Dr. Yvonne Reddick, born in Glasgow, has lived in Aberdeen, Berkshire and Kuwait. An award-winning poet and the author of three poetry pamphlets, Yvonne won a Northern Writers’ Award for poetry in 2016, was awarded a Jerwood/Arvon mentorship and a Hawthornden Fellowship in 2017, and has recently been awarded a Peggy Poole Award. Yvonne’s poems have appeared in magazines such as Stand and PN Review, and been translated into Greek and Swedish. She lives in Manchester and works as an academic researcher and lecturer. Her book on Ted Hughes’s environmentalism is published by Palgrave Macmillan.
Maria Isakova Bennett: Yvonne, it’s lovely to have this chance to talk to you about your poetry and the many facets of your work. We first met in 2014 in Liverpool, where I was immediately touched by your memorable and beautifully honed poems. For me it’s your use of language, arresting vocabulary, and the way you weave present and past that means I frequently return to your work. One of the first poems I heard you read was ‘Ermine Street’, which reveals your interest in history and language. I wonder if you could talk about ‘Ermine Street’ with its one foot in the present and another in the past, the genesis of the poem, and poets who have inspired such writing.
Yvonne Reddick: Thank you for your kind words about my poems, and for giving me the opportunity to discuss my work. My poem ‘Ermine Street’ is based on a ghost story from York, about Roman legionaries. I’m interested in how the past shapes us, and can offer us clues about where we might be heading. What can the decline of the Roman empire tell us about what might happen to current superpowers? As Britain braces itself for Brexit, would we be wise to remember that words like ‘Britain’ and ‘exit’ come from ancient Rome?
York is one of those cities where you feel that you can touch layers of history: the streets have Norse names, and the tombstone of a Roman standard-bearer was unearthed in a churchyard at Micklegate. ‘Ermine Street’ draws on a story told by Harry Martindale, an apprentice heating engineer who was working in the cellar of the Treasurer’s House in York. He claims to have seen Roman legionaries marching clean through the wall!
Oddly, Classical literature helped to foster my interest in poetry: Latin was one of the languages that you could learn at my school. The teachers gave us sections from Caesar’s self-aggrandising prose history, The Gallic War, to translate. We had to learn the words for ‘tortoise formation’ and ‘hobnailed sandals’. Those hobnailed sandals tramped their way into my poem, worn by the standard-bearer whose tombstone was discovered under Micklegate.
The most obvious source of inspiration for this poem is Heaney’s ‘Viking Dublin: Trial Pieces’, but it draws on a more eclectic array of influences too. I was remembering historical children’s books such as The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliffe, which I enjoyed at primary school. I read Kingsley Amis’s poem ‘Beowulf’ when I borrowed my dad’s schoolboy copy of The New Poetry anthology. I expect that it has influenced my method of taking words from other languages, although I now find that the Amis poems in the anthology have not aged well. More recently, I encountered Michael Egan’s beautifully made pamphlet, After Stikklestad, which encouraged me to explore historical subject matter. I took the poem to workshops for feedback; later, Zaffar Kunial, my mentor at the Wordsworth Trust, and Pascale Petit at the Poetry School, offered me very generous suggestions.
MIB: I’ve enjoyed reading and rereading Translating Mountains enormously. The poignant poem, ‘Sexton Beetle, Glen Feshie,’ is another poem which I heard you read in York. In this poem too, I admire how you move from present to future. I wonder if you could talk about the use of time / chronology in your work?
YR: Memory and mourning are my main preoccupations in Translating Mountains: it’s a sequence of elegies for my father, a keen hillwalker. ‘Sexton Beetle, Glen Feshie’ uses the historic present tense for vividness, but I suppose it also captures something of the experience of traumatic memory. Structurally, Translating Mountains explores the work of mourning, but with two flashbacks in the middle: an account of the Alpine travels of one of my French-speaking ancestors, and an elegy for an old climbing friend of mine. My previous pamphlet, Deerhart, moved from the geological past and through literary history to the present. Why shouldn’t a sequence of poems pay as much attention to chronology as a work of fiction?
MIB: I love the way your poems in Deerhart pay attention to chronology. For me this beautifully intense and rich pamphlet contains poems full of the pleasure of language which are given time and space. I love the contrast of the work in that although only composed of seventeen poems, each is a world in itself. Deerhart has the brevity of a pamphlet but the weight of a collection.
I recall seeing the exhibition of Diana Zwibach’s work and hearing you read from Deerhart, and wonder if you could talk about the process of collaboration which led to this memorable pamphlet referencing Plath and Hughes at its core.
YR: Speaking of collaboration, I couldn’t have written that pamphlet without Zaffar Kunial! As I’ve mentioned, Zaffar mentored me at the Wordsworth Trust, when he was Poet in Residence. He has a keen editorial eye and a generous way of telling poets about great opportunities – he was the one who encouraged me to apply for the Jerwood/Arvon mentoring scheme. I have happy memories of discussing the line breaks with him, over a pint of Wainwright Beer.
MIB: That’s great to hear. I think that finding a fellow poet you’re happy to share work with is extremely important for development. Can you tell us more about the Wordsworth Trust?
YR: It was at the Wordsworth Trust that I saw some of William Wordsworth’s poetry notebooks. I also knew that the Trust had Dorothy Wordsworth’s journals, which I’ve read. Those old notebooks contain amazing traces of their lives. One page of William’s notebook is covered in scribblings by his children! The portrait of Coleridge in Dove Cottage inspired my poem ‘The Black Drop’ in Deerhart. Someone with a quirky sense of humour has left a vase of dried poppy seed heads at Dove Cottage for that other opium eater, de Quincey – and I mention the poppies in the poem too. I was working in the British Library’s manuscripts department to complete my book about Ted Hughes when I wrote many of the Deerhart poems, and I was thinking about the archives and afterlives of writers. You can see ink-blots, doodles of fish and bison, and coffee stains on Hughes’s manuscripts. Some of Plath’s belongings, including braids of her hair, are kept in the Lilly Library in Indiana, and I’m told they have an even more haunting quality – although I should admit that I’ve never actually seen them. There was no way that I could resist writing about those archives, although that sort of work is always a risk. I suppose my project in Deerhart is about hunting traces and unearthing remnants.
MIB: I’d find it difficult to resist writing about archives too. How did the process of collaboration develop for you and Diana?
YR: I’d written most of the poems in that pamphlet before I started working with Diana Zwibach, but when she asked me if I’d like to collaborate with her, I was enthusiastic about creating shared work and taking the poems beyond the printed page. I met Diana in a printing studio at the University of Central Lancashire. She was printing Hebrew prayers and portraits of her family onto mirrored panels. I was fascinated by what she was doing: she was making memorials, creating visual poems, and confronting the viewers with their own reflections.
I asked if she could create some artworks in response to my poems, and the drawings she did are really striking: full of movement. I love the sparseness of the colour palette that she has used. Most of them are in charcoal, which has an amazingly elemental quality. When our exhibition, Deerhart, opened at Summerhall, Edinburgh, a curator there said that Diana was one of the best artists in the UK, for drawing. That reminded me of how lucky I was to be able to work with her.
MIB: Yes. I recall the strong qualities of Diana’s work from seeing your work at the launch in Preston. To return to Translating Mountains and the heartfelt elegies in the work there, you’ve been working on a project ‘…helping bereaved people to use expressive writing and poetry to achieve catharsis and creative satisfaction’. This is something close to my own heart and I wonder if you could tell me something about your project and your sense of the value of expressive writing in this context.
YR: I have been running a writing for wellbeing group for bereaved people at Preston’s Harris Museum and Gallery. I work alongside a colleague who is a qualified counsellor. The aim is to create a friendly and supportive environment to talk about loss. We have been reading recent poems about grief, writing our own, doing expressive writing exercises, and drawing inspiration from the Museum’s art and artefacts.
Most of us will experience loss and grief at some point, but it seems to be very difficult for people to talk about it. Bereavement can even cause people to become isolated, because their friends don’t know how to discuss their loss with them, according to the charity Dying Matters.
However, many poets have broken the silence surrounding grief: Karen McCarthy Woolf, Mona Arshi, Rebecca Goss, Pascale Petit, Nick Flynn and Mark Doty, to name just a few. One of the oldest poems about mourning that I know of is Gilgamesh’s lament for his friend Enkidu, in the eighth tablet of the Epic of Gilgamesh: 3,000 years old at least! When I hear what Karen McCarthy Woolf has to say about the public and private aspects of mourning, or read about Christopher Reid’s awareness of the stages of grief, I am reminded that these writers are responding to a long tradition of poetry about loss. Poetry is a particularly useful literary form to start discussions about grief because we turn to it at funerals, or at times of collective mourning: at anniversaries of the First World War, or after the Manchester Arena bombing, for example.
When you write creatively about loss, you can make things up for literary effect, or inhabit the voice of a character because you don’t want to reveal personal information. Expressive writing, on the other hand, is where you write freely to vent your feelings about a traumatic event, but you also reflect on your experiences and explore why you might have reacted in a particular way. It’s a method used by psychologists such as James Pennebaker and Joshua Smyth. They write that people who respond well to expressive writing say that their psychological wellbeing increases, but they also report fewer visits to their doctor to treat physical illnesses. These benefits last for about four months after a short course of expressive writing. Joshua Smyth’s explanation for the improvement in people’s physical health is that expressing difficult emotions can reduce our stress levels; stress leaves us more susceptible to physical illness.
Expressive writing doesn’t have to be shared with anyone, and it can be written just for you. But while expressive writing is unstructured, poetic forms can help us to structure our thoughts. In Dylan Thomas’s famous villanelle, ‘Do not go gentle into that good night’ or Karen McCarthy Woolf’s sparse sonnet, ‘Mort-Dieu’, the form is a crucible that holds in a charge of searingly powerful emotions. Poems lend themselves to sharing in a way that expressive writing does not: people might want to read an elegy for a loved one at a funeral, or publish a poem about trauma in a magazine. There’s a sense of satisfaction that comes from creating a moving and well-crafted poem. Work by the poets I’ve mentioned, along with Kevin Young’s anthology The Art of Losing: Poems of Grief and Healing, have helped me to design writing exercises that use these poems as touchstones for inspiration.
Both expressive writing and writing elegies have certainly helped me. In the future, I hope to design writing worksheets that can be used by anyone who would like to try creative and expressive writing during the grieving process.
MIB: It’s wonderful to have this exploration and historical context concerning distinctions between expressive writing and poetry in helping in the grieving process. I certainly find expressive writing of immense help and agree that there’s a sense of satisfaction in creating a moving and well-crafted poem.
This interview has been a delight, Yvonne. Thank you. I feel inspired, stimulated and hopeful about writing, collaboration, and about poetry in particular, and imagine others reading this will feel the same. I wonder, before we finish, could you talk a little about the inaugural Peggy Poole award which you recently received and about plans for your writing during the year ahead.
YR: Thank you for mentioning it, Maria! I’ve been very lucky to win the Peggy Poole Award. At the award ceremony, I spoke to Peggy’s family and friends – many of them poets – and they were really enthusiastic about it. They founded the award to continue Peggy’s legacy as a poet, broadcaster and mentor. I’ll be mentored by Professor Deryn Rees-Jones as part of the award, and the two of us will do a joint reading. Deryn’s work has so many fascinating themes that resonate with me: animals, cityscapes, painting, women’s experiences. She writes eloquently and beautifully about grief. Deryn edits Pavilion Poetry, and I’m looking forward to benefiting from her sharp editorial eye. I’ll be taking my first steps towards putting together a book manuscript, but that goal’s a long way off – I’m going to wait until I’ve got it right!
Yvonne Reddick’s pamphlet Deerhart is available from Knives Forks and Spoons Press, and a sample, including Ermine Street mentioned here, can be accessed online: http://www.knivesforksandspoonspress.co.uk/deerhart.html
Translating Mountains, published by Seren in 2017, can be purchased at: https://www.serenbooks.com/productdisplay/translating-mountains
and her work, Ted Hughes, Environmentalist and Ecopoet, from Palgrave Macmillan is available at: https://www.palgrave.com/gp/book/9783319591766