December 12, 2012 § 2 Comments

I was asked by a friend recently, in relation to my poems about the Sheffield Flood (many of which focus on individuals caught in the catastrophe): ‘Why do you want to tell me this?’

I have to say I stuggled to answer: it’s a complex question, the response to which might be many more questions:

By ‘this’, do you mean the subject?  Of death?  Of the death of certain individuals?  Of the Flood?  The past?

Why do I want to tell you?

Why do I want to tell you?

All of which seems to play in some way on what we think poetry is: communication, vocation, invocation.  Possibly, it also raises the issue of entitlement, or responsibility: the bearing witness to the inner lives of people we know, really, nothing about.

My slightly glib answer, borrowed from Tony Harrison, was about giving voices to the voiceless.  I talked about Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang – his reimagining of the story of illiterate Ned Kelly, given at last the power to write his own truth.  I think I felt I needed to claim – as Harrison and Carey did – a local entitlement: some kinship identity which gave me the authority to tell these people’s stories.

On reflection, though, it is probably much simpler than this – or at least, while my motives had this social and political basis, my engagement with the subjects was psychological and physical: we all know what fear feels like.  For me, the work doesn’t begin with a phrase, as it does for many; more likely, there is an image (or several) and a feeling, an emotional response to the image.  In the case of the Flood poems, it was people, woken by a growing noise, not knowing what it was; and the feeling of fear that we can all recognise – but which at the same time we face completely alone.  It is from this vantage – awake / and with something coming in the dark – that I am able to move out into known and unknown territories of there and then, wanting/having to tell my friend, or anyone else who will listen, ‘this’.


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