Hello all – happy Thursday! I have been dashing about the country this past week or so, attending the Perceptions of Pregnancy conference held at the University of Hertfordshire, and the penultimate workshop session run by Contemporary Women’s Writing Association, held at the University of Lincoln. Both events were a lot of fun and very enlightening; I learned a lot about the kind of academic work being undertaken about pregnancy and childbirth, and how my particular ‘brick’ fits in this ‘wall’ of research (that’s one of the metaphors you hear academics use all the time!). I met some very lovely people, and got to present my research on Frankenstein to a new audience. The comments and questions that I received both at the end of my paper and throughout the conference were very useful, and included some great reading and viewing recommendations from contemporary popular culture – stuff that I can’t wait to get my teeth into!
I also caught up with some friends at the CWWA workshop – I feel that over the past year we have become a very supportive group. This is networking in its best sense – making friends and collaborating with colleagues. As part of the workshop, we got to do some geographical mapping in a thunderstorm with Dr Yuwei Lin, undertake media training in radio and (gasp!) TV with the Lincoln media department, and – wait for it – meet and spend time with the fabulous Florence Howe, founder of the Feminist Press! Florence had flown all the way from New York to speak to us, and she was absolutely captivating. You can read more about her work here, but suffice to say that if it weren’t for the work that Florence and other feminists had undertaken in the 1960s and 70s, I probably wouldn’t be writing this now.
This got me thinking about the choices we make, and how they can be construed as transgressive, both by others and ourselves. For instance, during the media training it was explained to one of my friends that her topic would be unsuitable for popular TV audience consumption. What was this topic that was so unspeakable? Female masturbation. Apparently, erotic fiction was ok to discuss, including the ever-popular and sadomasochistic Fifty Shades of Grey. But masturbation in literature was not. This agenda effectively censored her, provoking outrage from some members of the group – and interesting discussion from all. The very presence of this taboo justified my friend’s research – for among other things, her work looks at the silencing and pathologisation of women’s bodies in literature. If we can’t resist such censorship as researchers, then who can?
Although there are PLENTY of instances of pregnancy evoking anxiety, unease and taboo in both literature and film (you only have to watch the Alien films to realise this) my research doesn’t quite provoke the same response. Apparently, I was good to go! I suspect that if the interviewer had realised that I include literature about miscarriage, abortion, medical (mis)management of childbirth, gothic horror and monstrous birth in my work, she might have thought differently!
This year, however, I did make a decision that could be construed as somewhat transgressive. I got a tattoo.
Of course, this is not as transgressive as it once was – lots of people have tattoos, and not just sailors. The Guardian did an interesting feature on women with tattoos a little while ago, and Buzz Feed are always including images of beautiful tattoos in their lists. But tattoos – particularly tattoos on women – still raise eyebrows. ‘Is that real?’ ‘Do you regret it?’ ‘What did your parents say?’ ‘Can you cover it up?’ (The answers to these questions are: ‘yes’, ‘no’, ‘not much but they’re happy enough about it and it’s not really their business anyway’, ‘if I want to’).
There are also some wonderful poems written about tattoos. One of my favourite poems in this year’s Cheval anthology is by Samantha Inglis. Her first published poem, ‘Similar Practice’, opens with the lines ‘In a lot of ways writing poems is like getting a tattoo:/ your skin is your canvas and you’ve chosen to express yourself’. This, for me, captures what it’s like to express yourself unapologetically. Writing a good poem is like getting a tattoo: it hurts a bit, but by the end you’ve got something that’s indelibly a part of you. Getting a tattoo is like writing a poem: you trust the (inner) artist ‘as your thrumming fingers edit your words/ again and again and again/ until you’re bleeding with satisfaction’. Of course, Inglis’s poem is tongue-in-cheek too – it wouldn’t do to take your inner artist too seriously!
But, captured by this idea that tattoos were unapologetic, potentially transgressive acts of self expression, I started asking friends and family about their tattoos and what they mean to them. Here, with thanks, are some of their accounts…
Greg, my man-friend and father-of-Ozzie-the-cat, writes:
“So, when I was 18 my best friend of the time (Jon) and I decided to get tattoos as it felt like a rite of passage to adulthood. I had two ideas which I was debating over, a Boba Fett Mandalorian emblem or a portrait of Hannibal Lecter! The location was always going to be my upper left arm. I ended up going for the Boba Fett one as I had, and still have, a massive love of Star Wars. And that’s not just the films but the associated Expanded Universe novels. If you didn’t know (but I hope you do!) Boba Fett is a shady bounty hunter who captures Han Solo for Darth Vader. The Mandalorian emblem (which is in fact a Bantha skull) is found on his armour and relates to an ancient order of warriors from which he descends. The tattoo artist added the Boba Fett wording and when I see it I always think ‘you’re never too old’. I actually got the chance to meet Jeremy Bulloch, who plays Boba Fett, post tattoo and show it to him. He seemed genuinely chuffed and was a true gent (thank the maker!).”
“Tattoo number two is the Roman centurion helmet on my right leg above my ankle. I got this after I graduated from Exeter University with a BA in Ancient History. A large part of the syllabus was on the Roman republic and subsequent empire. The tattoo signifies me reaching the end of full time education (which I loved from start to finish) but also serves a reminder to continue learning and enjoy learning in the working world. Often in work you are required to learn so you can do a job. This is fine, and often rewarding, but I still want to study interesting things (like Rome) just because… and my tattoo ensures I don’t forget that.”
David, my younger brother and Instructor for the Army Cadets, writes:
“The inspiration for my tattoo was to mark a section of my childhood mainly to do with cadets and the corps of drums, when I started playing side drum. I’ve always had a good knack for it, becoming the Lead Tipper Drummer for my corps after 3-4 months of playing, getting the best drummer award at camp 2 years in a row when I was 13/14, and since then I have progressed to Drum Major. I am also learning to play the flute, but it’s on the drum skin where my heart lays! And now I’m progressing towards a different style of drumming and music with the Scottish Guards Association of Manchester pipe band. We’re being given the opportunity to play in the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo as the first ever non-regular band to play in it! So this year I decided that this tattoo would be very fitting. Also the old school toy soldier style of my tattoo kind of replicates me as I’ve never been in the Army but I’m still able to be a military drummer. I’m a drummer boy!”
The poet Kim Moore – and here’s the big reveal – has generously allowed me to republish her poem ‘A Room Of One’s Own’ here, followed by an explanation of what her tattoo means to her. Originally published in The Rialto and on the Poetry School website, this is a fantastic poem which really explores what it means to have the strength to express oneself – or to choose not to:
A Room Of One’s Own
Give her strength as she sits beside the river,
in that city she didn’t name, in October,
the leaves around her burning red and purple,
the bridge staring only at its secret self
under the water, give her strength
when she’s turned away from the library
or walks on the grass and gets chased off,
as the thought she almost had gasps
for breath in front of her, give her strength
to push the life back in it, to follow it
down the city streets, inside the musuem,
where more books about women live
than on any other subject in the world.
Give her strength to see an answer,
the man and woman getting into a taxi,
she’ll need as much as Atlas needs,
his shoulders curved under the loneliness
of holding up the world, give her strength
when that strange wind blows and the bricks
glow like fire and the world conspires
to blind her with beauty, to make her calm,
accepting, give her strength to follow
the thought they tell her not to have.
And let her move through me,
my curved fingers pressed against
the tattooists belly as he writes
her words in my skin, I’m ashamed,
I’m biting my lip while he talks of immigrants
and the deserving poor, like old people,
like his ma, and who would I rather
give money to, as if that’s the only choice,
I’m biting my lip while her words
and the flame of their birth set in,
I’m biting my lip, he’s not a cruel
or even a stupid man, give me strength
to count, keep track of such days as these,
how many times I stay calm, say nothing.
– Kim Moore.
“I read ‘A Room of One’s Own’ when I was about 17. I loved it immediately but I lost it, or forgot about it. I read it again a couple of years ago and the same day went and got it tattooed on my arm. I wanted it somewhere I could see it. The tattoo is a reminder to myself to have a room of one’s own – if not a physical space, then at least a psychological one. The last stanza of the poem describes getting the tattoo and the irony of having a feminist slogan tattooed on my arm whilst carefully holding back my anger at the bigoted views of the tattooist.”
And me? What of my tattoo?
Well, it’s a cat because I think of them as my totem animal. Having grown up in a multiple cat household (the current total is 6; the record is 8) I have always felt at home with them. They are a feminine symbol; they are also real, lovingly independent creatures. In the words of my vet, “I never met a cat I didn’t like”. Cats have been especially important to the quality of my life on two occasions: firstly, when I was a little girl I had a cat called Daisy. She used to sleep on my bed and she put up with all sorts of things (I think that at one point I even put her in a doll’s pram…). When I had had a hard day at school, or felt isolated or unhappy, she was there, purring and cheering me up. That first love – and first loss – still cuts deep. The second occasion is far more recent; Ozzie is certainly one of the best decisions I have ever made (and which I’ve written about here). So I wanted to have something that reminded me that life was precious and adventurous and occasionally a little transgressive. The tattoo is on my right shoulder because that’s where I carry a lot of my tension. It reminds me to relax my shoulders, to sit up straight and to undress provocatively. It’s intricate and sexy and pretty and colourful. It hurt – but it was also a meditative, focused kind of pain. It reminds me that life is to be lived and not to be feared – it is about making choices and expressing yourself unapologetically.