Wonderful New Poetry Collection
Today I’m playing host to fellow-Cinnamon author, Caroline Davies, whose wonderful collection of poetry ‘Convoy’ has just been published. I first met Caroline on a writing course in North Wales when she was working on the idea of writing some poems about her grandfather’s experiences in the Merchant Navy during the Second World War. Those early poems turned into a powerful testament to the skill and courage of those who served in the Malta convoys. The collection also tells the story of those left at home through the voice of a child – based on Caroline’s mother.
As Vanessa Gebbie says: Davies writes with great compassion and empathy, but not an ounce of sentimentality. Carefully researched, beautifully written, she has crafted a compelling and moving collection.
So, here we go with Caroline’s thoughts on my questions:
- Before we talk about the book itself, how do you feel now that ‘Convoy’ has been published and launched? Do you have a mixture of emotions?
The mix of emotions came just before the launch when I was fretting about how it would go whilst being pleased about being published. Of course the launch was marvellous with lots of people coming to support me and hear the men’s stories and I’m still euphoric about how well it went.
The word which people keep using about the book is honoured and that is certainly how I feel. I even had one of the RAF pilots write to me that he felt honoured at being included in the book whereas I considered it a privilege to be able to turn his experience into a poem. An American writing friend who commented with considerable insight on some of the poems in the final stages told me just before the launch ‘I’m honored to have been of any help at all’.
- ‘Convoy’ tells the story of the ships and the men who were part of the Malta convoys in WW2. We don’t tend to hear much about these convoys – what was your inspiration for choosing the subject?
There is not enough recognition given to any of the convoys, whether it’s the ones to Malta which I wrote about, or the Arctic convoys or those across the Atlantic. The initial inspiration was my own family history and wanting to find out more about my grandfather’s war, especially as he rarely spoke about it. As I did the research and discovered what men like him went through I became determined to re-tell their stories. The merchant seamen were as much on the front line as the fighter pilots and soldiers and over 35,000 of them were killed during the war.
- ‘Convoy’ also deals with the people who were left at home. How did you decide on the balance between the competing stories?
Inevitably the emphasis in the book is on the action if I can put it like that. Nonetheless the child’s perspective is important and she can be heard at crucial moments during the narrative. It wasn’t so much a question of balance as making sure she didn’t get drowned out.
- Was it difficult to find the different voices in the collection? And do you have a favourite voice?
One of the aspects of the research which helped tremendously was discovering a Channel 4 documentary of 1992 about the Operation Pedestal convoy which included interviews with many of the men who were still alive in the early 1990s. I didn’t want to end up with a generic merchant seaman ‘voice’ and of course in the interviews they all sound completely different.
It’s difficult to decide on a favourite especially as my mother and my grandfather are in the book! I did however develop a soft spot for Lieutenant Commander Roger Hill who became the natural choice to ‘narrate’ the final long poem about Operation Pedestal. He and his crew were responsible for rescuing the men from the Waimarama after she had been hit when the sea was ablaze with burning oil and fuel.
- A few questions about research: How much did you have to do? Was it difficult to find your material? I imagine there was a wealth of it – how on earth did you decide what you wanted to include?
There was plenty of general reading matter; maritime histories, memoirs, autobiographies and interview materials from the Imperial War Museum so I did amass lots of factual information about the various convoys and the situation on the island. The books I used are in the acknowledgements. The major difficulty that I came up against was finding first person accounts by the seamen themselves. It felt to me at one stage as if every RAF pilot who was stationed on the island had either written his own book or in the case of men like Beurling, had books written about them but I didn’t find any books written by the captains of the merchant ships. Most of them will have been like my grandfather; they came back from the war and they didn’t talk about it and they certainly didn’t write about it. Thankfully the Imperial War Museum has in previous years endeavoured to capture their testimonies and there is a series of books called ‘Lost Voices of…” where you can find merchant seamen, especially those involved in Operation Pedestal. This silence became one of the themes of the book with comments in poems about the impossibility of telling people back home what it was like.
- How long has it taken you to write ‘Convoy’
Rather to my surprise it hasn’t been as long as I thought. I wrote the first poem in November 2010 and handed over the manuscript to my publisher in the autumn of 2012. I did a lot of the writing in bursts whilst on writers’ retreats in Snowdonia.
- Many of the war poets we are familiar with are men who experienced war themselves. How difficult was it for you, as someone born after the war, and as a woman, to get to the heart of the men’s experience?
I certainly make no claims to be a war poet as I agree that is reserved for those who have been through it themselves. While I was reading the various accounts I was looking for moments when their guard would drop and I’d get a glimpse of a terrified young man who is too scared to bale out of his plane or to whom someone has just croaked an entreaty which will ‘remain with me always’. It’s for others to judge how close I’ve come to conveying their experience.
- I find the child’s voice unbearably poignant. I’m thinking of poems such as ‘Pink, then Scarlet’ which says so much, while appearing to be about a party dress. In fact, a lot of the power of the poetry in the collection comes from the apparent simplicity of the language. How difficult was this to achieve?
I’m so glad you liked the child’s voice. I tend to use simple language when I’m writing poems and for ages I worried that the poems were too plain and straight-forward. I did eventually manage to convince myself that my style of writing suited the subject matter and that poetic pyrotechnics were not called for.
- Any creative writing involves a huge amount of emotional input from the author, but I imagine this was a real labour of love for you. How do you feel now the journey – at least the writing part of it – is over? And what now? What are you working on now?
I’m not sure that I have entirely let go of this subject and as part of the preparations for the launch I’ve been posting additional information about the men on my blog. I’ve been telling myself that this is for marketing purposes but really it’s because I want to go on writing about them.
The next proper writing project is likely to involve the First World War. Thanks to Vanessa Gebbie, I and a group of other writers visited the battlefields last autumn in the company of a remarkable guide called Jeremy Banning who is involved in the La Boiselle project amongst other things. He has an almost uncanny ability to be able to put you into the footprints of the men who fought and were killed on the Somme and around Arras. We are going back in October.
Tags: Cinnamon Press, Poetry