Suzanne Conway shares a poem, and talks with Charlotte about her love for running, and for writing, and what qualities the two share.
Winter Training It’s so cold my teeth ache and I’m tense, reluctant to climb out of my clothes. I can see your breath disappearing as you stretch and jump up and down on your toes. You say: If you were a stripper by the time you undress everyone will have gone home. But tonight it’s just us surging across a field we can barely see, running into a wall of wind, hail tapping our shoulders like someone wanting attention, wanting to share a thought, just as I want to tell you: these nights with your strides beside me are the first time I’ve wanted for nothing. Suzanne Conway, published first in The Result Is What You See Today: Poems about Running, Smith|Doorstop, October 2019.
Charlotte Gann: This is such a stark poem, Suzanne, in a way. The title captures that – ‘Winter Training’ – and so it continues, with its sparse elements: the cold, just the two figures. And the vulnerability. It’s a wonderful ending: the thought the ‘I’ wants to share with the ‘you’ of this poem – that this is ‘the first time / I’ve wanted for nothing’. But the exposure of being in that position. It’s told us the speaker has always wanted for something. And that, in itself, spells vulnerability.
There’s a power imbalance here too – we’re given just enough information to sense the ‘you’ may be older and a coach. The stripper comment intimates that, for me. It seems so out of place, out of context, inappropriate – of another time? And manipulative? That idea of a stripper stripping too slowly to hold her audience’s attention. It’s subtly undermining. Especially so near that image of the ‘hail tapping our shoulders / like someone wanting attention’. The one thing I really sense is that this speaker is ‘someone wanting attention’, I think.
I like poems with landscapes in them that are metaphorically aligned with the emotion of the poem. This seems to me to be one. With its stark, lonely, isolated, cold, (hot) atmosphere. It’s left on a cliff edge – of vulnerability.
Despite the thrill of the racing through ‘these nights’, it suggests (to me) the cost may be high?
Suzanne Conway: That’s interesting: what you say about the cost being high. I joined a running club when I was eleven and won all my races. My coach said, ‘You run as though your life depends on it.’ In a way I think he was right.
It’s funny what you say about it being ’stark’; I’ve always found peace in those weather-worn places where I can lose myself in the rhythms of my body. I find momentum (and stillness) meditative. I’ve always had this propulsion towards fortitude and survival; a need to be strong and to be able to run. My early years taught me that there isn’t anyone to protect you when you really need it; a part of me – the not fully conscious part unless I think deeply about it as I am now – has been in training ever since. So, the poem is about how vulnerability can be transformed into strength.
I learned to harness my power into physical activity and I found it cleansed and clarified. Poems enable a similar clarification, and the absorption of writing a poem, of creating, is similar to the meditative state I enter into when I run, cycle or swim. We are never fully aware of our own vulnerability at the time and despite learning at a young age that bad things happen: I wanted to trust. The stripper line was an indicator of what was on my coach’s mind. Of course, I was completely oblivious and just wanted to run. I wanted to be the best female 800m runner the world had ever seen. The simplicity of running across a field in the dark as fast as I could over and over again gave me peace and it made me feel I was prepared for anything. I used to sit in freezing baths (before it was the done thing) before races; psychologically I told myself if I could sit in perishingly cold water for twenty minutes I would win my race the next day. It was actually a brilliant thing to do for my muscles and I did win most of the time but I was always testing myself into a self-belief and confidence I didn’t really have. Running fostered a resilience; a quiet determination.
What do you mean by ‘hot atmosphere’?
CG: Ah, this is so interesting, and beautifully expressed, Suzanne: thank you. So, I’m misreading your poem in a way. Your wanting for nothing when with him is about the running, not the running with the companion? You capture so beautifully the feeling of wellbeing found in the running, and I’m intrigued by the idea that being on guard in a sense, and self-sufficient and flying like the wind can be what makes a person feel most safe? The being on and with earth, too, perhaps: in touch with the soft animal of our bodies (to misquote Mary Oliver)?
I put that adjective ‘hot’ in because I read a fierce attachment with the coach, not just with the running. I may have put that in myself.
I also really like the parallel you draw between running and writing your poetry. I agree completely: that meditative state we can get in, honing and honing. And I’m caught by your idea of wanting to trust. That resonates strongly with me too: is there a reader we’re writing to we trust will receive and care about our meaning? Is there, for you?
SC: It’s definitely about the running but the coach restored her faith for a while. It’s nourishing to find someone who believes enough in your abilities to give up their time for a common purpose; someone who will literally run beside you every step of the way – strides in unison. Running was pure and safe so it felt particularly cruel for it to be ruined.
Those behaviours stem from fear, a constant preparation to be strong enough for when bad things happen which they inevitably will. I’m an optimist by nature but the unconscious is clever at ensuring survival. When I was incapacitated by a car accident in 2004 I realised how vital my physicality was to my sense of preservation.
I’m glad you asked me about trust and readers: it made me realise writing is a place of safety for me; somewhere I can be wholly myself and uninhibited by the multitudes crowding in. For someone who has never felt safe and has found (despite wanting to believe otherwise) that ‘hell is [some] other people’, poetry provides a clean space. In writing I trust myself: that I can fall into the unconscious and look into those buried places and return intact – unsettled maybe, but intact.
I don’t write with anyone in mind; I have faith in my voice and how people receive it is beyond my control and not really a concern. I need to be free from any sense of judgement; there’s enough of that in real life. Creating is an escape – an act of discovery. A letting go. I’m learning the art of gentle, patient excavation without the need for detonation. Writing is similar to running and meditation: they all can take you to uncomfortable places but can also bring a clarity and peace. That’s how it is for me. To paraphrase John Fuller, ‘what all poetry should be [is] the surprising and beautiful organisation of things that life has disorganised.’
Ah, Mary Oliver’s ‘Wild Geese’. The opening sums it up. She gives us permission to be ourselves without apology:
You do not have to be good.from ‘Wild Geese’, Mary Oliver (Staying Alive, Bloodaxe, 2002)
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
CG: Ah, yes. I feel the same – when I’m lost in the working (not ‘lost’, therefore, at all!), dipped into the unconscious, and in dialogue with myself (selves). I love that John Fuller quotation.
And yes, can’t it feel wonderful when someone runs beside you – although I’m increasingly believing it’s only we ourselves who can really do that. Don’t you think?
Others run near, or pass, or we pass them and wave, or they may be running in parallel for a while, and then fall away – or we do.
I think I yearned for a long time for intensity of connection – but this also brought me trouble. Now I’m much more interested in a wealth or spread of really good, unpressured connection, and in quietly observing as allies inevitably and necessarily come and go.
And yes, poetry is a refuge from the hell of other people – or the hell of the clamour and misunderstandings and projections! And Mary Oliver’s poem gives us permission there. (I wrote about ‘Wild Geese’ in a blogpost, when ‘introducing’ my last collection.)
I’m interested in your excavation without detonation. A kind of gentle, preserving, noticing, observing work? Not an attack, or really about blame?
If I’ve understood you properly, I feel the same. Writing is gentle for me. Quiet. A process, indeed, of trusting the quiet – as I often think of it, when I find myself with a pocket of the kind of space I need.
Even writing about the most painful experiences is a quiet, gentle, careful, loving process. It’s like I’m giving myself, and particularly my younger selves, the quiet attention I lacked and needed – at last. And making more sense of things, as I go. Is this the same for you?
SC: Yes, absolutely – ultimately we’re alone. It’s wise to cultivate a sanctuary within ourselves. That’s why I find peace in solitary activities: I no longer enjoy running or cycling with anyone else. I find all I want is to lose myself in breath and rhythm. The cadence of walking, swimming and cycling is similar to the rhythms of poetry. Lines often come to me on long bicycle rides along the country lanes and I repeat them over and over so I can write them down when I get home. I’ve always loved solitude.
I like that: an attention to neglected parts and selves. I suppose it is: an unearthing. I’ve learned to be less visceral. The poetry I admire, such as Edward Thomas’s, has a subtlety, a ‘tantalizing vagueness’ to which Robert Frost felt all poems should aspire (‘Robert Frost to Louis Untermeyer’, 1 January 1916, Selected Letters of Robert Frost, p.199 – see Other Resources).
It’s definitely not about blame for me; if anything it’s more about clarity and compassion. Detonation does more damage whereas a poet-archaeologist carefully brushes away earth and preserves what remains with love. Of course, all manner of experiences and emotions can surface while digging with the pen – as Seamus Heaney knew:
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.from ‘Digging’, Seamus Heaney
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.
We can’t set off knowing what we’ll find or expecting a certain understanding. We have to trick ourselves into those unlit places but the main thing is to step into them open and unafraid. A poet-archeologist seems too neat when creating is more primordial. It’s dirty work becoming clean. A poet needs to be prepared to get into the ground, bore tunnels, explore underground caverns, and get soil in their hair and under their nails.
CG: Yes, I get this, and respond to it. Clarity and compassion – and preserving with love. And yes, it’s deep work.
By the way, I do the same as you on my regular walks – stomps over the Downs. Repeat lines over and over, and rework them until I’m happy.
Thank you, Suzanne – I’ve really appreciated this opportunity to compare notes.