FORWARD PRIZES: When did you start writing poetry and what drew you into it?
ALICE HILLER: I started experimenting with poems the year I turned fifty. I had written freelance journalism, non-fiction, a PhD and reviews. But I never found a way to explore my own life, which was profoundly shaped by the experience of being groomed and then sexually abused by my mother from my earliest childhood. I began an obliquely autobiographical novel during my forties, but the voice did not work. Then, aged forty-seven, I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. In hospital for surgery and very unwell, I saw the tumour as a black mass which I placed in a boat and sent down the Thames. This somatic act reconfigured my creative process. Afterwards, the prose of the novel I was working on began to break down into fragments, and then poems. I understood that I could take the materials of my own life, and directly send them out into the world. Being cut open to remove the tumour somehow gave me permission to open up the subject of the childhood abuse – which shame and silence had held within me. I wanted to give creative witness to the crime to which I had been subjected.
FP: Please talk about your development as a writer of poetry.
AH: To begin with, I felt very uncertain whether I was ‘entitled’ to write poetry. I enrolled on Pascale Petit’s final course at Tate Modern because I knew and valued her poems. Writing in response to Marlene Dumas’s paintings, with Pascale’s prompts, in quiet corners of the closed galleries, and then sharing the material with the other poets on the course, showed me I could make work that existed beyond my difficult childhood experiences. The course connected me with the sense of play and experiment, and working with material objects, which has become integral to my process.
From there I enrolled in more courses, and applied for a mentored Arvon retreat with Pascale Petit and George Szirtes. They gave encouragement, along with insights into the editing process. With Romalyn Ante, Yvonne Reddick and Seraphima Kennedy, I was very lucky to be awarded a Jerwood-Arvon mentorship with Pascale Petit. Over the course of the year, and through both the meetings with Pascale, and the community of my fellow mentees, the manuscript of bird of winter began to take shape.
In parallel, I developed my process through workshops, and also by interviewing poets about ‘saying the difficult thing’ in their work on my alicehiller.info blog, and reviewing for harana poetry and other publications. I also founded the ‘Voicing our Silences’ workshop collective. It is a free meeting space for poets working with complex materials. We now have fifty members. Alongside this, I began to perform live and publish and get new reactions to my work.
FP: What does being shortlisted for the Felix Dennis Prize mean to you?
AH: Because I only started writing poetry aged fifty, I hope that my shortlisting will encourage other poets working with complex materials, to see that, whatever your age, you can claim your space as an artist. For decades my own material felt sealed within me, out of reach and inarticulable. Even when I started to frame the work, I was told that grooming and sexual abuse in childhood was not something people that would read about. I would like bird of winter’s shortlisting to strengthen others who have experienced societal, familial or industry resistance to their work.
FP: Please tell us about the creation of your shortlisted collection.
AH: The opening poem of bird of winter, ‘o dog of pompeii’, was also one of the first poems I wrote, although I continued to work on it over time. I needed an image for how I was taking memories from my childhood and making them visible through the medium of art-works. What came to mind was the plaster dog cast out from the void his body left in the ashes that I had seen it at the British Museum. The dog became me, and also the “chained hound of my underworld” whom bird of winter excavates and documents.
Another important early poem, begun on a trip to Dieppe to revisit a good part of my childhood, was ‘bains de mer’. This remembers swimming in the sea with my French bonne maman or grandmother – “two breathing corks/ in the churn of the channel”. Her love was part of what allowed me to come through very difficult times. I knew there needed to be poems of nurture threaded through the collection — like stepping stones to help the reader navigate the darker elements, and offer moments of respite.
While attention is now given to sexual abuse, the anticipatory grooming, which makes a child unable to refuse their abuser, remains less well understood. I wanted the collection to document how this can come about. ‘st james’s park in autumn’ was written in a park I used to visit with my abuser. It describes how “the double ducks/ swim glued breast to breast// one is held under/ the other rides on top.” In ‘let none of this enter you’ I recall taking a bath with my abuser as a small, undefended child.
My father’s death from motor neurone disease when I was eight was a catalyst for the abuse to intensify, and a moment of immense personal loss. Poems about him include ‘phare d’ailly’, remembering the lighthouse I saw from my bedroom window at my bonne maman’s house, and ‘libation’ and ‘rue de l’aurore’, which go back to our life in Brussels when he was alive. They catch the desolation of his absence, but also the residual power of his love. The collection registers how this ultimately helped me find my way back to myself.
When it came to depicting the sexual abuse, I wanted to be careful to treat it in a way that gave safety and agency to both reader and writer. To create a measure of distance, much of what happened is refracted through working with found materials from Pompeii and Herculaneum, including a sequence of hand-done erasures, which were one of the final parts of the collection to come together. Each one was made over the course of a single intense day with multiple re-drawings.
Poems including ‘this happened during winter/ inflicted disaster’ were arrived at by blacking out most of the words of the found passage, with a heavy felt tip pen. This reveals the hidden narrative threaded through the text, in the way that sexual abuse can lie concealed within the daily lives of children. At the same time, the erasures look something like crossword puzzles, generating an element of decoding and play for the reader – even as they carry some of the saddest moments in bird of winter. By hand-forming the erasures from found materials, I also wanted to hold within the collection the way that the story is my own, but also shared by many.
This element of dark playfulness is also integral to the concrete poems, including ‘sagittae’, ‘pistil’ and ‘her door is missing’. They respectively make the outlines of arrows, a pistol with bullet, and a doorway. To settle their phrases into meaning, I found they needed to assume the sorts of shapes a small child might draw before she could even write properly. This also helped me to feel I was making a space for my own childish inarticulacy, and undefended-ness, within bird of winter – alongside my weaponised anger.
Another key theme that I wanted to explore, and give creative witness to, was the dissociation that trauma may precipitate. This absence informs both ‘black river’, and ‘remnants/ silvae’, where I write that “a body remembers/ in the only language available”. Disassociation, and the consequent difficulties in speaking of what has happened, can influence how professionals involved in the safeguarding of, and care for, peoples with histories of sexual abuse, understand the implications of this crime.
To attempt to bridge this gap, ‘the needle’s eye sews red silk’ interleaves the Criminal Justice Act’s Sentencing Guidelines with my own ‘impact statement’. A number of poems refer to my recovered medical notes, including the title poem ‘bird of winter’, which reports a remembered conversation with the psychiatrist who treated me. Others similarly respond to my experience of anorexia, and also to the vulnerability I experienced as a teenager in the aftermath of abuse. The poems incorporating medical notes often contrast what I experienced with how I was perceived when I could not speak.
Running through the collection are a sequence of poems about birds. I wrote them without initially noticing their common theme, including the two which give the collection its title. Early on, there are frozen, or overwhelmed birds, as in ‘snowfall’ and ‘st james’s park in autumn’, and then predated birds, as in ‘primary or classical anorexia ’. They move upwards towards images of flight, as in ‘tessellation’ and ‘bird of winter’. One of the final poems, ‘oiseaux d’hiver’, for my father, meaning ‘birds of winter’, traces the collection’s passage from love to loss and predation, and then forwards into reclamation.
My final poem, ‘o goddess isis’ came together in a moment of joy on the train back from Liverpool in January 2020, after Deryn Rees-Jones had told me Pavilion would like to publish my collection. The poem reflects bird of winter’s oscillations between life and death, and darkness and light, in terms of the rituals performed in Pompeii to Isis, which were revealed during excavations of her temple. The collection ends reclaiming the body as I ask Isis to “beat me into the sky/ on hawk wings”
until the stars
of your nipples dissolve night
until the hems of your tunic
reveal the sunrise
FP: Which poets do you admire most and what do you value in their work?
AH: Over the years, many poets, and indeed writers of fiction and non-fiction, have nourished my work and expanded my sense of the possible – from Sappho as translated by Anne Carson, and Ovid in parallel texts, onwards. The first contemporary poet who spoke to me at a deep level was Elizabeth Bishop. I absorbed the slant-ness of her queer perspective, and also her ability to create a three dimensional experience for the reader to enter and reach their own understanding. Bishop’s practice informed my decision to leave space for the reader’s own collaboration with the text, rather than trying to create a definitive statement.
Among 20th century writers, Paul Celan, Ana Blandiana and also Herta Müller are seminal figures for me. Their ability to take materials which would seem to defy articulation, and make forms of art to hold them, as Toni Morrison does in Beloved, is fundamental to innovation. I read widely among contemporary poets from Khairani Barokka, Jay Barnard, Kayo Chingonyi and Will Harris to Rachel Long, Rachael Allen, Romalyn Ante and Nina Mingya Powles, to name but a few who are UK based. I am always enriched by their work. Four who I return to over and over again are Nuar Alsadir, Bhanu Kapil, Sasha Dugdale and Vahni Capildeo for their ability to incorporate multiple voices and languages and make the page different and radical. New names who light my way include Isabelle Baafi, Belinda Zhawi, S. Niroshini, L.Kiew, Julie Irigaray, Maia Elsner and Natalie Linh Bolderston.
FP: What is next for you as a poet?
AH: I am currently working on two projects. My second collection, still at a very early stage, opens where bird of winter closes. Its central process is my exploration of inhabiting my bi-queer adult female body, in the aftermath of same-sex abuse in childhood. It traces claiming my sexuality, pregnancy and motherhood, through to the ovarian cancer and full hysterectomy I experienced in my late forties. I also want the work to respond to how being opened surgically released new layers of tissue memory around my childhood trauma – and initiated this creative project.
As bird of winter‘s themes were explored also through Pompeii and Herculaneum, this second collection is framed by the cults of Demeter and Persephone on the adjacent island of Sicily, the landscapes of the island including the cult sites, and the histories of the excavations around the two cults, which led historically to mass-produced votive offerings, and informed the island’s subsequent engagement with Catholicism. The poems will also look at representations of the two goddesses, up to and including the present day.
Separately from this, I am working on a poetry/prose act of memoir documenting my first eighteen years. The premise is that life as we experience it contemporaneously is as white light – whose individual wavelengths we cannot distinguish. Memory however can act as a prism, separating out the re-imagined experiences into their different wavelengths, and making visible what was not initially seen. The chapters are named for colours.
In addition to this I will interview poets about ‘saying the difficult thing’, and facilitate the ‘Voicing our Silences’ workshop collective, while continuing to review. I am also working with the NHS to use bird of winter in conjunction with my medical notes and direct reflections to create a series of podcasts supporting medical professionals working with peoples with histories of sexual abuse in childhood.
FP: What advice would you give to anyone starting out in poetry today?
AH: For anyone starting out in poetry today, I would advocate that you work as freely, playfully and non-judgmentally as possible. Also try and read plenty of work by other people – to get a sense of what’s going on, and where your voice sits. Prompts can be very helpful for finding your way into an un-premeditated creative space, whether given within a workshop, or found free online. Classes are also valuable. They can be found live and online from a wide range of organisations from adult education to specialist providers. Bursaries are often available. While you need to be careful not to drown out your own sense of your work, joining an ongoing workshop group can also be sustaining. One route is the stanzas listed on the Poetry Society website. Once you’ve gathered some material together, it’s a matter of experimenting with publication and live performances. The Poets’ Directory is a valuable source of information. Most importantly, you need to keep a spirit of adventure and discovery. Good writing – and let your voice be heard.