Pauline Rowe is a poet living in Liverpool with her husband and six children. Pauline’s poetry has been widely published both online and in print, in, among others, The Rialto, Frogmore Papers, The Interpreter’s House, The Reader, Envoi, Dreamcatcher, Obsessed with Pipework, and Orbis. She has also published two collections of poetry: Waiting for the Brown Trout God (Headland Publications, 2009), and Voices of the Benares (Lapwing Publications, 2014). Pauline is researching for a PhD in Creative Writing at Liverpool University, works as Poet-in-Residence at Mersey Care NHS Trust, and is a founder member of the charity North End Writers.
In Pauline’s collection ‘Voices of the Benares’, the reader is drawn into the solemn tragedy made all the more harrowing by the stark presentation of facts through which characters rise as though on waves of a shared memory: the prayer of the Captain and his assertion, ‘My duty is to stay with her and die.’. The viewpoint of the crewman watching the ship sink, and the imagery and characterization of the ship and sea, leave a lasting impression like a flare in the middle of the ocean, ‘Nature’s Blitzkreig’ (‘In the Life-boats’),
‘…then she lights up.
One defiant burst of life,
a dazzling brilliance
as though she burned with rage
(‘A Crew Man Watches the Ship Sink’)
Maria: Pauline. It was rereading your collection Voices of the Benares which led me to want to talk to you further about that collection. I wonder if you can tell me a little about how you came to write the work?
Pauline: It started as a suggestion from the late Michael Murphy who was my MA Tutor at Liverpool Hope University. Michael was tough and honest about writing and about poetry and he helped me to throw away any vestiges of sentimentality I had about writing. One of his colleagues, Professor Stephen Pratt, had a music MA student, Dominic Gannon, who was looking for someone to write a libretto for his Benares cantata. So I started to find out about the tragedy – to read what I could. Then I found myself writing lots of material in strange and other voices, trying to think about what these people would say in extremis. I think about poetry in this way. What if this is the last thing I say/write? Dominic selected 5 pieces and the cantata was performed by the Liverpool Mozart orchestra in 2005. The other pieces wouldn’t let me go. When Liverpool was City of Culture in 2008 my friends from Liverpool Women Writers and North End Writers did a spoken performance in a local church, of all the pieces I had written by then about the tragedy. I decided to go back to it in 2013. Brian Patten was a wonderful help. He looked at the manuscript for me and made some astute and helpful suggestions which I followed to the letter. Who wouldn’t? But I didn’t have a publisher. Headland Publications under the editorship of the indomitable Gladys Mary Coles published my first collection in 2009 – but her schedule for 2014 was uncertain. The poet Angela Topping suggested trying Lapwing Publications – and they were very straightforward to work with. I sent Dennis Greig the manuscript and the book was published in Summer 2014. It had quite a wandering life before it became a book.
Maria: I’m particularly interested in your reference to other voices and the idea of writing in extremis. Has this continued to be a concern in your present work and study?
In relation to my present work and study – I suppose the link is the idea of the voice in poetry beyond the lyric, really. This is why I’m interested in Frank Bidart’s work – he’s a distinguished and remarkable US poet. His aesthetic could be described as the poetry of voice. For my PhD study at Liverpool University I’m working on a new collection of poems as well as a study of his famous dramatic monologue poems – Herbert White, Ellen West and The War of Vaslav Nijinsky. I’m hoping to complete the PhD in 2018.
Maria: You mention your interest in Frank Bidart’s work and the idea of the poetry of voice. Can you tell me a little more about Frank Bidart and his work and what drew you to want to research him and his work?
Pauline: It was his astonishing poem Herbert White that made me think he would be a good poet to study in relation to madness. It’s rare for him to use only the oral demotic – which he does in this poem. He presents the experience of a psychopathic-necrophiliac child-murderer in the first person. I felt drawn to him for his courage and the fact that his poem induced almost physical shock in me. I felt like I’d been kicked in the stomach. Any writer who does that has to be worth studying. He also manages to create and recreate voice in his poems through many layers of experience – autobiography, text, film, psychological case-studies, translation. He lets you into the most profound human experience while avoiding the difficulties of confessional poetry. He is in some ways a high-modernist and modernism is probably the greatest influence on me – through T.S. Eliot first, and Hart Crane, then Wallace Stevens. I grew up reading modernist American poetry.
Maria: Just listening to your mention of Frank Bidart’s work and his aesthetic of poetry of voice – I like that phrase – one of the things that struck me was the elegiac and prayer-like quality of the poems in Voices of the Benares. ‘Litany’, is, I thought, a fitting title to close the work in which a reference to prayer and faith is never far. I wonder, is elegy and a reference to prayer something that is of concern and interest for you in your work generally?
Pauline: We learn that the sacraments in the Catholic church are an outward sign of inner grace – which always seems to me to be a good description of poetry. It’s something Heaney says – and it rings very true in my own experience. I have the liturgy of the Mass wired into my bones, no matter how doubtful I am in terms of faith. Those rhythms have been part of my formation – so they have had an influence in my writing. Elegy is very important in the sense that it commemorates what is lost – marks it in profound ways. There’s an astonishing poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins The Blessed Virgin compared to the Air we Breathe which includes the lines:
Be thou then, O thou dear
Mother, my atmosphere;
My happier world, wherein
To wend and meet no sin;
There’s something in me that has always considered poetry “my atmosphere.”
Maria: ‘my atmosphere’ is a lovely term. It reminds me of the idea of being ‘in your element’ which is a phrase I remember from childhood. I wonder how your idea about atmosphere manifests itself in your work now.
Pauline: I am marked by my faith and find in prayer and liturgy rhythms and music that cannot be undone in my imaginative life. How can we write without reference to our own culture of words – including scripture? But I wouldn’t describe myself as a religious poet. I don’t write consciously about faith in God in my poems. There are poems like prayers in Voices of the Benares – many of the crew were what used to be referred to as Laskars – they were Muslim and Hindu – and there were many on board who were Christian and some Jewish. It seemed inevitable to weave in prayer-like poems when the ship was torpedoed and so many were killed. It’s also why I included all the names of those on board, and those who died. Also I was brought up in a working class family in an industrial town and as a young child my cultural heritage could be summed up as being the moon landings, the public library, the radio (especially the Clitheroe Kid and Sing Something Simple) and the changing liturgy of the Mass from Latin to the vernacular. Poetry came as a joy when I first encountered it beyond the nursery rhyme.
Maria: Was poetry ‘wired into your bones’, and part of your atmosphere as a child?
The first poem I remember reading was William Blake’s The Tyger. There was a miniature wood-cut illustration above the poem and I liked the eccentric spelling of tyger. I read the poem inside my head:
Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry? …
So much begins here - as alliterative invocation, as defiant challenge to the command ‘twinkle, twinkle,’ as a spell, a magical call to the wild, wide world of creation. Words on a page that I could hear somehow inside my own head as a voice, words composed centuries before that travelled through time to become a new personal experience. I didn’t know the meaning of all the words but I understood that the poem possessed a power through its sounds, its incantatory qualities and its complexities. It struck me like a spell and I fell in love with the defiant singularity of the encounter as well as the text, those words written in 1794 belonging to me somehow, a 6 year old, being raised in a Northern industrial town by a young mother who longed to be educated. I took the poem to my teacher, Mrs Hobday, and she asked me to read it aloud to the class. I was unafraid, articulating Blake’s words in front of 30 silent peers, even though I didn’t know what sinews looked like or what else in the world might be made of ‘fearful symmetry’. I was reciting something like a prayer with its thys, thees and ‘he who made the Lamb,” – and in its pronouncement I was protected from the fearfulness celebrated in the poem.
Maria: Can you tell me about your recent work and where you’ve had individual poems published. I wonder if you’ve continued to focus on elegy since the publication of ‘Voices of the Benares’.
Pauline: I’ve stopped submitting at the moment – I had a long sequence published in Envoi last year, and a couple of poems selected for the last Templar Poetry anthology.
But working on the study on Bidart is all-consuming and I don’t seem to be able to work on poetry at the same time as academic work. I have started with some poems linked to experiences of my own – and family – madness and distress but I want to spend a year on poetry once I’ve finished the Bidart study. I don’t feel that my madness poems (as I’ve taken to call them) are all linked with elegy. I see elegy as a kind of public lyric about private grief and the ideas I’m working with at the moment are questions of ethics in writing poems about madness – I don’t want to be an observer or take an autoethnographic approach. Also how can we write unreason? Poetry is not unreason in my experience. There’s too much nonsense talked about madness and poetry. Often we are the sanest of folks.
Maria: You’ve spoken about ideas around voices and elegy as a way of commemorating what is lost and of marking it in profound ways. As Poet in Residence for Mersey Care, I wonder, could you tell me a little about your role and how the idea of Elegy might be valuable in encouraging others to write?
Pauline: I’ve worked within Mersey Care delivering projects and workshops as a freelancer since 2009 and on the residency since 2013. It’s a large mental health trust. My main aim is to work with service-users (patients) to enable them to develop their own creative expression in language. Being unwell in mind or suffering distress is a pretty awful experience and one that many people have to carry. I have learned to manage my own mental health problems over the years – although I didn’t have a clue what was going on when I was younger. I am convinced that poetry can help us when we’re at our bleakest. I don’t mean that it is a cure. I’m doubtful about the many eccentric claims made for poetry as a palliative. But the connection of poetry, the experience of suffering that it can express, is of assistance when we suffer. In this sense elegy is a good starting point to understand that loss and pain are universal experiences. There is a lot to mourn when you’re in a madhouse – no matter how euphemistically the places are named. Institutional psychiatric care does society’s dirty work – categorising and containing people who have broken minds. Poetry can’t change the institutions but it can be carried inside – that’s why we learn by heart, I think. Once you have a poem you can carry it with you always.
Originally published in The Honest Ulsterman