Why is the book of your collected poems called ‘We Are The Winter People’?
‘We Are The Winter People’ refers to a line from the first poem in the collection, called ‘Spring’. That poem is all about hope. When you’ve been repeatedly stampeded over by the steely-heeled clompings of hope, left in a bloodied heap, when what you’ve desperately hoped for doesn’t come to pass again and again, somehow, hope still sneaks up on you, despite knowing you’ll probably be trampled again. That’s what these final three lines of the poem are about:
‘We are The Winter People
our hearts are made of snowdrops.’
All of us who have been battered by dark times are The Winter People. Snowdrops are the first sign that Spring is on its way. Even though it hurts too much to hope, our treacherous hearts still somehow, however deep down, keep on hoping for Spring even when Winter seems to have settled in to stay.
What inspires your poetry?
I’ve only written about one poem per year for the last five years or so because I’ve been too severely ill to write more often. When I have written one, usually the poem comes on all of a sudden, insistent, demanding to be written. My subconscious does a lot of the work for me. Various things that I’ve been thinking about, separately over a period of time, suddenly all come together at once in a moment of epiphany. The first draft of a poem pours out very quickly, almost fully-formed. I then tweak, refine and distil it afterwards.
Other times, a specific event, experience or person may inspire a poem. For example, with my poem ‘For Right Now’, the first lockdown in the UK had just been announced. Over and over again I saw many people online saying ‘I’m so scared’, ‘I feel lost’ or ‘my anxiety is bad’. My initial reaction was a thought to God asking: ‘is there anything I can do to help them? Is there anything I could say, given my experience, that would make them feel even a tiny bit better in this situation?’. That night, words and phrases started echoing around my brain and wouldn’t relent. In the morning, ‘For Right Now’ was the poem that streamed out of me as a result.
The poem ‘Gethsemane’ was a written account, changed a little, of an experience I had with God in the early hours between Maundy Thursday and Good Friday one year. I thought that others might be helped by it.
I wrote the poem ‘Spring’ for my friend Tanya Marlow for her birthday. With my words, I wanted her to feel loved, to lighten the load for a brief moment and hold her hand through tough times. The poem was my way of doing that. If you want to know what ‘Outdoor Hair’ means in that poem though, you’ll have to ask Tanya hehe.
How do you make sense of a God who doesn’t intervene in people’s suffering?
It’s so tough. I’ve been living with the realities of the non-intervening side of God for over sixteen years. It doesn’t get easier but I’ve also realised that my expectations were skewed by so much Christian teaching – that God always saves or rescues you and intervenes when you need it most and when you pray hard and passionately. None of this is actually promised in the Bible but, before becoming ill, I heard this preached so often.
People seem to need to believe that God will intervene in desperate situations for them, even though when looking at the world, you can see that’s not the case in most instances. It’s very rare that miracles happen.
All God promises is to be with us always, even if we can’t sense it or experience it in a tangible way. Getting to know the God who does not save, who does not help in the way that I want, has been both excruciating and, on the rare occasion when I feel God’s so close, resting his head against mine, his hands on my shoulders, that I can feel what he’s feeling and pick up a small slice of what he’s thinking towards me, it’s breathtaking and melts you, resting in that communing moment together. It doesn’t change the desperate situation you’re in, it doesn’t help in any way that you’re needing or wanting but it’s what’s there.
What strikes me is how vulnerable God makes himself. He risks losing people he loves and risks us ending up hating him when we feel so hurt by him when he doesn’t intervene or protect us in the way even any earthly loving parent would.
I don’t think he’s testing us and he definitely doesn’t want us in pain or any cruel nonsense like that. Instead, there’s the intense vulnerability of whether we’ll still love him back for who he is, not for what he does and whether we’ll still see the good in him. It might take a long time to get there and a lot of anger, hurt and feeling betrayed, which must be painful for him, but he just absorbs it all while we wrestle with it all. There is something special though when we do see his goodness and still love him, despite our anguish and what we perceive as his lack of action, and I think that melts him. This has been my experience.
Apart from family and friends, what brings you joy?
Before the unsuccessful surgery, even though I was extremely ill, I was still able to watch television shows in small chunks. When you have nothing else, holding on until the next episode of a TV show can keep you alive. It gives you something to look forward to. There are at least 50 TV shows I could recommend to you as brilliant and even then I would be missing out ones that I love. If forced to narrow it down, you should definitely watch: Chuck, Gilmore Girls, Battlestar Galactica, The West Wing, Firefly, Would I Lie To You?, Doctor Who, Madam Secretary, The Good Wife, Masterchef Australia, University Challenge, White Collar, Heroes, Miranda, Castle, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Sherlock, Parks and Recreation, Rizzoli & Isles and Friends.
Unfortunately since January 2020, I am no longer able to watch TV. I haven’t been able to move my head off my pillow since the unsuccessful fusion surgery. I can’t look down, up or side to side. I can’t be washed or have my pyjamas or bedding changed because if I move my neck even a tiny bit in the wrong direction, it causes massive extra damage to my neck and blood flow is reduced further. Any extra bit of damage could very easily kill me. Nurses have tried and failed to wash me or change my clothes without seriously harming my neck further. The subluxing vertebrae have moved the neck into a structure that partially obstructs my airway and I’m always in respiratory distress as a result. There is nothing more any doctor in the UK can do for me. So I’ve been left in this condition until I can raise the money needed to be treated by the surgeon in New York.
Only a patch of ceiling directly above me is within my field of vision. The only part of my body that I’ve seen since the operation are my hands, which I can raise to my eyes to see but I can’t look down to see anything else. I’m rarely able to look at the screen of my phone, even though I try to hold it up directly above my head to put it in my field of vision, because doing so damages my neck more. So I have been completely cut off from the world and from other people. My only solace has been audiobooks. If you look on my website menu, there’s a page called ‘my favourite books’, where you can see my recommendations. I love passing on the joy. Audiobooks are keeping me going at the moment.
What are your favourite poems?
• ‘I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings’ by Maya Angelou – this is my favourite poem of all time. I loved it ever since I was 10 when I did Choral Speaking at school but the poem resonated even more powerfully when I became ill. I didn’t listen to Maya Angelou’s autobiography of the same name until 2018. I definitely would recommend that too.
• ‘De Profundis’ (I strain my heart, I stretch my hands,/ And catch at hope.) and ‘A better resurrection’ (I have no wit, no words, no tears;/ My heart within me like a stone/ Is numb’d too much for hopes or fears;/ Look right, look left, I dwell alone), both by Christina Rossetti
• ‘Invictus’ by W.E. Henley (Out of the night that covers me,/ Black as the pit from pole to pole,/ I thank whatever gods may be/ For my unconquerable soul.)
• ‘Wrestling Jacob’ by Charles Wesley (Yield to me now–for I am weak;/ But confident in self-despair:/ Speak to my heart, in blessings speak,/ Be conquer’d by my instant prayer,/ Speak, or Thou never hence shalt move,/ And tell me, if thy name is Love.)
• ‘A Hymn to God the Father’ by John Donne (I have a sin of fear, that when I have spun/ My last thread, I shall perish on the shore;/ But swear by thyself, that at my death thy Son/ Shall shine as he shines now, and heretofore;/ And, having done that, thou hast done;/ I fear no more.)