Emerging from Silence

Georgia Gildea’s debut poetry pamphlet bed is out now with V. Press. Georgia chats with Charlotte about how she worked in silence.

Charlotte Gann: Your pamphlet bed is published by V. Press this month (you and I have been through a process working on this together, with me as ‘Guest Editor’…). I love this work’s distinctiveness, and in your bio in the pamphlet you write: ‘Georgia is interested in writing that emerges from a place of voicelessness, and in the complex process of claiming a voice.’

This resonates with me. I’ve been thinking about the roles in my writing life of what I call ‘Silence’ and what I call ‘Quiet’. Silence is a place where I’ve spent a lot of my life, hurtling (and hurting!), hiding, ashamed, split. Quiet is a safe environment where I can work fruitfully with attentiveness, acceptance, self compassion, and really listen to my words as they emerge.

Voice arising out of ‘a place of voicelessness’…? Can you say more? There’s one line in bed that reads ‘how can I find a way to speak’.

Georgia Gildea: I love your distinction between ‘silence’ and ‘quiet’. I looked up the word origins and, interestingly, ‘silence’ is related to the word ‘cease’, whilst ‘quiet’ contains the word ‘rest’. So ‘silence’ can be (and feel like) a kind of helplessness or defeat: a place we enter when we have tried to speak and not been heard, or one we enter when we are unable to speak, despite wanting to. Whereas ‘quiet’ feels more like a place of recuperation and gathering, preparing. Does that resonate?

In answer to your question of ‘voicelessness’, I think I mean that quite literally. As a child, I often found it difficult to speak verbally, to translate feelings and impressions into spoken language. I was labelled ‘shy’ but there is more to it than that; it had (and has) to do with conditions, environment and expectations, and to do with pace as well. I often found that the world moved on too quickly for me as I process things slowly and deeply.

This is where writing has been hugely soothing, as it can happen in my own time and way, without the pressure of the other demanding speech or answers to questions. The more I grew into my writing self the more I noticed the split between the ‘shy’ (or unable-to-speak) self and the self who was highly fluent in the written word. I am still far more comfortable with writing than with speaking out loud.

So I suppose I’m getting at the experience of silence – of feeling silenced, whether from the outside, in the form of direct oppression (or, less extremely, by certain conditions and expectations); or from the inside (by an inner critic, an internalised sense of being ‘wrong’. I suspect the two are strongly linked). I am interested in how the experience of silence shapes the voice that emerges – how that voice interacts with its silence, in its iterations on the page…

CG: So, the presence of that silence/silencing is a distinctive feature of the work itself? A characteristic of the resultant poetic form. (I really like those definitions – silence as ceasing, giving up trying; and quiet as resting, or taking one’s time…)

And I really get the idea of finding one’s voice first perhaps in writing. Writing my poems, for me, has seemed like building strange wonky bridges or maybe ladders. In one newish poem I write ‘all your life you’ve had to build a ladder // from your deep lonely place up to a world / where others congregate’ – and it really has felt like that, for me.

As I write this response, I am just back from two good days in a group where we all worked hard together to bring in and integrate our differences. It’s so powerful when that can happen, but there are relatively few settings in life where humans set aside the time and space and focus to do so, and find the pace that’s workable for each different person. I finally feel able to bring in my ‘difference’ now, in such a context, and be heard and really valued for it – which feels great, when it happens. And a big stepping stone towards this has been writing my collections of poems, which have emanated from previously unvoiced parts of me.

I wonder if this is how bed feels for you? I love the lucidity and purity of its voice, rising up in untitled poems – it has that in common with my The Girl Who Cried, that the poems are often quite ‘small’ and all untitled.

Is this part of what you mean by silence shaping the voice that emerges, maybe?

GG: I like your description of your poems as ‘previously unvoiced parts’ of you. This is definitely part of what is going on in bed and, in fact, I was really inspired by your small, title-less poems in The Girl Who Cried. It felt to me like the voice in that collection was simultaneously discovering and ‘testing out’ its own truthful utterances in these deeply felt, distinct little moments… and I loved it.

I’m also thinking about silence as a textural part of the voice – like the voice is aware of the silence that’s preceded it and is around it, and does not stray too far from that silence even in the (brief) act of articulation. There’s futility at play, but also, perhaps, a greater resonance?

Because of its context, the voice in bed is up against two types of silence. The poems address the experience of hospitalisation for anorexia, which presents a situation and an illness people fear to speak of. So as well as its own inner silence (which we might characterise as the child/patient’s inability to speak), there’s also the silence of the ‘outside world’ in response to anorexia.

The ward, too, had its own regimes of silence: rules that patients were not supposed to question, banned topics of conversation. We were given daily opportunities to speak, but never, in my experience, really heard. There was a sense, even in that place, of ‘let’s not go into this’. And so the voice has a lot to contend with, which accounts, perhaps, for all that white space…

CG: Yes! To so much you say here. Discovering and testing out in ‘distinct little moments’. And how these small (enormous) utterances do ‘not stray too far’ from the preceding silence, and that that exists, still – even after these utterances are made – all around them.

I also hear about the outer silence around both the anorexia and the hospitalisation: yes, a lot to contend with. It takes me back to what you said earlier, about how we’re silenced by external and/or internal oppression. Shame – it dawns on me (not for the first time!) – is a key element in my sense of silencing. In a shame state, I literally, bodily, feel I cannot speak.

I love your idea of futility – no one will listen anyway? – and ‘greater resonance’. That these utterances, in their very form – quiet, small, surrounded by white space – already tell their story?

What’s really refreshing to me about the work, though, is then just how clear and lucid it is, once the speaker does start talking. bed can’t not be listened to – heard – if anyone opens the pages and reads. Your sequence opens with an epigraph from Louise Glück about an ‘intent’ ‘to construct’ ‘a plausible self’: and the insights bed then offers up really do speak, so coherently, to this. At one point, you have:

the trouble is
we fear completion

We’ve found a home for our unuttered or unheard utterances in these small, quiet poetry collections? Maybe that’s the start of being more fully our own people in the world…

GG: Yes, our own people in the world. The world can make this difficult! But writing is a step in that direction, because it can teach us who we are and what we feel, whereas the social world might ask of us the opposite (conceal, don’t say the truth, fit the narrative).

And writing does not protect us from shame, though the form and careful construction helps by offering some poise, I suppose, to counterbalance the mess.

I felt so paralysed by shame for the many years (maybe seven?) l tried to write about this experience that in the end I had to shut off from any sense of an audience or reader (shame triggers) in order to get at the true material. They were, for a long time, protected utterances, guided by that futility. In my mind I wasn’t writing at all: I was ‘making a mess’, and the mess took the form of inky, illegible scrawlings on stacks of miniature post-it notes, which lived in a corner of my tiny shoebox-like kitchen (candle wax on a shabby old wooden table).

There was a unity of space and action about the process – I only wrote on the post-it notes, (which I never unstuck), and I only wrote in that space. I kept thinking ‘I can throw these scraps away and no one would ever know’, and I think it was because of that imagined disposal that I was able to write from my deep self, and not be hampered by the fear of failure (these scraps had already failed).

I hope the final poems have retained their note form. And perhaps that’s part of it – when we speak into shame and vulnerability, there is a deep co-occurring need to get the utterance done, and leave. And yet – like your distinct utterances they are also saying ‘stay, for this short length while it’s bearable’…

CG: Oh Georgia, this account of your working round resistance is so strong and beautiful (also, generous to share it. Thank you.)

Increasingly I am seeing more and more clearly that so many of us – while trying to ‘fit the narrative’ – have lost sight of our own real valuableness. Hiding our light, even from ourselves, because of shame. Your account here is such a courageous example of doing the work despite this.

And yes, the resulting poems have kept their note-like origins – and reading them is like encountering your deep, true communications in that small safe space. It’s one of the characteristics of the work I’ve found so special.

I like the idea of us reconnecting with our lost parts and feeling more fully ourselves. Also, then, finding these ways to bring our ‘differences’ across the barrier and influence the whole, broader context – of people working together.

I know I couldn’t do this without having reached into those parts I needed to express in my small poems. It opened something up for me – which needed opening. (I was especially moved by reading that you never even unstuck the pad of post-its.)

And we can feel good about ourselves for doing this work. I feel good about it, myself. Hard though it has been, it’s about taking up my place in the world. And recognising my own rich, inner resources – rather than enduring a perennial state of lacking, and feeling withheld from, and bruised.

GG: Hiding our light even (perhaps especially?) from ourselves: this has been part of my experience, and still is. And I have certainly been guilty of putting my own light out when faced with a bigger, brighter kind of light.

But I think it’s a question of getting to know what is valuable and unique to oneself, and taking an interest in that, rather than (or maybe at first, alongside) being afraid or ashamed. For me, this happened by stealth, with the post-it notes. I couldn’t do it head-on. I now see the post-it notes as a developmental stage. They nudged me out of that awful, locked silence: the bruised, lacking, defeated place we talked about at the beginning of this conversation.

As for taking up one’s place: I’m still on a journey with this, perhaps only at the beginning. And I think I will always rely on my writing to help me articulate parts of my experience – especially those that I struggle to talk about verbally, in the moment, in the social world.

CG: It’s a long road, isn’t it, and we can only take one step at a time, while trusting ourselves (our deep selves – or what I call our ‘elephants’) to know what’s needed next.

I too will always rely on writing – I’m sure. It’s been my companion since childhood – having another ‘self’ I can write to(!) when the outside world is too much to contend with…

Thank you for this, Georgia, and for bed – I hope it reaches every reader who needs it. Let’s close this conversation with its opening poem.

imagine a life pared down to a spoon
a frightened face bounced back

single image in
a bended mirror

what happens?
the outside disappears

and we’re drawn into

bended image
single mirror

Georgia Gildea, from bed, V. Press, 2023