Friday, 11 March 2016

Writing a poem when you have not an idea in your head

Since December last year I’ve been writing an average of 1000 words a day, the point being if you’re not writing you’re not a writer, and 1000 feels like a sensible and achievable total. The words comprise a mix of short stories, flashes, poems, and blog posts. I haven’t written a poem for about a week, so I’d like to do one, but I don’t have a single idea in my head at this moment, so I thought it might be an interesting exercise to write down the process, and see if a poem comes out of it at the end.

Facebook has already proved helpful. I have a possible title. Someone has noted that today is the anniversary of Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’, and they’ve helpfully included a quote: “the world to me was a secret which I desired to divine”. I like that, and I think I’ll use it.

Sometimes there will be a word or phrase that strikes me from one of the many prompts lists that appear on various workshops and forums on the internet, but today nothing is working, so I’m going to go to my alternate source – images. Street photography is invaluable for story and poetry ideas, and one of the best street photographers around is ‘SUDOR’ on deviantART, so that’s where I’m going. My notifications are usually packed with a good selection of his photos, and today is no exception. Having had a quick browse, I see there are several that include a little girl. I could use her as the character who sees the world as a secret which she desires to divine. I’ll go through the photos one by one and jot down descriptions of what I can see, and perhaps something will grow out of my observations. I’m a great believer in ‘things’, ie concrete objects. I don’t want to note if the girl is smiling – I want to describe what she is looking at that is making her smile.

First photo. I don’t know if she’s smiling or not as it happens, as it’s a back view. She’s on the Paris Métro, and she’s small, maybe about five years old, dressed in a tartan raincoat, white ankle socks, smart little shoes. She’s right at the front of the train, and has climbed the ladder that’s attached to the end of the compartment so that she can lean across and see through the window that gives her a view of the driver’s cabin. She’s holding on tight. She can’t get through the door into this other world. Her side has a carpet, shiny poles, posters – the driver’s side has a huge window, daylight, windscreen wipers – it’s raining, so we’re not in a tunnel. Most children would be pulled straight back down by whoever’s in charge of her, but she looks relaxed and comfortable. I think she’s been up there a while, holding on securely while the train rocks and buffets.

Second. In the Quartier de la Défense, a wide paved path that curls like a snake, she’s running along it, and she could run in a straight line but she’s choosing to follow the curves, so although she’s running, she’s not in a hurry, she has time to enjoy the architect’s design.

Third. She’s not in this photo at all, but it doesn’t matter. I’ll imagine her standing at the photographer’s side and looking in. The scene is a hairdresser’s shop. The hairdresser has short cropped dark hair and big earrings, she’s wearing a dark jumper, a suede mini-skirt and suede platfrom boots, she’s perched on a stool on casters. The lady having her hair done has turned to look at the camera – at the girl – with a ‘what do you think you’re doing here?’ kind of a look. She has an unpleasant long, horsey face. I’ve taken an instant dislike to her; she is supercilious – but I mustn’t think in such terms. I’m not interpreting at this point, I’m trying simply to observe, note down as if I were going to draw the scene. Okay then. She has one hand up to her face, and has her long thumb pressed against the side of her mouth, the fingers of the hand are curled over. Eyebrows are raised. There’s a chair in the way so I can’t see her body, but I can see her feet, in patent leather slingback shoes, lowish heels. The hairdresser has a small smile on her face as if she’s thinking about something good that’s going to happen when she leaves work tonight. I don’t think anything good is going to happen to the lady in the chair.  

Fourth. This one’s odd. It’s a Paris street. There’s a man, sixtyish, business suit. He has a small attaché case, an old fashioned leather one – and he’s balanced it on his head. He is standing perfectly motionless with a case on his head! No, I don’t know either.

Fifth. A dark alleyway. All old cities have these. It has high walls either side, stone built, repointed so many times you can hardly see the stones any more except where the pointing has fallen away. Dark mossy steps, well worn. Granite setts, or similar. Very damp. Four or five steps, every four or five yards. It alleyway bends slightly so that you can never see very far ahead. Nobody else there. Splashes of graffiti, but old, scrubbed away, so they just look like coloured mosses. Brown leaves in the corners where the wind has dropped them.

Sixth. This is the first photo where we see her properly – and incidentally, it’s not the same child, but for the purposes of my narrative it can be. There is more tartan after all – she’s wearing a tartan skirt that’s too small for her and a vest top. Her hair’s cut in a bob, her legs are long and very skinny. She’s leaning against a wall, concrete render, the side of a house. There’s a ventilation grill low down. The window is above her head, painted wooden frame, net curtains, iron bars across the front. One casement is open, and there’s a tabby cat that’s come out onto the ledge, it’s reaching down one paw towards the girl’s head, and I think she knows it’s there. She’s keeping very still, it reaches further and just pats the top of her head.

Seventh. The Parc de Sceaux, a wide, wide, grassy avenue covered in autumn leaves, trees either side. She’s riding her bicycle pell-mell, nobody else is anywhere near.

Eight. Her parents’ car. They are moving furniture. There’s a roof rack, a mattress on top of the roof rack, and then an unidentifiable piece of wooden furniture – it’s covered with a tarpaulin which is tied to the roof rack but also secured to other parts of the car, like the wing mirrors and the boot, by long ropes. The bonnet is up and father’s looking into it, mother’s got her hand on one hip and the end of one of the ropes in her other hand. The car door is open. It’s looking seriously unsafe.

Nine. She’s in a library, standing in a quiet corner surrounded by hundreds upon hundreds of books, some of the lower shelves have had books pulled out and their higgledy-piggledy on the floor. She has her hands behind her back and is scowling at anyone who comes past. The shelves are very close together.

Ten. Back outside, the Rue Mouffetard, an ancient lady carrying a capacious wicker basket and a black cane, bent double, walking past scaffolding that’s protected by a fence of what looks like bamboo. Behind the fence, peeling posters. I’ve seen this one before – I recognise the ‘Emerson, Lake and P...’ poster. I wrote a poem about it ages ago. Must be the same photo. Doesn’t matter. The impression of the scene is that this grimy street has been like this for ages.

Eleven – I’m in two minds whether to use this picture or not, as it’s London and all the others have been Paris. It shows a woman with a huge dog. Massive. It’s standing its ground and she can’t move it. There are skid marks on the paving, and it’s almost as if the dog has caused these. I can’t get over how big this dog is. Maybe it’ll have to be in the poem anyway. I saw two Bernese mountain dogs outside the supermarket yesterday and they were just as big – everyone was looking and commenting. I think you never outgrow the joy of seeing an absolutely huge dog.

Twelve. Here she is with her two friends. She’s in her tartan skirt again, and all three of them are wearing clothes that look like hand-me-downs. It’s the Boulevard de Ménilmontant. Scruffy kids, one’s barefooted, but they look very very happy.

That’s enough pictures. I’ve now closed the window on the computer where I was bringing them up, and I’m going to read through what I’ve written so far and see if anything is gelling. I’m still thinking the idea of tying these images together with the little girl is a possible, but I’m wondering if her age needs to be less specific, if they need to be snapshots of different times with her looking back on her childhood. Maybe she’s the woman in London with the huge dog, remembering her Parisian childhood. Perhaps she was very poor – but now she isn’t, hence the dog.

The next stage will be to copy all of this into a fresh document, delete all the words that won’t be included in the poem, and see what’s left; it should be a reasonable set of snapshots. Then I’ll go away and do something else for a while, letting the images gel in my mind. At some point a story will emerge, but I don’t yet know what it is. Some items will go. I’m not sure about the colour – I think this needs to be in black and white, so to speak, it needs to be looking back; childhood through the adult’s eyes. Possibly she is very old now, and these memories are fragmented. Perhaps she’s the old lady with the wicker basket rather than the child seeing her – or perhaps she’s both. Now that’s an angle I like. May well use that one.

I now have to stop writing and start thinking. I think a poem will emerge. It may only end up eight or nine lines long, but that’s fine. Distilling the essence of what I’ve seen and finding a narrative thread is all that’s required, and if that turns out to be very short, it’s no problem. The process is the thing, and the process can be a joy; the teasing out of images, finding exactly the right words to express something, getting into the mind of the protagonist. I write lots of poems, but I’m essentially a story-teller. They have to have character, voice, theme – all the elements of a story. They are no more ‘pretty pictures’ than my artwork. They get under the skin, and the deeper the better. As Mary Shelley said: “the world to me was a secret which I desired to divine”.

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