Why I Do What I Do

I probably inherited the creative gene from my maternal grandfather. He was a writer, photographer and political dissident in the former Soviet Union. He wrote for an underground newspaper and spent time in prison because of his views. Every birthday and Christmas he would send me a card with a specially written poem. He encouraged me to read Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Solzhenitsyn at an early age. After his death in 1974 my grandmother gave me his camera which contained a roll of exposed black and white film. Years later I developed the film in my home darkroom and found images of myself as a young adolescent. It was a spine-tingling moment, alone in the dark watching the images slowly materialise and seeing myself the way my grandfather saw me. The images were faded and decomposed because of the length of time they’d spent inside his camera. They had aged, they had scars – like myself.

In the beginning was the word, according to the Gospel of John in the Bible. We experience and interpret the world through language. We write the words and the words write us. I’ve always associated writing with the desire to make the world a better place. It’s a way of getting inside someone else’s head, a chance to see life from another point of view. Writing has a therapeutic value but it’s much more than that…it leads to greater understanding and tolerance between people. It is a powerful tool for personal and social change. Writing can break down barriers, build bridges.

As a disabled woman I have been marginalised by a society that treats people as disposable commodities within the Capitalist machine. Throughout history disabled people have been ignored, silenced, treated as if we are stupid, useless. Alas, the ‘does she take sugar?’ attitude persists even in the 21st century. Disability is the last great taboo which feeds on society’s fear of death, illness and impairment. This is an issue which affects everyone, disabled and non-disabled, because we all age, sooner or later our bodies start to let us down and no-one is ever perfect. We live in a society obsessed with superficial appearances, it’s a kind of body fascism and it creates a lot of misery.

Creative writing and art have given me an equal voice. They have empowered me, helped to counter the negative stereotypes of disability that underpin mainstream culture. Visual arts and writing are two sides of the same coin for me. I often incorporate text in my artwork through collage and photography. I enjoy unexpected juxtapositions. I tend to use abstract and surreal imagery and a lot of colour in both poetry and art. They are just different ways of communicating my unique experience of the world. In recent years I’ve focused more on poetry as it feels purer, more precise. It satisfies my obsessive compulsive streak! Poetry works through the construction of images, as well as metaphor, rhythm and rhyme. And there is the important visual element of words typed on paper, black on white, the shape of the poem on the page. Concrete poems, ekphrastic poems, black-out poems, cut-up poems, acrostic poems all rely on our visual sense.

I am often asked about my working methods. Like many writers I keep a journal. I try to write every day even if it’s just a few words. Ideas and phrases frequently come to me at night and I record them on my phone otherwise they are lost. Sometimes the first line of a poem will take root in my mind and I can’t rest until I’ve put it down on paper. Once it gets a hold on me I can’t let go until it’s finished. Stephen King said that when he’s writing it’s as if he’s just a channel, a conduit for a story that already exists in a mysterious parallel universe. I agree. Like King I believe in what the psychologist Carl Jung named the collective unconscious. Creative people and mystics are able to tap into universal images and stories that we need in order to navigate our path through a complex and difficult life.

There have been many tines when creativity has literally saved my life. I survived several long hospital stays trapped in a bed alone in a small room because I had paper and pencils. I was able to make my mark on a world that seemed to have forgotten me. I have a vivid memory of drawing a vase of anemones on my bedside locker when I was in intensive care at the age of nine after spinal surgery that left me paralysed. Looking at those delicate flowers, the pastel colours, the shapes and recording them on paper reminded me of the beauty of the world beyond the horror and pain of the hospital.

We all need art, we all need stories, we all need to survive.

Photo by Angus Mackay

Blue Poppies

For the first time on the Purple Hermit we have a poem from a guest poet, fellow Scottish writer and friend, Alastair Simmons. Enjoy!

Blue Poppies (In memory of Esther)

She took ages to answer the door
in the heavy summer rain.
Finally, she fumbled open the catch.
Her hand was bandaged, her eyes blackened, on a white face.
“Err, I’ve had a fall,” she said, her hands still shaking.
“Err, I’ve come about the garden, gardening,” I said.
Suddenly, her eyes sparked then ignited
ninety plus years held in darkening pupils,
the delicate filament in her blue iris illuminated.
“Did I tell you about trekking in the Himalayas?
Right over the pass for six days.
I remember now, the blue poppies, wonderful,” she said.
She began talking, as if she’d known me all of my relatively short life.
She took my arm and leaned hard on the old wooden stick,
“Now let me show you the roses.”
The summer rain pelted like an Asian monsoon.
We didn’t notice.

By Alastair Simmons 2012

Alastair lives on the Northeast Scottish coast, finding inspiration in the landscapes of Scotland and Northern England, and also it’s cities. And the gardens he creates,  working as a gardener. “Poetry is about finding connection and expressing that feeling, whether it’s people, nature or worlds we find ourselves in.”

photo by the Purple Hermit

Lockdown Pondering

Instead of writing my novel I am staring at a bunch of bananas, or more precisely at the juxtaposition of the fruit with a box of Gourmet cat food, a calendar, jars of pasta, a face flannel and a pack of hair grips. The randomness of this arrangement reflects the insanity of my life during these Covid months. If ever there was a plot I have truly lost it along with any desire to keep a tidy house. The absence of visitors due to the restrictions has eroded my inner hausfrau. Instead I have developed a taste for the creativity of chaos. I used to be one for everything in its place, now I think there is a place in everything.

I keep thinking about the paradox of Schrödinger’s cat. If no one speaks to me or sees me or hears me for several days there is the equal probability that I am both dead and alive at the same time. The reality of my existence is not validated by others. For ten months I’ve been living in a grainy gritty twilight zone like a scene from a movie shot on Super8. I need to keep looking in the mirror just to check I’m still here. There’s always a tingle of surprise when I see myself, relatively unscathed, looking back.

I am writing this with a yellow pen and therefore prone to optimism.

image created by the author

Something Fishy

I was looking through some old notebooks today and came across this short story I wrote about twenty five years ago and had forgotten about. A simple tale of revenge written not long after my divorce...no coincidence!

The suitcase waited by the front door while Morven took one last look around the house. The bedroom had an abandoned air; the usual bric-a-brac missing from the dressing table and only her sequinned party frock hanging in the wardrobe. For a moment she paused at the foot of the double bed and memories both happy and sad raced through her mind.

When first married they spent entire weekends cocooned in this room, oblivious of the world outside. The passion and laughter of early times had soon faded into the silence of lonely nights when the bed felt like an expanse of lifeless desert. As she left the room Morven gave the duvet a final pat, smoothing out an imaginary wrinkle in the cover.

The lounge was polished, tidy and still. The gleaming fish tanks lining one wall were empty of the bright colours and flickers of usual inhabitants. Only silver bubbles gurgled through the water and reminded Morven of the way the fish pie was simmering in the oven. She laughed when she noticed Neil’s favourite collection of books:- The Secrets of a Healthy Aquarium, How to Look After Your Angel Fish, Discovering Shubunkins and The A to Z of Water Plants.

She gathered them up into a large casserole dish, added half a pint of milk, salt, pepper and a dash of lemon juice and placed it on the bottom shelf of the oven where the fish pie was doing nicely. Pulling on her coat, Morven checked the note on the hall table.

Dinner is in the oven. Just popped out for a new life.

She didn’t bother to lock the door and walked down the driveway without looking back.

photo by the author

Mortality

We follow the signs, white on blue
autumn clouds shifting. Slings
and arrows show one way to exit.
We follow the twisted pitted road
down the line. We avoid potholes,
broken tarmac, pines felled by storms
littering the verge. We drive slowly
around those tight bends. The road
south unspools an old home movie.
In Golspie the doors burst open,
the sun breaks gilding the moss,
the dry stone walls, the sycamores.
The paramedic with kind eyes
wishes you breath. Magic
moss crumbles gold dust
between your fingers until
only the scent of earth remains.

photographic image created by the author

The Runner


rose from the sea at dawn as sun
funnelled across Burrigill Bay.
Her long black hair trailed a seine net
slack from her fisherman’s cap.
In the shadows of the stacks
she bore down on the eastern shore
casting off wrack and bilge water.
Her feet, bloodless as starfish, spiked the shingle.
The life of the sea spilled
from her oilskins. She ran dead
ahead up the hill through meadows
glazed with dew and sheep,
passing the busted creel boat
aslant and hulled with bog myrtle.
Clouds frothed on the horizon
in a herringbone breeze as she ran
to the crest
where an old hen waited by the gate
and one wall of a ruined croft pointed
skywards like a prayer.

Artwork by the author

On Visiting John O’Groats

(This poem was published in Northwords Now some time ago.)

It can take most of your life to see
the large car park at the end of the line.
There are no instructions on arrival.
You circulate widdershins and search

the large car park at the end of the line
for a space that suits your personality.
You circulate widdershins and search
a familiar face in the day-glow crowds

for a space that suits your personality.
Some of them are smiling and holding
a familiar face in the day-glow crowds.
How many coffee beans in the jar?

Some of them are smiling and holding
hands. It’s important to guess
how many coffee beans in the jar.
Green sunglasses are optional, reflective

hands. It’s important to guess
how many miles to Land’s End?
Green sunglasses are optional, reflective
blisters on the soles of your feet.

How many miles to Land’s End?
You might travel naked and grateful for
blisters on the soles of your feet.
It can take most of your life to see.

NB:- John O’Groats is a popular tourist destination in the UK. It is located on the north coast of Scotland and is wrongly believed by some people to be mainland Britain’s most northerly point.

Photo by the author

History

Everything is more beautiful in retrospect.
Sometime between the sepia past,
the grey today and the flash of tomorrow
truth slips away unseen, a tangle of electric
eels squirming in an underground stream.

We look back and see only clear skies
and carefree picnics but never the cold.
We look back and feel only tender kisses
and the soft caress but never the blows.
We look back and remember nothing.

The Wounded

There was nothing but the hunt,
the pain, the struggle, the dark.
She had to keep running. Run!
She could barely recall a time
before the breaking of branches.
She could barely recall her time
of being human, of skin
touching skin and naked picnics
when she gazed boldly at the sun.
In her upright days moss and wild
flowers sprang from her every
footstep, birds sang her every word.

Now she ran on all fours. Run, run!
Her cloven hooves were raw, spiked
by thorns. She was pierced by nine
arrows, fur rank with pus. Venomous.
Calculating. The forest was silent,
a lifeless zodiac of roots and branches.
She could no longer recall her name
or why she had to run. Her lungs failed
and she fell in the shadow of a crippled
tree. As she waited for her joyful exit,
forked lightning unravelled silver
threads of hope across the night sky.

 

Note:- this is an ekphrastic poem based on Frida Kahlo’s painting shown below.

 

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The Wounded Deer painting by Frida Kahlo