Expressing an Essence

Elizabeth Chadwick Pywell shares a poem and chats with Charlotte about writing into a difficult encounter.


I have brought you here because
you are less likely to scream
in public. You stub your instinct
into the ashtray soil, the dark yellow
arrangement, a graveyard of teeth.

I stare at tonic bubbles. There is everything
to say, but I shut-the-fuck-up
until my voice queers the laughter
from the slit of sunburned tables,
unnaturally pithy and high.

I will remember this moment,
how your knuckles hooked
until the blather of the beer garden
thawed you, your gurn
at the lighter’s click.

Elizabeth Chadwick Pywell, from Breaking (Out), Selcouth Station, 2022

Charlotte Gann: I find this poem (horribly) intriguing, Liz. It pulls me in. The title, ‘Gargoyle’, seems just right. It captures, for me, something of that weight of ugliness in being (bodily) human. The difficulty between people – their too-great differences – and violence, in the cracks and silences.

It’s a very strong and direct opening idea: the speaker has brought someone somewhere to tell them something difficult? Difficult for them to say, in this context, and for the other to hear. I really see that ‘ashtray soil’, ‘dark yellow / arrangement’ – love the word ‘arrangement’ – and get the image of the ‘graveyard of teeth’, the sad humanness of that. I like the idea of someone stubbing their ‘instinct’ (out) in that?

‘I stare at tonic bubbles’ affords a momentary relief, but too slight and shallow, before the speaker has to plunge back in. This is the section of the poem I find less penetrable: what’s happening, in that ‘slit of sunburned tables’ – why is the laughter coming from there, and why ‘pithy and high’?

The word ‘queers’ seems a beacon. But, as reader, I do find myself batted away a little by the heart of the poem. There’s a sensation for me of scattering – depersonalising – in the middle, here.

Then I love the return to the gargoyle sense in that ‘gurn / at the lighter’s click’, as the hearer somehow clicks back to themselves – to a passable extent at least. There’s so much of the human bodily experience in this poem, for me; bodies in trauma. Struggling on.

Elizabeth Chadwick Pywell: ​​I really like how you phrase that, the ‘weight of ugliness in being bodily human.’ I wrote the poem about a real person and a real exchange, but the ugliness of it all was more so in my head than in reality, born, I suppose, from the terror of having to have the conversation. And after the conversation, of course, when I re-played it, it was in the context of every other word we’d ever said to each other, including those that followed, and gradually I think I turned this one into something much more horrifying than it really was. I felt traumatised by it, even though in itself, it actually went pretty well! But what followed it was awful, and that’s where the horror came from.

The bit you’re not sure about, the ’slit of sunburned tables,’ is about feeling enclosed and claustrophobic, and unable to escape the conversations from the people around us. I needed us to be outdoors, and I needed us to be in a public place, but equally, it felt invasive having other people’s normal (‘pithy,’ ‘high,’ enjoying the sunshine, absolutely nothing to do with me) lives going on around us at that time.

Because I was coming out to this person, and because it felt like such an overwhelming, enormous moment that might (and did) change everything about how we related to each other, I felt like I had some kind of banner around my neck that just announced to the world that I was gay. Or maybe I thought everyone could hear and was listening. So I suppose that’s what I meant by my voice queering the laughter, as though my own personal feelings could have a ripple effect on all those strangers… which just goes to show how completely self-obsessed I was at that time! I turned the person I was talking to into something gruesome, and everyone around us into extras in my own personal tragedy.

I think what you say about depersonalisation is interesting. It was really painful for me to even think about the relationship in this poem for a long time, and at the time of writing, they’d cut me out entirely. I don’t know how common of an experience it is, but at the time, I was desperate not to stand down on anything – not to put myself back in the closet I guess. I couldn’t deal with them thinking badly of me, so I had to tell myself that they were the monster, because if not – who was? me? I couldn’t bear that. It’s obviously a very black and white way of thinking – hardly healthy. In one way, it’s a very honest poem, but only emotionally so. This is how I felt, but I’m not saying the feeling was justified – or maybe even the writing.

CG: Oh, Liz – how powerful this response is. Thank you for it. I completely get – as I do as well from the poem – that sense of emotional veracity. And the horror and terror inherent in this situation.

You brilliantly capture how it’s the depth of distress and discomfort that’s led to the poem’s language. I, again, recognise this: the way we can feel glued to a spot, or frozen with fear or horror – while, apparently – indeed, actually – sitting somewhere mundane, like a pub garden, and opening our mouths and uttering the words that need to be said. (I remember the most difficult conversation I ever had: at times, during that, the person I was speaking to began to look like a gargoyle, almost, to me…) And that vivid sense of your needing to have this conversation outside and in public – and yet, then, the persecutory experience of enduring doing so – how uncontained and uncontaining it all is.

You were coming out, and determined to stand your ground, and not be pushed back in the closet. Yes. At the same time, vicious waves (like shame?) were threatening to engulf you? And the poem conveys that by, as you say, turning the whole situation monstrous. The poem is (of course!) imbued with the emotion.

Isn’t this partly why we ‘set’ these things in poems? Because it is an emotional truth we’re conveying – especially one that’s been denied or buried or silenced in ‘reality’? (I know my poems work hard in this terrain…)

ECP: Yes, I think so. For instance, the person in question doesn’t smoke at all, but I made them a chain smoker. It felt appropriate, despite not being real. And I think because I was grappling with what is reality anyway – surely different for everyone? – it felt okay for the details to be invented. It would have been terribly exposing if they hadn’t been, anyway, and completely unpublishable.

I felt really drawn to religious imagery for this poem – the gargoyle, the graveyard. The conversation felt like a kind of death in some ways, and I’ve always been fascinated by the watchfulness of gargoyles. I believe one of their purposes is to protect churches from evil – they’re monstrous, but they’re also guardians. I don’t know if it came across, but I was thinking a lot about how this person was protecting their own beliefs – partly about me, but more about the world as a whole – and that I was challenging them in what must have been a very uncomfortable way. I know there must have been trauma in it for them too.

CG: Yes, this irreconcilable clash of beliefs and world views… There is, isn’t there, a ‘death’ of sorts in taking strong steps to assert our differences – which may inevitably, and necessarily, in some situations lead to ruptures?

And how the human frames (of our bodies and minds) work so hard to absorb trauma and pain. How we can turn this back on ourselves to avoid lashing out? And how hard it is to function, and make any kind of sense (let alone of each other) when caught in this web?

One theory I’ve worked with is that our boundaries automatically and inevitably close when we face ‘differences’ that feel too big for us to integrate… It’s how our ‘living systems’ operate. And yes, despite the awfulness, this does happen to protect us.

I find the chain smoking idea interesting too – how it felt right to make the other a smoker even though they weren’t. (I like the paintings of Edward Burra and Carol Weight – someone once compared the poems in my collection Noir to these! – and also find myself thinking of them.) There is something about that yellow ashtray that absorbs the energy of the whole poem, for me.

You extruded something and went with it – a sense of the essence of this exchange? And then trusting this also gained you the benefit and perspective of fictionalising to an extent that felt publishable. (I like the idea of our poems – and collections – being hammered and chiselled from lived experience, never the same as it.)

For me, capturing the essence is a huge part of what poetry is for… And I feel I get (have got) some important things ‘off my chest’ writing it – as well as hoping they offer some bridge in understanding (potentially!) to others. Are you finding writing is helping you process things too?

ECP: Yes, I definitely feel that writing helps me process things, but what I find more and more now is that sitting down to write a poem about X experience doesn’t work – instead I need to sit down to write about something else entirely, and then find myself going ‘oh look, there it is!’ Sometimes that realisation doesn’t happen for a while after writing too.

I was talking to a poet friend recently about how it can be a bit embarrassing when someone comments on something that they’ve read into a poem and you don’t immediately recognise it as something you were actually writing about – but then often, after consideration, you find that, even if it was subconscious, that thought process was there.

I wrote a poem in a workshop recently about dementia and the workshop facilitator said something really intelligent about how by not including the word itself, I’d created a void in the poem much like the experience of dementia, and at the time I thought ‘God, I wish I’d actually done that deliberately.’ Maybe I did? I don’t know! But regardless, I love that reading of the poem, and that conversation added to my understanding of it, and of my process – and to the editing of it that I’m doing now.

Much as this conversation has done, actually! So, in general, yes, all my processing happens through writing, whether or not I set out with that in mind…

CG: Love this, Liz. I have exactly the same experience of ‘oh look, there it is!’ – and I love it when that happens… Thank you – for sharing such strong, brave work.

  • Breaking (Out) by Elizabeth Chadwick Pywell was published by Selcouth Station. To order a copy, message us; or Liz on Twitter @chadpie