On Seeing What’s Really There

For this conversation, Sarah invites guest poet and Poetry Business stablemate Helen Seymour in for a chat about Helen’s new collection The Underlook. They explore how humour and surrealism can help if we feel driven underground.

Fever Dream
I’m suckling on the air valve of a bouncy castle,
breathing in the bumps. Shoes scatter
the ground but I can’t find
a pair, every time I try to join the jumping
I deflate. A child pulls my arm
into a dark blue playhouse. An
old television connected to a plasticine
plug socket shows black and white
footage of a woman, trapped in a red
telephone box, banging on the glass,
rattling the door. It ends with her
giving in and picking up the call, before
looping back to the start. Butterfly arms,
front crawl legs, face of a girl who’s just
lost her float. The same child who pulled me
in here circles the wooden hut on a
bright pink bicycle with flashing lights
on the handlebars. I try to catch her attention
but she can’t hear me, and the door
is jammed shut. The TV remote
does nothing, no other channel, until
I realise I’m switching the child on the
bike to a man on the bike to a nurse on
the bike to a soldier on the bike,
a piglet on the bike, me
on the bike and I’m out and I’m free
I’m weaving through the shoes
round the empty castle and out
into fields pedalling faster and faster
before someone else flicks me
into nothing to see what’s
on the other side.

Helen Seymour from The Underlook, Smith|Doorstop, 2022

Sarah Barnsley: Many congratulations on the publication of your poetry collection The Underlook. It was such a pleasure to launch this brilliant book with you recently alongside my own debut, The Thoughts. Both were selected through an open call by The Poetry Business; when our books were announced, I was utterly intrigued by your title. There’s something curious to me about how it immediately made me think of ‘overlook’, for instance. Now I’ve read it, there seems to be something very specific going on in the book which is concerned with the preposition ‘under’, as well as the idea of looking, perception, and so on. What does it mean for you?  

Helen Seymour: Absolutely same to you – so glad we were/are co-launchers!

Good question. I think there’s certainly lots of meanings to it. It all started after I watched The Shining, because the story takes place in a hotel called ‘The Overlook’. And I was thinking about what that name maybe meant for the story, and then I went down a bit of a wormhole thinking about how ‘overlook’ is a funny term – it actually sounds like it should mean the opposite of what it does: to overthink means to think too much, so to overlook… look too much? To search too hard? Not to miss something, to fail to notice.

So, then I was thinking how it should be Underlook, like you haven’t looked enough. And that really spoke to me about a lot of themes in the book, about things being missed and people failing to notice, which I think unfortunately is something that resonates with a lot of disabled people, or certainly does to me living as a disabled woman. Especially living in the pandemic: I felt this very strong urge to be empowered enough to say ‘you can’t forget us, ignore us, as disabled people.’

And then there’s this other meaning to it, for me anyway, which I imagine very visually as ‘The Underlook’ being a place I’m in, below the ground. I think it’s a place that a lot of marginalised people find themselves in.

I’ve been living with a disability since I was two years old, and I’ve felt kind of forced to go in there – people put you in there. The only place I recognised myself as a teenager wasn’t in magazines, but in horror films: the thin ghost-girls in hospital gowns who crawl about and scare people with how gaunt they look. Which is where the poem ‘Adolescence’ came from – going into a well – because I only ever recognised my body as the same as the girl in the film The Ring. That’s where people put me, with the monsters.

The benefit is, you get to know the monsters you’re down there with! Things like hospital appointments are so surreal – awful – but at the same time these experiences gave me a new language. A different perspective on the world. And you can use that perspective as a kind of power – I suppose a bit like reclaiming the word ‘other’ – which I twist into the surreal.

So it’s like: okay, society, you’ve made me go down here, you’ve made me a monster in your mind, but guess what you forgot? I have a voice, and I know what scares you, because you put me in the same place as all the scary things. So that certain otherness, that edge, it means I can write from a very dark sense of humour, and maybe try and trip people up by playing with light and dark. And I think that’s always going to be something I draw from.

SB: I didn’t know that about the hotel’s name in The Shining – how interesting – and find your reading of the seeming paradox of the term ‘overlook’ fascinating.

I’m moved by what you say about imagining ‘The Underlook’ as a place below ground. It now makes me think of how the book stages a kind of underlooking of the world – as in ‘looking under’ it and seeing what’s really there – including oppression, exclusion and marginalisation.

I’m also moved by what you say about having a voice, about locating empowerment, in response. I’m glad you mention ‘Adolescence’ – the poem written from the viewpoint of a speaker who has ‘moved into a well’ – because I can see a visual gesture here too; the poem has a long, thin, deep shape on the page, like a well. Now that I think about it, there are a few poems with this kind of shape, as if the book is vividly bringing the idea of the well as place alive. 

The ‘Where is Hugo?’ sequence at the centre of the book is so compelling – it draws on the surrealism and the humour you mention in a sequence of poems about a compassionate search for a piglet called Hugo, who, as I think you said during our launch, is never actually seen. Why did Hugo’s story captivate you?

HS: Thanks so much, Sarah! Yes, you’re bang on: I think both unconsciously and consciously I wrote a lot of poems with that well-shape, although I never really thought of it until you just brought it up.

Ah, little Hugo. Yes very much missing throughout.

Hugo was a real piglet in a documentary I saw, and half way through he basically goes missing and the story just moves on. By the end, there was no explanation of where Hugo went. I remember just sitting there like..BUT WHERE IS HUGO?! And so I wrote a poem about him, and I thought it was funny because I was meant to be ‘working on my collection’ but I’d got totally distracted by this little piglet, and I wasn’t really sure how he’d fit in, or was I just procrastinating?

But I kept thinking about him, and I talked to Caroline [Bird] – who was mentoring me (thanks ACE funding) – and she was just like ‘carry on with Hugo’ – which was great because she gave me permission to fail really. So it might have all come to nothing – but I had this whole thing going where I imagined I was the only one in the world trying to find Hugo, and everyone thinks I really need to stop, and they don’t understand the big deal. And then, when it was all finished – that section – I realised that it had so much to do with other people just thinking things are no big deal, when it is a big deal, and not understanding – which speaks to conversations I’ve had with doctors and therapists. And also feeling unsupported if someone did something really ableist but no one seems to get the problem, and you’re just trying to get people to understand, but no one does, and you feel so lonely.

I love all that unconscious stuff that bubbles up. And it’s so surreal too, so I could really have fun with it while this quite intense meaning for me was going on underneath.

SB: I so agree about the unconscious – how it almost seems a co-writer in the whole process, in dialogue (but not always seeming so) with the conscious mind. And I empathise so much with what you say about ableism and the loneliness involved in not being seen, not being heard, not understood.

I love what you write here about imagining you were the only person in the world trying to find Hugo – I definitely felt that, as a reader, the humour in the poem brought me right on-board with you. I’ve found humour a way of making the difficult more relatable, enabling understories to surface in a ‘safe’ kind of way. Does this resonate with you? You mentioned earlier your use of a very dark humour and I’m curious about that.

HS: Yes, I definitely have a dark sense of humour. It really is how I get through a lot of the tough parts of life, and my closest friends are the same. But also I really like playing with dark and light in writing and performance, because as an audience member I love it when something trips me up. Like I think I’m watching something light-hearted and then BOOM it suddenly turns to something really heartfelt and before I know it my eyes are prickling with tears.

So, I often see if I can do that in some way, not that it always works! But also I think it’s good, as well, if I’m talking about being in hospital or disability or something like that: maybe sometimes, some people can sort of pity you, or just think ‘aw, poor thing’ – and that’s not only kind of annoying but it’s a tactic they use to distance themselves from connecting with the situation, and the underlying feeling. This then prevents them from feeling empathy, they just feel sympathy…

But if I’m making them laugh about something, they aren’t looking at me from a place of pity – we’re sharing in a feeling – which then means, if I take them round a bend to something more heartfelt, we’re then sharing in that too. And really that’s how progress is made – the first step is people have to truly understand the struggle.

A far shorter answer would be that I just love the buzz you get when you manage to make the audience laugh.

SB: That makes so much sense. I recently read a chapter on laughter in a book by neuroscientist Dachner Keltner, Born to be Good, where he cites this study which showed that ‘laughter builds cooperative bonds vital to group living’ (p.134). He also talks about how contagious laughter is – so if one person laughs, then more will laugh with them until, just as you say, there’s something being shared in. I agree about the buzz of making others laugh too, from when I’ve performed my own work on mental health – it signals being heard, seen, included in that moment I guess? 

I’m struck by what you say here about taking the reader ‘round a bend to something more heartfelt’. It reminds me of just how much surrealism – a method involving illogic and surprise – pervades The Underlook, as well as humour; and, like humour, it can generate empathy.

The momentary freedom garnered for the speaker of ‘Fever Dream’, for instance – out on that bike having endured being ‘pulled […] in’ to an eerie playhouse where there’s a menacing telly playing scenes of entrapment – comes as a relief. But then it’s too quickly taken away in one surreal move where an anonymous ‘someone else flicks me / into nothing to see what’s / on the other side’. This really affects me. Was this your intention, in your use of the surreal in this poem?

HS: That’s so interesting – to ask about intentions when it comes to surrealism – because my honest answer is, it doesn’t feel like an intentional thing. I don’t think ‘I’m going to use the surreal here’. It’s just where my head goes.

With this poem, I think the original thought was – while I was thinking about Hugo (again) – the idea of a piglet suckling on its mum; and I just thought of those air valves for inflatable things… maybe I thought of an inflatable pig first… and then it was a bouncy castle air valve… and this image of someone suckling on it.

I’m very aware that’s a big leap that makes no sense, but hey it was an image so I took it from there… and the whole thing just rolled out. I let the ‘movie’ play in my head and I wrote it down. So I guess it’s very visual.

I also, just as an add on, while talking more generally about surrealism, wanted to mention Frida Kahlo who, when asked if she thought she was a surrealist, said ‘I paint my own reality’. And I had this theory that non-disabled people at the time were like ‘wowww her art is so surreal’ – in her depiction of her surgeries, her recoveries, her struggles – but it’s what actually happened and what it felt like. And I do think there’s something there about how, for so many disabled people, there’s so many surreal things we go through… I don’t know, maybe I’m more inclined to go there in my thinking because I’ve been there so many times in reality, and there’s this fusion of the surreal and the real that happens in action.

SB: That’s a great quotation by Frida Kahlo. I’m glad you mentioned the highly-visual aspect of the poem because I was impressed, from very early on in the book, at the way the senses are used as a means of telling – such as that exceptional, synaesthetic line ‘She got drenched in blue staccato / at four in the morning’ at the beginning of ‘Crack’, which opens with an ambulance ride.

There are plenty of colour references as well as images that invite us to really look as in the ‘black and thick’ anaesthetic poured ‘into a see-through plastic bag’ in ‘Beep’. You can’t get any more direct than that; it can’t be turned away from. I’m reminded of what Brené Brown says about creativity itself – that it makes the invisible visible.

Helen, thank you so much for spending time in conversation with me and for being so generous in talking about your work.

HS: Love that Brené Brown quote! And that’s so kind – this whole conversation has been. Thank you.