Poem of the Month: May

Each month Influx Press is featuring a contemporary poet you might not know but definitely should.

This month to mark Dementia Awareness Week (17th- 23rd May) we chose a couple of poems from Sarah Hesketh’s The Hard Word Box. This collection is a result of the twenty weeks Sarah spent in a residential care home as part of a project called Where the Heart is. This month we’re also featuring a Q&A between Kyra and Sarah which delves further into this fascinating project and behind Sarah’s creative process.

Spoons

   Spoons break up the day.
Yes. No. Out of mouths
    wedged in the spaces
between who and when. In
    bookshelves and along
windowsills, bright slugs
   who came in for the night.
Such shiny visitors,
    they give us back to ourselves,
our faces strangely curved.
   Small windows into tiny worlds
we hold to impossible angles.

The Hard Words

Look, let’s be clear: don’t imagine
there is anybody here who enjoys
dribbling poetry. If you think we’re
holding stars on our tongues
that’s your eyes want testing.
If you hear music when we grunt
you haven’t understood exactly
what it is we needed to say.
You might enjoy the ruins
of our grammar, the way we
chew up our nouns to song.
It’s not your hand that’s getting
thinner on the blanket.
Please don’t ask us to speak
the hard words all at once.

Did you do a lot of research into writing that has already been produced through working with Dementia patients? If so did that influence how you approached the project?

When I first started on the Where the Heart Is project it was all quite daunting so yes I did start by trying to research and read as much as I could. I was already familiar with the work of the artist David Clegg and The Trebus Project, so that was a huge help as a starting point. What I quickly discovered was that there wasn't all that much writing out there that had been produced as a result of working with people with dementia. I read a lot about memory, both scientific and more literary works. Penelope Lively's book Ammonites and Leaping Fish was very helpful. Most of my research ended up being more around form and the crossover between visual art and text, because as well as the book, I knew my poems were going to have to feature in a physical exhibition, and that was a new kind of work for me.

I love the fragmentary form of these poems. I think you've perfectly captured in poetic form how memory works - we don't remember things in a linear way yet often as writers we attempt to impose this linear narrative structure, so I think the poems work because not only are they reflecting the disorienting, disintegrating aspects of Dementia but of life generally which is fragmentary and disordered. Did that kind of style come about because of the project or were you already naturally inclined to write that way?

The fragment form was something that I was already very interested in. I'd already started a fragment sequence on another topic, but these parallels that you're describing were part of the reason why I was so attracted to the residency opportunity in the first place. I'm very interested in gaps and what readers choose to put into them, and I think that the experience of reading a poem, and the experience of having a conversation with someone with dementia can be very similar and require similar strategies for extracting meaning.

You work with found material and the collection includes conversations you've transcribed. Did you find it challenging balancing your own poetic voice with the voices of those whose stories you were communicating?

From the outset, all of the artists on the residency were encouraged to think of the work we produced as collaborations with the people we were working with. I wanted my own impressions to have a place in the book, but I was also very keen to capture the voices of residents, relatives and the care staff, and also to find a way to represent those who were no longer able to speak, but were still full of communication. In some ways I thought of the book as a group portrait - a picture of a certain group of people at a certain time. I think that image also stops people from looking for too many general 'truths about dementia' in the writing.

Can you tell me about the inspiration behind the title?

The title comes from a line in an Anne Carson poem, 'Mimnermos: The Brainsex Paintings,' that features in her collection Plainwater. Carson's poem is, as you would expect, a complex one, but one of the ideas she's exploring is the pressure we place on people to speak and tell of themselves, and that was something I was very interested in during my residency. It's also a line that gestures at the difficult connections between dementia and language.

As it's Dementia Awareness Week and I know the project was keen to get past the simplistic use of the arts in health care settings, maybe you could comment on the value of poetry in particular in exploring the topics of Dementia and old age.

I'm very wary of making any special claims for any kind of arts practice in dementia settings. I think the arts can bring a huge amount of joy and interest into people's lives - whether you have dementia or you don't. I don't think the arts should be positioned as a 'cure' or a 'treatment' for dementia, because I think that can lead to situations where the arts end up as a smokescreen for bigger problems in a healthcare setting. I do think that art, and perhaps in particular words, can be a great advocacy tool for improving care for older people. People with dementia are largely voiceless in society at the minute, and I think artists and writers can help to amplify those voices and encourage them to be heard.

Sarah Hesketh is a poet and freelance project manager. She holds an MA in Creative Writing from UEA and her work has appeared in a number of magazines and anthologies including The White Review, Soundings, Catechism: Poems for Pussy Riot and Binders Full of Women. Her first collection of poetry, Napoleon’s Travelling Bookshelf, was published by Penned in the Margins in 2009. These poems are taken from The Hard Word Box (Penned in the Margins 2014). In 2013-14 she was a poet in residence with Age Concern Central Lancashire. You can read Sarah's blog on the project here: http://wheretheheartispreston.tumblr.com//