I am delighted that Live Canon have published my second collection this month. I’m especially delighted with the cover which features a photograph by brilliant dance photographer Jane Hobson. It’s the stage at Sadlers Wells and the material on the backdrop is parachute silk – it’s just so gorgeous I can’t stop gazing at it!
Confetti Dancers is a very personal voyage through grief and loss but it also looks at generational loss. I thought this month I’d give a behind the scenes look at some of the themes and ideas behind the collection. After much thought and tweaking I re-ordered the collection to reflect the idea of a ballet – it has three acts (Parts I, II and III) and in between Parts I and II there’s an interlude. The final section of the book is a Coda.
When I was very young I remember having a few ballet lessons in one of those draughty church halls. This one was somewhere near Tudor Drive in Kingston-upon-Thames where I grew up. I remember running around a lot and pretending to be a tree and various animals. Then the lessons stopped. We were very poor, so that might have been why. My mother’s mental health was never particularly stable and that might have been another factor. So ballet wasn’t a presence in my life until I was a teenager and Mikhail Baryshnikov defected to the West and subsequently starred in The Turning Point with Anne Bancroft, Shirley MacLaine and Lesley Browne. I don’t know how many times I went to see this film. I had a massive crush on Baryshnikov and in those days films, however cheesy, seemed to run and run. When the film finally left the local screens I was transformed into a balletomane. I would take the bus to Richmond for adult ballet lessons and the bus up to London for cheap seats to watch all and any ballets. In those days two buses at a child’s fare meant I could get to Londona back for around 20p via the Kings Road. I managed to get tickets for New York City Ballet at the Royal Opera House on the nights Baryshnikov was dancing. I remember being so high up that when the whole auditorium gasped as he leapt on the stage my gasp was delayed by several seconds as I was unable to see the stage where the leap began and he appeared in my limited field of vision fully suspended, a myth of a dancer. (I’m pretty sure the photo below was one of the many I had on my bedroom wall.) Trawling around Covent Garden, I would press my nose against the window of Freeds and dream of my first pair of pointe shoes (needless to say this never happened). I became obsessed with all things Russian, the dances, the dancers, the music, the whole idea of this exotic place which I’d learnt to fear as a child of the Cold War suddenly became a place of delight, but also exile and difference.
The first part of Confetti Dancers explores Russia/Eastern Europe as a place of mystery and difference. A place of exile and defection. A place where rumours start and people are scapegoated for their dreams.
Ballet left my life again when I left college and lived in Paris on a shoestring, sharing a flat with a French anarchist and a friend from college. Back in London I continued to haunt Covent Garden and Sadlers Wells and, after a longish spate temping in Central London, got my dream job as PA to the directors of The Royal Academy of Dancing in Battersea, a magical building in former warehouses. The Academy was the main international ballet examining board. We organised exams, trained examiners, trained teachers (the college dance studio was above my office) and ran summer schools and award events. After the first starry-eyed weeks as a succession of famous dancers and ex-dancers paraded through my office, I settled in. One of my roles was to become fount of all ballet plot knowledge. If someone was going to a ballet that evening they would race into my office for a two-minute synopsis of the plot and a quick heads up of the dance highlights. I’d settled in so well that I even dared to roll my eyes when my boss asked if I could whip up some quick snack food to go with champagne as he’d invited thirty visiting dancers from the Bolshoi to a party in the huge Directors’ office. There were staff dance classes at lunchtime and aerobics classes which were very much the new deal in the early eighties. I also went to the The Dance Studio in Covent Garden for classes several times a week. Some of Arlene Phillips dancers taught jazz dance there. I often turned up at the office in my fuschia Dance Centre T-shirt, jeans and legwarmers.
The Royal Academy of Dancing changed its name to the Royal Academy of Dance earlier this century and certainly didn’t have this posh glass walkway when I worked there although the flag and reception entrance are very familiar. I often took a turn on reception and used to love saying “putting you through” like they did in the films. My worst moment was thinking a staff member was playing a trick on me when they said “This is Dame Margot, ringing for Alan Hooper” and after a bit of to-ing and fro-ing the voice plaintively said, “But my dear this IS Dame Margot…”
It was here I met Bryce Cobain who worked in the library and was the resident Laban choreologist, an expert in dance analysis and notation. He became such a dear friend, and I learnt so much from him. I was still so young, barely nineteen and he helped me to grow up and see the world differently. The whole of Confetti Dancers is dedicated to Bryce and my poem Bryce appeared in my first collection In the Kingdom of Shadows and was the catalyst to the central sequence of poems in Confetti Dancers which makes up the whole of the second section. Bryce was gay and out and proud and through him I learnt about the London scene and what it was like to be gay (and Australian!) in an intolerant world. He was one of the first people in the UK to be diagnosed with AIDS. I remember so clearly the day he came into my office and showed me his arms and asked me what I thought the livid marks were which seemed to be appearing so regularly. We had great fun together, parties and dancing in Heaven nightclub, long chats and so much affection. I saw AIDS decimate the dance world as I knew it and was living in Paris when Bryce died. I left the Academy to go to University but would still work there during my holidays, running meetings, taking the minutes, translating any exams which came in written in French. My knowledge of French includes quite a lot of anatomical words and obscure facts about famous dancers. I’m not sure I ever came to terms with the grief I felt at this time but writing about it, even so many years afterwards, has certainly helped.
The third part of Confetti Dancers contains just one poem Read Their Lips. In 2016, alongside nine other poets, I was commissioned to write a response to the 1916 documentary film Battle of the Somme. We were each given a section of the film to respond to, my section was the first part of the film. Early in 2017 we gave a performance of our 50 minute long poem at The Cinema Museum before a rare screening of this silent film. I was very conscious that Confetti Dancers was going to be published during the Covid 19 pandemic and I was conscious that the devastation caused by the AIDS pandemic still hadn’t been fully acknowledged. I’d been doing research on the Spanish flu for a project which never came to fruition. Somehow, to have a poem about the First World War and the generational loss this entailed felt appropriate. It precedes Part III of Confetti Dancers which is about family, grief, loss and trauma. My grandparents grew up during the First World War and my parents during the Second World War and I found myself reflecting on how trauma is carried through generations.
My mother had electric shock treatment after a nervous breakdown caused her to be sectioned. She had quite a few false memories after the treatment, one of which was that she believed I’d had ballet lessons throughout my childhood, reaching quite a high level, and that my father had bought me a tutu which lived in my ancient childhood wardrobe. The poem The Tutu in my Wardrobe is an exploration of this memory.
The final secion of Confetti Dancers, Coda, is a place of realisation and healing and contains several of the poems I wrote during the pandemic in 2020.
I’ve been working on Confetti Dancers my whole life, processing memories and feelings of profound loss until they are ready to emerge, transformed, into poems which I hope will speak to a wide range of people. Poet David Batten recently said, “I write poetry to explain the world to myself” and this gave me a profund moment of realisation as it’s exactly what I do. It’s how I process everything which happens to me. One of the great delights of putting a collection together is to hear the responses to the poems and to the collection’s trajectory. It will mean completely different things to different people and I’m ready to let go of my deep involvement in these themes and to let them live their own lives.
1 thought on “Confetti Dancers – Behind the Scenes”
Sometimes we read a book which has a profound impact on us and Sue’s book is one of them. Sue skilfully takes us into her world, shares the highs and lows, leaves us to linger on her experiences, meet the people she loved and lost. Her poetry is both inspiring and deeply moving. I can only recommend it.