Poetry on the Grief Dialogues Compassion Culture Podcast

Paul Taylor-McCarthy

Here’s the transcript of our interview with poet Paul Taylor-McCartney on the Grief Dialogues Compassion Culture Series, a podcast series that opens the conversation about dying, death, and grief with caregivers and health care providers and offers a series of shared stories. And in this case, shared poems.  We are so honored to invite him to our program today. 

Read his poems The Choosing  and Unfinished on stories.griefdialogues.com.

Paul Taylor-McCartney is a doctoral researcher with Leicester University, following a part-time Ph.D. in Creative Writing. His interests include dystopian studies, children’s literature, and initial teacher education. His poetry, short fiction, and academic articles have appeared in a range of notable UK and international publications including Aesthetica, The Birmingham Journal of Language and Literature, Education in Practice (National Association of Writers in Education),Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine, Dyst: A literary Journal, and most recently in Bandit Fiction. He lives and works in Cornwall, (UK).

You can find out more about him by visiting: paultm.org

EC:  Paul Taylor McCartney your poetry has just wowed all of us at Grief Dialogues who’ve had the opportunity to read it.  Tell us a little bit about yourself.

Paul T-M: Yes. Thank you very much. I’m an author and researcher and teacher and lecturer, and I live down in Cornwall in the most beautiful place when it’s not raining, Drizzle and storms are coming in as we’ve seen in the last 24 hours, but it’s truly, truly a poetic place and really inspiring in lots of ways. I’m originally from the Midlands. So I, I traveled 260 miles away from family to set up a new life with my husband, five cats and a dog on a little estate in a little village which is surrounded by farms. So lots of sheep and cows and lovely, lovely neighbors. So that’s, that’s what I’m doing now.

EC: Beautiful. So you know, at Grief Dialogues, we’re all about story. And would you mind sharing with us the stories that led you first to writing poetry in general, and then also to talk about the particular poems that we’ve published on our site, The Unfinished and The Choosing

Paul T-M: Yes, thanks. So I’ve written all of my life. I’m one of four brothers, but the only writer or creative in the family, I’m from a blue collar family of factory workers which have a very proud heritage in working class Midlands. And my grandparents were miners from the Welsh valleys originally. So there was no real tradition in my family to the craft or to writing poetry or anything creative, but it’s something I’d turn to at a very young age as way of escaping into my imagination really. And tied into that  is my love of books. I have a thousand books. I’ve not quite written that many but I do have a lots of books. And so for me, there’s that natural relationship symbiosis between reader and writer. And I also write music.

I’m a lead singer in a band. And so I do lots of creative things. Poetry and the music actually go really well together. And I’ve always just written for me initially until I really embarked on a PhD about three or four years ago. And through the process of the PhD, which is in creative writing, I’ve learned to start to share my work more widely. For me, it was always a very personal, esoteric expression of who I was. And I’d say certainly in the last three or four years where I’ve felt comfortable to be able to start to share those stories with a wider public. And it’s great that lots of my poetry and my short stories are now getting that wider public. It’s a very unusual feeling for spending the first 45 years of my life, keeping my work very much to myself and guarding it.   The two poems that I sent to you or from my collection which examine and they are very personal and very autobiographical.

The stories behind them describe the impact of a profound grief that I went through in 2016 when I lost a very dear friend of mine, a friend of 35 years, who’d been with me my whole life. And she was almost like a shadow to me. She was, she was an extension of myself. And she had complications, medical complications, which took her from us quite suddenly. And because it wasn’t a spouse, because it wasn’t a family member, it was a friend, and I didn’t know who to turn to really, to explore the depth of the grief. And I’ve been lucky because I’m even though I come from such a large family, I have not had a lot of death in my life. I know I’ve not come close to it, particularly in my immediate family. And so when this happened, I didn’t really know how to process it. So I turned to the poetry and poetry allowed me to bring to the surface, lots of feelings and emotions that I had. I’ve not really vocalized or verbalized before about that friend. And these two poems along with about 25 to 30 others are the expression of that process.

EC: Wow. Wow. That’s beautiful. Now you mentioned that you’ve published a book of poetry, is that right? Or about to publish it?

Paul T-M: I’ve got them together as just a single collection at the moment. So I’ve started to enter them into pamphlets and chatbook competitions, but I’m also still working on them at the same time, because as they go out, they find people who like them and want to share them. They get transformed and changed through the editing process as well. So, like with any creative work, they’re always going to be in the process of changing and transforming, but I’ve, I’ve put them together as a book, as a collection. And I’ve started to send them to people who knew that person, like I knew her initially, so they can kind of share in that, because they’re very personal to those people. And any money that we make off those editions, I’m going to give to that person’s charity.  That’s a way of giving back to support what she cared about, the things she believed in. 

EC:  Oh, what a beautiful gesture. I’ve heard that poetry is described as the language of reconciliation. Does that description ring true for you?

Paul T-M: Yes, very much so. I think reconciliation comes after conflict in many respects, Elizabeth, so conflict can be both internal and between ourselves and the outside world and between two people as well. So the reconciliation, which I think poetry does help with, is about bringing two parties together, whether that’s the internal and the external or two people who’ve lost each other in some respects. And I don’t know if you noticed, but the poetry, a lot of it is written in the second person. So the person who’s gone essentially as if they’ve continued in the afterlife, but in a different way.  They do continue with us in our hearts and our minds and our memories. And that’s as real as any afterlife in many respects because they stay with us forever.

And so yes, there is a reconciliation taking place.  The middle section of the book looks at what that conflict could look like. They’re very dark poems. And The Choosing is from that section. Unfinished is from the first section where you’re trying to register and understand the scope of the loss. Whereas The Choosing, if we’re looking at the stages of grief, it’s the anger and the resentment, and the conflict, which comes out of the loss and what else could have been done. Yes, definitely reconciliation of lots of kinds takes place with poetry. So it’s a good description of poetry actually.

EC: Neil Berensin,  a counselor and interfaith chaplain specializing in grief and loss wrote a piece for our blog recently that talked about the power of poetry and healing.  He particularly appreciates the power that’s exuded when a poem is read aloud as in a hospital setting. What’s your opinion about poetry read silently to oneself and poetry read out loud.

Paul T-M: It’s interesting because when I write the poetry, I don’t speak it. It’s only when it’s finished and it’s a first draft that it becomes a performance. So again, going back to that internal and external, the internal voice that writes it comes from a place that you don’t always vocalize or verbalize, but when it passes through to the external, the performance comes into play. And so it’s really odd when I read my own poetry back, I don’t hear it in the same way as when I perform it. So it takes on a far more performance effect when read aloud. So maybe there’s something there in the process of poetry and its tradition.  It is an old tradition where they were passed on from generation to generation verbally and orally. So it makes sense really to read it aloud, unlock the poetry is great when read aloud.

EC: Would you favor us by reading your pieces aloud to us? And then I’ll add my own commentary because obviously I’ve read these to myself and now I’ll be able to hear them.

Paul T-M: 

Okay. I thank you very much for this. I think I’ll read Unfinished first. And then would you like me to go straight into The Choosing? [Note: You can read along with Paul by clicking on the names of each poem.}

EC:  Ooh, those are just such beautiful words. And they conjure up such images and stories and you know, I can feel the loss so deeply personal in the images that come up in my own mind. When I hear you read or when I read it,  I ask myself how do you come up with this imagery? Because this is very unusual in a way, but the rawness of it and the uniqueness of it is really what spoke to us when we read it the first time, because it was not a simple sadness or grief type poem.

Paul T-M: You can probably tell I’m a huge fan of Sylvia Plath. The confessional mode of digging very deep and finding a voice and speaking even to a loved one as Sylvia Plath often did towards her father or to her husband who she felt wronged to her. And to the black side of herself, the dark side of herself, that she couldn’t reconcile and the imagery is all about in each poem. Objects are very important. So sometimes, like in Unfinished, I started with the cupboard, which opens and you find the little bits left by someone left as they were before they went to hospital. And that’s the last time you may have seen them. I started with that as a story and the clock, which had wound down because it had no one to wind it up.

And then in The Choosing, because the grief felt, and I’m sure your listeners will relate to this who felt profound grief, I felt like I’d incurred a disability. I felt like a limb, a part of me had been hacked from my body.  And so that started me to think in The Choosing particularly about the process of losing a person which I metaphorically described as a right-hand. Ironically, I sprained my hand at Christmas in the bath.  And I lost the use of my right hand, this arm, for nearly nine weeks. Now, I’ve only just started to be able to type and move again. So poetry actually became reality at Christmas as if, as if the voices in the poems actually manifested themselves as reality. So that was really interesting, but it gave me an insight, yet again, into what it must be like to lose a person in your right hand.

EC: And how long ago was it that you lost your friend?

Paul T-M: 2006, so it’s five years this year

EC: And her name? Kim?

Paul T-M: Kim. Yes. And she was the best. She was the best woman at my wedding in the May and was dead by the October. She gave me away to my husband in May. And then there’s a poem about that called The Handkerchief, which a day of celebration, and a few months later, it’s the same handkerchief. It’s a funeral. So it’s not, it’s not long ago. But it’s, it’s like with any grief of this kind, I can’t imagine it’s going to change. Right. And that’s what I read on your website. What attracted me to the Grief Dialogues is that it doesn’t end it, it transforms and changes and becomes something different, but it never leaves you does. It

EC: Never leaves you. It does change and it’s something different. And I’m not a big fan personally of the term “journey” because with a journey there tends to be an end, a final destination. So to me, it’s more of a process. But even that word still is incomplete. It’s a barren journey, I think personally.  The grief that occurs every day. And then sometimes that pain that rawness comes back 20 years later out of the blue, or maybe there’ll be something that triggered it. And there’ll be a lot of feeling grief over time. And one day it’s one way. The next day, it’s another, and that’s why we need to give ourselves a break. 

Paul T-M: And the poems for me as all my creative work has done this.  They are little historical documents, emotional documents that I can go back to a shelf and re-access by reading them and actually reading them aloud. I don’t feel that way anymore in that sense. But when I read the poem, I’m back there. So it’s a way of remembering that rawness and that immediacy of what happened and the depth of it. It’s in remembering that you’re remembering how much you love the person and how difficult it was to lose them.

EC: It seems that there is a poetry Renaissance of sorts in the United States, thanks to the wonderful youth poet Laureate, Amanda Gorman, who read at President Biden’s inaugural. In fact, they are calling this poetry Renaissance, the Gorman Effect. Do you have any words of encouragement for the younger poets of the world?

Paul T-M: Yes, absolutely. I watched the Gorman address at the Inauguration. What a performance.  What a moment for poetry and for young people as well. I’ve been a teacher for 25 years and my profession is about helping young people. I’m a lecturer now in a university, but I started off as a secondary phase teacher, so 11 to 18, and I always used to read my, some of my poetry that I worked on in class with them on a theme. I’d share that with them. And I always said to young people, “poetry has the power to transform and fix who you think you are and who you want to become. And when you’re in that fluid age range of young people up to the age of 24, 25, nothing’s fixed. And so like poetic form itself explore the free verse of your life, explore the personal as the political, use the poetry to find who you are and all you come to be and all you could ever be.” And so as Gorman, I can see why we’re calling it the Gorman effect, poetry can will an idea into existence. And that’s what she proved on that, in that performance, that if you can imagine it, it can happen. So young people and poetry are perfect together.

EC:

Oh, I love that. I love that. Well, this has just been beautiful and I feel so honored to not only be able to publish your work, but to hear it here, live from you, especially about the topic of grief. Obviously right now, the world has had more than its fair share of grieving. And to have an outlet, whether it’s hearing your words, reading your words, or encouraging others to write their own words is a really powerful gift that you’re giving the world. And I want to personally thank you for that. And in closing Paul, I was hoping you would read us one more poem, one that we haven’t published, that you could sort of gift us with this afternoon.

Paul T-M: Thank you very much. Before we finish and I read the poem, the poem Candles, and Elizabeth, I’d just like to say thank you to you and your organization for giving people like me the opportunity to share our stories and to read one another stories, because grief in Western cultures, particularly in lots of cultures is something – it’s the last thing people talk about. And I attended a funeral last Friday which we had to do remotely on zoom because, you know, of the current pandemic and this person had died due to COVID.  People this year, more than any year, the last year, people have had to face death in an unparalleled, unrivaled way. And so organizations like yours take on even more value for people like us, for everyone, not just for the creative sort but for the people and consumers as well and wages and enjoy us.

So thank you so much, focusing on grief as you do. Okay. So this is Candles.

Candles

The little flames flicker,

Shuddering at a breeze

New in from a door left ajar.

Around the room faces

Are pulled tight at the edges,

Moods lifted higher for a moment…

For a few seconds, time escapes,

Sixty years, finger clicks, hovering

In the gaps between worlds.

Here all is good, all at peace,

Cracked hearts found repaired,

Tears all risen, become waxen relics.

‘Happy Birthday, dearest friends,”

We hear you say, as if we’d

Forgotten to believe.

Maybe we can learn, collectively

To take a step closer, courageous few,

Stoop low and purse our lips:

Blow out the perfect circle of light –

For souls lost this way, 

And for hearts found,

We each have to lose to find.

So Kim would have turned 60. We had a birthday party with all of her friends. This was pre -COVID, of course. All the friends gathered and they all put sixties birthday cards with messages and poetry inside a box, which I have in a memory box just to right here. And I promised everyone that I would never open them because they’re  for Kim..

Pretty much everyone there, because she was so looking forward to her 60 years, everyone there, we had such a great time. And because we are only, we are only the people who live with us and nourish us and enrich us.  It  was if she was there because they all brought, they all brought us a little piece of her with them on that day. Stories. You talked about stories, we shared a story and then some private stories and we put them inside the card and into the box.

EC: Great idea. Thank you, Paul. It’s just been such an honor to have you on today and I do hope you submit some more poetry. So we can do this again sometime, because this is just a beautiful way to remember not only your loved ones, but all of our loved ones.   This was just so special for me. So thank you so much.

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