Poetry and genealogy, or how I learned to stop worrying and celebrate my grannie

Wednesday 9 March 2011

Guest blogger Claire Askew explains how the women in her family have chronicled their own histories and inspired her poetry - especially her storytelling grandmother.

One of the themes of this year’s StAnza is Timepiece, or “the dynamic between verse and the recorded and unrecorded past.”  It seems fitting, then, that this year will see my StAnza performance debut (in previous years I’ve been too shy even to step up to the Open Mic), as I am somewhat obsessed with exploring the past, and mostly the unrecorded past, in the poems I write.

I come from a large, eccentric, mongrel family, which is predominantly northern English/southern Scottish.  On my mother’s side, I’m directly related to the infamous border Armstrongs; on my father’s side there’s a whole mix of old Lakeland tribes, with a few wild cards (including a mysterious Romany gypsy) thrown in for good measure.

My family is dominated by its women.  There are an awful lot of us – my mother has three sisters, I am one of two girls and have countless female cousins – and that’s just the past two generations.  However, the women in my family also tend to be storytellers: carriers for gossip, anecdote, morality and myth.  We’re all obsessed with genealogy and love nothing better than sitting around, telling and re-telling old stories we’ve all heard a thousand times before.  And apparently, we’ve been like this for decades.

It seems women of my family are throwbacks to a bygone era of predominantly oral culture, when fireside storytelling – almost always a female activity – was the primary means of keeping the memory of relatives alive.  Take my maternal grandmother, for example – a hard-nosed, determined Northern woman who smoked like a chimney, swore like a sailor and always told you exactly what she thought of you.  She was one hell of a handful, and no one in the family had a relationship with her that wasn’t painfully complicated.  However, she knew how to spin a good story, and after she died a few years ago, she immediately started becoming one – woven inextricably into the latest chapter of family mythology.  She appears again and again in my work.  Sometimes she’s quite obviously at the forefront of things – it’s her talking, taking control as she so often did.  Sometimes I’m talking to her, or about her – sometimes the jokes are at her expense.  Sometimes she’s just there on the periphery, chucking in one of her infamous sayings to colour a stanza or two: “you’ve been brought up in a bottle and seen nowt but cork!” For me, family history isn’t just inescapable – it’s a goldmine of great material I’d be nuts to ignore.

Claire Askew will be reading at StAnza’s New Poets’ Showcase at 12.45pm, The Town Hall, St Andrews on Friday 18 March. There’s more about Claire and her grandmother here.

(Photo by Alastair Cook)