A year ago I published Riddance, a book of poems, with Worple Press. It concerns my diagnosis and experience of cancer in 2006.
I was immensely excited to see the book published, not least because it appeared at the time as a kind of full stop at the end of my personal cancer-story. I now know that not to be true.
What I have learned since Riddance came out is that everyone’s cancer-story —and there are ten times more of them out there than you think— is unique and that every one of them is at some level wanting to be told.
Last autumn I drove up and down the country giving readings from the book, sometimes to four people, sometimes to twenty, sometimes in the company of other poets, most often alone. On every single one of those occasions, at least one person came up to me, at the end, in the interval, over the pretence of buying a book (which they did not always buy), to tell me how their lives had been shaped and changed forever by the diagnosis they had received or witnessed being received in the lives of their loved ones.
Sometimes our conversations remained at the level of exchanging information: numbers of years of remission; chemotherapy regimes; yearly or six-monthly check-ups; and was I still on drugs? I began on occasion to feel like a counselling-service on wheels. I recalled a remark Michael Laskey once made about poetry’s capacity to cut through the norms of social and conversational convention. I wondered if my poems were in effect becoming signposts towards a safe space of disclosure, purely on account of the veracity of my experience.
I longed for conversations about what writing researchers call ‘knowledge transformation’. I wondered how far readers and listeners’ attitudes had changed towards the subject of cancer as a result of hearing the poems.
Sometimes this was brought home to me with startling directness. A poet friend whose opinion matters to me greatly collared me at the end of one reading announcing that one of the book’s poems was ‘fucking good’. I chose to take him at his word, and said thank you.
My counselling analogy is not facetious. Having benefited from the after-care I received in this very domain on reaching remission I believe everyone should receive it, and for free, like I did. But in my rush to sell a book, I made the mistake of forgetting that most people were hearing my story, and only a fragment of it, for the first time. Somehow I misplaced my belief that poetry’s capacity to act as a kind of healing balm —in sung, story, or chanted form— is as old as grief itself.
The full stop I thought my book would be has turned out to be more of an ellipsis, therefore, as unfinished impressions trail off into silence, only to be broken at some later and not always sequential point . . . a memory, a flashback, the sad arrival of news . . .
As my ever-patient and generous editor Peter Carpenter kept reminding me while I was writing it, there is still more to say, still more to say, even after the talking is finished, long after we think the subject has been exhausted, and us with it.
Photo credit: Andy Robertson