Kate Fox’s book got me researching serial killers, a topic I normally avoid, but I didn’t mind. Here we talk about poetry about the moment, the places we are, and history.
MM: I’d like to start by talking about the organization of the Oscillations, which you’ve sorted into poems of After and Before the Coronavirus Pandemic. That’s an important distinction for the After poems, which all, in their way, discuss the Virus. What do you think it gives the Before poems?
KF: Hopefully a different lens. One that shows that traumas and repairs happen/happened before and after the pandemic and might echo each other in ways we still have to uncover. I know many people who have experienced trauma were triggered by the pandemic & its effects in different ways. And many of us found some healing too.
MM: Along those lines, what are your thoughts on writing as a therapeutic practice? Would you say you primarily write to heal?
KF: I think writing is a powerful therapeutic practice but no, I wouldn’t say I primarily write to heal.
Healing is collateral damage from my need to communicate, connect and be heard, and make a living.
MM: You’ve been very open in the Oscillations and in general about being a neurodivergent writer, and you can see that in the work. I have a note next to your poem Asbestos, “a love poem in Autistic.” What do you feel are the challenges of communicating across that divide, neurodivergent to neurotypical, and the rewards of communicating THROUGH neurodivergence?
KF: Ooh, I love your note about Asbestos! I think the man it was about, who was my PhD supervisor, somehow “got” me & my neurodivergence.
I think the rewards of communicating through neurodivergence are not using up energy on masking and hiding. Plus then embodying the fact that humans think/feel/experience the world differently.
The main challenge of communicating across neurotypes of course is that it can be hard for everyone to truly recognise the difference of others because we only live in our own minds and bodies. Well-it’s a bit more complicated than that-we touch each other all the time and everybody is always translating across modes of communication. In the book, some of the greatest challenges and rewards come when I’m learning to communicate with a fellow neurodivergent person. It’s a work in progress. Like all communication and identity.
MM: I think it’s interesting that the book shows that self-growth, that communication, as a sort of project interrupted by the Pandemic. But also continued through it. What was it like, tackling the Pandemic head on through poetry?
KF: It helped put some of the things that were happening into a sort of order. That was helpful because I, in common with many people, felt my sense of time go awry.
I did have a sense that I was writing for a future when I might want to remember. And that was helpful, at a time when it was difficult to envisage a future. Had I not got a commission to write poems to do alongside the photographer Colin Potsig’s photographs, and had I not been in a poetry course for experienced poets working towards collections, I doubt I’d have written any poems at that time though. I’ve always found structures and deadlines helpful.
MM: I’m very similar. This column has been a blessing in that respect. Did it help you process your own brush with Long COVID?
KF: Around the time I was writing the poems I said that having Covid was only the sixth worst thing to happen that year. So I don’t think I was processing it at all really. Probably still haven’t.
The poem “Breathe” does put it into the context of some wider social stuff. I’d long been interested in how respiratory diseases carried off so many men from industrial Northern England.
Perhaps, much as I am sceptical of medical narratives, it might feel a bit more real once it’s on my medical record. As it is, I haven’t seen a doctor & don’t anticipate doing so for a while. As I didn’t have a test or go to hospital, having had the virus is one of many of my life events that seems to fall through a bit of a gap. Poetry can speak into that gap.
MM: You mentioning Breathe gives me an excuse to talk about place in your work. I’d say there’s a strong sense of where you are in many of the poems, especially the ones about the sea. What is your relationship with your surroundings? How does it come out in poetry?
KF: I feel very physiologically entwined with wherever I am. Having wide vistas is important to me. And certain colours and light. I love the big skies where I live now, and I have made peace with the fact that the colours and shapes and nebulous feelings of a space can have a massive impact on how I feel. It’s not minor. I’ve recently given myself more permission to embrace that.
MM: I have a theory about English language poets writing about England as a physical space, that it somehow is what the language wants, that the landscape and the language intertwine and meet each other. What is your experience of writing about the North? Does it feel different than writing about other places, even other parts of England?
KF: I love that idea! Suddenly it’s hard to say what it’s like to write about the North because I don’t do it on purpose-I just write about where I am.
Before the Pandemic, I was often commissioned to write poems for events, conferences, festivals etc. And if place is an event which keeps happening then that’s something which will make its way into my poems.
Perhaps another place I have consciously written about is Finland in my previous collection. Its landscape, people, language and poets made a huge impression on me. There’s perhaps some “unfussiness” of expression which I would connect with both Finland and the North of England. A not wanting to waste words.
MM: There is a certain concision that runs through your work, which gives it power. If I can switch topics, I’d like to ask you about your poem the Choir. In the Choir, you pull off this wonderful trick, you write about a meeting over the computer, a now very familiar instance of technology mediating life. But you write about how everyone in the meeting is talking about their gardens. And it creates this sort of feeling of an overgrown computer, of plants coming out of the screen. What was the process of writing that poem? Where did it come from?
KF: It’s a very literal poem I suppose, in that for a few weeks in early lockdown I joined a Zoom choir. It was very therapeutic and joyful. In one particular session we were learning a song about trees. At the same time, my friend Colin was sending me photographs of trees and flowers from his lockdown walks which I couldn’t go see. So there we all were in little boxes, as if we were separate but really, just like the wildlife, so entwined.
MM: It’s a wonderful effect, and I think timely, because we are all not only on zoom, we are all also taking a lot of walks for our own sanity.
KF: Exactly. I’ve enjoyed other people’s enjoyment of being outside, seeing the seasons turn and living a slower life. It’s something I’d finally begun to do a few years earlier after getting a dog. Then doing my PhD between 2014 and 2018 had sometimes led to periods of time when I was inside writing a lot but got so much relief and respite in getting outside and seeing nature growing and changing.
I’m waiting on seeing the first daffodils and when I do I know I’ll feel ecstatic!
MM: It’s like meeting an old friend, every year.
KF: Yes! Though sometimes I forget the old friend exists (very ADHD of me) and I am surprised all over again.
MM: I wanted to ask you about writing about current events (your pandemic poems) and writing about your family’s experience with historic events, (poems like “Shipley, West Yorkshire. 1981”) Is there a difference between tackling the past headlines and tackling the current ones?
KF: I want to say that if it’s about a trauma then probably not because trauma-time is always now, always still happening.
I was struck by how my Auntie lived with a physical manifestation of trauma everyday because her hair fell out when the serial killer who worked for her and her husband’s firm was caught and they realised he’d worked for them and were caught up in the media storm. She was still wearing a wig twenty years later.
She wasn’t one of his victims. But the resonance of trauma connected to the events was still present in her life. I don’t think it was something she verbally or consciously expressed though. As so many people can’t.
MM: So your approach is that the feelings of confronting these historical events, of being swept up in them, is what you focus on, and as such, the traumatic way of embodying history is the same?
KF: Yes. And “embodying” is the right word. I was very impacted by Bessel Van Der Kolk’s book on trauma “The Body Keeps The Score”
Though at the same time as trauma is embodied and passed down -epigenetically and in other ways, even in gestures- then ways to repair it can also be passed on. For example laughing. Sharing laughter. I think I might have written more about that in my poems if I’d had more time and distance. Though there is a poem in the Before section about an academic comedy conference.
MM: Yes, that brings me to a question I wanted to ask about your stand up. How is constructing a poem different than constructing a joke or a routine? Do you have pieces of writing that move between the two genres?
KF: My performance work increasingly mixes stand up, poetry, academic commentary and just talking, I’ve discovered there’s a power in shifting between modes.
But in The Oscillations poems I was concentrating just on “poetry” mode & for me that meant keeping an inner eye/ear/heart open to unconscious imagery or the unexpected. Letting the poems say more than I was aware they wanted to say. Whereas in stand-up I’m pretty much in control of what’s being said. It’s more surfacey I suppose.
The mix can allow me to access the strengths of both & not get too overwhelmed by one particular mode.
MM: Makes sense, you don’t want to limit yourself, and I think the genre boundaries such as they are are here to serve you, not constrain you.
KF: Yes. Although genre boundaries can also “mark” you in particular ways. My Northern English voice means audiences here are primed to hear the comedy in what I say more than the tragedy or the ironic distance, sometimes.
The genre I’m seen to be working in also impacts on what work I’m offered & what I can earn. It’s not neutral.
MM: Wow, lots to think about in that last answer. For my final question, I’ll choose two concrete images from your work and then you have to choose between them, okay?
KF: Ooh-yes! Go for it!
MM: Okay, a mantel clock or piles of stones on the beach?
KF: Easy. a mantel clock!
MM: Always stay on time!