– Joanna Preston
Helen Bascand was a stalwart of the Canterbury poetry scene: a long- time member of Airing Cupboard Women Poets, one of the founders of the Small White Teapot Haiku Group, and the host for many years of a high calibre critique session that met around the dining table in her house on Bradnor Road. Not just a fine poet in her own right, she was also someone who supported the work of other poets, bringing a generous heart and a diplomatic tongue to join her keen editorial eye. I was a regular beneficiary of all three – she was my friend, my mentor, and for over fifteen years, my writing partner.
One day in November 2009, she asked me what seemed like a casual question. Would I be her literary executor?
We’d just finished working together on her heartbreaking third collection, Nautilus, which chronicled the last years of her husband’s life and the aftermath of his death. Dealing with the affairs of someone deceased was very much on her mind, and the question of what would become of her writing after her own death had started to concern her. So, would I take the job on? I said yes, of course, still thinking it a casual request.
At which point Helen announced that we would make a detour on the way to our fortnightly coffee-and-critique session, to visit her son, Bruce. Whereupon she produced a typed document outlining her wishes, complete with legal-ish terminology and a place for each of our three signatures. In triplicate.
Maybe not so casual then.
Helen died on April 27th, 2015, aged 86.
It is said that the span of someone’s life is only the core of their actual existence – that no-one is finally dead until the last of the ripples they caused in the world have died away. In which case Helen may, technically, be immortal.
A few months after her funeral my writing room was full of banana boxes containing Helen’s poem files and notes. Inside the boxes, her poems were arranged by year of composition. Some were still in-progress, accompanied by sheaves of drafts with notes in her increasingly spidery handwriting. A few with not for publication! marked on them. Most were pieces that I knew – poems Helen brought to our critique group, or that she and I had worked on in our sessions together. There were her signature items – birds, the colour blue, flight, dancing. But also themes that were developing later – a strong female anger, a political awareness, a desire to challenge the myths and rules that she had been brought up observing. She was writing without fear – no worrying about being ‘seemly’, about what other people might think. She had a new collection in sight, and was fired up, joyful at the prospect. And she was writing some of the best work of her life.
The title of this collection came from a scribbled note I found in her papers. It feels exactly right. Singing on deep into the dusk was, and is, very Helen.
Much of the time since I took delivery of the banana boxes has been spent arguing with myself, or with Helen’s absence. When I come to something in one of the poems that doesn’t seem to fit, that doesn’t quite make sense, I’ve caught myself asking the banana boxes the questions I can’t ask her any more – Helen, what were you trying to get this bit to do? Did you mean to repeat this word? Which of these layouts did you want to go with? Do you need that stanza? Aren’t these two really the same poem? That’s a cliché, you need a better image, so …?
I really wish we’d discussed these things properly, fully, with notes being taken and guidelines drawn up.
Possibly in triplicate.
In the end my ‘editing’ has mostly been the little bits we would have done together. Things like remedial punctuation (Helen’s preferred approach was to throw it at the page and then sit back and grin while I groaned and tried to untangle things), or choosing between various ‘final’ versions where she’d left multiple options, or made subsequent corrections. The largest task was choosing which poems to include and which to omit. I had them stuck across the windows and walls in my writing room, and spent weeks walking between them, shifting them around, trying to find which needed to stay, which could go, which poems wanted to sing beside which other poems. Then I took them down, took a week off, and did it all again. And again. And again.
I can still hear her laughing at me.
As hard as it was to start working on this project, it is harder still to let it go. To end this conversation that I’ve been having with her.
Go, little book. Sing us all into the morning.