Mis-shapes and gaudy details – the process of writing poetry
The eating habits of snakes, a short-cut, moths and coca-cola – words and images which lodged in Roddy Lumsden’s head. Here he describes how they ended up as poems.
Last summer I was walking near Piccadilly Circus when I found myself taking a rather neat shortcut of the type visitors to London wouldn’t risk. I felt mildly smug; I had been living in London for over three years and now here I was, at last, enough of a Londoner to be jinking through alleys and back-streets to get to my destination more quickly. I had acquired The Knowledge. I ticked myself off – zipping through a shortcut is hardly worth an Olympic medal. Yet, I knew right away that I should ‘write’ about it and, sure enough, fifteen minutes later, there was the poem, in my head, exactly as it was published six months later.
On a summerday like this, you pay
for the delicious pleasure
of finding and taking a shortcut:
someone’s little finger
will turn up in the heap
in the Used Tickets canister;
there will be the five wild faces
of the Matriani sisters
in the bay window of the bedlam;
news will reach you
of the death of a horse
you once rode across a burning field.
I have placed ‘write’ in inverted commas since, as with quite a few of my poems, there is no writing involved; I typed it up when I got home, but by that time, I had already chewed over the details (which body part should be unexplainably severed, which odd surname to give the mad sisters) and made all the changes I needed. It only has one sentence of twelve short lines and just sixty-six words; it won’t change the world or appear in anthologies fifty years after my death, but I like it – I think short poems get a bad deal and poems which try to change the world are mostly embarrassing. It’s a typical example of a poem I write now and then, a short lyrical piece consisting of an idea, set down using some potent images.
The poem’s meaning, or message, in as much as it has one, is that our small pleasures might be balanced by small tragedies elsewhere, an age-old idea which has crept into my work (and into some recent yogurt adverts!) a few times. The poem works as a sort of ‘alternative definition’ for the word shortcut. There is no strict form, yet it’s not as shapeless as it may seem – note the run of near rhymes (pleasure, finger, canister, sisters) which act as a small ladder to hold the poem up. As well as choosing particular words while composing the poem, I found myself repeating it over and over to get the flow, the melody right; for me, it has a certain speed and rhythm which is important to it. I’m one of those writers who feels that the page only ever holds a written approximation of what a poem really is – a spoken piece – as poems were for centuries before a literary tradition developed and captured them in print.
Poets split broadly into two halves in the way they write – some are like composers, with phrases and rhythms whirling in their heads, while others, scribbling ideas down with a pencil, are more like sculptors, bashing away at a lump of raw material until it takes shape. A friend told me recently that he had made over one hundred draft versions of a sonnet, probably spending the equivalent of three full days of his life getting fourteen lines just right. Who is to say that his twenty second draft wasn’t the right one? I couldn’t work that way: it creates different, but not necessarily better poems. Secretly, poets like me worry that another fifty drafts might make our poem perfect; poets like my friend are concerned that too much reworking ruins the initial inspiration.
I feel that life’s surfaces, mis-shapes and gaudy details deserve their mentions too. I do write of love, death, faith, science, but some heavy subjects, the ‘big safe themes’ as they have been called by detractors, are better handled by those more convinced than me that these are poetry’s core subjects (and more convinced that addressing history might earn them a place in history). So I have stepped aside and written of ventriloquism, barmaids, nudists, the belly, wedding dresses, cola and moths.
Oh, and also the eating habits of snakes. The poem ‘My Reptilian Existence’ is part of a long sequence I wrote about that old chestnut of a theme, myself. My first two books, Yeah Yeah Yeah and The Book of Love contained many poems written in the first person, but that person was rarely me. The sequence Roddy Lumsden is Dead looks at parts of my life which I find difficult to deal with, especially problems with love, happiness and mental illness in both my recent and distant past. These are not original themes (as I comment in the book, ‘a poet confessing to mental illness is like a weight-lifter admitting to muscles’), but I have balanced the more serious poems with unusual and humorous ones.
In 2000, I was living in Stoke Newington in London, an area full of Turkish restaurants and, sadly for my waistline, I had acquired a bit of a kebab habit. I was tending to eat one huge meal in the mid-afternoon and nothing else all day, which is very bad for you. It’s also how a snake feeds! A poet I know had recently translated a French poem by Baudelaire about a snake which is full of rich images, and I probably had this in mind. Like ‘The Shortcut’, this poem has strong rhythms and some rhyming (and notice the click-track of words with strong ‘k’ sounds), but there is no strict form. I wrote the poem straight onto my computer screen, made a few drafts and may well have changed one or two words on the advice of friends (many good poems are given a gloss by others).
My Reptilian Existence
I feed just once a day, a swollen package
of cheap meat, cold veg, salty bread
and pungent sauces. I idle on the floor,
unable to move and consider my fate.
I taste the air on Manor Road for syrup pudding,
jailbait, bin-fires, crack-laced Thai chicken.
I’d like to skulk along the railway track,
picking for kickshaws and tidbits
in the summerday greenery. You poets
can call me lazy, lazy all you like.
Why don’t you hook my Scotch mouth
over your tumbler and milk me for my venom?
I wanted the piece to be short and, being about food, laziness and snakes, driven by unusual language, and so I chose swollen, syrup, skulk, kickshaws (meaning ‘trinkets’), greenery, tumbler, venom, all of which are rich and pungent words. The mention of crack, incidentally, comes from a local fried chicken shop having such an addictive batter recipe that locals say it contains cocaine! This rather strange little poem is, I hope, both serious and humorous at the same time, a trick which we Scottish and Irish poets are supposed to value much more than English or American ones.
As with many poems, there is a slight twist towards the end – here it involves addressing the readers directly, and as ‘poets’. The repetition of ‘lazy’ works as a sound effect adding both a wink of humour and emphasis. The image of the snake’s forked tongue has been used by myself and other poets to symbolise dual identity, two languages, as in Scots versus English. One of the themes of the sequence is moving between Scotland and England and how that shift of identity mirrors the shift between self and deluded self, real person and ghost, being in love and being alone.
A poem’s ‘subject matter’ may seem its most likely starting point, but it seldom is. Most poets will talk of a ‘seed’, an odd phrase which enters the head, or an image they encounter or imagine. I keep a little hardback notebook in which I enter the ‘seeds’ I don’t yet know where to sow. Here are some random entries I have made in the past few years: fox fire, all of the above, rubies, canned laughter, Inca music, hotel rooms in the 1970s, London Scottish. Some of these may still find their way into poems, others will remain moments of inspiration which fade till I no longer understand them. Did I really plan to write poems about dung on snow, Tom of Finland or Jesus’ wrists? And remind me, what do peculium and bezoars mean again?
This article first appeared in emagazine 18, December 2002