On Making What We Need

Natalie Shaw and Charlotte chat around weaving poems as ‘little breathing devices’.

Baba Yaga Learns not to Drown

Using my fingernail, I sliced
a neat seam down my ribcage. 

Opening the seam, I fitted myself 
with tiny silk pockets in beautiful colours, 

a school of Golden Cloud Mountain minnows,
or the branches of a tree lighting 

into blossom.
I whispered air into their little lungs

and sang my favourite lullabies to soothe them,
before I sewed the seam back up

neat as a leaf.
Each time under the water

I felt the smooth silk open under my fingers
blossoming pocket by pocket.

Natalie Shaw, first published in The Rialto 96

Charlotte Gann: Hi Natalie, I’m intrigued by this poem. The Baba Yaga in the title draws my attention. I think I have a memory of you sharing on Twitter(?) the Jan Pieńkowski picture of Baba Yaga’s hut on a chicken leg that appeared in Joan Aiken’s Kingdom Under the Sea? Those images from that book took me straight back to childhood. I know I pored over them – though I can’t now remember the details of the story.

Where I do know Baba Yaga more consciously from is a book that was profound to me when I read it aged about thirty: Clarissa Pinkola Estés’ Women Who Run With The Wolves. From this, I remember Baba Yaga as the old ‘hag’ who helped Vasalisa on her journey. She is a witch, in the story, but also restores the child’s injured instincts, so she can become self-reliant. ‘Baba Yaga is the model for being true to the Self’ (p. 91), by this account.

Is this the Baba Yaga of your poem?

I’m intrigued by the fact – in the title – she is the one learning something here, not passing her knowledge on to younger others. And then the poem’s in the first person, and very tender. Those little pockets that can give her buoyancy underwater seem a wonderful gift that she gives to herself. And definitely magic…?

(I love the word ‘school’ there, and those ‘Golden Cloud Mountain minnows’ seem brilliantly specific – especially followed by that ‘or…’ And I’m struck by ‘neat as a leaf’. What a strange and rich analogy.)

Natalie Shaw: I grew up reading and loving so many of Joan Aiken’s books, and copying Jan Pieńkowski’s silhouette cartoons – so my Baba Yaga comes from them, many years ago. Actually like you I don’t remember the story now – just the silhouette of the chicken leg house. And I haven’t read Women Who Run With the Wolves – maybe I should. I like that there is a version of Baba Yaga that is a model for being true to the self. That sounds very much like a thing worth learning. And learning is definitely the idea my poem started with. But also I wanted a witch in there – a ‘baddie’, a character who might not naturally win your sympathy.

You point out that Baba Yaga is teaching herself and not someone else. I think that’s really interesting – I was talking to a friend last summer about the disconnect between older and middle-aged and younger women, about how that split (or mistrust) between different generations is perpetuated, and learning and experience is made untrustworthy or unavailable. But also you have to learn something for yourself before you can show others how to do it.

When I was drafting what would eventually become my pamphlet Oh be quiet, I asked a poet friend for comments and she said something about it being good or interesting to read poems about the experience of being a woman. I was taken aback by this – I’d never thought of these poems as about being a woman, or separated into ‘woman’ realm.

The idea of witches and those invisible women with their unwanted experience – the danger in handing on your experience or understanding – this is the air this poem breathes in.

CG: Yes, that disconnect does seem important. And your poem above all seems to me about self-sufficiency: Baba Yaga sharing her wisdom with herself, and learning not to ‘drown’ alone?

I have certainly found myself feeling this plenty of times in life, and counselling myself (it’s felt necessarily) about how to survive.

Or, indeed, actually, thrive. Which is what Baba Yaga seems to me to be doing in your poem?

NS: I think of the poems I write as a space for some sort of anatomisation of a particular sensation or experience. And yes, Baba Yaga is thriving (in as much as someone who undergoes multiple drownings can thrive!). I think what I was trying to do was turn something terrible into something beautiful – at the time I could see these little silk pockets she makes very clearly and I wanted them to be as perfect and vital for someone reading the poem.

Thriving is how I think of my life in poetry – turning the things that scuttle about in my head into poems has meant I was able to find a way to thrive. (I am glad ‘neat as a leaf’ struck you, by the way.)

I went to see the Louise Bourgeois exhibition at The Hayward recently, and was fascinated by how she played with material and story and thread, turning experiences and memories into art, the spinning spider that creates her home from her own self.

Something about that act of translation seems so important to me, like the gold that has to be spun out of straw in Rumpelstiltskin. Baba Yaga is turning something unliveable into something she will be able to survive. And I think the self-sufficiency comes because it is about her own survival: only she can work out how to stay alive as she is the one who will have to undergo the experience. And it is also about words, how words can do that. Words are the straw and the gold.

CG: Words are the straw and the gold. For turning something terrible into something beautiful, or indeed valuable?

I’m also really struck by the image of those pockets as little lungs. (We do of course experience and hold trauma in our bodies. And a metaphor of learning to breathe ‘underwater’ seems potent, to me.)

Why words, for you, rather than material and thread? Louise Bourgeois is quoted as saying ‘I need to make things. The physical interaction with the medium has a curative effect. I need the physical acting out. I need to have these objects exist in relation to my body.’

Does this also resonate for you, with your poems? I think of mine as ‘objects’, I think. Concrete things – much more than they really are! I say them over and over to myself, for instance, sometimes when I can’t sleep. Much like holding something. Or rocking.

You say you turn the things that scuttle about in your head into poems… Are your poems your perfect, vital, silk pockets?

NS: ​​I love that you can hold your poems and feel them in your body. Sometimes I press a pebble in my palm to help me calm down – do you think of your poems as pebbles? A few days ago, I listened to Don Paterson talking on BBC’s In Our Time about Shakespeare’s sonnets and describing them as panic rooms – and that sends me back to poems as both ‘the bomb and the safe exploding of the bomb,’ from Jeanette Winterson’s introduction to the The Forward Book of Poetry 2014.

Why words? The experiences and desires around connection I remember most strongly come from written words. Books give you access to anything and everything, they join the dots (for me). I see them as the golden thread.

Books made me yearn, properly yearn, and they felt like the place where I was recognised. They were also a protection and a great place to hide, in the days before mobile phones.

So I think you’re right – poems are the silk pockets – little breathing devices. I’ve been reading translations of Greek mythology and The Iliad, with all the women weaving yarn, threads of stories: Ariadne and her life-saving red thread; Penelope, weaving and unweaving, giving herself breathing room. Breath as thread.

CG: Oh, yes to those panic rooms! And I like that idea of weaving breathing room: there is something so important about that small space we create between ourselves and our material in the making of a poem. It is exactly that, or can be, I think: much needed breathing room.

I also respond when you say ‘Books made me yearn, properly yearn’. Me too. And yes, I felt recognised. A mirroring, though I was (safely) invisible.

I do love these silk pockets. The word ‘pocket’ is anyway an important and perfect one, to me. And yes, I see poems as pebbles in one poem I have in The Girl Who Cried: ‘I slipped pebbles / in your pockets: weighed you down. // You were very patient. We walked for miles.’

But I’m also reminded of another short poem from the same collection. I wasn’t sure at the time what it was about – as I found myself compelled to start work on it (as we do) – except I felt keenly that resilience and love sat – like that little spider? – at the heart of it:

the spider’s web                                      

is suspended from twigs in the light
& at night

it can be snapped     repaired

or     utterly broken
swept up off    out of our hair & faces

or    it can hang here invisibly
where nobody notices

It’s the weaving of what we can that matters here to me. And in writing my poems…

Thank you, Natalie – for those silk pockets.

NS: Thank you, Charlotte, for spending time with me here – walking together with our pebbles in our pockets!

  • Oh be quiet by Natalie Shaw is available from Against the Grain Press; Dirty Martini is forthcoming from Broken Sleep Books