begining-with-your-last-breath-coverIn my twenty-second interview for In the Booklight, I talk to Roy McFarlane about his poetry collection Beginning with your last breath (Nine Arches Press)…

‘Beginning with your last breath’ is a moving title for a collection containing some very beautiful and moving poems. How did the title and collection come about?

Thank you Sarah for your kind and complimentary words about the collection. Beginning with your last breath came into being during 2014. My mother had become ill again, she had been fighting cancer for the last 10 years in some shape or form and was resigned to giving up the fight, she was tired and decided to have no more operations. I became her career during this period of time and I was struggling with the inevitable, so I needed a safe haven which I found in my writing.

A friend gave me Rain by Don Paterson, he said read and write, write in the moment, in the hospital, in the waiting room, in A&E, wherever just write. He also introduced me to the idea of duende, a term developed by Federico Garcia Lorca. I guess he was helping me to come face-to-face with death and to be able to create something beautiful from it. The duende or “black sounds” as Lorca put it, is a spirit that inhabits your writing, the pain, the sorrow and translates into the reading and performance of it. I recognise that this duende is in my love poems, moments of loss, the journey of Bevan, coming to terms with my adoption, identity, injustice and racism, there was a theme resonating with hymn like beauty. My mother passed away in November, the title poem was the elegy created for the funeral service and then became the title poem for the collection.

There are many different beginnings, journeys and circles in life within these poems. The collection itself also circles/completes itself in its journey from opening to closing the poem. I wonder if you’d say something about these aspects of life and their role in ‘Beginning with your last breath’?

There’s certainly an emphasis on a circle of life, that there are no endings, they only feed into another beginning, like the seasons, winter is not an ending but it’s a preparation for the spring to come.

Every good collection by rule requires an arc but BWLB generated so many circles within circles, whether the short journey of life with my birth mother that ends with her last breath upon my cheek before she hands me over to my mother creating another beginning, journey and cycle.

Regarding the opening and closing poem, the idea of a revelation from my mother which echoed through the years and her encouragement to keep going on, echoed now that she’s passed away, is the magic of writing, it wasn’t planned it just appeared and manifest itself into being.

Reading the collection, I was struck by both the strong sense of place evoked in many of these poems – in particular, Wolverhampton and Birmingham. How important are these cities to you? And why?

Elaine Feinstein Cities was informative to many of my city poems. A sense of belonging, the way we hang memories on city landmarks or bury history in the landscape. Cities become living breathing entities that swallow you whole. Cities evolve, grow or disappear and become something new. Cities can become safe havens or they can be places of despair that we need to run from. From Liz Berry Black Country to Out of Bounds Anthology cities, towns, areas define who we are.

Wolverhampton has informed the person I have become, family and friends they’re all part of that map. Birmingham was the big city to explore when growing up, the metropolis, the place to get lost in its art and culture. Birmingham still has that fascination; to be a part of Birmingham is to be a part of what makes it great and at times not so great.

Photo by Jack Nelson

Photo by Jack Nelson

Linking in part to place – as well as to family, roots and belonging – it seems to me that there is a real political passion and sense of justice (or injustice) to be heard within the collection. What fuels these poems?

I think a turning point in my life was the death of Clinton McCurbin who died whilst being arrested for alleged shoplifting in Next in Wolverhampton. I was there that day, not sure what was going on, just hearing people saying they killed another black man, only to go home and hear it confirmed on the news. As a son of minister, living a middle class existence working for the Wolverhampton City Council, I was probably blinkered from these (other) lived experience; I was struck numb by the racism and needless loss of life.

I was also reading Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-1963 which transformed me through the 90’s and the noughties, I’ve been a Community Worker, Activist, Equalities Officer in all of these position and as fulfilling as they were, each role seemed reactive to everything from Stephen Lawrence to Black Lives Matter.

Now I have a wider appreciation for the injustice of a wider community and we need to do more than just react. I believe the poetry community can stir the water, cause a ripple or a wave which makes it impossible for a wider community to ignore. As griots we have to witness from the ground up our stories, our lives are often dictated from those who observe from above but can never fully walk in the shoes, sandals or the bare foot imprint left in the sand to fully appreciate our stories.

We need to be an inciter, a social critique responding to issues at the time of his/her performance.

Light, love and lust all feature in ‘Beginning with your last breath’ – in a wide range of contexts, yet all threading together wonderfully in the collection as a whole. It’s a broad question covering all three, as each individually has a very wide scope, but what part would you say these themes play in your work?

Light, love and lust are the heartbeat of this collection. In the darkness of injustice we have to shine a light of justice; in the pain of loss we have to find a healing through love. And lust has its own magical existence to burn or ignite something beautiful.

From John Coltrane Love Supreme to Marvin Gaye Sexual Healing; E.E Cummings to Pablo Neruda poems; Songs of Solomon to Carol Ann Duffy Rapture. I have delved and dived into the depths of any writing that would explore or shine a light on love and lust.

I grew up with a very tactile mother, full of love and always expressing her love. The love songs of Teddy Pendergrass, Luther Vandross and Anita Baker was my daily diet. I think the poetry world needs a Barry White of poetry (tongue firmly lodged in cheek), so I’m working on it.

Seriously light, love and lust are all interchangeable and are all important, so often misunderstood, so often written badly and so hard to express beyond the cliché norms.

The collection contains some striking epigraphs, quotations and dedications. Who or what would say are your main influences, role models and sources of inspiration (in poetry and/or life)?

I’d have to begin with my father as a minister preaching from the pulpit, I never appreciated how this un-educated gentleman, would get my mother to read and then learn the verses and recite passages of scripture. My mother taught me Psalms instead of nursery rhymes and the bible stories became my staple diet, including the Maccabees which was frowned upon because they weren’t canonised (or to radical).

Later Martin Luther King Jr found me, taught me the art of using words, to listen to those cadences, repetitions, metaphors and similies, permeating my creative imagination. Malcolm X was the other great influence, spellbinding and chrasmatic he articulated my anger.

Maya Angelou I know why the caged bird sings and every quote that has flown from her mouth. Gil Scott-Heron spoke of the pain, the oppressed, the underclass. Ralph Ellison Invisible Man, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Rumi, Marvin Gaye, Toni Morrison, E.E Cummings, Langston Hughes, William Blake, Jayne Cortez and Nikki Giovanni, just to name a few of my influences.

What haven’t I asked about that is important to you about this collection or your writing process more generally?

I don’t have no set writing process, I just write, whenever, wherever and whatever but the most important thing was, I had notepads, papers, notes written on the back of used envelopes, lines written around the headlines of newspapers. I took a few months off and I gathered all my notes, scribbles, and began writing. Twenty poems were sent to Nine Arches in the spring of 2015 and Jane Commane said yes, she wanted more. The shape had taken form in the twenty poems, I knew my mother passing away would take me back to the day I found out I was adopted but what would be sandwiched in between. I found old poems, new poems, half-written poems and discovered Identity and love; sensuality and spirituality running seamlessly through the heart of the collection; Keats speaks of the blood and imagination of poetry, which I’ve poured into this and I humbly hope there’s an intellect that bolsters the collection.

begining-with-your-last-breath-coverWhere can readers get hold of a copy of ‘Beginning with your last breath’?

Birmingham Waterstones and Foyles are well stocked but failing that just get on to the Nine Arches website and order from there.

Thank you, Roy, for these wonderful insights into your poems and influences in ‘Beginning with your last breath’.

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