It’s getting real now. Speculum is now available to pre-order from the Broken Sleep Books shop (it is also available on Am***n, but please buy independent and at the source if you can – thank you!). The book comes out on October 31st, so order now and give future you the gift of poetry.
Here’s the blurb:
In Speculum, Hannah Copley considers the difficult history of the female body. Mirroring the title object used for centuries by gynaecologists, the poems uncover the hidden lives behind scientific progress. From the enslaved women exploited in the name of invention to the anonymous residents of mother and baby homes, Copley navigates personal, historical and forgotten legacies with equal exactitude and tenderness. Speculum is not only important as a feminist text, but its poetry is immaculate; a virtuosic first collection
And here’s a sneak peek in the form of ‘Juice’, which also won the Newcastle Poetry Prize in 2019, and ‘An archive’, which introduces some of the historical issues and ideas that drive the collection.
In her poem ‘Matter’, Sinéad Morrissey imagines her ‘love making as a kind of door / to wherever you were, waiting in matter, / spooled into a form I have not yet been shown’. Later, in ‘Returning from Arizona’ she describes the moment when her body spills its secrets and what was waiting now begins to arrive:
Getting too much of what you’ve acutely missed
— the median notion botched —
can render you wary of wishing’s blunt chicanery:
like longing for weeks to be sick
to prove the baby’s taken,
then failing to find a tonic
for another being’s foothold in your person.
Like Morrissey, most women now no longer discover they are pregnant from morning sickness. They are waiting for it, half-longing for, half-dreading its confirmation. There are other signs that come before — a missed period, sore breasts, exhaustion — but it is sickness that is so often the unofficial ‘event’ of discerning what it means to be pregnant.
Of the 70% estimate of those who experience morning sickness during pregnancy, there is a good deal of variety as to the exact symptoms and impact of this symbolic and physical ‘foothold in your person’. According to a recent BMJ article, of those who develop morning sickness, 40% suffer mildly, 46% suffer moderately, and 14% suffer severely, although the study does not explicitly describe the particularities and overlaps of these states or define what they take to mean by suffering. What these percentages do show is that there is enough variation in that 70% estimate to divide a room – to have one person swear by ginger while another can’t bear to think of it; to have one woman deigned as ‘weak’ while another ‘powers on’. The umbrella term reminds me of a literary movement. Think of Modernisms, not Modernism, I tell my students. Think of morning sicknesses, not morning sickness.
In the same article, the authors categorise another, fourth percentage, granted its own separate category outside of the 70% umbrella. Only 1.5% of pregnant women suffer from Hyperemesis Gravidarum (HG). This is not a symptom, but rather a complication – a syndrome that often lasts for the entirety of the pregnancy. Yet, like so many ‘women’s’ conditions, diagnosis and treatment vary dramatically between healthcare providers. Often, it is diagnosed retrospectively. A sufferer needs to have lost over five percent of their body weight before they are deemed to have HG rather than severe morning sickness. To get to this point, the woman in question – in her first trimester, vulnerable, often still feeling bound by the vow of secrecy they feel they must keep until the twelfth week – will have already undergone a considerable amount of pain, suffering and psychological turmoil, not to mention financial, personal and emotional strain. They may well have already had to stop working, had to stop leaving the house. If they already have children or caring responsibilities, they will be unable to carry these out. They may have stopped sleeping. They may no longer wish or believe it possible to carry on with the pregnancy.
The experience of HG varies wildly between the 1.5%. One woman may be consumed by nausea and be unable to eat or leave her bed, another may be so frequently and violently sick that she tears open her throat. Through now rarely fatal in developed countries, HG is still listed as a significant ‘cause’ of abortion. Before anti-emetic medication, the risk to the sufferer’s life was great.
‘A wren would have starved’
Newly married to the curate Arthur Bell Nicholls, and expecting her first child at the age of 38, Charlotte Brontë was one such victim. In the final two months of her life she was ‘attacked by new sensations of perpetual nausea and ever recurring faintness’, her ‘dreadful sickness’ increasing until ‘the very sight of food occasioned nausea’. These notes on Charlotte’s condition, provided by her friend and supporter Elizabeth Gaskell, offer an account of a sickness unchecked by drugs, ketone measurements and intravenous drips; ‘a wren would have starved on what she ate during those last six weeks’ laments a witness, perhaps Martha, her maid, the woman tasked with emptying the sick bowl and replacing the untouched water at the bedside. And yet until her death Charlotte remained hopeful, caught in that small space between dread and longing: “I dare say I shall be glad sometime,” she would say; “but I am so ill – so weary” Then she took to her bed, too weak to sit up.’
Charlotte’s death, like her sister Anne’s and all of her siblings before her, was officially recorded as phthisis, or tuberculosis. Yet it is far more likely that she died from malnourishment and dehydration brought on from morning sickness, or even from re-feeding syndrome – a complication first coined at the end of the Second World War among Japanese prisoners of war. After weeks of nothing, food can become a poison as well as a cure.
In her account of Brontë’s final days, Gaskell notes how after a period of weeks where she could keep nothing down, ‘there was a change’:
a low wandering delirium came on; and in it she begged constantly for food and even for stimulants. She swallowed eagerly now; but it was too late.
Elizabeth Gaskell, The Life of Charlotte Brontë
Charlotte would have been around four months pregnant and entering the second trimester at this point; a time when sickness and nausea often (but not always) subsides just enough to allow many pregnant women to feel more like their old selves (or at least, their old selves with a new self growing inside them). Estrogen and Progesterone levels continue to increase, but the amount of human Chorionic Gonadotropinthis – or hCG – has now begun to subside after its peak at eleven weeks.
Yet she did not recover and go on to have a healthy pregnancy. At four months pregnant, her hCG levels began to decrease. Yet, as Gaskell notes, without anti-emetics and the proper treatment, it was ‘too late’. Whether from malnourishment or sudden re-feeding, Charlotte Brontë did not follow Jane Eyre, her most famous protagonist, into motherhood. Instead, her ‘abiding-place’ was, like her siblings, an early grave in St Mary’s Church, Haworth.
I had no idea about Brontë’s HG and the circumstances of her death until I became pregnant and sick with the same complication. Rather than feeling scared or further depressed by this discovery, she became a sort of talisman – a way of understanding and articulating my own descent into a world of yellow and toilet bowls and pills and exhaustion. It was through writing her experience that I was able to find the words to articulate something of that surreal and traumatic time. ‘Haworth, 1855’ was the result:
'Haworth, 1855'‘Martha tenderly waited on her mistress, and from time to time tried to cheer her with the thought of the baby that was coming. “I dare say I shall be glad sometime,” she would say; “but I am so ill – so weary” Then she took to her bed, too weak to sit up … Long days and longer nights went by; still the same relentless nausea and faintness.’ Elizabeth Gaskell
It was there already, yes,
in those bone cold classrooms,
in the chants of homo, hominis, homini
drifting out between the iron bars.
But this is different. This is slow,
this is fragile. This is all sighs and rustlings,
retching and sobs. Loneliness,
I now know, is guttural.
I dare say I’ll be glad
when it’s over, but as it is I feel like
I’ve been cleaved. Stomach, lungs, throat
frayed like a caught seam,
mind spooling on the floor.
Under night’s cloak, beds slip
their posts, sheets tie themselves in knots,
pillows calcify and crumble to a fine dust.
I wake each morning hot, threadbare,
my linen twisted, this makeshift body
kept in place by the smallest dart of nerve,
this makeshift heart still in my ear.
I dare say though, that I’ll be lighter
in a month, but in my throat
there’s a bitterness that will not shift.
My teeth are bird’s eggs crunching
under coach wheels, my tongue
is torn cocoons on garden lawns, my lips
the dull skin of a cobra coiled behind
museum glass. But I shall be glad
sometime, I’ll forget the smell
of an egg yolk, the slimy warmth of butter
as it runs across my tongue. I’ll want
other things than unripe plums
and blackberries green and hard as stone,
In two months I’ll see the white heather,
the dappled breasts of merlin, sheldapple.
My eyes will catch the winchat flushed
and bolting from its thicket bed.
In a year, I’ll feel the backwards pull
of a skirt hem through tangled gorse,
the sharp embrace of a bramble hedge.
As I lie here soft and raw as dough,
I know tomorrow will prove infinitely
brighter. Even now, I can almost feel
your uncut letter in my hand.
I’m very excited to finally be able to shout about the fact that my first full collection of poems, Speculum, is coming out in October 2021 with Broken Sleep Books. Researching and writing these poems has been a labour of love – one which has been ongoing for many years now. I’m so happy that they have found a home at such an exciting and ethical press, and with such a brilliant editor, Aaron Kent.
Here’s the first glimpse of the cover. The image comes from a 1794 anatomical drawing called ‘The Action of Quickening’. It is a colour engraving (by J. Pass) of an illustration by the artist Daniel Dodd. It is originally labelled as ‘Dissection of the torso of a pregnant woman, showing the internal organs and the foetus’. Looking at the placement and size of the organs, it’s hard to imagine such a dissection actually took place.
It’s the final day of the Writing Between the Lines Poetry Challenge! Thank you for taking the time to join in with this week of stories, hidden histories and creative and sporting inspiration. I hope you’ve come away with some new drafts and ideas. I’ve certainly learned a great deal in the process of putting together these posts. When we first came up with the idea of a poetry ‘Olympiad’ I knew comparatively little about the 1921 event, or about the athletes who took part. It’s been a pleasure to discover more about their achievements and legacy.
Our final events are the jumps – high jump and long jump.
These were strong events for the GB team. Hilda Hatt won joint gold with Frédérique Kussel in the high jump, and in the long jump Mary Lines took gold, with Hilda Hatt taking the silver.
Rare footage and photos from these events shows the very different technique used by these athletes from today’s long and high jumpers.
There was no mat for the high jump, so competitors had to land on their feet or else risk serious injury. Variations of the scissor kick were really the only option!
For the long jump, competitors did, thankfully, have a sandpit to land in!
Mary Lines excelled in this event – she won gold in the long jump in almost every international and national championship up until her retirement from competitive sport in 1924.
Lines was twenty-seven years old in the 1921 Olympiad, the oldest competitor on the GB team. She had never run a race before the games. In the next three years she would set world records and win championships in events ranging from 50 metres to 880 yards, as well as in the long jump and the hurdles. She worked as a waitress in London and attended evening gymnasium classes at the Polytechnic (a 1924 article in the Dundee Evening Telegraph later has her as working for a ‘well-know mineral water firm’ [18th Jan, 1924]). Her success is an example of the fact that, unlike many other sporting activities open to women at that time, athletics at the Poly provided opportunities to keen sportswomen from a variety of backgrounds.
Unlike Florence Birchenough, who continued to compete at an international level after her marriage and the birth of her son, Mary Lines’s engagement to a man named ‘Mr Smith’ signalled the end of her international athletics career. Lines, the ‘famous Streatham lady’ slowly starts to disappear from the lists of competitors, her records gradually matched and beaten by emerging athletes.
After the death of her husband in 1946, Mary Smith (Lines) continued to live in London until 1971, when she moved to Worthing to live with her two unmarried sisters. She was killed in a traffic accident in 1978 at the age of 85 – she was running to post her Christmas mail, and was hit by an oncoming van.
There is so much left to learn about Mary Lines. The new plinth in the foyer of the University of Westminster’s Regent Street building is only the beginning in what will be a much longer process of discovery and re-writing her name back into the history of the University and of UK sport.
Legacies and Impact
On April 2nd, 1921, the GB team arrived back at Victoria Station, London after three days travelling. Hot, tired, and dishevelled (apparently they didn’t think much of the French train systems) the athletes weren’t greeted by fanfare. They went back to their homes and back to their regular jobs as teachers, dressmakers, typists and waitresses at Lyon’s Corner House. They resumed their studies and competed alongside and against each other at the weekends for their respective London athletic teams.
But they did change the conversation around women’s sport, provoking heated debate in sporting circles and beyond about women’s physical capabilities, modern femininity and of women’s status as sportspeople and competitors on the world’s stage.
The Women’s Amateur Athletics Association (WAAA) was formed in early 1922 at the Regent Street Polytechnic, now Westminster, with many of the early committee members coming from the 1921 team. The WAA would change the nature of women’s track and field, regulating, organising and supporting women’s athletics for the next sixty years. The members of the WAA would also champion the cause of women’s sport in the face of sexism and dismay at the apparent loss of propriety brought about by these new physical excesses.
This article from the April 6th 1921 edition of the Evening Telegraph is a little hard to make out, but it expresses the concerns shared by many in athletics and wider society about the ‘physical and nervous strain’ placed on the fragile female constitution by ‘excessive’ levels of exertion. It is interesting to note how athletics is compared with women’s football. The many links between these two emerging sports is fascinating, particularly given the parallel degrees of discrimination both sets of sportspeople faced.
The nature and level of participation in women’s football and women’s athletics changed dramatically during the First World War, and in many ways demonstrated the shifting role of women in British society and the workplace during that time. After 1918, there were some who sought to reverse these changes, including those in the sporting establishment. While the IOC chose to ban women from taking part in Olympic track and field events – leading to the 1921 Olympiad – in December 1921 the FA banned women’s football on the grounds of ‘unsuitability’. This ban would not be lifted until 1971.
Yet while some publications were wary of the rise of these ‘unnatural’ women, there were also clear signs of the shifting attitudes towards women in sport, as this patronising but ultimately celebratory piece in the Belfast Telegraph from 2nd April 1921 highlights:
Change was on its way, and the 1921 athletes were at the head of the sprint.
For the final challenge in the Writing Between the Lines Poetry Olympiad we’re going to think about the many ways that histories and achievements can be erased and censored, and what we can do as writers to address and alter this silence.
One technique that I turn to a lot in my own work as a poet is to engage directly with archival material. That might mean ‘finding’ poems in the text of a historical document (such as a letter, a census record, or a newspaper article of the time) or directly responding to images and objects to create a written ‘artefact’. Either way, poetry is a powerful tool for historical excavation. It can shine a light on forgotten stories, it can allow silent voices to speak, and it can interrogate ‘official’ histories.
Here for instance, is my light-hearted attempt at taking on a historical document. Using censorship, I have attempted to change and interrogate the original text of the 1921 Evening Telegraph article:
Today’s challenge is to have a go at your own censorship poem. Here is the article I used:
Why not print it off and get busy with a black marker pen. Or else download it and start highlighting the text in black. Or if you don’t want to use this article, head over to a particularly awful national newspaper and choose an article to copy and paste into word and then erase into something new. If you want to save time, you could even copy and paste your chosen text into a ‘blackout generator’ and have a go there. Then share the results!
I hope you have enjoyed these poetry challenges. It has been a pleasure to put them together. Happy writing, and get in touch if you’d like to learn more about the Writing Between the Lines project and the women of the 1921 Olympiad. I’m certainly going to be writing a lot more about them in the coming months!
The penultimate challenge! We’re almost at the end of our week of poetry challenges and 1921 stories.
On April 2nd, 1921, the GB team arrived back at Victoria Station, London after three days travelling. Hot, tired, and dishevelled (apparently they didn’t think much of the French train systems) the athletes weren’t greeted by fanfare. They went back to their homes and back to their regular jobs as teachers, dressmakers, typists and waitresses. They resumed their studies and continued to compete alongside and against each other at the weekends for their respective London athletic teams.
In my final post tomorrow I’m going to talk a little about their impact; about how their trip to Monte Carlo changed the conversation around women in athletics and ignited debate at a time when women were being actively excluded from competitive sport.
But before that, let’s do a bit more throwing!
The javelin, like the shot put, was won by France’s star, Violette Morris. I have already written about Morris’s controversial life and career in the Shot Put poetry challenge. She is a fascinating and troubling figure, but her relationship with the French sporting authorities of the time also reveals a great deal about the anxieties surrounding sexuality, gender identity, and bodily ‘propriety’ that these athletes’ performances provoked.
In the UK, the GB athletes were met with similar derision. As I’ve explored in earlier posts, you can see this a little in the media focus on the ‘exhibition’ events rather than the athletes’ specialisms, as well as in the inevitable focus on their appearance and levels of attractiveness. Looking ahead to a subject I’ll cover in my final post, in the months and years after the Olympiad, the proof of their athleticism proved difficult to accept for certain journalists and athletes.
But let’s not let all this sexism distract us!
What is perhaps most remarkable about the 1921 javelin competition is that it was a two-handed event. That didn’t mean that the athletes had to lob a spear over their heads like a football from the sidelines. Instead, each athlete was required to throw using their right hand, then their left. Their final mark was the total of the best mark with their right-handed throw and the best mark with their left-handed throw. This was also the case for shot put. Looking at the footage from the 1921 and 1922 Games, there does not seem to have been a run up. Athletes would often throw from a stationary position, as depicted by Morris in the above photo.
Although she wasn’t placed in the finals of the 1921 javelin, Florence Birchenough again shone through as the emerging throwing star of the UK. More than Mary Lines, Birchenough would emerge as the household name of UK athletics in the decades to come. She played a vitally important role in women’s athletics in the 1920s and 1930s. She also made headlines for continuing to compete at an international level after marriage and children – an unusual and noteworthy occurrence at the time.
The Daily Mirror have got it wrong in their caption. Florence Birchenough, or Mrs Millichap as she was then also known, was not the bare-headed woman in the picture, and her son was sixteen months old rather than sixteen years. But the fact that she was back in training, this time for speed walking, was enough to cause a stir.
Here’s another picture of Birchenough, this time competing in a cross-country match in 1928. If anybody knows why she might be carrying that large cross body bag, please get in touch!
Going back to the Olympiad, in this image Florence practices her right-handed javelin technique before the crowds arrived and took their places in the stands.
Compare her technique to that of her French rivals. She doesn’t bend into the throw as deeply. Look at the way she seems to hold the javelin almost like a pen. It looks staged for the cameras. It might not have been a winning throw, but it’s a stunning shot.
For her achievements in athletics, her coaching, her activism on behalf of women’s sport and her decades of active participation at the top of UK sport, Florence Birchenough deserves far more attention and celebration than she currently has. I came into Writing Between the Lines knowing nothing about her, and am still exploring. But there is so much more to say.
Today’s challenge is inspired by the trajectory and shape of the javelin, as well as the challenging technique involved in mastering the two-handed throw. We are going to have a go at creating a narrow poem that stretches down the page, and we are going to do it in a form that demands that you ‘hold’ the words in a way that might feel a little strange at first – syllabic poetry!
Syllabic verse is a poetic form that has a fixed or constrained number of syllables per line. It is not measured in meter, but instead on syllable count. If you fix on a syllabic rule, then you don’t deviate from that, even if it means breaking up a word over two lines. Often, syllabic poems will have a specific rule or patter that is decided upon by the poet before they begin. For instance 7/7/7/7 – which is a four line stanza, with each line totalling seven syllables. You can mix up your syllable count in any formulation you like, for instance 5/6/7/8/9 9/8/7/6/5, which would create a lovely ascending/descending pattern. You may also already be familiar with syllabic poetry. Haikus – or Hokku – with their (traditionally) 5/7/5 rule and 17 syllable total, are one of the oldest syllabic forms.
For poetic inspiration today, here is an extract from Caroline Bird’s poem, The Amnesty. If you count the syllables, you’ll see how every line is made up of 7. The poem never breaks from this rule:
I surrender my weapons:
Catapult Tears, Rain-Cloud Hat,
Lip Zip, Brittle Coat, Taut Teeth
in guarded rows. Pluck this plate
of armor from my ear, drop
it in the Amnesty Bin,
watch my sadness land among
the dark shapes of memory.
Syllabic poetry offers another way of engaging with form and poetic ‘rules’. It also creates a different sort of rhythm from free verse, or a poem in iambic pentameter. Abiding by a set syllable count (but not a set meter or rhyme scheme) can create an interesting and productive constraint. It can shape the language choice in ways you’re not used to, forcing you to either locate a new word that fits within the line, or else break up a single word over two lines – an act that draws attention to the phrase, giving it new significance within the piece.
With this new technique – and the technique of the two-handed javelin in mind – today’s poetry challenge is to write a narrow syllabic poem. Each line must be 5 syllables long – no more and no less. As for your starting topic/line, you have two options: 1.) things I’ve thrown away… or 2.) with my other hand….
Today marks a brief intermission in my poetic exploration of the athletics events of the 1921 Olympiad. But don’t worry, after you’ve caught up on yesterday’s hurdles I’ll be back to annoy and delight you with facts and challenges tomorrow.
Today I want to simply lament and celebrate the fact that alongside competing in multiple events, the athletes of the 1921 Women’s Olympiad were also expected to perform pre-assigned European folk dances (in costume) and show off their ‘wand-waving’ in a public exhibition.
Depressingly, but perhaps not surprisingly, this exhibition received a disproportionate number of lines in the already narrow newspaper columns dedicated to the Olympiad.
In the April 6th edition of the Newcastle Daily Chronicle, for instance, reporter Eustace White lists the activities that ‘Les Charmentes Girls’ performed.
White goes on to note the comparative slowness of Mary Lines’s winning times with her male peers, commenting that they could give her a ‘200yd’ head start and still win with ease. Charming indeed.
In the lead up and during the events of the Olympiad, there is very little in the British media about the athletes. However, the London Daily News and the Daily Mirror did publish pictures of the ‘graceful athletes’ rehearsing their Dutch and Greek dances.
The presentation of these women as a sort of exhibition in their own right was further cemented in the brief reporting of their departure. It is hard to imagine GB men getting a similar write-up in the Daily Mirror:
The wonderful thing about exploring an archive – any archive – is that you never quite know what you’re going to come across, or what direction that new lead might take you. As a researcher, you often begin with one intention or line of enquiry, but all it takes is one glance down a list of records, one spot of an inconsistency or passing reference, or one click of a digitalised subject list, and you find yourself exploring a whole new set of stories. It’s hard to explain that excitement, and occasionally the hunt itself can be more fun than the finished find. However, sometimes you really do come across some gems.
If you haven’t ever taken a look through Gallica – the digital library of the National Library of France – then I would highly recommend it. Today I spent far too long going through 1921 newspapers and searching for anything i could find about the Olympiad. It turns out there was quite a lot! It’ll be fascinating to compare these documents against those in the archive at Westminster.
Today’s poetry challenge is the hurdles, and I had planned to share the little we know about the competitors. France dominated the event, winning gold, silver and bronze, and so, unsurprisingly, it is not focussed on in the few British (tiny) news reports that were written about the Olympiad. However, via Gallica who hold digitalised records of some of the French media from the event, we can see the the Poly athletes and GB team in practice and in action. Here, for instance, are GBs Daisy Wright (left) and Hilda Hatt (right) practicing before the event. Wright’s leading leg is nice and high!
And here is Mary Lines caught in mid-flight, with the packed balconies of the Casino and the Monte Carlo scenery behind her.
These pictures are remarkable – they show the athletes in action, they show the crowds and dramatic backdrop, they even show the patchy grass on the pigeon shooting field. They bring the heats and the practices and the women themselves to life, and give us a sense of the grit, humour, and even form and gait of the athletes. I’ll leave the hurdlers to judge how they look.
But without wanting to fall headfirst into a clunky athletics metaphor, it wasn’t only wooden hurdles that these women had to scale. A brief look at a contemporary report of the time also demonstrates the unabashed sexism that Alice Milliat and the athletes encountered, not only from their male peers and the IOC, but also in the contemporary media.
Here’s an extract from the April 9th edition of the Menton and Monte Carlo News. reporting on the events of the Olympiad:
‘To think of there ever being such a thing as a female Olympic at all!’ Shades of Zeus indeed…
In another opinion piece from the April 2nd edition of the same newspaper, this is what the columnist had to say about the athletes:
The focus in both pieces on the appearance, ‘flush’ and attractiveness of the athletes is distasteful to read, but it doesn’t feel all that far away from some of the media coverage of women’s sporting events and sportspeople now. There are still plenty of hurdles left to to clear..
The Poetry Challenge
Today’s poetry challenge is all about working with a refrain. Like evenly-spaced hurdles on the track, a refrain is a phrase or line repeated at intervals within a poem, especially at the end of a stanza.
In his poem, ‘In Paris with You’, for example, James Fenton takes his title and brings it back to conclude his subsequent stanzas.
Don't talk to me of love. I've had an earful
And I get tearful when I've downed a drink or two.
I'm one of your talking wounded.
I'm a hostage. I'm maroonded.
But I'm in Paris with you.
Yes I'm angry at the way I've been bamboozled
And resentful at the mess I've been through.
I admit I'm on the rebound
And I don't care where are we bound.
I'm in Paris with you.
While the mood within each stanza shifts up and down and the speaker sways between ironic complaint and wounded bitterness, the refrain brings the poem back each time to the intimacy and romance of the titular address. It creates a humour and affection that builds to the final stanza, so that in these final lines we find a bold, laughing declaration of desire.
Don't talk to me of love. Let's talk of Paris.
I'm in Paris with the slightest thing you do.
I'm in Paris with your eyes, your mouth,
I'm in Paris with... all points south.
Am I embarrassing you?
I'm in Paris with you.
In Imtiaz Dharker’s ‘They’ll say: she must be from another country’, we find another example of this poetic hurdle. In her brilliant exploration of what it means to exist in the vibrant spaces between countries, cultures, identities and languages, Dharker turns the words used to dismiss her into a declaration of independence and a celebration of individuality.
When I can’t comprehend
why they’re burning books
or slashing paintings,
when they can’t bear to look
at god’s own nakedness,
when they ban the film
and gut the seats to stop the play
and I ask why
they just smile and say,
‘She must be
from another country.’
When I speak on the phone
and the vowel sounds are off
when the consonants are hard
and they should be soft,
they’ll catch on at once
they’ll pin it down
they’ll explain it right away
to their own satisfaction,
they’ll cluck their tongues
‘She must be
from another country.’
The poem ends on a triumphant note, as the speaker by takes back and reclaims the refrain.
And I’ll be happy to say,
‘I never learned your customs.
I don’t remember your language
or know your ways.
I must be
from another country.’
With this defiance and celebration in mind, in today’s poetry challenge we are going to engage directly with the archives. Zoom in and choose a short phrase/extract from the Menton and Monte Carlo News reports above, or else take a bit of one of Pierre de Courbetin’s recorded statements on female athletics that I’ve discussed in the 800m challenge as your title and refrain, and use your poem to interrogate, ridicule or reflect on your chosen statement. Feel free to adapt your phrase slightly as you go through, but have it there as something to return to and overcome in each of your stanzas.
I think I’m going to take ‘To think of there ever being such a thing as a female Olympic at all!’ or else ‘the girls gave evidence of the physical strain’ as my hurdle.
Today is all about passing the baton, both in terms of the legacies of 1921 and in our poetry challenge.
Led by their star runner Mary Lines, the British team took home gold medals in both the 4 x 75 m and 4 x 200 m relays. Their B-team also won bronze in the 4 x 75 m.
Aside from the switch of Daisy Wright for a ‘Miss Bradley’ (first name currently unknown) in the 4 x 200 m, the team line up for both events was the same: Mary Lines, Hilda Hatt and Alice Cast. Both Lines and Cast were students at the Polytechnic and they, along with Hilda Hatt, all belonged to the Polytechnic Ladies Athletics Club. The photograph below, which is from a few years after the 1921 Olympiad, definitely contains a couple of the team: Hilda Hatt (middle, third from left) and Florence Birchenough (middle, fourth from left) – although there may be others in there (thanks to this excellent post by ‘Running Past’ for the identification of Hatt and Birchenough, as well for as the fascinating information on the Inauguaral WAAA championships).
I have already written a little about the brilliant Florence Birchenough in the Poetry Challenge Shot Put event. 1921 really was only the beginning in her long career in athletics and as a member of the WAAA. Yet alongside Birchenough, Hilda Hatt is another name that continues to crop up in the decade to come in, both national and international rankings and medal lists.
In 1921 she won joint gold in the high jump, silver in the long jump (coming second to Mary Lines), bronze in the 60 m (after Mary Lines and Daisy Wright) and gold in the relays. But for Hatt – just as with Birchenough – 1921 was only the beginning. In future events, such as the 1922 Women’s World Games, her talents as a jumper shone through as she took on and matched the records set by figures like Mary Lines.
Passing the Baton
The relay is a good time to discuss another set of absences from the history of athletics. As some of my previous posts have explored, the athletes of 1921 – and others like them – were clearly discriminated against and even excluded from elite track and field events for decades on the grounds of their gender, their sexuality, their status as child bearers, and their supposed fragility and femininity. However, they still carried the privilege that came with their position as white women. As far as I can tell, the 1921 Olympiad was comprised entirely of white-European athletes.
On the UK team, it was not until 1930, at the third annual Women’s World Games (still organised by Alice Milliat) that an athlete of Caribbean heritage would represent GB in an international athletics competition. Ethel Edburga Clementina Scott, a sprinter and relay racer, would be part of the highly selective squad of 15, and would go on to win silver with her teammates in the relay.
Interestingly, she would also be the first athlete to match Mary Lines’s 60 m British record. On 30 August 1930, Scott set a personal best for the 60 m at a track meet in Mitcham, London. Her time of 7.8 seconds was 2 tenths of a second off the world record of 7.6 seconds and equalled Lines’s current British record.
Ethel Scott was the first black woman to represent GB at an International Athletics Competition. She was a record -breaking athlete. She took on the sprint and relay baton from Mary Lines and the athletes of 1921. Indeed many of them would go on to be her teammates in future games. And yet her name does not appear enough in the history of UK sport. She should be a household name.
In the spirt of passing the baton, today’s poetry challenge is all about picking up a line from somewhere else – your favourite song, another poem, the opening line of a novel – and creatively running with it.
There are many ways of going about this. Perhaps the most well-known contemporary example of this is ‘The Golden Shovel’ form, coined by the American poet Terrance Hayes in his poem of the same name. Hayes takes ‘We Real Cool’ by the poet Gwendolyn Brooks, and effectively spells out each word of the original in the final word of each line of his new piece. So…
We Real Cool The Pool Players.
Seven at the Golden Shovel.
We real cool. We
Left school. We
Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We
Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We
Jazz June. We
The Golden Shovelafter Gwendolyn Brooks
When I am so small Da’s sock covers my arm, we
cruise at twilight until we find the place the real
men lean, bloodshot and translucent with cool.
His smile is a gold-plated incantation as we
drift by women on bar stools, with nothing left
in them but approachlessness. This is a school
I do not know yet. But the cue sticks mean we
are rubbed by light, smooth as wood, the lurk
of smoke thinned to song. We won’t be out late.
Standing in the middle of the street last night we
watched the moonlit lawns and a neighbor strike
his son in the face. A shadow knocked straight
Da promised to leave me everything: the shovel we
used to bury the dog, the words he loved to sing
This is just an extract of Hayes’s remarkable poem. I urge you to read the whole thing here. What he achieves in this complex piece is not an erasure of Brook’s vibrant original, but a tribute and an extension of it. ‘The Golden Shovel’ is a form of translation. It is also a carrying on the conversation, as the lines of the Pool Players in ‘We Real Cool’ are picked up and carried into the new century.
In many ways, this poetry project is trying to do exactly the same thing.
If you want to attempt your own version of The Golden Shovel technique with a line of your choosing then go for it!
However, as a shorter, alternative option, here’s another way you can run the poetry relay: take your line from your chosen poem, song, novel, short story etc. and make it the first line of your poem today. See where it leads you!
Click here to catch up on yesterday’s 800m event and learn about why women were not allowed to compete in many International long distance events for 30 years
It’s event 4 of the Writing Between the Lines poetry challenge. How’s the cramp?
Today we’re going to think about the 800m – one of the most surprisingly controversial events in women’s track and field. Did you know that after the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics, women were not able to compete in the 800m until 1960? It is astonishing to think that the consequences of one race would go on to block women’s access to any Olympic competition longer than 200m for the next 32 years. And yet it was completely mis-reported. As Roger Robinson sets out in his Runners World article on the race and its aftermath:
It’s one of those stories that gets told over and over. When the women’s 800 meters was included in the Olympic Games for the first time at Amsterdam in 1928, several runners collapsed at the finish. Shocked at the public spectacle of women in such distress, the all-male Olympic establishment cut the event.
Some eyewitness versions give even more dramatic accounts.
“Below us on the cinder path were 11 wretched women, 5 of whom dropped out before the finish, while 5 collapsed after reaching the tape,” wrote John Tunis of the New York Evening Post.
Other newspapers preached that women would be desexed and their reproductive capability impaired by such “terrible exhaustion.” England’s Daily Mail affirmed that women who raced longer than 200 meters would age prematurely.
Roger Robinson, “Eleven Wretched Women”
Except that none of this was true.
In fact, of the nine (not twelve) women who reached the final, all completed the race, with Lina (Karoline) Radke-Batschauer (Germany), Kinue Hitomi (Japan)and Inga Gentzel (Sweden) all coming in under the previous World Record (along with three others).
So too do the comments of Baron Pierre de Courbetin, the founder and president of the IOC, and a contemporary of Alice Milliat and the athletes:
Here’s another remark from Courbetin, which again provides a great deal of insight into just how bold and vital the 1921 Women’s Olympiad really was:
With statements like this from the founder of the IOC, it’s easy to see why many of the achievements of the 1921 athletes and organisers have passed relatively unseen in the 100 years since. Even some of the historical reporting of the 1928 Olympics, which unintentionally portrays women’s track and field as a brand new phenomenon, misses out the fact that women had been successfully competing in middle and long distances, and breaking world records, for years. For instance in the 1921 Women’s Olympiad.
Not only has women’s sport been mis-reported. It has been erased too.
The 1921 800m
Before internationally renowned athletes were being excluded from their sport on the grounds of their supposed fragility, Mary Lines and France’s Lucie Bréard were battling it out for the 800m gold.
In the end, Bréard clinched it in 2.30,1, beating Mary Lines by two seconds. Suzanne Porte (France) got the bronze. Here she is celebrating her win. The fact that she was able to do this in what look like slip on loafers and a belt is even more impressive!
Bréard would go on to break the world record for the 1000m in subsequent Women’s World Games, whereas Mary Lines focussed more on the 250m, relay, and jumping events in her future games. But both’s involvement in the 1921 800m race – dressed in their various team uniforms of long shorts, tights, leather belts, plimsols, buckled shoes and berets, with added pearl earrings, chains and hair bows – offer the vivid and wonderful proof of a very different version of the ‘wretched women’ described by the New York Evening Post in 1928.
Taking Courbetin’s notion of ‘impractical, uninteresting, unaesthetic and improper‘ women as initial inspiration, today’s challenge is all about the clothes we wear when we exercise.
I am fascinated by the team uniforms and footwear of the 1921 athletes – from long skirts to smock dresses, to tights and plimsols, to berets, headscarves and brogues with a slight heel – Monte Carlo has such a wonderful variety of active wear.
For today’s challenge, write a poem about your own active wear. Choose one key item – that might be trainers, sports bras, lycra shorts, jogging bottoms – and write a short history of the different iterations that you’ve owned.
For instance, if you were to choose trainers, you might start by describing the first pair you remember, and how you felt in them. Then you might move on to your teenage trainers, and how you wore them (did you draw on them? Did you change the laces?), before finishing with a more contemporary pair. Really focus on describing your chosen item of clothing in forensic detail. And access all of your senses – how did they look? what was their texture? how did they smell? What sound did they make as they hit the pavement?
If you’re looking for inspiration, here’s an excerpt from ‘Investigation of Past Shoes’ by Vahni Capildeo. This is one of my favourite poems, and a piece I always share with my creative writing students.
Capildeo shows how clothes can tell a story, and how our evolving relationship with a chosen item can speak volumes about so much more than simply the thing itself. The mode of ‘investigation’ – prose-ish, sub-headings, a sparsity of ‘I’, close forensic description – is also striking because of how moving it is. It’s a lovely example of how it is not necessary to spell out the emotional ‘point[s]’ of what you are writing. The reader can find and create them in the spaces between the images that the words create.
Investigation of Past ShoesINSIDE THE GATEWAY: 1970S RED CLOGS WITH SIDE BUCKLE
The forever shoe, which points homewards, belongs to my mother.
When our house was being built, she stepped onto the driveway while
the tarmac was still wet, still setting. Ever since that step, the driveway,
which slants upwards, bears an imprint of her 1971 footwear. Her foot-
print says, Climb! Come with me. Whoever steps into that impression
becomes, for a moment, the leggy wearer of a fire-red clog with a pirat-
ical silver buckle on the side.
OUTSIDE THE TEMPLE: GOLD AND SILVER SANDALS
The sandals which will make a female of me belong to many women.
The front of the temple entrance hides itself behind shoe-racks. Vis-
itors enter barefooted, leaving behind the dung, dried frogs, spilled
petrol and ketchup traces of the streets. Hundreds of pairs of gold
and silver sandals wait here for the women who will re-emerge from
the vigil with the taste of basil leaf and sugar in their deep-breathing
mouths and carpet fibres between their toes ...
Usually run over a curving track, the 250m demands that its runners think about their turn as well as their speed. Taking the bend requires that you adjust your style, re-balance and then regain the momentum. And don’t forget to stay in your lane!
The 250m race was won by Mary Lines, the star of the English team and the Regent Street Polytechnic. Lines would go on to achieve three 1st prizes and one 2nd at the 1921 Games. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography describes her as “[t]he first star of British women’s athletics between the wars”.
That this ‘star’ would fade from the official narrative and history of UK sport, and would never appear alongside the names of The Polytechnic Harriers and male cricket stars engraved on the Studd Trophy and mounted on the wall of Westminster’s 309 Regent Street, is the reason that Writing Between the Lines first came into being. Her story demands to be (re)written.
As for adding her name to those celebrated already, Guy Osborn has been busy taking care of that:
Our foyer is a beautiful space but there is a further specific absence. If you look carefully in the room there are three plinths, on two on the ‘Gallery’ side you will see busts, of Hogg and Studd, very important figures in our history …
Above the entrance to the cinema on the other side there is a third plinth, but this has been empty for years …Drawing on the concept of the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square we mark the centenary of the 1921 successes of our Polytechnic women at the Womens’ Olympiad by recognising Mary Lines, on behalf of all Polytechnic women, on the third plinth in the Regent Street foyer. This will be lit on 21 March 2021 to mark the centenary of the departure from Victoria station and remain lit for the period of the competition and until the centenary of their return.
The Poetry Challenge: Celebration
My first instinct for the 250m challenge was a sonnet. Both are still relatively short, but involve a vital turn (or volta) that demands a different sort of balance. However, while I was planning this out, I thought instead about Mary Lines and the (previously) empty third plinth, and what a privilege it is to be able to use research and writing to help to shed new light on this previously under-appreciated athlete.
So in honour of Mary Lines and the third plinth, today’s poetry challenge is all about celebrating someone who doesn’t receive the credit they deserve…but feel free to do this challenge as a sonnet too!
In his gorgeous poem ‘Unsung’, Kei Miller ‘sings’ the quiet, everyday praises of his father:
There should be a song for the man who does not sing
himself – who has lifted a woman from her bed to a wheelchair
each morning, and from a wheelchair to her bed each night;
a song for the man recognized by all the pharmacists, because
each day he has joined a line, inched forward with a prescription
for his ailing wife; there should be a song for this man
who has not sung himself ...
The poem offers up the actions of love and care as a way of showing the reader more about the ‘man who does not sing himself’ than any list of qualities could.
For your own poem, choose someone you admire – sporting, historical or relative – and celebrate them!
Tip: Try and focus on representative actions rather than attributes. If you look at the extract from ‘Unsung’, you’ll notice that Miller never directly tells us of his father’s patience, kindness and love. Instead, he shows us by listing his daily tasks. If you’re struggling, make a list of the things that you admire about your chosen subject, and then ‘translate’ each of these into a single event or action.
To catch up on previous poetry challenges and learn more about the project…