Sarah James

the possibilities of poetry…

Reflections/poem biography for Meditation on/with/for a Buzz
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“That winter I hang with the bees
above hibernation and frost.”

For me, this poem is about the almost impossible task of concentrating solely on the senses. With every sound, smell, taste, sensation, sooner or later thoughts follow.

The types of meditation I have tried either concentrate on the senses or on repeating a mantra as a focus. When the thoughts come, I try to just observe them and let them go, but this letting go can only happen once I become aware that I am already in the grip of thoughts or imagination…by which stage I might be half-way to the moon, planning the weekly shop or worrying about bills.

Outside of meditation itself, come thoughts about thoughts, these thoughts framed in language. Separating experience from language is hard, even when focussing directly and with as much concentration as possible on the senses. Set against this, the irony that if I examine any word closely enough, it falls to pieces in some way.

I don’t want to even try to paraphrase the work of linguists like Ferdinand de Saussure, simply ask how alike is the word ‘apple’ to things we experience as an ‘apple’? The word itself has no taste, no colour…yet hear someone use the word and I’m able to tap into memories of a certain tang and texture on my tongue. At very least, I have some concept of what they are talking about. Or I think I have. But what is the precise essence of appleness in all the different varieties – Cox, Pippin, Pink Lady – that we might use the word ‘apple’ for?

Thoughts and questions could chase each other round and round for days. Language is a representation, not the actual thing. There is always an arbitrary element to it. Or, as Shakespeare put it in the often paraphrased lines from Romeo and Juliet: “What’s in a name? that which we call a rose | By any other name would smell as sweet.”

As for the buzz, well, meditation can bring me a great feeling of inner peace, light and clarity. But, by tuning into the senses and things around me, I can also come away from meditation feeling suddenly more awake and alert – almost buzzing, though not in quite such an overly energetic or noisy way.

Electric Questions - lit version smallerDiscussion Points

1) How easy is it to follow precisely what this poem is describing? Does any potential confusion help to actively demonstrate the arbitrariness of words?

2) If you read this aloud – feeling the sounds in your mouth and on the tongue, as well as the ear – do any of the words start to feel like physical objects in their own right rather than merely noise/symbols in a system (if language)? How and in what way?

Inspiration/Writing Prompt

Focus first on an object. Then focus on the word that you’d use for that object. Try saying the word aloud, again and again and again. Does the word change the more you say it? What, if any, actual direct similarities are there between the object and the word for that object? Imagine this word was the word for an entirely different object – perhaps that feels more suited/similar in some way to the word. What kind of journey/nightmare/experiment/transformation would be needed to turn the first object into this second object? Is there a poem or story in these observations? Or in the possible reasons behind attempting such a change? (For an example of an existing fictional transformation, consider the pumpkin that becomes Cinderella’s coach.)

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 Some Prayer

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“Forget gravity, forget north –
this force is in all directions.”

With depression, I’ve found that there are many cruel months, many hard days. But focussing on the senses and paying attention to the small, very real details of life can help. This kind of mindfulness tends to work best for me when applied to observing things in nature. Even in its changing seasons, there is something constant and reassuring about how the natural world continues no matter what.

The notion of osmosis here ties back into viewing the world as one whole made of many (moving) parts, including me. Also the sense of going with the flow, ‘que sera sera’ (whatever will be, will be). For me, there is a sense of ease in accepting the small part that personal pain plays in a much bigger picture. Most things have silver linings or work out in some way in the end, so long as I allow myself to see the good as well as the bad.

One of the things I try to remember with writing is that the joy is in creation and crafting. Whenever I get a rejection, a piece doesn’t work out as well as I thought, or I feel low about the publicity and promotion side of things (not an introvert’s favourite part of writing for publication), I can dwell on it and feel bad. (This happens and I do feel rubbish.) Or I can throw myself back into writing – either editing the rejected piece to create something even stronger or working on a completely new and different idea.

Publication, performance and prizes can give a much-needed outside perspective. This is particularly valuable to me in an anonymous setting where my work stands on its own right, separated from me, uninfluenced by networking or friendships. But, at the same time, even these are perspectives. One of the hardest things for me on my creative masters course was accepting that there really is no hard and fast this-is-good/bad line. Reaction to art isn’t a science, there is no ph. test. But this subjective aspect of creative appreciation also creates space for a great range.

Art involves an implied relationship or communication between creator and viewer/audience, so there would be no point at all in writing for publication if I wasn’t interested in connecting. But, as an introvert, a lot of the paraphernalia that surrounds publication tends to take energy. It is returning to creation itself, the writing, the crafting that gives me pep. I’ve come to realise that balancing these two differing aspects, along with life’s other energy demands, is very important for me.

Electric Questions - lit version smallerDiscussion Point

What emotions and sensations does this poem evoke? Which particular words invite an emotional response rather that just giving a basic relatively factual description?

Inspiration/Writing Prompt

What everyday activities or objects have a prayerlike quality for you? Where do you/an imaginary character derive energy and inspiration? These might be things that are part of your own daily routine, rituals you’ve observed in others or an imaginary character’s habits. What happens if something interrupts or changes these?

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 Transplanted
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“From these ‘ghost’ chambers
hollowed into pig and rat hearts,”

‘Transplanted’ was inspired by a newspaper article about scientists researching how to grow human hearts from stem cells. Or, at least, I think that’s what they were doing. It was a few years ago and I can’t remember the precise article, or be sure that I ever fully understood the experiments, even in a simplified news story.

I am very much in awe of science’s miracles, for the most part without question. Like it or not, as a diabetic, I am only alive today because of past medical research and invention. But human history does seem to have a structure whereby solving a problem creates a different one to be faced later. Perhaps this is inevitable, and is fine as long as there is always another solution. I do believe it’s important though to think out what we’re doing as fully as we can before unleashing a new miracle that may potentially create a new problem. When I follow this kind of line of thought, I have a tendency to link back to faith/lack of faith and the idea of the tree of knowledge.

Like the animal hearts, this poem was very much hollowed out from its original drafts until it found this relatively spare, repetition-with-a-difference structure. I hope that the ‘cruelly’ of the final line will also put readers in mind of the opening line to T.S Eliot’s The Waste Land: “April is the cruellest month…”

Electric Questions - lit version smallerDiscussion Point

What do the italicised repetition with a difference lines bring to this poem?

Inspiration/Writing Prompt

Imagine you are a scientist growing something in a petri dish. What are you growing and why? How do you look after and protect it? What sacrifices might be needed to ensure its survival? What risks are involved for you? And for the wider world?

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 Past Sacrificial
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“Twelve eyes of flattened metal,
hole-punched with night.”

This poem was drafted at a time when I was feeling very aware of the fact that current poetry trends favour the specific, and often the (apparently) real. If you don’t have a particularly exciting or interesting life, then this means looking hard to find or adapt specifics that will make good poetry.

Right up until the very last moment, I wasn’t sure about this poem as a whole. I was happy with the sounds and punctuation effects in the first stanza, and the overall imagery, particularly the eyes ‘hole-punched with night’. I had tried to make 12 ordinary sprats extraordinary but, at the end of the day, it was still just a poem about fish!

This is where Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘The Fish’ comes in as an influence. Her poem which is at one level ‘just about a fish’ is actually a wonderful poem about so much more. Linking into her poem with the rainbow hooks (recalling, hopefully, the Bishop lines that epigraph plenty-fish*), I hoped to set my poem in a wider context.

I also hope that placing it next to the fish of ‘Losing Faith’, its title ‘Past Sacrificial’ and the number 12 (like the apostles) might bring some connotations of faith, without hammering this aspect home.
There was still something that was missing, something that didn’t quite click in the poem. I could sense it, feedback suggested it, but neither I nor those commenting had pinned down what it was.

A last-minute flash of clarity brought me a new ending, one that seemed to capture the shadow that had been in the back of my mind while writing but had taken a long time to rise to the surface – “the slipperiness of life, | and death’s strong stench.”

For me, this is still one of the more modest poems in plenty-fish, but then, sprats are quite small, modest fish, and most of us live quite modest, unshowy lives.

*“… – until everything
was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow!
And I let the fish go.”

Electric Questions - lit version smallerDiscussion Point

Are all the little details of precise description necessary in this poem and used to good effect?

Inspiration/Writing Prompt

Pick a shop that you know well, whether it’s a high street independent, artisan boutique, national chain or supermarket. Imagine what secret life is hidden beneath the shelves, what might happen there after hours or the journey one of the items on sale might have taken before it ended up there… 

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 Losing Faith
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“Give them a bigger tank to swim in:
a glassed reality of gravel and weeds.”

I was brought up with a relatively strong Christian background. We went to church every Sunday right through my teens, I was confirmed, in the choir and almost went to a church school.

When I got to university, I began to question how much of my faith was belief and how much was habit. After I got together with my later husband in the final year at university, I began to consider the possibilities of a pantheistic god. At first frightening, the thought of us all being part of one bigger whole soon began to feel more natural. But did I believe in such a god or just living as part of a community where we’re all connected in some way?

Buddhism also seemed to have many appealing qualities. But I was still aware that these might just be ways of trying to escape from reality and neatly explain the inexplicable.

When we had children, I wanted to give them some kind of spiritual background to start from, and, for a while, returning to church seemed the right thing to do.

These days, I don’t believe in any one particular faith. If I’m asked if I believe in God, I’ll also hesitate. I’d like there to be a god, but realise this may just be wishful thinking. One thing that doesn’t go when faith is lost, at least not for me, is the need for there to be meaning. Maybe this is the greatest thing that any faith does – give some kind of sense to life and death. Stronger than my belief in God is the belief that somehow everything must have a point or purpose. Is this because I once had faith and lost it? Is it part of what some may label the God gene? Or does it go deeper than that, does an essential part of being human include the need for meaning, hope and purpose? I don’t know. But I do think my depressions have been linked to this need. When you start to challenge a deeply held belief that this world has meaning with the possibility that life is just completely random and unfair, then I guess bleakness is not a particularly surprising response.

As I’ve got older, instead of fearing the unknownness of not having faith, I’ve tried to take comfort in it. The state of not knowing, or not being sure, is actually one where all things still remain possible.

Electric Questions - lit version smallerDiscussion Point

How effective is the goldfish analogy for making an abstract loss (faith) more tangible? Is this more or less effective than focussing instead on a more direct specific example of this loss?

Inspiration/Writing Prompt

Think of an abstract loss – faith, innocence, hope, love… Try to write about it in a way that makes the abstract notion more tangible, be it using an analogy or a specific example or examples that typify such a loss.  

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 Home
home smallest“my childhood laughter
is dislodged from old gables.
Unsettled dust layers my wet face.”

This poem links back in many ways to my earlier ‘Nomadic’. Having moved around a bit as a child and adult, I’ve never really had a town or house that I identify with as home. The closest that I get to pinning down ‘home’ is in emotions. A sense of being relaxed, safe, comfortable, loved.

One actual place I identified with for ages is Selsey, on the Sussex coast, where I lived for ten years as a young child. This house was close to the sea and, for years after we moved, I was angry at having had to leave. I missed the place. Or, more accurately, I missed the nostalgic memories my mind had turned the place into.

I think I did go back to visit Selsey once, briefly, and realised that it just made me sad because I no longer belonged there. This poem is a fictional visit in my head. It is also my attempting to come to terms not with my own mortality but my parents’. I can’t even begin to imagine what life without them would be like.

Electric Questions - lit version smallerDiscussion Point

What effects do the abstract images and the missing links between the more concrete images create in this poem? Is it unsettling? If so, when and where does the poem start to feel this way? Does this help prepare you for the poem’s ending?

Inspiration/Writing Prompt

Remember back to/imagine your or a fictional character’s ideal or worst home. Use all the senses to evoke both the place and how you/your character feels about it. If you’re writing a story, imagine you/your character is forced to move away, or that a stranger comes to stay for a long time. What happens?

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 And Whenblue for and when 3smaller

“Blue lights sequence incessantly –
LED-blips strung at life’s corners,”

The title for this poem comes from – of all places! – the film Dude, Where’s my Car? There is a hilarious drive-thru scene where the order-taker says ‘And then’ after every item ordered, but keeps going with this phrase at the end of the order: and then, and then, and then… As this poem is in some ways a list of my different medical afflictions, changing this phrase slightly to ‘And When’ seemed an appropriate title.

For me, the poem opens in the feeling of emptiness and depression that may be a separate disease in itself but also seems to be a side-effect of other illnesses. These have included bursitis in one hip, glasses from the age of ten (for myopia and astigmatism) and diabetes – hence the abnormal pancreas.

I guess all of us are aware of death. When I was young, it was something that happened to other people, already old, such as my Nanna. My Grandad, who also had diabetes, lived with us while I was a teenager. He lost his eyesight to diabetes and had one of his legs amputated because of diabetic complications, before dying while I was still at university.

Slightly later in my twenties, I lost a first young friend. Having babies also revealed my own vulnerabilities. At 27, giving birth to my elder son, I had an emergency C-section and blood transfusion. Death was no longer something that happened to the old, it was something that could happen to anyone.

But it isn’t just death that I fear, it’s also complications from 35+ years of diabetes. One day, when a doctor tests my reflexes with his hammer, I expect my bones will sing or play notes back to him. Whether the tune will be a glockenspiel version of “Welcome to the House of Fun…’ or a xylophone variation on the ‘Donnie Darko’ theme music, I don’t know. But it will almost probably be off-key!

Meantime, I swim, walk, have my eyes checked regularly and try to keep my weight at a healthy level. Every year without any diabetic complications is something to be grateful for.

Electric Questions - lit version smallerDiscussion Point

How are hard sounds, unconnected images and pace used in this poem to create a sense of strangeness, fear and unavoidable inevitability?

Inspiration/Writing Prompt

What colour would you associate most with growing old? Can you create a poem or story focussed around this colour that explores what you fear about or hope for in middle age or when you reach retirement? (Jenny Joseph’s ‘Warning’ may bring further inspiration.)

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 Against the Vacuum

Against the vacuum

“We leave the shape of our handprints
dark in their cloistered whiteness,”

This poem came directly from diabetes – though I hope that’s not evident from the words – as it was drafted in my car after a low blood sugar. I’d just finished a swim and my blood sugar levels weren’t high enough for me to drive. While I sat in the car, waiting for my blood sugar to rise, I noticed how messy it was. But, in not vacuuming the car, it meant that traces of past events and people travelled with me – a strangely comforting thought.

Vacuum in the poem title is also about the void or feeling of emptiness that I sometimes have. It can be good for me to remember the places I have been, the people I have known, the experiences I’ve had – they are part of being alive, and they form the person I have become.

Electric Questions - lit version smaller

Discussion Point

How easy or hard is this poem to visualise? Do these literal visual details help to anchor the potentially more abstract idea in the last line?

Inspiration/Writing Prompt

Look closely at the movements involved with a household chore. Notice the tools and appliances used. What do they resemble? What might be realised or discovered while working? What stereotypes are associated with household jobs? What lengths would you/a character go to in order to avoid doing the cleaning? Is there a humorous poem or a dark story hiding in the housework/lack of housework?

 
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.

Cactus Ballgown 3 2000pixels wide

Happy New Year’s Eve and Happy 2018 to everyone – however you’re celebrating!!!

Reflections/poem biography for Bagging Upline 10 pic 10-001 beach footprints smaller

“You should be grown tall by now.
But I can still hold you: fossilised
fragments from the scan…”

This poem was one chosen by Kate Clanchy for her Guardian Poetry Workshop in 2008. In this now sadly defunct series, poets set a writing exercise or prompt, then chose a selection of the responses for publication.

For me, the poem was initially written as a personal acknowledgement that, with two boys, I was unlikely now to have a girl. Although I was never bothered whether I had girls or boys, for the first few weeks of pregnancy with my elder son, I thought he was girl. I suspect this is because I’d no experience of boys then, and just couldn’t imagine how to talk or react to a boy. (I have no brothers, just a younger sister and knowledge of my elder sister who died only hours after her birth.) In essence, I was probably talking, or writing, to an imagined version of myself as a baby.

Anyway, the ‘you’ in the poem was my baby that I’d imagined as girl and then later found out was a boy. But the poem is also tinged by the early days of my first pregnancy, when I had various scares. This included an incredibly early scan after I was rushed to hospital in France (in a fire engine of all things)! I was diabetic with food poisoning/gastroenteritis, and I couldn’t stop throwing up. Fortunately, my son and I were okay. Just as we finally emerged healthy and (comparatively) undamaged from later precautionary heart-check scans and an emergency c-section. But both pregnancy and early motherhood were particularly anxious times.

All of this put together though is quite a complicated experience to share, and perhaps very personal to me. The workshop feedback made it clear to me that readers were more likely to react to the poem as being one about the loss of one actual baby, something which still sadly affects many people. I’m quite happy for readers to interpret it in that way. If that is how it resonates, then it has a purpose.

Electric Questions - lit version smallerDiscussion Point

Which is more important – the writer or the reader’s interpretation of a poem? Does it matter if the two readings of one poem are very different?

Inspiration/Writing Prompt

Imagine you are clearing out and can only keep five things. What would you hold onto, and why? Which would be the hardest thing to get rid of?

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.

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