Poetry that almost wasn’t

Half term week – time to unwind, make butterfly stencils for daughter’s bedroom (black and silver on white – she fell in love with a duvet set’s pattern).

Also back to my very first writing project: a teen/cross-over sci-fi story I had in mind for years before I began to write. Nine months to complete, 120,000 words. It was dire – so bad I wince remembering the opening chapters (I may have a copy somewhere – I rather hope not. It may have even begun with the MC waking up – oh, the embarrassment!).

Meanwhile, a neighbour, Ruth (name changed to protect the guilty), dragged me to Malvern Writers’ Circle. She has a lot to answer for: not only did MWC persuade me to try short stories – ‘No, really not my cup of tea’ (I love them – such a different discipline from a novel) – and poetry – ‘I read it but I could never write it’ (I breathe it now) – but they also gave me space to learn, confidence to experiment and feedback for improvement. It’s Ruth’s fault – entirely hers – that I have read In the Cuntry [sic] at Ledbury festival in front of assorted friends, co-workers and my step mother.

The novel was edited to a more readable 97,000 words and sent to some agents. One was interested, gave me a list of things to fix and asked to see the finished MS. I made the changes over the next few weeks, sent it off and received it back by return of post: ‘My list is full.’ I sat on the doormat and cried.

Another edit, combined with rewrite, helped by a friend, sharpened it to 67,000 words. I selected agents from the red book and sent MSs out, one at a time. Joy of joys, one was keen, incredibly keen – so keen he wanted over £300 for editing and ‘advance promotion’. He was good, so persuasive: my husband was all but convinced and he takes a lot of convincing. It made me rather averse to sending work out for a long time.

I put the novel away, started others, wrote short stories, poems. Now, at last, I’m back to it, honing a bit more here and there. I’ve decided one secondary character is to go: she’s too cuddly – supposed to be a foil for the darker elements but I am not convinced she works.

Here’s a poem that isn’t, from 2004, when I had just joined MWC. It’s a bit stilted but I’m fond of it – because I then woke up with a real poem a few days later. And “Ruth” gets a mention, as she should:

The Storyteller tries to write a poem

I do not do poetry.
I tell stories.
My words demand to flow in carefree profusion.
They are like the pebbles on a beach; the trees in a forest; the pixels on my computer screen. Innumerable, unnoticed, they build another world.
They refuse to stand alone and magnificent.
They do not want to draw attention to themselves.
They do not behave.
“Excuse me, but where do I come into this?” the hero asks, striding down the rain-swept shingle towards the sullen ocean, bright cloak swirling in the wind.
“You don’t. I need to write a poem. For Ruth.”
“A poem? I’ll help – if it’s for Ruth. What do we do?”
“We need to find some really splendid words and phrases, imbued with subtle meaning and saturated with symbolism.”
“A quest? Easy!” He picks up a pebble. “Here’s a good word.”
“It’s nothing special. And that’s just slime dripping onto your cloak.”
He throws it far into the grey sea, in disgust. “I suppose I could keep throwing them into the sea until only the special ones are left. We might find a dinosaur skeleton. Or some precious stones.” He points, eagerly: “Look – a jewel!”
“No, just bottle glass. Everyone would know we’d recycled someone else’s old rubbish.”
He glares at me. “I’m already soaked. Why don’t you write somewhere nice and hot? We might find some beautiful seashells. And I could show off my tanned muscles.”
“This isn’t about you. You weren’t even invited.”
“Fine! I’m going then!” He storms off up the beach and out of sight over the dunes, where the forest looms through the mist.
I am tempted to write him a nasty ending … but he is quite attractive when he’s not sulking.
Anyway, he’s right. The beach is depressing. The forest doesn’t look any easier; all dark and tangled. It’s probably full of monsters.
But I still don’t have my poem.
Unwillingly, I drag my feet up the beach. It’s heavy going, with the loose shingle.
A faint noise catches my attention, getting rapidly louder.
Hoof beats!
A brightly cloaked figure on a white charger sweeps into sight, thundering across the dunes towards me.
The stallion rears and snorts as he reins in beside me. He looks down at me, pleading: “I could rescue you, if you write me a story.”
I pause, then shrug, and he laughs as he swings me up onto the saddle in front of him.
Ahead, evening sunlight blazes across the sea.
I sigh. “I’ll just have to explain: I don’t do poetry.”

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