Miguel Cullen talks to Sally Read, a convert whose acclaimed poetry draws on her experiences as a psychiatric nurse in London
“God is the ultimate poet,” says Sally Read. I agree, but what chance does he stand of being recognised as such on Wikipedia? Compared to humans, he is at an advantage – necessarily everywhere, while humans stand currently at 108 billion who have ever lived. Women poets are even more of a minority, with only 591 entries on Wikipedia’s “List of Female Poets” out of 54 billion women who have ever lived. That gives you a roughly one in 100 million chance of making it on to that page if you are a woman. Getting published isn’t much easier: only 87 out of 540 poetry books currently listed on Faber’s website are by women. Better odds, but still tight.
Sally Read’s elegance and fearlessness have placed her high in the ranks of contemporary British poets. She has, in previous works, dealt with the aggression at work in sexual relationships, the magic of pregnancy and motherhood. She has recently published The Day Hospital, a book that draws from her experiences as a psychiatric nurse working with elderly patients in London. Halfway through creating this book she experienced a spiritual awakening which led to her conversion to Catholicism.
So, back to God as a poet. “I was thinking about the Church and its structure, and the teachings of the Bible,” she explains. “You begin to see how poetically it all fits together. The Catholic Church is extremely poetic, the system and the symbols – it all fits together just like a sonnet.”
Read was born in Suffolk in 1971, into a very Left-wing family. Her father worked for the BBC and she was brought up “to actively think that religion was evil”. She moved to the capital aged 22, to work at the Whittington Hospital in north-west London. She trained as a psychiatric nurse, having long had an interest in mental health and an altruistic desire to enrol in medicine. She started writing poetry in her early 20s, but claims she “didn’t write a good poem” until she was 27. She won an Eric Gregory Award in 2001 and has published three books of poetry with Bloodaxe since then.
Over the phone, Read belies the vitreous glide of her writing style with a full-on, confrontational attitude. She tells me she is wary of revisiting her conversion with us for fear of coming over too self-indulgent. She explained in an article for the Tablet in January that she found God halfway through writing The Day Hospital, when she was visiting London. She felt a burning urge to visit a Catholic church and walked around London that summer evening, from Soho to the City, desperate to find an open one. She walked for some time, and eventually found herself in Liverpool Street station, where, she wrote: “I knew I was already a Catholic.”
The force of Read’s writing has led to comparisons with Sylvia Plath. Yet she cites John Keats as a closer influence, in terms of the richness and the sensuality of the imagery she uses. Her interest in mental illness was, however, increased by her reading Plath’s The Bell Jar, the semi-autobiographical novel in which Plath describes her own struggle with the condition.
“I think Plath’s a huge influence on every poet,” she says.
“I think she’s incredibly undervalued, even today. Her vocabulary and her images were so incredibly new. I think people didn’t even realise how much she inspired them. During the 1960s, when she was a bit of a feminist icon, a lot of writers took on subconsciously even her syntax, her cadences. I think because I was aware of that, I was very careful not to take on this myself. But of course to some degree she influenced me.
“In my youth I felt a lot of her poetry was very difficult to understand, like her work in three voices about motherhood [Three Women]. One is a normal birth, the second voice has a miscarriage, and the third voice gives her child up for adoption. It’s quite an accessible poem. But I think at that time it eluded me why she was so great.”
Read’s first collection, The Point of Splitting, ostensibly details the rougher edge of London’s dating game, but it is about much more. The clinical ritual of dismantling, cocking and firing a gun is explored, in a way that brings to mind George Macbeth’s poems about knives and razors (yet without his forensic cruelty). More lyrically, we see odes to Italian Renaissance art. In a poem inspired by Filippo Lippi’s Annunciation, “The Promises of Heaven” we see “…an angel, wings laced with peacock eyes”. Elsewhere, we see another of her hallmarks, a prone elegance: “your evidence leaden / as a beached church bell” and, further into the book, “it takes time to realise angel’s wings / the muscular markings in blue / my hands dovetail, weakly crossed”. The book’s descriptions of misogyny are redolent of another important, contemporary British poet, Fiona Benson, and her poem “Landscape with Harm”.
Read’s second book of poems, Broken Sleep, deals with pregnancy, birth and motherhood.
It’s interesting to compare her handling of this frontier moment with Plath’s in her previously mentioned work Three Women. Plath exclaims, on seeing her son for the first time: “Who is he, this blue, furious boy, / Shiny and strange, as if he had hurtled from a star?” Read manoeuvres this ground more delicately, describing the symbiotic relationship between her and her unborn child, its “starbursts of adrenaline … subtle tide of melatonin”.
Read’s latest book, the aforementioned The Day Hospital, deals with her experience nursing elderly mentally ill patients in London. One of the poems deals with the story of Anna, an largely mute 85-year-old Jewish woman who had fled Nazi Germany. Her mother had died while she was working in London and the trauma had driven her mad with grief. When Read meets her, Anna’s clothes are in a constant state of disrepair. Her new tweed skirt is ripped and her shoes are terribly worn. Despite Read’s efforts to repair the clothes – contrary to ward rules – Anna rips them again.
It was only later that Read would learn about the Jewish ritual, known as Kriah, of rending clothes in grief. She then developed a bond with Anna, coaxing her out of her silence to forge a meaningful relationship.
I ask Read if she used to find the disjointed speech of the people she was treating poetically inspiring, like an abstract film essay by Jean-Luc Godard or atonal music by Schoenberg.
“Before I was a nurse, I used to find that idea exciting,” she says, “of someone with schizophrenia talking in ‘word silences’, as they are called, where they make no sense, like a poetic juxtaposition.
“However, when you’re a nurse, and you’re dealing with people, it isn’t like that. Often people are coming out with sentences that are entirely fragmented and illogical, and it’s almost impossible to remember them the next day. You have to write them down. Because there’s no sense or truth in what someone is saying, it’s not memorable. Which is something that’s also true about poetry and novel writing: if there’s no truth in it it’s instantly forgettable.”
This brings us on to the subject of reality – what Read calls “the common experience” – in poetry. Should poetry describe the mundane, in the style of Philip Larkin, or should it soar to the epic, like Ezra Pound’s mediaeval re-imaginings? Being original, argues Read, is describing what is true. Any falsity in verse is easily picked up. This is certainly very trendy in British poetry circles. The poet Ruth Padel was heard saying the same at Hay recently.
But what do you do if your life is boring? It is interesting that the most, in this sense, “escapist” of relatively recent poets have been American: Ezra Pound, Robert Lowell and Frederick Seidel. They describe the big scene, miles away from the littleness of Betjeman and Larkin. This big scale, these epic fairy tales, take us up to an idealised plain – an act which many poets today would avoid. They would say it was not genuine, but perhaps they are too timid to repeat it. Read has
a force which puts her way above this timid generation: she has a raw, visceral strength in her work that hammers the “common experience” so it hits you right in the face. Study her birth poem “Nativity”: it will bring the joy of Christmas back down to earth.
The Day Hospital by Sally Read is published by Bloodaxe Books, priced £8.95