In 1996, sixteen primary school children and a teacher were massacred in Dunblane. It took poet HEIDI WILLIAMSON nearly twenty-four years to filter the emotions she experienced in that period whilst living in the town and produce her new collection, Return by Minor Road. Here she talks with fellow author Christopher James about grief and the shifting meaning of time and place, and ‘putting one poem in front of another’
I first heard Heidi Williamson read as a fellow guest poet at the King’s Lynn Poetry Festival back in 2017. We were both slightly overwhelmed by the hospitality we received, including an astonishing welcome from a bagpiper and a flute of champagne at the train station. We were equally daunted by some of the challenges we faced – from taking part in the on-stage debates, to teaching poetry in a primary school.
At the time, Heidi was reading from her magnificent second collection, The Print Museum, which dealt with family, memory and the business of ink. Now she returns with the accomplished, lyrical and profoundly moving Return by Minor Road: a book-length reflection on the traumatic events of March 1996, when a gunman left the town of Dunblane mourning the loss of so many of its children, as well as a much-loved teacher.
As a member of the community at the time, Heidi knew some of the families involved, and has since grappled with the memories, the sense of bewilderment and the scars it has left behind. It’s a monumental subject to take on, but one Heidi does with courage, empathy, and with an ear finely tuned to the sound of language and nature. Her gift for phrase making brings the past into the vivid present.
She articulates the shock and collective grief felt by the community, as well as her personal meditations on the events as she grows older, with a family of her own. It’s a book of remembrance and a testament to her burgeoning powers as a poet.
CJ: How has this year been for you as a person and writer?
HW: This year has been challenging, as it has been for most people. I was on a writing break – I haven’t written for over a year. It’s taken me a while to come out of the book. It always takes me a while to step away from a book. I was quite happily what I call, ‘on sabbatical’. I was conscious that this happens to me and not to worry about it and instead try and read and nourish my thinking; spend time out in nature, enjoy my family, fill the well up again. I was just about to step back into the idea of having my notebook open again when COVID hit. Then suddenly it was homeschooling and my space – my study – suddenly had other participants in it – my son’s only ten. We got into a routine of watching Dr Who together in the morning, then he’d do a bit of work, then we’d get back together and have an ice cream or something.
CJ: I like Zaffar Kunial’s description of the first lockdown as ‘this unhinged monastical spring’. What role do you think poetry has played during this strange year?
HW: I think people have turned to poetry more. I’ve worked with a lot of people who had thought about writing but not had the opportunity, and then suddenly found themselves in quarantine or furloughed and thought, well what am I going to do with my time? They can talk to people about poetry online and go to so many events; it’s suddenly become more accessible. Being able to hear readings in London, or Scotland or America without thinking ‘I can’t afford it, I can’t travel or I can’t be away from the family’ is brilliant. You can go and sit in a room for an hour and have all this amazing poetry in your own home. I think also people are starting to write and share poetry more – there were so many anthologies and websites that wanted people to share their thoughts and their poems about lockdown, not just for mental health and connection with others, but because there’s a real sense we’re living through a unique historical period – asking people to record how we’ve gone through this particular time. It’s been really communal, really lovely.
CJ: Your poetry is characterised by a sort of super awareness; an ability to listen to echoes. Do you think those powers have been sharpened or dulled this year?
HW: I’ve always been alert to what is and isn’t said. One of the things I miss is sitting with my friends in silence and enjoying that communal warmth. Online, you can’t sit there and be together quietly in the same kind of way.
CJ: How soon after the events in Dunblane did you know that you would write about them, and when did you think, yes, this could become a collection?
HW: I never wanted to write about it. I never wanted to talk about it. The poem, ‘With a Rootless Lily Held in Front of Him’, is about friends in Dunblane, but it’s also about friends who have had a catastrophic event in their life – however close or remotely, whether it’s suicide or losing a child or being involved in some natural disaster, or terrorism or fire.
In a way, it becomes difficult to talk about because as soon as you mention the word, they’re curious. A lot of people wouldn’t know I lived in Dunblane because I didn’t mention the name. I used to find it quite difficult to say the name, actually. So I didn’t want to write about it at all. There’s a quote in the book by Eimear McBride, ‘The things I do not want to write about become the things I write about.’
CJ: I’m interested in how you structured the book. I felt Cold Spring was perhaps the rawest section and perhaps it felt too raw to begin there? Was that a conscious decision?
HW: I couldn’t begin there. Because it took me so long to begin to think that I could approach it in words. Not only because of the subject, but because I didn’t feel I had the right to talk about it – because although I was there, I was on the edges, and didn’t have children. In some ways, it was quite odd in that I couldn’t write about it as a historical event, completely detached – because I had friends whose children were shot.
I used to work as a cleaner when I was at university, and I’d cleaned a couple of the kids’ bedrooms, although I never met them; I tidied their toys and cleaned their finger marks off things. So I felt very close to it, and everyone in the community did, but obviously we weren’t the people most affected at all, so to think that I could talk about it seemed quite difficult. But when my son was five or six, he was at the local primary school and it’s next to a care home, and one morning I was going to pick him up and there was an ambulance outside the school – obviously for the care home, and I just started running. I was having a panic attack but I didn’t know that at the time.
A friend of mine said, ‘It’s fine to take that time out and just look at it’, and I thought that was really wise so I started to look at those memories. Cold Spring was my first attempt to write about it. I wrote a lot of snapshots called ‘Moments’, which were just tiny little fragments, which was the only way I could think about it.
CJ: There’s that great phrase in the book ‘the small, hard coughs on the page’ that beautifully articulates that struggle.
HW: That came out of talking to another wise friend. She writes copiously and brilliantly, and asked if I ever ‘splurged’ as I wrote. At that time I was starting to try to write. I felt very stuck. I felt a responsibility towards everyone involved and to the reader. I didn’t want the book to have shock value. I just wanted to explore and unpack something. I said to her the only way I could approach it was in these ‘small hard coughs on the page’ and it was true.
CJ: That sense of doubt about the legitimacy of the project comes across in the poem, Self; that honesty with the reader is very striking.
HW: I’ve always had the people of Dunblane in my thoughts. People have said that it’s very much a collection of respect and love, and it’s very much that – it’s an honouring of the people in the book.
CJ: Nature feels like a character in the book. It works so hard – it’s a mirror, it’s a translator, it’s a vessel. Do you see yourself consciously working within a tradition of nature poetry?
HW: My experience of living in Scotland was against this astonishingly beautiful backdrop. I wanted to capture the beauty of the landscape and how much that meant to me and how I could carry that in my thoughts. You know how you have some places that always feel like home as soon as you get there? That time and that place is really important to me.
CJ: I was very interested in the idea of permanence and the ephemeral and I was very struck by that line: ‘the durability of rain’. I wonder if you can talk about that sense of transience in the book?
HW: We lived in the Central Region – one of the wettest parts of Scotland – which is why it’s so beautiful and so green. The qualities of rain, almost like the qualities of sunlight are part of the landscape and they’re something that’s permeated the book. There’s also a consciousness that nature remains. One of the earliest poems I tried writing about the events ended with the line: ‘spring comes anyway.’ Nature continues without us, beyond us, in all of our lifetimes and beyond all of our lifetimes and what it witnesses. I was interested in the idea of stone and the immutability of stone with its sense of leadenness and numbness. I was conscious that I was exploring what stays with us and what we leave behind. The poem at the end, ‘Place’, tries to express that – what you carry with you, what you keep in your mind, your body – how place becomes part of who you are.
CJ: I’m interested to know if you felt there was a spiritual or religious dimension to the collection?
HW: Not consciously, no. Though I think writing often reaches towards subjects that are impossible to grasp. Jen Hadfield talks about work that ‘originates beyond the poet’, and I think there is that sense with poetry you’re trying to reach beyond yourself, beyond the confines of your own mind and body. In trying to come up with a poem you have to be alert to something it’s impossible to pin down consciously. Seamus Heaney calls it ‘the self-forgetful trance’. Poetry for me is a mix of magic and craft. The toolbox you use to try to consciously create a piece, but also something that happens that’s difficult to summarise. Most things remain fairly inexplicable to me, and I’m interested in that. I’m very much of the Socratic mindset – I don’t have the answers but I might have some interesting questions along the way.
CJ: Let’s talk a bit about form. Even someone picking up the book and flicking through it would think there are some strange and interesting things going on here. It looks like rain falling through the pages – it feels a little bit John Burnside.
HW: A lot of the poems in the book are usual lyric poems, but I wanted to break that and vary that deliberately. With Cold Spring, there’s an absence at the heart of the book. The gaps and the pauses and the fragmentation speak to that – and the erasures are a deliberate choice – taking important things away and seeing what is left. One of the erasures is from my own poem – I wanted to show that the subject has always been there for me. The poem, ‘Woodcutter’, which is pared down from the original, was important to show that I had always been trying to approach honouring this but it took me a long time to find the words to do that. There’s a line in Cold Spring: ‘Where is your rage?’ There’s a kind of stasis in lyric poems. It’s hard to be angry in a lyric poem and I wanted to convey that fury. In a poem like And (the prose poem) it just runs and runs and won’t let you go.
CJ: It’s almost as if the Woodcutter has taken his axe to his own poem. That leads us on to your use of myth and fable. Some of the work reminded me of the Louise Glück poem, ‘Gretel in Darkness’. There’s an Alice in Wonderland reference in ‘Disappearance at Six O’clock’ too. Perhaps you can talk a little about how you use fable, fairy tale and myth?
HW: That Alice poem is an interesting example, because it was very early on – before I really knew what I was writing about. I’d been commissioned along with a lot of other poets to write a poem celebrating Alice by the British Library and I struggled to find a way in. I got that poem and I thought, ‘that runs okay’ and I showed it to a friend and she said, ‘it’s about what you’re trying not to focus on.’ I was really shocked, and then I looked at it again – and of course, it’s about a girl that goes underground. I was talking to Philip Gross about something and he said, ‘sometimes with a subject it feels like everything is in orbit around it.’
CJ: The image of the hare also recurs in the collection.
HW: It has a reputation as a shapeshifter. Also there’s the idea of the hare as a woman. Apparently when Boudicca went into battle, she kept a hare beneath her skirts as its scream would terrify her enemies. There’s also that ‘flickeriness’ of hares – they are alertness or fear embodied, aren’t they? There’s also something else that occurred to me: my middle school, which wasn’t always a happy experience for me (I loved learning but we were poor and on a council estate and I got bullied, like lots of people did). I remembered that our school emblem was a hare. In lots of different ways, the image of the hare kept coming up. It took me three or four years before I realised it was a manifestation of fear for me.
CJ: It’s interesting how you described that nerviness. There’s a great line in an Alice Oswald poem that describes a dragonfly as a ‘feathered nerve’.
HW: Yes – there’s that same extraordinary jitteriness about hares as well.
CJ: Let’s talk a bit more about language itself. You’re a great collector of words, and also a coiner – I love that word ‘unrivered’ in the collection. You’ve introduced us to words before in other collections, particular the lexicon of printing in The Print Museum, and I guess you must have discovered a whole treasury of Scottish dialect words.
HW: I loved the phrasing and the sound of so many of the words. When we moved up there it was all very new to me and just really warm and soft, interesting sounds. I loved the Scottish accent – it’s beautiful and feels like home to me. Some of my ancestry is Irish – maybe it comes down that side! I loved the sound of the words and I wanted to honour some of those in the book as well – they feel like little nuggets of gold and I wanted to put those down in the river of the book.
CJ: Time is one of the great themes of this collection and I imagine you wouldn’t have written this collection twenty years ago – it needed that gestation period – emotion recollected in tranquillity, and I was particularly struck by the line ‘the past falls as rain.’ Perhaps you could talk a little bit about time?
HW: You’re right, I couldn’t have even begun to think about writing the book twenty or even ten years ago. I think Dylan Thomas talks about writers who work ‘towards or away from language.’ Does language work well enough to express the things we’re trying to get over, or is it an approximation? There are writers who have confidence that when they say certain things they think everyone will ‘get it’ and other writers who are aware of the blurring and of the things that fall behind – and I think I’m more a believer in words ‘working towards things.’ Everything we think, we don’t think in words; everything we feel, we don’t feel in words. Anyone who’s been around young children who are preverbal will know they communicate so many needs and states without words. Time, for me, isn’t a factual concept, in the same way that language isn’t a factual concept. I think the concept of time is very malleable. Denise Riley’s book Time Lived Without Its Flow is particularly important to me.
There’s an idea in the book that time is bound up with the landscape. We experience time through the landscape and personally. There’s a poem in my first book, ‘Electric Shadow’, that says ‘all numbers are imaginary’. They’re constructions that we put on things. It’s good to be open to other ways to experience things.
CJ: That really comes across in the book. Sometimes events seem closer and sometimes further away. Were you conscious of other work that dealt with similarly difficult subject matter? I’m thinking here of Elegies for Virginia Tech, for example, by Fred D’Aguiar.
HW: That was a book that I went to reasonably early on and it helped me think of ways of framing something respectfully without claiming too much. There’s a quote from it that runs ‘our shadows belong to the missing’ that I had in my head for months – it was so moving. Later, I did consciously seek out a couple of other collections when I was thinking about the framing of the book. I had a draft about a year before I properly finished it, and I wondered whether the elements of the collection were clear. Then Jay Bernard’s ‘Surge’ came out, looking at the New Cross fire, but very much from a journalistic point of view, inhabiting the voices in different ways and there was no way I could take that approach. But I was very interested in how they did it. And then Richard Osmond’s Rock, Paper, Scissors came out – very soon after the terrorist attack in June 2017 – eighteen months – and that allows for publication time. My book took twenty years. Richard writes this very pained essay at the end saying the things he struggled with and it helped me think about how I might approach it. And also in Rebecca Stott’s memoir, In the Days of Rain, she says ‘other people would have a completely different take on this experience, this is just mine,’ and that helped me. All I’m saying is that I was on the edges, and obviously it had a big impact on my life and my parenting, but it is possible to say, ‘I’m just on the edges and it’s okay to put that down.’
CJ: I think the empathetic approach, interpreting the events through your own family and experience is very successful and that’s partly what gives the collection its strength and authenticity. I’m also minded of Andrew Motion’s memorial poem Fresh Water, for Ruth Haddon lost in the Marchioness disaster. It’s fascinating to see how others tackle such daunting material. To live with these memories and craft the poems in the way you have is incredibly brave, I think.
HW: Thank you. I found I couldn’t put the factual elements of what happened in the poems. I felt I couldn’t carry them in the poems. A lot of readers today weren’t born at the time of the events in Dunblane; they wouldn’t necessarily know what impact it had on our country. For those of us who were around then, how unthinkable it was that we had a mass shooting involving five and six-year-old children. The impact on our country was immense. Laws were changed pretty rapidly because of what happened and thankfully we haven’t had a similar incident here since. Security in schools was massively enhanced. Those events changed those family’s lives – they should have thirty-year-old children perhaps with their own families today – and it affected the whole country too. The impact of the Snowdrop campaign was huge; the hundreds of thousands of people who supported the campaign to change gun laws made it clear that they simply could not let it happen again.
CJ: You allude to things in the book, and don’t always spell them out. It keeps the poems from having to explain themselves too readily. Sometimes one or two words are enough to send people on the trail.
HW: I tend to joke that reticence is my forte. I sometimes come at things so slant, they’re behind a hill. I put things in the poems, and I know why they’re there, and I hope others will understand why they’re there too. The poems speak in their own quiet way.
CJ: You mentioned your sabbatical. What’s next for you? Any clues or thoughts yet?
HW: Well, I know it will be poetry – because poetry is my breath. I’m starting to move towards ideas very slowly and very gently. I’m trying not to worry about it. As a wise friend said: ‘What’s there to do after finishing a book but write another one?’ That same friend also said, ‘just put one poem in front of another.’
Return by Minor Road by Heidi Williamson is available from Bloodaxe.www.heidiwilliamsonpoet.com
The Penguin Diaries by Christopher James is available from Templar Poetry.
NOV 2020 Christopher James MONK