Image: Sophie Lévy Burton
THERE ARE SO many things that strike me as I walk into poet Gillian Allnutt’s house. A former miners’ terraced house in a village built for a colliery in County Durham. The North East of England. Big northern skies. Durham Cathedral is close – Allnutt teaches at the university. The kitchen is old fashioned, a vast ceiling, sparse. There’s a quality of a still-life painting – pared back, fragments. Almost otherworldly. A sense of displacement. It feels as if I am walking into a time the world forgot. This strange, beautiful abode – there is a strong energy stored, maybe because of the lockdown, like fine wine being laid down in a cellar, gathering. It’s a writer’s house, the house of a creative – a house of spirit too. Whitewashed, flat, calm. The kitchen rises vault-like above us. Allnutt’s already small figure, made ever more diminutive. She turns to the hob – tea or coffee? A plain wooden table with books, papers piled. She says she is nervous. I can’t believe she is nervous – she has led an often radical life of political concern and action. Her intense searching for God, her searching for her own life’s truth. At age 72 she has begun to make an archive of her life’s work – and confides that some of it is surprisingly dark.
I’m as taken by her clothes (and her hair) as by her kitchen. The hair is long and plaited, a silver bell rope, falling onto a bright pink smock over a denim skirt. She is at once rock ‘n’ roll and New Age. In another life she could be a tribal elder, a wise woman. Later she’ll say she is quite witchy. Later still, she tells me she would always rather be Lilith than Eve, a warrior spirit. A hetaera, a woman
Through the kitchen into the drawing room, another plain wooden table, more books, a view to her spellbinding garden, all honoured wild-growth and energy. Planet, plants, earth – aspects of the sacred woven into Allnutt’s world. A pigeon has nested in her gooseberry bush. In the sitting room old gardening tools propped on the whitewashed walls. They too seem to belong to a different time. She hefts a couple of wooden chairs to the table – no ethereal poetess here. Slim, muscular – and practical – those early radical political years in London after Cambridge, those squats she used to live in. There is a vitality of presence. Recently, she says, she has settled on the word shamanic as a good self-descriptive noun.
And then there are her eyes. Blue like the skies, like the big northern skies. I’ve driven under those large skies to get here. ‘It is a rather bleak landscape,’ she says. ‘Bare but so beautiful. Such space. Such clouds in one sky.’ Imagination soaring.
She turns those blue eyes unflinchingly on me now as we settle.
She’s been described as a spiritual poet – for some people, I say, it means you write about spiritual stuff. For me, I tell her, it means she is a spiritual poet.
‘A good distinction. I’m always fearful about being labelled Christian, which would be fair enough.’
‘A Christian culturally, but not a Christian poet?’ I ask.
‘I’m not a Christian poet. I don’t want to be written off because someone doesn’t want to read that. But it’s quite a tightrope to walk.’
Confessional, philosophic even. She’s spent two-thirds of her life in psychotherapy, in some form of analysis. In many ways her inner world and faith – their juxtaposition – has been her life’s work – her inner world – her spirit – because her Spirit and her poetry are utterly wed.
‘But I spent 4o years wandering in the desert,’ says Allnutt. ‘Through Jung and Buddhism and Sufism. Looking for alternatives, really, but in the end I realised Christianity is what I am made of. It’s the narrative, the story, the language, the Bible, the poetry; it’s the cathedrals and all the music. I have inherited a culture that is just made of Chrisitianity. Although I looked for something else, I realised, no, this is my home.’
She sounds almost detached, I suggest, almost resigned. As if the process of coming home, the journey, was, all along, inevitable.
‘I think of all the major world’s religions as being different stories,’ she says, ‘narrative containers for energy from the other world. I happened to be given Christianity as mine.’
The lockdown has been tough. Teaching for Durham University – she is a tutor at St Chad’s College – went online, which she loathes. Much time to reflect and consider her own mortality.
Strange things happened. She felt the call of Durham Cathedral. It was obvious to her that during the lockdown ‘the energy had died in the Cathedral…’ and she missed its presence in her life as much as she missed people. When I ask her what she loves about the Cathedral she says, matter of factly, ‘the simplicity – massivity – and an emptiness of ornament.’ Privately, I wonder if she isn’t describing herself. ‘And,’ she adds, ‘geologically, energetically, it is very grounded. Solid.’ Other cathedrals have different personalities. ‘Winchester floats…’
Allnutt has been in the North East under northern skies now for forty-odd years, but it wasn’t always like this. After reading Philosophy and English at Cambridge she went to London to make her career as a writer and teacher. She lived in a succession of squats. Her lifelong political interests took off: feminism, socialism, housing. By 1982 she was poetry editor of the radical magazine City Limits and deep into organising protests around her political interests, including the nine-mile chain of women who on a cold December afternoon held hands at Greenham Common in protest at nuclear arms.
Recounting the story of Greenham Common, her face lights up. Perhaps the story conveys the highest dimensions of her life: women, their statement, their power. (In the opening of her poetry collection indwelling she has put the song of the Greenham Common camp right next to a quote from St John’s Gospel. I find this inexplicably moving. In fact, I haven’t thought about Greenham Common for many years and am hit by a wave of nostalgia. A life pre-internet, pre-Covid, gone forever.)
But she wasn’t happy. Her instinct for left-wing politics meant she could ‘never own up to God among the lefties…’ Her desire to write poetry – really let go and write – was there on the surface, simmering, not quite fulfilled in that career jungle of journalistic ambition. Lovers came and went. Men and women. The break-up with one deeply loved woman – they had bought a house together in Norfolk – provoked a crisis. It became obvious that it was down to a choice between writing and literature. Finally, the call of the north came in her thirties, a surprise even to her, although in retrospect it made perfect sense. Her childhood has been spent here in a Newcastle suburb and imprinted much on her psyche. Only once she had arrived, driving her 2CV all the way up the M1, did she consciously realise she was literally returning home.
‘It was a chosen exile,’ she says.
I say that it’s a powerful spiritual memoir.
‘It wasn’t easy to begin with, though,’ she says. She moved to the Meadow Well council estate, North Shields, just before the 1991 riots, and life wasn’t secure. She was pretty much on the frontline. Finally she settled in Newcastle, teaching. There was a lot to learn. ‘In London in the 1980s you made your own village. Newcastle was different. Newcastle was the village.’
‘It’s amazing,’ I say, ‘that she didn’t go into politics.’‘I can’t bear the vacillations of politics. I lose interest at the point it becomes villainous, devious…’
No, spirituality was her true calling, and is ever so – her soul’s journey continues.
‘But I don’t particularly like the word soul,’ she says. ‘I think that was wrecked a bit by my childhood. But in the 1980s I was becoming interested in reincarnation, and I feel quite comfortable talking about the soul in that context because it’s not contaminated by Christianity and judgement. I really like the idea of coming back here many times. It’s fairer: how can you go to heaven in a single lifetime? It agrees with my concept of responsibility. I like the idea of karma and bringing it with you, needing to clear it…’
A Christian culturally – possibly a Buddhist in the heart – possibly a pagan in the psyche. Maybe Gillian Allnutt has that rare shapeshifting gift, saved for seers and prophets – a conduit for all things to all men (and women), her whole body and mind a finely tuned (in tune) dowsing tool, allowing an encounter of words and rhythms with the felt numinous.
Move along, there is no contradiction here. Artists are that rare thing. Diviners of truths. Allnutt embraces that bigger picture.
The age of Covid has made her more theologically sensitive. It has made her think for the first time about her own mortality.
‘I do think very much in terms of the body and the soul. The soul goes on. The body dies. I don’t want to think of being obliterated completely. I don’t think I’d survive in this world now if I didn’t think there was somewhere else. It doesn’t matter that I don’t know, so long as some part of me participates with the infinite…’
‘And in terms of the mystical, the numinous?’ I ask.
‘I’ve read a lot of Christian mystics trying to find out what is the point of this, where one’s soul meets God and the two merge because that moment is beyond language. I finally realized I’m probably not going to get an answer. But now I fully hope in the idea of being swallowed up by God; and maybe not having any longer a sense of my own identity. But life goes on, vitality goes on…’
I remark that her poetry will go on: ‘How does that make you feel?’
Oddly, when applying for the Northern Rock Foundation Writer’s Award (which she won in 2005), she realised that ‘I belong to the future, I don’t belong to the present.’ She points out that the mystical writer Teilhard de Chardin, whom she loves, also never belonged to his present; that possibly he still hasn’t come into his own.
Covid has changed everything. A friend of hers calls it ‘the great awakener’. Some will survive, some will not. ‘It’s a turbulent epoch of the process of evolution,’ she says. ‘The work I’m doing is evolving my soul so it can be helpful in the future.’
All this makes Allnutt a visionary or mystical poet far more than a Christian – or spiritual – or woman poet. If we must do titles, I can’t help thinking that she deserves a bigger title, big like the skies. Maybe at a stretch we could see her in the same broad esoteric tradition as the great hermit creatives Julian of Norwich and Hildegard of Bingen.
Allnutt’s conversation is stippled with ideas from psychotherapy, personal growth, spiritual maturity. I am again reminded of a tribal elder, and wonder if it is disrespectful of me to think this way with Allnutt. But this is a curiously female response. Women are interested in women. We are all mirrors. I am just 50 looking at just 70. Allnutt has said that she was very interested in Jung. Am I seeing a cliche here or an archetype? Think of other women her age and older, other writers and seers – Germaine Greer, Sara Maitland. I can’t imagine our world without them.
A long time ago she coined the terms ‘a real self and an old pretender.’ What she means is she says, merely handling the world versus your real self. This particular journey, as she’s already mentioned, took years of psychotherapy (as a sign of how seriously she took this path, she interviewed four contender therapists) has pretty much worked on her pretender self – to sort her True Self out. For this reason for years she chose not to be in a relationship. Not to be married. Not to have children. And now, she says, ‘It’s all tied up together. Now I put my spiritual journey – and God – and poetry – in the same box.’
She must have known, then, intuitively, that her choices would evolve her poetry?
‘Yes, because obviously it still feels to me like it’s a choice between everything and everything.’
I don’t understand the reference. She clarifies – a classic Allnutt story: ‘In 1968 I went to a work camp run by Quakers in Vienna. While there, the Russians invaded Czechoslovakia. There were lots of Czechs who were holidaying in the west and didn’t know whether to go back.’ She went to observe a checkpoint, and then manned it – guiding Czechs to the embassy, dishing out coffee and stale bread – an education. ‘I watched these people,’ she says, ‘and I thought they’ve got to choose between everything and everything – and this experience gave me this phrase. When I left London it was as simple as that: a choice between everything and everything.’
The experience of this journey has made her acutely aware of living truthfully. A writing exercise she enjoys with her students is to ask them: ‘Why did you come to earth this time?’ ‘I’m always asking myself,’ she says, ‘“Am I doing what I came here to do?”’
So here we stand under the northern skies. ‘Where does it all come from?’ I ask. ‘Is it God?’
‘The challenge of the poet,’ she says, ‘is how to put what can’t be put into words, into words. We all work at the edge of the dark and perhaps retrieve, reclaim a little bit of the unseeable.’
I am reminded that she has already used this word dark – that her archive material is surprisingly dark. Old corners of the psyche, our shadow selves. The past. I imagine that she means not just the veil which creatives penetrate, but a personal dark: her life, her personal battles, her inner worlds, her decisions, her self-exploration. London, Newcastle, childhood. Questing. Coming home. I suggest that since some of her insights are so profound – at that edge of the dark – does she ever think she’s directly pulling anything in from the other side? Channelling?
It’s not the first time that the word channelling has been suggested to her, she says, and she’s now comfortable with the idea, but ‘originally I was chary of all that stuff, I didn’t know what channelling meant. And I still don’t. But –’ – she pauses – ‘there are poems that write themselves more than the rest.’ Pauses again, considering: ‘Most poets worth their salt will say, “I was given that bit” ’.
It’s too humble a note on which to start generalising at this stage of the conversation, I think. Lilith wouldn’t. I suggest her spiritual inner world would have to be ripe for this. She says, ‘Yes, you have to prepare the ground; whatever the contents of your mind: what you know about. That is the particular channel in which this other energy can come; that is the work that you can do yourself. You have to allow whatever speaks through you, to speak. Where do they come from? I often feel like saying that’s a really good poem because I don’t feel I have a responsibility for it.’
A conduit, a dowsing tool?
‘When I feel there is ah! there’s a poem there, or when I get an insight that astonishes me, then I feel… that’s God in a twinge or a glimpse…’
And then she says something that is really interesting in a conversation that is already profound: ‘And actually sometimes when I compose – I feel I am choreographing, not composing.’
I’m still thinking about the idea of a poet as a choreographer. I’m still not entirely sure what to make of it. I think – possibly – it means she feels the world through her body – on a deeply cellular level too – that her poetry is a present experience of an experienced life. But these are my words; you would have to read Allnutt’s poetry to translate this for yourself.
A spiritual practice of meditation and prayer helps, she says; and she finds little distinction between them. She meditates daily, describing the experience of meditation as ‘velvety’ – ‘a calmed down within it’ – and taking liberally from different spiritual communities: the Newcastle Buddhist Society, the World Community of Christian Meditation, Gateshead Transpersonal Psychology, Minsteracres Retreat Centre, St Anthony’s Priory in Durham. ‘I try very hard not to put my conception of God between me and God – so that I do attend. In my practice I’m listening for God. I’m listening to God. I pray in words quite a lot; and I get answered, not on the spot, but they come … later…’
She has given MONK permission to print a poem commissioned by BBC Radio 2 this year at Easter, about Mary Magdalene. I tell her that I love it that her poetry is layered with a veil of spiritual and theological nuances and references, and the language and personality of the Bible. And yet at the same time, it is pared back, a glimpse, a scent, barely a touch.
‘When I wrote the Mary Magdalene poem,’ she says, ‘I realised that there was a fusion with my own language and the language of the Bible which comes in unconscious seams – like coal. The mining of it. It was a commission, and challenging. I love Mary Magdalene and I’ve loved her for years, because she wasn’t good. She was a whore. And in fact when I set out in the world I dedicated myself to be a whore, because what else could you do? I wanted to be a hetaera – a woman warrior. A Lilith rather than an Eve.’
A giant Lilith under those skies, those big northern skies.
APRIL 2022 Sophie Lévy Burton MONK
In 2017 Gillian Allnutt was awarded the Queen’s Gold Medal for excellence in poetry. Her latest collections indwelling (2013) and wake (2018) are published by Bloodaxe.
A gorgeous version of this interview appears in our beautiful 180 page print anthology, £15. Click here to order.