Martin Figura uses the language of photography as a vehicle to say the unsayable in his poem Whistle. He performed it in Bangalore recently

His mother was killed by his father when he was nine years old. Whistle is a searingly honest, deeply moving account of UK-based poet Martin Figura’s personal tragedy. “I was wary of sharing my story in the first place. I had told my story only within the family,” says Martin, who was in Bangalore to conduct a poetry workshop at the British Library.

When asked if writing Whistle was a healing experience, Martin says: “I didn’t feel the need to be healed. I approached it in a way of understanding what had happened to me. Though it is about my mother, Evelyn Figura, it also explores my relationship with my father, which in some way, was a difficult one. I had to write from his perspective. That led to empathy. It’s my favourite part of the book.”

Set in post-war Britain, Whistle, as critics have observed, is marked with remarkable restraint. “I didn’t feel the need to go overboard with the emotions. I thought restraint is really important. If you write in that way, then your work will reach out to other people so that they can associate with it or take from it what they want to take from it.”

There have been about 50 performances of Whistle in Britain, and every time, it has received a different response. “After the show, I have had people tell me about what happened in their lives, not necessarily particularly terrible things, but things that relate often to the period. I have captured the period of post-war Britain without resorting to nostalgia or the easy tropes that is often rolled out.”

Despite a tragic childhood, Martin is known for his humour. His poems Howl and Ahem are among his well-known light-hearted poems. “Being funny is a part of me. When I should be thinking about serious things, I’m just looking for the joke. But with Whistle, given the subject matter, I needed to be a different writer, a better writer in some ways. I didn’t write anything funny for years while I was writing Whistle.”

Does humour help dealing with pain? “I think humour is really important and at times, it is undervalued,” says the retired Army Major, and continues: “I am known for black humour. Humour allows you to deal with difficult situations. The humour in Whistle is for the audience, really. It takes the pressure off for them before it gets too intense. With humour, you can say things to an audience and a readership that they might not necessarily agree with or welcome, but if they find themselves laughing then it’s more likely for them to accept it.”

Martin is also a portrait and social documentary photographer, to which he was drawn because of his interest in people. What does Martin stress more on, technique or subject matter? “I think you have to honour the craft. In commercial photography, there is an emphasis on technique. But I am very interested in the subject.”

Besides photography and poetry, Martin works two days a week as a finance manager. “I quite like it,” he says and then jokes: “I wasn’t the most convincing soldier or the most convincing accountant.”

Martin did his Masters in Writing The Visual, which helped him to pen Whistle. “There’s a tradition of going back to the very beginning of poetry to describe something vividly before photographs or paintings. Whistle is sourced on the family’s photographs. I use the language of photography to act as a vehicle to say the unsayable. A lot of the metaphor is through the language of photography. It’s kind of perfect.”