Negotiating with the Dead: Spirit’s Going to Get Me in the End

You find me at a creative watershed. I’m wondering what my creativity is for. And I’m wondering how much it is possible that the creative universe can actually communicate with us in a two-way exchange.

Writers draw their creativity from lots of sources, often consciously seeking them out. I visit art galleries, read other poets’ work, go for walks in woods, do writing mediations as stimulation. At other times, I am not capable of saying where my creative responses to life come from, except that the response often doesn’t feel like it is mine.

In Shamanic tradition, earlier this year, in a dream, I found a poem (for Shaman, a song) presented in a series of narrative images so complete and intense that they almost wrote themselves onto the page. They came in response to the break up of a relationship that a friend had experienced. The poem, set in a butterfly house, seemed to come from somewhere else, beyond my conscious mind. The piece ends with an offering of comfort:

the outline of a prayer.

In this stillness, 

it does not matter

which direction to offer it.

Here butterflies find sleep, 

their hind legs tasting

the split oranges.

Up to now, I have naively assumed that my writing was for publishing purposes. In the last few months, I have come to realise that it is more importantly a way to talk to myself. If only I had listened because the universe had been shouting at me to wake up for much longer, it seems. Unfortunately, it was negotiating with the dead (metaphorically at least).

Last summer, after weather similar to that which we have had over the last couple of days, I took the dogs on a rainy evening walk by the river. I encountered two men with shotguns, was knocked off my feet by my dog running at 30mph, which was like being hit by a small greyhound shaped car, and bumped my head, was chased by a herd of horses, having to outrun them to the stream and the day after this, I found a parasitic tick had decided to attach itself to my side. For the next few days, the adventures on the walk made a good social anecdote to tell, but, truly, I was left feeling strangely vulnerable, as though my bones where suddenly brittle; I felt fragile and small in the world in a way I had never done before. And still I slumbered on because what did this have to do with the good life I was living?

At this time, I’d gone back to see my old psychotherapist whom I hadn’t seen for about five years. I’ve begun training as a psychotherapist and have to have 40 hours of personal therapy a year. I thought that I would struggle to bring anything to Nick that was of therapeutic worth – happily married, beautiful son, great home, stimulating and fulfilling job, my writing and creative career going well. Everything I had ever worked for. And yet, I went back into therapy. That night, I dreamt of a woman standing by a block of kitchen knives behind Nick. And on I slumbered on, assuming I’d dreamt of his girlfriend.

By December, the last time I went to see Nick before 2011, I told him that I felt like I was disappearing. I wasn’t being melodramatic. I felt I was disappearing before his eyes right then and there. I felt like I was sliding out of sight and even he wouldn’t be able to see me. I had no power to affect anything in the world, I had become a ghost. It was like dying in front of someone and yet still finding myself breathing in and out. And still I wasn’t looking, still my instinct was trying to negotiate with dead things.

Christmas came and went. The Beautiful Child opened his presents, his father thanking me in a text for the precious few days off we had had together. Life seemed real for a few days.

And I began to write again. With a renewed vigour.

Then, even my breathing in and out began to be affected. I would wake in the middle of the night and have the strangest sensation that I actually couldn’t breathe back in again, that breathing had become a conscious effort rather than a reflex and I had to remind myself to draw breath, the way the Cullens feign breathing in Twilight.

I kept none of these strange events feelings and sensations from my husband. Everyday from January to March, I would ring him as I walked our two dogs, telling him I felt sad for no reason. I felt like I was grieving something but there was nothing to grieve. And still he kept quiet. His words were disappearing from our life together. And still I slept on.

The truth was, something was trying to negotiate with me and something was dead. The universe had told me, watch your back, there is a threat – the guns and the horses and having my legs taken from under me, there was something sucking my life blood, my dreams told me there was a woman with knives sharpened for me, my therapist witnessed me panicking that I was disappearing, but how could he guess the truth, I spoke so well of my marriage? My body told me that there was a need for it to evoke a flight or fight response; breathing in a shallow manner induces that response, no wonder I couldn’t’ breathe beyond my diaphragm. Wake up, Alison, it is fight or flight time!, it said. At least something was talking to me about the situation.

It was only when it came to the one thing that I have relied on most of my adult life, did I began to make my way up through the layers of slumber. My preconscious mind used the channel of the pen. In my notebook for the end of April there is a draft of a poem I had called, Waking Up in the Doll’s House. It reads like an incantation to me now:

There are smogs in the form of black dogs, fish-mind breath,
and the need to put the furniture back, lie like plastic dead,
stop breathing to break the spell.

Or an early draft of a poem, Litmus Test, which takes place in my marital bedroom and screams a warning that I still wasn’t quite able to read at the time:

The runways of carpet
are weary with tread
and we forget
to look sideways
where the wallpaper
blooms with lichen
and, where it touches
the bed, turns red.

Finally, it was only when whole chunks of language began to go missing from my husband’s vocabulary in April – words like forever, love, perfect, beloved – words he was now giving to someone else, and he began to appear in dreams and say, I don’t love you anymore, did I realise his affair. And I woke up to my instinct.

I haven’t written creatively since then but the universe was very generous and kept offering me the same name in different ways on a weekly basis from then on. And it was absolutely right. I won’t grace that name with the beauty of ink, even virtual ink, but I have woken up to instinct and I’ll be re-reading my creative work for its bizarre and beneficial nature for myself before I put it in front of an audience in future. It is an invaluable self-discovery tool, because, as the song I was gifted in a dream suggests,

the outline of a prayer.

In this stillness, 

it does not matter

which direction to offer it

The universe will hear and offer you a wide variety of creative responses.

Go well.

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Wash as Synaesthesia

Constellation of Pricking Pain - Chandelier

If you are dental sensitive then join in at paragraph two.  For the rest of you, I went to the dentist for root canal treatment last week.  Usually, I’m quite tolerant of discomfort and can calm my nerves when I need to, I can even lapse into a catatonic state when the chips are down.  But, for this particular visit, I was nervous.  I felt fragile and vulnerable.  My dentist is lovely so I told him that my nerves were making my senses a little confused.  I wasn’t sure whether I would be able to distinguish the noise of the drill from pain or pressure from taste.  But for poets, this senses confusion is grist to the poetry mill because which poet doesn’t occasionally mix their senses?

Synaesthesia is ‘a sensation produced in one modality when a stimulus is applied to another modality, as when the hearing of a certain sound induces the visualization of a certain color’ ( For me, different days of the week produce different colours in my mind.  Wednesday is always red, Thursdays are blue and Tuesdays a khaki green.  All the week days are long, thin rectangles, with weekend days being taller than weekday rectangles, except bank holidays which are three tall rectangles in red.  It’s a conceptual calendar, I suppose. This type of synaesthesia is not rare. It is more unusual for words to manifest in taste.  For a poet, that would mean several three course meals before the opening line of a poem was settled on.  However, lots of people have some sort of synaesthetic ability.  I’ve known a  sound engineer who heard sounds but saw their shapes in his mind.

Synaesthesia is all well and good when it doesn’t matter that no-one else’s mind produces red Wednesdays.  However, poets use synaesthesia to help them describe concepts, thoughts and feelings.  When it works for the reader, who is responsible for creating meaning in the absence of the poet, but in the presence of the poem, it works beautifully. In Pascale Petit’s poem ‘The Heiroglyph Moth’, from her ‘The Treekeeper’s Tale’ collection, Petit writes, I understood the colours of vowels.  It seems perfectly reasonable to me for vowels to have colours.  And a wonderful moment of epiphany is revealed to the persona in the poem.

If tinsel has a sound, its a breeze through a bush rather than a metallic ringing. Darn.

It didn’t, however, seem reasonable, according to my Creative Writing MA tutor that in my partly written novel, a character’s voice sounded like tinsel. Clearly, my tutor didn’t get the tinging sound in his head like a triangle being delicately tapped when he saw the word tinsel.  Just me then? And that’s when synaesthesia causes problems for the writer.  What leaps is it reasonable to ask your reader to make into the imagination?  To be fair, tinsel rustles rather than tings, so I could see his confusion and the confusion it would give readers.  It was a synaesthesia too far, he argued, and it would have to go.  He was right.  It went.  And so did the character, as it happens.

I've put bright tastes in with white lights, wonder what will happen ...

On a more successful note, I re-read a freewrite from last summer and found that I’d referred generally to light falling on an eardrum and becoming a taste.  Admittedly, a tangled image, but, who knows, it may all come out in the synaesthetic wash!

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The Poem’s the Colour

Aberfraw Beach, Anglesey

I may be a domesticated creative but that doesn’t mean I don’t like the outdoors. In winter, I like going to beaches. The sea broods, which often suits my poetic sensibilities. Show me a creative whose subconscious can resist recognizing itself in that churning mass. Best of all, the beaches are deserted.

On a winter beach, the colour palette is calm – grey water, black rocks, beige sand, the sage of the dunes, only the odd shock of lichen that looks positively radioactive disrupts the lull.

I sometimes imagine limited colour pallettes when I’m writing a poem to help encourage a mood or tone to embed itself in the piece. Poems often bring their own colours with them. I’ll re-read a freewrite and there will be a run of images that allude to white – sheets, clean plates, paper, milk – or yellows in the mention of harvest moons, wedding rings, the sun.

Lichen, Aberfraw Beach

I sometimes choose the colour of places to suit the point of the writing process that I’m in. Galleries are a particular favourite writing place of mine when I’m starting new pieces, particularly galleries with huge white rooms and the sparing addition of a well lit visual, perfect blank canvases for the mind to throw some words on.

But I’ve been troubled by a cobalt blue lately. Troubled because as a general rule, I don’t like blue. If I wear blue next to my face, it makes me look like I imagine I would look if I was freshly dug from my grave a week after I had died. I don’t decorate with it for the same reason. And I certainly don’t tend to work with it in my head when I’m writing poetry. But blue has taken lodging there, nonetheless.

It first came with a writing exercise I’d set myself. Then a painter friend, Chris Rainham, whom I’m sharing a creative process diary with, painted a response using an amazing cobalt blue. That blue, and it has become known as ‘that blue’ in my head, as though it’s a pesky kid from down the lane who keeps hanging around my gate waiting for me to close the curtains so that he can slip in and graffiti on the render, in permanent blue marker, ushered in a short poem about an object. In my head, the poem was lots of white things surrounded by cobalt blue. I secretly liked it but mistakenly thought that would be the end of that blue.

It next welled up in a recent trip to Anglesey. In contrast to the winter beach colours, the fishermen’s cottages are whitewashed and their woodwork is offset in blue. I’d even had to bring blue fountain pen ink cartridges with me, not having the time or money to buy my more regular black ink cartridges before the holiday. The armchair near the window of the upside down cottage I was staying in was blue. My next small poem about an object focused on an egg cup which in my head presented itself as white, with a thin ‘that blue’ band around the top.

A spider crab, not Harry Hull, though who is to say he didn't reincarnate in this way, and 'that blue'

The blue was unavoidable at the sea zoo and it prompted a haunting free write whose content was watery and my dead grandfather, Harry Hull, who was a gunner on the merchant ships in the second world war, sailed in wearing full naval uniform. This prompted a written proposal to myself about a poetry sequence that I’m going work on as a project for a series of weeks.

I’m not sure whether allowing more blue into my creative space has opened a door on an untapped vein of imagery and content that hasn’t been there before. Maybe I’m having a Blue Period. What I do know is that I’ve booked myself on a poetry writing course that I can scant (now that is a blue-hued word whose letters are not a million miles from can’t) afford.

However, if blue is in the business of doing things for my writing lately, there are two coffee pots on my kitchen mantelpiece, whose range name is Regency Blue. I believe they are collectible. I think, despite them being gifts from my mum, who can wear and decorate with blue, I may have to sell them to raise some funds. I’ll accept all reasonable offers.

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Domestica – Write From What You Know

I haven’t written on here about coining the concept of ‘Domestica’ yet. It’s a found concept that helps me to think about where my writing fits in the world, in other words, it’s the name I give to my poetics. It encompasses a range of ideas such as the private as the political and the house (or other dwelling place – doesn’t have to be bricks and mortar, just the place you’d house your stuff) as a metaphor for mind.

One reason for shaping the concept results from believing in my early adulthood that writing had to be about things from ‘out there’ in the world. This could have been as a direct result of the diet of dead white men’s literature I was fed at grammar school. Men who, let’s say, didn’t stay home and peel carrots, having important things to write about. But when I was seventeen and studying A level Literature, we were given an Emily Dickinson poem to read – Because I could not stop for Death.

Ah, so, women did write poetry, then. I didn’t know at the time that Dickinson rarely left the house, though I would like to claim that I could feel the oppression of Dickinson’s writing room in those poems, her view from the window, the tight little drawer here poems were stuffed into, her nursing of the idea that what she had to say wasn’t worthy of an audience. She’d had her first tentative attempt at publication rebuffed and it cut deeply. It was like an aura that hung around the smudged, photocopied page in front of me in that A-level lesson. And thank goodness for that and Mr. Binns, with his clichéd dusty tweed jacket and wild hair, who’d put that poem in front of me for critical analysis.

Daffodils, both the poem and the plant, didn’t do it for me then and haven’t since. Joy unbounded never arrived over any hills I’d ever encountered. And there were plenty hills in West Yorkshire, so I was fairly certain it wasn’t going to arrive that way any time soon. But Emily Dickinson chimed with the melancholic that had settled in my psyche sometime in my early teens, but that had been searching for someone to voice those grey slate tones in poetry. (It’s my synaesthesia that makes me see grey slate when I think of Dickinson’s poems – more on my synaesthesia in future).

Write from what you know is basic advice to writers who are starting out. When I started writing, all I ‘knew’ were domestic, home spun dramas, the claustrophobia and solace of home. It took me years to believe ‘what I know’ was worth writing about, that it has its own beauty, its own bizarre nature. My strongest work comes from the cloistered psychological space I spent my childhood in. The writer’s eye rarely looks at the world from regular eye level. The aim is to invite the reader to see the world anew. I only get the perspective from the top of the wardrobe because I’ve climbed the walls.

It’s for this reason, amongst others, that when I come across the attitude that children who (and I’m paraphrasing here) have never left the house/street/estate/town where they live have, as a result, nothing to write about! It frustrates me because it perpetuates a mythical belief that what is the majority of childhood experience – things close to home, within a few streets – is invalid material for creative exploration. No wonder some children think they have ‘nothing to write’. It all adds up to the erroneous idea that life is somehow ‘out there’, presumably in a field full of daffodils, rather than in the body we inhabit, wherever that body spends most of its time, even if that environment is a domestic setting.

For me, the courage to draw on domestic settings was a long time coming. Much of this courage came from working with the Vineyard writers, a closed forum of international poets founded by Jacob Sam-La Rose They have been the spine supporting my work for years now. To my delight, on returning there after an absence of a few months away from them, I found on returning to the ‘Yard that poet Miriam Nash had set up a weeklong discipline of writing a short poem about an object each day. As a domesticated poet, I need only crawl out of bed, up the wall and look at ‘that vase’ (to quote Larkin’s concluding line in ‘Home is so Sad’) to explore a perspective on the world in microcosm. Domestica indeed.

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Through a Rip in the Fabric

A Crack in the Wall Splits the Wallpaper

On Tuesday, I was touched by a ghost.

In one way, it was as undramatic as that. I was in a disused nun’s cell in the attic of a school I have a residency with, hoping to take some photographs while the small group of Year 8 learners and their teacher whom I was accompanying continued down the narrow corridor in their pursuit of settings for a gothic tale. (See A Gift for Gothic writers for more details and photographs)

The touch was unmistakable, as certain as if you had reached out and stroked your hand down the right side of my hair from the top to just below my ear. I felt it in just the same way I would feel you touch me. But it also came with a completely overwhelming feeling of being loved, nurtured and comforted. It was a feeling that surpassed any feeling that has been stimulated by my time on earth so far, way beyond what it has so far been possible for me to feel in response to earthly stimulus of any kind.

And with the feeling came a knowledge, not from a process of thought, but like a whole parcel of knowledge delivered in one instant, whole and complete. The knowledge was that I had not imagined the touch, that the moment didn’t come as a surprise to me, as though I always knew it must happen at some point in my life and that it was now undeniable that the fabric we move amongst in the visible reality is backed by an invisible force that constantly moves us towards love.

The euphoric feeling lasted for a few hours. I think it will take me the rest of my life to begin to explore what happened and its significance to my understanding of the human condition but, after much deliberation, I did mention what I had experienced to my trusted Transactional Analyst therapist. I thought he would ring for the men in white coats immediately or chide me for being grandiose, but he reacted with complete acceptance and acknowledged his feelings of privilege at being told this. He pulled something out of our ensuing session that has made me feel massively challenged about myself as a creative (where the search for ‘enough’ is profound). He put in front of me two questions that we can hold at the same time, What if there isn’t enough for me in this universe? and What if there is everything I need in this universe? I have been shown the latter and that may mean giving up some previously beloved pessimistic world views that have comforted me like Scrooge was comforted by money.

Ho hum. Strange things are afoot.

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A Gift for Gothic Writers

I’ve been working on a Creative Partnerships programme in a Blackpool school. One of my remits was to explore how the English department could invigorate their teaching of Gothic literature. We did soundscapes with found objects to accompany a reading from Wuthering Heights – the section with the dream of Cathy’s ghost, no less. It was great to explore found objects for their sounds as well as for their visual aesthetics. We primed the class with all sorts of found sounds, including ones from outer space. There’s a great one here from You Tube. Maybe have it running while you read the more transcendental personal tale about my experience of the nuns’ cells.

As well as exploring reading, the young people needed to create some gothic stories of their own. As luck would have it, they are housed in a Gothic Revivalist building and I suggested that we get permission to take the Year 8 class up into the abandoned nuns’ cells in the attics (the school used to be a convent school). The teacher did research with her colleagues and found out about other things of interest around the school building, one of which was the many thumb and hand prints left by the brick makers in the bricks of the gothic part of the school. There is reportedly a footprint of a dog’s paw there also, but we couldn’t find it.


Hand Prints of Long Dead Brick Makers

Mrs. E had primed the learners with some histories about the school and the nuns, including the tragic death of a young nun who had fallen down five storeys of staircase and died. The stairs have now been widened so the gap in between is no longer dangerous.

The now non-existent gap between the flights of stairs

There were other stories of an electrician who recently had had the locked attic door opened for him from the inside by an invisible presence and he was so frightened he refused to return to complete the work, alongside several of his workforce! These are the stairs behind the door that opened for him.

The learners loved it. Much screaming was had by all. There isn’t much left in the cells now but there is a scattering of infrastructure of life up in the attics, fires and grates and old sinks. They speak of humble austerity and yet are strangely comforting in their simplicity. Some of the cells have skylights, some don’t and, even in the day, once you close the door of the cell, it’s completely dark.

One of the fireplaces that remain in the nuns' cells

It’s an absolute gift of a school for giving the learners an insight into settings for gothic literature and I’m hoping that some of the settings and objects we showed them on Tuesday will find their imaginative counterparts in some gothic tales around some candles in the coming weeks. Now, you don’t get that in a new build!

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Who’s she when she’s at home?

Poet, Writer, Playwright, Mother, Trainee Psychotherapist, Creative, Wife, Occasional Book Artist, Project Manager, Agent for Creative Change, Educator, Textile Dabbler, Collaborative Artist, Friend, Sister, All Round Good Egg, Female Modern Surrealist, Founder of the Domestica Movement.

You find me at a watershed. Not only are the times a-changing with the current political climate but change is also afoot in the way I have worked as a freelancer in creativity over the last five years. My gut tells me that there will be a huge need for some soul re-upholstery in the coming austere days and I want to continue to bring to the table the bizarre, beautiful and beneficial as an antidote to austerity and as a key to humanity’s growth. Does that sound ambitious? Let’s hope so.

I believe the creative sector has the most sustainable vision of the future. I want to add my voice and energy to that. There is something to be explored around the personal creative and the universal.

Knock on my door – that’s who I am when I’m at home!

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