Focussing on Memory

Eleanor Punter shares a poem and chats with Charlotte about working with memories.

The Dome Cinema Cafe, Worthing, 2016

The afternoon darkens. Rain is coming.
A black line drawn on the sea.

The door jingles. A woman runs in laughing,
orders coffee and cake.

We sit in the window by the Xmas tree which blinks.
Drink tea from vintage cups

and someone has put on Vera Lynn.
Our new life…

watching the tide go out, lights
a necklace of softness trailing into dusk.

We were going to walk down the pier after
but now rain sheets down windows

and it's near closing time. Crowds
pour out from the film, kids

dressed as Stormtroopers,
frazzled parents zipping up coats.

We sit, an ordinary looking group
among the chatter of strangers.

Our rawness, invisible. Hope, like tea,
swills tepidly inside us.

Eleanor Punter

Charlotte Gann: I love the atmosphere here, Eleanor. The poem does such a great job at conjuring a precise moment in time: a rather dismal dark out of season afternoon in a December cafe by the sea, the warm hub inside, rain descending, the tide at dusk; a cinema emptying. Every detail, beautifully observed and captured. And that last couplet, wonderful, with its light, almost humorous slight lift in the end note: the hope versus rawness.

The whole setting could itself be a metaphor: for how we find a small warm place to perch, against all the harshness? We’re not told the backstory of your ‘ordinary looking group’ – we don’t need to be. The mood is tangible. We can fill in our own versions in that clue of ‘Our new life…’

It’s a beautiful, hopeful, haunting poem, for me: of how we rescue ourselves, at times; our lives… as well as a novelistic ‘painting’ of an evocative scene. I know it’s based on a memory: you’ve transported yourself back to a moment (in this case, eight years ago) that, with hindsight, you recognise as pivotal?

Before we focus on that, I wonder: can you put into words why this feels the right form-on-the-page for this one, for you?

Eleanor Punter: Hi Charlotte… When I started writing notes for this poem I didn’t think it would be in couplets. My first drafts are usually just a glut of closely bound thoughts and it often takes quite a bit of shuffling to find the right layout.

In this case, the images that came to me were fragmentary: those fleeting memories. They came and were vivid and then were interrupted and gone – moving on to another one. Throughout, I think there’s movement and shifting: a woman coming in, rain coming nearer, tide going out. I hope this adds to the unsettling uncertainty I wanted to create in the poem and, at the heart of it, the discord and emotion suggested between the lines. The couplet form seemed to fit.

CG: Oh yes, I get that sense of between-the-lines and the shifting tides including of emotion…

So many of your poems conjure haunted atmospheres: you work a lot with memory in your writing; and your poems are studded with poignant and vividly observed details.

I really like one Virginia Woolf quotation you shared recently, from her long, autobiographical essay ‘Sketch of the Past’ (from Moments of Being: a collection of autobiographical writing – see Other Resources): ‘[…]is it not possible – I often wonder – that things we have felt with great intensity have an existence independent of our minds; are in fact still in existence?’ (p.81)

Is this how it feels, to you? Is memory intensely important to your writing?

EP: Yes, memory is hugely important in guiding much of my writing. For me, working with memory is a way to process and understand what has happened in my life with the clarity of hindsight. In this poem I return to a specific time, place and feeling. The further away from events in your life, the clearer you can sometimes see them – like a lens focussing sharply.

The sensory details ground and place a poem – the feel of a cup in your hands, the song on the radio. For me, there’s an almost talismanic quality to this: memories described vividly so that writer (and maybe reader) feel they are there in that place. Memory is often seen as something ‘in the past’ but as Virginia Woolf writes, memories can still be very much in existence – we’re holding them all in, carrying them, subconsciously allowing them to guide our future choices.

In the poem, I wanted to use those very physical things to paint the feel of the poem – the Christmas tree ‘which blinks’, the door that ‘jingles’. The cafe represents a stepping stone of security between past and future. It is cosy and familiar but outside the weather is changeable, the tides ebb and flow, crowds pour out from the cinema. There is a sense of impermanence, that we have no real control over our lives, that things are ever changing and will always be so.

By the way, the cafe is no longer vintage (unfortunately) but an American diner selling burgers and shakes today. That sense of impermanence and change!

CG: Oh yes, indeed, to all of this – and using writing as a way to process and understand past experiences. I like this linked with that sense of impermanence. And how, as you say, things can come sharply into focus with the perspective of (long) hindsight.

I’m not sure exactly how the writing works, but it feels magical at times, doesn’t it? How a poem takes form and emerges, bringing with it all those sensitively observed and stored physical and sensory details.

I agree we continue to ‘carry’ our memories, and the sensations associated with them – this is partly why I chose that title Cargo for my recent pamphlet – but sometimes the load feels lightened, for me, through that alchemy, as it’s sometimes called, of transforming them into poems. Because poems aren’t ever just a retelling, are they?; they ‘carry’ the emotion too, and somehow, magically, communicate that viscerally to their stranger-readers.

EP: You mention alchemy and I think that is a great way to put it, Charlotte. The transformative power to put all our straggly thoughts and emotions into something as contained and short as a poem.

I cannot write without an emotional element creeping in, even if hidden among the surface things. Emotions are the underlay of most of my poems. The process of writing is a sort of cathartic reckoning: scratching nearer to the truth, making sense of an experience, understanding why we need to write about it. And most importantly why we return to the same experience and themes again and again.

The process of writing can also be revelatory. I find I start writing about something and discover it brings up something else – and off I go on that tangent. It can take me to places that aren’t always comfortable, places that feel raw and painful. I have to trust my instincts about whether a piece of writing is too raw to share – and maybe put it in the drawer labelled ‘not quite ready yet’. This is all part of the process.

You mention the physicality of poetry and I agree. I think writing can be a kind of bloodletting – the initial, unedited outpouring of what we carry. And then the next stage where we stand back, consider it, before shaping and carving it into a meaningful, crafted piece of writing.

CG: Oh, definitely – to those two stages. And to the idea of writing as revelatory. I like that ‘scratching nearer the truth…’. I’ve often felt my writing self circling and circling – as you say, returning to the same subjects, often from memories of events from thirty, forty years or more ago, in my case.

And yes, shaping and crafting: so we end up with a tangible ‘poem’ container on a page. A way of standing back from our own material, and drawing on all our resources to turn it over and over, polishing, in the sanctuary of our own (room and) process…

You’ve mentioned the fleeting, fragmentary nature of memories. I often ‘see’ mine as ‘stills’ or short sequences of ‘footage’. Like jigsaw pieces, or clues even, to piece together.

EP: I love the idea that you describe, Charlotte, of memory being like ‘stills’. Poems do have a film-like quality and some of my favourite films in turn have a poetic feel to them.

And yes, writing about memory can be as you say akin to a jigsaw puzzle – fitting it together to make sense of it all. Going through this process can be a release and a way of healing and moving on.

I wrote a series of poems a few years ago focussing on certain things I went through in my early twenties. Not only was it cathartic but astonishing to me how I could remember details: the drink I was drinking, the tightness of a dress on my skin, the exact words someone said and the way it made me feel.

It begs the question, why do certain memories stay with us forever and others just fall away?

CG: Ah, that’s a question that endlessly fascinates me too, Eleanor… the why these and not others? Also, how some memories can seem to prick away at us – almost like they’re beckoning for our attention?

In Virginia Woolf’s essay, she tries to understand why she remembers certain moments from childhood – pictures, sensations, ‘sudden shocks’ – and not others. She seems to sense ‘a pattern hid behind the cotton wool’, as she puts it.

‘It is only by putting it into words that I make it whole’, she writes; ‘this wholeness means that it has lost its power to hurt me’. (p.85)

Does writing feel at all like that to you, I wonder? Like making something ‘whole’. Or looking for a ‘pattern hid behind the cotton wool’?

EP: I really like that Virginia Woolf quotation about how writing makes something ‘whole’.

I recently went on a trip up to Yorkshire and I thought about the human desire to ‘make’ memories. To record a moment that is suddenly gone. I did this by not only scribbling impressions in a small notebook (my daughter’s idea) but taking photos.

We now live in a world saturated with visual memory reminders. Reminders on social media that suddenly transport us back to two, three, six years ago…

With writing I can explore the story behind those photos in a deeper, more three-dimensional way. Really scratch beneath the surface. In my writing, returning to a certain memory is a kind of rinsing through where yes, I feel more ‘whole’ and often lighter after.

These memories don’t have to be sticky and dark but can be poignant and heartfelt – a need to hold onto and keep something incredibly precious and fleeting – written down – forever contained (held) in print.

CG: I love that holding too. (And that’s interesting: I’d not thought about how all the photos around these days will impact on which memories we retain, and how we retain them…)

And yes, ourselves feeling more whole must, I think, be a big part of that wholeness Virginia Woolf writes about… My version of this – writing poems from the source material of memory – has felt like a process of integration, above all… And yet, yes, as you also say, lightening…

Thank you so much, Eleanor; it’s been fab to spend this time talking with you.