Chester poet Gill McEvoy has published two (now sold out) pamphlets with HappenStance, Uncertain Days and A Sampler, and two full collections, The Plucking Shed (2010) and Rise (2013), both from Cinnamon. I talked to her at length about poetry, writing more generally, and the natural world. This is the first part of the interview - the second half will follow next Monday, along with some poems from Rise.
Rise feels like a very natural progression from your first book; there's no trace of 'second collection syndrome' there. Was inspiration easy to find?
Thank you for that. I took considerable pains to avoid ‘second collection syndrome’ in putting the collection together. In terms of assembling the collection perspiration was more apt than inspiration! I worked very hard at considering the order of poems, rearranging many times until I felt they were about the best I could do. And then paring them down, a process greatly helped by the luxury of time at Hawthornden.
What I really wanted to do with this collection was to put the cancer experience to bed once and for all. I touched on it in Uncertain Days and more so in The Plucking Shed, but as you will appreciate, that diagnosis was one of the greatest shocks of my life. To learn that you may only have three months from diagnosis to leaving the planet is pretty scary. I hardly heard the proviso that followed which was that an immediate and brutal regime of chemo would have to be undertaken in hopes of saving my life.
It did, and I am so grateful for that! I wanted in Rise to include poems about that experience which were more wry, although still truthful, and to suggest some humour too. The poem Conservatory is rightfully the "farewell to all that" poem, after which I wanted to go on and celebrate the living world (cancer, peculiarly, is a great stimulant, since time to do things becomes incredibly valuable and valued). I included the sequences Nuala and Almond St to indicate firmly that cancer and the memory of it do not dominate my life. My work, I hope, has a wider range than that.
Inspiration comes often from the smallest things – the way a bird bathes in the bird bath, the way a leaf falls from a tree. I always have half an eye on what's going on beyond me, which is why I burn so many saucepans!
I think you very much succeeded in the aims you outlined there. I'll come back to the Nuala and Almond St poems a little later, and to your approach to the natural world, but I'm interested to know a little more about your working methods. You mention the value of time at Hawthornden – is that sort of 'time out' something you look for once the poems are written, or is it a source of new poems in itself?
Ah, working methods… hmm. Have to say I am a bit chaotic in that respect, having no set time when I write, and at the same time I’m prolific. Lines on scraps of paper, in various notebooks; scribbled poems the same. Every first draft is done by hand and as I write and think very fast I often can’t read the finished result unless I transfer it rapidly to the computer. After which, lots of redrafting! Like many other writers I have a love of good paper, splendid notebooks, fine pens, and stationery shops. I use Pilot pens, Hi Tec-point.
What keeps me grounded is having set challenges with two poet friends, a fortnightly one with Sheila Hamilton and a regular Monday morning one with Judy Ugonna (except in the summer months). Sheila and I take it in turns to set a theme, sometimes specifying format/ length and voice as well. Judy and I simply try to send each other either a new or reworked poem each Monday plus comments on the previous week’s offering.
However, it is a very different matter when it comes to putting a collection together. I work extremely hard at this, placing the poems, jiggling them about time and time again to get the best possible order, paring them down, re-reading, asking friends to proof-read them for silly mistakes/too many repetitions etc. Amazing how you can make a mistake with the layout of a title for example, and so easy to miss when you’re busy thinking about the meat of the poem itself.
I really do like to be away from home to do this – I need silence and no interruptions so I like to have only a good light and a large table or floor to spread work out on. No phone, no radio, no computer. TV? Well since I do not even have a TV at home that’s not an issue!
My Hawthornden Fellowship was wonderful in that respect – even the responsibility of meals and laundry was taken from my shoulders, leaving me utterly free to work, and to use the extensive poetry library there in complete peace. I loved every minute of being there and really didn't want to go home at the end of it.
I have also been very lucky in having two incredibly generous people in my life with cottages that they have loaned me occasionally to write in. In both of these I have managed to produce a very large body of work. Both places are in deep countryside with good opportunity for wildlife watching and that's given birth to many new poems.
Lastly, I do have to refer to the huge impact my illness has had on me. There is no whip to drive you like the knowledge of your mortality. I came very close to leaving the planet, and although I was fortunate and recovered, like many others who’ve been through cancer, I know time may not be on my side.
I think the experience of your illness also comes through in the way you approach your nature poems – there's a great immediacy to them, a reality, but also a fragility. There's been debate lately about whether nature writing can ever be more than consolatory, but I'd guess you'd disagree with that? (I certainly would!).
Your question seems deceptively simple but really it is one of the hugest questions to be asked. I instantly dispute the word ‘consolatory ‘ – who are we to expect nature to console us when we’ve done it so much damage – very clear in the fact that when you drive a long distance these days the car windscreen does not get covered in insects like it used to. Remember the days when your screen-wash only spread them further about the glass?
I’d like to tell you about something I witnessed one summer not so long ago. The soil in my garden is sandy, and I have a bird bath near enough to the kitchen window so that I can watch but not be intrusive. Three sparrows had a busy time dust-bathing and then all three capered in the bird bath water to clean themselves; it was, for me, a joyous sight. Then, so swiftly I wondered if I’d really seen it, a sparrow-awk flew in and bingo, only two sparrows lived to flee into the bushes nearby. Nature in the raw. I don’t bewail that, it’s how creatures survive, or don’t survive, in the food chain. And to see the female sparrowhawk on reconnaissance on the garden fence is an awe-inspiring vision; its white chest feathers blowing softly in the wind, its scaly yellow legs, powerful claws, vigilant huge yellow eye that misses nothing – well, breathtaking.
And I think that phrase ‘awe-inspiring’ is the key to how I see nature; I use my ears, my eyes, my sense of smell, touch and sometimes taste, in my apprehending of it. I often carry a pocket lens – “all the better to see you with, my dear”! So much to see, so much to learn, so much to rejoice in. It’s a privilege to be alive to witness the small daily miracles of the natural world.
I don’t think of my poems of observation as “nature poetry” but as poems about the remarkable world we live in. The very term “nature poetry” seems, sadly, to be slightly derogatory, as if the poet can write of nothing else. I feel it's one of the most important topics to be writing about these days when the very balance of nature is so under threat.
My illness may have coloured my poems about creatures to some extent – everything is fragile, including ourselves – but I was already a keen observer before I was ill. But now I do feel it all so intensely, extremely so.
I’d like to quote from the poems of Jaan Kaplinski:
The roof leaks,
the kitchen door won’t close, there are cracks in the foundation…
One can’t keep everything in mind. The wonder is
that beside all this one can notice
the spring which is so full of everything
continuing in all directions –
That expresses perfectly something of the way I feel – and that 'way' is certainly coloured even still by fear of there possibly not being enough time to do/see/write down everything I would wish to.
Lastly I remember one evening in the last hospital I was in, a cottage hospital where I'd been sent to 'convalesce'. A friend visited and I was that evening able to accompany them to the door. We opened the door onto the biggest, reddest January moon I've ever seen in my life. We both gasped. Suddenly I felt so small. And utterly overcome with awe. That's what nature does for us, reminds us of our own insignificance. Not a bad thing; not a bad thing at all.
That's a fantastic answer, and exactly what I was hoping for. I agree totally about the 'consolatory' charge (it was levelled at Richard Mabey recently), and that even the term 'nature poetry' is wrong – it implies that what's being written about is somehow separate from everyday life, and it's that attitude that I think is to blame for many of the dangers facing the environment. Let's move on to the Almond Street poems - what was the original inspiration behind them?
The birth of the Almond St poems was really quite surprising: I was running a workshop in Chester Library, in the Reference room upstairs. Outside the window we could see the top half of a helter skelter, plonked down in the city as part of the Christmas celebrations. Suddenly a young woman in the workshop stared at it and announced that it made her feel very lonely! Her comment caught in my mind so firmly that when I got home I began writing these poems and adding to them some previously written poems loosely based on my own childhood memories (Puddles is one, Fifteen Minutes of Fame is another), and also thinking about things I'd watched children do or tell about. Children behave in such engaging (or infuriating) ways. It's interesting watching the difference between what children do and what adults think they should do. The MacDonald's poem is from direct observation of an incident. So is the Christmas Market. So my Nuala is a kind of 'universal child', and I think many more poems might appear about her.
I included this sample of the Nuala poems in Rise and also the sample from the Almond St poems because I wanted to demonstrate clearly that I do follow other directions apart from illness and the natural world. Indeed I am hoping that for me the poem Conservatory will be the poem that lays the cancer experience to rest once and for all. This is indeed "my time now", my time to pay full attention to all the other things that interest me.