In this new series, we invited poets to write their own ‘poetry manifesto’
I think it should behave like the jeweller’s name printed in high-gloss on the very white ring box as it is turned in the hand under the light or like the shape drawn in the condensation on a bus window early in the morning but late enough for several other people to have come and gone and fogged the shape with their breathing or an extremely recent snowfall that contains minuscule claw-prints and a single pair of boot-prints that have no obvious beginning at a doorway in the manner you would expect, or like scallops – and be treated accordingly. The word scallops – which reminds me of scalps – which in turn makes me think of razor-blade being taken to the softly furred (why furred?) stomach of a female Neptune. Sometimes I come home from work after dark and strip lights in my kitchen will not turn on straight away, but instead flash abortively, and I stand in the hallway turning the switch on and off as my black cat walks across the linoleum floor, and is visible only in these flashes, a few strides further at each gasp of the light that will not work. And I think, that is how we should move from one thing to another in a poem.
The first draft I wrote of this seemed more like a short guide for the female dilettante. Now I intend to insist that all it is or can be is a cotton throw whose pattern has been ruined after a thread in the weft was tugged astray by a broken press-on nail. Identify where you sit in this metaphor. I have suffered from visual and auditory hallucinations since adolescence (sounding tones when lying in bed and waking up, unknown voices that deliver bewildering imperatives, the malevolent twitching of regular patterned surfaces, i.e. wallpapers and kitchen tiles seen as though through a heat shimmer). This was a gamma-mode life where some living-room walls were an emerald fern covered in swarming insects or particles of golden prelapsarian dust that found form in the fading propulsion of a gust from the open door of a different place where there were no living rooms. None of this ever felt violent, or even particularly frightening. Some were also just living-room walls.
This once fully convinced me of my own divinity, or perhaps a form of Angelhood.
In practice, you start with a wash like the one of the three or four nights of distant and overlaying frost that come during the year. Look, there is frost on the pampas grass and on the corner of the roof, as well. You must shape from the silence the nightshift walk home in. A field of purity to be disturbed as little as possible. Early mornings are different on Saturday or Sunday, and this is a different kind of poem. Imagine you have sent a text message the reply to which might kill you – you will say to your friend later, it killed me. You are waiting for this reply. You bunch your fingers in your mouth and boil a kettle for something to do, pretending you are not waiting for this reply. That is the state, in front of the wash. Pay attention to the shape – horizontal lines are fattening. Some words are more beautiful than others and there is no shame in playing to this. There are many excellent poems about swans in part because. Snow both hides and makes apparent the below. To etch is to place shadow on a white space. Even children can do this.
Poetry: Incursions of language into the daily.
In our polychrome, not color-happy dailiness,
the language of the poem, if it wants to remain the language of
the p., will by necessity be gray.1
Sometimes it begins with an uncharitable thought. Or rather, following an uncharitable thought upstream to the nasty spring. As much from that as from the tender observation that makes your heart buckle under its own weight. It is late evening in Farringdon and a girl ahead of me in the queue at the newsagent – a girl in an interesting woollen hat, who I assume is French – says to another girl who is with her: “the flower is forever my captain.” She says this waving a bunch of wan, crinkled tulips. A different girl spills a Black Russian into the lap of a journalist who is wearing lemon-yellow tuxedo trousers. Tell me what you need to look at to survive. I find it helps to continue to think of writing as a delicious affectation that you are not hanging too much on. Another delicious affectation is to say you derive inspiration from the graceful silence of headstones, which I do. Headstones found in a rural graveyard that you took a spontaneous walk to in order to avoid your overbearing family. Economy and resonance. Women beat their slippers against the doorsteps late at night. Do they still?
Tenets are: All poetry is political but to write a poem is rarely a political act – accomplish those elsewhere. These poems are a form of ceasing to exist – they benefit from subtraction, not addition. Don’t be too hard on yourself for being obscure: most of what we encounter in life defies exegesis, people are used to it. But there should be a cleanliness to it – a soapstone feel (“You want to write a sentence as clean as a bone – that is the goal”, James Baldwin told the Paris Review in 1984. He was talking about prose, but I don’t care.)
If you are a woman, writing about your experience of being a woman, you are part of one of the most avant-garde literary movements there has ever been. Everything that happens in this poem is entirely your fault.
1. Paul Celan, trans. Pierre Joris, ‘From “Microliths”’, Poetry (January 2017), pp. 405–10 (409).