By Cheryl Moskowitz
Camilla Chen’s poem, Afterward (in memory of my grandmother) is a poem about loss and remembering. It is also, I think, a poem about the role language plays in the act of remembering.
Remembering quite literally means ‘to put back together’. To re-member is to gather what has become disparate, lost in some way, and rearrange it back into a new kind of whole. This is an exciting idea in terms of writing – the bringing together of disconnected words and ideas from the past and ordering them afresh can be pure poetry. Remembering a special person after they have gone is an important tribute. Writing a poem can be an especially effective way to do this.
Explore different ways of remembering. What is your earliest memory? How old were you when you could first remember? Try recalling specific details like what you had for lunch yesterday, or a week ago. What makes something memorable? Do you remember happy or sad things in more detail?
- Practice memorising a poem or piece of prose. Notice how easy or difficult it is. What gets left out?
- Think of a film everyone has seen and compare people’s different memories of it.
Stage 1: Make lists of ‘I remembers’
This can be done individually, in pairs or as a whole class. Write down things you remember using particular prompts like:
- First day at school
- Going on an airplane
- The birth of a baby brother or sister
- Visiting a grandparent
- Going on holiday
Brainstorm whatever comes to mind, writing down images as they come, in fragments, not necessarily as fully formed sentences or thoughts, e.g. I remember the smell of oranges when the fruit plate was passed round, I remember ice cracking in my Coke, I remember seeing my mother cry, I remember thinking my grandmother’s hands were made of paper, I remember hearing an Elvis record sung in Portuguese
- Try expanding by writing the thought or feeling that goes with the memory, I remember the way the smell of oranges stung my eyes and made me miss my mum
- Where possible attach a sense to the memory (smell, taste, sound).
- Try inventing your own prompts.
- Try writing remembered phrases. Write them down exactly as you remember them being spoken.
- Remember, a memory does not have to be elaborate to be interesting – the most mundane detail can be striking, Her breath smelled of mint.
Stage 2: Make a Collage
Using old magazines, cut out pictures and build up a collage of images to do with a special person.
Write a list of metaphors or descriptions from the collage, e.g. He is a grassy meadow, Her smile wrinkled at the edges, She sparkled like a puddle with the sun on it.
Or write a list of memories sparked by the images on the collage: I remember the way she wiped her hands on her apron when she was baking, I remember when he let me sit in the front with him and turn the steering wheel.
- Look for images that remind you of the person rather than those that resemble them. A snow covered mountain, a cracked teapot, a tree-lined street.
- Try tearing rather than cutting the pictures out. Use parts of pictures rather than the whole thing. Maybe it is just the eye from a face that you want or the wheel from a car. Fragment the images.
Stage 3: The Poem at last!
Choose a line that you like, either from your list of ‘I remembers’ or from one of the descriptions written out of your collage. Use this as a starting line for your poem. Your poem could tell a story of an event or series of events through memory, or your poem could paint a portrait of a special remembered person, interlaced with various ‘I remembers’.
- Try cutting up your lists of ‘I remembers’ as separate strips and play with the ordering of them. There is no right way.
- Try making your choices according to different criteria; sound, chronology, meaning, or by association of ideas or thoughts.
- Leave spaces or blanks between lines. New memories may come to you that can be fitted in.
- Try letting your quoted phrases sit all by themselves inside the poem without feeling you need to tell us who is saying them.
- Try dividing your poem into sections (number the sections like Camilla does).
- Try reading/delivering the poems using several voices.
- Reverse or alter the order of the lines of the poem to make a new one.
- Write a poem from someone else’s collage.
- Try to write a poem using only remembered phrases. Incorporate some phrases in a language other than English.
- Choose lines or words from your poem to add footnotes to or make a glossary like Camilla did for hers.
Sujata Bhatt – ‘The Undertow’
Joe Brainard – ‘I Remember’
Louis MacNeice – ‘Autobiography, Meeting Point’
Norman MacCaig – ‘Aunt Julia’
Eleanor Farjeon – ‘It Was Long Ago’
John Burningham – ‘Granpa’ (this is a children’s picture book, but I think a great inspiration for writing poetry)