Portrait by VIC (Cristina Ioana Vianu)
LIDIA VIANU -- MYRA SCHNEIDER
I passionately believe in books
Interview with MYRA SCHNEIDER (born 20 June 1936), British poet
LIDIA VIANU: I have read four volumes of poetry by you: Cathedral of Birds (1988), the Panic Bird (1998), Insisting on Yellow (2000) and Multiplying the Moon (2004). The first two did not show your private self, I thought you were one more poet who hid behind masks exclusively, and I feared I might never get to know the real you. When one subscribes to poetry, one makes a pact with the devil: give the readers your story (more or less encoded) or lose your audience. Many poets claim loudly they never talk about themselves. What I call Desperado poets is a category of authors who are not afraid of coming too close to the reader. Your latest two volumes made me feel I was holding your soul in my hands as I was reading them. And now the question: do you hide behind the poem or do you dare use it to confess?
MYRA SCHNEIDER: No, I do not hide behind the poem. Writing poetry is central to me, a way of making sense of life, of exploring meanings beneath the surface and recording what uplifts me. It matters to me that my writing is not purely a telling of my story. I want to make connections between my inner world and the world outside my self. I also find it potent to draw on personal material and present it in other voices or in story frames so a number of the poems I write may not appear to be about my life and feelings. An example of this is the two women characters, Rebecca and Jade, in the narrative poem, ‘The Waving Woman’ (in ‘The Panic Bird’). Although they are both imaginary characters, they also express different aspects of myself and Rebecca’s background is very similar to my own. There is a point in the poem where she reads a poster which says that constant criticism of children by parents is a serious form of cruelty. The incident is one that happened to me. The recognition was a revelation but I found the only way I could record my reactions to this was through a fictional character.
I am guessing that you read The Panic Bird before you read Insisting on Yellow, most of which is my selected poems from earlier books. I think if you had read The Panic Bird after Insisting on Yellow and maybe after my fourth collection, Crossing Point, you would have found the writing in it much more personal. It includes poems like ‘Leavetaking’ about my father’s death, ‘The Photograph’ which records my reactions to my parents some time after they died, and ‘Under’ about my strong feelings of anger. There is another issue. It was only when my parents died that I felt free to write much more fully about them as I didn’t want to hurt them. I think too I gradually gained the confidence to write much more openly about my feelings and personal experience.
LV. If in the first two volumes I mentioned your story is not obvious, it becomes very clear – in its major obsessions – in the latest two. I have this impression that, what plot is to a novelist, a poet’s life is to his poetry. No matter how hard he tries to take refuge in his imagination, he ends up betraying his soul. Which is as it should be, since poetry is the most personal of literary genres. Obviously, you do not aim at autobiography. But do you mind the reader’s finding out who you are in real life? Or do you strive for an impersonal face, a poetry of images which are generally aesthetic, never individually emotional?
MS. No, I am happy for the reader to find out who I am in real life. I certainly do not strive for an impersonal face. Images to work must be authentic, must connect to the writer and her/his individual emotion. I think authentic emotion creates its own potent imagery, imagery which comes from the centre of one’s being and which, if the poem works, can be meaningful to other individuals. The image of the panic bird, for example presented itself in writing when I was freely associating. I don’t know where it came from but it felt very powerful and it led to the poem ‘The Panic Bird’, a metaphorical way of writing about the fear I carried and the way I’d felt intimidated by my father. A number of people have told me how much they related to this image. This kind of response is very encouraging because it confirms that I am communicating with others.
LV. I understand you were born in a Jewish family, and your grandparents came from various parts of the world (Vienna, Poland, and where else?). I cannot help thinking of Ruth Fainlight, Elaine Feinstein, Dannie Abse, George Szirtes. They all have a continental (more or less remote) origin, yet feel perfectly at home in English letters. Displacement is the condition of a Desperado: all contemporary writers feel they once left a familiar space and are now more or less unprotected. But your Jewishness is not the reason of this displacement, as it is not with any of the other poets I have mentioned. Yet stories of World War II haunt you. You write a poem after Chagall, who, in my mind is the emblem of displacement and of the Jewish need to dream of escape, fly into freedom from deadly danger. Are you mainly English today? Have you lost all roots? Do they matter to the way you feel? Do you feel any different from the English because you were born into another race and were burdened with the memories of concentration camps and persecution?
MS. My father’s parents came from a village somewhere near Vitebsk where Chagall was born, the family of my mother’s father came from Eastern Europe, but her family on her mother’s side were Jews who had already been here for some generations. It is my husband, Erwin, who was born in Vienna and he came here at the age of eight. ‘Crossing Point’ is the story of how his mother brought him and his brother to England and in ‘Letter to Sujata Bhatt’ I have included a terrible fragment of family history which he’d been told. This was about his paternal grandmother being dragged away and his aunt, already disguised by dyeing her hair blonde, helplessly watching her mother being taken away. There’s also a mention of the fact that in disguise this aunt managed to survive the war. The poem ‘Apfelstrudel’ fills out Erwin’s own experience as a child in Vienna before the war and his coming to England. The other references in my poems to World War Two, apart from my own childhood memory in ‘Drawing a Banana’, relate to details I learnt when I was much older after the war.
I think of myself as English but I am very aware of coming from a Jewish background although I cannot subscribe to the Jewish religion or any other religion. I am a pantheist – feel the sacred in all forms of life and the connection between all forms of life. I think my poem, ‘Belonging’, the first poem in my first collection, ‘Fistful of Yellow Hope’ and also the first poem in ‘Insisting on Yellow’ gives the history of my sense of displacement. I grew up in Scotland in a small town where there was no Jewish community and I went to a large academy for children all ages. I felt a sense displacement at school partly because I was told by my parents that I was not a Christian, also because I was not Scottish , also because I was frightened of the older and often rough children. All my childhood and adolescence and even into adulthood I had a strong sense of being different and I longed to belong to something. The poem traces this. Gradually, with growing confidence, a sympathetic husband and child and my teaching of severely disabled adults, it dawned on me that many people felt themselves to be outsiders. This changed my perspective. I realized too that a writer in some sense needs to be an outsider.
I grew up during World War Two. My father as a scientist was involved in important and practical research (the end of the poem: ‘Soup and Slavery’ relates an important contribution he made) and yet in Scotland I was in many ways remote from the reality of war. Nevertheless it was something I knew was there all during my childhood. When the war ended I couldn’t remember a time when there hadn’t been war. What I learnt afterwards about concentration camps appalled me.
Erwin, my husband, came to England at the age of eight in March 1939, a few months before the war started. What I learnt about his family, what his mother went through to bring him and his brother to England, what I learnt about concentration camps and persecution, impelled me to write poems.
LV. I would not say you reveal much of your life story in your poems. There are many blanks in my image of you as a living being. Your paper self has a dominating father, many good friends – yet nothing is said about a mother, a husband, a grown up son (we meet him as a baby)... In spite of my ignorance, I feel I am sharing your life. When I read your lines, you give me the key and push me in. Not many poets dare do that. If I were to ask you to fill in these blanks and tell us more about Myra Schneider the young girl, the bride, the mother, about her mind and life story, would you? Who is the woman who created a world of fears (mainly that of death) and hopes (for companionship above all)?
MS. I have, in fact, written about my mother’s life. Since you sent me these questions I have e-mailed poems about her early life to you. I had a very uncomfortable relationship with her especially in my adolescence and I only occasionally felt close to her. She and my father had high expectations of me. She was bullied by him and didn’t, like so many women of her generation, fully realize her talents. Basically she was dissatisfied and this was reflected in the way she treated me though I am sure it wasn’t intentional. When she talked about her early life I felt closer to her and she knew before she died that I wanted to write something about her and was pleased I was writing notes about her childhood. To write about her I needed to write about her mother who died before I was born. My grandmother was hugely frustrated and unhappy and I saw how this affected my mother. When I wrote about these women (in the sequence ‘Mother and Daughter’*) I felt as if I was each of them and also as if I was writing on behalf of many other women. I felt a new sympathy for my mother who was very poorly mothered and at the same time I felt freed to write about how I had felt insufficiently mothered. This I have done in the first two sections of ‘Willows’* and I have written an overview which expresses my pain in not feeling close to my mother and how this goes back through the generations in the poem ‘Need’*, a poem I have found many women respond to.
Because of my upbringing I was lacking in confidence as a young girl and a bride and at first as a mother. In the first few years of our marriage my husband very much offered me the kind of anchorage and security that I hadn’t felt in childhood and adolescence. My parents were very critical and rather repressive and in adolescence I felt very threatened by the frequent friction between them. There is reference to this in poems like ‘The Photograph’. My son is a very lively character and I have a good relationship with him – most important we can talk freely and honestly. He is mad about food and cooking and works as a freelance computer consultant.
What else can I say about myself? I feel great joy in life, its preciousness, its colour. I am very close to a small number of people and I have a wide circle and network of friends and other people I care about. I love nature, I care passionately about the way we are treating this planet. Compassion and generosity are very important to me. A sense of humour matters to me too. I would like to think all this is reflected in my poetry.
(*The poems about my grandmother and one about my mother when she was child in ‘Mother and Daughter’ are in ‘Insisting on Yellow’, the whole sequence is in ‘Crossing Point’. ‘Willows’ is in ‘Exits and ‘Insisting on Yellow’. ‘Need’ is in ‘The Panic Bird’ and ‘Insisting on Yellow’).
LV. You have defeated breast cancer. Your poems on that topic are both strong and matter of fact. Did this terrible experience modify your sensibility and your poems? It seems to me it brought more sincerity and – unbelievably true – more serenity to your texts. Am I wrong?
MS. I am interested by your reaction and glad you find the poems strong. What I would say is that there is a special kind of intensity and directness in many of the cancer poems, a holding onto hope, a release of feelings, a determination. In poems like ‘Today There Is Time,’ ‘The Camellias’ and ‘Lavender’ and one or two of the others I think I created for myself a serenity which helped to support me.
LV. In I Have Never Milked a Camel you see yourself as ‘trying to knit words/ into a poem’. The metaphor suggests painful progress from the blank page to the poem. Do you write easily? Do poems ever come out of the blue?
MS. For me ‘the journey’ in writing a poem is different for every poem and takes one in surprising and exciting directions. I love writing. It is meat and drink to me. I need to write all the time. I also think the process of writing a poem is a complex one that shouldn’t be hurried. Quite often I get an idea for a poem out of the blue. Occasionally I develop the finished poem quickly but far more often I go through a much longer process, a process which may at times be difficult and taxing. Often I spend days gathering notes, doing different pieces of writing, incubating ideas, discovering a poetic form for the poem. Sometimes I keep an initial idea for months or much longer before I start working on it. Sometimes I come back to material which hasn’t become a poem or has been developed into a poem which I wasn’t satisfied with. Today I started work again on a poem I wrote seven years ago. I knew I needed to develop it into something much longer and how I should approach it has gradually become clear to me over the last few months.
LV. In Tintern (with its Wordsworthian sonority of nostalgia and sad recollection) you write:
in my tormented teens. By the brick school
clothed in sun, I struggled to hide
my aching isolation...
The sun is an obsession with you, and you very often see it going out in the near future (I am talking about your latest volumes). Solitude is the luxury of the strong. You are a strong person and you write forcefully, just as you live, I suspect. But strength does not alleviate sadness. Your isolation is ‘aching’. Life is no picnic in your lines. It is often felt as a burden. I just wonder, is poetry escape or therapy in your case? Are you running away from your life by writing verse, or are you trying to fix it in some hidden way?
MS. I often felt isolated, unhappy and troubled in my teenage years and I found life difficult in many ways until I was over thirty. Even so I often experienced joy and happiness in different ways during this time. Since then I’ve gained greater understanding of my earlier life and I’ve gradually found resources to deal with the feelings left over from my childhood and adolescence. I’ve also made many friends and had much satisfaction in writing and being published so I have found much more happiness in life. I rarely feel isolated now. I still find life difficult in some ways – I’m sure most people do. I passionately believe writing and poetry (reading it as well as writing it) can be supportive and help one make sense of life. In some ways writing was an escape from my family when I was an unhappy teenager but in the end it has helped me find and fulfil myself.
LV. In Leavetaking you talk about
that miracle each person carries,
a delicate globe lit
by intricate, unseen filaments
which is so suddenly put out,
which is totally
Your poetry is a trip into a number of lives. Some imaginary, some real, I suppose. Do you ever write about totally imaginary beings? Have you ever attempted to create this ‘miracle’ – a life story born out of your own mind – in your poems?
MS. The people who appear in my narrative poems are in the main my own creations. The only one who has a very close connection with a real person is Surinder, the disabled woman who appears in The Waving Woman (‘The Panic Bird’). She is closely modelled on a client I worked with. The other people have some characteristics I know about or they may have been through experiences I know about directly or indirectly but they are all individuals I have invented. William in Voicebox is to some extent a composite of different young men I have worked with and his mother is something of a composite too but they are both my own creations and the events in both these long narratives are fictional. The characters in Orpheus in the Underground have, of course, a connection with the original Greek myth but they are also individuals I have created. Interestingly the framework of the myth gave me confidence to include material about drug-taking which I don’t think I’d have done without the support of a known story.
My first published work was novels for children and teenagers – this was back in the late 1970s. Writing these novels gave me a great interest in narrative and I love using it in poetry. It offers me the chance to get out of my own head and into the heads of other people, to write from different perspectives, to use language differently. It also gives me a frame in which to tackle subject matter in a way I simply couldn’t do in my own voice. This extends to short narratives such as The Beanstalk and Jack which for me was a satirical and dramatic way to write about the genetic modification of plants. Narrative poetry enables me to write beyond my personal material and yet to write with immediacy. It has also allowed me sometimes, as I’ve mentioned before, to present personal material in a different context.
LV. The Cave is a poem written after your battle with breast cancer. You say there, ‘I’ve become a deeper me.’ It just occurs to me, since we are very close to Harold Pinter’s being awarded the Nobel Prize, that he also struggled with cancer and made a literary experience of that. This is new territory for literature. Is it a theme for you, or just a means to finding new depth to poetry?
MS. I wrote about my experience of cancer both in my journal and in poems as a necessity. It was a way of supporting myself through a frightening and weakening experience. Enduring the illness and the exhausting and unpleasant treatments took me into a new dimension, gave me a new perspective and insights about life. The strength that writing gave me was the most important thing though. I was amazed by the way it carried me through and allowed me to step outside my illness, to transform a negative into a positive. It is because I believe writing of all kinds can be so powerful that I wrote my book, Writing My Way Through Cancer. I thought others might find it helpful in their lives to see how potent writing can be in a time of great difficulty. The book lets the reader into my life, especially my writing life for a year and it includes my poem notes and poems as well as a section of therapeutic writing suggestions.
LV. In When It’s All Over you mention your ‘rope of words.’ You seem to breathe through verse. And yet your also have a profession, which has to do with the severely handicapped. You try to help them by means of writing. What exactly is it you do? How?
MS. I taught communication and literacy to severely disabled adults part-time in a day centre for twenty-six years. All the people I worked with had severe physical disabilities. In most cases they had serious learning difficulties and quite often some kind of emotional problem. Every person was quite different and I had to work out a programme to suit each individual. Four of the people I worked with were profoundly deaf and had reached adulthood without any formal means of communication. Some could read or write a few words. Two could identify no words or letters at all. I learnt a simple sign language myself and taught them with the help of pictures to make signs and to recognize letters and words. This process is described in the third section of ‘Tongue’. The client, Muris, who had cerebral palsy, had difficulty in moving his arms and legs (which made it difficult for him to sign). However, he was very motivated and he managed to learn about 200 words and to read simple material including stories, also to write about what he did or felt and to make up simple stories. His deafness was a result of cerebral palsy.
Other clients who had learning difficulties learnt to read more fluently and to express themselves and their feelings better. I also made some headway in teaching a physically disabled man who was almost blind. I taught him reading and writing by using large braille blocks and he was given extra help by the therapist in the computer department who had a computer specially adapted for him. I worked too with people who had had strokes and were confused. Again I used photographs and pictures to help me. These clients learnt to focus and recognize. Some who’d been less damaged by a stroke made progress in regaining writing and reading skills. Sometimes I worked with cerebral palsy clients who showed considerable signs of intelligence but who could not speak or whose speech could not be understood. Computers and the help of the therapist in the computer department were invaluable in helping these people communicate. The teaching was very demanding but it was also very rewarding and it made me look at language from a different perspective.
LV. Voice Box is a sequence of monologues which join in the story of a handicapped boy, who handles the computer but can hardly talk to anyone and make himself understood. That poem seems to spring out of your direct experience with such human beings. Does it?
MS. Yes, I could not have written about William, who is key to Voice Box, unless I had direct knowledge of people in his position. I said earlier the characters in my narrative poems are imaginary but, of course, I needed to be in a position to know what it would be realistic to imagine in writing about a young man in William’s position.
LV. In the above mentioned poem, a hero, Tom, is in the library and wonders if
we’re moving into a brave new
bookless world whose printed words
only tremble on screens and disappear
the instant the delete button’s pressed?
On the other hand, William, the handicapped main hero, is so happy with his computer and ‘telly’... How do you, the author, feel about what seems the defeat of paper and the victory of the screen? Is it a loss to words? Will literature die because of the screen (whether computer, TV, or any other virtual transfer of the word elsewhere from the written page)? Do you have the nostalgia of the book as an art object?
MS. The computer with the facilities of word-processing, e-mailing and the internet gives us quick access to information and further opportunities to communicate. It has, of course, revolutionized our lives in the last few years. It actually saves the wasteful use of paper. I do not at all believe that books/literature will die. As far as I know more books than ever are being published. Only yesterday I read in an article about this. I don’t believe that people like reading long texts at the computer. I certainly don’t. What is unfortunate is that hyping by publishers, bookshops and the media means that a very small number of books sell in huge quantities and many of the rest get limited attention. Television is probably more to blame than computers for taking people away from books. On the other hand it can also bring people to books. Recently Bleak House by Charles Dickens was adapted for the screen in Britain and the sales of this book went up 150%! I passionately believe in books and encouraging the reading of books and would see that as important in my role as a poetry and creative writing tutor.
LV. Many of your poems invoke the nightmare of Jewish persecution in Germany and Vienna. You follow your father, you mention cousins and aunts. As I have already mentioned, I cannot help thinking of other English-Jewish writers I have interviewed: Ruth Fainlight, Dannie Abse, Elaine Feinstein, George Szirtes, Eva Salzman, Leah Fritz... Ruth, Leah and Eva were born in New York. George was born in Hungary. Dannie Abse and Elaine were born in London, I think. Do you feel you have anything in common with them? Is Jewishness a passport to being a citizen of the globe and of all literatures, in your opinion?
MS. I’ve explained that my poems which refer to persecution of the Jews relate to my husband’s family. No one in my own family was persecuted. I have had some contact with the first four of the Jewish writers you mention above – in particular Ruth Fainlight and Dannie Abse, both of whom I like both as writers and people. I also greatly like the poetry of Elaine Feinstein and George Szirtes. What I have in common with them is a cultural background. I think Jewishness would be likely to make people, writers look beyond the culture of the country they live in and in that sense make them more globally aware.
LV. In Watermelon we can read:
I suddenly know
God is not a separate being who demands obedience
and belief but the energy of buds breaking into a crown
of leaves, insects laying eggs, humans inventing...
This pantheism reminds me of romanticism, but also of the Bible. Are you a religious person? I am asking you this because I have often felt that poetry was your religion. Is that very wrong?
MS. I don’t think of myself as a religious person although I like aspects of some religions there are none I feel in total sympathy with and unfortunately I feel much harm is done in the world in the name of religion. Spiritual life and writing is deeply important to me and my belief is a pantheistic one. Poetry is the medium in which I can express my spirituality so I understand why you feel that poetry is my religion.
LV. In the Beginning is a poem about the inconceivable first moment of the universe:
at the dark and shapelessness before the beginning,
the mystery of something grown out of nothing,
the changes that led to the kickstart moment
when space ballooned and time began.
Your poetry is supported by a constantly recurring image of a universal pattern, which you can trace in everything. If you believe in anything, I feel it is in your own power to understand this universe via poetry. What exactly does poetry mean to your personal life?
MS. I had never thought of it like this but poetry is my way of trying to explore and find meanings in the universe. In the end the universe is a mystery but it is human nature and a human need to try and look into this mystery. Poetry is crucial to me, my way of life and I need to read it as well as write it. If I do not write nearly every day I feel something is missing. Even when I go away on holiday a point comes when I miss poetry.
LV. Would you mind telling the readers of this interview the essential moments of your life, your human story – which often peeps from your verse, probably? Or does it not?
MS. There are many details from my life story in my poetry – in fact it is steeped in what matters to me in life. I have already described some central aspects of my life. Here are some more details about my life and work.
I was born in
1936 in North London and grew up in Gourock on the West coast of Scotland,
South London and Chichester, West Sussex. I studied English at London University
and have lived in London ever since. I started writing stories, poems and plays
as a child and from the age of nine I have been a compulsive writer. I married
Erwin, a computer consultant in 1963 and we have one son, Ben, who also works in
the computer industry.
When I left college at the beginning of the 1960s I found the poetry scene unsympathetic. For several years I mainly wrote fiction and my first published book was a novel for children called Marigold's Monster (Heinemann 1976). This was followed by two novels for teenagers: If Only I could Walk and Will The Real Pete Roberts Stand Up. Towards the end of the Seventies I turned to poetry again and soon after my first collection of poetry was published in 1984 I knew I wanted to concentrate on writing poetry. I started teaching creative writing in 1988 and still teach it, mainly to advanced writers. I love teaching of all kinds by the way. It is very satisfying to see people developing their work and themselves. I have been a core tutor for the Poetry School since Mimi Khalvati founded it in the late 1990s.
I am also consultant to the Second Light Network of women poets. In the West women now have much more equality and in the wake of this women poets have begun to emerge but there is still a way to go and it is important to me to support and encourage women poets. I have been involved in co-editing three anthologies of women’s poetry and I am currently engaged on a very exciting project: co-editing Images of Women, an anthology of poetry by women which looks at women from many different angles. This is due to be published in the autumn of 2006.
LV. You dedicate one poem to ‘Mimi’ – whom I suspected to be Mimi Khalvati. If so, is she a friend? You have in common with her a halo of emotion, which hovers above all your lines. She was born an Arab, but brought up in England. She belongs to English letters. So do you. Yet you are both haunted by displacement. Where do you feel at home?
MS. Yes, Mimi Khalvati is a close friend of mine and she is the person the poem is dedicated to. I feel at home in England. My sense of displacement was caused by living in different places in Britain during my childhood and adolescence. Also I felt I was different because I knew no other Jewish children and because of my upbringing.
LV. One poem is dedicated to Chagall. What is strange is that cancer is not a nightmare to you, not as much as the recent history of your family. In between these two ordeals, you face cancer/your own being with courage and only complain of the fate of the tribe. You feel strong when you have to save your body, but powerless in front of history. If you could choose to start life all over again, where and when would you like to be born?
MS. Cancer was a nightmare. The diagnosis was a terrible shock, the treatment an ordeal. However, once I had got over the initial shock the resources I’d built up over the years helped me cope. Writing my journal and writing poetry was an important way of combatting the illness and as I said earlier the experience gave me new perceptions. It was very fulfilling to write about it.
It was more difficult to deal with my relationship with each of my parents and the insecurities I was left with after my upbringing. There were high expectations of my academic abilities and the work I would do afterwards yet I was also fed with the idea that as a woman I did not exist in my own right. This mixture of messages made me feel tense and in total denigrated.
If I was to start my life again I would like to have been born in England about thirty years later at a time when there was much more recognition that women should live their own lives. I am very conscious of the fact that women are still emerging in the West and that in many parts of the world they live an existence in which they have few rights or none at all.
LV. What excites you most about writing a poem?
MS. It is marvellous when I have an initial idea or image and this starts to grow with words, images and more ideas, also when I look at all the notes I have gathered together and I begin to see the shape of the poem and the form it will take. It is only when a form is found that there is poem. It is also exciting when I feel confident I am creating something which convinces me, something which has power. It excites me too to write poems which are very different from each other – intense lyrics, poems exploring ideas, poems exploring my life and my own feelings directly, poems which look at the world, poems with humour and poems, long or short, in a narrative frame. Most exciting of all is the journey of the poem: the unexpected directions and explorations. And the journey taken in one poem has an effect on journeys one will take in future poems.
14 January 2006