Kay Syrad in dialogue with Clare Best about Clare’s poetry publication, CELL – poem by Clare Best, art by Michaela Ridgway, design by Katy Mawhood

CELL is a twelve-part poem, accompanied by five drawings, based on the experience of Christine Carpenter, a young anchoress who spent more than a thousand days enclosed in a cell next to a church wall in the 14th century.

KS: Getting ready to read CELL, I found myself acting rather ritualistically: I cleared the table, placed the pamphlet parallel to the edge of the table, carefully removed the cellophane wrapper, studied the cover and the printed burgundy paper sleeve, eased off the sleeve and finally held the pamphlet in my two hands. Standing up throughout, I read the poem until I came to the point where, following the diagram, I was to unfold the pages in a way that creates a paper ‘cell’. There could be no rush.

I think this is the closest I have come to genuinely embodied poetry: knowing there is a potential space within the form, waiting for it, creating it, reading the poetry within that confined space, unfolding the structure to a flat sheet and then refolding it into its pamphlet form – these experiences seem to me quite as emotionally significant as reading the poem. Would you agree?

CB: With CELL, I wanted the reader’s experience of content and physical form to be especially closely bound.

To write the poem, I’d researched what happens to the human body and mind in situations of extreme privation such as enclosure in a basic cell over this kind of period. I wanted to emphasise the changes Christine would have lived through by achieving a physical form for the work which is several different things at once (pamphlet, paper sculpture, flat printed sheet) and which suggests alternations between different states.

The object’s form is designed to mirror the unfolding drama described in the poetry and the drawings. Early sections of the poem can be read by turning the pages, so far so relatively normal. Then the reader discovers the ‘cell’. Next they must open the entire sheet – making the ‘cell’ vanish and freeing its imagined prisoner – in order to find and read the last section of the poem. Finally, refolding the sheet into a pamphlet is like re-enclosing Christine or even burying her. Throughout, the reader is in some way complicit in the events of the poem simply by carrying out the act of reading.

A little more on the subject of burial, since we’re thinking about ritual. It was usual for the burial service to be read out while an anchorite or anchoress was walled up – in going into the cell, the person was seen to be dying to the world. In CELL, the words of the burial service appear alongside the poem and the ritual of burial is echoed over and over again for the reader as it would have echoed in Christine’s head from the first day of her incarceration.

KS: Your crystal clear, unflinching poem lives and breathes not only the pain of its subject, Christine Carpenter, but her heart-breaking effort to justify her pain – and in this way the poem speaks to every woman who knows the cultural and mortal price of imagined or projected ‘sin’:

‘How shall I/understand/both sense/ and nonsense […]?'(CCLXI)

‘bear me on your shoulder/ to the cell’ (MCXXI).

Clare, what precipitated the writing of CELL?

CB: I’d started thinking about the themes in CELL when I spent some intense weeks working with male life prisoners, witnessing the damage that separation and isolation can do to a person. And I know a lot, personally, about the damage inflicted on the self by shame. Finding and retelling Christine’s story presented an opportunity to write in a focused way about the double prison of isolation and shame.

CELL evolved slowly over a number of years when I was working on other poems and sequences and also on a prose memoir which explores relationships between daughter and father, daughter and mother. Christine’s mother plays an important role in CELL, although we never hear her voice. There are also male figures in the poem – the priest/father figure whom Christine watches through her cell window, the real or remembered or imagined Lucifer/rapist, and the Bishop. The mother’s absence, together with the ambiguous overlapping presences of these males, points to some essential but unspoken truth about Christine’s vulnerability. Today we would probably say that she was acting out a traumatic past. I am interested in how the ‘choice’ of extreme deprivation (still) can be framed as religious cleansing.

But in some ways I wrote CELL blind and it wasn’t until the poem was almost complete that I realised fully what it was about.

KS: The pen and charcoal drawings by Michaela Ridgway (who is herself a poet) also embody a claustrophobic intensity in the way they refuse to stay within their borders, at once hiding and exposing a female body that is tender and fierce, layered, smudged (almost erased), dark or clear. Can you tell us how this extremely effective collaboration began and how it developed into what we see here?

CB: Ah, the power of Facebook! I was finishing the umpteenth draft of CELL and beginning to think about how to send it out into the world, when I saw Michaela’s powerful and enigmatic drawings of female nudes which she was posting on Facebook. I contacted her to ask if she might be interested in collaborating. To my delight she said yes. I sent her the text of CELL to read. We met at a café and talked at length. Michaela completely ‘got’ the poem and the layers of it, plus she agreed with my aim of wanting poem and art to work independently and together – this was no illustration task. It was an exciting moment on both sides.

Over a period of weeks we looked at drawings Michaela had already done and realised that a good number worked with the poem. She was making new drawings all the time and shared these as they came. We talked about how we wanted words and images to complement each other, moods and feelings to bounce around between them. From this point, our work was to whittle down the choice of drawings, discover how to sit the images within or across the confines of rectangular spaces, and figure out where to place them in relation to the poetry in order to imply both incarceration and breakout, confinement and rebellion, death and life. We also wanted some significant blank space – with only a single folding sheet this was challenging, but we managed it!

At the same time that Michaela and I were thinking about all this, we were consulting the designer Katy Mawhood, whom I had commissioned. Katy had excellent ideas for placing Michaela’s art and my words in the context of the particular pamphlet form we had decided on. For instance, Katy’s suggestion for the lettering on the cover, where the C of CELL appears like a cap over the neck of a headless female figure, was daring. Michaela loved it and so did I. In fact, that C and the entire cover design encapsulate the power of word and image working in close harness.

It’s been a fantastically enjoyable collaboration because the whole, the end result, really is more than the sum of the parts.

KS: Thank you, Clare.

 

This article was first published in The Frogmore Papers.