For many people, cancer is a confronting experience, whether you have it yourself or someone close to you does. It's like the elephant in the room - do you talk about it, or do you pretend it's not happening and put on a cheery face? I could say this is a confronting book, simply because it's about Geoff's cancer (throat) and his road through operations, chemo and radiation therapy, but there's something about it - probably Geoff's gritty, straight take on things - that makes it engaging and enlightening. And not at all sentimental.
As well as the terrific poems (it's a verse novel), there is a strong, moving piece by his daughter, Grace, in the last section. This is Geoff's cancer and treatment from the point of view of close family, and it's equally honest. Randy Larcombe's photos add an often startling visual aspect to the story. Geoff was kind enough to answer some questions for me via email.
Did you start writing the poems for this book when you were diagnosed? Or are they more about remembering and reflecting?
I didn’t start writing the poems when I was first diagnosed, I was too shell-shocked. When I appeared in an operating theatre for a biopsy several weeks later, my surgeon told me he was aware that I was a poet. He recommended that I should be writing about my experience, particularly in respect to the mis-diagnosis and poor treatment that I had encountered to that point. That set me thinking, but it was some weeks later, lying in bed at home recovering from the major neck dissection, that I began to write.
How hard was it to write without being melodramatic or distancing yourself? (I know this is not your style anyway, but this could have been different!)
I like to give a lot of thought to the topic I’m intending to write about before I put a sheet of paper in front of me. I don’t want to be melodramatic – rather, I want to be honest, create some imagery and tell a good story.
The book feels like a verse novel - it tells a story. Were you conscious of that?
Initially I thought I was going to write a novel about my experiences. I lay in bed for some weeks thinking about how I was going to record my story and I was convinced that I should write it as a prose memoir. However, on 3rd May 2008 when I felt ready to write, the words came out as poetry and I knew that I had to follow that path. My first poem was ‘The Seventh Doctor’ and that set the pattern for another book of poetry. I was conscious of the fact that I wanted to structure the book as a verse novel and tell my story in a chronological form. The poems weren’t written in the order of the book but were written randomly and were arranged by my editor.
I love 'The Seventh Doctor' - it feels like an expose of the public health system! Although it's clear how you felt when it was happening, the poem doesn't feel raw and spitting - it's a very crafted piece. Can you describe the writing of this one?
The first draft of ‘The Seventh Doctor’ was written over a five hour block; from 6pm through to 1am, as I lay in bed. I’d given my daughter strict instructions that I wasn’t going to be taking any phone calls or accepting visitors that night. I’d been structuring the poem in my head all day and had the rhythm of the poem ready to go onto the page. The poem then went through a couple of typed drafts before I met with my editor, Graham Rowlands. (We have worked together for my twenty-five year career and I trust his judgement.) We sat around on his back lawn in the winter sun one afternoon and discussed the poem and I went away and re-worked some parts of the poem. They were small but significant changes. I kept playing with the poem too, for another year, making subtle changes, and after six drafts I knew I’d exhausted possibilities for myself.
Who is the book for? (apart from yourself and Grace) What do you think readers will get from it? Have you had any reactions from those who read the manuscript?
I conceived the book as an aid for anyone wanting to understand what it might be like to receive a diagnosis of cancer. But it’s also for their family members and their friends. People are terrified of cancer, and rightly so. Most cancer patients are socially isolated because people avoid them because they don’t know what to say to them - or they are worried that they will be too confronted by what they see. A lot of people are unfortunately going to get cancer and this book can provide them with a preview of what might be expected. And knowledge is power.What do you think the photos add?
The photos provide a great visual insight into the treatment and portray me in a vulnerable state in a way in which words might not quite have succeeded. They are revealing photos to accompany revealing poems and prose.
Whose idea was it to include Grace's story? What do you think it adds to the book?
Grace’s story ‘The C Word’ was given to me on Christmas morning 2010 as my present. After opening the story I sat at the kitchen table and wept as I read her account. I had to read her story in bits and pieces throughout the day…and by the time I‘d finished reading it I felt convinced it should accompany my poems and be part of the collection. Once Michael Bollen had read the story, he too believed it should book-end the poetry. Grace’s story adds a great cross-generational emphasis and as my books often appear in classrooms as class sets for senior students, it provides a model for young and aspiring writers to trade off their own experiences and to lay words on the page using innovative formats.
How is your voice now? Performance is such a big part of your poetry - have you changed the way you read?
I’ve had a prosthesis installed, a synthetic voice box, which has been tuned to suit my original voice tone. If I speak in a ‘normal conversational tone’ most people wouldn’t notice my voice to be appreciably different. However, if I try to raise my voice from say a ‘Three’ to an ‘Eight’ my voice will be quite crackly and full of static! My new work is quieter…I’ve structured it that way. But the poems are perhaps even more powerful than the voice of the Geoff Goodfellow from the mid-80s…it’s just that the power is like the new Geoff… it’s more controlled.Back to me: Waltzing with Jack Dancer is available, of course, at all good bookshops. But there are 200 limited edition hardback copies available through the Wakefield Press site - the site also has an extract of the book and footage from the book launch.