Poetry in Five Awkward Motions

Posted: July 5, 2014 in Articles

Five old poems. Five potential cringes.

1.

When I was nine, a large envelope addressed to me came through the letterbox. I can remember ripping it open and pretty much exploding with excitement all over the living-room and my mum’s bedroom. The dream had arrived: I was going to be a published writer. Sure, it was a poem and not the best-selling novel I’d (somewhat prematurely) set my sights on, and OK, it was through a competition looking to publish the poems of thousands of primary school pupils across the nation – but it was a first step that felt like a massive leap at the time.

And what great masterpiece had this young poet created, I hear you cry?

‘Dogs and Me’

I’m happy around dogs,
They’re happy around me.
We get along great,
Dogs and me.

Most of my friends have got dogs,
All except me.
I live in a flat so I’m not allowed,
But I’m always dreaming of my Border-collie.

I’d feed him on his favourite foods
And give his belly a rub.
If he got dirty,
I’d put him in the tub.

Whenever I’d come home
He’d greet me at the door.
Having a dog in the house
Would never be a bore.

 

2.

This poem is significant for two reasons: it was the first time I made a conscious decision to write ‘honestly’, and it was written during a period of boredom at work, thereby supporting the principle that writing is a form of escapism born of banal suffering. I was fifteen, it was my first job – earning £2.20ph for basically babysitting the till (although the shop owner seemed to enjoy thinking up fun tasks for us to do:  untangling masses of hangers from ancient, sticky elastic bands/rearranging the window displays into something resembling symmetry, only for her to complain and ‘organise’ it back into the same jumbled heaps/tidying up the towers of cardboard boxes in the stock room etc.). For once, I was working alone, without even the distraction of joking around with the captivating sixth form girl who also did Saturday shifts. I remember sitting behind the counter with the sun beating through the smeary, cluttered shop windows, and catching sight of some yellowing documents among the unsightly junk stashed below the eye-line of paying customers. Inspiration struck out of nowhere and I grabbed a roll of receipt paper in order to scrawl this:

‘Ode to Human Nature’

If I lay here long enough
Would I fade,
Like a book left open in sunlight?

If I lay here long enough
Would I blend in,
Like the crouching army amongst the colours of the wild?

If I lay here long enough
Would people step on me,
Like a cigarette butt crushed beneath the heel?

If I lay here long enough
Would people cease to see me,
Like the man on the kerb with outstretched hand?

If I lay here long enough
Would people imitate me,
Taking up the trend as easily as chants of hate?

If I lay here long enough
Would someone uproot me,
Like an unwanted dandelion that chose to grow,
And bring me forth to explain myself?

Dare I lie here long enough?

 

3.

Continuing the theme of honesty, it’s painful to admit that the second poem I had published was a piece about self-harm. At least I have this defence: the Internet featured far fewer ‘cutter’ poems in 2001 than it does now. With the exception of some nu-metal song lyrics, I’d never read anything about self-harm. Seriously, I believed I was being original…

‘The Bad Thing’

Bright blade even though
they said you were dull
Sharp edge to blunt
the cutting words of the past
Smooth, though life treated you roughly
Help yourself, dig in
slash
slice
slap in the face,
sleep well tonight
Tiny bobble of blood forming into a big deal
as you realise what  you have just done
As it runs down your wrist escaping from your body
you wish you could follow
Wipe it away with a soft piece of tissue
Erase the mistake
Cover it up with skin-coloured comfort
You’re such a mess, an indelible mistake

The edge is cold, as their hearts have always been

 

4.

In 2008 I wrote my first explicit, intense poem about sex. I was pretty proud of myself and discreetly printed off a copy at work to take home and show proudly to my girlfriend, thinking she’d find it flattering and kind of hot. It was almost our third anniversary and she’d put up with a lot from me over the years; I’m highly romantic but my sexual hang-ups are numerous enough to get therapists victory-dancing with pound signs in their eyes, so it felt like a pretty big deal to have engaged with that side of our relationship in poetic form. I handed her the piece of paper, her eyes darted from top to bottom and then she handed it back wordlessly.

Coincidentally, the next day she told me we needed to break up.

‘Digital.is’

i am the glove pup.pet.eeeerrrrrrr

stretching form
around myself

as
dig.it.all
as

weak digits
will allow

the

juice tide
coaxed
into greeting

slide…slide…

…slide…

arrived
suddenly

wearing
alien-flower hybrid
like a sleeve

caught
in a threshing machine

that tightens
contracts
and threatens
to crush

my livelihood
at stake now

must press on
press down
push through

the caverns

steer blind course
around corners

navigating
the bends

a translation beyond love

force
power
violence

i ask myself

when did my role
mutate into this

and at a guess
i’d say

twenty minutes ago
when lust
hijacked your lips

 

5.

Later in 2008 I entered a United Press contest, the subject of which was ‘Inspiration’, and won first prize. It was the first time I ever received money in exchange for my writing, and while knowing £100 doesn’t stretch very far, the concept of a poem being worth £100 (particularly at that time in my life, when I was a heart-broken and, consequently, prolific poet) was a pleasing one. I was so chuffed that I asked the cashier at the bank if she could please photocopy the cheque for me, so that I had permanent, tangible proof that my art might be worth something. The glamour and success of my achievement was tainted a little by the interview I gave for the publishers’ newsletter, as the phone rang when I was on the toilet and I didn’t want to risk missing the call.  Therefore, my concentration was rationed out between answering questions and fighting my need to poo; mortified at the idea of alerting the bloke on the other end to exactly which seat in the house I was occupying. Looking back, this anecdote – talking to the press while having a shit – nearly qualifies me as one of those cool, subversive artist types.

Nearly.

‘Why’

I write poetry
because my mouth
is a traitor,
stumbling away from
the battlefield of speculation,
conversation – overall communication –
and the lack of articulation
would have killed me
long ago if I didn’t.

I write poetry
because my mind
won’t let me
not.

I write poetry
because words
kept me alive
for years
and I feel like
I owe them something;
the attempt to respond
with mutual beauty,
maybe.

Flash Fiction: When Fear Constricts

Posted: June 17, 2014 in Prose

Insomnia

No stranger to a sleepless night. Slumber is evasive, you have to be devious. Fight fire with fire, like they say, although they probably don’t say it to fire-fighters (whoever ‘they’ might be). Creep up on sleep, perhaps swathe yourself in sheep’s clothing and invite sleep to count you. Conduct the brain waves into silence. Ssshhh, library-quiet please. And you lie there staring into blackness – until the blackness panics you into sitting bolt upright and waving your hand in front of your face to test that you haven’t gone blind. Then you lie back down, shaking your head at your own pointless antics. Time to sleep now, you’re ready. Duvet pulled up to chin, legs positioned comfortably, brain gently sliding down the wall. Yesss, it’s happening…

But wait. What was that? Something is wrong with the bedroom. Are you alone? Can you be sure? Yeah. Yeah, of course…um, no. There was a noise, a slithering. Maybe just the room figuratively pulling at its trouser crotch, settling in for the night. Not a problem. Except there it goes again. Was it just the wind outside? Poor wind, the usual suspect (shut up now Nature, some people are trying to sleep). The room feels bigger, shadowy furniture looming. You wonder how this familiar space – the private sanctuary where you sit for hours each evening to watch comedy DVDs and scratch your arse – can have transformed so suddenly into nameless terror.

It’s stupid, you’re being an idiot. There’s nothing there. So it’s okay to move. Make that first move, roll over and turn your back on the NOTHING that is there. You’re safe. You can’t alert NOTHING to your presence. Go. Go. And so over you roll…

You casually stretch out your feet, socks reacquainting themselves with the sheets. The bed covers are bunched up in a solid, unrelenting lump at the end of the bed. Strange, but with a couple of tactical kicks you shift the weight, spread it out across your lower legs. The duvet feels heavier than normal down there; it’s a comforting sensation on this chilly November night.

On the other side of the room, tethered to the wall socket, your mobile phone announces the arrival of a text message by bathing the ceiling in an eerie glow that fades as quickly as it startles. The impulse to sit up, plant your feet on the cold floor and navigate through the dark, loses out to your sluggish brain’s determination to finally fall asleep. Within minutes rhythmic breathing abruptly changes to a guttural wheeze, which gradually fades as you lose consciousness.

Incidentally, the text was from your housemate Mark:

Ru home? Stay calm bt python gt out of tank. Can i check in ur room? Txt bk.

Farewell

Posted: May 9, 2014 in Poetry

As swift and fleeting
As the hovering gull, cheating;
Such is life.

Unique as each tidal wave
And sometimes as fast-paced;
Such is life.

As cold and hard as the plaque
Onto which your name is scratched;
Such is life, sometimes.

As quiet and still as your absence;
Such is death.

DSCN1018

No Ifs or Butts

Posted: April 2, 2014 in Poetry

cig butts

Addiction makes liars of us all:
You in the back garden, me in the hall.
Sucking up a sneaky dose of nicotine,
So we can behave like rational beings
For the next hour without punching a wall.

Call it a miracle
or call it grotesque
but size zero trees
spring forth from paving
in Primark’s forecourt,
adorned with fairy lights
that belie the lack of festivity.
CCTV surrounds like a prison wall,
capturing skateboarders and
the world’s most optimistic busker,
wailing to nobody but the darkened
window displays. A few cigarette butts
have evaded the street-sweepers
and mar the image of clean living
like cancerous moles blemishing a body.
Cold creeps in; most of the benches
are deserted, arm-rests dictating
that we should travel in packs of three
only, and offering no peace to those
with no bed or home. Some strawberry
thick-shake slithers McSlowly
down the side of a shiny waste-bin,
rejected like the rest, left to loiter
here. Godiva sits patiently, transfixed
in a staring contest with Starbucks,
while a Hen party totters past with almost
as much flesh on display as she.
Tasteless adverts roll like film credits,
signalling The End of everything.

The busker plays on.

Reprimand

Posted: March 8, 2014 in Poetry

You have no redeeming qualities.
Try to compose a thing of beauty,
Like Matt’s fingers trail-blazing the keyboard,
Paige’s high notes uplifting the room;
Halfway ascensions to heaven.
But, no. There is nothing inside.
Steve can reel off monarchies
And battles that changed the world.
What can you recite?
A sweary Larkin poem
And every childhood injustice.
You have no redeeming qualities.
Gaetan has travelled the globe
While Dermot masters
Foreign tongues at his leisure.
You’re going nowhere. Fast.
Sam plans to conquer the world
Of publishing; you plan
To make a plan someday.
Your sanctuary is built of Lego,
Ambition collapsed into rubble.
You have no redeeming qualities.

-

Back Away from the Future

Posted: February 12, 2014 in Articles

careers

“What about you?” said Wobbler. “What do you want to be?”
“Dunno,” said Johnny.
“Didn’t you go to the careers evening last week?”
Johnny nodded. It had been full of Great Futures. There was a Great Future in retail marketing. There was a Great Future in wholesale distribution. There was a Great Future in the armed forces, although probably not for Bigmac, who’d been allowed to hold a machine gun and dropped it on his foot. But Johnny couldn’t find a Great Future with any future in it.
“What I want to be,” he said, “is something they haven’t got a name for yet.”
“Oh, yeah?” said Wobbler. “Like, in two years’ time someone’s going to invent the Vurglesplat, and when they start looking around for Vurglesplat operators, you’re going to be first in the queue, right?”

Pratchett, T. (1997) Johnny and the Dead. London: Corgi.

I was thirteen-years old the first time I ventured inside a Careers Office. We’d been told to choose our GCSE options; I felt like I was expected to know exactly what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. Up until then I had never had a problem envisioning my future: I was going to be a best-selling author, it was all I had wanted since I was five-years old. Yet suddenly I was experiencing a wake-up call that maybe my life-long ambition wasn’t entirely realistic.

Ever since then, assessing future plans has always been depressing.

I remember desperately staring at the blank sheet of paper on which we’d been told to write the types of jobs we were considering. I was drowning in a sea of beauticians, soldiers, psychiatrists and nursery nurses – my friends seemed to have figured out their paths in life already. In desperation, I scrawled down ‘police officer’ (I liked the image of myself as a detective) and ‘marine biologist’ (sharks were my favourite animal); they sounded legitimate, mature. I considered journalists to be amoral parasites (I hadn’t yet discovered broadsheets), so that option was out. You couldn’t make money from writing, not really, not without a massive heap of luck thrown in, I explained to my younger self. It was time to let go of the dream. Keep writing, sure – but from now on it was relegated to a hobby/interest, something I had to hide away in private, a passion I could no longer defend as being my ultimate goal.

The Careers Office computer had a programme you could use to generate suitable career prospects; it asked lots of questions about the types of things you liked and disliked doing and then printed out a list of ideas for you to show the guy who worked there, so he could grunt and hand you a leaflet.

My print-out told me I should be a pest-exterminator.

There was nothing else; that was the complete list of my future prospects. It might as well have read ‘doomed to become a homicidal maniac’. Sometimes, late at night, I stare up at the darkened ceiling and wonder exactly WHICH questions and answers indicated that pest-exterminator was the life for me? I swear there was definitely nothing along the lines of ‘Do you like pulling the wings off flies?’ or ‘Does the sound of a mouse-trap fill your heart with joy?’

Anyway…history is repeating. Only I am a full-grown adult and really SHOULD know what I want to do with the rest of my life. Have I spent the past few years pretending (again) that writing is a viable option? Or is it genuinely possible, if I seize the right opportunities and manage to improve my craft? All I know is that I feel ill-prepared, worried and depressed…to summarise, I am thirteen again. There are vague industries and roles floating around my head, but the dream job is yet to leap out at me; I guess I was misguided about how university works. They’ll give you the kick up the arse to start thinking about this stuff; they’ll provide you with the tools you need, like CV tips and summer placements, to excavate your ideal future; but you still need to know what you want to do, in order for them to help you.

Yesterday, during a presentation, a careers advisor said there might not be a dream job for everybody. Some of us will have to make do, compromise. I understand and accept this, but it still sucks. I’ve already spent many years in jobs that neglected to utilise any of my skills. What’s the point in tailoring all these CVs and cover letters to highlight my ‘strengths’ if I’m going to end up in the same position (with the addition of approx. £40K student debt to pay off)?

Who knows, maybe my version of ‘Vurglesplat Operator’ will leap out at me during the Careers Fair tomorrow…

Until that happens, though, I will continue aspiring to deserve the label of ‘writer’.