A poem about togetherness - then everything changed. Prize-winning poet Jo Haslam talks about lockdown
Congratulations to West Yorkshire poet Jo Haslam, who recently won the Teignmouth poetry festival prize with her poem ‘The Kiss’. And commiserations that because the poetry festival was cancelled, the prize ceremony was, too. No doubt Jo, a thrice-published poet with an impressive competitions track record, took both pieces of news in her stride, in these extraordinary times. Yet her prizewinning poem – written, of course, before the pandemic – is about a particular physical way of greeting her granddaughter that is denied to her during the lockdown. We at Write Out Loud thought we might take the opportunity to gauge her views and reflections, to hear how one poet is affected by the present crisis. Thanks, Jo, for talking to us.
How has life changed for you at the present time? Does it enhance or hamper creativity, do you find?
The answer to your first question is, quite considerably. My week is usually very busy as I do child care for my daughter who is a teacher, so I am in and out of the house for school runs and looking after my granddaughter until my daughter gets home. I also have relatives in Manchester to whom I make regular visits. All this has stopped, of course.
As to how or whether this has enhanced or hampered creativity - the answer to this is much less straightforward. I find restrictions or deadlines can be a spur to creativity. One famous poet (and I can't remember who just at the moment) said of his writing – “I tie myself in chains then do my best to get out of them.” At the moment those chains are being imposed on us, and yes, I find I am writing more. Obviously more time in which to write is a factor, but the change in routine also plays a part, as does anything that shakes us out of our usual way of noticing and responding to the perceived world. Whether this will continue as we gradually become accustomed to present circumstances will very much depend on how quickly (or not) those circumstances change and our individual response to them.
Do you find you are writing different kind of poems during these times?
This is also a difficult one to answer. The true answer would be, I don't know yet. I think the response to the pandemic in terms of writing is very much tied up with the kind of writer one is. Some poets I know (and don't know) have already written brilliant poems about it.
I haven't written anything specifically about it yet but I am wary of trying to unless the urge to do so is overwhelming and I feel I have something that needs to be said. Having said that, yes of course the lockdown/virus and everything that surrounds it will have an influence on my writing, whether I am immediately aware of it or not. Also I take quite a long time to write poems, so again the subject may eventually find its way more recognisably into them. This is a big thing, and for me at least will take time to digest.
Another consideration in this is our individual experience of the situation and how it impinges on past as well as present events in our lives, as well as our situation. I am lucky. I live in a village close to open countryside. I have a garden, albeit a small one, so my experience will be vastly different to that of someone who lives in a flat in a city, or indeed in another, less prosperous country.
Do you miss reading your poems live? Have you taken part in many or any poetry events online yet?
Reading poems live! Always a terrifying experience for me, so no, maybe I don't miss it. Again it can be a brilliant experience if the response is positive, so yes, maybe I do. No poetry events online so far, whether owing to technical ineptitude or introversion I can't say - but suspect the latter. I am though looking at NaPoWriMo2020 (National Poetry Writing Month - poetry prompts etc) and occasionally managing to write a passable poem from the prompts. I don't perform well in workshop or spontaneous writing, but often write something better later.
I understand that you used to work as a bibliotherapist for Kirklees libraries. I can guess at what that means, but how would you describe the role? How important are books for us all at this moment?
My role as a bibliotherapist was to work with people with mild to moderate mental health problems using books and reading as a support. This – briefly - involved setting up groups for discussion, social interaction, reading aloud and writing in libraries and health settings. There was of course much more to it, but this would need an interview in itself. Every group however was different and the way each one was run was tailored to fit the participants’ needs. But the overall aim was to introduce or in many cases reintroduce books and reading into the lives of people we worked with. Books are important to us for many reasons, but most importantly, and particularly for the people we were working with, they are able open up other worlds to us, and allow us to connect with the people who inhabit those worlds and understand or share their experiences.
At the moment books are vital to us - as a means of connection (as mentioned above) and as a connection with each other. Many online sites at the moment are recommending and discussing books. They allow us entry into other worlds as I said previously but also allow us to use our own perception and imagination. How many times have you said of a book that has been televised, made into a film - I didn't see him/her like that, or,? that's not how I imagined it. And there are so many books to choose from! They don't all have to be profound; humour, escapism, romance are great. I like a good crime novel myself.
Poetry seems to mean more to people during these times. You hear it more on the radio and on TV. Why do you think that is?
People have always turned to poetry in times of crisis because it “tells us what we didn't know we knew”, and clarifies, expresses, pinpoints our loves, desires, griefs - the whole gamut of human emotion, in fact - and says what it has to say about them (if it is good poetry), memorably and with precision.
Poetry speaks the truth, and we need truth if we are to see clearly. Another poet whose name again escapes me said of writing, “he speaks the truth who speaks in pain”.
by Jo Haslam
When I ask she lifts her head, touches her nose
to mine, the way her Arabic grandma
has shown her. I love the delicacy of this.
It brings to mind the horses, two greys
in the field on our way home; how they run
into buffets of wind, their soft whicker
as they meet, proffer their cold noses
to each other. How they stand in the openess
of sky and bending grass, pale manes blown
across their necks. How they are attentive
to each other. And I hope that I can love her,
my granddaughter, with this same kindness
and economy, the one touch to say everything;
love her also with a lift under the arms,
boisterous into the air, the way the horses swing
their heads. And with delight
because she greets me with the same thing;
and passionate, the way I loved her mother;
but more because her mother is grown up
and she’s so small; and intimately,
courteous, touching nose to nose,
tender as the speechless animals.