The Writes of Woman Interviews Salena Godden

If you’re active on social media or a regular at live spoken word events, it’s unlikely you won’t have heard of Salena Godden. It seems as though she’s been everywhere – geographically and media wise – for the last few years and with good reason. A regular (and when I say regular I mean practically every night) on the spoken word scene, 2016 also saw her included in the bestselling, award winning essay collection The Good Immigrant while the beginning of 2017 brought a shortlisting for the Ted Hughes Award for the album LIVEwire.

LIVEwire is a mixture of poems and extracts of prose (from Godden’s memoir Springfield Road). It’s a mixture of live performances and studio recordings. It’s a mixture of unaccompanied and accompanied (Godden sings during some pieces) verse.

It begins with ‘Swan’, a tale of a relationship between two people grown old together, ‘We never agree about the temperature, maps and train timetables’. It prepares the listener for the thread about relationships which runs through the collection, not just romance as in ‘You Like that One’ about the dating scene and ‘Snooker’ where Godden uses snooker as a metaphor for being hit on in a bar but also friendship. In ‘Under the Pier’ teenage girls hang out drinking and talking. This is the softer side of Godden’s work and makes an interesting contrast to the more political pieces (small and capital ‘p’).

Politics emerges as both public and personal in the collection. There are direct responses to the Paris attacks in ‘November, Paris Blue’, ‘It stinks the way they continue to lie and conspire, to make money, to trade arms, enslave and murder people’ and ‘Titanic’, which initially appears to be about the Kate Winslet/Leonardo DiCaprio starring film but takes a swift turn part-way through, ‘I used to love that film Titanic…but now it looks like the Channel 4 news’. Winslet is mentioned again in ‘Public Service Announcement’:

Kate Winslet has had three children from three different fathers
Three children from three different fathers
She has clearly been doing what the fuck she likes with her own vagina.
We have contacted her
We have scrutinised her choices
And we’ve gone through her bins

There is a feminist streak which runs through Godden’s work, although she’s not uncritical of the movement itself; ‘My Tits Are More Feminist than Your Tits’ parodies the in-fighting which take place on social media and in the press as to who’s doing feminism right.

Godden’s delivery varies from solemn to shouty, the contrast striking a good balance for the listener. The moments where she shouts lines, often repeatedly, carry a real punch and appear to be Godden at both her most passionate and her funniest. In ‘I Want Love’, written 20 years ago when she was 20, Godden descends into laughter as she sends up her younger self. She demonstrates an understanding of humanity – the good, the bad and the ugly – and also a self-awareness which means the human behind the words is often present, providing a connection to the points Godden’s making, however shocking.

LIVEwire has something for everyone. Whether you’re a seasoned reader of poetry/a regular on the poetry scene or someone new to the form looking for a way in. It’s a joy to listen to the capture of Godden’s live performances, the passion with which she delivers her thoughts. I can’t recommend her work highly enough.

I interviewed Salena Godden in Manchester last month. The photographs were taken by Matt Abbott.

You can find Salena on her blog, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.

You can buy LiveWIRE from Amazon
Springfield Road from Amazon or Waterstones
The Good Immigrant from Amazon, Waterstones or support your local independent bookshop. If, like me, there isn’t one near you, I recommend Big Green Bookshop.

Thanks to Salena Godden and Matt Abbott for the interview and to Nymphs and Thugs for the review copy.

Springfield Road – Salena Godden

Springfield Road begins with a letter from Godden, written in Andalucia, Spain. In it she tells the reader that the book is ‘the memories of my life as a child…the universe I was born into’. It’s also about their family home.

This is the story of that home and those who lived here, namely my absent father – Paul Godden – who left such a trail of debris in his wake that as I read and write this memoir I feel like his personal road sweeper, picking through the litter and leaves, letters and photos, for nuggets of truth and revelation.

She then returns to 1975. She’s almost three and she’s living in Danesholme, near Corby, Northamptonshire with her mum and brother, Gus. Their father is playing in a resident jazz band on the QE2. Her mother’s parents and brother live around the corner. Godden tells stories of playing out with friends, of entertaining herself by listening to the radio and spinning in circles for as long as she could while she waited for her grandmother to wake up from her night shift as a nurse, of being taught how to be helpful around the house.

Interweaved with tales of her childhood, Godden tells us about her family history. Her grandparents were Jamaican. Her grandmother one of thirteen (although only ten survived) from the Clarendon Hills and her grandfather from Buff Bay. He was in the RAF. She had grandfathers who were Scottish and Irish farmers and grandmothers who were Maroons. In 1951, Godden’s grandmother and her then seven-year-old mother followed her husband to the UK.

During the time in Danesholme, Godden recalls her mother being pre-occupied and distant with moods that were hard to predict. She realises now, she tells us, how difficult it must have been to be a single parent in the early seventies:

As I grew older, I learned to read the changes of tone signalling one of my mother’s thunders. When I was much older I even became an accomplice in them. We mirrored each other and eventually we learned to laugh at our reflections. I came to understand that as much as there are sunny yellow days there are blue days, grey days and black days, days when its all too much, depressive days when the wintry rain is as sad as tears. There were also days to see red, days when Mum smashed empty milk bottles against the wall at the side of the house on purpose, her eyes glittering with satisfaction.

Springfield Road goes on to document Godden’s mother’s marriage to a man named Paddy who’s irrational and sometimes cruel.

Looking back I think it was bizarre, this man had married my mother with her two rough and tumble children and then proceeded to carpet the whole place in a scream of tell-tale white. And that white carpet was our worst enemy:…we soon discovered that Paddy was fastidious enough to know if we had been in the living room by whether the nap on the carpet was brushed wrong or lay differently.

As the book progresses, we learn more about Godden’s childhood and her family and then, about a fifth of the way in, she begins to address the story of her (almost entirely) absent father.

A picture of Paul Godden is created through her mother’s memories, photographs and letters and, eventually, a brief visit:

That afternoon became a shrine, a cave. I stroked the walls of those few hours with all five senses, second by second. I took a stick and scratched our names there and every minute detail I daubed and highlighted with paints. I felt the coolness and the heat of those walls against my cheeks. I can still smell that day; when I think of it I inhale some form of dust, it sticks in the back of my throat. I can still summon the sensation of waiting for you Dad, of having you and losing you. Those few hours are an animal carcass. I devoured all its tender flesh. I boiled the bones to make a glue soup to keep us together and I slept in the hide of the beast to dream of you.

Springfield Road meanders between the threads Godden has chosen to write about but is broadly divided into the four seasons. She notes at the beginning of the book that she has done so for the imagery, rather than the literal seasons:

Whilst writing this I found there was a time of innocence and with it came sunshine and there was a time of grief and with it came the darkness.

It is partly Godden’s poetic vision and prose that makes this book stand out in a crowded genre but what’s most compelling about Springfield Road is the warmth and love Godden infuses it with. Yes, this is an interesting and, at some points, shocking story for the voyeuristic reader but it’s more than that, it’s a love letter from Godden to her family. To her grandparents, her mother, her brother, her father and to those she meets along the way, some of whom push her to expose the rawness of her feelings. The truth we’re presented with clearly cost Godden but the book ends with light and hope and love and a sense that it might all have been worth it.

 

Thanks to Unbound for the review copy.