Fran Lock interviews Pauline Sewards about Spirograph, her latest collection of poems
FL: Hi Pauline, thanks so much for agreeing to talk to me about your latest collection of poems, Spirograph. The title poem uses the conceit of the Spirograph Set to explore those moments of 'not quite repetition' in language, life, and loss. I wonder if you could start by talking a little bit about the title, especially as it relates to the themes of dependency, change, and recovery that run throughout the collection?
One of the reasons I was keen to do this interview with you, was that so many of the poems in Spirograph reflect on or are informed by your experience of work as professional carer – if that isn't an oxymoron. In light of the present government's refusal to acknowledge writers and artists as workers, the collection feels especially timely, not least because it provides an eloquent testament to the mutual indebtedness of your writing and working practices. This is especially evident – it seems to me – in the deep, sustained attention you afford your poetic subjects. Could you tell us something about the relationship between your work as a poet and as a person working in care? Are there skills particular to poetry that feed into – for want of a better word – your professional life?
I also wanted to ask about forms! That is, the paperwork and paraphernalia: the rhetoric, routines and official formulae which delineate and compress the experience of administering care. In poems such as 'After Burnout', 'Assessment' and 'Day's Work' the language and machinery of this administration seems to infiltrate the space of the poem and the consciousness of your speakers and subjects alike. There's a kind of instrumental anonymity at work, which the poems – with their generous attention to detail – debate and resist. Reading Spirograph, I was struck by how few spaces there are within language and literature for precisely that kind of resistance. How conscious were you when putting the collection together of writing against various kinds of reductive or instrumental language, and to what extent you see that as explicitly political?
PS: I like your description of language as ‘delineating and compressing care’. Sometimes the drug and alcohol field (a jargonistic phrase in itself) seems to be always about language. The use of the term service user, client, patient, drug or alcohol user and so on - each carries a different judgement. Harm reduction and recovery focus each carry a different weight. There has been a move away from psychological language to business-speak which can sound quite ugly – ‘outcoming’, ‘moving forward.’ Language always encodes an attitude to the work.
When I wrote about my job I was keen not to represent myself as a hero or saint. I worry everyday that I’m not completely successful in meeting the aims of the organisation and I worry far more that I might depart from my own values. I wanted to take the reader into the day to day processes of the job, as in the poem ‘Drug Service’. The poem ‘Farweltering’ is also intended to do this and was written about an experience of work which was much more focussed on quality of human interaction. In writing about colleagues and service users there is obviously an obligation to defend confidentiality by merging and altering details. This parallels the nursing code which I’ve internalised over the years which enshrines the keeping of professional boundaries.
The poem ‘Assessment’ was inspired by a colleague from many years ago who wrote up as his assessments as a flowing narrative full of quoted speech and detail about the service user. Today’s pace involves a more tick-box risk-focused process, but the paperwork doesn’t give a sense of the person in the way my colleague’s write-ups did.
The use of language is always very political in these services. The Harm Reduction banner was surprisingly taken up by the Conservative government in the 1980s. This compassionate and liberal approach was a public health response to the HIV crisis. Deep funding cuts lead to the reframing of the work during the last decade or so as Recovery Focused. In reality both approaches can exist together and be seen as a continuum. Scandalously, drug related deaths rose exponentially from 2012 until plateauing recently (the full effects of the pandemic aren’t known yet). During this time caseloads rose from an average of 30 to over a hundred. By a sleight of hand the workers' job titles are different – they become co-ordinators rather than key workers, so it hard to compare like with like.
You were recently described as “one of the foremost poets on women and work in Britain today”. Obviously, work is very far from being your only poetic subject, but I do get the sense that it is an essential and lively concern in your writing (I know, for example, that in addition to your own creative practice, you recently co-edited Magma 74 on the theme of work). I don't know if you would agree, but I've often felt that, historically, the kinds of work that tend to be performed by women – whether that's clerical work, or work in the service industry, or in different professions of care – are also the kinds of work routinely excluded from a poetic account of labour. Do you feel that women are still under-represented with regards to work-writing, and do you have any thoughts on how publishing cohorts might challenge – or, more hopefully, are starting to challenge – that lack of inclusivity?
That was a kind description by Kate Fox. So many poets write brilliantly about work. I’d like to mention some writers on nursing - Sally Read who published a few years ago, Romalyn Ante’s ‘Anti-emetic for Homesickness’ and Helen Sheppard, whose extraordinary collection focused on midwifery will be published next year. I definitely agree with you some writing about work may be devalued because it reflects women’s experience. I remember Fiona Moore did an analysis of the number of books published by women on her blog a few years ago which showed a lot of inequality. I get the sense that things have changed quite rapidly but I don’t know how much of this is window dressing. Publishers including Burning Eye Book, Verve, Bad Betty, Outspoken, Culture Matters and others are going some way to address this. Co-editing Magma was an amazing experience, if I had the opportunity again I’d want to elicit more voices from care and service industries, Ben Newbery and I tried hard to do this (but still got a huge proportion of submissions from retired male professors in the US). I think there is a whole anthology to be collated and this might start by encouraging people to write about their experiences and may need to extend beyond print platfoms.
I know this interview has been very work-focussed so far, but of course, the collection is about more than just work, at least in the narrow sense of “employment”. You write movingly about girlhood, about the shaping of a self from formative experiences, not of all of which are necessarily benign. You also attend to the continuity of shared female experience: what it means to be a mother, what it means to grieve, what it means to create. Throughout the collection your poems feel united by a common expression of care, and by a sense of vulnerability. The speakers in the 'Work' section of Spirograph are literally and psychologically vulnerable because they administer care at the sharp end of human need; those subject to their care are vulnerable in a different way. The mothers in 'Mother's Day at Roll for the Soul' are also vulnerable, vulnerable in front of each other as socially awkward strangers; the women swimming on Hampstead Heath are similarly exposed, to one another and to the elements. The girls in 'The Town Abuser' are vulnerable in quite another sense again, and often the bodies of your poetic subjects are frail or failing. Would you mind speaking a little bit about this idea of vulnerability in your work? Do you think perhaps that the act of writing and reading poetry creates in itself a condition of vulnerability?
Paradoxically poetry is the means by which I have become less socially awkward. I am in awe of younger poets, in some cases very young poets who have spoken about trauma and honed their craft very quickly on stages. Two Bristol poets, Malaika Kegode and Aiysha Humphreys, come to mind. For various reasons it took me decades to speak in front of room full of strangers and I found small social gatherings were even more daunting. I’m not sure that has entirely gone away, and I do feel nostalgic for the adrenalin terror of performing. There are a lot of very personal poems in the book - Premonition/Hindsight, which I’ve only read in public once, is probably the most direct confessional one. I like to have a mixture of inward and outward focus.
Staying with the previous thought briefly, I know that the idea of being vulnerable is generally figured in quite negative terms, and certainly there is a perception that to work in care a person has to harden themselves to a certain extent. I love that the poems in Spirograph seem to offer a counter-contention to this idea. There's real receptivity and openness to others and to experience in this collection, and its this openness that is ultimately restorative; that allows the work of care to continue. Is preserving that sense of openness difficult? And is poetry helpful in that preservation?
At work I think preserving a sense of openness and flexibility is essential. There is also a tension between a planned diary and what will actually happen during the day. When working with people who may be chaotic it is seen as important to present consistency and routine. Work has a lot in common with performance and writing as it often requires a persona and relinquishing the need to be liked. Work requires being in a role, a conduit for service delivery, and in the same way that a poem is a conduit to expression. There is often a lack of time to respond to people on a human level. I’m interested in the way colleagues manage these contradictions of the work.
The collection is divided into four sections, beginning with 'Work' and ending in 'Wonder'. In between there is 'Where' and 'Who', providing poetic explorations of place and identity. Could you talk a little bit about the structure of the book? Did it evolve organically or was it consciously shaped over time?
I was quite naive at the beginning of the process. In my first collection I had a sort of overture of poems where the first few pages set out the themes and the following poems were in an intuitively coherent order. This time I had some mentoring from the poet Lucy English. It was her suggestion that I consider having a much more explicit structure. Based on the Spirograph image, my intuitively chosen title for the collection from the early stages, I chose to divide the poems into roughly equal sections. I’m aware that many poems could slip into different sections and I hope readers find and enjoy certain symmetries and images. There are a lot of poems about women including After Burn Out, My Grandmothers, and Pride but there are also poems about cult male artists Jazzman John, and Molly. It is an imperfect Spirograph though and one day I’d like to make something more structured as I’m fascinated by patterns and creativity emerging from rules although that is the opposite to the way I write at the moment.
Staying with form and structure, I wanted to ask about the sense of questioning within the collection; about the poems as places of enquiry and investigation. This sense is generated not only through the use of direct questions – for example, “Who will tribute these women?” in Ivydean – but also the way in which you avoid offering any kind of pat resolution or punchline to the experiences you describe. Was this a conscious poetic strategy on your part, because it feels very natural?
For me poetry is way of diving in to make sense of the world, a rebellion against solution-focused processes, a way of retrieving and celebrating memories and of honouring people. I studied history many years ago and my mother is a self-trained historian who left school at fifteen; the book is dedicated to her and other female ancestors. I want to archive experience of work and beyond in my poetry. I’m aware this could be seen as whimsical or nostalgic, but want to fight against this reductive view.
Yikes! I get the sense that those were all quite heavy questions, so I wanted to end by asking if you could talk a little about place in your writing, both as a subject and as an influence and inspiration. Bristol feels very present in these poems, and I'd love to know a bit about your relationship to the city and the way it's shaped your writing.
I moved to Bristol thirty years ago and was lucky enough to land in an inner city area, St Werburghs, which has its own identity, resisting gentrification and contains a lot of countryside. Bristol has a rebellious reputation and it seems surprising that it took so long for that statue to be pulled down. But of course it has taken a very long time for Bristol to face up to its history and question the foundations that have made it a wealthy city.
I was raising my children and studying when I first arrived there so I missed the trip-hop years, more than compensated by going to toddler parties where lovers' rock and reggae were played. The poem My Bristol is about arriving in the city and sense of things opening up as my role in life changed. I’m pleased to have experienced a city for such a long period of time and seen changes and celebrations that people who live outside may not be quite so well aware of it. For example there was briefly a music festival called Venn Fest in Stokes Croft which featured all sorts of types of music in different and repurposed venues, with an overlapping audiences wandering between the different gigs. I have also spent a lot of time away from Bristol, through work and other reasons. I love discovering new places, especially places that aren’t outwardly glamourous. My heart aches for Bristol as I’ve been away for months now due to the current situation. It is one of the places I feel a creative buzz both just walking and being in cafes, and in the poetry scene there which interacts with the musical tradition and street art of the city and was explosive before this year, but has always been healthy. Being away helps me appreciate the city and see it more objectively and I think the same process will happen with work soon!
Thanks so much for talking to me, I hope that wasn't too painful!
Thank you Fran, for your questions and time, always great to speak to you.