Making time through poetry

Writer and poet Valerie Volk’s newest book Marking Time – A Chronicle of Cancer is a beautiful homage to the journey of a cancer diagnosis and treatment, writes Kylie Triggell.

  • Summer 2020
  • Member story
  • Read Time: 5 mins

As a teenager, Valerie Volk sat in her year 11 English class, unaware that her life trajectory was about to be forever changed. 

Her teacher, who she describes as being very gifted and charismatic, introduced the class to the works of the poet Robert Browning and Valerie immediately fell under the spell.

A scribbler since a child when she wrote fairy tales that she laughingly describes as awful, Valerie went on to pursue an extensive career in education. She taught in high schools before becoming a lecturer in Comparative Education and the Sociology of Education while also continuing to study, eventually gaining a Master of Education, an MA in Creative Writing, and a PhD in Gifted Education. If that wasn’t demanding enough, Valerie continued to write on the side while also raising four children. 

"I seem to have a penchant for keeping about three different occupations going at the same time,” she says. 

"I’ve been writing off and on all my life but it’s really only in the past 10 years or so since my late husband died that I’ve been publishing so much." 

Her published works include many short stories, historical prose fiction including a major novel and three anthologies of poetry documenting her international travels written via a ‘poem a day’ experiment. 

In Due Season, written after the loss of her late husband to cancer, won the national Omega Writers CALEB Poetry Prize in 2010, and a number of the poems were set to music as the text of a 2018 choral requiem by Adelaide composer Rachel Bruerville.

"I've been writing off and on all my life but it’s really only in the past 10 years or so since my late husband died that I’ve been publishing so much.”

Valerie Volk

Valerie with her partner David

Valerie’s most recent book, Marking Time – A Chronicle of Cancer, is another collection of moving poems that follow her partner David’s recent diagnosis, treatment and eventual recovery from aggressive lymphoma. 

Writing the poems was originally a way of recording what the pair was going through during a tumultuous time, but the project quickly took on a life of its own. 

“The process was more or less the same as when I wrote the ‘poem a day’ while travelling,” Valerie says. "They gradually emerged over the months, bit by bit, and eventually I had a collection of about 50 poems.” 

Writing club friends told Valerie to publish them and, despite initial hesitation because of their personal nature, she approached the Cancer Council in South Australia. 

“They were most enthusiastic and supportive, saying they could see it being a book of real value to anybody going through cancer themselves or walking beside someone, because it articulates the way people feel but don’t know how to put into words. They thought having people’s feelings written in these poems would be enormously helpful,” Valerie says. 

"So, I was emboldened to go ahead and published the book.” 

A chronological journey, the poems follow the first days of the cancer diagnosis and all the ups and downs, the growing wariness and certainty that things were very wrong and then the months of chemotherapy and terrible nights in intensive care, before bringing the reader back to the final happy verdict—remission. 

“The last few poems are definitely poems of rejoicing, and the last poem in the book is my favourite because it’s a poem of such quiet happiness,” Valerie says. 

"It was taken from an actual moment sitting and listening to my partner play the piano, which he does from time to time, and thinking ‘This is exactly what this year has been like: a matter of stops, starts and hesitations.’ But it was a time of such quiet happiness sitting there with a sense of yes, we do have time ahead of us that we thought we might not have, together with a sense of gratitude that it had all worked out so well.”

Valerie says her poetry is spontaneous expression of an idea that can come anywhere at any time, even while driving the car, when she has to pull over so she can write. 

Was it a therapeutic experience? Probably not; she recently published an article challenging that notion. You write, she says, because you feel compelled to write about something that is important to you. 

"Writers tend to be communicators. I mean that’s what it’s all about. And once you’re a communicator you want to pass on to others the things you’re interested in, the way you’re feeling, and the way you react to experiences.

"You don’t set out to write poetry as a form of therapy. If you write something and it happens to have a therapeutic effect that is great, but it’s not why you’ve written it. That’s a bonus for you, and you hope others will also value it.”

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