Monday, 27 May 2013

A year of wringing hands (Part 1)

I thought it would be fun to share some of the background to the poems in A Limited Season. Some people don't like to much explanation, preferring to engage with poems as self-contained worlds with voices of their own. This is generally the way I approach other people's poems, so I have sympathy with that view. But, of course, I am unable to look at my own poems ever in that way, and, in any case, I suspect knowing a little more about the background of some of my favourite poems (by other poets) would deepen my relationship with them.

Certainly my relationship with my own poems has many more dimensions than I can hope to explore in other people's work. So I will try to share some of this with you in the hope that it will enhance your enjoyment of my poems. (Hyperlinks in this post are to my Slush Poetry blog where some of the poems can be found.)


We'll begin with the first poem in A Limited Season, 'Wellmeaning'. The epigraph shown on the blog version, but omitted from the published version, is a clue to its origin: 'Wellmeaning' was written as part of a year-long project for which I wrote poems inspired by news headlines. (I originally hoped to produce a collection from this, which would have been called A Year of Wringing Hands after a line in one of the early poems, but the resulting body of work was too uneven in style and quality.)

For 'Wellmeaning', the headline 'HIV test will be sold over the counter', taken from the free London paper METRO in July 2012, appealed strongly to me because of its connection, though the progression to AIDS, to terminal illness. My father was (and, at the time of writing, still is) suffering from a 'terminal' cancer of the oesophagus. I wanted to write about how, only eight months after his diagnosis (and over-pessimistic prognosis of a six month lifespan), those of us who love him seem to have come to terms already with his slow act of dying. That is, I was feeling more guilt than grief, and sought in poetry a catharsis.

Of course, the headline concerned HIV, not cancer, and I decided to fictionalize the poem with a protagonist infected with that disease, the research for which I found distressing, humbling and apposite in equal measure. I think I did it justice - do you agree?

I decided to omit two of the original stanzas from the version in A Limited Season (the third and fourth stanzas as shown on the blog), because they seemed on reflection to repeat points made better elsewhere. This kind of decision is always easier to make with old poems than with fresh ones. I hope I got it right. Another omission from the final version was the original epigraph. Removing it gave the poem a more personal feel, as though it were addressed to a person, not an anonymous 'case'. 'Wellmeaning' has proved to be very popular and deserves it place as the opening poem.


In December 2012, I was bringing the news project to a close but was still drawn, because of my father's continuing illness, to headlines about cancer. On 7th December the METRO ran a story with the headline 'Cancer strikes more people but death rates are falling'. The story described how cancer sufferers are surviving longer, often indefinitely, and how medicine was turning away from trying to cure the illness, and instead managing its symptoms to prevent them worsening. In other words, patients were having to learn to love with the disease.

It struck me that patients are not the only people who suffer from their cancer - that their loved ones, particularly those who live with them and care for them on a daily basis - also have to deal with its ramifications. From this thought was born the poem 'Live with it'.

One immediately obvious change that was made between the blog version and the one in A Limited Season is the change from first person to third person. The protagonist is a woman; this is obvious in both versions. When I originally wrote 'Live with it' I had her telling us her story. But, of course, I wanted A Limited Season to work as a single collection with a recognizable voice - mine.

The poem remains sympathetic to the plight of this woman, who is feels helpless in the face of her friend's illness, while having to cope with her ill husband's impotence and rage. It would be a depressing message were she to be simply portrayed as a victim, but it is her love for them both that pains her, and it is for love that she will bear to go on living with it.


The last poem I want to tell you about today is 'Missing the match in McDonald's'. This poem was already simmering when I came across a headline in the Telegraph: 'Child abuse allegation soar in wake of Savile scandal'. (Jimmy Savile was famous in the United Kingdom as a radio DJ turned TV presenter, and as a charity fundraiser. His fame was so great and his reputation for good deeds so unquestionable in life that the hundreds - yes, hundreds - of child victims of his decades of sex predation only felt able to come forward after his death. Savile is also the subject of another poem in A Limited Season, 'Pissing in the wind'.)

'Missing the match in McDonald's' is, of course, a sonnet. The first eight lines are largely autobiographical, and relate to a short period during which I had some strained access to my two daughters from my first marriage (I have now all but lost touch with them both. Though I frequently see the eldest one's picture appear on Facebook, I am afraid to click on it for fear of being ignored or rejected. I'd counsel you not to judge me a coward without knowing all the facts.) I had been observing Saturday dads for some time and considering writing about their plight, so the opportunity afforded by the Savile headline was a welcome one.

But the headline sent the poem off in a darker direction, for I imagined the fathers of small children acutely aware of latent suspicions. With a witch hunt under way for sex fiends in positions of trust, every man entrusted with the care of a child was suddenly a suspected paedophile. Will he be undressing them? Will he be bathing them? Will he be touching them? It all reminded me of the way innocent Asian men carrying backpacks were scrutinized after the terror attacks on London.


I hope you have enjoyed these glimpses under into my engine compartment. Within reason I am happy to answer questions, or I'd really like to know what you think of my poems and other writing. Just leave a message below. Peace to all!

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