Fran Lock’s ‘Melpomene’: modern muse, traveller woman

Melpomene by Edward Simmons.Mural, Thomas Jefferson Building, Washington, D.C., USA. Photo: Carol Highsmith.
Melpomene by Edward Simmons.Mural, Thomas Jefferson Building, Washington, D.C., USA. Photo: Carol Highsmith.

My poem ‘Melpomene’ belongs to a sequence I started putting together in November 2014. My friend Steev Burgess and I had been killing time before a gig, wandering round taking pictures with my crappy camera on London’s Southbank. Steev photographed me outside Bargehouse beneath the legend: ‘Melpomene, The Muse of Tragedy’. Amongst my friends, my unrepentant miserablism is something of a standing joke.

The first draft of the poem emerged that night. It was much less a character poem than the final, published version; it was much closer to myself. I wasn’t happy with it. I wanted to write from somewhere else for a change. I’d been mining my own experience for a long time, and I was starting to feel burnt out. I was starting, frankly, to get on my own nerves.

I began researching the Greek Mousai, looking at how their roles had been tailored and shaped over time to serve the private peccadillos of artists or the hidden agendas of culture. It struck me that I could write my modern muses as traveller women. It seemed to fit. I wanted to take these typically silent figures and show how they work with and against the taboos, prejudices and stereotypes they’ve been branded with; the way they use or subvert them to create and recreate themselves, to figure themselves out. I was thinking in particular about ‘otherness’ and how it operates, how it affects people, particularly women. To be gypsy is to be an object of both fantasy and scorn. I’m interested in that contradiction, that hypocrisy, and what it does to the people who have to live with and within it.

The speaker in ‘Melpomene’ carries the inherited tragedies of her people, but also the miseries of imperfect assimilation. How would it be to be a Muse of Tragedy in a culture that has no use for mourning; that doesn’t allow or admit to the proper processes or traditions of grief? I think I have an inkling about that, and it’s channelling that feeling that informs the poem.

‘Melpomene’ by Fran Lock is published in The Poetry Review, Vol 105, No. 1.

Fran Lock will be reading, with Jonathan Edwards and David Sergeant, at the launch of the spring issue at the London Review of Books Bookshop, London, 24 April.