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#Afterhours Poem 2: 1987 | 27-Jan-15


Today I finished the fourth poem of the #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.

The poem I chose for 1987 is called 'A Shooting Script' by Seamus Heaney. You can read it here. The more I read, the more I loved the conceit of the poem, how it embodies what it is said art is supposed to do; to show don't tell. The poem is, as the title suggests, a script for shooting that a writer might give to a director. It details what the camera should capture and how to capture it - Ireland in the 1920s. In the first three stanzas we see teachers cycle past members of a community that seem in harmony, at peace with each other. They salute 'Native Speakers', 'Follow the language' to conversations about 'Translation Jobs' suggesting a vibrant Ireland in transition. All this is halted in the forth stanza by a figure adorned with a 'Cape' and 'Biretta'. 

"Free on his blank face. Let the credits run"

...Seamus commands us. This is the threat, the stumbling block in the harmony of the shooting script. A defiant, unflinching, unsmiling lone figure. But there is hope, 'Just when it looks like it is all over...' Seamus commands the camera to find someone on a beach writing in the old Irish script, in the 'Running sand' - painting a very romantic and affecting ending which seems to say 'our values will live on, even as the waves crash and the ground beneath us washes away'.

On first reading, I thought 'Cape' and 'Roman collar' referred to army apparel, that 'Biretta' was a gun, that there was a play on 'shooting' in the title, that the poem was a critique on British army presence in Northern Ireland when the conflicts started. I began writing my version around the idea of a Nigerian soldier or police officer (both notorious for their short tempers and lack of humour) watching teachers mingling with students in northern Nigeria, watching the various tribes (and their languages) mix peacefully. As I wrote, I found simple ways of echoing themes set out in the previous poems of the #Afterhours project: the different languages my mother and father spoke, and the failure of civilian rule in the years after I was born. 

However, something didn't quite work. The glove didn't fit well enough. I got to the turning point - the unsmiling figure - and found the soldier character in my poem too...absent somehow. I re-read the stanza, unpicked the words and realised my mistake. 'Biretta' is a square cap with three flat projections on top, worn by Roman Catholic clergymen but 'Beretta' is the gun manufacturer. A 'Roman Collar' is an item of Christian clerical clothing, and the 'Cape' was attached to a 'Soutane', a garment also worn by Roman Catholic priests. The unsmiling figure then is a Catholic Priest and the poem is also about the religious aspect of the conflict.

Early eighties northern Nigeria wasn't too dissimilar religiously or politically. Muslim fundamentalists were growing more powerful. Old tribal grudges, climate change, wealth from the predominantly southern Christians who travelled north after the civilian war bringing secular culture they felt threatened their lifestyles, created a toxic environment that is exploding in Nigeria today. I chose to create a figure like this, a down and out Muslim cattle herder, to replace Seamus' priest. I swapped Seamus' priest for missionaries and the writing in the sand for my parents, an interfaith couple back then, washing off their hands.

A Shooting Script
#After Seamus Heaney

They are riding from what might have been
towards what will come to be, in a held shot:
Missionaries on bicycles, greeting Muslim boys,
priming the eighties for the troubled future.

Still pedalling out at the end of the lens,
circling the teens like ambushed prey.
Mix to desert dust floating in hot breeze.
An ominous long sequence. Pan and fade.

Then voices over, of different tribal dogma,
discussing politics, failed civilian rule, the pull
of Christian capital, dwindling grazing land,
occurrence of names like Matthew and Paul.

A close-up on the cat's eye of a white button
pulling back wide to a kaftan, black turban,
rifle, parched fields, herd of starving cattle.
Freeze his blank face. Let the credits run.

And just when it looks as if it is all over -
tracking shots of a mosque, the muezzin stands
for the call to prayer, sings over the young
interfaith couple washing off their hands.

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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