Episode 17

once a thing is gone, that is the end of it
by Kate Ling

 

Kate Ling reads ‘once a thing is gone, that is the end of it’ and discusses the poem with Mark McGuinness.

This poem is from:

Last Things by Kate Ling and Jon Nicolls

Last Things book cover

Available from:

Last Things is available from:

The publisher: Agnes Kirk Press

 

once a thing is gone, that is the end of it

by Kate Ling

I listened to a recording of a poet reading in a room, outside which
there were cars sliding by and my mind got on that bus

time had passed and travellers on their way didn’t get any of the poetry

now the poet said more and I listened instead to the voice downstairs,
to my daughter whose words I couldn’t hear, only the tone
(I thought of the word timbre because it was music)

                                                                                              when the poet
said music I wanted to go downstairs and be gathered and ignored
but in place of that I remembered ringing my father
and the fact that he took my news well

how many times he had rung me and couldn’t say my mother was dying
I could feel his eyes telling me down the phone

                                                                                              and all the chat
was of otherwise, anything that was real and weighted: the carpet,
the sliding doors, something on the television in the background

how unconnected he must have felt, my voice there for
the falling into and not being able to say, for fear
of naming what was being borne

we practiced together, how not to, how to instead

eventually, love took us by the hands and helped us put
one foot in front of the other all the way to the cemetery


 

Interview transcript

Mark: Kate, where did this poem come from?

Kate: Last January I had COVID. I was asymptomatic, and that meant that I was in a room self-isolating for 10 days but without being ill, fortunately. I don’t say that lightly. Two of my friends had COVID at the same time as me and one of them is still struggling with long COVID and both of them, at the time, were extremely ill. So I was very aware of how fortunate I was to be testing positive but not being ill. And that meant… I think normally, I don’t take things for granted anyway as a person. And I’m always very aware of when I’m particularly lucky, but I think that that became an opportunity for me to have what I’d always dreamed of, which was really a poetry retreat and an unexpected one. I’d never been on one, and really my whole poetry writing life has been writing in the gaps between full-time work and full-time motherhood and having a family and friends that are really important to me. Poetry is always something that squeezes into the cracks and the gaps.

So the prospect of having ten days… to begin with, I didn’t know that I wasn’t going to be ill. So to begin with, I was very anxious about suddenly becoming ill. So I think some of that anxiety worked its way into some of the poems. I was very conscious of illness and the prospect of that separating me from the people I loved. And I think that anxiety is in the poem as well. But as the days went on and I realized I wasn’t going to develop any symptoms, it was just an opportunity for me to sit in a room, read, write, think, and listen. And those are the things I did for 10 days. I carried on doing yoga in my room. I had a little box room in my house, which became… it’s got my poetry books in it anyway. It’s got a single bed in it and room for yoga mat at the foot of the bed.

So those were the days I spent just listening to my family from a distance as they were pottering around the house, talking to my family if they arrived on the landing, waiting for my meals to be cooked, and waiting for those to be delivered. I lost weight because they were cooking very healthy food for me and I couldn’t just eat when I felt like it. And I had a lot of time. I finished knitting a jumper I thought would take me another three months to make and I finished it. So all of that was a very fortuitous period of time for me. And I think very early on, I decided that I would have a daily practice. And even when I thought I might potentially get ill, the thought of leaving… my writing has always been a kind of a diary of my life from the beginning of writing poetry, back in 1997 I started. Everything I’ve written has always had a kind of a diary quality to it.

So I naturally fell towards writing when was worried about whether I was going to be ill. And then that just evolved into a daily practice where I thought I could actually write a large number of poems in 10 days when normally that would take me several months to get the same volume of poetry together. So all of those poems ended up in a book called Last Things, a photopoetry book that I made with my husband who’s a photographer. And the poem that we are talking about today is one of those.

Mark: Gosh, it’s kind of an archetypal image, isn’t it? The poet at the top of the house in this tiny room with some books and a yoga mat, and time to think, and being able to listen to the rest of the world going by.

Kate: Yeah. I was very conscious of proximity and distance because I was in the smallest room. And just hearing my family walking around, talking, playing their guitars, listening to television, I could hear everything that was going on but I was at a remove from that. So it was almost quite spooky in a way to be able to witness what happened without me, but I was there in a strange way. And the same thing was true about looking at the window. And I live on quite a busy street for cars, but it’s not a very busy street for pedestrians. And just seeing the occasional person walk by and sometimes that would be somebody I knew, I was really conscious of distance and proximity and being connected and disconnected. And I thought for a long time about the difference between unconnected and disconnected. And I think I used the word ‘unconnected’ twice, I think, in the volume of poems I ended up writing, rather than ‘disconnected’, which seems much more of an active thing to have happened to you. The poems are much more about trying to connect and not, or not being sure whether you have achieved a connection.

Mark: Yeah. Well, that ‘unconnected’ was one of the… I underlined several words, obviously, spending time with the poem and they were all to do with connection, or I was thinking ‘disconnection’, but I think your ‘unconnected’ is more accurate. So I’ve got, you know, you’re listening to a recording of a poet in a room and your mind got ‘on the bus’. And then you say time had passed, the ‘travelers on their way didn’t get any of the poetry’, so there’s a disconnect there, and then listening to the voice downstairs and ‘I couldn’t hear’, ‘I wanted to go downstairs’, and then a memory of ringing your father and what he couldn’t say, and the idea of ‘his eyes telling me down the phone’, which is quite extraordinary. And then, you know, so all the way through, I felt as a reader and a listener, you were connecting and unconnecting or disconnecting lots of things that you wouldn’t normally necessarily think could be connected.

Kate: I think that’s been part of my writing voice since my mum died and since that I’ve spent a long period of time not being able to write because it just didn’t seem… didn’t feel like I had anything to say or I had too much to feel that didn’t really come out in a poetry form or any particular form. It was difficult to talk at that time. And I think I’m alluding to that in a way in this poem. But since I picked up writing again after that event, a lot of my writing has been about what can’t be said. And it’s a lot about trying to be truthful. And in trying to be truthful, you very often are stripping away lots of writing. You’re writing things and then getting rid of things that may not be quite accurate, maybe writing for the sake of it, or enjoying itself too much, and trying to get to the essence of truth and only writing or saying in writing what you actually believe, which sometimes takes you off in a strange direction, maybe getting on a poetry bus and going somewhere.

You aren’t sure where you are going and ending up somewhere that you didn’t really anticipate. So I think a lot of my writing is about not writing, not speaking, not saying. And to begin with, when my mum first died, it was to do with I suppose not really feeling like I had the right to express what I wanted to express, and I didn’t really have a handle on what I wanted to express. So it was a kind of a process of relearning how to communicate. And I think that’s made me even more careful with words than I was before. I don’t waste anything and I don’t write anything, I hope, that just sounds good, or fills a line, or isn’t totally truthful as far as I’m aware of the truth.

Mark: Yeah. That’s something that’s always impressed me about your writing is you’ve got a wonderful economy. There’s no sense of language being wasted. And you’ve got to pay attention. You’ve got to look and listen quite carefully, or at least I have. Otherwise, I might miss something.

Kate: Well, I feel like I think I get this from Raymond Carver, who was somebody I used to read a lot many years ago. I kind of got from him a sense of how to write with a rubber because he used to write volumes and volumes, and then cut, cut, cut, cut, cut back. And while I don’t get to the point of writing volumes anymore, I’m still always writing with a delete button or just a line crossed through in my notebook. I’m always cutting back to the bone, which probably means that sometimes the poems are quite challenging for the reader because that kind of language, which facilitates but isn’t particularly interesting in itself, I would usually cut that out. So I would be expecting the reader to, I don’t know, self-supply some of the syntax or the grammatical bits that I’ve dispensed with. I don’t know if that makes the poems hard to understand sometimes, but then I like poetry that eludes rather than explains.

I like a lot of ancient Chinese poetry, I like imagistic poetry. I like the American poet, Frank O’Hara’s one of my favorite writers. And I can’t say that I always understand exactly what O’Hara meant exactly when he wrote the poems he did, but I definitely understand in my gut somewhere what he’s alluding to, and that’s the kind of reading I like to do. I like Louise Glück. I like those kinds of poets that aren’t really serving the reader particularly. They’re not making things plain. Jorie Graham is another poet I like for that reason. I don’t expect to… I don’t like the idea that sometimes you hear in poetry workshops, ‘Well, I didn’t understand it, but I really liked it’. That’s an idea that grates with me. You have to understand it, but you may not understand it grammatically and syntactically. You need to understand it at some kind of visceral or gut-level or in your soul somehow. I don’t like the idea of words just for their sounds, but I don’t think necessarily… if I wanted to be an accurate writer of sentences, I would be a prose writer and I’ve chosen to be a poet. So I think that gives me license to dispense with punctuation and all the other bits of gubbins that go into prose writing.

Mark: I love that, the gubbins! Well, you know, I think it’s a truism that poetry really asks the reader a lot of the time to meet the poet halfway. Sometimes it feels more than halfway! And occasionally, there are poets, like some of the ones you’ve named, that we feel like, well, actually, we do have to do quite a lot of work. Sometimes we have to make a leap. And I think my policy as a reader is I’m quite prepared to make a leap as long as I’m convinced there’s going to be something on the other side. And I always feel that with you that it repays close reading or close listening. And I like the fact that you don’t do everything for us. We have to supply some of that ourselves.

Mark: And so how did you get from the first draft of the poem to, you know, the poem and the shape and the form that it’s in right now?

Kate: Well, it wasn’t much of a leap because I changed my practice because I was in a changed situation. Normally, I write in a notebook. I handwrite first. I never write sitting down. I’m always walking. Ninety-nine percent of the time I’ll be walking outside. And this is how I end up collaborating with my husband who’s a photographer because we’ve been together for many, many years. And as very young people, we have always gone on dérives, just kind of walked around. We like walking, we like cities. We like walking for the sake of it and just mooching about with no particular purpose or direction. And he has always taken photographs and I’ve always written poetry. So we’re going back to sort of, I suppose, about 1987, we started doing that together. And then we’ve ended up in this kind of lifelong relationship with three children, but we’ve always… well, I suppose our lives are like this.

We live alongside each other. We have never really collaborated as creative people. He’s always taken photographs, I’ve always written poetry. And a lot of that time in the early days, I didn’t much look at his photos and he didn’t much like my poetry. So we weren’t really ever connected by the things we created, but we were connected by the act of creation in that we would be out walking along and every so often he’ll stop to take a photograph, and every so often I’ll stop to write something in my notebook. So that’s my normal practice. And it usually takes me a very long time to amass enough things in my notebook to think, ‘Oh, I might start typing these up and drawing them together somehow’. But because I was in my COVID bedroom, which I nicknamed the den, because I was then in the den, I was indoors. So I needed an indoor practice and that’s not something I had.

So unusually for me, I went straight to my laptop. I have never ever written straight onto my laptop. I’ve always handwritten first and then typed the first draft, whether it’s good, bad, or ugly, and then messed around with the shape from there. And the writing in the notebook is usually something I do almost semi-consciously. I’m not really thinking because I’m mainly sort of walking along, and then I think you get the kind of the rhythm of movement in the language. The typing up is always the laborious, boring bit that I don’t really like. And usually, there I’m confronted with, ‘Well, I don’t like this poem, it’s not very good. I haven’t said anything’. So that’s where all the anxiety and self-doubt comes in, in the typing up, but I type things exactly as they were written, whether I know it’s good or not.

And then the next bit is the bit I like, which is the editing. And that’s often, like I said before, with the delete key. Moving things up and down, putting commas in and out, all of that bit is the interesting bit for me. So that was my normal practice. But on this occasion, I typed straight onto my computer. I had a document called… I’m just looking for it now, it was called ‘Invalid / Last Things’. In the end, the book is called Last Things, so I took the ‘invalid’ bit out. And I just wrote every day, sometimes I was writing about something that I’d heard on the radio. I started listening to poetry podcasts, which I’d never had the time to do before, I didn’t feel. And so that was a new thing for me. So I wrote about the podcast I was listening to. I wrote about the books I was reading. And I wrote about how I was feeling and the noises I could hear downstairs and whatever.

And all of those ideas were just in one big, long Word document separated by asterisks. So the first draft of this poem, it’s not much different actually to the final draft except in the shape. So you’d probably need to really see it, but the language is very similar, but the first half of the poem down to, I suppose, ‘when the poet / said music I wanted to go to downstairs and be gathered and ignored’, that just looks almost sonnety in the first draft. It’s just long lines. It’s much more exposition. It describes the fact that the podcast I was listening to was Sandeep Parmar talking to Mary Jean Chan, and it’s much more specific to do with what I was listening to. And I sort of cut them out as I went along and it looks like what looks like it wants to be a sonnet. It’s an 11-line block of writing, but not really much different to how you see it now on the page.

And the second half from ‘but in place of that I remembered ringing my father’, there’s an asterisk and then another chunk. And that’s a 15-line – again, you might think that might be wanting to end up in a sonnet form, a big sort of chunky 15-line poem. And I just, I suppose, in the editing process removed the asterisk, stuck those two things together, and then went much more for lines rather than stanzas, which is how it ended up in the shape that it ended up in.

And I think each of those… I took all the punctuation out. In the first draft, there was some midline punctuation which I removed. And I think I just went for much more each line having its own discretion and its own life. And then each kind of… they’re like mini stanzas, no more than three lines long. Each one of those had its own integrity. So while it does kind of enjamb in a way, it also doesn’t, which is something that I like about Chinese poetry, that you can read a whole stanza and it flows into each other, each line flows into the next one, but you can also read a single line and extract it and it stands alone. So I think the shape on the page, it’s really two chunks stuck together and then those chunks separated out.

Mark: I love that description! And just, enjambment, for anyone who’s not familiar with the phrase, is the idea of the sense flowing on from one line to the other at the end of the line. And I can’t forget that last description of it, ‘two chunks stuck together and separated out’, because I didn’t spot the two chunks until you described it to me just now. I think what I got from looking at the way the lines are laid out on the page and as you’ve pointed out these gaps, I love the idea of ‘each line having its own discretion’, it’s really on theme, if you like, for the unconnected idea.

And how did you get to the ending, because this is quite different in tone, isn’t it? And it’s a very obvious and moving connection that you have at the end, how did that final couplet emerge?

Kate: Well, I think, again, this comes back to trying to be honest and trying to only write, I don’t know, what you’re really thinking about. So I suppose the poem starts with my mind goes on that bus, which was a license to leave the poet behind. I write a lot to do with… a lot of my poetry comes out of reading. So when I’m starting a poem or when I’m starting an idea, I will think, ‘Well, I want to write about such, such thing theme, or usually I want to write in a particular shape’. And then I think, ‘Who does that well?’. So I suppose this is something I’ve got from being in poetry workshops, particularly with Mimi Khalvati, is the idea that you’ve got a ‘poetry heritage’. And sometimes it takes you a long time to realize who your ancestors are. But I think because I’ve worked a lot with Mimi and I’ve been in lots of poetry workshops, I think I’m very confidently aware of who my poetry ancestors are now.

So getting on a bus and then allowing your mind to go wherever it ends up, I think that’s something I’ve learned from my reading that a poem ends up sometimes a very long way from where it started if you let it travel, if you don’t try and force it or you don’t try and preempt where it’s going. And I think that’s particularly true of this poem in that I started off listening to two poets talking and while the podcast itself was very interesting, what it does, it just kind of gives you poetry permission. And then I start getting interested in words, and then I start doing my own writing and forget about what I’m listening to or reading. And I’ll go back and listen and read later, but the excitement of words hits me and then I just start writing. And that kind of permission from other poets is very important to me.

So once I had left the two poets I was listening to behind in the room where they were talking to each other, my poem could go anywhere. I was just listening to the inside of my own head. Where am I going then, if I’m not really listening? I’m trying to follow my own sort of butterfly mind, which has stopped listening, but you are still listening – what are you listening to? I was listening to myself. So first, I was listening to the noises of my family downstairs, and then I was feeling I wanted to be with them. I wanted to be gathered and ignored. I wanted to be present and not present in a way. Mums always are the most important person in the room and the person nobody’s taking any notice of. I think that kind of role as a mother in which you’re both central and extraneous is really important to me. And then realizing that, well, I can’t be there. So where am I going to be? And then I moved from being the mother of my children to the daughter of my father. So somehow, I don’t know, that’s just one of those magic steps your brain takes when you allow it to follow its own thought process.

And then once I was thinking about my father, I was thinking, ‘Well, I just rang him to tell him I had COVID’, which was not a conversation I was looking forward to, expecting him to be upset or extremely worried and thinking ‘I’m going to have to try and convince him that everything’s fine but I don’t know if everything’s fine at this point’. But he took it on the chin. And that reminded me of many conversations that we had had when my mom was ill, which I didn’t really understand at the time, probably understood retrospectively more than at the time, where he was telling me things about her illness, but not spelling them out because probably she was within earshot and also out of protection for me, not wanting to be too exact about what she and he were going through at the time, so there’s a parental protection involved. And I suppose in the position I was in, where I was a mother but distanced from my family and unable to connect with them, really gave me a little bit of an insight into how he must have felt at that time.

And I suppose then that just turned into a very visceral sort of memory of a number of phone calls, which ended inevitably with a death and a funeral. And which is something that, I think, you know, if you’re a grieving person, you’re never quite far away from those last images. They’re always with you. And it doesn’t take very much to go from one thing to there. So that was not a massive leap for me, but in terms of the poem, I suppose, that is quite a long journey from I’m sitting here whirling away, sometime listening to a podcast to, you know, the burial of my mother or the cremation of my mother, in the space of however many lines that is. I suppose that is quite a long journey.

Mark: Well, this is one of the things I like about it, and the other ones in the collection is… you know, and if anybody is reading or listening and going, ‘Oh, that was quite a stretch for me to listen or grasp that first time or even reading it, you know, second or third time’ – if you think about it as being a very accurate description or mimetic form of writing about the way that the mind works, it’s actually quite an everyday type of poem, isn’t it? Because our minds do this. Something happens, a thought comes into our mind or something prompts it, and we can be away, you know, in memory, or in daydreaming, or in the future very quickly.

Kate: And I suppose the circumstance of sitting in the same room all day, every day for 10 days enables you to tune into that more than you normally would because normally other distractions stop you from thinking.

Mark: That’s it!

So you’ve touched on the fact that this collection, Last Things, is a collaboration with your husband, Jon Nicholls. Could you say a little bit about the relationship between the poems and the photographs in the book?

Kate: Yes. So I think I said before that we work alongside each other. We don’t collaborate in terms of looking at each other’s work and seeing if we’ve got anything that goes with. We made one photopoetry book together during the first lockdown that was called All of It. And that was the poems were all about walks that we’d been on in the run-up to the first lockdown. So you had a sense in the air that things were getting bad, that something was going to happen. So all of my poems at that time, we’d taken a weekend to Bristol, which is somewhere we used to live. We’d been to places we used to live. Jon had taken lots of photographs and I had written about our walks, and then we’d walked around Deptford and Woolwich, which are quite close to where we live, in the shadow of the first lockdown about to arrive but not knowing that that was what was going to happen. So the book All of It was, in the end, a collaboration of his photographs and my poems from about that time.

And Jon designed the book and I gave him complete free rein to put the poems and the photos together in whichever way he wanted. And that was very experimental because we’re both big fans of photopoetry. But anybody who’s interested in photopoetry would probably admit that the genre is very new and it’s not quite clear what a good photopoetry book is yet for any of who like that genre. We’ve got lots of photopoetry books, and we spent a lot of time wondering how photographs and poetry existed well together in the covers of the same books.

So one thing we decided very early on was that his photographs are not illustrative of my poems and my poems don’t describe his photographs. So we worked very separately and it was his choice what photos went into the book, but I suppose he worked in the same way as I did in that he chose his photographs, ordered them, and then I sent him a manuscript of poems, which I had put in the order I wanted them to be in. And he just moved things in and out of each other and through each other.

So we’d had lots of practice in making a photopoetry book before we got to Last Things. And so this book was easier to put together, I think, for Jon. I can’t really speak for him. I didn’t really have anything to do with the creative process there because he’s the visual person and I’m really not a visual person. So that’s how things came together. I think what we tried to cut out is any accident where illustration happens accidentally. So there is a poem in the book which alludes to an elephant, and there is a photograph which is of a cardboard cutout of an elephant on a pavement. And that photograph and poem are very long way away from each other, which definitely wouldn’t have those close together.

So sometimes you’re cutting out accidents that you don’t want which lead to illustration. So none of the photographs illustrate the poems, but they have this kind of resonance, which I want in the poems anyway, which is you kind of feel a gut connection. And I think what really connects Jon and I, what connects our work is the fact that we walk together and, well, we obviously live together. We’re seeing the same things, we share the same beliefs about life, I suppose. And we’re interested in similar things, but we are working in different media and we work very differently and very separately from each other.

So what I hope the book achieves is the separateness in which collaboration happens outside of both of us. I suppose, in the same way as having a child in a way to be a little bit fanciful, the child you create is better than the sum of its parts if you are lucky. And hopefully, the book that we’ve created is better than a poetry book or a photography book, but those two things are still discreet and still separate and have their own integrity.

Mark: Thank you, Kate. And I would say having spent time with the book, it really is… your description of it really resonates with my experience as a reader that it’s between the images and the words that it’s… there’s not quite a dialogue, but there’s a reflection. There’s a to and fro-ness that, as you say, it’s not illustration, but it certainly does deepen the mood of both art forms within the book. It’s quite an experience to read the whole thing. So, okay, thank you, Kate. This has been a wonderful journey through your mind and elsewhere. I think maybe we should hear the poem again.


 

once a thing is gone, that is the end of it

by Kate Ling

I listened to a recording of a poet reading in a room, outside which
there were cars sliding by and my mind got on that bus

time had passed and travellers on their way didn’t get any of the poetry

now the poet said more and I listened instead to the voice downstairs,
to my daughter whose words I couldn’t hear, only the tone
(I thought of the word timbre because it was music)

                                                                                             when the poet
said music I wanted to go downstairs and be gathered and ignored
but in place of that I remembered ringing my father
and the fact that he took my news well

how many times he had rung me and couldn’t say my mother was dying
I could feel his eyes telling me down the phone

                                                                                             and all the chat
was of otherwise, anything that was real and weighted: the carpet,
the sliding doors, something on the television in the background

how unconnected he must have felt, my voice there for
the falling into and not being able to say, for fear
of naming what was being borne

we practiced together, how not to, how to instead

eventually, love took us by the hands and helped us put
one foot in front of the other all the way to the cemetery


 

Last Things

‘once a thing is gone, that is the end of it’ by Kate Ling is from the photopoetry collection Last Things by Kate Ling and Jon Nicolls, published by Agnes Kirk Press.

Last Things book cover

Last Things is available from:

The publisher: Agnes Kirk Press

 

Kate Ling

Kate Ling photo

Kate Ling’s pamphlet Balcony was a staff pick for the National Poetry Library Open Day, 2018. She won the Flamingofeather Prize and was a joint winner of The Frogmore Poetry Prize 2016. Her poems have appeared in anthologies and magazines including Plant Care: A Festschrift for Mimi Khalvati (Linda Lee Books, 2004), Said and done, (Stonewood Press, 2011), Ambit, Brittle Star and Magma.

Photopoetry books, All of it (2020) and Last Things (2021), in collaboration with Jon Nicholls, are published by Agnes Kirk Press which she co-founded in 2017.

Kate lives and works in London.

A Mouthful of Air – the podcast

This is a transcript of an episode of A Mouthful of Air – a poetry podcast hosted by Mark McGuinness. New episodes are released every other Tuesday.

You can hear every episode of the podcast via Apple, Spotify, Google Podcasts or your favourite app.

You can have a full transcript of every new episode sent to you via email.

The music and soundscapes for the show are created by Javier Weyler. Sound production is by Breaking Waves and visual identity by Irene Hoffman.

A Mouthful of Air is produced by The 21st Century Creative, with support from Arts Council England via a National Lottery Project Grant.

Listen to the show

You can listen and subscribe to A Mouthful of Air on all the main podcast platforms

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