Silver Branch series

Content warning: trauma

Stuart McPherson

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Stuart McPherson is a Forward Prize and 'Best Of The Net' nominated poet from Leicester in the UK. Recent poems have appeared in Butcher’s Dog Magazine, Bath Magg, Poetry Wales, and Anthropocene. His first micro pamphlet 'Pale Mnemonic' was published in May 2021 via Legitimate Snack. The pamphlet Waterbearer was published in December 2021 by Broken Sleep Books. A debut full length collection Obligate Carnivore was published by Broken Sleep Books in August 2022.

Stuart was a host on TopTweetTuesday in 2021.

My Daughter's Photograph

 

 

Europa, I am obsessed                          with storms

And you, with orbits

around my waist   

 

                                       Your face born bright

                                              and me, unable to bear

                                                        the weight of feet

 

So beautifully soft blue

     My gravity hasn’t failed you yet

                                                                young moon

But maybe the size of space, my

         absorption, my propensity for vastness

                                      The way that I live out here

 

Did you see me, Europa?

          Through a telescope or the touch of gravity                               

                                                  pushing in our lives?

 

Born free

And here I am, hoping for revival

                                       That fear won’t pull you in

That in absence you might forgive

This process of creation

This mad old way                              I seem to spin

Every Morning There Are Two of Me

 

 

I climb into bed, this long flat knife

The way a surgeon re-opens a slow wound

 

There are twice the loosening lights

Alpha Aquarii netted in the orange of a bowing lamp

 

Outside we are ready to be thrown into the long trees

As the street holds the hollow sound of rope

 

The morning questions a casket lottery

 

The lies of our rested shapes shepherd away paleness,

like a crook

Something Had to Die So That I Could Live

 

 

In the beginning of

beautiful death,

There were no signs

                            

In fading light

pulled out the twins

One white, one still

          

Motherly clicks

The wetness of hay

Her bleating eyes

 

Looking, then licked

Swung twice and

slapped

 

The man wrapping

Aries in a sheet,

took away the old

 

By the daffodils 

set him down

Whilst the new

 

Danced in the grass

Like snow

for the beautiful dead

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A Skull in the High Tide of Masculinity

 

 

Screens define schematic doctrines of touch

our intimacy as process / lean six sigma sex                       

a synaesthesia of obliques /  these glistening

abdominals attached to analogue VHS / a sleaze

kneading of breasts / underfed with cheap physics

the formality of mechanized thrusts / repetitive

equations for scratching / the back of my

occipital crest /  learning to be fed

tapes spooling in the tray / these famished young

men / fan flames / of malnourishment / of frailty

our mainstay / the way we swarm / the way

                                             we fascinate

                                             these lullabies

                                             so gently / sung

                                             like trepanning

                                             or how / we might

                                             learn / to smash

                                             our own skulls

Abattoir

 

 

We shared out our sleep.

The wind cupped us in its

hands, with taillights.

 

The callouses of men

twisting up the creel

and crudely stacked.

 

Pelts of animals once kept

between stonewalls and a

pale white whalebone are

 

soaking in the cold. Their

glass eyes, glass breath.

Our seat among them as

 

we rest, unbeknownst.

An intruder on the stairs,

a skinner knife in the draw.

 

The blotting of the sea a

blanket creeping up the

legs of a shivering child.

 

Submission

 

 

The crow in my lap

is anti-particular.

 

The head in a box

perpendicular to mine.

 

And the afternoon,

an airless cloche.

 

Promises everything

but necessary flight.

 

Promises no answers

except procedural

 

routes that lead

to corvid. Warmth a

 

diminished return

for handcuffs.

 

To know roughly

that this is all there is.

 

Black feathers and

pearlescent tip.

waterbearer.webp

"My aim with writing is simply to elicit emotion. When someone reads one of my pieces, I want it to stay with them, for them to hold on to it. For me, this is way more important than meaning in the crudest sense, and actually, I don’t really think that poetry needs to be picked over, dissected, analysed. Rather I want the reader to think about what it brings up inside themselves, whether this be a question, discomfort, joy, outrage…if I can write poetry that achieves this, then I would say that the words have done their job."

"I first discovered poetry through music, and particularly musicians who had branched out into writing. I see music and poetry as being inextricably linked, and I think that the type of music I listen to, whether it be punk rock, hip hop, hardcore, noise etc, always creeps across into my poetry. I always liked, and still like music that pushes boundaries, makes a point, or that challenges the listener. I want my poetry to do the same. That being said, I think reading poetry is hugely important, and personally I like to be open to everything. I don’t contain myself to just one style or type of poetry. I think that has huge benefits, and inevitably has a hugely positive impact on your own work."

"Finally, when I write I find myself being very deliberate about producing something that makes the reader take a step back. Whether this be subject,  form, or an angularity or unusual combination of words. I like to experiment, I like to write a poem, tear it apart and then allow it form something else to come to life. So in essence, nothing is off limits, and the same goes for allowing influences into the work. I like to absorb everything from poetry, prose, music, soundtracks, art, photographs, and let it all sit together. Don’t be afraid to let the whole of who you are, what you see, what you feel and identify with come out onto the page."

Stuart McPherson, November 2022

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The Interview: Stuart McPherson

 

Q. Waterbearer is an incredibly personal set of poems dealing with sexual abuse, its impacts on the self, the family, and the death of a sibling. What made you decide to confront such a wide variety of complex themes all within one pamphlet?

Good question, it’s a lot to cover in one go! I think for me, this was the first serious piece of poetry that I had written for many years. I had started writing poetry about eleven years ago, largely as a way to help with my own mental health. But as things got increasingly difficult I kind of just shut down, and this included my writing. And so as I found the space to return to it again, I knew that this was something I had to deal with in order to move forward. In other words, I had to get these poems out of my system as a way to draw a line, and to help me move on. I do feel like the entire process has been incredibly freeing.

 

Q. Something that holds the pamphlet together are the references to astrology and a sense of mysticism. How did you arrive at this theme as a vehicle for the poems, and why was this important to you?

I’ve always been interested in astrology, space, the stars, so this was an easy theme to attach to. In fact, many of you will know that I’m obsessed with Moon poems, I just can’t help myself! In writing the poems, I found a lot of these things creeping into the work unconsciously, so references to Andromeda, Comets, Jupiter; they all just seemed to happen naturally. It was in thinking about naming the book that bought it all together. As the writer, I’d put so much of myself into it that to have a reference to my own star sign seemed appropriate. My birthday is in February so it felt right to have ‘Waterbearer’ or the astrological symbol for Aquarius as the title. I’d decided on this about halfway through writing the pamphlet, so it enabled me to lean into these references to help link it all together. It just felt right.

 

Q. Upon the release of this book, how did you deal with the sense of knowing that such personal work was going to be out there in the world for all to see? How did you deal with this?

Yes, this was very difficult. Prior to it being written I was working closely with a counsellor who was helping me to understand issues around emotion, guilt, shame. I realised that by drafting these poems and sending them out into the world, I was in way making everything that had happened in the past become real. If you speak to survivors of abuse it can often be that the trauma of the events are dealt with psychologically in this way, in that they don’t seem real, might seem like they didn’t happen, or somehow seem separate to the individual. I really wanted to try and overcome this, and by writing in such a way, have them appear physically in paper and ink. I still visualise the book as being something that I nurtured, and then let fly away. I can’t say that I wasn’t nervous though. There were many occasions that I questioned if I was doing the right thing. I’m so glad that I did though, its been one of the healthiest things.

 

Q. Waterbearer contains a long poem called ‘Sarcophagus’ which deals with the passing of a sibling. What were you trying to communicate through this piece?

So my family history is very complex, I have siblings born from different Fathers and with very fractured parental relationships. My younger sister was taken into care at a very young age. She was autistic, and had lots of health challenges, the main one being that someone had attacked her, held her head underneath a stream to try and drown her. This resulted in her inhaling lots of dirty water and leaves. It eventually led to her having fibrosis of the lungs, which she then passed away from. During her life, I found it really difficult to stay in touch with her, and my own mental health was really very poor. The poem itself is my letter to her after her passing (which I was present at) and me confessing everything to her, owning my guilt, my own shortcomings as a brother. It’s basically me asking for her forgiveness. I wish I could have said these things to her whilst she was alive and writing this poem to her was the only thing I could do that seemed to make any sense. She’s still one of the strongest people I’ve ever known. The whole story is very, very sad and I still feel an incredible amount of guilt to this day.

 

Q. There is reference within one of the poems to pornography and its relationship to intimacy. It feels like this is a direct critique of the world we live in as men. Was this the intent?

Yes, absolutely. As a child, I was subjected to a huge volume of pornography, and it has without a doubt affected me throughout my entire life. It has impacted on my relationships, how I view intimacy and has been incredibly destructive. I wanted to write something about this, as with porn being more accessible than ever, I really worry about the influence that it is having on both men and women. I just wanted to be honest about the negative impacts that it might have, particularly how men see women, how men see themselves, and how it might encourage men to see sex through this ‘pornographised’ lens. I just think that it has created a very unrealistic, unhealthy and emotionless view of intimacy. It scares me. It’s still something I’m having to deal with as an adult, something I’m not sure I’ll ever fully recover from.

 

Q. Throughout the pamphlet, there is this distinct feeling of numbness that comes across which I’m assuming was a deliberate attempt  to convey the complex nature of trauma. How did you tackle the complexity of emotions here?

It’s interesting you say this, as this wasn’t deliberate! However, thinking about it, and thinking about how trauma manifests itself, I think it has come through albeit unconsciously. I have spent a long time in states of dissociation, which feels very numb. Also, when you struggle to deal with your emotions, it isn’t possible to quieten down just the difficult ones and you have to suppress ALL feeling. I know for a fact that this is how I lived for many years of my life, and so in a way I’m glad that it’s come through in this way, because that means that it’s an authentic representation

 

Q. Whilst dealing with difficult themes, the ending of the pamphlet seems to resolve itself with a certain sense of positivity, or at least hints at some spiritual resolution. Was this the intention?

Yes, I did want to have a positive ending to the pamphlet. I really wanted to use the book as an opportunity to show survivors of abuse that there is empowerment in being open and vulnerable, that trauma and its psychological fallout can be dealt with and managed. I also wanted to demonstrate that writing can be a positive and healthy outlet for this, maybe even help someone going through similar things, and show that there is always hope no matter how difficult the situation. I also wanted to show the male audience that this is possible as I  do think men are notoriously bad at talking or being open. You only have to look at rates of male suicide to know that there is something seriously wrong here.

 

Q. How did you deal with the emotional side of writing these poems? I ask as there are poems that directly talk to your relationship with your daughter, your partner. Has anything changed for you personally as a result?

I think that the poems have helped me to understand and has helped them to understand (my partner anyway, my daughter is too young yet.) Both myself and my wife have read the poems together, used them as an opportunity to talk through what I’m trying to convey. Sometimes the poems have revealed things psychologically that I didn’t realise I was trying to get at and have allowed me to explore them. Writing the book has also allowed me to be true to myself, to be authentic with my friends and family who had no idea of my past story. This is probably the most impactful thing. I no longer have to, or want to hide.

 

Q. A personal question, but there is reference within the book to members of your family. Was this problematic? And how did you think about this ethically?

 

I gave this some thoughtful consideration, and sought advice from other poets. I think that ethics in poetry is incredibly important and needs to be paid attention to. I wanted to tell the truth, to tell MY truth, but also have good ethics. I made sure not to name names, to identify locations, and also make the poems as balanced as possible, so they can be read and not be specific. I also was very careful about being too graphic, knowing that this could be triggering, and instead tried to communicate things more metaphorically, and less obviously than just telling it.

 

 

Q. Talking more broadly, what is next for you as a poet? and can you give us any insight into what is coming next?

So I have just released my debut collection ‘Obligate Carnivore’ which came out in August this year published by Broken Sleep Books. This book is a deeper exploration of masculinity, so looking at things like parental relationships, what it means to be a father, to be a man. But also how we think about our families, trauma, bodies, about work, about emotion. In a way it’s a subversion, an attempt to reach out to men to express that we have emotion, that we all struggle, and that we can make life easier by acknowledging these things. Aside from this, I’m just going to keep writing while the poems are pouring out!

 

Q. And finally, you always seem to be an avid reader and sharer of poetry. Is reading widely important to you? What kind of work do you find appealing?

Reading is incredibly important to me and I really try not to limit myself to any particular genre or style. By reading as widely as possible we get a feel for such a wide range of poetics. This not only helps our own writing, but helps us to stay in love with language, with words, with humanity. I really like work that is musical and conveys emotion. I don’t worry about working hard to try and understand a poem, I try to focus on what feelings it elicits. If it makes me feel, then it’s done its job! There is so much work that I love; from Ted Hughes, Penelope Shuttle, J.H Prynne, Sean Bonney, and everything outside and in-between! In terms of sharing poetry, I really like to do this as I think it helps to celebrate it. If I find a poem that I like, I want others to read it, and in doing so maybe find a new voice, or a new poet. I think that this strengthens poetry as a whole. I don’t like the idea of gatekeepers. I think poetry is for everyone. It’s not something that can be owned or kept in a hierarchy. Poetry is for all of us.