RA & BM Handfast front coverIn my sixteenth interview for In the Booklight, I talk to Ruth Aylett and Beth McDonough about their poetry pamphlet Handfast (Mother’s Milk Books)…

“Where’s the darning needle that can catch, up-loop
dropped stitches a word undone, another moment gone”
(‘Handfast’)

These poems are full of memories and words as beads (strung together or falling loose), of knitting and unravelling, of cuttings and things planted…all involve hands and kinds of holding (or letting go). I’m wondering if you could say a little about the importance of hands, holding and how the pamphlet (and final poem) title ‘Handfast’ came about?

Ruth: For me the metaphor of holding related strongly to the embrace a parent gives a child to make them feel safe that becomes the child holding the parent and trying but inevitably failing to keep them safe. I was brainstorming titles, wanting something short and powerful that would sit well with Hearth, the first pamphlet in the Mother’s Milk poetry duets sequence, and also express that longing to safeguard ailing parent or child with autism. And when the word came to me, it also had that element of loyalty and binding – you have to keep trying because you are a parent, because you are a child, because you are handfasted. And in the end you have to fail.

On the personal level, most of my pieces are about my own mother, who was a doctor and therefore used her hands to treat illnesses, as well as a keen sewer and gardener, also activities to which hands are central.

Beth: Yes, we had spent some time trying to find that title, needing a single word which both encapsulated something of our own poems, and worked as a successor to ‘Hearth’. When Ruth suggested ‘Handfast’ it felt right immediately. ‘Handfast’ offered an enduring word, which is indeed binding, and expressed that very situation we have as both parents and children. My poems here are generally about my son. A huge component of his autism is his sensory processing imbalance, and in particular his resultant tactile insensitivity which leads him to try to redress that balance through his hands fairly constantly. As an artist and writer my hands have been my focus in a very different way, and now, as he is a teenager, with severe learning difficulties and an innocence of dangers, we are linking hands in ways that other parents are not with their children. In another way, Anglo-Saxon poetry is a huge influence on my writing, and the word felt right on so many levels. I suspect neither of us quite realised at the planning stage quite how significantly hands would feature in our final manuscript, and the title came at that stage.

The pamphlet feels carefully structured, opening and closing with a jointly written poem, then largely two poems by Beth followed by two poems from Ruth. For me, reading, it almost felt as if the poems were, in a sense, linking hands – not just with the neighbouring poem by the same poet but also with the collaborator’s poem next to it. How did the collaboration work, both in terms of the actual writing process and in the framing of the pamphlet as a whole?

Ruth: Although we are not at opposite ends of the island, we are not next door to each other either, so physical meetings required a half day to work. I think we both felt having an agreed structure up front would allow us to work independently while retaining a strong partnership. We came up with a list of topics that spoke to each of us, and then we wrote pieces on those topics, with the aim of having them on facing pages, much as Hearth had done. And then every so often we’d meet up at Pillars of Hercules, a very nice farm café near Falklands Abbey, and go over what we’d done and talk about how to put it all together.
The whole pamphlet actually came out of the first piece, A Litany Across Generations, which we jointly wrote the year before and submitted to a Cheltenham Poetry Festival Competition specifically for collaborative poems. And that only happened because we had both taken part in the 52 Project, a private Facebook space run by the poet Jo Bell, in which everyone tried to write a poem a week. Beth and I saw each other’s pieces and felt a certain compatibility, and paired up for the competition without actually having physically met.

Writing that piece established not only the topic but also our approach to working together – we enjoyed it and the poem won second prize, so I guess that gave us a good push to go on when we saw Mother’s Milk were asking for a poetry duet proposal. The last piece was also the last to be written, and again we agreed a form and some structure and then batted stuff to and fro by email until it looked good to both of us.

Beth: Ruth has described the process perfectly, and all I would add to that was I feel there was a supportive, almost early editing challenge in this shared way of writing, which I think is both healthy and creative in itself. I recommend it heartily!

Ruth Aylett

Ruth Aylett

Memories, and loss of memory, thread through this pamphlet, along also with autism and the caring that both involve.

“Sightless now, I spin on all this clatterspill,
try to still, pick and thread these beads,
seek a motif, find reasoned patterns…
unfold the map we need to bring us home.”

How easy was it to put such experiences not just into words, but these words crafted into such beautiful poems?

Ruth: I’d never use the term ‘easy’ in relation to poems, but they are the best kind of labour in which you can give a kind of physical reality to things that may lie heavy on the heart. In doing this I think you gain power over experiences which otherwise might have power over you. You keep wrestling with the language until it does what you want it to do.

Beth: Yes, ‘easy’ is indeed ‘difficult’! There is always the feeling of responsibility, of accountability, of tapping into someone else’s reality too; someone who cannot give their permission, nor offer their own perspective on the experience. That’s something which troubles me often, and yet I believe these matters need to be told. No-one claims a universality of experience (and indeed some of my lines do rail against the type of thinking which creates facile categorisation) but there is indeed a thread in this that will be a real for so many others. I think it’s important that that reality is opened up creatively. However, there is a huge responsibility to write respectfully but without sanitising the truth of these experiences. I believe we both found that place.

Beth McDonough; photo taken by Eddie Gibbons

Beth McDonough; photo taken by Eddie Gibbons

In ‘Handfast’, there are poems exuberant with words, sounds and longer sentences, while others are wonderfully taut and spare. I very much enjoyed the contrasts, changes in pace and reading space that this creates across the pamphlet as a whole. How much was this planned and how much did the poems and their pairings decide their own shape and flow?

Ruth: Speaking for myself, I did try to vary the style and form both because I knew this would be more engaging for the reader, and because some topics demanded more elaboration and some more simplicity. I also find the hardest experiences demand the most structure, to stop the emotion involved puddling out in an incoherent way. That said, one of the great things for me in collaborating with Beth was that we have rather different styles, and I found it fascinating to see the differences in our approach as well as the similarities. Beth is a very good poet and I felt I learned a lot from her inventive use of language.

Beth: Like Ruth, I was keen to explore different possibilities and structures. Sometimes form gives so much to this when emotion is intense, harnessing something which might otherwise run amok. Jim Stewart likens the use of form in poetry to what happens to water running off a hill: once collected and channelled it strengthens and becomes powerful indeed. His thoughts on that and so much more stay with me. Ruth’s poetry is bravely nuanced, and her words which are both clear and nuanced gave me great guidance in my own. Undoubtedly the poems spoke to one another at all the stages throughout ‘Handfast’.

What question haven’t I asked that the pamphlet would nudge me to remember?

Ruth: Our favourite piece or is that a naff question? For me: Equinoctial Stranger and/or On Diet or Autism for making me laugh.

Beth: Perhaps that’s Eclipse 1999’ for me! Also, the humour aspect is an interesting one, and whilst my humour can be pretty dark, it’s useful here. We were both aware of the difficulties and intensity of this shared subject-matter for the reader as well as for ourselves. In practice, too, I have found the need to read some of the lighter pieces at the launch events, for the listeners and for myself. I don’t really think I appreciated I would need their redressing pull to the surface as much as I do, and I’ve been aware that that is something which is important across the experience of the readings. Yes, the poems really continue to talk to one another in ways I would not have suspected.

RA & BM Handfast front coverWhere can people get hold of a copy of ‘Handfast’?
Handfast is available directly from Mother’s Milk Books. Handfast is also available from either of the authors: Ruth Aylett rsaylett@gmail.com and Beth McDonopugh beth.mcdonough@virgin.net.

Thank you, Ruth and Beth, for these wonderful insights into ‘Handfast’, collaboration and the writing (& living) process.

To read more In the Booklight interviews with authors, please click on this link.