You are hugely supportive of other poets and I wondered if you could talk
about that a bit, the community that extends beyond where you live.
I think that mainly happened after Peter died in 2003. I was 55 when he died, and when I was around 57 I
thought, fingers crossed I’ve still got quite a lot of years and I asked myself, what do I like doing? I like poetry
and so in the spring/summer of 2004 I went to a poetry festival in Wells Next to the Sea. I signed up for a
workshop because I’d forgotten how to run workshops, because with Peter being ill and other issues, I hadn’t
run a workshop for ages and mostly I’d run them with Peter. I signed up for Katrina Porteous' workshop there,
which was lovely. And at that workshop I met Helen Ivory and Martin Figuera, and we became friends.
Subsequently they invited me to read at Poetry Cafe and judge their competition in Norwich, and then I went
to Ledbury for the first time. At both of these festivals I was still on antidepressants and sleeping pills, slightly
zombified. At the 2004 Ledbury festival I signed up for workshops with Mark Doty, which were wonderful
and he of course soon became aware that I was in this bereaved place. He’d lost a partner to AIDS and wrote
a book on bereavement called Heaven’s Coast, and all I remember about that workshop was him being very,
very kind to me.
I was in quite a weird state but I knew that the healing place was going to be poetry. Not sitting in a room
reading a book, which is also valid and lovely, but I really needed to be connected to hearing poets read and
reminding myself of what a workshop was, because I had been in really dark and horrible places from Peter’s
illness and death. I had had a break down and I’d also had some addiction issues with prescription drugs, which
is not anything I could recommend to anyone. It had been a really bad place and although I engage with the
poetry world and I’m this beneficial influence, that’s because it was that for me when I was not firing on all
cylinders. It gave me a lot.
When you're recovering from bereavement, or a relationship breakup or anything that’s really difficult, there's
a time when you can’t cope with being in the world or being with people except very close friends. And then
there's a time when you can operate in the world because you’ve learnt how to create a mask. So a lot of the
time in 04 when I was saying to people, yes I’m feeling much stronger I’m much better, I wasn’t, but I’d learnt
how to pretend. So although I was still in a very weird state, the more you pretend the more the pretence
becomes reality, so I was able to feel things in a real way instead of pretending. It was very interesting
because one day I realized I’m not actually pretending to engage with people anymore. So it was the poetry
community of the UK and of these festivals that really helped me.
You've written some of the most moving elegies I've ever read, but there's a lot
of humour as well. You seem to have both ends of the spectrum in your work.
I’ve got quite a sense of the ridiculous I think and humour was important with Peter and me. We used to just
laugh a lot but I think your feelings and experiences are a mosaic, there’s the dark tones and the brighter tones.
I wanted to ask you what the most important things to you as a poet are? And I wonder
if there is a difference between now and when Peter was alive, because obviously you
shared so much around work, so I don’t know if there is any difference or if there are
the same kind of threads of what’s really important?
I suppose a basic thing is pleasure in language, both Peter and I had that, so that stayed with me. Obviously the
subject material is different, because I didn’t write any poems of bereavement before. My father died 6 months
after Peter, he’d been frail for a number of years. But I hadn’t had a major loss, so Peter was the first
bereavement and then this double whammy with dad dying. So that was a first. Neil Astley, from Bloodaxe,
said Redgrove’s Wife is about celebration and lamentation. And you can feel two polarized things at the same
time can’t you? Happy sad, sad happy?
It’s a very weird thing the pressure of needing to write about bereavement, and elegy probably pushed me with
the poetry further than I would have been pushed if Peter had not got Parkinson’s and diabetes, if he’d retained
the vigour he’d had in his 30’s 40’s and 50s’. His health began to fail soon after his 60th birthday and we know
now that he may have had dormant Parkinson’s all through that decade, but if he’d retained his natural vigour I
wouldn’t have had that pressure of absence. I thought about this quite a lot. And
Peter didn’t like travelling -
I could get him to go to Wales and Norwich but he didn’t like crossing water! He didn’t like going anywhere,
but after he died I travelled a lot, which is a classic widow's syndrome. I hadn't been out of the UK for 20 years!
There was a real flipping over of my life -
nothing, and then moving on to the poetry festivals and travelling a lot and working. It’s quite a privileged
thing for the tutor to hear the poems people write and I’m always astonished. So there is this strange
resonance because all the time you think you are enjoying tutoring, you’re enjoying travelling and you think
this is because Peter is not here. So everything is paradoxical in life isn’t it? There were elements of Peter’s
death that freed me into a different way of life that I wouldn’t have lived if he had remained.
People with Parkinson’s can live for years and years and be horribly compromised and eventually suffer from
dementia and that’s a living hell for the carer. Carers often wish the person not be there. And when the person
isn’t there and you get your freedom, that’s a really heartbreaking paradox, because by and large I wish Peter
were here, but I would wish him to have his physical and mental health. And I know for the kind of man he was
it would have been a hellish thing for him to have been in a wheelchair and to lose intellectual faculties. So it’s
almost as if it’s a kind of sacrificial leaving of the world. Because it was a grief and as time went on it was a
liberation. You can’t pretend you don’t feel that.
Did I tell you that in the little group I do some workshops for in Bath, the Mental Health
group, someone had seen a Ted talk? He came in and was very excited to say that there
is Post Traumatic Stress disorder, and there is also Post Traumatic Growth disorder.
He said it wouldn’t be a disorder though, more of a reorder. Post Traumatic Growth
reorder, which I thought was so interesting.
Certainly that exactly expresses what it was for me. It was almost as if Peter had given me this freer life, rather
than be chained to him as someone compromised by illness. Obviously you can’t will anything to happen but I
often see it as if he’s freed me from the terrible necessities that would have been if he’d lived. But it wouldn’t
be a life he would have wanted.
It gives a whole new meaning to bitter sweet -
Sometimes I do have low mood, and it’s something I manage because you get used to it, but a lot of that is that
it’s difficult to inhibit this paradox: I do enjoy living as a single woman, doing the work I enjoy doing and I’m
very aware that it’s because I’m not a long term carer. There is no resolution is there? You just have to revisit
it all the time and say, hey in life you have the cards you are dealt and for Peter he got the rotten card of
horrible illness. And in a way I have a card that is both bitter and sweet. I can really please myself with what
I do now, but I’m doing that without Peter, I’m able to do it because he is not here. It’s just a paradox and when
you get in a low mood you just go round and round with this, and then you have to say, I can’t change anything,
I can just live it as it is.
Somehow you have to find a way of inhabiting that tension...
...and poetry and writing is the way out of low mood and feeling stuck with the paradox and I also love writing,
it’s just my favourite thing!
Can you say something about your editing process?
I love editing, I’m really a dog with a bone or a squirrel who buries things and leaves them for a ridiculously
long time. Sometimes the first hand written draft stays in a notebook and then gets typed out much later. I
usually type something out, get very excited with it and make changes and keep all the versions. Then you
think I’m going to have to leave this now. Distance helps you get to a point -
people’s opinion. I had a long poem that finally went into ‘Sandgrain and Hourglass’. I took it to a Falmouth
Poetry Group meeting and one of our members, after a lot of discussion when no one could quite get a fix on it,
said I think these two stanzas should be reversed, and it totally was logical, it worked, a few tweaks and that’s
the way it went into the book. So it’s not the solitary poet wrestling always in the garret.
Other times you get a critique of a poem and you think that’s bloody rubbish I’ll never do that! And you are
right, you know when someone says something and it’s to the poem’s good and you know when it’s to the
poem’s detriment. Those are the two polar extremes, then of course there is the middle bit when you're not
sure. Everything takes much longer than even experienced writers think. It takes much, much longer, you
have to put the poem away again. And look at Auden constantly writing poems that had been in print and had
been lauded to the skies and he went on re-
gone in a book that’s closure. If I open the book and read and think I should have done that with it I say, well
it’s too bloody late now, don’t you dare!
Do you keep all versions of your poems?
I do because I sort of dabble, I print things out and get out of the house and do what Peter and I did and go to
cafes and edit several poems. So I’ll have hand written emendations and put them onto the e file and when I’m
working on it I’ll just copy it and paste it up at the top and I put new edits on it which means I can go back to
my original draft. I sometimes have great difficulty because I’m not systematic.
I sometimes find a hand-
written draft and think, ah!, better to go back to that! Sometimes I can’t find
a handwritten draft and some-
times I find it a year or two later and I look at it and I might make some changes, but yes, it’s fascinating.
How things change, how time changes things and how different it looks.
When you’re putting a collection together do you have
an overriding theme or is it different for each book?
I usually have too many poems, so that again is a sifting. Over quite a long period, 18 months or more, I will
begin to assemble a file that might just say, New Collection, and I’m really trying all sorts of things on for size
and seeing how they feel.
I get people coming to me who want to be mentored through putting a collection together and they say,
everyone says I must have a theme. And I say to them, no you don’t have to have a theme, you need a collection
of your strongest poems. You need a book of strong poems and people would put weak poems in because they
think they must have a theme. Also, I was never asked as a first time, second time collection writer to find
endorsements from well-
like a marketing device, and it’s counterproductive, because who the fuck reads them? I don’t, and I write
them! So I think the thing about a theme is that unless it arrives spontaneously, you cannot impose anything
on poetry because it’s a wild beast! You can’t hunt it down, you can’t tame it, you have to incorporate it into
where you are as a poet and the same with the poem.
Alyson Hallet asks the questions
First appeared in Raceme Magazine, Issue 3 Winter 2016
Cornwall Contemporary Poetry Festival
Will be held in Falmouth, from Thursday 22
to Sunday 25 November 2018
Penelope Shuttle has made her home in Cornwall
since 1970 and the county’s mercurial weather and
rich history are continuing sources of inspiration.