Death Writing and Poetry: An Interview with Christina Thatcher

Christina ThatcherChristina Thatcher is a poet and creative writing tutor from the US. She moved to the UK in 2009 after winning the prestigious Marshall Scholarship (studying MAs at Cardiff and York). She is currently working on a PhD at Cardiff University, and her debut poetry collection, More than you were, will be published by Parthian in May. I met her through Roath Writers, the community writing group which she has been running since 2012.   

Hi Christina, thanks for agreeing to be interviewed. Would you be able to tell us a bit about your first experiences of writing?

I grew up in a small town called Doylestown, Pennsylvania. My household there was not a particularly happy one. There were poverty and drug issues, and writing gave me a bit of an escape. It gave me an opportunity to try and understand what was happening around me.

Were you writing poetry at this stage in your life?

I was writing horribly confessional journal entries and poems, but also stories and descriptive writing. I did all the creative writing that I could at my high school, and then I got into a relationship with someone who didn’t respect writing, and I stopped writing for almost seven years.

Then, in the last year of my university degree, I decided to take two creative writing courses, and it was like the floodgates opened. I remembered how important writing was in my life, and decided to apply for the Marshall Scholarship, to do a creative writing course in the UK, and I won!

I came here thinking that I would be a non-fiction writer. I thought I would write memoir and auto-biography, but through the course at Cardiff I discovered a real love for poetry, and have developed that over the last five or six years.

What were your impressions of Cardiff when you first arrived here?

Cardiff is more than I would have ever imagined – my first impression was that everyone was friendly and kind, and the city was beautiful. Before I did the MA, writing was a solitary endeavour. I did it on my own in my room and didn’t know any other writers.

But coming here has given me an amazing opportunity to connect with people. Reading my work, running a workshop, even giving a lecture – doing anything that has to do with writing means that I meet a lot of people that I never would have before, and there’s something really special in that, and Cardiff in particular has given me a community that is really supportive of my work and the work of hundreds and thousands of other writers, so it’s nice to be a part of that.

workshop

Christina has taught a wide variety of community workshops

You’ve run a number of community writing workshops, and I attended one of your ‘Death Writing’ workshops last year. What gave you the idea to start something like this?

I graduated from my second MA in 2011, so for three years I was building a freelance career and working in the community. I was doing my own writing and working for all different projects – with hard to reach youth, people with mental health issues and lots more. Then, in July 2013, my Dad died. He died of a drug overdose in the States and, even though he’d always been into drugs and his addiction got really bad in the last couple of years leading up to his death, it still really surprised me, and I reacted in a way which I wasn’t expecting.

I went a bit numb and found it really difficult to manage how I was feeling. I was having terrible insomnia and I would sleep lots at other times – it was very peculiar and really unlike me. So I wrote a lot about him, as I was worried I would forget everything, and I researched loads. I researched every organisation that could possibly help with bereavement and learned everything I could about grief. I essentially went research mental, bought loads of books, but I still felt that I was quite alone.

I did know a few people who’d lost their fathers in weird circumstances like suicide or drug addiction, so I met up with them but, outside of those friends, no-one really understood how I was feeling. So I actually set up ‘Death Writing’ in October of that year, to meet other people who’d lost someone, and also to share with them the poetry that I had been reading, and also to ask them to write, because for me the writing really helped.

It helped me through a really dark time in my own life and it gave me the opportunity to support people who were also going through those things. It was a place where we could all come together and talk about something which we don’t normally get to talk about in regular life.

Roath Writers Anthology Celebration

The Roath Writers group celebrating the launch of their anthology

Your PhD examines how creative writing can impact the lives of people bereaved by addiction. How is the research going?

The PhD is focusing on two things – one is a creative body of work, so I’ve written a poetry collection called ‘More than you were’ as part of that, and then the second part is a sociological research project, working out how creative writing can help people who’ve been bereaved by addiction. I go and interview people and they take a writing pack away with them, and then I come back and interview them four weeks later. It gives me an opportunity to just listen to people’s stories for hours. I get to hear about their lives and what they’ve been through. It’s an amazing showcase of their resilience and strength. The research has taken me all over – I’ve been to London and Plymouth, Devon, North Wales, Manchester, Bristol…

What inspired you to name the collection ‘More than you were’?

The title came about because I realised it was an exercise to help me understand my grief and give me an opportunity to think about my Dad in a productive way – I could think about him productively because I was writing a poem about him and I wasn’t dwelling on it, I was making something new from his life. And he died much too young (he was just 45 years old) and he was a sensitive and misunderstood person. I always thought he could be more than he was. And, in a way, I’m making him more than he was by writing about him.

poetry collection on floorYour collection is due to be published in May. What stage of the process are you at? Can you tell us a bit about the content?

It took about 18 months to get enough poems written. I wrote over 100 poems but I decided to keep 66 of the poems for the collection. They’re about him as a person, about my relationship with him when I was a child, the things that happened after he died – the practical things of cleaning his house, writing his obituary, going to his funeral…

Once I had all the poems, I printed them and laid them out on my floor and they stayed there for days. I suddenly became quite paralysed with fear, that if I put the poems together, he would be gone, somehow, and it took some time to get over that. I eventually did (after my cat crumpled all the paper and was walking all over them for a few days). I did send them out and was really lucky to be accepted by Parthian. Since then, I’ve continued editing, and added more than a dozen new poems, though I suspect that writing about my Dad will never end.

More than you were will be published by Parthian in May 2017. You can pre-order it here.

Christina will be reading from her new book at Waterstones, Cardiff on Thursday 27th April, along with poets Natalie Ann Holborow and Emily Blewitt.

Visit Christina’s website for more information about her work, including details of workshops and events.

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