Thresholds & Umbrellas

Last week, SPRI (the Scott Polar Research Institute here in Cambridge) hosted a day for creative writers.  Our poet in residence through the Thresholds scheme, Jo Shapcott, invited some of her MA students and colleagues from Royal Holloway (plus the recently T. S. Eliot Prize nominated poet, Sean Borodale) to come and explore the museum and talk to the staff and students based here.  The aim of the day was to bridge the gap between science and fiction, to see how one can inform the other and just how reciprocal the relationship can be.  There were a series of  mini lectures ranging from the effects of climate change in the Arctic to a particularly poetic video collage of the colour spectrum of ice to the exploration of and fascination with the poles in literature… and more.  The day was informative, rewarding and surprisingly playful (experiments involving slime, ketchup and some impromptu bell ringing).  I felt exhausted, yet excited by the end.  I have been writing in the library at SPRI for several months now and I hadn’t realised how fascinating, approachable and indeed human these scientists are who I pass in the hallways everyday.  I had a notion that their currency was mostly fact where mine is mostly feeling; I thought it unlikely we’d find common ground.  How wrong was I?

I am closer to the beginning than the end of my second collection Call Her Alaska, (a contemporary re-imagining of The Snow Queen).  I’m excited and terrified in equal measure.  Research is going well, my notebook is filling, the first 30 poems are outlined.  I’m lucky to be able to work with SPRI, to have a desk in the institute library and access to archives, maps (I spent most of January down in the map room researching Gerda’s route to the north pole).  I haven’t quite hit my stride.  I’m full of doubt and worry.  The last thing I wanted, but perhaps the best thing that could have happened, was to have one of my poetry idols turn up and take the desk opposite mine.  Talk about intimidating.  It’s easy to be overwhelmed, in awe.  But apparently the uncertainty, the worry, the fear of never writing a decent poem again isn’t exclusive to poets writing their second collection.

So far, my top three pointers from Jo are: (1) Research is like an obsession and it’s good to be obsessed with your poems, (2) Poets need to play, in fact, poets MUST play (which may have had something to do with our willingness to dress up in polarwear the other day)…


… oh, and the third piece of Jo Shapcott advice?  Never leave the house without checking

Sex, Death and The Snow Queen

I’m back at my lovely desk in the Scott Polar library after a staggering 16 days of childcare (my two and a friend’s three some days).  I didn’t manage any time to write during the Christmas break, but I notebooked like I have never done before and read the wonderful biography of Hans Christian Andersen by Jackie Wullschlager, amongst other snippets of research.

The biography made me think about how much of a writer’s personal narrative ends up in their work, even when they don’t intend it to be there.  Re-reading ‘The Snow Queen’ immediately after the biography highlighted this to me, I had been unaware of Andersen’s sexual confusion or ambivalence, perhaps even his fear of sex or consummation – but it’s all there in the fairy tale and probably all of his fairy tales.

Kay is seduced away from Gerda by an arresting yet emotionally frozen older woman.  Warm, loving, innocent Gerda’s dilemma is whether to remain in a permanent state of childhood without her playmate (and therefore alone) or to go out into the wide, unknown world of adulthood, discover her own erotic self, find Kay and reunite with him.

I think meeting (or being snatched by) the Robber-maiden assists Gerda with this process, she seems to represent something wild and untamed like desire.  She forces Gerda to share a bed with her: “You must lie still,” said the Robber-maiden, “or I will thrust my dagger into your side”.  You don’t need Freud to make the connection between a dagger and a phallus, but that terror of sex that seemed to be Andersen’s own; the suggestion of the penis as a weapon or intercourse as an act of violence to be avoided and feared relates so strongly to Andersen’s interior concerns.

The confusion about wether sex is destructive or creative seems to worry Kay as well as Gerda, when he is first lured into the Snow Queen’s sleigh: ‘Oh, her kiss was colder than ice, it went to his heart, although that was half-frozen already.  He thought he should die – but only for a moment…’.  This suggests a climax, but a terror of what is beyond and as yet no suggestion of renewal or return.  Perhaps if Andersen could have been reassured about sex being cyclical, a coming together, then a pulling away, but then a coming back together again it would have held less of a nightmarish quality to him.

Andersen lost his virginity, perhaps, at the age of 57 after a lifetime of uncertainty about his looks (‘The Ugly Duckling’ stems directly from these feelings), his sense of himself as a physical human being, and a crippling fear of rejection.  He recorded in his journal on many occasions that he felt ‘sensual’ for which I read ‘aroused’, but he allowed himself so little opportunity to explore this in a healthy adult relationship for fear, I suspect, that sex might overwhelm him with such pleasure it might obliterate him, devour him even.  Of course, one cannot overlook the fact that he was bisexual or gay at a time when it was illegal, but he had opportunities with both sexes that he clearly ran away from.  He seemed to make a decision that his muse or his creative life would be his partner, and my goodness was that relationship with his muse productive, but he remained lonely for the most part, isolated.

Andersen seemed to keep himself in a permanent state of childhood regarding intimacy and sexuality which perhaps was what he was trying to work through during the writing ‘The Snow Queen’ in the winter of 1844.  He had been deeply in love with, and rejected by, his closest friend Edvard Collin who was now married with young children.  He was just about to turn forty.  He was still a virgin.  Andersen’s own personal narrative undoubtedly lends the story a depth and authenticity and a sense of wonderment and fear, as though the two children he created on the brink of adulthood and sexuality were in fact aspects of himself.  He wrote this fairy tale feverishly over a few days in December and although it is rooted in snow, in ice, in frozen emotional states, there is an incredible amount of heat in it: hot coins pressed on iced-up windows to melt a peephole, fires with no chimneys (arousal with no outlet?), sweltering animal skins making people strip off, meltings from hot tears.  He wrote it as though from inside the mind of a child facing daunting changes both mentally and physically.   How could Andersen’s own deepest fears not seep into his writing? It reminds me of the Flaubert quote: ‘Madame Bovary, c’est moi’.

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