News | Tuesday, 22nd October 2019

Let the Artists in! Merrie Joy Williams

Poet Merrie Joy Williams reflects on her experience as poet-in-residence with Special Collections at Manchester Metropolitan University in two essays.

Onions. Photograph: Merrie Joy Williams
Onions. Photograph: Merrie Joy Williams

Trees 1

One Acorn         


Ask the question. Not once but forty-nine times.

And perhaps, at the fiftieth you will make an answer.

– ‘Advice to a Young Poet’, Kendel Hippolyte


Nothing starts from scratch. A tree can testify to that. A tree comes from a seed, and the seed comes from the tree. Neither exists in a vacuum: it takes the wind, the rain, the earth, and the birds and bees to perpetuate the cycle of life and beauty. Not to mention Divine intervention  –  and so it was with this residency and the poems I wrote and provisionally titled, ‘Book of 4’.


I’m a fierce believer that a poet’s body of work is largely an attempt to capture the same few poems or experiences, over again; perhaps more lucidly, more concisely, or from another angle. The first time I ever saw a pantoum, Donald Justice’s ‘Pantoum of the Great Depression’, something in that form resonated in me as containing the seed of this truth – though I’ve yet to write a pantoum I’m completely happy with. The form is stunning, and part of its effect – produced by repeating-yet-transposing two lines per stanza – is its sense of reaffirming some intangible thing, only adding a sense of progression each time. A poet, like a painter, looks again at the theme or subject until something whole, authentic, new, emerges into the light.


This was something I found whilst writing the poems for ‘Let the Artists In!’ – of which only about six have been submitted (the rest are in progress). Many contained ideas I’d tried to approach before, with varying obliqueness, and variable results. For example, when exploring the idea of conception, I think back now to a poem I wrote over twenty years ago – one of my better poems then, certainly more rounded than earlier poetic attempts; yet amiss in articulating something I couldn’t quite put my pencil on.


Something about conception in a troubled relationship. The earlier attempt, I think, comes across as a kind of unexamined voyeurism, maybe even erotica. The newer poem, (one I am redrafting, so resting right now) puts it in the context of larger domestic ravages, lifts it off the page by adding the dimension of time. Approaching it through the lens of this story of fostering also means it uses more points-of-view than mine alone. It has more depth too, since it has slotted into a growing set of poems about my parents’ marriage and our resultant family life.  Most interestingly, it’s a response to an Olds poem, a poet whose work has influenced mine for almost thirty years, so it lives in the forest of talking literary trees, where all good poems (and poets) go to develop in dialogue with each other.


Other poems from the sequence, such as Song of Silence and A Tree Grows in Urmston feel clearly focussed on the actual fostering period, but are still iterations of each other’s parts. Some of this comes from writing in a sequence – but poems need ultimately to stand up on their own, to slot into a jigsaw of incomplete narrative, rather than a linear one. Like a pantoum, often these poems need to restate a fact, sometimes slightly revising it, before advancing the narrative further. What other elements they have in common is not for me to say; writing them publicly, presenting them as works in progress to feedback groups, locating the story as firmly belonging to Manchester’s history, all offer them for semantic negotiation at many different levels. At one end of the spectrum, they are intimate stories of love and failures; at the other, a story of migration and survival, of a slowly evolving Northern city – vibrant and colourful now, but in the early 70s steeped in plain old black-and-white.


 At this early stage of a sequence built around a missing piece of my history, the poems seem rooted in the opening questions of any piece of reportage: how? when? what? why? Actually, Book of 4 grew from one central question: we don’t know exactly what happened during the fostering, but what might four days, four weeks, four months do to other organic things, such as a baby dolphin, or an onion? The onions in my kitchen had sprouted green shoots in just the first four days away for this residency.


Unlike most reportage, however, the nature of the subject matter means the answers in the poems are mostly hypothetical. More like: How would…? Why would…? What are…? What if…?  Several poems offer the answer as a new question, so there’s not a clear division between the asking and the answering. Others are partly presumptive, but such certainty is jusr a peg on which to hang further speculations.


Put simply, provisional certainty was the necessary branch from which new assumptions in the sequence began to develop and grow. Branches need firm boughs to hang from, leaves firm twigs from which to unfurl. Even buds, waiting to open, have an innate sense of the stem’s direction; which helps dictate the inclination of their growth.


 In constructing a story from my mother’s memory, and my own questions about my own personality, along with other things, I also felt an inclination to veer towards the healing. This too is a form of growth from my very early poetry, which tended to veer towards the melancholic. This is not a criticism –  since a younger female writer has different concerns to juggle,  including what she hasn’t come to terms with yet, what her talent can as yet express, and what she feels able to speak aloud. In my forties, I am still on this spectrum – but my skills are more developed, and some older fears have been superseded by a growing sense of urgency. Agency. An older women knows her voice must be valuable, based on the attempt of others to misrepresent, or stifle, it.


On the subject of healing, in an early draft of ‘Song of Silence’ one valued feedback group suggested I end it at the penultimate stanza – on a funereal image. But I knew the final stanza had been hurriedly finished before the session started. It also felt inauthentic to end the poem at some arbitrary place, just because it had reached a perceived stage of ‘perfection’. In fact the tone of this particular poem errs more towards uncertainty – so it was better to end in ambiguity rather than this morose image.  As a penultimate stanza, it’s sad but cathartic. As a closing image, it erred to the melodramatic, I feel. Maybe even cliché.


Let’s finish with some things this residency has taught me about the writing process and my personal poetics.

Having an external focus - the creation of the artist’s book and a sense of my story as a historical document – has, paradoxically, given me the necessary distance to approach personal subjects with more intimacy. Even more encouragingly, my attempts have gotten better precisely because (not in spite of) somehow missing the mark earlier in my writing life. (Fail better!) Finally, some info about this fostering has been lost over the years – despite being able to locate my original foster record. But this process, this tree-hugging, this climbing into its branches to play and investigate, is not dead air – there’s a crackle, life in it. There’s poetic licence too, if somewhat sparing: a poem about a tree is not an actual tree after all, but maintains its own verisimilitude. Which thankfully means when a poem reaches a kind of internal integrity – factual or not – it’s led us to some kind of truth.

Photo: Merrie Joy Williams
Clockwise from top left: the writing process represented by notes and annotations, as well as early versions of these essays; a photo of the poet as a baby - Merrie writes that centring the fostered baby can often feel quite abstract; two images of Merrie's response to 'promise, prayer, poetry' in Special Collections, each bottle containing an affirmative scripture. Photo: Merrie Joy Williams

Trees 2

The Creation of a Thousand Forests   


I go forth as one, but stand as ten thousand.

– 'Our Grandmothers', Maya Angelou


If my previous post explores the structure of trees as the expression of a poet’s body of work, here I explore the eco-cycle, which makes the continued growth of trees possible, over centuries, millennia; for there was another way trees played a part in the creation of these residency poems.


We three LTAI! poets were of course inspired by the wonderful objets d’art in MMU’s Special Collections - maintained with delicacy by Louise Clennell and her generous team. On a Saturday morning in May, having been encouraged by Malika and Martin on the endless possibilities of where we might freely go, we were let loose amongst some of the most exquisite objects I had ever seen. Some were laid on tables and trolleys, some on shelves we could easily have wandered through for a week, opening, discovering.


What caught my eye immediately were the artists’ books, most of which bore little resemblance to the conventional hardback your mind has just conjured up. No, these were a delightful array of objects adapted to function as books - such as a poem in a shoe heel; or poems and stories (literal and figurative) found in the context of carefully filed boxes, their fragile content more like literary time capsules.  An abstract catalogue of scientific slides, a small wooden box crammed with tiny scrolls of scripture from around the turn of the nineteenth-century, books carved into three-dimensional shapes (one in the shape of a tree!) all pointed me in the direction of themes common in my poetry, or that I’d like to delve into more intimately.


I first began to think of workshop ideas, which might culminate in the communal creation of similar artefacts, something around eco-poetry perhaps - I have drawers and cupboards of art materials, and am a bit of a frustrated (and very amateur) card-maker and book-binder.  My only other initial instinct was that whatever was produced should have a strong sense of historical connection to Manchester.


I’d be on a bus journey with my mother, hours later, when the exact hybrid project presented itself.  As the bus steered through Urmston, mum brought up the subject of my childhood foster-carer (from 0-4 months) -  who had lived on a nearby street.  It’s a topic which has rarely been discussed, certainly not in detail, so its timely appearance seemed significant. It feels very different, Urmston, to the eclectic areas I was raised in, such as Chorlton and Whalley Range; where my parents could easily buy Caribbean food, and never felt out of place. So I was immediately struck by the potential challenges of being fostered in a predominantly white working-class district at the beginning of the 1970s.


This was on the surface a very personal subject, but it also had the civic resonance I was hoping for. However, although I’ve written several successful poems about it now,  looking back I can’t imagine what ludicrous courage led me to set myself such a giant unknowable task; of pulling together deeply reflective poems from the starting point of a blank piece of paper, and very few facts. Not to mention creating an artist’s book of my own as a sort of archival focus - which tapped deeply into my fears and inadequacies as an ‘artist’. 


I’m sure the licence to explore helped, but there were a few days after the first bright spark when only tiny incoherent fragments made it from my head onto either paper or Scrivener.  Part of the problem, perhaps,  was that I started with the mystery of the foster mother herself, knowing only her surname; and big banner themes such as the interracial aspect, along with its possible effects. (My fears were they might be bad.) Since my mother was ill, it was my late father who’d visited me at the foster house, though on how many occasions is unclear.  And when I thumb back through some unused fragments in Scrivener,  I find this poem opening below - that I’ve yet to explore further.


     My father

                           still only thirty-nine years old




                on his way back from the foster house


                           to buy a pint.


     My father


                still young enough to raise eyebrows


     black enough


                           to raise one higher than another…




It was one of the entry points mostly likely to be purely speculative - partially because my father died five years ago - and his sharp grasp of family history with it. I don’t doubt this poetic scenario as a basis for exploring Urmston’s demography; but of all the people involved in this story – including a geriatric mother undergoing a hysterectomy, the woman who fostered that sick woman’s child, and the baby herself – my father’s plight as he glugged down a pint may have been least urgent.  Other quandaries: most attempts to write about myself as a baby had been over-sentimental.  As a woman I had also dealt with various complications, which meant I’d never been a biological mother myself, although a stepparent.  What way in? What artefacts did I even want to create once I was in there? And how would they fit with the poems?


It was important that I approached this task (about a period over forty years ago) from a mindset of abundance, rather than blockage.  I prayed. I meditated. I ate too much lemon curd yoghurt whilst waiting for the answer. Then, whilst idly thumbing through my bookshelves, I stumbled across a book which liberated me. It was an anthology of American women’s writing on pregnancy and birth I had owned since age eighteen. Along with its prequel volume of sensual writing, I discovered a wealth of female writers, such as Sharon Olds, Jayne Anne Phillips, Nikki Giovanni, Adrienne Rich and Wanda Coleman - all in that pre-Google era. The first book was so influential on my writing, you can find a finally-finished tribute poem in my debut collection, “Open Windows’.


Weirdly, I read very little of the content – just enough to pull me into the subject. I mostly held it close and felt the joy of finding a long lost friend. I stepped inside its covers, took my place amongst my literary sisters and foremothers, and began to add my own poems to the book’s blank spaces and margins. The printed poems were soon flanked my tall creative scrawls - and sticky notes, so I could keep track of them all. Because I often began a poem one day, then finished it days later on a far removed page. I took the book on the Tube when inspiration struck, and shunned any sort of systematic approach which might suffocate my creative impulse. In this way the book became both portable inspiration, and a kind of notebook. Which worked for reasons I speculate below.


1. Not only are we constantly building on our own body of work, but the work of those who’ve gone before. Reading triggers writing because it sparks ideas, and gives us a sense of what writing can be - has already become. In this case, diverse and unrestrained in theme and form (it’s an anthology of poetry and prose, and everything in between). This lessened the pressure of picking up my pen, by sanctioning a vaster landscape of what I might do with it.


2. You’ve heard it said before, especially by novelists: ‘Just get something down,  you can edit it later.’ Of all the tiny stops on the journey to a finished piece, an annotated draft is by far my favourite. I can go over a piece many times, layering on new edits and changing my mind! It can feel like a kind of madness. I sometimes use different-coloured fibre-tips just to keep track of the order of my changes. In this case, scrawling in pencil on something other than a blank page tricked me into feeling I was redrafting, rather than writing from scratch.


3. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I’m sure: creativity and competition are two different paradigms - pretty much opposites, Wallace D. Wattles once suggested. Of all the writing portfolio arts, poetry seems to me the most to get this; the most like montage, like hip-hop with its sampling, the most attentive to Pound’s call to ‘make it new’. When we step into that state of harmony of all that’s gone before, we can draw from the well of an infinite subconscious (a collective unconscious), and the task ahead is far less daunting. There is no need to be definitive, say everything, appeal to everyone. There is no need for what we write to be anything at all. When we stand with confidence amongst our literary kin, in our forest of family trees - and this includes our talented contemporaries - everything’s amazing, every one’s valuable. In this way, the poems did themselves - and I just did me.


With thanks to Martin Kratz, Malika Booker, Louise Clennell and the MMU Special Collections team, and First Draft.

Merrie Joy Williams was one of three poets chosen to be a poet-in-residence with Special Collections at Manchester Metropolitan University in 2019. To celebrate the residency, Manchester Poetry Library has curated a three-part digital exhibition, in which each resident responds to their residency in different ways (essays, an interview and photography). A special publication about the residency will also be accepted into Special Collection's holdings.

Merrie's work has featured in The Interpreter’s House, The Colour of Madness anthology, The Good Journal Writing in Education, and A New Manchester Alphabet, where she eulogised the city of her birth.  She is a recipient of a London Writers Award (Poetry, 2018) and an Arts Council England award for her first novel, SO. Merrie led an organisation supporting new BAME fiction writers, which co-organised a national residential. She is currently a creative writing coach and leads workshops in schools.  Her debut poetry collection, Open Windows, is released in November 2019.

Let the artists in! is a project from First Draft, which commissions brand new work inspired by collections in museums and libraries across the north of England. Let the artists in! is generously supported by Arts Council England and The Writing Squad.Let the artists in! is a project from First Draft, which commissions brand new work inspired by collections in museums and libraries across the north of England. Let the artists in! is generously supported by Arts Council England and The Writing Squad.

More news