There were three events in my early writing life, the point at which I’d begun sending out work for possible publication, that almost put me off the whole business. The first was an article I wrote about a pony I had as a child, one of those hairy Thelwellian ponies that was always into mischief. It was accepted by a horsey magazine and I was offered £30 for it. It was my very first writing success and I was so thrilled. But the magazine went bust before I was ever paid.
The second was in the Nature Writing Essay Competition for the BBC Wildlife Magazine which used to take place every year but does not now. I entered several years in succession under my own name, Gill McEvoy, and although I often picked up a certificate of Highly Commended I never won: the prize always went to male writers. So I changed my tactics and next time merely entered under my initials, G B McEvoy. And would you believe it that was the year Rosamund Kidd took over as editor and she was looking for female writers. My certificate duly arrived, addressed to Mr G B McEvoy! Oh, the ironies of life…
And the third thing was when I applied for an Arts Council Bursary on the strength of published short stories; instead of receiving £2000 as hoped for, that was the year the Arts Council decided to split the bursary three ways so I only got a third of the sum on offer. At that point, not surprisingly, I began to think my career was jinxed.
Until something wonderful happened: if anyone remembers the old “European” newspaper, published in the optimistic days when we were first in the EEC, the paper had a regular competition for short stories for which 1000 ecus (the then European group currency) were paid. And I won it with a story called “Paying the Price”. I went proudly to the bank with my cheque and of course no-one in the small branch I used had ever seen a cheque for ecus before so immediately all the staff came to the counter to look at it. When exchanged for sterling it came to over £750. That was my moment of the ‘fifteen minutes of fame’ that Andy Warhol predicted for each of us: surrounded by bank staff oohing and aahing I felt like a millionaire.
Which I never will again, as I changed my tactics once more and switched to writing poetry, for a reason that I will come to a little further on. Poetry earns me nothing but a great deal of happiness and joyful contact with other lovely people also engaged in the art of writing poetry.
But I have loved reading poetry all my life, and developed quite a taste for Japanese and Chinese poetry: I enjoyed the humorous poems of Li Po, the short lyrical poems of Basho, but also and especially the delicate and touching poems of the Japanese Buddhist nun Rengetsu. She writes in the form of waka, the 5-7-5-7-7 syllable style. And she was influenced by two writers, Ozawa Roan and Kagawa Kageki, who both advised a direct, simple expression of real feelings in poetry. For example, “On the treetop/ a few wild persimmons/ have yet to fall/The colour of/autumn lingers in my eyes.” This is not just a statement of what the poet sees; the poem is imbued with poignancy and a tinge of wistfulness at the passing of the years, expressed so elegantly and so simply.
And I think these poets have had a great deal of influence on my own poetry, although I have not deliberately set out to imitate their style; it is merely that I too love the simple, and try to say things as succinctly as possible in my own work. I spend more time with certain poems taking words out rather than putting them in. This was invaluable when I was preparing the poems in “The First Telling”, a pamphlet that dealt with rape and its aftermath. It is really difficult to tackle such an enormous subject without resorting to impotent anger, which I did not want to do. So I echoed the happenings in the poem sequence with parallels of bird behaviours, as in the poem Goldfinch Bathing; a sparrow hawk descends and snatches it:
The poems were written in sharp, unadorned stand-alone sentences, very short and sometimes I ran words together so it was possible to feel the gasps of stricken horror brought on by the protagonist’s remembering of incidents, as in ‘bellysplitsplitopensplitsplitintwo’
In the pamphlet the victim seeks help in the form of ‘tellings’, visits to a counsellor, and slowly a healing and ability to go on with life take shape. It was the hardest piece of work I’ve ever undertaken and it was inspired in the first instance by the stories that came out of so many public figures abusing children. In working on this pamphlet I am sure my reading in earlier times of Japanese poetry very much came to my aid.
In my years of writing prose I had always written poetry, had occasionally sent a poem or two off to a magazine but never really rated what I was doing. It was only when I was abruptly diagnosed with late stage ovarian cancer some years ago that an underground spring of powerful feeling suddenly broke surface and poems came pouring out of me. I haven’t looked back, and while I am still comfortable with writing prose it is poetry that I immerse myself in these days.
And of all the comments I have received on my own poetry the most cherished is this from poet Rose Cook who said she “admired Gill’s poetry for its simplicity, clarity and confidence. But it always means more than you think”. When things aren’t going right, or the poem I’m working on won’t come as I want it, those are wonderful words to think on. And a good moment too to bring the poems of Rengetsu to mind yet again.