Jo Shapcott is from London but studied in Dublin. She teaches Creative Writing at Royal Holloway. Her poetry has won some big awards including the Costa Prize and the Forward Prize. Aside from poetry she has also studied science with the Open University. Her collection “Of Mutability” (2011) explores her experiences of having breast cancer.
Why this poet?
She’s one that sticks in my head, like a piece of tasty gristle between my gnashers. If nothing else, her turns of phrase can make me tingle and gurn. Her first collection, for example, she titled: “Electroplating the Baby”. Frankly I don’t think you can beat that. Her poetry is diverse too, from knitting to pissing, cancer to chemistry. She’s interested in everyday life but her poems also talk about bigger issues such as gender and identity.
A poem extract
(from “Of Mutability” – read the full poem here)
Too many of the best cells in my body
are itching, feeling jagged, turning raw
in this spring chill. It’s two thousand and four
and I don’t know a soul who doesn’t feel small
among the numbers. Razor small.
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
I hate having to paste bits of poems, it really ruins the overall impact. However, we’ll have to cope.
What I love about this poem is how personal it is, and yet it blasts outwards to take in the ‘grand scheme of things’. Shapcott’s choice of words in the first stanza is brutal: “itching”, “jagged”, “raw” and these words would feel tired if it weren’t for the fact that she’s not talking about flesh as we might expect it, she’s talking about her “best cells”. Of course the fact that these are the “best” ones means that what’s unmentioned (the “worse cells”) is all the more potent. She’s breaking apart. We’re next to her, listening to her talk about her body’s rebellion, and we know this could happen to us too.
And then BOOM, here come the comets and angels. We’re told we can join them, we can learn “astrophysics or folksong”. Is this hope? It’s those things we imagine, those things we don’t quite know, “in the corner of your eye” that open up opportunities. That dissolving body becomes secondary to the possibilities of the mind, but it was the learning of her mortality, and our own, that brings about such vast change and inspiration. It’s as though she’s saying 'once you let go, you’re free to be something else.' She’s prodded life in the eye and she seems to come out victorious, or at least transformed.
I think this poem teaches us something: every experience, even very challenging, even life threatening, can change the way we think about the world and our place in it.
Of Mutability (winner of the Costa Book of the Year Award)
Her Book: Poems 1988-1998.
Electroplating the Baby (winner of the Commonwealth Poetry Prize for best first collection) - I think you have to get this second hand now, or read parts of it in her collected poems
Emergency Kit: Poems for Strange Times (edited with Matthew Sweeny, a very fine anthology of poems for all sorts of reasons, a great addition to a book shelf).