“I’ve tended to inhabit them, rather than allowing them to inhabit me”: poet Susan Wicks on the figure of the mermaid

Susan Wicks is a poet who broke new ground with mermaid imagery back in 1992, with her  poetry collection Singing Underwater (Faber & Faber).

Wicks’ poetry specialises in the growing, the intricate, and the bloodstained, tracing everything with careful attention to detail, from roughnesses of rust on a metal bath to specks of blood on a polished floor. She deals very often with mythical figures, in particular the toads and mermaids of Grimm and Andersen’s fairytales.

Mermaids appear throughout Singing Underwater, as the speaker sings ‘Happy Birthday’ to her daughter underwater in a swimming pool, vengefully collects dead creatures during a fragile relationship , and watches a young woman growing up as she takes a bath. Her poem, ‘Mermaid’, is reprinted at the end of this interview. Her poetry is rich and often unflinching: ‘murder is a modest little need / You can prepare for…’ one of her speakers says.

She recently let us interview her, and took the time to tell us about what the figure of the mermaid means to her.

What was it that drew you to the figure of the mermaid? Rather predictably, we’re interested in your poem ‘Mermaid’ in particular, which begins ‘My daughter lies in her bath, / A mermaid in two inches’, and the picture on the cover of Singing Underwater, which is a Romanesque mermaid carving.

It’s such an intriguing image in ‘Mermaid’ when the speaker sees her daughter’s  ‘small fronds of pubic hair / combed parallel like so much / emerald weed’. This sounded to me at once so natural a transformation, but I was also struck by the idea of hybridity in the intimation that the hair is plant-life rather than human…

“I was a great reader of Hans Andersen in my childhood, and I’ve always loved that story for its strangeness and feeling of truth.

“It seems incredible to me sometimes that this man – a contemporary of Dickens – could have had the psychological insight to create this story of a young ‘woman’ forced to amputate part of herself in order to enter a heterosexual relationship. She comes from a world of sisters where everything is upside-down – where fish swim like birds and depth is measured in steeples – and enters a world where she walks on knives and is denied access to language.

“This is the ‘knife-edge’ I had in mind, and the seaweed image seemed to come naturally. I find it really interesting that you experience this image as a ‘natural transformation’. It seems to be understood intuitively by female readers, but when I was working on my final manuscript I had to fight a small but fierce battle with Christopher Reid, my then editor at Faber, to be allowed to keep that word ‘emerald’. (With hindsight, I can see it’s an image that would challenge most male imaginings of female nudity!)

“But it was Christopher, that same wonderfully scrupulous editor, who had the inspired idea for the book’s cover image – a Romanesque carving of a mermaid from Vézelay – so much in tune with the French Romanesque references in another poem, ‘Eve at Autun’.

“Yes, I think there is a rather strange embrace of the natural world – vegetable as well as animal. Again, I think it’s one that I – perhaps in common with many women, and maybe a number of men as well – enter into intuitively, and only later learn to feel embarrassed by.

“We are constantly fed stylised sexual images, and the result is oddly dehumanised and synthetic. Like Proust and Gide, I’ve seen no reason to censor the self-seeded plants and trees.”

 One of the most noticeable themes in Singing Underwater is maternity. Some of the images you use to describe this are powerfully unsettling (‘In my kettle I have a long head. / My nose swells like a drop of metal…’), and so many of them involve underwater transformations.

Could you tell us more about this train of imagery linking maternity, bodily transformation, and the sea?

“Maternity and family relationships have always been an important theme in my work. When I wrote most of the poems in Singing Underwater my daughters were quite young – about 11 and 8 – and Mara Bergman, a younger poet friend of mine, was just pregnant with her second child.

“Having a baby was the most overwhelming thing I’ve ever experienced: I was in no way domestic or ‘maternal’, and totally unprepared for it, angry too at what seemed a convenient social conspiracy of silence.

“Perhaps water was a way of softening that – for myself as much as for the reader: things naturally change their shape under water, partly freed of gravity or bent by diffracted light. I found the bodily transformations of pregnancy interesting – as I do the age-related transformations as I get older.

“They were an oblique way of approaching the mental transformations, the necessary adjustments (and demotion!) of one’s own identity in motherhood, which felt so huge.

“Now my elder daughter is expecting her first child in August, and I find myself writing new poems, vividly reminded of that time of sudden irreversible growth and change.”

In ‘Out of the Zoo’ the speaker looks after animals we would normally throw away or kill, for instance finding a dried up worm she says ‘I…made him a nest/ in the soft tissue / under my tongue’.

And in your poem ‘Swing-bin’ there appear all kinds of thrown-away things that could potentially be loved and cherished, such as ‘a twist of string (the kind my father used| to make us kites as children)’.

One of the most common features of the books we have reviewed for this project is that they all positively revel in listing all of the strange and wonderful debris thrown up by the sea. Could you tell us more about the presence of litter and detritus in Singing Underwater?

“These are in an unsignposted sequence of poems about a humiliating relationship, written by a vengeful ‘mermaid’ bent on riddance and destruction!

“And yes, a high tide can leave all sorts of unsightly and/or precious stuff. The lid of the swing-bin swings open and closed, letting you glimpse what has been jettisoned – some of it unexpectedly valuable, some of it an encumbrance – some of it about love, and some of it about sex or betrayal.

“I think the narrator of my poems was getting rid of a half-invented past she’d grown out of and trying to understand what she’d become.”

 ‘Second Coming’ is full of rats, caves, and conduits, and states at one point ‘you rid us of our children / piped them away cleanly’. How does the urban topography of sewerage, piping, rats, and underground rivers interact with, or map on to, the topography of the body (if at all!) in this poem?

“‘Second Coming’, with its nod from the world of childhood (the story of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, which we had in a musical American version, on vinyl 78) to the ambivalent disturbing Messiah of the Yeats poem, conflates magic, music and sewage in that one word ‘piped’.

“Again, it’s an angry love-poem: I’m speaking as an inhabitant of Hamelin in a reversal of the myth: in my version the Messiah comes once to ‘pipe away’ the town’s children and never comes back, leaving it childless and overrun with vermin as a result.

“Yes, my mind’s eye did see urban sewers ‘under’ the Pied Piper’s mountain and rocks and sealed cave; I wasn’t consciously aware that those same images could be mapped on to the female body – but I was living in the US at the time and reading books like Alicia Ostriker’s Stealing the Language, and it’s obvious to me now in retrospect that they can.”

Picasso's drawing 'The Toad'

Picasso’s drawing ‘The Toad’

 You often use myths very subtly in Singing Underwater. For instance, in ‘Toad Rock’, are you evoking the Brothers Grimm’s tale of the frog prince?

The Grimms’ princess is at first frightened and repulsed by the frog, who invades her palace and lays claim to her in return for having dredged her golden ball from his pond. ‘Toad Rock’ ends with the rescued ball posing an invasive presence even though it is back in its rightful home: ‘the golden ball / sits denting my pillow / where my head should be, still dripping pondwater’.

Have mythological figures similarly become symbols of invasion for you? Do you feel that they lay claims on you, or the space of your poems, as well as feeling at home there?

“Yes, I was certainly thinking of ‘The Frog Prince’ in this poem! And yes, there is quite a lot of myth and fairytale in this book.

“But no, I haven’t ever thought of these mythical figures as invasive – more as a convenient mask, freeing me to express myself in a more elemental, less public, somehow less mediated tone. In Singing Underwater, as in the persona poems of my most recent collection, House of Tongues (Bloodaxe, 2011), I’ve tended to inhabit them, rather than allowing them to inhabit me – perhaps particularly because they allowed me to express anger, which, like many women of my generation, I’ve done only very rarely in my adult life.

“That being said, I wrote a poem called ‘Lebkuchen-Haus’ which appeared in Poetry London about a year ago, where the ‘I’ character is loosely based on the witch in ‘Hansel and Gretel’. Again, I was writing half-unknowingly about motherhood – the poem is dedicated to my elder daughter and her (then) female partner – and it seems to me now almost to contain things I can only have been subliminally aware of at the time of writing. (You see how uncannily close to your stated preoccupations my own implicit themes were!)

“And yes, in the end maybe those mythical personas do lay claims on us – if they can lead us and our poems unwittingly into a deeper place.”


‘Mermaid’ by Susan Wicks 

‘Mermaid’ is published in Night Toad (Bloodaxe, 2003). It is reprinted here with kind permission of Susan Wicks and Bloodaxe

My daughter lies in her bath,

a mermaid in two inches.

As the water slurps and gurgles,

she giggles, sealed tight

into her tail, half-beached,

small fronds of pubic hair

combed parallel like so much

emerald weed.

Shall I go now, shall I

leave her, to her two inches

of ripples, long legs

forming like a woman’s

scallop of breasts, wet hair

flopping? But she slaps

her fish-tail on the bottom

and still wants me.

One day soon she will

demand a closed bathroom,

soaping her woman’s body

in silence, or quietly singing

and not call me

when she stands to step over

the side of the bath gracefully

as a dancer taking a knife-edge.

Singing Underwater and Night Toad

Singing Underwater is out of print, though it can easily be purchased online. Most of the poems in Singing Underwater are republished in Susan Wicks’ collection Night Toad (Bloodaxe, 2003).

About Susan Wicks

Susan Wicks has published six collections of poetry, three novels, a short memoir, and a book of stories. Her first collection, Singing Underwater (Faber, 1992) won the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival Prize, and her second, Open Diagnosis (Faber, 1994) was one of the ‘New Generation Poets’ choices. Her third, The Clever Daughter (Faber, 1996) was a Poetry Book Society Choice and shortlisted for both T.S.Eliot and Forward Prizes, and three of her other collections have been PBS Recommendations, including her most recent, House of Tongues (Bloodaxe, 2011). She has held a number of writing residencies in Europe and the US, including four at the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire.

She is also an active freelance teacher and translator, a previous Director of the Centre for Creative Writing at the University of Kent, where she taught between 2000 and 2008. Her educational background was in French and Swedish and her translation of the French poet Valérie Rouzeau’s Pas Revoir as Cold Spring in Winter was shortlisted both for the International Griffin Prize for Poetry and the Oxford-Weidenfeld Prize and won the Scott-Moncrieff Prize in 2010. A second book of Rouzeau translations, Talking Vrouz, is due from Arc in spring 2014.

She is married with two adult daughters, and lives in West Kent.


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