In the second blog post following on from our event in the East End last week, Simranjeet Aulakh interviews Charlie Gracie and Mary Thomson about their poetry collections and offers an analysis of their work.
An Interview with Mary Thomson and Charlie Gracie
Many writers ponder questions of existence. The urge to question everything surfaces up in all our minds from time to time, no matter what your age or status in life. As writers from the East End, Mary Thomson and Charlie Gracie explore questions about life and death through their poetry in both similar and different ways.
As I read Charlie Gracie’s Good Morning and Mary Thomson’s Alphabetical Order I posed some questions to understand more about their writing both in relation to themselves and each other.
Reading your work, I began to see recurring themes concerning life. Why did you choose to substantially write about life and our existence?
“We all ask such questions. We ask closed questions and spend our life time studying philosophers for instance but we should really be in the moment.” [Such questions are directly asked in Beneficial Properties of Stones: ‘Where do we come from, why are we here?]
“It’s the surface, poetry responds to things.”
You also explore many other important themes revolving around life, such as love and death. Why does this hold prominence for you in regards to your writing?
“I am not interested in pastoral poetry, for instance by referring to a nice bird. I am more interested in the human condition.”
“Every poet is writing their own life and in doing so they connect with the world. I am reflecting on my own life, hoping to give connections. Hoping to make my own images resonate, for my experiences to be heard. It’s about recognition.”
Mary’s poem Life Span seems to easily capture such themes regarding love and death. This poem uses the metaphor of a butterfly flying away to symbolise how time itself flies by.
In Life Span, a metaphor is used to pose questions about death. What made you think of a butterfly?
“The metaphor is used to represent the gravity of life. It’s about life drawing to its close. All poems start with an event and the event in this case was a butterfly and also waiting to see if my 2 week premature grandchild was born; ‘Its touch was as confiding/ as a baby’s finger on the breast’. I started to think, in the time of me waiting, how long a butterfly lives for. I also started to think about what proportion my life will be and I don’t know. I am constantly thinking about my own life.”
Whilst reading Man Killed by Tree by Mary and Dead on the Hill by Charlie, I began to see that they explore the same ideas concerning life. In Dead on the Hill, the speaker expresses his desire to be taken by nature when he dies, rather than to be found by humanity. The speaker, in this instance praises nature by making it his final resting place; ‘I want the crows to feast/ I want to seep into the earth/ the worms to work my flesh’. In Man killed by a Tree, the same level of appreciation for nature is shown. In this case, a tree gets the blame for killing a person, although it wasn’t its fault as they are just a part of nature. Mary went on to say that she read what she described in her poem as a newspaper headline. She thought that she wouldn’t want that to be the headline for her, if she were to die in the same way as she would have praised the tree because his life would have also ended.
You mention memories in your poems, mostly negative experiences. What are your views on dwelling on the past?
“I think we should always be aware of sensation in order to maxim pleasure in life. I am in my 70s and that is how I live my life. This should be the case when you get older. You shouldn’t let bad experiences define who you are now. Death is approaching, we shouldn’t be wasting time. I feel compassion for my past self which enriches my life now. I think it is better to write than to think, otherwise we won’t be able to express feeling.”
“It is intrinsic for me to write about past experiences. I am Interested in if something is good, what is going to mess it up? On the other end of things I also look at what is bad, I look under the surface of things, in other words. You should expose yourself more, otherwise what is the point of writing poetry. It is like breathing to me- intrinsic.”
One example of the past being explored is Charlie’s poem 8 August 1980. It is a memorial to those who died in the Central Hotel, Bundoran, County Donegal. It pays tribute to the lives lost in the event. Charlie begins by stating ‘It is not just memory’ and ends with ‘It is the love continuing’, suggesting that Charlie seeks to embrace the past and remember it in a positive way regardless of the pain surrounding it.
In Mary’s poem American Clothes, the past is explored in a different way. Heritage is explained through the metaphor of clothes. The stanzas break into three with three different years of time, almost like a poetic timeline where the first stanza is set in 1950, in a rural farm in Cheshire, the second stanza is set in 1975 where the speaker receives clothes from her American born neighbour and the poem ends with the final stanza set in the early date of 2015. Mary explained to me here that “the clothes the speaker brought in Chicago, unlike the store-bought ones from Glasgow made her feel like she can be anywhere. Earlier she didn’t want to be where she was. Her imagination is placing her elsewhere.” This was also the case for Mary as she endured bad experiences whilst growing up and had tendencies to escape her past. Mary doesn’t dwell on her past experiences but seeks comfort and happiness in the present.
Good Morning and Alphabetical Order pose pivotal questions we all seek to ask or answer throughout our lives. Whether addressed as part of a metaphor or as an ode to a hotel fire, both collections provide vivid insights into inquiries of the human mind.
Words by Simranjeet Aulakh