Riddance is published today.
It is my fourth full-length collection of poems and my third with Worple Press. You can buy it direct from me by using the large Paypal button on the front of this site.
Here is an edited version of the Introduction at the front of the book.
I was formally diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer of the lymphatic system, on Valentine’s Day, 2006. I was 42.
The poems in Riddance concern my experience of diagnosis, treatment, misdiagnosis of relapse and remission of and from this increasingly common disease.
I did not begin writing the poems in this book until my treatment for it was nearly complete, in September 2006. It is no accident that this coincided with being able to concentrate again on previously taken-for-granted tasks, such as reading.
Any number of books explain from scientific and personal perspectives what happens when an individual is diagnosed with cancer, but this is not the same thing as describing the truth for the individual who is experiencing it. This is often found in more unexpected places: a nurse’s joke as she begins to inject you; a tin of brownies left on the doorstep by a friend; the offer of a lift by a neighbour. Not all of these things appeared in the accounts of cancer that I read before my course of chemotherapy removed my ability to concentrate.
I vowed when my treatment ended not to write but to read again.
Among my favourite books as I rediscovered the pleasure of reading were Julia Darling’s two collections of poetry, Sudden Collapses in Public Places (2003), and Apology for Absence (2004) (both published by Arc). Here at last was a voice I could trust, speaking directly with warmth, wit and a wry mordant humour. Here were poems – yes – about waiting rooms and treatment tables, but also about the joys of listening to Joni Mitchell and sitting in cafés. (Cancer can include these things too).
As I began to recover from my treatment and gain some kind of distance from my experience I felt compelled, emboldened by Darling’s example, to seek out metaphors which challenged and subverted the everyday discourse used to describe the disease. Some, the (to me, unhelpful) idea of cancer as a battle (‘I am Fighting’, ‘Probably Nothing’), I had heard used, and used myself, before I was ill. Others, such as the idea of winning and losing (‘More Chelsea Than Sunderland’, ‘Acceptance’), I came across serendipitously as it were, in the stories of friends. Other aspects of cancer are explored in the metaphors of transmutation (‘Heads’, ‘Man in a Fleece’); a doomed relationship (‘The End of the Affair’); and reincarnation (‘I am Becoming My Grandmother’).
Part Two of Riddance is a long poem in memory of my friend Lucy Mason. Lucy was a designer and maker of textile wall-hangings. She was diagnosed with lung cancer a few weeks before I was informed of my own remission. ‘All Lives, All Dances, All is Loud’ is the title of one of Lucy’s final pieces, and takes its title from a forager’s song from the part of Devon where Lucy lived.
The poems in Part Three of Riddance were written mostly in 2007, as ‘normal’ life returned. Some were started during the intense period of writing that yielded ‘The Year of Drinking Water’. Looking at these poems again, I am struck by how many of them deal with the borderlands between different landscapes. Again, I do not think this is surprising: it is quite common to read in the accounts of former cancer patients descriptions of it as a terrain or territory with its own rules and customs which are just as fixed as those found in the so-called ‘real’ world. The changes in the body, reflected in the natural world, become a space where symbol and reality meet, merge and finally dissolve.
When I began writing these poems the experience I had was one of surprise: I had thought that I had finished writing about my cancer, that there was nothing left to say on the subject.
This is also what I felt while writing the poems in the fourth section of the book, which begins on ‘estuary sands’ in that uncertain space connecting land, sea and sky. These poems share similar features in that they are very short, do not have titles and recursively explore the liminal terrain between waking and dreaming, work and family, light and dark. They were not written with any particular objective in mind, least of all to plot a linear narrative. Written (again at great speed) during a period of intense pressure at my place of work, I had no sense as I began writing them of the oblique map they make of the tentative territory of remission. Indeed, I thought they formed the start of a new collection of work altogether. I am indebted to Peter Carpenter for his patience as he helped me realise the potential contribution of this section to the book as a whole.
Some of the poems contained in the final section of the book were started in note-form before I was ill. These include ‘At Villars’, ‘Golf at Hawick’, ‘Against Realism’, ‘On His Last Ever Drop of Teacher’s’ and ‘Reasons for Life’. Reacquainting myself with them once I was better became a debt of honour to the vocation of writing poetry; I had no real ambitions for them other than to ‘finish’ them to the best of my ability. They have been placed at the end of this collection because, alongside some newer poems, they are an attempt to recover and celebrate all that seems most essential and affirming about the act of living.
You can read some early reviews of Riddance here.