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#Afterhours Blogs 3&4: Searching for 1985 | 27-Nov-14


Day #4.

Today is the fourth day of the year long #Afterhours project in which I rewrite my childhood through British poetry, by writing poems after/in response to poems published between 1984 and 2002, from when I was born to when I turned 18.

1984, after Tom Leonard's "Unrelated Incidents" done, I begin searching for 1985's. It is eerily quiet in the library. Libraries are meant to be, but it is SO quiet that the older man beside me, as he gets up to leave, apologies for the noise pages made as he turned them to read.

The staff has selected for me poems by Carol Ann Duffy, Basil Bunting, Geoffrey Hill, Paul Durcan and Tony Harrison. As I was not conscious that I was alive in 1985 (I was a year old) and have no memories of the time, I imagine the poem to rewrite must either be a third person point of view, observing my parents observing me, or in the voice of one of my parents. I've been itching to write in my mother's voice and hope that something in Duffy's book will provide a space to explore that. With that lurking in the back of my mind, I begin with Basil.

Basil Bunting is incredible. Friend and editor, Tom Chivers, has been talking about him for years and I never made the effort to read. Now I see what he was on about. About halfway through the book, in Briggflats, Basil writes: 

A mason times his mallet 
to a lark's twitter
listening while the marble rests 
lays his rule 
at a letter's edge 

Tight, compact, internal-rhyme galore. On the back of this Collected Poems Basil writes "I have set down words as a musician pricks his score, not to be read in silence but to trace in the air a pattern of sound that may sometimes, I hope, be pleasing..." and it is just that to me. However, Basil's voice doesn't allow for the fluid conversational tone I look to write in. I feel not only will I stray too far if I try to write anything in response, because of Basil's somewhat classical tone, whatever I write will be too forced and thoroughly un-Nigerian. I'm in search-middle-grounds. I set him down and flick through Tony Harrison's V.

V is a single epic poem, written in response to the desecration of graveyards in Leeds. The poem includes some of the desecrations and a back and forth between the poet and a vandal. Tony's poem caused a storm when it came out. Printed on the back of this edition, the Daily Mail described it as 'A Torrent of four-letter filth' of  'the most explicitly sexual language' Mary Whitehouse described it as a 'work of singular nastiness' and this edition contains some of the articles written about it at the time. The poem is indeed full of four letter words but I don?t read them as shocking or over used. They are used more often than not in context, or in the voice of the vandal. Perhaps twenty-nine years ago, England was so conservative a place that it caused the outrage, certainly, the Tom Leonard's poem I responded to hinted at such conservatism. Things have liberalised since, perhaps this is why I don't mind the swear words. In my work, however I try to steer clear of them, I believe there are far more interesting ways to be offensive and shocking -should that be my goal. All this however detracts from the beauty and fragility of the poem. Written in strict a,b,a,b c,d,c,d etc rhyme scheme, Tony says:

This pen's all I have of magic wand.
I know this world's so torn but want no other
except for dad who'd hoped from 'the beyond'
a better life than this one, with mother.

In this next verse, he reminds me a lot of Luke Wright's work, scathing in its critique of Britain's class system which is often embodied in the arts. Of opera, he says:

What I hated in those high soprano ranges
was uplift beyond all reason and control
and in a world where you say nothing changes
it seemed a sort of prick-tease of the soul.

As much as I enjoy the book and find resonance in many levels, it is just too long to attempt to write for 1985. I need much shorter poems. Next week, I'll pour through the other poets.


Day #5.

Today is day five of the #Afterhours project in which I rewrite my childhood through British poetry, by writing poems in response to others published between 1984 and 2002, from when I was born to when I turned 18.

Today, I am pouring through Paul Durcan's Life is A Dream and Carol Ann Duffy's Standing Female Nude. Standing Female Nude came out in 1985. I was one year old. Before I knew I was alive, she was writing. There's something I find odd, strangely inspiring and humbling about that. I think she has forgotten more poems than I have written. The same thing goes for Paul Durcan, obviously, but if I choose a poem from Carol's book, I'll have to write in my mother's voice...which brings her and this realisation closer to me. But first, Paul.

Paul Durcan is funny and outrageous. The titles of his poems suggest their tone: 'THE MAN WITH FIVE PENISES', 'AROUND THE CORNER FROM FRANCIS BACON' and 'ON FALLING IN LOVE WITH A SALESMAN IN A SHOE SHOP'. In these poems he writes about everything from a Haulier's wife cheating on her husband, to lusting after a bishop, to having sex in a carwash as nuns peered through the window of the car and more. He also writes about religion. Paul is an Irishman and the stereotype of the Irish, always being up for the craic, is a box he ticks firmly over and again as he navigates themes of religion and family in these fluid, rich, prosaic poems.

Carol Ann Duffy (coincidently!) is quoted on the front cover saying 'To have heard him read adds another pleasure to the reading of his work - but the voice speaks clearly on the page in poems of harrowing intimacy, politic and love' and notes on the inside sleeve begins 'Famous for his electrifying poetry readings...' I lived in Ireland for three years and discovered they had a rich oral tradition (like we do in Nigeria too) which lives in Paul's work and I make a mental note to try to see him.

Of his 1985 poems, my favourite is '10.30 A.M. MASS, 16 JUNE 1985' which reads like a short story. He describes a priest entering an altar like 'a film star at an international airport'. The priest tells about his father's passing, the father gave up alcohol in his honour. To honour all fathers, the priest asks those in the congregation to stand, which they do reluctantly, to stunned silence before a slow clap builds to a deafening applause 'Until the entire church was ablaze with clapping hands' until he, the poet began crying, wishing to tell of his father. Enjoyable as it is, I deeply want to write about my mother, about the first woman in my life.

Other poems are indeed written from the point of view of female characters but none have space for my mother's life. 'THE JEWISH BRIDE' 'THE MARRIAGE CONTRACT' & 'AT THE FUNERAL OF THE MARRIAGE' all, as titles suggest, are about the end of marriages and as my parents are still together, to rewrite one of these would mean completely taking from it is essential subject, which is beyond the parenthesis of this project, so, I turn to Carol's poems in Standing Female Nude.

* * * 

I imagine Carol Ann's book was ground-breaking when it came out with its confident voice, nuanced as it it is lithe, yet sledge-hammer-like in it's ability to knock you down and pull you into her many worlds. The first poem itself 'GIRL TALKING' written from the point of view of a Pakistani girl, hints at an illicit sexual relationship between a young girl and a miller in a town in Pakistan. This reminds me of the incredible powerful work of Warsan Shire, but far more restrained here. Other poems... 'LIZZIE, SIX' suggests an another abusive sexual relationship and considering it was published in 1985, when The Paedophile Information Exchange was a powerful political group, it must have been an incredible thing to write:

Where are you going?
To play in the fields.
I'll give you fields,
bend over that chair.

What are you thinking?
I'm thinking of love.
I'll give you love
when I've climbed this stair.

Where are you hiding?
Deep in the wood.
I'll give you wood
when your bottom's bare.

YOU JANE reads almost as if written in response to Paul Durcan's poems. The title refers to a Tarzan of a man and paints a harsh picture of married life. The first line is 'At night I fart a Guinness smell against the wife/ who snuggles up to me after I've given her one' and the poems ends with 'I wake half-conscious with a hard-on, shove it in/ she don't complain'... and the voices and vistas into British life just keep coming. The task is to find poems with narratives loose enough to hold my mother's experiences and by the end of the collection, I have settled on three: TERZA RIMA SW19 (suggested by the poet Claire Trevien) FREE WILL and LETTERS FROM DEADMEN.

I will need to interview my mother to populate the poems to get details of her life at the time but speaking briefly, TERZA RIMA is about a couple out on date where the romance is interrupted by a kestrel hunting and killing it's prey. In FREE WILL a woman makes the difficult choice to give up her unborn child, a choice she regrets and in LETTERS..., dead men write back to the living.

I could replace the Kestrel with an aeroplane - my father travelled a lot when I was born and I imagine my mother questioned the longevity of her marriage. Perhaps the plane could also be a symbol of doom as the bird is?

I could replace the unborn child with my mother's career and the many things she gave up to raise the children; how her free will was shaken by having us.

I could write letters to dead men in my mother's voice, where she warns them off her new son, says things will change hence forth, and critiques their legacy and the state of Nigeria at the time...

I have questions to ask her.

Read more about the #Afterhours project here

#Afterhours needs your help in suggesting poems for Inua to rewrite, published between 1984 and 2002. You can suggest entire collections for Inua to browse or specific poems from these years. Why not set Inua the challenge of rewriting your favourite poem from this period?  Take a look through your books and magzines at home, search online or access the library's holdings for each year through searching online here

Send your suggestions for Inua or tweet us@wetblackbough @InuaEllams

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