Barb Carter, lead Poetry Editor, in conversation with Catherine Malvern on her poem “December’s Child,” the overall winner of The Nick Blatchford Occasional Verse Contest for 2018. The poem appears in Issue 148 of The New Quarterly.
Barb: Catherine, first let me thank you for your brave, beautiful poem. Each time I come back to December’s Child, and I can’t help but do so often, its sound and sense run through me and take hold. My heart breaks a little more for the speaker with each reading. Each detail, each sound and line repetition in the villanelle mark the sad occasion of the still birth with perfect beauty. The craft reveals the depth of the speaker’s pain. May I ask what prompted you to write this poem and why you chose the form of the villanelle?
Catherine: Thank you Barb. I am deeply moved by the response to my poem from you and Kim and your readers and adjudicators. In hindsight, when submitting “December’s Child,” it might have been my hope, if not intention, to inspire a deep emotional reaction, but my true intention was to openly acknowledge a loss I had long suppressed.
Putting my words out into the world, no matter the outcome, was cathartic. Why the villanelle form? In the poetry course I was enrolled in, we spent weeks learning then writing in classic forms, from sonnets to ghazal, glosa et al. What struck me when we came to the villanelle, was how the form of alternating rhyme and refrain so gently underlined the subject that had been established in the first stanza, creating this hypnotic rhythm so pleasing to the ear – like a lullaby. It was as though I had been waiting for the form to find me. When I read in the lecture notes about creating this repetitive lullaby effect, I knew right away I had discovered the vessel I could use to impart a depth of emotion without having to use a sledgehammer. I wanted to communicate my loss with stoic dignity.
Barb: I cannot help but think of Dylan Thomas’s Do Not Go Gently Into That Goodnight when I read your poem. Were you influenced by it in any way when you wrote your own villanelle?
Catherine: Other than studying it in relation to villanelle form, no, at least not consciously. It is often cited as the quintessential villanelle and it is admittedly difficult to erase it from your consciousness when you are attempting to write in that form – a bit like a song you can’t get out of your head. Perhaps in the sense of overall subject matter of villanelle – loss, despair, angst, obsession – I was influenced… But what I did know was that I wanted my own villanelle to be lyrically haunting.
Barb: The poem’s haunting begins with its title. Please comment about your choice of title. Right from the poem’s first line: Born warm, but still as ice—no wail or cry – December’s Child conjures much.
Catherine: I actually had the title in mind before I had written a word of the poem. In keeping with that lullaby image, I was immediately thinking about the Mother Goose Nursery Rhyme: Monday’s Child (is fair of face…) whereby the day of the week a child is born determines a characteristic unique to them. I allude to the idea of it in the fifth stanza: No time for stories, rhymes and lullabies. But my child did not have the gift of his day. One of the adjudicators wrote about December being the time when the light wanes and the end of the year is approaching and indeed it is relevant in its sense of melancholy, in contrast to the expected joyous celebration of the holiday season.
I wanted the reader to be drawn from the Child in the title right to the heartbreaking first line of birth, stillness, silence.
Barb: How well you accomplished this immediacy. The reader is indeed drawn from the Child in the title to the heartbreaking first line of birth, stillness, silence. As you have so clearly demonstrated, each word in a poem can be significant. You had mentioned to one of the adjudicators, the initial curled inside my womb, no room for breathing eventually became whorled inside my womb, no room for breathing. Why did you make that change? Why whorled instead of curled?
Catherine: Each and every word plays an intrinsic role in the structure and meaning of a poem – second best is just that, not the best. It took some time, but once I found it, I was elated with whorled – not just the technique of sound bonding and alliteration with womb, but as a fitting allusion to the unique swirl of an individual fingerprint – of a tiny unique being.
Barb: Ah Catherine, craft and insight inform your poem. As one of the adjudicators of the Occasional Verse contest, Kim Jernigan, noted “December’s Child is a seemingly simple poem but one which seems … full of intention, loving intention, intention that underscores rather than overshadows a genuine grief”. The reader acknowledges the transfer “of the expected first cry of a newborn to a mother’s mourning wail”. But what might strike the reader most is the anguished question in the last stanza prepared for in the second stanza with the assertion: It seems he made a choice. Can you comment on this heart rending moment in the final stanza ? :
Sometimes I wonder which of us decides
who will die and who will be left grieving.
Catherine: The poem was exhausting and arduous to write in every sense – mentally, emotionally and, in staying true to the villanelle form, technically. But these last two lines were the most difficult to craft. I wanted to come full circle from it seems he made a choice to end with the sonorous lament of who decides any outcome. As one adjudicator wrote “… a wider issue of injustice.”
“full of intention… intention that underscores rather than overshadows a genuine grief” is so well put and it was indeed my own hopeful intention… without the use of the aforementioned sledgehammer, to allow the gentle rhythm of simple words to lay bare my grief.
Barb: The last two lines of the poem linger, resonating in the reader’s consciousness. One ponders not only the speaker’s pain but also her own losses. Thank you Catherine for your candour and your courage to craft and share this villanelle.
Catherine: I once wrote: “If we all used our voices, things would get unbearably loud”. As a thinker and an introspective soul, I am able to articulate far better on a page than with my voice. It has been my privilege to share and to have had this occasion from my past acknowledged with such tender compassion by the adjudicators. Steven Heighton reminds us that: “Interest is never enough. If it doesn’t haunt you, you’ll never write it well.” Through my poem, this villanelle lullaby to my son, his long ago birth and death have at last been recognized. My haunting is stilled.
Interviews with Past Contest Winners:
2017: Fiona Tinwei Lam for “Test”
2016: Ruth Daniell for “Wedding Anniversary”
2015: Cori Martin for “Quilters”
2013: Suzanne Nussey for “Poem for the First Sunday of Advent”
2012: Anne Marie Todkill for “Non sequitur”
2011: Kerry-Lee Powell for “The Lifeboat”
2010: Jeanette Lynes for “The Day John Clare Fell in Love (1818)”