Sunday, August 12, 2007

Work in Progress



As I mentioned below, a little while ago the artist Clive Hicks-Jenkins wrote to ask if I would write something to accompany any of the images on his website of the paintings for his latest exhibition. The result was a poem about Herve, a Breton/Celtic saint (not officially recognised) which was reasonably sucessful. I rashly said I would write this, or something for the website, before getting very far into it and as a result became more and more aware of time ticking by with no finished poem. At some point in the process it struck me that Clive had, on a number of occasions sent me photos of his 'work in progress' and yet, in the world of writing, that would have been something nigh unthinkable, almost as if the magic of a piece of writing was killed by allowing anyone access to it before it was finished, edited, proofed and pruned. It seemed strange to me then that this should be the case with writing but that it didn't seem at all odd to see a half-finished painting.


So, partly for those reasons, partly because reflecting on all that has made me more conscious of the 'process' of writing, and partly for my own benefit - inasmuch as writing this down may help the procees. This is a little insight into my latest, as yet unfinished, poem.


As usual it began with a few thoughts about an image and about a form. In this instance the image was that of 'the boy who grew antlers', the form was no more than the idea that I wanted to write a longish piece and probably with longer, more structured lines than I have been using of late.


I have always been fascinated by the image of the male form with antlers. It is a small but recurrent image in myth, particularly in the celtic myth/religion of Cerunnos, the horned god, and of course in the stories of Herne the Hunter. I have also a new-age icon of Christ called 'The Lord of the Dance' which, whilst artistically straighforward and theologically nonsensical, has a certain power to it; Christ is depicted as a near naked man, cross-legged with a drum, sitting in a cave with cave-paintings on the walls behind him and, of course, antlers. These images combined in my mind with the occasions when I was a boy that I would sneak from the house at night, or after dark at least, fly over the fields which surrounded our 'edge-of-suburbia' street and into the woods, strip naked, hide my clothes at the foot of a recognisable tree and head off into the dark woods. What if my childish fantasies had come together and I had grown these antlers as well...? Those things were the starting point and the putative title, 'The Boy Who Grew Antlers'


So I began thinking over how to start and thought about describing the boy standing at the edge of the woods, poised to go in but nervous. The first few lines in my notebook then:


Shifting within a
leaf-strung light lattice
from the edge of the forrest
I see autonomous shapes,
creatures made of shadow
and cobweb
that haunt the dark wood.


This, I thought, has some nice turns of phrase but suffers from being too free in form (I want to write this with a little more structure than usual) and also I was not sure about the first-person who had popped into these few lines. I tried it again in a stricter, longer-lined form of 10 syllables per line:


Shifting in a leaf-strung lattice of light
just inside the forest where the rough bark
closes in, autonomous shapes, creatures
of shadow and cobweb...


and at that point stopped because I didn't think it was working well. Having re-typed it here now, I think actually, there is some merit in these lines and I may go back to experiment more with that format. However, at that point, I remembered the wonderful poems of Mimi Khalvati which I read some years ago. I loved them particularly for the very simple structure she used, often simply alternating the number of syllables in each line of a stanza 8,6,8,6 or 8,7,8,7... and so on... indenting every other line; something about the 'feel' of her poems came back to me and it gelled with the feel I wanted here. So I tried 8,7,8,7... with an indentation on every other line - which Blogger doesn't seem to want me to show you...


Shifting in a leaf-strung lattice
of green-gold light, just inside
the forest, in the eye's corner
autonomous shapes, creatures
of cold shadow and cobweb
spin like midsummer faeries,
sycamore blades, shaken catkins:
and the mulch smell of damp death
sighs outwards, a gust of terror
from the black hearts of old trees.



There is something about choosing a structure for a particular poem which often imposes just enough discipline to provide happy accidents and to force the writer to think more carefully about the use of words. The fact that this stanze above came quite quickly and just happened to come to a close at a round 10 lines seemed providential enough.





Then I stopped writing for a while and couldn't quite get out of my head the thought that this wasn't yet telling the whole story. What about the boy who skipped out after dark and scampered naked through the woods? What about the suburban background to this story which feels as though it's important and ought to be there? Driving into Portsmouth one evening I struck on the perhaps whimsical idea that the poem could take the form of a therapy session, that the title could be 'Therapy Session with The Boy Who Grew Antlers' as if it were notes in a therapist's notebook... and with that idea came the thought that perhaps it should be unclear as to whether this was a dream or reality. I had thought that perhaps I would simply begin the poem with a couple of italicised lines ("tell me about this dream you say you've had") and then keep the therapist's voice telling the story for his patient but when I came to write it the first thing which came was:





Tell me again the dream you had

standing in fields of moonlight,

pausing, scared at the forest's edge,

lying in damp, fluted sheets,

kicked-off but half stuck to your sweat.





This was okay but was going to be more than a couple of introductory lines. Also, I wanted to flip the order in which the boy is presented to us, I wanted him in bed first and then to seague into his dream/night-time rovings. I had also thought of the image of this boy, half-way through puberty perhaps as a lightning-struck tree, scarred and split by enormous forces: the image of the burnt and twisted branches also seemed like a good foreshadowing of antlers.





Tell me again the dream you had

lying in damp, fluted sheets

kicked-off but half-stuck to your sweat

when you are in the wierd world

between solid states: a lightning

struck tree, split, white and bark-naked,

bones like branches wracked wide

standing in a field of moonlight,

panting, scared at the forest's edge:

naked dreaming boy in bed.



[n.b. I changed 'pausing' to 'panting' as the whole feel of the stanza seemed to have become quite breathless]


This is by no means perfect but it seems, at the moment to be the first stanza of the poem, to be followed by the one already written. They have rather different tones to them which will have to be sorted out but so far the poem therefore reads thus:





Therapy Session for The Boy Who Grew Antlers





Tell me again the dream you had
lying in damp, fluted sheets
kicked-off but half stuck to your sweat
when you are in the wierd world
between solid states: a lightning
struck tree, split, white and bark-naked,
bones like branches wracked wide
standing in a field of moonlight,
panting, scared at the forest's edge:
naked dreaming boy in bed.






Shifting in a leaf-strung lattice
of green-gold light, just inside
the forest, in the eye's corner
autonomous shapes, creatures
of cold shadow and cobweb
spin like midsummer faeries,
sycamore blades, shaken catkins:
and the mulch smell of damp death
sighs outwards, a gust of terror
from the black hearts of old trees.






I have no doubt at all that the form and structure and much of the content will change radically again as I move into the rest of the poem but for now, this is the 'work in progress'.

PS. Thanks for recent comments. Thev and John C. your comments on 'talent' and 'creativity' have been really very kind but also helpful... I think I have a fair estimation of what things I am good at and what not and, frankly, visual arts are fairly low on that list, but sometimes the creative bug just hits and one wants to try things and experiment (and get messy with lots of ink). Thev, you only need to visit John C's website to see someone with real talent in the visual arts! Clixchix: I think perhaps I did Dunstan Thompson a disservice by not being clearer that I wasn't 'blaming' him in any way for the conflicted emotional content of his poems. There are many from that era who perhaps could shoulder some responsibility for the appauling portrayal of gay men in film and literature but they were on the whole the non-gay writers and directors who perpetrated the stereotypes (I know there are exceptions), writing 'about' homosexuality from the outside. Believe it or not I am also just about old enough to remember some of the discriminatory laws and indeed, when R and I first met he was only 17, I even had the decency (or cowardice) to wait a few months before suggesting we might 'go upstairs' so that it would then be legal (the age of consent then was still 18). I don't claim this as a massive instance of persecution, simply an example of the fact that legal discrimination is not such a distant memory.

1 comment:

Thevina said...

Oh Callum, what a treat to see how you actively work on poetry! I've never seen anything quite like that, and it seems such a privilege to be granted aceess to that kind of inner sanctum. Many of us (certainly myself!) who perhaps write poetry on occasion, feel especially cautious about sharing such work. Thank you for the insight into your creative process, as well as the evolution of the poem itself. It's no wonder that your prose is so deliciously descriptive, now that I'm seeing how your mind works and the visceral tendencies to your always-vivid imagery. Thank you!

 
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