Thursday, August 23, 2007

Work in Progress #2

This is the second in a series of posts about the process of writing a particular poem. If you need to catch up and the first post has slipped off the bottom of the page, you can find it here.

I was really happily surprised by the response to the first post which seemed to touch a nerve with a number of people, so I’m encouraged to keep going. Some people seemed rather touchingly worried that this was really ’exposing’ myself a little too much - perhaps worried by the quality of the poem so far - so I should be perfectly clear; what you are seeing here is, to continue the painting analogy I used in the earlier post, like the rough sketches in a sketchbook before beginning to paint a full-sized work. A great number of those, obviously are poor, rough little things which are sooner or later in the process either completely discarded or re-worked until the ideas are sharp and the direction clear. So fret ye not, I am not about to publish such scribblings as a completed poem.


There were two point which I felt very strongly about the lines so far written and which I didn’t put down at the end of the post. Both of them were picked up very strongly by one of my email correspondents and he said both of them far more articulately than I could:

**The imagery of the lightning-struck tree seems promising, and clearly points the way to jagged growths suggesting antlers. However, for some reason the metaphor to me appears too mature. (I immediately think of ancient trees, gnarled, decaying and stricken by lightning) …
…if the metaphor suggests, as I think it presently does, something huge and ancient, then there's the possibility of a disjunction in the imaginative leap of the reader when applying it to the transforming boy…

…I loved the brief description of the your own experience, and I feel that a gritty, urban tone (I know you described it as being suburban, but you get my drift) is presently missing from the poem, which quite quickly becomes steeped in 'woodland' descriptives…

…The excitement of the 'real' story whereby a boy sneaked from a house by night on illicit business, had a frisson for me which is presently missing from the beginning of the poem.**

(with apologies to the author of those notes for editing them to make them seem far less kind and constructive than they actually were.)

Feeling both these things, and thinking the second point was the one most in need of addressing immediately. I turned a page in the ‘sketchbook’ and started from what I felt was the beginning of my own part of the story: the boy lying in bed in a slightly grim feeling suburban bedroom.

He lies under a half-peeled skin
of white sheet in strange damp folds
sweating into a spilled puddle
yellow from the near streetlamp.

Clearly this is dreadful and re-written into the stronger form of 8/7/8/7 metre which I was using it became:

A half-peeled skin, a white sheet, wraps
him in damp-feathered folds
sweating into the yellow spill
of streelight through the window.

What I find most interesting about this part of the process, that I hadn’t fully appreciated until writing it down here, is the roll played by continued rewriting, not just making changes to words but fitting a kind of long, rambling smear of words reflecting an image, into various different ‘forms’. The fact that this slight re-write above was a little better than the first spew of words meant that I carried on a little…

This is that uncomfortable time
of sweat in the yellow spill
of neon through the black window,
his own stink on his fingers,
his joints cracked, his headache pushing
through the points of his forehead.

…and then wrote all these little snippets of a few lines each out again, with the indentation that I was intending to use and which I can’t display on Blogger!

A half-peeled skin, a white sheet, wraps
the boy in damp-feathered folds.
This is that uncomfortable time
of sweat in the yellow spill
of neon through the black window,
his own stink on his fingers,
his joints cracked, his headache pushing
through the points of his forehead.

Every time I write it out again - and this is a part of the process which only works when writing with a pen on paper and not onto a screen - small changes crop up. The almost subconscious substitution of ‘the boy’ for ‘him’ in this little rewrite, although a tiny change, made quite an impact to the tone of voice in the poem.

Looking over this I felt that it was the correct place to begin the poem but that it was deeply unsatisfactory and, not being entirely sure why, I became very frustrated and stopped writing for a number of days…

…some time later…

The only conclusion I had come to about why the poem was unsatisfactory so far was that it lacked a sense of authority in the voice - which, given my vagueness about what poem I am trying to write was hardly surprising. Also, I had the strong feeling that one remedy to this might be to increase the sense of ‘telling a story’, of talking more directly to the reader, so I decided to simply write, whatever came, based on the scene described in the stanza above, and to have no regard for line breaks or any particular form. And this is what poured out:

Imagine this, imagine the half-peeled
skin of sheet wrapping him till
his thin chest can barely rise,
and the sweat, his own stink
on his fingers and the yellow spill
of neon through the black window.
Imagine the crack of his joints
his headache pushing through
the points of his forehead.

(is is possible I wonder that writing in pencil rather than pen can have a dramatic effect. This came very fast and rough and there was a kind of physicality about the writing of it which would have ripped the page had I been using a pen.)

I liked this enough to want to shape it a little and see what it looked like. The 8/7/8/7 form I’d been using didn’t seem right. The poems I know (and others I’ve written in that form) have all had a slightly delicate tone to them which isn’t what it represented here. So I went through and made arbitrary breaks every 10 syllables:

Imagine this, imagine the half-peeled
Skin of sheet wrapping him till his thin chest
Can barely rise, and the sweat, his own stink
On his fingers and the yellow spill of
Neon through the black window. Imagine
The crack of his joints, his headache pushing
The points of his forehead in this sleeping house.
Imagine the scream building in his head.

I went back and made small changes to this. ‘his own stink’ became, ‘the sweat stink’ because I felt the repetition of ‘sweat’ in that line enhanced the slightly breathless feel of the stanza. ‘the cracking of joints’ rather than ‘the crack of his joints’ to eliminate one of the too-many ‘his’. I moved building to the end of the last line because it seemed to scan better, seemed less like ordinary conversational speech and because it gives a weight to the word ‘building’ which hopefully emphasises the ‘building’ of the tension in the poem as well as of his scream.

At this point I started running-on into the next stanza but I’m going to skip the construction of that stanza to a point because the process was pretty much the same except I knew from the start that I was going to look towards a 10 syllable line. After a little jigging, I had this of the second stanza:

Into the acrid streets of midnight, pale
As smoke, through gardens, gates and garages.
The fox in his wake jerks quick a black nose
Into the oily scent of puberty.
Still the scream is knuckle-bitten silent.

And whilst I was writing this I was still thinking about what form this needed. So I went back to the first stanza and wrote it in a loose, disjointed form (with the small changes that come with every rewriting) . Getting the look and visual flow aligned with the textual flow and tone of the poem to enhance each other in this kind of form is always difficult. Of course, dear Blogger won’t let me do this on the screen so for those of you who are still with me, it is posted as a *.pdf file here.

The intention, with a more finished second stanza would be to see if that too benefits from being broken and if so, to carry on as long as the poem will take it in that way.

So we have one and half stanzas of potential, plus some of the material from the original post to be re-sketched. We have a possible form. And at this point I began to feel I wanted another stanza in between these in this post: something which tells us a little more about where he is coming from at the beginning of the poem so that’s what I’m working on next.

Mea Culpa...

...for I have been doing that which ought not to be done...

Rootling through boxes of old 'memorabilia' and feeling nostalgic for student days. The upshot of it all though is a lot of new posts to The Post Card Palace - where you will now find a selection of the poscards which adorned my walls as a student in the late 1980s and early 90s - and still have the blobs of blu-tac on the back to prove it. So if you hanker after that era of beautiful and talented young actors, Marillion cover artwork and, strangely, find yourself wanting to be reminded of Chichester Cathedral, you can find the results of my digging through an old shoe box over there.

Billy: Two Sketches

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Who's This?

This is R's latest accquisition (top) - I think I mentioned in an earlier post that he has a penchant for landscapes with brown mountains and portraits of unidentified women - a painting by Sonia Mervyn who was apparently something big in The Pastel Society.

He's convinced it is a portrait of the rather famous personage below. If you detect a note of barely concealed derision in my tone then you may guess that I'm not so convinced but we thought we might open it up to debate.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Book Covers

Today has mostly been a day of creating covers for books, the content of which I am still waiting for or finalising. Twelve covers for The Colt and The Porcupine special state, which are looking rather fine I think with their marbled paper covered boards, and gold line. There will be labels too but I'm still working out what I think will work best in that regard.

Also, trying to get ahead of the game somewhat, I have started in on making the covers for the ordinary edition of Raven 5 which are in a rather sumptuous Cadbury's Purple. I include the picture here for Thevina, whose passion is not Frederick Rolfe but the colour purple - I beg your pardon - the color purple!
PS. John C. The 'phallic' creature is, we think, a Giraffe. On the way to Cardiff we took a detour up to Tetbury, home of the antique shop. And, as if to prove that not everything we buy is got for pennies and sold for thousands, R saw this for £1 on a shelf in the basement - and it's probably not even worth that! But R loved it, and what you can't see very well in the pictures is the rather endearing carved face. The woman behind the counter thought it was a "mountain goat"! Thev. The Bottom Line is a little book published and distributed free by The Terrance Higgins Trust, a UK based HIV charity. I picked up both these in a gay pub in Cardiff and they were included in the scrapbook to give a hint that we spent a little time on 'the scene' while we were there.

Three Probably Unfinished Drawings

Friday, August 17, 2007

It's an Eclectic Life...

It's day's like today which make me happy. Days in which something of the whole range of my interests collide...

...Woken by the postman bearing gifts - well actually the four Gollancz yellow-jacketed SF books (picture 1 below) that I bought to celebrate the fact that the Titanic picture sold for over $1200. The bonus prize is that the Bob Shaw is signed. Then sat down to write a stern email to the seller for charging me nearly triple the actual cost of postage.

...Trip with R to our favourite junk/antique shop where I find round a corner, under a table, in a box, covered in dirt etc. etc. a series of prints from the Illustrated London News (pictures 2+3 below) which I snapped up because they all show images of various reviews of the fleet at Spithead off Portsmouth from the 1850s and 1870s. ILN prints are, in themselves, nothing special but Portsmouth related ones are hard to come by now. Also in the pile, a depiction of the eruption of Mount Etna in 1879: the vulcanologists are quite a collecting breed!

...also in said shop I pick up a tatty copy of Young England (a contemporary alternative to The Boy's Own) for 1902 which, to my amazement contains 5 stories by Edwin Emmanuel Bradford, one of my Victorian/Edwardian queers. I knew about these stories 'Tales of Life at our Great Public Schools' because they were later put together in book form. Bradford is best known for his poetry extolling the beauty of young men but he did write a fair amount of prose, some of which I have published. The book form of these stories is as rare as hen's teeth so this was something of a find and will be put aside for later publication following a little research.

...Home after a filthily unhealthy lunch at a local cafe and finally sent instructions, and cash, to the printers to start printing my edition of Aspects of Wilde by Vincent O'Sullivan. Extremely nervewracking as I am not known for the quality of my proof-reading! This text has been proofed to death and out the other side but in a book of some 150 pages one can't help but have a horrible feeling that there will, somewhere, be a typo of some kind so, with heart in mouth I clicked the buttons to set the process in motion and we await the first copies in about 20 days.

...Then it's time for a little more book cataloguing. Trying to get through the nearly 200 books I bought at auction recently and tonight I was doing some more of the 'Sussex' topographical books (a selection of which pictured in no 4 below).

...and on top of that, a little time spent watching House, my current favourite US TV drama, doing a spot of artwork, and catching up with some emails which have been waiting far too long.

... a happy day.

Figure with Sphere

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