Polly Atkin

shadow dispatches

Tag: New Year

The Rabbits Are Us: thoughts on 2016

 

 

IV

our touching hearts slenderly comprehend
(clinging as fingers,loving one another
gradually into hands)and bend
into the huge disaster of the year:

like this most early single star which tugs

weakly at twilight,caught in thickening fear
our slightly fingering spirits starve and smother;
until autum abruptly wholly hugs

our dying silent minds,which hand in hand
at some window try to understand
the
(through pale miles of perishing air,haunted
with huddling infinite wishless melancholy,
suddenly looming)accurate undaunted

moon’s bright third tumbling slowly

eecummings

 

Perhaps we should have known, when the January opened with the death of David Bowie, swiftly followed by the death of Alan Rickman, that this year was going to test faith in heroes and in possibility. Like the dolphins fleeing the doomed Earth in So Long and Thanks for All the Fish, they were the canaries in the collapsing mine of 2016.¹ In April they were joined by Prince, and people blamed the year itself, as though it were sentient, and angry with us for some unknown reason. As though we had messed it up.

I could say this accounts for the terrible presentiment I had before the Brexit vote, and again before the American presidential election, that the shared rhetoric of hate and division would triumph. I had a funny feeling in my toe: a feeling of blood creeping over the fields. The rabbits are us

I don’t normally write a yearly review. Who wants to know what I thought about the year? But this year is exceptional. Many people seem to be finding the events of 2016 hard to process. I process things by writing about them, so forgive me if my thoughts are half-formed or reaching without conclusion.

Viewers of the US sitcom Community will be familiar with the terms darkest timeline and gas leak year.

 

Both scenarios – for very different reasons (parallel world/chaos theory and the sacking of the series creator as showrunner for season 4) – result in people acting out of character in horrible, humiliating, destructive ways, and in events running out of control as a consequence.

 

 

2016 seems a convergence of both gasleak and darkest timeline. After the American election, I saw a number of memes referring to the darkest timeline, and to the time-travel narratives being evoked by Community. I saw tweets that blamed Barry Allen (currently messing up his own Earth in season three of The Flash) or called on Keira Cameron of Continuum to try and correct things (which never goes well, I should say). Many referenced the capitalist dystopia of Back to the Future II, not least because Biff was based on Trump.

The week that Trump took the White House, the salt in the wound for many was the death of Leonard Cohen. Two men who couldn’t seem more averse. Like many, I have felt this year that we are losing our wisest elders: those who can point to the crack the light will still come through, when all we find is darkness, and the death hour rounding it.

The year closed has closed with another spate of losses – George Michael, Richard Adams, Carrie Fisher, and then her mother, Debbie Reynolds. People who seem to have taught generations how to think, feel, believe in themselves, express themselves.

Perhaps the folly is hanging so much on so few. We need new heroes; new cultural leaders to show us a model of an inclusive, nurturing world, in which people of all backgrounds, abilities, ethnicities, genders and sexual orientations can thrive.

In the aftermath of Trump’s unthinkable triumph, people seemed to turn to the literary world,  particularly to poetry, to show them another way.  Two days after Trump was elected, we had our annual poetry month at Grasmere Book Group, and read, amongst others, the poem that opens this post. The group had chosen ‘love poems’ as a theme, to contrast with last years’ ‘war poems’, but as I tried to pick a selection for us to read I was finding it hard to think about celebrating love. The group helped remind me that this is one of the few things we can all do in times of darkness and hate: love well.

Meanwhile in the Canadian Literary world another darkest timeline was erupting, one in which authors normally associated with voicing the margins grouped together to support a creative writing professor over the students who had made complaints about his conduct. 

The writers involved claim only to be calling for ‘due process’ for the accused, but their letter, and the associated website, failed to mention the right of the complainants to due process, or a fair hearing, or for their experiences not to being automatically discounted by their seniors in the literary community. I was dismayed to read the names of many writers I admire deeply on that list; relieved to find some people reassessing their position and removing their names as the weeks went by; appalled to see some adding their names to the list instead. For writers – people who make their living and their lives not just out of words, but out of nuance and context and close reading – this letter showed at best a lack of attention to detail. Its language, tone and omissions wilfully misunderstood power dynamics and how words contribute to rape culture. It also made me think more highly of the role of editors in Canlit, if so many great writers could not see their own omissions and errors. Most of all, I was disappointed then horrified to see Margaret Atwood backing herself further and further into an untenable defensive position, in which she needlessly brought up the notion that ‘women lie’. 

Other responses from Canlit stalwarts were heartening, and show the kind of careful reading and thinking we expect of great writers (Maggie Helwig, Michael Redhill and Laurence Hill’s responses stood out for me in the first wave). As the year closes, the controversy is still raging, and has most recently evolved into a public questioning of Boyden’s claims to indigeneity, after Galloway’s  own apparent indigenous heritage was pulled out by his supporters to count in his favour. Boyden’s self-presentation as indigenous has been long queried by indigenous writers and communities, but I doubt this would have kicked off now if it were not for his part in the Galloway debacle, and what it revealed about how little he seems to understand gender relations and power dynamics on (or off) campus.

This call for justice gone horribly wrong played out in eerie parallel with Trump’s calls for apologies from the cast of Hamilton the same week.

These are times we all need to stop and ask ourselves if we’ve become our evil alteregos. If this is the darkest and most terrible timeline, and if so, if we are the baddies.

More importantly, even if we think we’re on the side of the good, are we doing enough to help those around us? Are we doing enough to protect the vulnerable in our communities? A positive result of this Canlit meltdown might be a much needed reassessment of some aspects of the teaching of writing, and of what is or is not acceptable behaviour in the mentor-guru focussed system we have. This is not, obviously, just a Canadian problem: anywhere we follow this model of ‘apprenticeship’ there is room for abuse, and far too much of it happening. As a teacher myself I am keenly aware of this, and of what my role may or may not be in preparing my students for the writing world outside university.

Some things much closer to home this year have also made me mull over how power is accumulated in the literary world, and how often this means hurting or exploiting others. It shouldn’t do, of course. And needn’t. This should go without saying, but some people seem to need it said over and over again, because they’re not listening. They think what their behaviour is fine because poetry demands it, or everyone else is doing it, or the same thing was done to them. The best writers I know are also the most generous, the most thoughtful, the kindest. It can be hard to be one’s better self in a world that can so easily descend into bitchy competitiveness, but we owe it to ourselves and each other to try.

Whenever I think of embittered, jealous, power-hungry writers, I think of them as having gone to the dark side of the force. Star Wars was one of the key texts of my childhood. I must have watched the original trilogy hundreds of times before the age of ten. As with Watership Down, I could quote huge chunks even now (anyone who knows how bad my memory is, knows how much that means).We collected Star Wars figures and toys, and spent many happy hours staging spaceship crashes and battles at the top of the garden.

Poets are much like Jedis – few people believe in them. The system of mentorship between Jedis forms a helpful parallel to that same model in creative writing, and a way for thinking about how we handle it from either direction. Those times I have found myself wavering towards the dark side – starting to resent other writers for their successes or blaming their successes for my failures – it is Star Wars that has kept me honest.

2016 has gone beyond satire, beyond science-fiction. If only there were a way to redo or unwrite the wrongs done, the wrong-turns taken, the misrepresentations, false steps, and time-line changing bad decisions. As yet, we cannot repilot life.

In the meantime, we have to learn to live better with what we have. Grieve for what you have lost, but don’t let grief turn you away from life. Be good to one another, and not just those you are already invested in and identify with. May the force be with you.

 

 

  1. I won’t go through the full list of cultural heroes who have died this year. I mention in this post those who mean the most to me personally, and this is no slight on those I do not mention. More importantly, this has also been a year of massive humanitarian disasters, and widespread loss of life, particularly during the ‘refugee crisis’ and in Syria. There is something gross about focussing on so few, relatively privileged people over so many, but I suppose it is about impact: we grieve for those we think we know. Maybe this means we need to do more to know more; to care more.
  2. I wrote the main part of this post at the end of November, and had no idea at the time that this mention of Watership Down, which is so often in my thoughts, would become so poignant.

The Old Year is Dead

IMG_65722014 seems to have been a year of upheaval and uprising, of extreme highs and lows, tragedies and atrocities, of revelations great and terrible. Natural and/or man-made disasters dominated local and global news. Planes fell from the skies, flood-waters rose, diseases flourished, people around the world were killed for being who they were where they were (students; black men; female; indigenous women; transexual; disabled …). Governments and government agencies were revealed as complicit in crimes against their own people, as well as others. Those in power were revealed as abusing that power. It sometimes seems that each year brings an escalation of violence and intolerance. Does it end? Is this sense of escalation an illusion? Is this how it has always been and always will be? Does it come to a head and subside? Do we learn to live better, with the world, and each other?

My own year has been a peculiar mix of surprising successes, big changes and ongoing difficulties.

Looking at it in terms of what might be termed ‘worldly success’, this has been the best year I’ve ever had.

I started my first full-time academic job in September.
I was granted funding for a Knowledge Exchange project.
I had a great time judging the first Wordpool Poetry Competition, and was delighted to see the winning poem turned into an animation in the Blackpool illuminations.
I won the Wigtown Poetry Prize (with ‘A Short History of the Moon’), the Andrew Waterhouse Prize for Poetry in the Northern Writers’ Awards, third prize in the Poets and Players Competition (for ‘Causeway’), third prize in the Battered Moons Competition (for ‘Heron/Snow’), and was commended in the Hippocrates Prize (for ‘The Test’).
My pamphlet was shortlisted for the Lakeland Book of the Year.

At times this has seemed implausible to me. When I had to turn down appearing at the Battered Moons Awards event at the Swindon Poetry Festival, because it was on the same day as the Wigtown Festival Awards Event, which I had already agreed to be at, I really started to question how this had all arrived at once. I’ve been struggling so much for so long, in so many areas of my life, I didn’t really know how to stop struggling and bask in these moments.

Behind each of these public successes are the picked-over bones of countless private failures. This should go without saying, but it seems too easy to forget how much we don’t see of each others’ lives in this age of social media. There were dozens of jobs I didn’t get; schemes I was rejected for; poems nobody seems to have wanted. I’ve been thinking a lot about this this year, and what it means to really succeed on one’s own terms. Sometimes rejections arrive at the same time as acceptances, and you don’t know how to feel. Sometimes all the seeming successes in the world don’t appear to move you forward, and you can’t work out what is blocking your progression or how you could do anything differently. Sometimes it seems that just being you is what is blocking your progression. Sometimes you may convince yourself that there is One Thing that will change your stars. Eileen Pun and I call this the Monkey Island Hypothesis – that you can do all that is necessary in any order, but if you miss one vital component you will never get to the next level. It’s hard to escape that feeling that you’re falling behind, or under.

As I’ve written before, whenever I feel like that, I remind myself that the work itself is the most important thing. It doesn’t matter if – like some of the poems that have done well for me this year – no one else appreciates that work for years. There’s a kind of pact you make with the work you do.

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The last few years have been very hard for me, in various ways. I’ve had very little income, and what I have had has been very insecure. I have suffered a lot with poor health. I’ve been in constant pain. I’ve been perpetually exhausted, in a way which is hard to explain to a healthy person.

In April I finally discovered that the devastating abdominal pain I’d been living with since November 2012 was a mixture of inflammation of my rib cage, and a broken rib. Through my own persistence, and the persistence and support of my GP and local physiotherapist, I was diagnosed, in October, with Ehlers Danlos Sydrome (EDS). I was also diagnosed with Postural Tachycardia Syndrome (PoTS), which is secondary to the Ehlers Danlos Syndrome, and elements of Marfanoid body habitus. Life in my body, my peculiar body, is beginning to make sense in a way it never has before.

I had to travel down to London and pay to see an expert to get this diagnosis (which effects not only me, but my whole family, as EDS is hereditary). I’m now waiting to go to various clinics which should help me manage some of the symptoms. The diagnosis is both a tremendous relief (to know what it is, and what it is not; to know better how to help and what harms) and a peculiar burden (it is me, or I am it). I am still adjusting to knowing that I have to accept this difference, and its permanence, and all the consequences of that. ‘Normal’ is a lost concept. I will probably always be in some degree of pain. I will injure myself doing ‘ordinary’ things. I will always get more tired than an ‘ordinary’ person does from the same activities. I might never be able to stand still for more than a few moments without getting dizzy and numb and sick, as all the blood in my body sinks away from my head and my brain, and can’t pump itself back up through my too-elastic vessels. My main task for 2015 will be to learn to live with this, in and with my body, now we can see each other for what we are.

I am already learning not to feel guilty about prioritising the things I need to do to do the things I’ve agreed to do (sleep as much as possible; swim as often as possible; don’t be afraid of the judgement of others at the times these are all you can do). Some of you may be familiar with ‘Spoon Theory’. Most days for me at the moment, there is no spoon. I am concentrating on bringing some into being.

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So 2014 for me has been a year in which things have come to pass I hardly thought possible. People I’ve never met have read and enjoyed my poetry. People I greatly admire have read and rated my poetry. I have a steady income going forward for a reasonably steady period. Moreover, I have been given the key to unlocking central mysteries of my own life, and those of my family.

There’s a lot of things I feel I’ve been failing at though. I don’t see my friends enough. I don’t even contact my friends enough. I’m behind with all kinds of writing and behind with all kinds of reading. I don’t get to as many events as I’d like to, and I sleep through a lot of life. Most of the time, I’m barely keeping nose above surface.

I’m going into 2015 with some fear and trepidation (and a persistent chest infection), but also more genuine hope than I’ve been able to admit to for a long time. I’ll do what I can on my part – concentrate on what I believe matters most – and hope – keep hoping – that this concentration matters. I hope for the same for all of you. For your wishes and work to matter. For your wishes to work.

I wrote this poem, ‘Forecast’, on New Year’s Day 2013. In February last year it was engraved on a window of the Globe Inn in Dumfries, another fabulous event in my poetry year, that I have previously written about here. I knew when I wrote it something was shifting, but it took so long, so long to manifest as material change. This New Year’s Day, it hasn’t stopped raining, and all bodies in the house slept peacefully into the dark afternoon. Despite that, I think the forecast works as well today.

Forecast

Last night the barometer predicted CHANGE
the stormy tail of the year passing over.
Midnight threw up stars and a 2/3
moon, scattered as hailstones after.

New year’s day sailed in as a fringe
of spring on a sculling cloud, word
from an unseen sun, blue displacing
blank, as from a vacuum chamber.

One swift shower. One magpie etching
spirals in the lightening air. Now
its partner, binary tail declaring
the arrow’s twitch to Fair.

 

The Old Year is dead. Long live the New Year.

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