Recently I linked up with Ali Whitelock, a Scottish poet and writer living in Sydney. Her memoir, ‘Poking seaweed with a stick and running away from the smell’ was published to critical acclaim in Australia and the UK. Her debut poetry collection, ‘and my heart crumples like a coke can’ will be released in May 2018, published by Wakefield Press, Adelaide. Her poems have appeared in The Moth Magazine, The American Journal of Poetry, Gutter Magazine, NorthWords Now, The Poets’ Republic, Ink Sweat & Tears, The Red Room Company, Beautiful Losers Magazine and The Pittsburgh Quarterly (July 2018). Her poem, ‘the cumquats of christmas past’ has been entered by Ink Sweat & Tears into The Forward Prize for Best Poem of 2018.
Ali will be in the west of Ireland this summer to promote her debut poetry collection ‘and my heart crumples like a coke can’. She will also be attending readings with Anne Casey who has had poetry previously published here on An Áit Eile.
Hi Ali. Big congrats on your debut poetry collection ‘and my heart crumples like a coke can’, which is being published by Wakefield Press in Adelaide next month. When will you be visiting Ireland? Where and when will your readings take place?
Hello Megan! Thank you so much for the chat. ‘and my heart crumples like a coke can’ is due out in the next few weeks and I’m absolutely pinching myself that I’m going to be reading at five events in Ireland in June and July this year with Anne Casey, Nathanael O’Reilly and Eleanor Hooker. Here are the dates, though one of the venues is yet to be confirmed. I’ll post an update on my website and Facebook page once I get confirmation.
Thursday 21st June
Rowan Tree Readings, 11 Parnell Square, Dublin
Saturday 23rd June
Galway, (venue to be confirmed)
Sunday 24th June
The Salmon Bookshop, Ennistymon, County Clare
Friday 29th June
Over The Edge Poetry Reading, The Kitchen @ Galway City Museum, Spanish Parade, Galway
Monday 2nd July
Ó Bhéal Poetry Reading, The Long Valley, Winthrop St, Cork
Fantastic! We look forward to seeing you at events here. Your poem ‘If you came tapping at the window’ was published in the current edition of The Moth magazine. Can you tell us more about that piece?
Ah, ‘if you came tapping at the window’ has a little bit of history. I’ve lived in Australia for the last 23 years and have only gone back home to Scotland four times. I have a very close relationship with my mum, however my father was an abusive man and my relationship with him was always a strained and torturous one. In 2014 I flew back to Scotland because my mum was quite ill and by the time I got there she had made a full recovery. The day after I arrived, I thought I’d go and give my dad a quick visit (mum and dad had divorced years prior). When I got to my dad’s house I discovered he was gravely ill, though his doctors had no idea what was wrong with him. He died 9 days later of undiagnosed motor neurone disease. I was by his hospital bed and holding his hand as he died. It is the most profound and important thing I have ever done in my life. The experience changed me – in many ways, it catapulted me into adulthood, (finally, at 50).
After he died, we sat in a side room drinking the obligatory cup of stewed tea, staring blankly at the plate of custard creams left out by the nursing orderly. Then mum and I, emotionally exhausted, gathered ourselves together and headed home. When I crawled into bed that night, I lay facing the window. A thick fog was descending. My mind started playing tricks on me–– throwing up daft thoughts like, ‘what if his ghost appears at the window?’ I felt like a child lying there in the dark, scared of the bogey man and was suddenly consumed by the fear that my father, freshly dead, might come back and try to communicate with me. Sounds daft, I know. ‘if you came tapping at the window’ arose out of that night.
The following poem, ‘water’s for fish’ is a poem from the collection about that fateful trip home:
water’s for fish
as cliche as it may sound i always
imagined i’d get the call in the middle
of the night the one that would announce
that you were dead or at the very least
be dying i’d be bleary eyed would thank
the caller and hang up grateful
that i am safe my seventeen thousand
kilometres away and geographically exempt
from delivering your eulogy from shaking
hands with those i have no wish to shake
hands with i would not have to be seen
to weep nor to wonder at the choice
of photograph someone else has chosen
for your order of service for these
are the things that happen when you’re gone too long
weirdly i was coming back to visit you mum
you’d been unwell minor kidney failure
for fuckssake how many years have we been asking
you to drink water? water’s for fish you’d say
–not so smart now are you? then you made
this miraculous recovery too late i’d already
booked my ticket to come and sit at your bedside
to hold your hand to keep you company on your descent
into complete renal failure so my daughterly
dash would become a holiday instead the last
of which was too long ago though i still
recall the sweetness of the sangria the paellas
filled with prawns and crabs and bits of lobster i scraped
to the side of my plate and i know a holiday
in glasgow’s not for everyone
sure we don’t get paella and we don’t
get crabs but we do get fish and chips
and deep fried mars bars and unending
poetry nights that run the length of argyle street and around the corner into shipbank
so i got onto google and i planned
i booked myself on writers groups on open mics
circled poetry readings i’d attend i’d hop across
to paris maybe berlin fuck it why not barcelona?
but a quick drop in to see you father revealed
you were a sliver of yourself
a flaked almond of a man
a fragment like someone took a photo copy
of you reduced it to A5 printed it in grey scale
‘you look like shit,’ i told you, embraced you
‘i know,’ you mouthed back i didn’t know
you could no longer speak that your teeth no longer
fitted you that you could barely swallow
and no one knew not even margo the annoying
nutritionist who did the home visits
that very soon (in exactly nine days as it
turns out) i would not be hopping across
to paris maybe berlin fuck it why not barcelona
but would be delivering your eulogy written by my sister
and scheduled to be read somewhere between
the eagles taking it easy and john denver filling up our senses like sleepy blue oceans and i am unsure
i will make it past the most perfect and excruciating
first line,‘he was no saint our father but he used to say
he looked like roger moore.’
Wonderful piece!! You’ve been described as Bukowski with a Glaswegian accent and a nicer wardrobe, and Billy Connolly’s COMEDY love child. . . Wowee!
Can you tell us more about these influences?
When my first book (memoir) ‘poking seaweed with a stick and running away from the smell’ came out a few years ago, I was lucky enough to have an endorsement on the front cover of the UK version by the incredible Scottish writer Laura Marney, (author of ‘nobody loves a ginger baby’ and ‘no wonder I take a drink’—how fabulous are those titles?) Laura’s endorsement read, ‘Pure nostalgia with funny bits. Ali Whitelock must be Billy Connolly’s comedy love child.’ My jaw fell open when I read this line—it was such a massive honour for me, given my love for Billy Connolly’s comedy. We grew up with Billy’s records playing on the record player (12” vinyls, remember them?) I could recite all of Billy’s lines, I still can. I adore him. I saw him perform a few years ago in Sydney and felt a twinge of sadness as I saw him shuffle onto the stage, older, frailer, and yet it was the funniest I’d ever seen him. That night was filled with such nostalgia for me—looking onto the stage from way up in the dress circle, I felt like I was in the living room of my youth, listening to a long lost uncle I adored, or dare I say it, the father I’d rather have had. There. I said it. So whilst I’ve never tried to cultivate being funny, I think having been immersed in so much Billy Connolly growing up, Billy has somehow seeped into my bones.
As for having my poems compared to Charles Bukowski with a Glaswegian accent and a nicer wardrobe (comparison courtesy of Mark Tredinnick, Winner of the Montreal International Poetry Prize 2011)…that’s a compliment beyond my wildest imaginings. Bukowski is one of the first poets I ever read and he remains one of my favourites. And there’s no doubt, Bukowski’s disregard for all that’s proper gave me permission to say whatever I wanted on the page. When I read Bukowski I realized, to my greatest joy, there were no rules. Or if there were any, I didn’t need to conform to them. I read a quotation some years ago by him where he compares his process of writing a poem to, ‘grasping at the curtains like a drunken monk and tearing them down, down, down.’ This quotation set me free as a writer in more ways than I could never have imagined.
Quite a few of my poems are about my father’s death. And although my poems aren’t always funny, I love the combination of funny and sad in the same poem. James Tate, one of my favourite poets, says about his own work, ‘I love my funny poems, but I’d rather break your heart. And if I can do both in the same poem, that’s the best.’
If my poetry’s aim is anything, it’s that.
Where does the title of your collection come from?
How easy is it to crumple a coke can? You can do it with one hand, right?
One day as I was beavering away on a poem, I was tearing my hair out trying to come up with the best way to describe the crushing effect grief can have on our hearts. I fiddled and doodled (for days as it happens) and kept coming up short. Then I started coming up with images of things that crush easily. Suddenly the image of an aluminium coke can being squeezed in someone’s hand burst into my mind. This image conveyed exactly what it was I wanted to say.
When I finished writing this collection, I set about trying to come up with an appropriate title, (which can often be the hardest part of the book to write). But the line that kept coming back to me was, ‘and my heart crumples like a coke can’. I liked the slightly off-beat and non-poetry sound to it and felt that as a title, this line would speak to the slightly off-beat nature and down to earth, everyday quality of the poems themselves.
You’re also the director of The Sydney Poetry Lounge, a monthly open-mic poetry event with two featured poets each month. Will you be attending any open-mic poetry/spoken word events in Ireland this summer?
I set up The Sydney Poetry Lounge because I felt there wasn’t enough opportunity in Sydney for poets to get behind the mic and share their work. I figured I could either sit at home and bemoan the lack, or I could actually get up and do something about it. I chose the latter. We hold the event in a room above a local olde worlde Sydney pub, (The Friend in Hand Hotel, Glebe) complete with its own massive Cockatoo (tame!) and big black tables where they hold crab racing – though luckily NOT when the poetry night is on! The pub has a wonderful atmosphere and everyone is welcome to read on our stage regardless of experience, style and identity. Being in Ireland will be such a poetry highlight for me––-I intend getting to as many poetry open mic/spoken word events as I possibly can.
On the 1st of May, you will be giving a reading along with Anne Casey at the international book launch of Autonomy in Sydney at The Sydney Poetry Lounge. Autonomy is produced in Ireland in support of women’s rights and edited by Kathy D’Arcy. The funds of the book will be going towards supporting women’s rights activism in Ireland and around the globe.
Can you give our readers some information about the book and the link for purchasing it?
The incredible Autonomy anthology is a women-led collection of stories, poems, memoirs, essays, articles, screenplays and more exploring what it means to have bodily autonomy. It is part of a wider cultural movement alongside Waking the Feminists in Ireland, and #MeToo and #TimesUp globally. I’m thrilled to be launching and reading from Autonomy at The Sydney Poetry Lounge on 1st May 2018 alongside the über-talented Irish poet Anne Casey and Australian poet Michele Seminara. Anne and I will also be reading from Autonomy at the second Australian launch in Newcastle on 6th May, as part of the ‘Girls on Key’ poetry event.
I am two thirds of the way through my second memoir, ‘andy’s snack van tour of scotland’ which is a memoir about travelling through Scotland. The story is about reconnecting with the Scottish landscape, the culture, the sense of humour, the weather and the food after a long period of absence, and is told through conversations with my brother who is the most hilarious person on the planet (bar Billy Connolly) and nothing short of insane.
The journey is punctuated by stop-offs at these little snack vans in the highlands with me marvelling at menu items like chips and Chinese curry sauce, venison burgers (!) and my favourite (and possibly highest carb meal ever) – the double tattie scone on a roll (with optional fried black pudding).
When I first started this project I had an idea of how I thought the memoir would pan out––my brother and I would travel, chat, put the world to rights. But things didn’t turn out that way at all. Isn’t that the joy of giving yourself up to the process and letting the story unfold of its own accord?
I’m also working on my second poetry collection, ‘the lactic acid in the calves of your despair’.
Where can readers find links to your poetry?
Here are a few links to a few of the poems I’ve had published:
The American Journal of Poetry
‘for a while the darkness was all we could stand’ & ‘i didn’t think i would die like this’