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.