and poetry offered a way of saying; 'it changes the way you think about things'. When the saying gets too much, too overwhelming, we divert our attention to the catalyst for the shared experience - 'so, about this kid's dad, then', Sam or Tom will say. And so it goes.

The following week, Sam H, self-proclaimed emotional vacuum, chatted excitedly to me as soon as I arrived. ‘Patricia, I have been thinking about that woman all week. How much she did for her son.’ ‘Who?’ I asked. ‘You know, Christopher’s mother!’ came the reply. So… about this ‘no emotion’.

Thursday, 21 March 2013

one city, one book, many lives

Lisburn Library hosted a special author event on Wednesday 20th March, 2013, and for Lucy Caldwell, author of All The Beggars Riding, it may even have been a kind of homecoming.

Originally from Belfast, Lucy visited the Library to talk about her third novel, which charts a mysterious life - or half-life -  in the city in the early '70s. It is a life that reaches to London and back again, but that, crucially (for the narrator, Lara) never quite rests in either place.

Engaging her audience with a refreshingly honest account of the writing process ('you need to hold yourself at the edges of your skin'), Lucy reminded us that fiction is 'the art of great empathy'.

Citing Henry James, Chekov and DH Lawrence as relevant to her own writing and reading, Lucy provided fascinating access into a process that pushes us to - and beyond - our own perceived limitations.

'It's not about writing what you know', she offers, 'but about knowing what you write'.

All The Beggars Riding is this year's 'OneCity, One Book' choice for Belfast.