Interview with Alice Willitts
Cheryl Moskowitz spoke to Alice Willitts about her poetry collection ‘Dear’, which was selected as the pamphlet winner for the 2018 Magma Pamphlet Competition.
To get yourself a copy of ‘Dear’, please click here
CM: It was my great pleasure to work with you as editor on your pamphlet Dear, which won the first ever Magma Poetry Pamphlet Competition in 2019. Dear, is about a mother daughter relationship but also, it seems to me, about preservation and regeneration in the widest sense. The poems are set in the last years of your mother’s life. Can you tell us something about the genesis of this collection?
AW: Oh Cheryl you’ve no idea how wonderful it was for me to have you as an editor! The subtle but absolutely on point queries that you raised, your attentive reading of the work. It was wonderful to have somebody who did that marvellous thing of stepping into my intention and asking whether I had achieved it. You were very restrained in your edits in fact but so careful in what you were considering. So yeah, that’s a long winded thank you for having worked with me on the manuscript as you did.
Dear, is in many ways a negotiation with silence, with absence. The narrative recreates in some artificial way the chronology of the losses that led to death from dementia and my adjustment to my mother’s absence. As I gave birth to my first child, she realised she had Parkinson’s disease. From then on, we experienced a year on year demonstration of small children gaining language and physical skills as she gradually lost hers. There was a poignant moment when my youngest son was three and his function and skills were perfectly matched with my mother’s for a few months, then she continued to have less and he of course continued to gain more. That was when I really started saying goodbye in earnest, but it was still years before she died.
The poems reflect the pleasure of accompanying someone you love deeply towards the death you know is coming. ‘Pluck’ for example previews loss with unraveling lines unravelling language in the subject matter, and yet the stanzas themselves in ‘Pluck’ still have body and solidity. By the time the collection reaches ‘In worn out shoes you drift south’, the security of memory that opens the poem in short, tidy lines leads into the distress of couplets that cannot hold us – every line is either a beginning or an ending dropping into silence – while the content relentlessly moves forward until the poem shunts off-centre entirely and the lines and content meet each other in a sort of unhappy puddle. It’s a visually uncomfortable poem that doesn’t hang together properly – because yes, that’s what new grief is like.
In the final section of the book, after her death, the pages tentatively try to gather lines into something more comfortably poem shaped! ‘It’s you I want to tell’ flags up the struggle for control of grief with its internal instructions as it explores the kind of catastrophic remaking of the world that happens after you lose the person who made you, who taught you what the world is. The poem requires that the reader become surrogate mother, one I can tell, one I can swear at even. When I read it now, I feel tender again for the anger as well as the sadness, the way I wanted to yell, “can’t you all see how the world is not the same now!”
CM: Dear, encompasses a wide range of landscapes, emotional and physical, stitched together with a number of different threads. These include quite literally the language of stitching and sewing material but also the other kind of sowing, planting seeds in the earth. What is the relationship for you between these two activities?
AW: Oh, that’s a lovely question. Yes, I can see now that the stitching in Dear, is all about undoing, unravelling, picking apart the fabric of a life. I was so terrified, as was she, that one day the piece of fabric that was me would be lost and she wouldn’t know me anymore! In my collection With Love, (Live Canon, 2020) published a year after Dear, I dug deeper into the sewing metaphor, looking at how the garment of a close relationship is mended over and over to keep it intact, and allow loved ones to keep growing. Also, in With Love, I look at what intimate love can do in the face of climate crisis — which should actually be called human crisis because it is our peril we’re obsessed with, the planet will be fine once we’re gone and new forms of life will no doubt emerge.
Dear, considers what it is to be part of a world that is vanishing. In my mother’s vanishing, her dementia, there were so many parallels with behaviour around climate crisis. Dementia is a form of slow death. It’s like seeing all the elements of a body dying in ultra slow motion. We like to imagine the end of all humans as an apocalypse, as a dramatic and sudden event whereas we’re really in a slow-pocalypse that has been accruing its losses gradually and determinately over generations. In the same way that my mother’s dementia diminished her faculties over decades, with micro extinction after micro extinction – handwriting, loss of language and capacity to understand everyday things, all the way through to the inability to swallow or breathe. I have this very keen sense of what is happening to the planet being thematically linked to my own lived experience of her dementia. I can’t see the one without seeing the other and so that’s how those two things became stitched together.
I don’t know how many people reading this will have spent time with the dead body of their loved ones. For me, bathing and preparing my mother’s body after death was profound and deeply precious. The cooling body under my hands is the one that carried me. This connection contained a kind of magic, a healing after all the pain that had come before. It was deeply strange though too. Such absence. The precious body that would not breathe again, would not say my name.
CM: The cover image for Dear, is of a body, through which we can see other organisms. Bodies, in some real or imagined form are present throughout the pamphlet, human bodies, bodies of water, sea creatures, and of course the bee which features as a ‘stamp’ that separates sections in the book. What is the bee’s significance?
AW: Bodies, yes, and the bee. The bee is important but let me start with the bodies. Bodies are it! They’re where we live and everything we encounter has to run through the body into the earth – the earth is where our precious minds end up! Writing poems is a way of paying attention to what our bodies must do. Breathe, for example. Lines, white space on the page are all ways of measuring time. My poems do have body on the page too. In Dear, there are a few concrete poems, where the shape is an actual torso. These literal body poems are really asking for a focus on the physical condition of the body at that time. I remember a real and desperate need to take my mother outside which was impossible, a refusal I had to live with for months and months. It ate at me that she would never feel grass again, that it would never feel her.
As I re-read Dear, now, I’m struck by just how many ways I came at reparation. There is a consolation woven into this book. A way of repairing the things that were broken but un-mendable. I looked hard for the beauty in her broken state and I found it. Tenderness is so important for me. You can’t die for someone else but you can participate, accompany, be alongside. You can’t really make it any better or easier for them but I’m so glad I found ways to be my mother’s companion. Not to correct her version of what was happening but to step into it too, to validate her in this ‘broken’ state.
The book reflects this holding of the broken and beautiful more widely for me. Can our planet, can nature be beautiful to us now that we see it as broken? I’m against the fixing mentality, the ‘make the problem go away’ thinking. There’s already too much denial, let’s not add to it. Here we are at a point in ‘civilisation’ where work is needed to reassess how to take care of and respect other versions of what the human is, what nations are, how we are failing each other and well, this is not a fixable issue but repair, yes. I too often hear people describing their experience and being corrected. It’s painful and deeply frustrating to be silenced. We have this great new word, gaslighting, which I love. It’s so imagistic and strong. Being ‘gaslit’, ‘oh he’s gaslighting you’, yes! I love that it embodies the old technology so it instantly implies looking backwards, relying on what was known not what is known now. Language is so powerful.
CM: And the bee?
AW: Oh yes, thank you, the bee. My mother had a magnificent wedding ring which was a thick gold band with a bumble bee engraved in it and I adored it. I loved seeing the worn away shape of the bee but she wore the ring less and less as her hands swelled with medications and then later she was so thin it would fall off. Then one day, it was lost, and it became quickly apparent that I minded much more than her! [laughs] She was losing objects and faculties all the time by then. The bee has become my spirit animal and somehow relates to overcoming impossibility. When you think about it, the bumble bee is so improbable. This big furry body not at all suited to flying that propels itself nonetheless with a flapping of wings too small to carry such a large creature. The comedy of the whole endeavour endears the bee to me greatly. In ‘Dear,’ it performs a function of the clock of the book, a visual code for time. Companion to my mother, spirit animal to me, the bees in the poems crop up at symbolically significant moments of transition.
CM: You touched on language just now and I’d like to return to that. The formation of language in Dear, is very particular. It seems to me that it is both fluid and disjointed, a representation of what is continually there and what is missing. Syntax and meaning are not fixed, individual words sometimes dissolve and melt into one another and you make frequent use of caesura and erasure. Can you say something about this?
AW: All the ways language contorts and evades us in communication is crucial. It seems so obvious to say language is the best tool humans invented, I mean we use it all over our lives, in private and public ways but what happens to a person when language fails, when the tool won’t work? What I suppose caught my attention was just how dependent we are on agreement. And in fact, how provisional words are then. Dementia reveals a whole other logic for description.
There’s a poem about the terrible pain of her trapped in herself, her little bird feet scrabbling after me in cruel memory of an agency she no longer had. The harsh erasures in that poem were significant to me. As I was editing I was very aware of my ability to decide what was in and what was out. To show that, on the page, was such a powerful contrast to how trapped she was in reality.
CM: ‘Rachel Whiteread casts your corpse’ is one of my favourite poems in the pamphlet. Art critic Marina Vaizey recently said of Whiteread, “Her work is determined to make us see the overlooked and the invisible.” I think the same could be said of your work as a poet. I know your mother was a visual artist too. Can you talk about the relationship for you between poetry and visual art?
AW: Thank you, that is such a key poem, perhaps the key poem really thematically. I do think that our job as poets, artists, is to make the obvious mysterious again so that we can be curious about what we thought we knew. The Rachel Whiteread poem leans into the problem of solving vacated space. Her works of sealing all escape routes and then pouring plaster into derelict or vacant spaces to reveal their inner essence resonated when I faced the illogic of my mother no longer being embodied. And I was angry I suppose, angry at any and all the suffering she’d had to endure, I wanted to find a poetic spell for that upset. Pouring imaginary plaster into the vacated body was for me, a fitting tribute to my mother who was an artist and a way to connect with her mischievous spirit. All the poems in this collection are exquisitely personal – they all contain slips of information that mean only something to me and her. But in that specificity, they are somehow open to everyone.
When someone who holds the first and most specific version of you in their being, when that person dies, it sounds obvious, but you vanish too. I think one of the reasons we resist the disappearance of parents is that that particular version of us will disappear with them.
This poem is trying tenderly to solve the problem of vacated space, as Marina Vaizey says, Whiteread is concerned with what we didn’t pay attention to. It struck me as I moved about the room in the days she was dying and around her corpse in the days after death, that the way we’re expected to react to death is not the way I was experiencing it. Her death was a huge relief, she was released from suffering and I knew she was no longer in distress. This death was not sudden. Her last years were awful and I wish she’d died sooner, for her sake.
CM: The title is like an unfinished address. How did you know this was the right title for your pamphlet?
AW: I started grieving her while she was alive because we were losing each other in certain ways, and she was losing the world in ways that were terrifying to her. And because I have a strong instinct for recording, for keeping an account, I wrote about the experience of accompanying her. I’d say we shared that instinct for retelling the ordinary in interesting ways because it was my mother who taught me how to write letters. What order you write things in and what you should cover in the first paragraph and what comes in the second paragraph and so on. In other words, she taught me a structured way of accounting for myself. The more I lost my mother, the more the poems became a symbolic way of still writing to her as we had in our previous separations.
So the title, Dear, is both ‘my dear’ and ‘you are dear’ and ‘Dear’ in the way we might open a letter. The pamphlet is my last letter to her, to the part of her life that she couldn’t document herself.
CM: And finally, I wanted to ask you about the last piece Appendix which is an explanatory note and also a poem in its own right, a ‘poendix’ perhaps?! I’ve never seen this done before. This, along with so much else in Dear, is pure Alice Willitts. I would love to hear how you arrived at this.
AW: Oh, a poendix – I’ve invented a new form! [laughs] Such a strange formulation, isn’t it the appendix? The idea that when you’ve written your thing, you might provide context for what’s come before in this factual space, none of which is essential to understanding the main work. It’s comical really, isn’t it? And also pompously superfluous.
This prose poem pokes at facts that crop up in the book. The certainty of the form asserts this or that to be true, or truer that what has come before but it isn’t of course. I wanted to say to the reader, what you’ve read before is in all the important ways truer that the facts.
‘Appendix’ is also full of barbs and scratches, the things she rejected or lost against her will, and wishes that couldn’t in reality be fulfilled. In the poems that come earlier, I did address her living desires, in some way making repair for the damage that couldn’t be achieved for real. Such as burying her in my garden as she wished, restoring her lost wedding ring with the bees, taking her back home to Trinidad. There was so much it wasn’t my place to restore but the things she’d asked directly of me I could address in the poems.
I like the idea that in a book that grapples tenderly with the ways maternal relationships matter, that I could subvert the usual, factual obituary which is a piece of writing that I feel bears poor witness to the lived experience of the life in question. Dear, is certainly anti-eulogy! I was not at all interested in euologising my mother, nor in elegy, I was and am interested in entanglement, how mother is daughter is mother is earth is carbon is nothing is something is life is death.
I opened the book with a ritual to remember how we’ve been doing the ordinary work of dying with each other for ever. It is unusual now in England to sit with our dead, to handle their vanishing. I was lucky to do these things at home with no hospital corridor or officialdom to pass through, no barriers. There was her pain and there was her death. Five years on I still can’t believe she’s not here, everyday it is a surprise again, but it hurts less.
Cheryl Moskowitz/Alice Willitts June ‘21
Alice Willitts is a poet and plantswoman from the Fens. She is the author of Think Thing: an ecopoetic practice (Elephant Press, 2021), With Love, (Live Canon, 2020) and Dear, (Magma, 2018). She graduated with Distinction from a Poetry MA at the University of East Anglia as a mature student in 2018. She was shortlisted for the Ivan Juritz prize in experimental modernism (2018) for a collaboration and she co-edited Magma 78 on the theme of Collaborations (2020). She lives in Cambridge where she is co-founder of On The Verge Cambridge, an action group engaged in extensive planting for pollinators across the city and runs the #57 Poetry Collective, examining poetic craft round her kitchen table. She is most recently the co-creator and editor of the DIRT imprint from Dialect, commissioning plantable poetry collaborations. As a garden designer she has worked in private and public spaces making gardens for people who love plants and wild playgrounds. She grows her own garden entirely from seed and is currently writing about the experience. Alice does not like biographies, her books are where the interesting lives. www.alicewillittspoet.uk