How Poems Slowly Get Written – from haiku to abecedary

Bloodaxe poet, editor and tutor, Chrissy Williams, set up and edits PERVERSE poetry. Her site’s strap-line for publication is that she’s looking for “deliberate, obstinate, unreasonable or unacceptable poems, contrary to the accepted or expected standard or practice”. A willful outlier, in other words, looking for experiments and/or orphans. Some of you – if you subscribe to her site or keep an eye on social media – may have seen three pieces I’ve written which PERVERSE published last week. These were the opening three poems from a sequence of twelve and the Note published with them by PERVERSE explains a good deal (I’ll put the poems themselves at the end of this post).

Note: these poems are from a sequence in the form of an abecedary, a calendar of 12 pieces. Carolyn Forche’s ‘On Earth’ first interested me in this form. She associates its inclusiveness (from A-Z) with the pleroma, the fullness of God’s creation, the One. The fullness I have aimed at in this case was the difficult last years of my parents’ lives. Drawing on notes I made between 2016 – 2018, the disjointed nature of this particular totality reflects their growing illness and confusion; but I hope the whole exudes what it was written with, love.

On the theme of ‘how poems come to be written’, today I’m posting images of a couple of the pages from my notebook of the time. You’ll see phrases and images which made it through to the final poems. As can perhaps be seen from the scribbles, what I had originally in mind was something close to the form of haiku. I’d been reading and admiring Masaya Saito’s book of haiku called Snow Bones. This had just been published in 2016 by Paul Rossiter’s Isobar Press (I think maybe I’d bought the book at the Poetry Book Fair that year). Snow Bones consist of four narrative haiku sequences, spoken by several different voices. Saito writes in both English and Japanese (these poems are all in English). Two of these sequences focus on the death and funerals of parents and what I admired was the way in which the compression of the form allowed the poet to express the powerful emotions of love and grief. Between 2016-18, my mother and father were going through a decline in both mental and physical health, eventually moving into a care home, sadly both dying within 18 months of each other. So I had my own powerful feelings to deal with and one of the ways of coping was to try to write about these experiences.

Here’s a couple of pages from Saito’s book. You’ll see he does not approach the haiku form in the rather rigid syllabic way that we often think of it. Also I liked the way in which – of the 3 lines – he always sets one off, either opening or closing. This creates drama and tension even within such a short space.

So then here’s a page from my notebook of the time – the crossings out indicate that I have used the text going forward. Initially I tried to maintain my hopes of a haiku sequence. I can see here phrases that made it into the final poem (in such a different form): the box of Quality Street chocolates, the days passing as at a level crossing, the introduction of a new care plan while they were still living at home. I remember taking a dozen or so of these haiku pieces to a writing workshop. The response was polite, even some enthusiasm, but I felt this was in part a response to the personal nature of the subject matter as much as to the success of the choices I’d made as a poet. (These are always very difficult moments in a workshop – depth of involvement on the writer’s part often makes more cool, critical observations hard to bring forward).So I wasn’t sure. The texts stayed in another notebook. This is what happens (for me at least). I’d then often be browsing back through the notebook at those bits of text not yet crossed through as having been advanced to the next stage. I’m re-reading to see if there remains any life in these fragments left in limbo. I kept reading these haiku and thinking there was a lot of good writing, but they had certainly not found their right form.

Here’s another image of an original page.

The fourth haiku here I still like:

The phone’s numerals are very big

the size of Scrabble pieces

a language you once knew

In the final poems, the image of a “language” re-emerges rather changed. The sixth haiku poem here has an image of “a shrew its paw caught in a trap” which is itself an echo of a line from the previous page (“The scratching of a mouse trapped”) – the relevance of these recurring images of entrapment is obvious given my parents were pretty well confined to their house by physical weakness and mental uncertainties. Such images surface in the final poems, in the first poem’s opening quatrain, as “a mouse’s paw caught in the trap”.

I don’t remember when the final choice about these poems was made – the one that decided an abecedary form would be appropriate. Those who have followed this blog for a few years will have heard me ruminating on this form before and on my discovery of it via Carolyn Forche. In rational terms, I felt the systematic coherence imposed on phrases by the alphabetical sequence would be effective in an ironic way because most of the fragmented material I had assembled spoke to an incoherence rooted in the way my parents were now living. Is it too much to say that I was hoping to piece things together for Mum and Dad in a way that they were unable to themselves? There are other (more conventional) poems about my parents in my most recent full collection, The Lovely Disciplines.

The re-shaping of the text worked (to my mind). Assembling something like this is a thrilling balance of chance (the sequence of the alphabet) and choice (the poet retains the right to trim and edit phrases). The title I’ve given the sequence comes from the last haiku in the first image above:

A large print calendar

days crossed off behind

ahead no footprints in the snow

I remember buying them a large print calendar so they could follow the days passing more easily. Often – but not always – they’d cross through the days passed. When we cleared the house eventually, the calendar was still hanging up, the crossed off days having stopped at a certain point; the future days left blank and pristine. The walls of the house have not been literally demolished. But it has been sold on to another family and so for me and my brothers the walls might as well have been demolished. The lives lived out there are gone, except for what we can remember (some of which can be written down).

Here are the three poems in the sequence (from A to I) that have so far been published:

from Notes on a calendar (hung on a demolished wall)

#WADOD – Day 15: March 15th 2019

Works and Days of Division – 29 poems by Martyn Crucefix

Drawing on two disparate sources, this sequence of mongrel-bred poems has been written to respond to the historical moment in this most disunited kingdom. Hesiod’s Works and Days – probably the oldest poem in the Western canon – is a poem driven by a dispute between brothers. The so-called vacana poems originate in the bhakti religious protest movements in 10-12th century India. Through plain language, repetition and refrain, they offer praise to the god, Siva, though they also express personal anger, puzzlement, even despair. Dear reader – if you like what you find here, please share the poems as widely as you can (no copyright restrictions). Or follow this blog for future postings. Bridges need building.

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Friday 15.03.2019

‘an americano to go’

an abecedary – to Brexit Secretary, Steve Barclay, who yesterday could find no kinship between speaking and voting

an americano to go

black of a white man’s heart

crude statistics

when were they kin

 

daubed with shitty feathers

eggs cracked in a bowl

footnotes about emails

when were they kin

 

growing weed under LEDs

headlines and tenderness

in the moment of conception

when were they kin

 

john smith marries jane doe

klaxons sounding

languages east west north south

when were they kin

 

my emigre daughter

notes from strings of a mandolin

olives in a screw-top jar

when were they kin

 

pulsing blue in the Uber driver’s ear

queries on the first page

red sky in the morning

when were they kin

 

share like like share

tangled nests of fishing line

up and over the brim

when were they kin

 

very near the end

when the bridges are burning

xanthoma tendinosum

you wake and you’re done

 

when will you understand

zest and intelligence

when were they kin

when were they kin

 

This poem first appeared on New Boots and Pantisocracies (February 2019)

Read next poem

Read previous poem

Important Notice

To my regular subscribers and followers:

From 1st March 2019, I am planning to post a series of new poems on my blog on a daily basis and, if you are in the habit of getting notifications via email, I would like to apologise in advance for cluttering up your in-box much more frequently than usual.

On the other hand, these new poems have been written to respond to the historical moment in this most disunited of kingdoms and, dear reader, if you like what you find, I would be most grateful if you could share them as widely as you can, in whatever format you wish. I am waiving any copyright concerns because the underlying belief I am expressing in these poems is that bridges need building.

Virtual-Office-Threadneedle-StreetThe working title for the sequence is Works and Days of Division – it opens somewhere near Threadneedle Street, not far from a child’s brightly coloured picture book, and roams the UK, talking, shopping, walking, driving, through earth and air, water and fire, in sickness and in health, to end with a death of sorts on a certain lake shore in the northwest of England.

The two main sources of inspiration for the sequence of poems have already been the subjects of a couple of recent posts. Hesiod’s Works and Days – probably the oldest poem in the Western canon – is a poem driven by a dispute between brothers. The so-called vacana poems originate in the bhakti religious protest movements in 10-12th century India. Through plain language, repetition and refrain, they offer praise to the god, Siva, though they also express a great deal of personal anger, puzzlement, even despair.

The central, pivotal poem has already been kindly posted/published by New Boots and Pantisocracies and can be read by following this link. The poem is an abecedary, wishing to encompass everything from a-z, but wondering why nothing connects anymore. If you like, please share.

nijole-miliauskaite-skaidres1_bigAlso, as regular readers will know, I have always regarded translation optimistically as one of the key bridge-building activities in the literary world. And I am delighted to provide a link also to Modern Poetry in Translation‘s just published digital pamphlet of Lithuanian Poetry which includes my own translation (and a recording) of an untitled poem by Nijole Miliauskaite. I was pleased that the translation was selected as the best from all those submitted to the MPT Lithuanian Translation Workshop.

So – Works and Days of Division will begin posting on Friday 1st March and will reach its conclusion on Friday 29th March by which time – well, no, we don’t know where we’ll be by then, do we? 

 

Bathing in the Olt #7

Introduction to the abecedary form of this sequence: click here.

Previous installments:  #1 / #2 and #3 / #4 / #5 / #6

Bathing in the Olt

7.

The past behind its drawn curtains

the train to Slatina

their loved ones emerged from the glittering water

*

their property stood on a hill of red soil, a few hundred feet distant but facing the river Olt

they were making for the other bank

they had no thought for the tragedy that had already

*

this was Violetta now in love with Virgil

though she would have been happy to be rescued

to irresistible longing

to swim where the currents allowed

two nights of absence . . . to her that was evidence enough

urgent matters would force delay

*

Violetta seemed to have handled the short separation well enough

Violetta suddenly disappearing from sight

Violetta took her revenge

Violetta was a powerful swimmer

Virgil Trancu and his family lived close by in the neighbouring village

*

waiting for the scandal to break at any moment

waiting for what he felt sure would happen

warm sand under leafy osiers in the breath of a day drawing to a close

was meant simply to entice him

was out of danger

was wrong and she suddenly burst into tears

*

yawning, carefully, she un-

zipped her “maillot” and lay indifferently, beautiful and seductive

arcade-card-french-woman-in-head-scarf-and-wooly-bathing-suit-sitting-on-beach-leaning-on-one-arm-1920s

Bathing in the Olt #6

Introduction to the abecedary form of this sequence: click here.

Previous installments: #1 / #2 and #3 / #4 / #5

Bathing in the Olt

6.

Reasons for panic at Milcoveni as the heated imagination of his girlfriend

she bent briefly forward as if liable to fall

she had a simple plan

she had made it the night before and she would carry it out

she seemed to be begging for help and attention which she did not truly need

*

skirting the strongest currents of the river, he managed to reach the other bank

slave to her own impressionable nature

so hard to counter. Cautiously, he tried to spare her any pain

so it was that the two couples often met

*

soil erosion caused by the powerful and frequent flooding of the waters of the

mighty Olt

some high society woman in Craiova

something of a coward and Benedict a mere beginner

struck out decisively for the side where the current seemed most powerful

*

taken aback and then enchanted by this new music

the “maillots” were brought out and Violetta’s was especially fine

*

the delay seemed to make sense no longer

the fear lovers experience when the one they love is not beside them

the grace and elegance of the two girls contrasted sharply with the ravines and the

river bed, hollowed out by the destructive fury

*

the material evidence . . . He found the two “maillots”

mvalea-oltului3

(Next installment posted tomorrow)

Bathing in the Olt #5

Introduction to the abecedary form of this sequence: click here.

Previous installments: #1 / #2 and #3 / #4

Bathing in the Olt

5.

Near the bank the river was quiet

neither love nor life in the old, white house in Milcoveni

*

no direct path so they had to make a detour to reach the water

no inkling that anything was amiss

no trace of Benedict

not at all hard to convince. And he surrendered

not taken in by his gesture; it merely fuelled her suspicions

*

nothing seemed to threaten their happiness

now they had lost almost everything

*

on the opposite bank something strange was happening

one solitary gesture: one of renunciation

perfectly covering her body it emphasized her beautiful figure

pretending fatigue and weakness

quickly went under without trace

The_Olt_river

(Next installment posted tomorrow)

Bathing in the Olt #2 and #3

Introduction to the abecedary form of this sequence: click here.

Previous installment: #1

Bathing in the Olt

2.

Dawning on Benedict

*

deeply

delightful entertainment during the long, hot summer days, bathing in the Olt

*

did not shout

did not threaten, did not say a word

drowning in the whirlpool of the Olt

.

3.

Elegant, young, attractive

even Benedict seemed to have lost his confidence

forests of osiers, of dense, hollow willow trees and huge sand bars that gave the impression of tremendous disturbance in the landscape

for her these were dreadful moments

*

given the opportunity to sneak back she swiftly dressed herself

*

going to bed that night they abandoned themselves to passionate embraces

he would not be able to keep the promise he had made when he’d left his girlfriend, Violetta

her eternal threat never left his mind

her misfortune was not something Violetta thought greatly about

hidden under the shaggy willow trees on the fine, dry sand, beneath the melancholy rays of twilight

his athletic body and complete absence of hair

his body found where the current had brought it to the river bank

his was unexpected

5836008337_970273f706_b

(Next installment posted tomorrow)

Bathing in the Olt #1

Introduction to the abecedary form of this sequence: click here.

Bathing in the Olt

1.

A modest apartment

a swimsuit which on a famous beach last year in high season caused quite a stir

a well-lit house on a quiet street of the Capital

all part of the performance

*

an absence that had been longer than expected but through no fault of his own

as all miserable people

as they tried to hide

as you might after a funeral, having stood for hours, the welter of powerful emotion

at that very moment Violetta exacting her revenge

*

aware of his girlfriend’s fierce jealousy

Benedict had been adamant

both reproach and bitter disappointment

bringing the conversation skilfully round to bathing

cheat on me – on the very same day you cheat on me – I’ll cheat on you

*

children were taking cows to the pasture

*

close by he saw their naked bodies vanishing among the shade of the willow trees

crushed by the incident, imagining her happiness in ruins, her soul flared

arcade-card-french-woman-in-head-scarf-and-wooly-bathing-suit-sitting-on-beach-leaning-on-one-arm-1920s

(#2 posted tomorrow)

Bathing in the Olt #4

Introduction to the abecedary form of this sequence: click here.

Previous installments: #1 / #2 and #3

Bathing in the Olt

4.

I am miserable. I am very miserable . . .

I knew you would want to save me

if it was achieved without much effort on her part

*

important business would keep Benedict in Craiova for two more days

in contrast she appeared flawless

in his every action he could leave no room for any suspicion

in the horse-drawn carriage on the way they talked little

in vain she pleaded to accompany him

*

just some beautiful hotel waitress

*

keenly looking for the dining car waiting to catch sight of

left at home alone, spawned a host of suspicions

lovingly aroused by desire, the thought that she belonged to him

*

Milcoveni to take tea, served according to the rules of a fine house

more than once Mr. and Mrs. Virgil Trancu had been invited to join them bathing in the Olt

craiova-veche-gara

(Next installment posted tomorrow)