Poet changed utterly by her illness
As she celebrates winning the Costa prize for her latest poetry collection, ‘On Mutability’, Jo Shapcott recalls the cancer that shaped her work and transformed her life completely
IN 2003, Jo Shapcott – a poet of shifting territories, of pavements rippling beneath feet, fingerprints that dent hillsides – found herself crossing a line into another world. She had been working incessantly in the months before, teaching and travelling, fulfilling commissions, “running about, with no time to reflect”. Then she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Suddenly she was in an unknown landscape, that of surgery and chemotherapy, hair loss and waiting rooms, enormous uncertainty and enforced rest. The changes were fundamental.
“The body has always been a subject for me,” she says. “It is the stage of the high drama of our lives, from birth to death and everything in between. When you observe your own body under physical change like that, there’s a new kind of urgency.
“I had a lumpectomy, my lymph glands out, chemo and radiotherapy. You go through several different stages, so you don’t know how ill you are for a while, and the verdict keeps getting worse and worse, until you can actually take action, start treatment.”
She refers to the essay On Being Ill, in which Virginia Woolf describes the transformative nature of sickness. “It is like stepping into a different world, where there are different rules, ways of behaving, ways of seeing,” says Shapcott. “Woolf talks about the amount of time you spend lying on your back, so that the horizontal view is suddenly much more typical than the vertical view. And that means you see life anew – you’re open to the sky.”
This openness forms a golden thread through Shapcott’s latest collection, Of Mutability,which was named as the Costa book of the year last week.
The book includes a dedication to her doctors at Hereford county hospital in the West Midlands, and while it never refers to breast cancer specifically, her illness – and more particularly its effects on her outlook – flows through the collection with trademark surrealism and wry, unsentimental warmth.
In the title poem, she starts out noting that “Too many of the best cells in my body/are itching, feeling jagged, turning raw” before reverting to that horizontal perspective. The second stanza bursts with both optimism and fear, a complicated euphoria: “Look up to catch eclipses, gold leaf, comets,/angels, chandeliers, out of the corner of your eye,/join them if you like, learn astrophysics, or/learn folksong, human sacrifice, mortality,/flying, fishing, sex without touching much./Don’t trouble, though, to head anywhere but the sky.”
It was the hope expressed in Shapcott’s “meditations on mortality”, among other qualities, that the Costa judges seem to have responded to. The chair of judges, Andrew Neil, said the collection had won the backing of a “clear majority” of the panel, against an exceptionally strong field, before calling it, “very special, unusual and uplifting”.
Shapcott tells me she was “gobsmacked”. And when asked where the £30,000 prize would go, she suggests she will “probably do the guttering”.
“I wasn’t expecting to win,” she says. “I’d come to the evening very happy to have won the poetry section alone, that was terrific. I think the special pleasure is that it might mean that readers who usually just like novels, or memoirs, might pick up a book of poems.”
I can’t pretend to be a disinterested observer, either of who won the prize (I was commissioned to interview whoever triumphed) or whether that guttering gets fixed. In 2009, my boyfriend and I bought the flat above Shapcott’s in south London, and so the three of us share a house and a garden. Exquisite luck on my part, because Shapcott is everything you could want in a neighbour and friend: kind, funny, highly intellectual yet entirely unpretentious.
She describes herself as hugely curious about the world, and this comes out in her splintered, fervent passions. Throughout the prize ceremony, for instance, my boyfriend was texting me updates on the Arsenal v Ipswich match to pass on – Shapcott is a huge Gunners fan.
Then there’s her planting. There was a period, a few years back, when she toyed with leaving our small garden to the foxes, who had taken up happy residence, but since claiming it back, she can often be found kneeling on the lawn come spring, arms submerged in soil. Over the last few years, she has taken science course after science course with the Open University, and she also has a deep passion for video games, which she shares with her friend and fellow poet, Don Paterson.
Shapcott is grounded and clever, the sort of person you can broach any subject with, yet we’ve never really talked about her illness. And we don’t talk much about the details now – more about what came next. For her, it seems to have been a doorway to a different life. In early discussions about the book’s cover, “I had imagined it being quite dark,” she says, “even black, but I think mutability – a word I love – suggests death and decay, but also change, which is quite twinkly and green.” (The colour they ultimately plumped for). “It quickly became clear to me that mutability has these twinklings of joy, sometimes ecstasy, which comes through in the poems, I think.”
This is true. In The Deaths,for example, Shapcott anthropomorphises death, imagines the pair of them walking together, “two drunkards”, before he gives her a look and she implodes “like a ripe mango”. If ever there was an ecstatic description of death, there it is. In Hairless,she asks the sensitive question, “Can the bald lie? The nature of the skin says not:/it’s newborn-pale, erection-tender stuff”, before describing a woman who has lost her hair. “It was clear just from the texture of her head,/she was about to raise her arms to the sky”.
I ask whether that period changed her sense of the world. She says it did, dramatically. “When Dennis Potter was dying, he filmed that very famous interview, in which he talked about looking out of the window, and observing the blossominess of the blossoms with an increased urgency and joy. And I think that does happen to cancer survivors – apparently it’s really common to feel euphoria, if you get through the treatment, because it’s a marathon . . . A lot gets stripped away, including bad things, and your relationship to your body and the world changes. Everything is more insecure. But somehow that’s exhilarating. When you sit down at the desk again, it’s a new start. Who am I as a poet? How do I write, now all these changes have occurred?”
Luckily Shapcott is a writer who is at home with change and shift, qualities she recognised as essential to her work at an early stage. She was born in London in 1953, and grew up in Hemel Hempstead in Hertfordshire with her older brother Nigel, her primary school teacher mother and her father, who worked in the car industry. She was always a great reader – “pathologically so,” she says – and an early, faintly obsessive interest in synchronised swimming was diverted by teachers at her comprehensive school, who encouraged her love of writing.
It was a happy childhood, which ended abruptly when she was 18 with the sudden, unexpected death of her parents within a month of one another.
“My mother died of cancer, and my father died a month later of a heart attack,” she says. “They’d both been ill, but no one had any reason to think my father would die – and, in fact, I don’t think my brother and I realised my mother had a terminal illness until the night before she died. I’m sure my father knew, but we didn’t.”
The experience shaped her in unforeseen ways. “I think something like that makes you more reflective, makes you grow up fast as well, and think about how the universe works. I want to know why things are like they are. Of course, you never really do, but you don’t stop looking.”
She went to study at Trinity College in Dublin not long afterwards, and started, tentatively, to find her voice as a poet. This proved slightly complicated. For one, there were very few female role models for aspiring poets in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and for another, she lacked that sense of rootedness, of connection to place, that so much great literature is founded on. She wrote about this in the essay Confounding Geography, where she notes that as a young writer she was told to “delve into the language and landscape of your own territory. In a writer like Seamus Heaney the landscape and place names of his home could become, in the poem Anahorish, ‘soft-gradient/of consonant, vowel meadow’. As a young writer I felt at a disadvantage.
“I grew up in a new town, Hemel Hempstead, where there was absolutely no vowel meadow, and where the spoken language was flat, a version of London watered down by a mild accumulation of the various modes of speech of the many people who had moved there from all over the place.”
Her saviour was the US poet Elizabeth Bishop, whose similarly rootless work she had fallen for deeply. Shapcott started a promising PhD on Bishop’s poetry at Oxford, but then landed a two-year scholarship to Harvard, where she studied under Heaney, and writing staked its claim on her.
While working for years as an arts administrator at the Southbank Centre in London, she began to get her poetry published, to great acclaim. She won the National Poetry Competition in 1985 and again in 1991 – the only poet to have done so twice. Her first collection, Electroplating the Baby,won the Commonwealth poetry prize; her third collection, My Life Asleep, won the Forward prize. Given her standing in the poetry world, the diamond-hardness of her imagery, coupled with the accessibility of her work, it’s a surprise, in some ways, that she’s not a household name.
But she seems to enjoy her relative anonymity. I ask whether she would ever want one of the big public roles that exist for poets – the most prominent, of course, being Poet Laureate – and she firmly says no.
“It’s not something that would suit me, because I’m not really very public, and I prefer that. It suits the kind of poetry I write. I think if I were very prominent, it wouldn’t do the poems any good.” There are repeated references – open and oblique – to the Iraq war in Of Mutability:does she consider her work to be political? Yes, she says.
“First, it’s poetry by a feminist. There’s that, straight away. Then there are a lot of meditations on landscape in the book, which are informed by climate change. And, I guess, there’s a political with a small ‘p’ spirit active in the work, in that you hope readers will walk into the poems and come out somehow changed.”
Shapcott’s political outlook led her to refuse a CBE in 2003, an act she has never spoken about publicly before. At the time she was terribly ill, and, having accepted the honour initially, she watched the government prepare to invade Iraq, and changed her mind. She sent her anti-war poem Phrase Book, written about the first invasion of Iraq, to the Cabinet Office along with a letter.
“I said, I can’t possibly accept this, and that was it.” I sense she’d like to have drawn more attention at the time, to highlight the cause, “but I was being diagnosed and treated for cancer, so great public statements weren’t on the cards, really. I was just too ill.”
She’s well now, and working hard on her next collection (I breathe relief at this news, worried as I was that the baby elephant thump of her upstairs neighbours might keep her from her writing).
She says that publishing this last collection has “cleared a block in my head, and at the moment I think of the new book as the Book of Life, because the poems all seem to be about things that are teeming”.
Does she still feel the euphoria she did at the end of treatment? “I do,” she says. “All these years later, it hasn’t gone away.”