Nature and Recovery in Poetry: Traumatropic Heart by Susan Darlington

Nov 5, 2021 | Reviews

The theme of poetry continues this time round with a vibrant and highly contrasting collection from Susan Darlington. Taking inspiration from nature, she explores a range of themes from loss to hope, in a beautifully lilting style.

Even the title is intriguing – Traumatopic Heart. I didn’t know what traumatropism was or how it related to her poems. Read on to find out the inspiration behind the poems, Susan’s route to publication and the advice that has helped her most in her writing career. Enjoy!

Your poetry collection is lovely! I particularly like the way you’ve woven so much natural imagery and ideas into your pieces. Why is this something that comes up so often in your poetry and are you drawn to natural places for inspiration?

Thank you! I’m so pleased you like my collection and have picked up on the natural imagery and ideas within the pieces.

I’ve had an affinity with the natural world for as long as I remember. The childhood books I read were populated by talking animals and growing up in an area with plenty of green space I was surrounded from a young age by wildlife, including the various injured birds and mice that we put in a shoebox and tried to save.

The vulnerability and beauty of nature is reflected in the collection

Photo credit: Gary Brightbart

Escaping into that world gives me space to think. If I’m stressed or need to untangle some thoughts I’ll go for a walk and being surrounded by trees and streams almost always soothes my mind and gives me clarity, no matter how temporary.

In common with many people, walks during lockdown were a huge help to my wellbeing. A lot of the poems in the collection were written during this period, when the relationship between humans and what we are doing to our environment was really driven home. I think that unconsciously this landscape, and having the time to be mentally present in it, fed into my work.

The loose narrative arc for the collection, which is around the phenomenon of traumatropism, also informed the natural imagery. The term relates to the regrowth of a plant or tree as a result of earlier damage, such as a lightning strike, which is such a powerful metaphor for the setbacks we endure and that can send our lives in a direction we never anticipated. The pieces were therefore deliberately ordered as a journey from nature into a more domestic setting.

There’s the sense that the whole of life exists in your poems, but reduced into small pieces, like in ‘Doll’s House.’ How do you arrive at pieces that capture so much in such small spaces?

Your question puts me in mind of the famous William Blake quote: “To see a world in a grain of sand.” It’s a useful reminder that small details or snapshots of life can reveal so much when considered at a granular level. I’m fascinated by it because it illustrates the interconnectedness of life; that everything we do has an impact on someone or something else.

The beauty that still occurs even after damage is a strong image in the collection

Photo credit: Gary Brightbart

It’s an idea that carries through into my writing, with a glimpsed scene making me pause and consider the backstory. A treehouse becomes a place that contains childhood memories that are darkened by a love affair (‘The Treehouse’) and an oak tree in autumn triggers a memory of folklore and death (‘It’s Said…’). The compressed space in pieces like ‘The Doll’s House’ and ‘The Last in a Long Line” is more about the power of the metaphor, in this instance the confines that many women find themselves in due to a patriarchal society.

The focus on a single image is partly a reflection of my desire to be present in the moment but I also get the idea for many poems in quite a visual form. This is most apparent in ‘Translate the Notes’, which was directly inspired by a photograph by Francesca Woodman that’s simply referred to as ‘Then at one point I did not need to translate the notes; they went directly to my hands’, Providence, Rhode Island (1976).

I want to capture the image in its purist form, which usually means editing out any detail that I find extraneous. This often means that I start with a long, rambling draft poem that gets reduced down to what I view as the absolute essentials. In most cases, that essential can be captured in a small space (in physical terms as well as poetic ones, given that none of the poems in the collection go over one page!).

There’s a dark undercurrent to many of your poems. Why do you think you are drawn to exploring the murkier side of life and is there an element of finding it cathartic for your own emotions?

There’s definitely a darkness to many of my poems, with the themes including feelings of guilt, loss and oppression. I don’t personally view them as exploring the murkier side of life, if by that you mean dishonest or morally wrong, but an open acknowledgement of experience.

I’ve always been drawn to books and art that contain gothic imagery, such as ‘Wuthering Heights’, Angela Carter’s ‘The Bloody Chamber’ and the photographs of Francesca Woodman (who inspired the collection’s closing poem). It’s a genre that’s easy to criticise given its tropes of dramatic weather and melodrama. At its best, however, I think it reminds us that we’re part of nature and that the cycle of death and decay also contains the germ of new life.

In my collection it was important that I balanced the darkness with that hope of new possibilities. Trees may lose boughs in bad weather but they become useful tools for deer, as in ‘Dry Velvet’, or storms may wreak destruction but they can bring about positive change, as in ‘After the Storm’.

It was also important that I gave the narrator the autonomy to take control of her life and enact change, even if that meant crushing herself into a museum cabinet to be afforded recognition, as in ‘Space2’, or tethering birds to her wrist to find happiness, as in ‘Magpie Eggs’. There’s a darkness to her actions but, in keeping with the theme of traumatropism, she emerges from them stronger.

The themes in the collection are beautifully illustrated by the cover

Photo credit: Gary Brightbart

The search for light in the situations described in the poems was where I found relief rather than in the darkness per se. I think we can all feel powerless or overwhelmed by grief by certain situations in our life, whether that’s the death of someone close or a broken relationship, and I find writing a useful tool to process those emotions. In most of my poems, though, scenarios from my own life are woven through with fictions and mythologies and so catharsis is not the main drive.

How did you go about getting your chapbook published and what lessons have you learnt along the way?

I knew from the start that I wanted to work with a publisher. Self-publishing has become increasingly valid and is no longer regarded as a vanity press – it can be more about wanting to control all aspects of the publication – but it requires a lot of work to reach an audience. I didn’t think I had the necessary time, resources or connections to make that a viable model.

I had a ‘hit list’ of publishers to approach whose work I valued: they’d either published the work of authors I admired, they had a strong design aesthetic, and / or they had a strong community ethic. I consider myself very fortunate that after four rejections I was accepted by Selcouth Station, which has a fantastic reputation for supporting its authors and championing people within the creative sectors.

I was assigned Stephanie Guerreiro Lourenço as my patient and supportive editor. She didn’t suggest many edits but the ones she did were well considered and helped to bring clarity to the work. Alongside the publisher’s founder, Haley Jenkins, she was also open to my ideas, particularly around the artist chosen to illustrate my book.

Their support has continued throughout the post-publication stage, which has been invaluable. They may not have a budget for a large marketing campaign but they’ve worked tirelessly on social media to promote my book and have recently organised their first ever online reading with me and three other new authors (Nicola Ashbrook, MP Armstrong, and Caroline Grand-Clement).

Tiny nuggets of inspiration lie all around us

Photo credit: Gary Brightbart

Working with such a supportive publisher eased the burden of getting my book into the world and has made me feel part of the wider writing community. Those are both important lessons for me to take away from the process and to look for in any future publishing relationships.

What advice would you give to other writers that you have found helpful?

If someone wants to be a writer then there’s no shortcut from reading widely, writing regularly, and editing mercilessly. A lot of people say they want to write but find an excuse not to do so: they’re too tired; they’re waiting for inspiration; they’re afraid of failure. It’s necessary to push through those fears and to hunt out inspiration rather than expecting it to come to you, whether that’s through attending workshops, following online prompts, or something else entirely.

I’d also say that it’s helpful to not only read the work of other people but to question what you like or don’t like about it, and then try and incorporate your answers into your own work. This can really help you to experiment and find your own voice(s). Those experiments need never be seen by other people if they don’t work out but that in itself is a valuable lesson: that most of what you write will almost certainly end up on the cutting room floor!

The final piece of advice would be to seek out your own community. I was first published in fanzines in the mid-90s, which was an incredibly vibrant and creative time. The people I connected with were encouraging, which gave me the confidence to continue. I see the same thing happening now on social media. It often gets in the news for all the wrong reasons, with stories of trolling, but in my experience it’s full of people who will champion your work and take the time to answer your creative questions.

Susan Darlington’s poetry regularly explores the female experience through nature-based symbolism and stories of transformation. It has been published in Nymphs, Dreich, Dream Catcher, Anti-Heroin Chic, Hedgehog Press, and Ethel Zine among others. She has two books available: Traumatropic Heart (Selcouth Station, 2021) and Under the Devil’s Moon (Penniless Press Publications, 2015). Follow her on Twitter @S_sanDarlington

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