This month I invited poet Jenny Pagdin to give advice to writers on how to protect their wellbeing when writing about trauma. I was bowled over by Jenny’s words in this sensitive, generous and searingly honest article.
In the snow globe of trauma
When my son was newborn, I was hit between the eyes by a serious mental illness, postpartum psychosis, which broke my ties with reality just at the time of adjusting to new motherhood. This was eight years ago, and I have gone on to write both a pamphlet (Caldbeck), and the manuscript for a full collection (In the Snow Globe), about my experiences then and since.
While not a teacher or psychologist, I can share a few tips about writing trauma from my own experiences.
My first advice would be to practice general self-care: watch that your internal monologue is gentle and compassionate, and meditate/run/nap/phone friends/do whatever you normally do to take care of yourself, and do it even more than usual. Especially if you have no time. Especially if you have small dependents.
- Accept the gifts of time
I didn’t start the Caldbeck poems until three to four years after that initial illness, and even without having an infant son to look after and my mental health to recover, I don’t think they could have come any sooner. I needed time to process what had happened, time for them to filtrate through the rocks of my psyche, time as a protective wall between me and the fiercest memories.
- Make your community
I went to a very productive (free) trauma-poetry workshop led by Helen Calcutt a couple of years ago. Helen, whose has written into the space left by her brother’s suicide, created a truly safe space for us as workshop participants: supportive, confidential, expansive in time. Without the space that Helen built for us I would never have had the confidence to tackle the material I looked at that day. I would recommend working with sensitive supporters like Helen if you want to explore difficult histories.
Writing the In the Snow Globe manuscript, I had the privilege of a lifetime – in being mentored by the wonderful Liz Berry (poet and President of the Republic of Motherhood!). I told Liz that she gave me the keys to my own writings – her warm understanding made me unafraid of some of the uglier experiences I was chronicling and I will always be very grateful for her insights and encouragement.
“The hospital material looks prettier now,
….as if time might be forgiven”. (Making a memory quilt).
Workshops, courses and mentoring can be big investments – but there are also accessible ways to build your supportive writing community, such as attending poetry events locally and further afield, or joining “Stanza” groups through the Poetry Society. And you have much to give, as well as to absorb. Writing about the psychosis gave me an alternative and more desirable identity than “mad mother”. I was a writer again, I could share work at events and online. “Speaking up” through poetry initially made me self-conscious. But I found my poems helped others to talk about the similar experiences that they’d lived through, and in this small way the stigma and misunderstandings cede slightly.
- Protect yourself
Mostly I have avoided writing about things that would have really hurt to explore – in both the pamphlet and the book manuscript. Those things I most wanted to avoid – the impact on my family life, the nature of my delusions – I have permanently steered away from. As poets it can be powerful to remember we have full control over what we share.
- Nudge your comfort zone
There is one poem in In the Snow Globe where I broke my self-protection “rule” and chose to move certain “difficult” material, which I barely wanted to look at, into the public realm. The poem that I wrote in Helen Calcutt’s workshop, Ursa Major, was originally titled Ugly Verse, telling you everything I felt about its content at the time. Here is a flavour of the chaos:
“the police were in our bedroom, the neighbours at the door with deckchairs, and Noah’s
little voice below and Orion’s belt re-forming in the Velux, and the WPC saying he was fine he was having his tea and
my coarse screams a rubber black bar over me in the ambulance like the Big Dipper”
Over time I have come to feel proud of this “difficult” poem.
- Come at it from different angles
Approaching trauma from different angles (including the rueful, even the wry) makes for both easier and more compelling writing, I think. In my pamphlet and book I have tried to use a variety of forms (both received and new) and moods, from mildly funny through to livid, mournful and confused. As I wrote the later poems for In the Snow Globe, I found that they/I were moving more towards healing. The recurrent water imagery was changing shape, with hard rains and turbulent oceans giving way to healing baths and seas. Poems earlier in the book had alluded to Lorina Bulwer, the C19th needleworker who was an inmate at Great Yarmouth Workhouse. When textile imagery recurs later in the book, it’s in the form of comforting patchworks and crochets rather than Lorina’s angry embroideries. Towards the end of the collection, the poems shuffle-step towards an acceptance of motherhood and disability: “Say that my illness were a fairy child / …what was there to do but embrace her?”
About postpartum psychosis
Postpartum psychosis (PP) is a severe, but treatable, form of mental illness that occurs after having a baby. For more information about the condition, go to the Action on Postnatal Psychosis website:
Jenny Pagdin’s pamphlet Caldbeck, which tells the story of her postnatal psychosis, was published by Eyewear in 2017, shortlisted for the Mslexia pamphlet competition and listed by the Poetry Book Society. Jenny was longlisted for the Rebecca Swift Foundation Women’s Poetry Prize 2018. Her work is featured or forthcoming in Smoke, Magma, Wild Court, Ambit, Ink, Sweat and Tears and Finished Creatures as well as the Emma Press Anthology of Contemporary Gothic Verse and The Mum Poem Press Anthology.
jennypagdin.co.uk / Twitter: @PagdinJenny
More details on Caldbeck here: https://blackspringpressgroup.com/products/caldbeck
Sue Burge, Contributing Editor of Literary News and Writing Advice
Sue Burge is a poet and freelance creative writing and film studies lecturer based in North Norfolk in the UK. She worked for over twenty years at the University of East Anglia in Norwich teaching English, cultural studies, film and creative writing and was an Associate Lecturer in Creative Writing with the Open University. Sue is an experienced workshop leader and has facilitated sessions all over the world, working with a wide range of people – international students, academics, retired professionals from all walks of life, recovering addicts, teenagers and refugees. She has travelled extensively for work and pleasure and spent 2016 blogging as The Peripatetic Poet. She now blogs as Poet by the Sea. In 2016 Sue received an Arts Council (UK) grant which enabled her to write a body of poetry in response to the cinematic and literary legacy of Paris. This became her debut pamphlet, Lumière, published in 2018 by Hedgehog Poetry Press. Her first full collection, In the Kingdom of Shadows, was published in the same year by Live Canon. Sue’s poems have appeared in a wide range of publications including The North, Mslexia, Magma, French Literary Review, Under the Radar, Strix, Tears in the Fence, The Interpreter’s House, The Ekphrastic Review, Lighthouse and Poetry News. She has featured in themed anthologies with poems on science fiction, modern Gothic, illness, Britishness, endangered birds, WWI and the current pandemic. Her latest pamphlet, The Saltwater Diaries, was published this Autumn (2020) by Hedgehog Poetry Press. More information at www.sueburge.uk