Reflections/poem biography for Cactus Ballgown
cactus pin flower multi collage smallest

“This dress should be kept for those prickly occasions
when you sense dryness, and wish to make a point.”

‘Cactus Ballgown’ is one of only a few poems in plenty-fish that I know by heart. I have known the poem by heart for years now, and once performed it impromptu in a London café – a bizarre life moment, where a stranger, hearing I was a poet, immediately asked to hear my poetry.

The poem was written in 2012, at a time when I was generally exploring the possibilities of performing from memory and slipping seamlessly from the flow of a poem introduction into the actual poem itself without overtly signalling to the audience that this was about to happen. My typical way of doing this became to talk about the difficulties of choosing an outfit for a reading and the sometimes strange advice friends can give, such as to wear a Cactus Ballgown…

But, as friends know, I’ve never been a particularly girly girl. Poetry readings are one of the few occasions where I make that extra special effort with how I look. The truth is that I knew the real everyday cactus dress in my heart long before I came to write and learn the poem by heart.

Growing up as an introvert, I was an uneasy teenager in loud crowds and big social functions. Over the years, I realised that what was shyness for me often came across to those who didn’t know me as aloofness or an intentional distancing. As I love word play and conceits, the cactus was already a natural analogy for exploring this.

But there is extra, unwritten, un-explicit, weight for me personally behind the analogy. My father is a keen gardener. When I was growing up, he was also a cacti collector. Between the age of 18 months and nearly 12, I lived in a house that had a big garden, a greenhouse with lots of cacti, and larger cacti stationed on the porch.

Like most children, I got into trouble: for not doing what I was told, for trying to skip going to bed on time, for playing games when I was meant to be doing something else, somewhere else. With a large garden, we played lots of hide and seek and had plenty of typical hiding places. One of these was behind the cacti.

One day, I was hiding too fast and ran into the cacti spikes. My memory of exactly what happened and how is hazy, but I do remember the pain. I also recall not being able to tell anyone about it – whether that was because I was playing a game I wasn’t meant to be playing at the time or just sheer embarrassment at my own clumsiness!

While none of this was explicitly on my mind or in the writing of ‘Cactus Ballgown’, I’m fairly sure the ghost of it is in the background, even if only for me. Although the poem is outwardly armed with barbs and pun humour, as a poet, reading this poem is also me acknowledging when I feel at my most vulnerable – not so much a cactus, perhaps, as a hedgehog slowly, cautiously, uncurling from its spikes.

Electric Questions - lit version smallerDiscussion Points

1) Do the puns in this poem intensify or ease the sense of shyness/embarrassment/internal cringe that are a large part of the narrator’s awkwardness with people?

2) Do the sadder glimpse of loneliness and shyness come as a shock because of being placed alongside these touches of wordplay and humour? Does this lessen or heighten the poem’s overall emotional impact?

Inspiration/Writing Prompt

Choose one of the most embarrassing things that has ever happened to you and turn it into a poem/story. If you don’t want to own or acknowledge it openly as yours, use a fictional character and write it from their viewpoint, or in the third person. Alternatively, choose something embarrassing that happened to someone else and try writing about it as if it happened to you.

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.