Just half a year after we published her pamphlet Tree, Natalie Whittaker’s life looks very different. We sat down to talk to her about the stuggles of writing about stillbirth, how her heartbreaking pamphlet came to be and what it means to her now….
Hello! How are you doing? What have you been up to since we last heard from you?
I’m very well, thank you. Things have changed a lot since you last heard from me – a week after the launch of ‘Tree’, I gave birth to my beautiful daughter Ivy, so she’s been taking up all of my time! It was a strange feeling to be launching ‘Tree’ while eight months pregnant, as the pamphlet is all about the loss of my first daughter. The online launch actually made it a lot easier; the audience could only see my head and shoulders on screen, so it wasn’t obvious!
I’m sure everyone would have been focussed on the reading regardless — could you tell us a little more about your beautiful (and heart-breaking) pamphlet?
‘Tree’ is full of poems that I wish I’d never been able to write. On the 4th October 2019, when I was five months pregnant, an ultrasound scan showed that my unborn baby had died in utero. Two days later I returned to the hospital and gave birth to my firstborn, stillborn daughter. The pamphlet is written out of the profound emotional and physical trauma of that experience, and the months that followed.
There was the funeral, the post-mortem, a diagnosis of PTSD, as well as the usual impact of childbirth on a woman’s body, but without a baby to look after. Just describing that again now, it sounds like a nightmare, rather than my own life. Baby loss is still a taboo subject (sitting as it does in the centre of a Venn diagram of taboo subjects: death, and female bodily experience) and it felt important that I should write about it.
And we’re very glad you managed to. Is it safe to presume that writing this pamphlet was a different experience to your previous work?
I was halfway through an MA in Writing when I suffered the loss, so it inevitably became the topic of my final portfolio – it was impossible to write about anything else. That final portfolio eventually became ‘Tree’.
The poems came very quickly, in intense bursts of writing; one weekend in November 2019, and another weekend in December 2019 – so very, very soon after the loss. They came out pretty much fully-formed, with minimal need for editing, which isn’t my usual process at all.
Earlier that year I’d been experimenting with using extended spaces in place of punctuation, so that form came quite naturally by the time I was writing ‘Tree’.
It definitely reads as a work born out of the moment you were in. Has its significance to you changed this many months on?
As the title suggests, there is a lot of nature imagery in this pamphlet, particularly nature as a marker of time. Could you tell us a bit more about where that comes from for you?
‘Nature as a marker of time’ is a great summary of the recurring imagery in the pamphlet. A few of the poems repeat ‘June’ and ‘November’, as well as describing the changing state of trees, as there was a cruel sense of pathetic fallacy to my situation – I fell pregnant in Spring, and by the arrival of Autumn, and the turning of the clocks, my baby was gone. October and November were marked for me by a refusal to acknowledge or accept the passage of time, and a longing to turn back the clocks to when I was first pregnant, and start again.
The tree is of course a significant symbol as a measurement of the seasons, time, growth and grief. There are also the metaphorical associations with family trees, and the visual similarities with both uterine spiral arteries, and placental blood vessels.
Despite the references to time and the seasons, the pamphlet’s ordering is non-chronological, as my experience of grief was not linear. My memories of the period closely following the birth are a series of confused flashbacks, and I experienced what Denise Riley calls ‘time lived, without its flow’; a non-time that I could not process.
Finally, are you working on anything right now? When Ivy lets you, of course.
I’ve published two pamphlets now (my first, ‘Shadow Dogs’ was published by ignitionpress in 2018), as well as poems in magazines and unpublished bits – so I suppose I’m looking to publish a first collection next. I just need to be more organised about sending out a manuscript. If any publishers want to get in contact and save me the hassle, that’d be great!
They’re some of our favourites too! Thank you so much for talking to us and all the best for that first collection—we’ll be keeping an eye out