How we met: 47: Penelope Shuttle and Peter Redgrove

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The Independent Culture
Peter Redgrove, 60, the son of an advertising agent and a professional ballroom dancer, has published 19 books of poetry. His first novel, In the Country of the Skin, won the Guardian Fiction Prize. Penelope Shuttle, 45, is also a prolific poet whose fifth volume, Taxing the Rain, will be published in November. Born in Feltham, west London, she left school at 17, completing her first novel when she was 20. She is the co-author, with her husband, of The Wise Wound, a revolutionary study of the menstrual cycle. The couple live in Falmouth, Cornwall with their daughter, Zoe.

PETER REDGROVE: I went into this cottage near St Ives and, standing in front of the window, I saw a woman reading a book with such intense concentration that it drew my attention. She was totally oblivious to all the other people in the room.

I said to the friends I was with: 'Who's that?' And they said: 'That's Penelope Shuttle. She's a sort of French novelist.' Somebody passed me one of her books. I opened it and it was very strange indeed. The blurb said she had 'itinerant boyfriends', so I put that into my mind.

It wasn't until a year or so later when passing through Bristol, near to where Penny lived, that the phrase came back to me. I decided I would visit this woman and see if she was as mysterious and fascinating as I imagined. So I rang her up and asked if we could meet. She said yes, in the St George's Hotel, Frome.

Penelope was a quite different woman from the absorbed person of the first encounter. She was dressed in an extraordinarily glittering manner, wearing a dress that had obviously been made for her. It was very beautiful, like a flower. Later, I learned she had wardrobes of these dresses - rows and rows of intensely feminine, sensuous 'wonder awakening' dresses, each tailor-made by her mother. The apparition sat down and we started talking.

Eventually we went back to her cottage and I saw the room where she was writing her novel. There was nobody else living there. I told her I would sleep in the local inn and she said: 'No, stay here.' That was the beginning of our relationship.

I found Penelope so interesting that I wanted to become her. So I tried to write a novel. I decided to write 365 stories about 'her', one every day. So I started to write, got through a couple of hundred of them, and then they faded out.

Penny said: 'What have you been doing?' and I told her. She read it and said: 'But it really is a novel]' and offered to type it out. I sent it to my publisher and to my astonishment he wanted to publish it, and it actually won the Guardian Fiction Prize. It was called In the Country of the Skin. So our roles had changed: I was writing novels; Penny was writing poetry]

In the first seven years we didn't speak a cross word to each other but when Penelope became a mother, the balance of power shifted. When she was pregnant the sexual landscape of her body changed in a very curious way. I found that after we'd been making love together, I needed to write. So, while she was expecting Zoe, I began to write hundreds of poems which later came out in a book called The Wedding at Nether Powers.

A mother is naturally preoccupied with her baby when it's born. This can be difficult when you're used to being in an intense partnership. But the situation was greatly eased by this work that was given to me by, it seemed, her body. It was like a kind of promise that our poetic and writing life would go on, despite the child.

Earlier, before Zoe arrived, Penelope had very bad premenstrual and menstrual distress, so bad that it frightened me. I didn't know how I would find her when I came home from work. I was afraid that she might even kill herself. I'd been doing some training as an analytical psychologist with John Layard, a pupil of Jung's. So we started analysing Penelope's dreams in order to relieve this mental distress.

We charted her cycle next to her dreams, because it seemed natural to associate the two together. Eventually Penelope's menstrual distress grew much less as she learned to channel it into something creative. At certain times of the month I can usually feel premenstrual symptoms - I swell with water, I get spots, headaches, I become temperamental. But we have a way of working that responds to the menstrual cycle. If it is ovulation time, there's a particular energy in the house to which we can both respond, if we prepare for it.

Our creative energies are also related to our sex life. We find that if we go to bed at night, make love, dream, and sit down for breakfast the next morning, there erupts an amazing firework of pleasure in life: the senses have been cleaned, the world transformed. Penny and I call such poems Illuminated Breakfast Poems.

The Poet's Perfect Day is similar except that we make love during the daytime, perhaps after lunch. When we rise, the world seems composed of poetic symbols and images. If we're lucky, we catch it in our writing. I've written several poems about jars of marmalade, where they become extraordinary things.

We keep very detailed journals about the cycle, our various sexual encounters, our dreams, our yoga. At the end of the month we read each other's journals, and from that comes our work.

Our only source of conflict is when Penny is with Zoe or with other female friends. The atmosphere becomes so intensely feminine that I don't feel part of it. It usually makes me rather cross. Also, the energies going round during the premenstrual time can get a bit much. Unless I work at it, I end up throwing it all away and going down to the pub for a drink. But I don't do that every month. The drink down here isn't very good.

PENELOPE SHUTTLE: When I was in my teens, I heard one of Peter's poems called The Case on the radio. Later, when I found out who'd written it, I read as much of Peter Redgrove's work as I could. But it never occurred to me to contact him. I was too timid at that age. I was 22 when we met at an arts meeting. I'd been told he was coming, but when he arrived he stood huddled in a group of people, so it was very much a snatched talk.

Things really started happening when we met in Bristol. He came back to the cottage and stayed with me for several weeks. He told me that because he had a bear-like body, people often thought he had a bear-like personality. He worried that people would think he was insensitive. He said: 'I'm different inside.' That was the moment of revelation for me.

At that time I was an obsessional writer. The most important thing to me was that Peter was a writer himself and understood my need to write.

We're very alike. People say opposites attract, but I don't think anything could be further from the truth. Neither of us is enormously sociable; we're not party-going people. We prefer being by ourselves; both of us are bookworms. And getting on so well together also enables us to collaborate on works. Together we try to break the taboos on writing about sex and menstruation; we attempt to reclaim bodily experiences and affirm senses and feelings through our poetry and through our marriage.

In the three years following my daughter's birth, we were both restricted in the time we could spend together. Peter wrote a great deal of poetry, inspired by the pregnancy. I wrote very little; I only wanted to be pregnant once and I wanted to give myself to that experience.

Peter is central to me and to my work. I find him interesting, amusing; it is a continuous erotic exploration. I definitely don't sit around imagining other sorts of lives I might have led]

Our relationship is remarkable because it's allowed our writing to flourish. I don't think either of us would have been able to live as full a life as writers if we hadn't met when we did. Our lives would have been much sadder. It works because it works. A rose is a rose is a rose.-

(Photograph omitted)

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