On Reclaiming Selves

John White chats to Charlotte about how writing can help us give voice to hidden parts of ourselves.

An English Public School    

A row of open toilets, six, 
no doors, grey tiles, grey 
concrete floor. Hidden

from the street, on the side 
of a large Georgian house,
behind a wall. An alleyway

comes off the street,
up past those toilets 
to a hefty hard-sprung door. 

Watch long enough, you’ll see,
like ants locked to a predetermined
course, a file of boys

several times a day, pass through
those narrow walls
into the street, turn right. 

Come with him now, a new boy,
thirteen, out that hefty door, pausing to absorb
those open toilet stalls.  

Later that day, after games 
at which he does not shine, find him 
in another off-white tiled room

with other boys, all ages, naked,
filling small tin baths from taps
around the wall.  

You will not see the smaller boys 
show fear, or the furtive glances
to check who has more pubic hair.

And later getting ready for sleep,
in dormitories where beds are lined
in rows, you’ll see the place

is bare of personal keepsakes. Nothing
to hold from home. He’s glad. 
And so passes this first week

of years that stretch ahead
when he will never be home,
even when he’s home.

John White. First published in Masculinity: an anthology of modern voices, Broken Sleep Books, 2024

Charlotte Gann: I’m really struck by your poem, John, including its form, as it creeps in its regimented tercets down the page – like that ‘alleyway’ with its ‘file of boys’, ‘like ants’; and its horrified focus on the ‘open toilet stalls’, baths, beds seen for the first time through the eyes of that poor ‘new boy, / thirteen’, whose anxious absorption of these gruelling details we now share, in this poem. 

The cold exposure of pubescent nakedness, whether physical or emotional, that comes through this poem is viscerally sad, and we end that first day or week with him in one of the dormitory beds ‘lined / in rows’. ‘He’s glad’ there’s nothing ‘to hold from home’ suggests to me the necessity, under these circumstances, of severance – to survive. And the poem ends so immaculately, for me, on the weight of that trauma – that ‘he will never be home, / even when he’s home.’ 

I find your poem very moving: heartrending. At the same time, I feel privileged to read it. To hear from that poor thirteen year old. And glad, in turn, he’s somehow, finally, found this place, page, voice to record these memories – here, in the poem.

I know the theme of boarding school surfaces quite regularly in your work. What do you think compels you to write about it?

John White: Boarding school carved a fair sized hole in my life, both in actual years, from nine to eighteen, and also in emotional impact. I actually started writing poetry at boarding school…which was because it was an ‘underground’ activity – a place where some of us could carve out a culture that felt like ours. And I’m so glad that young person back then started writing poetry. Because of the spirit it expressed, and because I get so much from writing now!

I didn’t write anything directly about boarding school though until maybe 2010. I found two poems from that time where I started to mine this seam. Both of them have a quality of healing, of trying to climb out of the hole, or assert some part of me that has survived the experience.

So writing about it became a semi-conscious decision to claim myself back, to find a whole person, not just the grey and frightened person you might imagine emerging out of that poem. Also there is some motivation from anger, to speak publicly about that subject. There was some anger that went into making that poem as bleak as it is. And it has had some editing along the way to make it bleaker, to leave the reader with bleakness and nothing more.

But the main thing has been that it is deeply satisfying to write a person, that is more or less me, effectively and with compassion. It is putting him on the page, as you say, but even more important, reclaiming a part of myself in the writing. And I’ve found there is a two-way connection between the compassion, and the somehow pure internal energy that puts together the words to make the poem work.

CG: Thanks John for your fascinating reply. I like the idea of the poetry writing at school as an underground activity. And the reclaiming of a part of you.

I like the distinction between the ‘grey and frightened person’ and the whole of you. And that business of making the poem bleak in order to leave the reader ‘with bleakness and nothing more’.

Yes. This resonates with some of my own experience of poetry writing. (And indeed the thoughts and sensations that first led me to the Understory idea.)

But right now I want to ask about the final part of your reply. Can you say any more about that ‘pure internal energy’ – and how it leads, for you, to the words on the page?

JW: Well I think when I go to that place to write poetry, when it is working, something happens that organically closes down the rattle of stories in my head. Something emerges that feels true to ‘me’, and that ‘me’ has things to say that I didn’t always know about, or didn’t know the texture of. And in the case of this poem, and others like it, in the speaking, I found a different ‘me’.

I expect you and others reading this will know this process that can happen when you write. It’s like there is a stream of ‘pure’ energy that emerges which shapes the words – literally the sonics of the poem. Of course those sonics are also all the poems and plays and written language and songs and music you ever heard, or ever meant a lot to you – all that is stored somewhere, recalled and reshaped to make the poem that is in front of you.

Of course it doesn’t happen in a straightforward way. When we write I imagine most of us get bursts of this ‘inspiration’, which stop and start. Then we mould what comes out with our conscious rational mind to say what we want in the way we want. Or unfortunately, the self-doubt ‘stories’ sometimes start up and we think ‘oh that’s terrible’. Sometimes it is terrible of course!

Just to say that experience and confidence with your ‘craft’ are part of the process too. I have discovered that. When you find your own forms and shapes and rhythms in poetry you have access to them in a quicker and smoother way. You get the words out in the shape you want more easily. But there is also the possibility that craft experience might be inhibiting, in that you could lay a structure or even a voice over that energy we are talking about, and distort the truth of it – dilute ‘your’ truth at that moment, create a phoney truth. (Sometimes when writers do that I think we sense it.)

It would be interesting to talk to a playwright or a prose writer about whether they write with this sense of ‘pure’ energy, or an energy that gets into the words that is true to them… I imagine that energy is there but a little more diffuse. Poetry writing tends to be very concentrated – or even if the form and the content aren’t concentrated, there is a concentrated energy in it.

Just to return to what I was saying at the beginning about that poem, and others like it, particularly written in the third person. That a ‘me’ emerged in the writing that felt new. That in the process of writing ‘him’ I sensed that I was separate from this person. Or that I was a larger person than the retained internal sense of myself had told me I was. Which I had forever believed I was. This is writing as healing in practice, though I didn’t expect it.

CG: I love your reply, John… I get all you say, I think, about that pure energy; and appreciate the part about all the reading we carry inside us and draw on, unconsciously, when we write in that kind of flow.

I’m intrigued about the part where you – we – discover a protagonist who has more to say, or different things from what you expected. The writing provides room or space for him to emerge and surprise us?

I like how you link this to an expanded sense of self, internally. (And, maybe, to some necessary separation?)

Do you mean, you discovered a ‘bigger’ self than you’d previously recognised? Or given yourself credit for? And that experience itself felt ‘healing’?

JW: Yes I do mean that, exactly. For me there’s two parts to it. There’s being able to locate things in yourself that need to be said, and managing to express them in words without the interruption of extraneous ‘stories’ about yourself. That is, all the stories and images and preconceptions about ourselves that we carry round, maybe from self-defence, maybe just from habit. So just getting that energy on to the page without undermining ourselves is an opening up – it is surprising ourselves with who we are.

For me it was like opening a door in myself – discovering another room in the house, a happy room with light and a fine view…

But then there’s also discovering that we have a voice. That was the second part for me.

It’s sitting back and realising – ‘wow, I wrote that, and it’s what I wanted to say, and I can say it, and it works’. And, then, the sharing it with other people is important, because once you get one bit of validation for what you’ve written, it cements that sense of having a voice. Of course sharing your work with other people can be quite painful and nerve-wracking. I had to learn that getting feedback and revising poems could actually enhance my voice rather than inhibit it.

Then there’s reading to an audience. Not everyone likes reading aloud to an audience, and I certainly get wound up before I do it. But coming back to reading was important to me for finding my own voice. I developed a relationship with the wonderful poet, musician and songwriter Hylda Sims, who supported my work. I read one of my first boarding school poems at one of her readings. The great Oxford poet Jenny Lewis was headlining. Something that I’d got into that poem clearly touched people, and when Jenny got up she read a poem of her own boarding school experience, directly in response to mine. I didn’t know Jenny then, but it was a very moving connection. I think it validated my sense that I could have a voice as a poet in quite a deep way.

CG: Ah, I so get this John. The building of strong connections through the voices we’ve found by writing the poems. The voices of selves that emerge when we create those conditions, and hone our craft – and, by so doing, build faith in our own resilience and resourcefulness. It’s almost as if they’ve been waiting to speak?

And then – how the work can lead to responses where we recognise others and they recognise us. Including single connections at poetry readings – or indeed, when we publish our work, and someone gets in touch…

Thank you, John – for your poem, and this rich commentary.