In Search of Belonging

Here we share samples of conversation between Understory members. We thought we’d start with ourselves – Charlotte and Sarah – chatting about poetry, talking and the Understory in the run-up to the launch of Sarah’s new poetry collection. Sign up to our Mailing List if you’d like email notifications of future postings.

Charlotte Gann: Hello, Sarah, and congratulations: I see your book The Thoughts is now available for pre-order on the Smith|Doorstop site. I know it’s been a long road – as these things are. And now, too, we’re partnering on The Understory Conversation – about which I’m deeply glad. Do you remember (I do!) the first time you and I had our first ‘Understory’ conversation? On a train it was….

Sarah Barnsley: Ah, thanks C. Yes, I do remember – how could I not? It was, in my mind, pivotal in this journey I’ve been on these past few years running up to The Thoughts. We’d been at The Poetry Book Fair in London, right? Had talked a couple of times maybe at poetry events – I liked you instantly – and there we were talking again, taking our convo out of the Book Fair, down the Tube and then out of London Victoria down to Sussex. I remember: beer, crisps and a well-intentioned flapjack(!). And amid the joking and chat, deep conversation – of the kind I simply hadn’t had with another poet before. How about you, was this par for the course for you, or unusual for you too?

CG: It was unusual, a real mirroring. I think with many of my key relationships there’s been a kind of light-coming-on early moment – where we’ve really seen each other, messes and all – and that’s exactly what happened for me on the train with you. And I remember we acknowledged openly that gap between how the surface seems and our inner reality. To be able to talk like this in trust, and with a fellow poet being open back, well, yes – as that train trundled on towards Sussex, I knew this conversation mattered.

And then very soon afterwards there was follow-up. (You wrote me a note on the morning of the launch of Noir, my first full collection, and it was absolutely spot on – to be mirrored that day. You wrote about the book: ‘The poems effortlessly reel past like film shorts; nothing is wasted or superfluous…’ I could go on – your note was characteristically thoughtful and generous.) And in my reply, thanking you, including for your timing, I acknowledged again how we can struggle with these two faces – of apparent-okayness/inner suffering – saying ‘but then what are the alternatives?’

Well, I think perhaps one alternative may be what we’re arriving at now: in hosting The Understory Conversation. Is this also how it fits for you, and with your writing?

SB: Yes, it is. I felt for a very long time that the real me was ‘in hiding’, while another me was going about the world, working, being competent, appearing well. When we first met, the me who was in hiding was in crisis. Talking to you that day on the train, I, too, saw a mirroring: this, this hidden suffering amidst ‘functioning’, was entirely real. I don’t mean just the suffering, I mean the hiding of it when also being seen to function: where suffering goes on regardless of life, and life goes on regardless of suffering. That’s why Noir moved me so much; poems like ‘The Black Water’ are really consonant with this idea of holding two realities.

CG: Yes, and I’ve always been curious, really, for how many others this is true. I talked about this – attempted to – when I first spoke about the ‘Understory’ in a blog post called Parallel Lines. Here I expressed it as having lived a double life – as though to struggle was a shameful secret. Collectively so. This doesn’t seem right to me, or necessary. Or at least I don’t see why it needs to be the whole story. Like I have information I’m not bringing in here (into life, I mean). Why? Because it’s hard to. Why?… and so the questions start for me. Fruitful questions, I’m at last discovering, borne out of much frustration.

It’s because of all the (invisible) pressure to hide, the idea evolved into this sense of a surface, and then an under life. I like the fact the word understanding has ‘under’ in it too: to stand under – and actually see?

SB: Gosh, I love that decoding of the word ‘understanding’ – I had never thought of that word like that before! Your reading of it makes so much sense to me. The ‘under’ life is instantly recognisable, but now you’ve framed it this way, I realise there’s so much critical nuance in the ‘stand’ part too: we ‘stand’ pain, suffering, shame and so on (as well as ‘withstand’ it, which is slightly different I think); we ‘stand’ up, remain ‘upright’ in the outside world too often despite this pain etc; and we can be frozen by it, too, rooted to the spot – static in our standing, not walking or moving on.

But there’s also some power here, too, in the nuances – that we ‘stand’ up underneath all the private suffering. It’s often said that in our most challenging moments we find our strengths. I would much rather not have suffered as I have, but now I’ve finished The Thoughts, I do think I’ve emerged with something worthwhile – that might, just might, make a small difference. I don’t mean this in an arrogant way at all by the way! Just that for years I didn’t think I had much to say, or that anyone would be interested in, and that poetry perhaps didn’t matter that much to the world. Now I’m far more persuaded by the idea of poetry (or any creative practice) as a pro-social activity – that it can bring us together in profound ways for the greater good. This validation of  ‘standing up’ is what I experience in The Understory group I’m in – is this how you envisioned things for this project when you first conceived it, or are you surprised by how it’s unfolding in any way?

CG: I think there really is an element of that, yes: standing up (and being counted!). Another phrase that pings into my mind is standing one’s ground, although I’m really not looking for a warring analogy – too much of life seems to me spent entrenched.

But, yes, I’m also often surprised – in the sense it’s all new territory. We meet with a common understanding, or acceptance, of the idea there is an Understory, and then every member brings their own energy and insight and framing. There’s treasure there. And perhaps my main sense, when it’s going well, is precisely that: I don’t know where we’re going (in a good way), and I’m hearing and learning and discovering new things.

This for me is different. And it’s exciting. I’m no longer hiding, I’m exploring – is the sense I get in an Understory group.

I wonder if it’s that contrast between fitting in and belonging we’re really nudging here?

SB: Yes – absolutely. I brought that to one of our groups, remember, in place of bringing a creative piece – that quotation from Brené Brown. Let me dig it out, it’s so key….here we are, I’m cutting down what she says simply for the sake of this conversation remaining conversational. She writes, in Daring Greatly (see Other Resources), that belonging ‘is the innate human desire to be part of something larger than us.’ (p.145) But this is different from ‘fitting in and […] seeking approval, which are not only hollow substitutes for belonging, but often barriers to it. Because true belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world.’ (p.145)

I love how she then summarises this into practical terms around connection: ‘Living a connected life ultimately is about setting boundaries, spending less time and energy hustling and winning over people who don’t matter, and seeing the value of working on cultivating connection with family and close friends.’ (p.146) I find that distinction a huge relief! How about you, for your own creative practice, but also your own, might we say, ‘belonging practice’? The latter phrase is my own coinage by the way!

CG: Yes, a relief. And self-acceptance has to be a big part of that, too, doesn’t it? Not looking to others (however unconsciously) for that reassurance. I have moments when I sit quietly, like my cat, and am Not Bothered. These are worth so much.

I really like your idea of ‘belonging practice’. An Understory group member spoke the other day about bringing her ‘share of chaos’ to a meeting: I love that idea, that we each bring our share of chaos.

For me, in the writing, I think it’s been something about adding pieces to the jigsaw puzzle of me-in-the-world. Filling in the gaps with detail, where in much of life I only really showed the parts I thought the world wanted to see (the order, not the chaos?). I think my poems are pieces in the puzzle.

SB: Yes, definitely, although I think it’s also important to say that that detail of ‘me-in-the-world’ in my poems is more often ‘truthful’ than it is ‘factual’ – to quote (or maybe creatively misquote?) Caroline Bird. That’s another critical – freeing – distinction for me and my creative practice, I think. The Thoughts is a ‘truthful’, raw, honest set of poems – and yet it’s a work of creativity; it’s not a statement of facts.

I have wondered if part of the reason The Thoughts found a home (with The Poetry Business) is because, ultimately, it is an act of belonging as Brené Brown describes – that it is ‘authentic’. Because that’s how it has felt. I’d stayed close and true to my course with what I was writing and had given up trying to ‘fit in’ to what I thought was wanted.

A huge part of that course-sticking resolve came from my friendship with you. When we first started talking fully on that train home to Sussex you were on the cusp of Noir being brought into the world – and you espoused the kind of authenticity I sought to express myself. Did you feel that too, then, when Noir came out? Or do you think part of ‘belonging’ is not just about finding your own path, but finding others who are on a broadly similar path, too?

CG: It’s definitely a bonus! And part of the whole premise of The Understory Conversation.

In our case, I think of poems of yours like ‘Today you went to lunch with a cave’ – which I first heard you perform live, and which immediately became a touchstone for me. And yes, having allies alongside really helps, because both Noir and The Girl Who Cried felt true to me, too – without as you say, their being factual memoirs. They were crafted creations, but emotionally honest – about loneliness, for instance. And that’s what was so frightening for me about letting them out into the world – a fear of judgement.

I HAD to let them set sail, no matter my fear. And yes, then, the meeting of others through them. Of course, there’s a lot of silence, but some of the notes people have sent me, even in cases people I didn’t know at all, particularly about The Girl Who Cried have been affirming: that I share my truth and others will put their hands up (quietly, privately) and say ‘this, too, is true for me, and I’ve never read it said before’. How exciting is this?

Is this how you feel – and what you hope for – as you approach publication of The Thoughts?

SB: Yes, I do. Weirdly, I’ve found the more I’ve loosened the moorings on those poems – publish one, publish another, read one at a recorded event – then the more I’ve edged towards the fear of being ‘unmasked’ and therefore subject to judgement (we all do this as human beings, but I think in my case severe self-criticism is part of the whole ghost train ride). And, strangely, the more that has happened, the more I’ve moved around (sometimes past?) that fear – and the meeting it is part of managing it.

And also now it’s being published, others are loosening the moorings too, it’s not just me, as we go into promoting the book and so on. And I feel the same too – I’m not enveloped by the fear, I envelope it. Brené Brown says that this kind of fear – when it emanates from your most authentic self and activities – is a feature of vulnerability, right?

CG: I think so – and therefore inevitable. I love everything you capture here: the loosening of those moorings, the enveloping (as opposed to being enveloped by) fear. The fact it’s not just you working on it now, there are others there too.

Thank you. I wish you and The Thoughts a wonderful launch.

SB: Ah, thank you C. Really good talking with you.