In January I spent an afternoon with the talented poet, writer and photographer
Philip Sheridan http://www.philip-sheridan.com
Photograph by Fiona Thompson
Phil is the author of the immensely powerful and honest collection of poetry, Heart on the Mountain. In this blog he speaks of many aspects of his writing including how he came to write for others for the first time after a catastrophic and near death accident; of writing with truth and simplicity and about life, death and being a remembrancer.
Phil’s approach to writing raises huge questions about artifice and the crafting that goes into writing. He writes his poems almost exactly as they come to him and they have real literary merit. And if you strip them out of the context of his accident they stand up on their own as beautiful works of poetry.
Phil also let me choose 2 previously unpublished poems from his forthcoming collection of poetry and photographs ‘River as Blood’. I have selected ‘Sleep’ and ‘The Space Between’ and you can read them here for the first time.
I wrote in my first blog about finding treasure. Well, here it is in its best form -Phil’s own words.
In your first published work Heart on the Mountain you draw on your experience as a children’s therapist to use creative writing for self healing. How does that therapeutic writing process work?
“I worked as a therapist with grossly abused children for 10 years and used creative mediums; art, drama, writing. Nothing high falutin, but just different ways of trying to engage with really young people who aren’t going to be comfortable doing face to face type counselling work.
And I guess I’ve always been a creative person. And the most memorable thing I can think of is that at the age of 14 or so I’m walking the dogs with my dad who in his own inimitable way went, ‘You know what Phil, you’re just not like your brother or sister – I’ve got an elder brother and sister – you’re not academic’. He kind of does these backhanded compliments.
And then he went, ‘That doesn’t matter because you can do things creatively that I can’t dream of and that your brother and sister can’t do, and I really respect that’. Which was a massive thing for me. I’ve always felt more on that creative spectrum. That’s always where my heart’s been.
I’ve always had to make a living as well, we all have to make a living don’t we. We have to make compromises for our art unless we end up like George Orwell and die of tuberculosis in a damp garret somewhere – and I’m no George Orwell. My creativity has had to find its place while [I’ve been] earning a living in various ways, and one of those ways was working creatively with abused children. Perhaps not your normal route for creative work but a really enjoyable, fruitful way of working.
When I had my accident, it’s like anyone who has that hammer blow of a diagnosis of an illness or a serious accident that comes visiting upon you, basically a big red line is drawn over one part of your life. And the accident or illness says, ‘That’s the end of that chapter’. Whether you like it or not, everything you thought you knew or thought was important is no longer important. And there are no apologies from life for that either. When I talk about life in this sense I’m talking about life with a capital L. Life as a thing in itself.
And I had time while I recovered to just think and reflect and the way for me to do that at that time was to write stuff down. And I wrote Broken Spaces in an afternoon, in a Jack Kerouac stream of consciousness, and then I began writing poetry. I was writing before the accident but suddenly this felt like more of an imperative.
I was on the edge of the abyss and came back from it, and it was like so what are you going to do now, how are you going to live? Because everything changes. And I thought, I’m no longer going to kind of hide my light under a bushel.
Until that point I would never have done public speaking. I would never have had an interview, would never have talked about myself as a creative person. But now it was like, fuck it, if you don’t do something now, even if you just get one little thing out like that book, at least you’ll have got something out so that it’s there. Not to make money or anything like that but just to go, here it is, and be prepared to expose yourself.
And that was the process, recognising that getting it out and not keeping it in was better. I had all that kind of therapeutic, psychological theory that it’s better to express yourself, the anger, the fear, the sadness, the hurt, all of those elements – better to get it out than to keep it in. So that was another part of just being very raw and explicit about how I found things.”
Did it help?
“Yeah, I think so because it gets it out there.”
It must’ve been tough though
“It was a clear decision that I made which was to let family and friends know where I was.
And now I kind of thought, well I’ve got nothing to lose now. I’ve had every shred of dignity and sense of self stripped away through this experience of this accident, and the recovery from lots of operations. So I think there’s a poem in there [Heart on the Mountain], ‘Sifting’, which is that sense of everything being stripped away, because there are points in my journey when I think enough is enough I can’t take any more – but there’s always a bit more that can be erased.
That’s what real serious illness and real serious trauma does to people. It completely erases that sense of self. You get in touch with something a bit more essential, which is in those last few lines,
‘Through the mill,
Ground to dust,
Of who and what I had become
A finer thing remains.’
Part of my sense of coming out of the accident was getting in touch with that more essential thing which is basically trying to live a life without pretence or contrivance. Because we contrive so much don’t we. It just leaves you as a human body in a world with other human beings and you realise that everyone is basically struggling but everyone is putting on a decent face.
But when it comes down to it, Life, at any point, can come down and completely banjax you. So that’s kind of the gist of where this book came from. And where my sense of creativity comes from now. And maybe publish as opposed to just write and put it in a drawer somewhere. My point was just get it out there, just do something because if you don’t why are you doing it unless it’s for other people.
And I think another part to Life is helping other people by sharing what you’ve got in a way that is genuine and truthful, again it doesn’t have to be high falutin stuff.”
So, you weren’t writing consciously for an audience at the time?
“No, I was just writing this stuff down. A therapist who I saw some years after the accident said, when I gave her the beginnings of this book, those are like little windows for other people to peer into, to get an idea of where you’ve been.”
So, it was a completely different kind of communication for your friends and family.
“It was how do you take someone to the realm of the dead, which is where I felt I’d kind of gone to. And then come back from that, and been dragged back. I wrote a poem where I have a conversation with Charon of the River Styx and Acheron and the Lethe, of literally just disappearing into a black abyss. And I have a conversation with this dude and him basically going, ‘No, you’re going back’. And I have to wander my way back – it’s probably a big hallucination from lots of big meds and trauma and pain – and boink coming back into massive pain.
And it’s like oh bugger! I’d rather go back because there’s a point where death seems better than living, but you don’t get a choice. So, does this make sense for anyone? Maybe not. Is it just the delusions of someone in trauma? Well maybe.
But poetically, maybe it has something. If poetry and art do anything they’re meant to elucidate something about life and death and what that means to us as human beings.”
When I read them what struck me was that your poems seem so beautifully crafted. Did you work on that crafting during this process?
“Most of the poems are pretty much as they arrive, and I talk about poems as arriving. I’m not one of these people who sits down and works at writing, certainly not poetry. Poems for me are presences in themselves and I think of myself as the medium by which they come, so they come almost fully formed.
Sometimes, not in the schizophrenic sense, it’s almost like a line of voices come. And they come at the most bloody inconvenient times like 2:00 am in the morning.”
Do you have any kind of academic background in English?
“No, only what I did in school up until leaving at 18. Again this is something my dad did; he knew I enjoyed Arts and writing so he just kept buying me books about writing. And before I went travelling round the world he bought me Jack Kerouac, and George Orwell, and said,‘read these before you go because this will probably give you some insight.’
He was an incredibly prescient dude who I think nurtured what he respected because he wasn’t a creative person – I shouldn’t say that because everyone’s creative in one sense – but he wasn’t creative in this sense. He kept saying, throughout the time I knew him, ‘How do you get this? Where does it come from? I have no idea how you do what you do?’ And I’m like, I don’t know I’m just born this way. I don’t know, it’s just how I go about life. I just like looking at stuff and thinking about stuff, but not necessarily in an analytical way.
So things come. And for me the craft bit has been honing generally, it’s your sense of the craft of English, an understanding of English, trying to understand from other writers – Orwell would be a classic, Steinbeck, you know there’s so many other good writers out there – about what makes good English and it often comes down to quite simple prose. And it is very much about knowing what it is you want to say.”
I wanted to ask you about your poem ‘Rest’ where you write,
‘Wind blows through a hollow bone
White and dry,
Forever keens remembrance.’
“It’s an image of my body and skeleton in a desolate landscape with harsh wind blowing through, but I’m still present in some shape or form but it’s being completely reduced, absolute basics again no pretense whatsoever and just being completely open to the elements, the wind, rain and sun. And it’s that sense of keening in the Irish tradition; it’s a real from the guts expression. So, it has that pagan sense of not having any kind of artifice or religion or spirituality. Again accident and illness comes along and doesn’t give two hoots what you think about spirituality or what religion says. It doesn’t care at all.It’s just completely harsh, uncompromising. You are just a little thing. Like that very short, haiku type poem about standing at the edge.”
‘Standing at the edge
I cried for death,
But death did not come.
I wept for life
But life replied,
Why did you use poetry as a medium, was it a conscious choice?
“Because it’s like how on earth do you even begin to put that across in prose? Paraphrasing Heineken, poetry gets to the places prose can’t. Poetry can, more than any other written medium, give you that window.
It’s that sense of elemental, kind of shamanistic stuff – you’re put in a crucible and you’re boiled up in fire and water and everything is cooked away. Then, you’re polished, and polished, and polished, and a flower cracks the rock. Something incredibly soft and vulnerable can still come up through a rock and be present. That for me encompasses Life in that it’s incredibly hard and incredibly beautiful, and it’s always keeping those two things balanced.
I think there are some people for whom poetry is just an enigma…or strange and I can get that. I try and write in a way that is immediate and is about saying what I want to say without trying to be clever with metaphor or simile, or trying to be ‘writerly’. Some people write in a ‘writerly’ manner and I think English poetry is particularly prone to this.
One of the clear exercises I did from a writing point of view was, ‘what is it you want to say?’ Because it’s interesting when you work with people and they go, ‘what I want to say is this’, and they say it. And you go, ‘brilliant write that down’ and they go, ‘but I don’t know how to say it’ and I say, ‘you’ve just said what you want to say just write that down’, and they say, ‘but that’s far too simple’, and I say, ‘look it worked for Steinbeck, it worked for Virginia Woolf, it worked for Hemingway’.
I just think there’s too much tradition as an accretion that means that it becomes ‘writerly’ for the sake of trying to impress. So I like that directness of Walt Whitman and all of those American poets who kind of just threw the rule book consciously out of the window as a reaction to traditional English prose and poetry.
And everydayness is interesting. We don’t have to be talking about Greek myth and philosophy, again that’s just too ‘writerly’ and makes no sense to anyone. So let’s just talk about the everydayness of a cup of tea or going for a walk.
And I think American writers in particular and what Eastern European, Russian, and Estonian writers bring is, ‘just reveal the world’. Nothing clever about it, but actually it is incredibly clever because it’s this sense of reality, with no filter on reality. And use of metaphor and simile to reveal reality, not to obscure or obfuscate, but simply to present it in its reality, and not hide the hardness and the unpleasantness as well as also the loveliness of life.”
Does your photography influence the way you capture such strong images in writing on the page?
“I’ve this strong visual, kinaesthetic sense. I think in big, broad visual themes. I studied photography at school and freelanced as a photographer for a while and love photography. That’s my photograph [on the cover of Heart on the Mountain].
The writing is, in a sense, trying to give you a window or a sensorial snapshot that hopefully embraces more than just vision, but also sound and touch, trying to put in words something that is felt, and perhaps perceived. Not necessarily analysed, but just that sense of being in the world.
I’m always looking over my shoulder everyday. Like the old chap used to do when triumphant roman generals returned to Rome having been on a successful campaign and they had a remembrancer walk behind them going ‘memento mori’ – remember death. Romans had a good perspective, ‘you see all this, I’m here to tell you you’re going to die sometime’. I have that everyday I’m always Janus headed.
I’ve always got one eye looking back and going don’t ever forget where you’ve come from which is abject, absolute agony and horrendous pain. So I never forget where I’m coming from, at a moment’s notice everything that I’ve got back from that accident could go again.
Every morning I get up, it’s just one day at a time, it is that literal. It sounds so clichéd doesn’t it. You hear people who have survived significant trauma and illness say, ‘I just live one day at a time’, and it’s like I remember hearing that but not really getting it, and now I really get it. Think about everyday as your last day, therefore live it as well as you can which just generally means don’t be a shit. Because generally most of the time we’re just getting in the way of other people doing things. Just stop doing that. Let’s be nice and just help one another along the way because it’s bad enough as it is, without us making it more difficult for each other.
And that’s pretty much how I write. It’s a bit like me being on a soapbox but trying not to appear as being on a soapbox. It’s a bit like me just trying to be like that remembrancer, saying, ‘memento mori’. So it’s me trying to bring something of that sensibility of remembrance.”
And is River as Blood your next collection of poems a continuation of that?
“It is. Heart on the Mountain is very much centred round that survival experience of the accident. Heart on the Mountain is a concept that I picked up when I was travelling which is keep a big perspective. Don’t get lost in the details. You’ve got to pay attention to the details but ultimately you’ve got to realise that Life is bigger than you.
Heart on the Mountain is a living credo – it’s not just some ideas on things. It’s an incredibly subjective, absolute embodied experience, and that’s what I put down. River As Blood is about now moving away in one sense from the immediacy of the accident and more about broader themes but we still have this sense of Life with a big L. Life is something bigger than us and we should always remember that.
Another element of my writing is trying to write about Life and Death. That’s the why isn’t it – why do you write – it’s to go, it’s life and you’re gonna die at some point and pretty much everything that we do between means nothing at all, apart from the impression we make with nearest and dearest, and there you go, there’s not much more to it.
And yet it’s full of amazing stuff. Like architecture, and art, and the stuff that people do is mind blowing. Then there’s all the shit. We can do this, but we generally tend towards the shit. And if we could see the humour in that we would probably all be a lot better off.”
And as promised here are 2 new poems from Phil’s forthcoming collection of poetry and photographs River as Blood.
I’m not going to sleep
In heavy limbed slumber.
I’m going to dream.
To live a plurality of lives
The Space Between
This space between us,
This gap that cleaves us.
Parts and gathers
Flotsam and jetsam
A rise, a fall, again and again.
See the delicacy
With which we approach one another.
You from there
Me from here.
Things not said, or said.
Hopes and fears
I think I see it
A flash of light, yes!
A school of thoughts turning,
I think I see it now,
This sharing space