Sarah James

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Browsing Posts in Wed Reflections

Reflections/poem biography for For Her, A Different Skin

 PICTURE 2 - The first ‘Skull with Yellow Roses’-012
                      “Unseam a red circle; cut deeper.
Not for a bitter scream’s squeezed juice.”

How many times do you have to cut a poem to reach its heart? Of all my poems in plenty-fish, this question is particularly relevant to ‘For Her, A Different Skin’. The 15-line poem is the final result of draft after draft, cut after cut of the original 55-line version, entitled ‘A New Coat’ (March 2012).

The initial core inspiration was about living with depression and my husband’s frustration at how impossible it is for someone else to make things right, no matter how much they care. I wasn’t happy in my own skin, he would have done anything to find a new skin that I could be happy in. Of course, in real life, we can’t solve depression by cutting someone free from their skin. But, in a poem, we can, or at least try to.

Perhaps because of their colour, foxes have always sat closely for me alongside the story of little red riding hood. A fairy-tale scene of being chased through a dark forest by the wolf, depression, seemed to fit with skin-changing, or shape-shifting. At the time, I was also exploring the possibilities of interweaving two very different strands in a poetry narrative, and the tensions that can be created by contrasting found factual knowledge with more lyrical language.

I shared the piece with my long-standing poetry-critiquing buddies. Although the poem had already been under the knife many times, it was still too long and too complicated. There were sections that worked well, sections that I had the right feedback on, but overall there were too many loose threads or distractions.

I almost gavpathe up the poem as too weird. But ‘For Her, A Different Skin’ was one of those poems that wouldn’t disappear quietly. Finally, I realised that I had to let go of the red riding hood angle. Although the ghost of that forest scene might remain in the background, it wasn’t the main focus. Cutting this helped to tighten the poem. Losing a lot of un-necessary flesh allowed me to see the poem’s inner bone structure.

The first line of each of the seven full couplets was based on practical instructions for skinning a fox. The second line of each couplet would be about the reason. In the first three couplets, the second line would rule out the negative reasons for why someone might skin someone or something: it is not done to cause pain or to own the skin that is removed. In the next three couplets, the second line would give the positive reasons for doing this. The final couplet, with the fifteenth lone line, then gives the overall reason why. Although I’d not set out to write a sonnet, what had finally emerged was a 15-line poem that would fit into the general skin of a ‘sonnet or not’ discussion.

The poem itself and the cutting process involved in the re-drafting also made me aware that the poem wasn’t just about depression but more generally about the ‘not feeling right as a person’ that leads to illnesses such as anorexia, or to seeking cosmetic surgery.

‘For Her, A Different Skin’ was and always has been a strange poem, one that has worn many ‘poetry skins’ throughout its 24 months of redrafting and edits. But, when this final version was accepted for the Bloodaxe anthology Hallelujah for 50ft Women and then my collection plenty-fish, it felt like confirmation that the poem was finally happy in its given skin.

The poem in 2012 draft form.

The poem in 2012 draft form.

Electric Questions - lit version smallerDiscussion Points

1) How obvious is the intended form in this poem? When (if) do you first notice the structure of instructions and reasons? Would the poem work better/differently if this structure were more or less obvious?
2) If you have a 13 or 15 line sonnet, what kind of things might that extra/missing line make possible?

Inspiration/Writing Prompts

1) Try writing a one-word-a-line sonnet. Notice what aspects and techniques you have to prioritise in order to ensure that it still feels like a poem. (If you’re stuck for a starting point, take any existing piece of your writing and try to condense it into this structure.)
2) Take a poem/story draft that you’re not happy with. How long is it? Prune it down to an enforced line/word count that’s half its current length. Does it now need a different skin/ title?

plentyfish cover (1)At poetry readings, I often enjoy hearing about the background to a particular poem. ‘Wednesday Reflections/Sometimes I smile’ is my attempt to share the inspiration, frustrations, pain, philosophies and thoughts that lie behind my poetry collection ‘plenty-fish’. Each Wednesday, this blog will contain one of these ‘poem biographies’, as well as points for potential reader discussion and also writers’ prompts. My collection ‘plenty-fish’ may be bought from Nine Arches Press, here, or my website, here. More Wednesday Reflections on other poems in the collection can also be found here.

Reflections/poem biography for Still the Apple

Snapshot 2 (01-08-2015 19-16)a4
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

“His mouth moon-craters my flesh,
curves tiny ribbons in flushed skin.”

Once upon a time, I put a definition of ‘feminism’ through a computerised Oulipo N+? generator.* What this automatic replacement of certain words did to the definition sums up how much the word has been used, abused and confused over time – to the point of become almost meaningless.

Defining the/your/definitely-not-our Problem

“feminism: The advocacy of women’s rights on the ground of the equality of the sexes.” Oxford Dictionaries online

Femme in ism – each woman lost
between the gaps in mass generalisation.
A term so m(i)sunderstood and manhandled
that it’s worn like a misshapen sweater.
Not her choice, but the interpretation
picked out by those around her.
Fighting for women’s rights:
on the ground of the equality of the sexes;
on the groundnut of the equalizer of;
on the groundsheet of the equation of;
on the groundsman of the equerry of;
on the group of the equilibrium of;
on the groupie of the equinox of;
on the grouping of the equipment of;
on the grouse of the equity of;
on the grove of the equivalent of;
on the grower of the era of:
on the growl of the eraser of
the sexes…. The machine suggests;
do we accept these emptied tokens,
or question and reform?
 
Snapshot 1 (01-08-2015 19-017Because ‘feminism’ and ‘feminist’ are words that have been stretched, appropriated and endowed with meanings that may or may not be the same for the writer as the reader, I’m reluctant to use them to describe ‘Still the Apple’.

What I will say is that this poem was written at a time when I was feeling frustrated with the different values and expectations still sometimes placed on woman compared to men, even in twenty-first century ‘civilised’ society. The traditional tree of knowledge and Adam and Eve binary provided a wonderfully concise skeleton for this seed of frustration. (As Jean-Baptise Alphonse Karr said, “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose”/”the more things change, the more they are the same,” Les Guêpes satirical journal, 1849.)

* The N+7 procedure (constraint), invented by the Oulipo literary group’s Jean Lescure, involves replacing each noun in a text with the seventh one following it in a dictionary. This technique has been adapted, using computerised generators, to allow substitutions of the next noun in the dictionary (N + 1) up to N+15, which substitutes the 15th noun following the original noun. A computer generator may be found here.

Electric Questions - lit version smallerDiscussion Points

1) How does the language we use reinforce potential stereotypes and how can word choice be used to challenge or subvert unthinking prejudice?
2) Does this poem assume, or over-assume, a shared cultural background (knowledge of the story of Adam and Eve/Garden of Eden) that may not be a given in contemporary society? What does the poem lose without such knowledge – and does it matter?
3) Does the placing of this poem next to ‘Journey of the Fruit’ allow the two poems to add depth/perspective to each other?

Inspiration/Writing Prompt

Take an object and describe it as it is. Try contrasting this with what it might be/have been given a different setting, history or cultural context. What wider aspect of human experience might it work as an example, symbol or metaphor for?

plentyfish cover (1)At poetry readings, I often enjoy hearing about the background to a particular poem. ‘Wednesday Reflections/Sometimes I smile’ is my attempt to share the inspiration, frustrations, pain, philosophies and thoughts that lie behind my poetry collection ‘plenty-fish’. Each Wednesday, this blog will contain one of these ‘poem biographies’, as well as points for potential reader discussion and also writers’ prompts. My collection ‘plenty-fish’ may be bought from Nine Arches Press, here, or my website, here. More Wednesday Reflections on other poems in the collection can also be found here.

Reflections/poem biography for Journey of the Fruit
orange bug pic smaller

“silver spoons glinting on porcelain,
beside thin cuts of lemon drizzle.”

Artists have the fruit-bowl to study still life. As a poet who suffers from depression, I often feel I have life to study for stillness. But physics tells me that nothing we actually experience is still; all molecules, atoms and their tinier composition parts are vibrating or in motion. Stillness is very much an emotional experience that comes from the mind.

Life is a journey; the growth of seed to fruit and of fruit to fruit bowl are two more, different, kinds of journey.

Writing ‘Journey of the Fruit’ started from a point of observation. Like the fruit in the orangery observed at Hanbury Hall in Worcestershire, the poem’s growth was not entirely natural but fertilised by the time restraints of being part of a summer project organised by Droitwich Arts Network with the National Trust. Following a day-visit to the hall, I had somewhere between two weeks and a month to produce my poem, though it has been tweaked since.

From artists’ fruit bowls to Eve eating from the tree of knowledge, there is, or has become, something inherently symbolic in the creative’s gaze when it comes to fruit. My own contemplations started with what I could actually see, and the immediate metaphor that evoked for me – trees huddled in the orangery, as tiny nursery-school children might huddle around their teacher. But, almost as long as I have been a writer, I have felt the danger or fear of writing about what may be automatically dismissed as ‘women’s things’. In short, I didn’t want to go down a route focussing on children.

Instead, I whittled and whittled the actual physical description to see what other metaphors would emerge. The one green lemon that was just tipping towards yellow was particularly noticeable. Focussing on this brought in both the notion of how far away from their natural home these plants were, and the contrast between Britain’s cold climate and their more exotic origins. It also made me think of the various uses of ‘lemon’ as a slang term, in particular for a lesbian. The elements of class and servants still existing today in the shadows came fairly late in the drafting process, inspired by a suggestion by poet-friend, Ruth Stacey. History is history, but traces of its effects can often still be seen around us, when we look closely.

Electric Questions - lit version smaller
Discussion Points

1) What features literally in the poem and what is used here as an analogy or symbol for something else?

2) Where does the poem’s focus change from fruit to people and history? Is this a gradual or sudden turning point – and what effect does that create for you as a reader?

Inspiration/Writing Prompt

Write a line /phrase describing something you’d like to change. This is the start of your poem/story. Next, write a line/phrase describing how things would be if this did change. That is the end of your poem/story. Now write the rest of the poem/story – the journey – that takes place in between/might be required to bring about that change.

plentyfish cover (1)At poetry readings, I often enjoy hearing about the background to a particular poem. ‘Wednesday Reflections/Sometimes I smile’ is my attempt to share the inspiration, frustrations, pain, philosophies and thoughts that lie behind my poetry collection ‘plenty-fish’. Each Wednesday, this blog will contain one of these ‘poem biographies’, as well as points for potential reader discussion and also writers’ prompts. My collection ‘plenty-fish’ may be bought from Nine Arches Press, here, or my website, here. More Wednesday Reflections on other poems in the collection can also be found here.

Reflections/poem biography for Of fences

“Two things which life does not allow:
words that can be throated back,
and bullets which re-enter a gun.”

This poem started life at a time when I felt beset with overwhelming choices, and questions about what I wanted from my career, relationships, life. (Was my creative writing masters worthwhile or would the money be better spent elsewhere? Does anyone actually read poetry? Wouldn’t work directly saving or improving lives be more valuable than writing? How many children would be enough to satisfy my mothering instinct? Can any children at all be justified in environmental terms?*) But this was not just a re-evaluation of my personal values often summed up by the cliché ‘mid-life crisis’, it was also accepting the downside of being able to see many sides or viewpoints – potential paralysis or inability to make a decision.

*Answers: 1. I (mostly) enjoyed it and I learned – I don’t get to live the alternative to know if that might have been better. 2. Every reader counts. 3. Saving my own life is as good a place as any to start. Failing medical training, a word in the right ear/eye at the right time may be the next best thing. 4. & 5. I have two lovely boys!

gate

But, in life, to not make a choice actively is often to make a choice by default in favour of the existing state – of family life, society, politics… At the same time, many questions of choice don’t have a clear-cut right or wrong, or aren’t the simple binary they might initially appear – as in the historical opposition of the church/religion and science.

All these again point for me to the importance of making a choice or a stand not because it is right or wrong in itself, but because it is the right or wrong choice for a person individually. (As someone who suffers from anxiety and depression, the realisation that there is rarely an absolute right or an absolute wrong is great for removing the pressure, weight of importance and fear of failure that often stand in the way of decision-making. On the negative side, however, it can augment any tendency to over-analyse or agonise over the past, because there is rarely firm confirmation that a choice was definitely the right or best decision.)

Like Robert Frost’s ‘The Road Not Taken’, it also matters to me that each choice we do or don’t make carries its own story. Both art and science are places where, unlike life itself, we can enjoy the results of a range of options as well as the one actually taken. (For those that love film, I am thinking of Sliding Doors, where reliving a moment with only a slight change creates an overall different result. This is the nearest I get as a non-physicist to understanding some of the possibilities incorporated in the many-worlds interpretation of quantum physics, where a world exists for each possible option at every point where an option arises i.e. producing an infinite number of worlds.)

From abstract ideas and word-play centred around options, ‘Of fences’ shifts focus to conclude with a deliberately very specific final image – the brave, bold and hope-filled example of making a choice and living that choice that Malala Yousafzai gave the world stage before and after she was shot in 2012.

But, for me, the poem also closes on a second very specific but missing final image. Through years of re-drafting, the poem’s final stanzas focussed around photographs by U.S. artist Alan Sailer of an air gun pellet caught as if in freeze-frame as it was shot through a red rose, shattering its centre in petal fragments. If the rose is a symbol of is life or beauty, the pellet is pain or death. But, captured in that moment, art is created not from rose or pellet individually but from their interaction. Also captured in these images is the hole left after the pellet/bullet has passed through.

Although this image is missing from the final poem – the trace of it is still there for me. Pain and death are, sadly, an unavoidable part of life. Coming through them enhances the beauty of the contrasting states of joy and life.

Both the absence of this image and the actual pellet/bullet-hole in the rose, might also be seen to represent the void, that emptiness, that sense of something missing yet undefinable, which seems to be very much a part of contemporary western life. While making a considered choice and taking a moral stand are important actions, they don’t themselves guarantee instant happiness or fulfilment. The void, for me, is not an actual state, more a state of mind. There is no filling it, only realising its non-existence outside of the mental thoughts and language-constructions that create the feeling of its existence.

To return to the actual final poem, life is what it is, in all its beauty, and all its grit. Hopefully, most of us strive as much as we can towards the beauty, rather than the grit.

Electric Questions - lit version smallerDiscussion Points

1) How is repetition with slight differences used to reinforce or alter the poem’s thrust both at a particular point in the poem and in terms of the poem’s overall central message?
2) Does the poem’s structure reinforce or undermine the sense of choices/opposites? How does it do that? (Couplets, lists, ellipsis, columns of text…)

Inspiration/Writing Prompt

1) Imagine opening a gate into a field of that proverbially greener grass on the opposite side of the fence. What would this look to you? How would it feel to finally step into it?
2) Choose a historical figure or inspirational character that you look up to. How does your life mirror or contrast with theirs? How would you/your life be if you had gone through the same experiences? What would it take to make your life like theirs?

plentyfish cover (1)At poetry readings, I often enjoy hearing about the background to a particular poem. ‘Wednesday Reflections/Sometimes I smile’ is my attempt to share the inspiration, frustrations, pain, philosophies and thoughts that lie behind my poetry collection ‘plenty-fish’. Each Wednesday, this blog will contain one of these ‘poem biographies’, as well as points for potential reader discussion and also writers’ prompts. My collection ‘plenty-fish’ may be bought from Nine Arches Press, here, or my website, here. More Wednesday Reflections on other poems in the collection can also be found here.

1-The Emptiness of Uncut Diamond-001 panormaicsometimes I smile

My Wednesday reflections started in the early hours of the early days of 2016. To be precise, it was on January 3 – a Sunday! I was thinking about my poetry collection plenty-fish and poets’ introductions that can give helpful or extra context in live readings. I wanted to do something similar in writing. The result was ‘Sometimes I smile’ a manuscript with a short commentary on each poem in the collection.

These initial thoughts focussed on inspiration, the how and why of writing and a poem’s personal significance to me. However, I’d always considered the possibility of using this on my blog rather than as a printed book. By the time I came to refine the text, I’d discovered the online readers’ guides that many American presses seemed to offer with their titles. I wasn’t aware of British publishers really doing this, outside of actual academic titles. I also knew myself that reading can be a great source of inspiration. I decided then to also include potential discussion points and writing prompts that might arise from each poem. I wanted to release these weekly on my blog, and mid-week seemed as good a day as any to dive into them. Launching these Wednesday Refelctions in July 2017 to mark the second anniversary of plenty-fish‘s publication was the next logical, and celebratory, move!

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From Anguish to Art – a short background

When I was six, I was diagnosed with juvenile diabetes (diabetes type 1). When I was 36, I began to realise that my depressions, my life, and, therefore, my poetry were more directly linked to this diagnosis then I had imagined.

However, this is not a commentary about me. Nor is it a commentary about diabetes or even depression or anxiety. I am not these dis-eases, any more than I am my poetry, but everything that is in my life is in my poetry, and vice versa.

“Tell all the truth but tell it slant –” Emily Dickinson said in her wonderfully concise poem opening with this line. But the slants between life and page are many. In looking at how the poems in plenty-fish came about, I wanted to cast light on some of the slants deliberately intended in the writing. This doesn’t set out to illuminate them all, nor to cover the very real and important slants that a reader brings to them in their own reading.

1-The Emptiness of Uncut Diamond-001 panormaic upside down

But, before I start on plenty-fish, I’d like to dip back briefly into my preceding collection, The Magnetic Diaries. For me, The Magnetic Diaries demonstrates one approach to pain and harnessing its effects artistically. With The Magnetic Diaries, I chose to write directly about illness. In doing so, the poems are based on my own experiences of both depression and repetitive Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation as treatment. But this is then set within the distancing/objective framework offered by placing it in the context of a contemporary, English, poetry version of Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. Using this narrative background allowed me to separate the writing from my own pain and also take the resulting poems beyond the limits of my own experience.

Whereas The Magnetic Diaries is moving from anguish to art through a direct if distanced (inward-looking) recording of pain, plenty-fish is almost the exact opposite. In plenty-fish, the creating art from anguish is through focussing deliberately (for the most part) on experiences outside of the pain.

In many cases in plenty-fish, the poems range across current affairs, objects of significance, real and imaginary relationships, literary influences and landscapes. Where depression features in this collection, it is written not in the immediacy of the pain but with a wider lens that covers also recovery, the experience of those around someone with depression, and the very small part this suffering plays in the world as a whole, no matter how encompassing it feels at the time.

The commentaries of Wednesday Reflections/Sometimes I smile… are offered as a companion to those reading plenty-fish, or interested in the biographies of individual poems. But I hope it works too as a companion to anyone who has experienced depression or other difficult situations. Finally, I hope the writing prompts will also bring inspiration.

plentyfish cover (1)‘Wednesday Reflections/Sometimes I smile’ is my attempt to share the inspiration, frustrations, pain, philosophies and thoughts that lie behind my poetry collection ‘plenty-fish’. Each Wednesday, this blog will contain one of these ‘poem biographies’, as well as points for potential reader discussion and also writers’ prompts. My collection ‘plenty-fish’ may be bought from Nine Arches Press, here, or my website, here.

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