What is the main theme of Siege and Symphony?
The main theme of the book is celebration and endurance. This is the main theme too of the long title poem which is about the siege of Leningrad during the Second World War: what individual people in the city suffered and also about Shostakovich – his writing of his Seventh Symphony known as his Leningrad symphony and the first performances of it.
The last section of the poem describes a performance of the symphony in Leningrad in the August of 1941 when the city was still under siege, with an orchestra of players, conductor and audience who were all weak from months of starvation.
Before I started drafting the sequence I spent about eight months doing research. I read a book which included diary entries and letters by people in the city, also the diary of a seventeen-year-old girl and part of a book about Shostakovich which quoted letters from people who knew him. I also listened on YouTube several times to the first movement of Shostakovich’s seventh symphony.
The theme of the title poem reflects the theme of the rest of the book. The first section includes poems which both celebrate the planet and look hard at the way we are polluting it – for example in the poem Becoming Plastic, which details the widespread use of plastic and the damage it causes and ends with a vision of a midwife plucking a baby sheathed in plastic sheeting from a woman’s womb. The same section includes Windfarms, a poem which celebrates these turbines.
Over what period were your poems written and how do you decide what to include in a book?
Most of the poems in the book were written between 2018 and the autumn of 2020. A few poems were written in the final months of 2020 and the very beginning of 2021. The book was finalized around the end of January 2021.
One or two earlier poems, which didn’t fit into earlier books but fitted this one well, were also were included and a couple from earlier pamphlets because they too were just right for this book.
I think very carefully about what the theme of the book is and spend a long time grouping the poems so that they lead into one another and in this case divided them into four sections. Some poems written since the previous full collection were left out because they didn’t fit.
Siege and Symphony
Published by Second Light Publications, 2021
The theme of the book is celebration and endurance. The first section is devoted to poems about the planet and its present state. The second and third sections include poems about contemporary issues such as homelessness, also poems about women and personal poems.
All profits from the book are going to the Woodland Trust.
How has your poetry evolved over the years?
My poetry has developed very much over the years. When I began writing my technical skills were limited but these gradually developed and I think much harder about the form of my poems. When I started writing poetry seriously I wouldn’t have had the skill to write a sonnet sequence as I have in this new book. My subject matter has gradually become much wider. When I started writing much of what I wrote was personal, although I did write about the natural world, the disabled people I taught and the insights I gained from teaching them, also my husband’s background and his mother’s difficult life as a refugee who escaped with her children from the Nazis when they took over Austria. My subject matter gradually became much wider and more outward looking and now often has reference to contemporary issues.
What problems and questions are you raising in your poems about women?
In these poems I am looking at women’s position at particular times.
In The Model I am voicing the inequality there has been in the past and how although it has changed hugely in the West, there are many women in the world who have no rights of any kind. The problem has been highlighted, of course, recently in the plight of women in Afghanistan who, while troops from outside were there, were receiving education and had jobs but have now lost all that they had gained. The problem is widespread and is particularly bad in the Yemen and Honduras.
There are still inequalities of pay in a number of jobs in Britain and sadly the number of women being abused even in Britain is still high. The few number of rape cases which lead to convictions is another problem. (Of course, occasionally a man is abused by a woman too.)
Because my father told me I was secondary when I was over fifty I have included this in the poem The Model. I have used Matisse’s painting of a model as the starting point from which to take a wide view of the problem.
The new book includes poems about homelessness. Can you say something about this?
Homelessness is a huge problem and its causes are complex, but it is of course closely related to poverty, family breakdown and drug-taking. Our government is not paying proper attention to it. Crisis, the Big Issue and other charities and community action and members of the public do their best to ameliorate the problem, but is far from enough.
I have tried to highlight the problem by using my personal experience of individuals I’ve seen. August in Arnos Grove follows an incident outside Sainsburys which I found amusing at first as ‘an aged so-and-so’ instructed a homeless man, who was sitting against the post box on the pavement, to say thank you when I offered to get him a sandwich. Later though, when I realized that the reason the man had asked me to get a carton of milk instead of the sandwich, was because he had lost all his teeth and his health was poor, I became very concerned about his predicament.
Why are paintings often the starting points of your poems?
I think this is because I am very aware of my surroundings, love colour and looking at paintings. In fact, for many years when I was younger, I did some painting. I was very much an amateur but it did train me to look. Also, I think visually and tend to picture what I am thinking about. As a result of all this I find a painting which catches my attention is often a trigger for a train of thought which results in a poem. A good example in Siege and Symphony is The Horse Washing Waterfall by Hokusai. This is actually a wood block print (pictorially like a painting) which I found very exciting because there is so much movement in it: the huge waterfall splitting into different branches which torrent down into a gushing stream, the movements of the two men washing a horse and the horse itself which has twisted its neck to see what they are doing. The poem is a celebration of movement and its importance and it ends: ‘movement is everything’.