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Voicing our silences: An Interview with Alice Hiller

PS: Describe the background of your Book Bird of Winter, and how the thought came to you to weave your trauma in the book.

AH: When I was growing up during the 1970s, England experienced intensely cold winters. Walking through the graveyard of the parish church with my mother, I would sometimes find small birds lying curled in the snow. Seeking shelter within yew bushes, they had frozen to death overnight, then fallen from their perches. Although I could not articulate why at the time, the hunched shapes of their still, undefended bodies resonated with me. During those same years of unlocking the church, polishing its brasses, singing hymns on Sundays beside my mother, I was also being subjected to penetrative sexual abuse by her. We had moved together to Wiltshire from Brussels when my father died, the year I turned eight. In the English countryside, surrounded by darkness and silence, my mother took me into her bed. I was not able to tell anyone what came to pass between us for two decades beyond the physical abuse ceasing. Writing bird of winter in my fifties, which gives creative witness to this crime, also on behalf of the millions who are subjected to childhood sexual abuse around the world, I knew the poems needed to exist in relation to the white spaces around them. I wanted them to communicate at a somatic and an instinctive level, through the shapes they made on the page, as the birds’ hunched outlines in the snow connected with me to suggest my own body when I was word-less. I wanted the freedom of more experimental poetry to open pathways to healing. Working visually as well as texually in bird of winter, I invite the reader’s conscious and subconscious selves to collaborate dynamically in the work of ‘reading’, conferring upon them an agency that the abuse denied me. Through this they become discoverers, rather than recipients of this complex material, and participate in the collection’s journey into meaning and resolution. They can also calibrate their depth of engagement, as I hope these three featured poems reflect.

‘tesselation’, was named for the process of fitting mosaic tiles together to form a picture. Remembering a conversation with the psychiatrist who was treating me for anorexia when I was thirteen, its stanzas are nonetheless separated. This registers to the eye, how even as we present narratives around trauma, gaps inevitably remain.

The rapes at the heart of my being unable to speak lie within the erasure, ‘and now came the ashes’. Pliny’s account of the eruption of Vesuvius is a frame for my experience within my mother’s bed. How silencing may descend on an individual in the aftermath of a violent crime is present within the blacking out. White islands of words perform partial acts of recovery, while also embedding, through the lack of a clear sequential path forward from the midpoint, that this story cannot easily be told.

Finally, the concrete poem, ‘her door is missing’, combines my own words with found materials from a book about Herculaneum. This describes how the pyroclastic flow carried a mass of objects from doors to house beams to statues through the town. I wanted the empty doorframe to make visible how the crime of sexual abuse forcibly removes a child’s possibility of refusal and leaves them open to further, damaging predation.

PS: What is your opinion about late bloomers as you wrote your debut book in the fifties?

AH: I have been writing professionally all my adult life. I was a freelance journalist, wrote a factual book about the history of the t-shirt, researched a literary PhD, then wrote reviews, and other articles, before finally beginning to work on bird of winter the year I turned 50. My younger son leaving home, combined with being diagnosed with ovarian cancer in my late forties, freed me to address my childhood. Sometimes people with family responsibilities, or complex materials, need time and distance to be able to write safely about them.

PS: Tell me about your next book.

AH: I am working on a memoir that holds the first eighteen years of my life.

PS: Do you view writing as a kind of spiritual practice?

AH: Yes. For me, it requires a process of self-quieting, in order to be able to hear. When we write, we have the possibility of opening our individual experiences into a wider communion – through the collaborations that art involves. As part of my writing process, I walk with my dog, noticing the world around me, and also meditate, and swim, to help tune in to whatever needs to emerge.

PS: What is your thought about experimental poetry? I read that your memoir incorporates fragments of poetry. What do you think about blending the genre?

AH: For me, art establishes channels for communication, between self and other, and past and present, as well as between individuals and made objects. The more facets we incorporate, the more entry points we create.

PS: Tell me about your project Voicing our Silences.

AH: Voicing our Silences is a workshop which I set up for people working creatively with complex or difficult materials. We support each other in developing our work. We now have around sixty members. We have a website which aims to offer this support beyond the group through recorded workshops.

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