Saturday, 27 February 2021

About The Skylark's Call

The Honest Ulsterman asked me to write an article describing how my latest collection came into being and the rationale behind the book. As you might imagine, it’s a bit of a long story. I wrote it from the heart, in the style of a piece for this blog. My article has now been published in the journal ( I reproduce the text below, with thanks to the editor. I hope you find it illuminating. Please let me know what you think.

"Exactly ten years separate my first and second collections of poetry. This long time-span wasn’t deliberate. It was unavoidable.

My new collection, The Skylark’s Call, explores memories and meanings at the borderland between life and death. I was catapulted into that strange and complex territory just a few months after the launch of my debut collection, Latch. It was Good Friday 2011 and I had spent a sleepless night on a trolley in A&E at the City Hospital, Belfast. The doctor pulled the curtain around my bed and told me straight. I had Stage 3 cancer. The tumour had grown most of the way from my kidney to my heart. I shrank into the sheets, unable to speak.

I endured a month in hospital being prepared for a very big operation that might save my life. Bad news travels extremely fast. Family and friends, some of whom I hadn’t seen for decades, came long distances to see me. Between visiting times I moped, gazing at people who were walking unconcernedly along the pavements below.  The hospital offered access to the internet, so I was able to cancel my reading tour of Ireland and England from my bed.

The big operation took around eight hours and involved three teams of surgeons. I needed three blood transfusions and spent a week in intensive care and the high dependency unit. I was sedated and have few memories of these days. Afterwards my doctors told me that my health and fitness had got me through the ordeal. They also told me that they expected the cancer to return and spread. They concluded that I would be lucky to live beyond two years. Unable to cope with this prognosis, my partner left me.

Back home, I sat in an armchair and stared out at summer clouds scudding over the horizon. I was truly alone. My situation seemed hopeless and I felt helpless. Somehow, from these depths I was able to reach out. I saw a counsellor from Cancer Focus. Her support got me through the darkest of these early days.

My life had become stark and simplified. I realised that there were lots of things I wasn’t going to be doing again in the time that remained. Writing poetry was just one of them. Instead, I began to revisit places across these islands that I had loved, and looked up old friends that I hadn’t seen for decades. I was sort of paying my last respects.

At the same time, I desperately wanted to go back to where and who I was before. But all of my efforts were doomed, for these options had been removed. I had an exhausting whirl of conflicting emotions. I could only go on as best I could. Death was no longer a remote possibility. It walked beside me at every step. I could smell and taste it. I had to learn to live with this very present threat.

My new life was intensely stressful, filled with anxiety and fear. But it was also strangely liberating, for normal life could not be maintained and continued in the face of this threat. The peculiar borderland that I was in had an odd mix of dark and light, it was a place of vulnerability and of vitality.

It took me well over a year to recover from that big operation. I spent a lot of time on the internet. I found a blog by an American cancer patient which expressed exactly how I was feeling. He described himself as a ‘survivor’ and wrote openly about his cancer experience and how it was affecting his life. I corresponded with him. He told me he was trying to gain a small measure of empowerment over a deeply disempowering disease. This struck a chord with me. I decided to begin my own blog. I called it ‘Writing to Survive’, with the sub-title ‘writing from the here and now’. Since then, I have written a weekly blog describing what was happening with me and how I was feeling about it. My blog has hundreds of regular readers and has gained many accolades.

As time went on, I could find no inspiration to write poetry. Instead, I set myself little writing challenges. Like picking a word at random from the dictionary and trying to write a poem around it. For an experiment, I also tried to write poems that were stimulated by real-life stories I came across in news media. They weren’t found poems. The story was the jumping off point into a poem. But the poem also remained grounded in the story. They were separate but connected. I had begun to write poetry in a new and different register and I was enjoying it.

My two year anniversary came and went. I was getting regular surveillance scans, which showed that the cancer hadn’t returned. The fear was at times overwhelming but it didn’t stop me from trying new things. I was learning to live in the borderland. I returned to the Writers’ Group at the Seamus Heaney Centre and presented my new poems. The late Ciaran Carson was very encouraging and christened them my ‘discovered poems’. Looking back, I see that I was particularly attracted to real-life stories of loss and also those of rediscovery. I began to submit these poems to competitions and journals, with some success.

To mark the third anniversary of my big operation I went to my first literary event since 2010. On the first day of the John Hewitt Summer School, I met the woman who was to become my wife. It must have been written in the stars, for my dearest T was attending the event for the very first time. We went on holiday to Orkney, staying with a friend I hadn’t seen since I was nine years old. We explored Neolithic settlements, burial chambers and standing stones, marvelled at the Italian Chapel and got spectacularly close to plenty of wildlife. It was an inspiring trip that stimulated plenty of new poems.

Despite our hoping against hope, my doctors were eventually proved correct. My cancer returned in 2015 and again in 2016. What’s more, it had spread to the right side of my abdomen and my liver. I had advanced cancer and was given another poor prognosis, this time of just one year. My dearest T stood by me throughout the three major operations I needed.

I ended up spending a series of weeks in four different NI hospitals. I could write the Trip Advisor reports for each. The Royal and the Mater were excellent, but I’d have to mark the City down for putting me on a saline drip for twelve days without any food. Due to this, I had to spend Christmas Day 2015 on the ward. My dearest T decorated my bed with fairy lights and tinsel. The nurses called it Santa’s Grotto.

Cancer is a very hard taskmaster. I’ve gained so many scars on my torso that I could be a body double for a pirate without the need for make-up. After my last big operation, I had to rest sitting up in bed for three months and drink liquid morphine every couple of hours to get through the night. I had my cold turkey during Christmas 2017, and I’m not referring to the festive food.

Despite all of this, I think the physical pain of cancer treatment is easier to cope with than the mental stress of living with the threat of recurrence and death. This fear rises and falls in intensity, but it never actually goes away. I’ve been clear of cancer for four years now. But the type of cancer I had has been known to recur even twenty years later. So I will be living in the borderland for the rest of my life.

Looking back on my journey thus far, I know that I’ve gained much more than I’ve lost. I’ve learned to live in the here and now. I’ve learned to do what matters, and to do it as well as I can. I’ve learned not to waste time and energy on what doesn’t matter. I’ve found a resilience that got me through some serious ordeals. I travel hopefully but remain vigilant.

I’ve weathered a sea change in my life. And through it I’ve become a more developed person and a more developed writer too. I’m now more appreciative of what I do have, more aware of my strengths and limitations, more understanding of others and more open and honest.

After recuperating from my years of treatment, I took stock of the poems I’d written since 2013. What began as a creative trickle had built into a steady flow. There were well over a hundred new poems. Twenty three had won awards in competitions in Ireland, the UK and the USA. Fifty had been published, some of them in highly-regarded literary journals in Europe, North America and the UK.

I recall the late Ciaran Carson describing the meaning and rationale of a collection as something that emerges over time. You write a poem because you are inspired by something that fires your imagination. It is only when you begin to put a number of poems together that the themes which interconnect these pieces of writing can start to appear. And it may be some time before you are able to discern these relationships and underlying meanings. They are likely to not have been apparent to you at the time of writing the poems themselves.

Over some eighteen months I went through a good number of iterations of my second collection and tried a range of different titles. Special thanks are due to the late Ciaran Carson, Moyra Donaldson and Damian Smyth for their feedback. As Lagan Press had stopped publishing collections some years previously, I needed to find a new home for my work. Roger Robinson, the winner of the TS Eliot Prize 2019, said that after his manuscript got dozens of rejections from publishers, he was told to hone his craft and keep trying. I followed this excellent advice. Despite the rejections I received, I kept improving my manuscript and early last year my collection was taken by Dempsey & Windle, an independent publisher based in England.

The Skylark’s Call comprises fifty-two poems. Around a third of these are autobiographical. Only two of them are concerned with my cancer treatment. Some poems are mythic, some spiritual, some historical, some geo-political, and some are environmental. About half of the poems in the book are ‘discovered poems’. The poems span four continents and seven millennia, for the human condition is timeless and universal. All of the poems are in some way concerned with memories and meanings at the complex borderland between life and death. Together they explore the vitality and vulnerability of everyday life.

The poems that make up this collection are of course informed by my experience over the past decade. During that time I have been a cancer patient and a survivor. But that does not define me, nor does it define the scope of the collection. The emotional substance of my life over the past decade has been wide ranging and extremely diverse. The changes that have taken place in me as a person and as a writer are considerable in their scale and in their horizons. The scope and character of my new collection reflects this.

I began this period not expecting to survive beyond two years. I didn’t think I would write poetry again and I certainly never imagined that I would complete a second collection. I learned to live for each day. I’m of course delighted that these and plenty more good things have come to pass. Life has so many and varied ways of surprising us.

The Skylark’s Call was launched two months ago. It seems to have struck a chord with many readers and sales have been brisk. Enthusiastic comments about the poems have been posted on social media. Perhaps the coronavirus pandemic has played a part, for the territory that the collection explores is one that we are all now having to deal with."

The Skylark’s Call is available to purchase from Dempsey & Windle

Paul Jeffcutt is offering readers personalised signed copies of the book

Saturday, 6 February 2021

Birthday Carriage

I had a lovely birthday yesterday. My dearest T went to great lengths to make it very special. I began by opening cards and presents. I received plenty of good wishes from family and friends. I got books, vouchers and an illuminated manuscript created by a retired monk. Later on there would be a three course dinner from a restaurant, cake and candles, the full works. But first, T took me to a secret assignation that she had arranged. The journey was mysterious. We drove into the hills between our house and the Mournes. After a while we turned into the yard of a remote farm. I was gobsmacked to encounter a carriage and two horses.

We were introduced to Fred and Navi, two six year old geldings, by Liz and Mervyn. I patted both horses on the neck and they nodded their welcome. The carriage was magnificent: shiny black wood with silver detailing, four great spoked wheels, a bench seat for the driver and a rear step for the postillion. It was a replica of a landau from 1780. Fred and Navi were harnessed. Mervyn opened the carriage door. We stepped up and into the plush red interior. There were two bench seats. We sat on either side, glancing out of the open windows. Liz took her place as the postillion. Mervyn cracked the whip. Fred and Navi shook their heads. The carriage jerked forwards and we were away.

There is something magnificent about the sound of a horse’s hooves. We clip-clopped along misty back lanes. From the carriage, we could see over hedges. Animals in the fields ran towards us excitedly. Apparently, even wild animals would stop and stare. Fred and Navi trotted along, panting a little on the slopes. The misty air was suffused with the beat of their hooves. We had gone back in time. It could have been 1780. I imagined that we were on a journey to the local town. I kept expecting us to be stopped by a highwayman.

Horsepower, or Shank’s pony, was how most people had travelled until the last century. For thousands of years the world had been arranged around the speed of a horse. By carriage that would be ten miles in an hour. And you would be stopping every twenty miles or so at a coaching inn to change the horses. You would glad of a break too. For even with rubber edged wheels and a tarmac road, the landau jolted around a good bit.

My father always loved horses. My grandfather had a milk round. As a boy, my father led the horse around village lanes doing deliveries, until he ran away from home aged fifteen to join the army. At that time, the army still relied on horses. Many army units only became mechanised in the run up to the second world war. My father fought in tanks across the Western desert, until he was captured and became a POW. After the war he left the army and worked in a number of factory jobs. Horses remained his love. Although, with a wife and three kids, he couldn’t afford to keep a horse as well.

Our hour in the carriage was so special. All too soon we were back at the yard. Fred and Navi were unharnessed and were champing at the bit for something to eat. We patted them and made our farewells to Liz and Mervyn. We’d highly recommend L & M Carriage Driving. Heading back home in our car, I reflected on what I really liked about cycling. It was the wind on your face as you travelled through the world at a slower pace, fully part of your surroundings. On a long day out, I would plan my cycle routes on an average of ten miles an hour, including stops for food and drink. That was a horse’s pace. I realised that for me cycling was the nearest thing to riding a horse.