Ali Whitelock is a Scottish poet and writer living on the South coast of Sydney with her French, chain-smoking husband. Her latest poetry collection, the lactic acid in the calves of your despair, is published by Wakefield Press and her debut collection, and my heart crumples like a coke can (Wakefield Press, 2018) has a forthcoming UK edition by Polygon, Edinburgh. Her memoir, Poking seaweed with a stick and running away from the smell, was launched at Sydney Writers Festival to critical acclaim in Australia (2008) and the UK (2009).
Poetry was not something I ever thought was for me. I hated it in school and never read it as an adult. Then I turned fifty and, by some bizarre twist of fate, started writing my own.
The more poets I got to know, the more I was astonished to learn that many of them had been writing poems since they could hold a pen and had parents who’d recite verse to them morning, noon and night. How I longed for one of those poetic pipe-smoking fathers in corduroys sporting a tweed jacket with leather elbow patches, who’d read poetry to me in the evening by a roaring log fire. In my childhood, the only poem remotely hinted at in our house was ‘A Red, Red Rose’ once a year on St Valentine’s day. In short, our house was empty of poetry, literature, logs and books in general.
In an interview, brilliant Scottish writer Andrew O’Hagan told the interviewer there were no books in his home when he was growing up. After the interview Andrew’s father called him, more than a little annoyed, “What do you mean, you grew up in a house with no books? Sure there was a green book sitting on top of the fridge for years!” To which Andrew replied, “Dad, that was the Kilmarnock phone directory.” So the great Andrew O’Hagan and I shared similar book-less upbringings, but clearly that’s where the similarities between us end.
Two-thirds of the way through high school I was removed from the English class in order to make way for a student with more promise. I was put into geography. It wasn’t entirely useless—I can now read an ordnance survey map with great confidence, name the deepest ocean at the drop of a hat, dazzle at dinner parties trundling out the capital cities of the world like a trained chimpanzee.
Eventually I ran away from my geographical and non-bookish past in Scotland to Australia. Did my past catch up with me? Absolutely. But Australia offered me something Scotland at that time did not: endless skies, super-sized servings of ‘she’ll be right’; affordable therapy and a chance happening upon a secondhand book, when I was forty nine, called Eight American Poets. When I opened its pages I discovered John Berryman, Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton. My mouth fell open like a drawbridge and I allowed these poems to march on in.Ali Whitelock
You can read more about Ali at her website, ‹www.aliwhitelock.com›.