One Question Interview: Kerry-Lee Powell
Inheritance was inspired by a shipwreck my father endured during the Second World War, as well as by his struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder and eventual suicide. He served in the merchant navy and was sunk twice. On one occasion he was on a lifeboat in the north Atlantic for eleven days, one of only a handful of survivors to chance upon the Scottish coast in rough weather. I imagined the terror he must have experienced at being so utterly at the mercy of a cruel mid-winter sea. His miraculous survival is the stuff of legend. In my mind’s eye I often see him as an Odysseus whose journeys tragically found emptiness and rage instead of demigods and marvels.
Many of the poems in Inheritance are addressed to a muse-like figure who bears only a slight resemblance to the man I knew as a child. I wanted to retrieve a father from the chaos of his mental illness, to honor him and meditate upon the causes of his suffering. I very much had ‘Father’ with a capital F in mind when writing this collection, not least because his private experiences resonate strikingly with the dominant myths surrounding masculinity in western culture: those of war and heroism, hubris and self-sacrifice. After the war ended he prided himself on being a man’s man, became a womanizer and hard drinker who shipped his enormous white convertible on a visit home to Wales so that the poor villagers and younger members of his family could idolize him. He also considered himself somewhat of a Renaissance man. He came from the kind of educated working class family that D.H. Lawrence describes so vividly in his early novels, and was well-versed in Shakespeare and Homer and all the lionized ‘greats’ of literature.
His subsequent physical and mental breakdown caused a reversal of his prized masculine attributes. He was an invalid for many years and then, after my mother left him, a poverty-stricken single father who nearly poisoned us to death a few times with his half-frozen TV dinners and ill-fated attempts at cookery. He never embraced his role as homemaker, hardening instead into a misogynist and pro-Apartheid Reaganite who threw things at the television when a strident female appeared on the screen. At times he was acutely aware of his own mental disintegration, quoting King Lear at us while he paced up and down the living room floor. At other times he was inchoate. Often, he was terrifying. There were some very ugly moments in our house, and perhaps Inheritance was also a way of coming to terms with my own fraught childhood.
My use of formal devices and structures in the collection mirrors wider concerns I have as an artist, and especially as a female artist in a patriarchal culture. Whose voice speaks through me? During a period of lucidity my father set himself up as a writer. The image of him at his red typewriter in the kitchen during that brief interlude of hopefulness and industry no doubt influenced my own desire to become a writer. And of course I also sought, and in many way still seek, his approval. When I had my first literary acceptance, part of me wanted to wave the slip at the heavens. Another part of me wanted to cock my middle finger at him, for his misogyny, for the ways in which he degraded and belittled me for being a girl. Many of the poems in Inheritance fall somewhere between those two gestures: the wish to honor his courage and suffering, and a rebellion against the brutality that he so frighteningly embodied.
Lyric poetry has allowed me to see him as a vessel through which I might explore grief and trauma, the beauties and cruelties of the wider culture. As necessary as it was for me to consider the terrible circumstances surrounding my father’s suicide, it was vital for me to acknowledge the grace and humanity of the lyric tradition that has also been my inheritance, and that resonates within me as powerfully as my father’s trauma continues to do.
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