Poetry Library news

#Afterhours Blog 14 | 06-Aug-15


Today I began writing the 14th 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. 

Last week, I found 97's poem by looking through that year's Poetry Book Society recommendations. Choosing to browse only the work of female writers, I drew up a shortlist of books by Fleur Adcock, Patricia Beer, Ruth Sharman, Mimi Khalvati, Jean 'Binta' Breeze, Lavina Greenlaw, Anne Rouse, Ruth Fainlight, Gillian Ferguson and Helen Dunmore. The first poem that stood out within the guidelines I have for choosing a poem, was 'The Pilgrim Fathers' from Looking Back by Fleur. After the first reading, I reckoned I'd be able to come up with a title close to hers and write about a similar experience. Her poem is about winning a competition...

'I got a Gold Star from the Pilgrim Fathers,
my first public poem, when I was nine.
I think I had to read it out to the class;
but no one grilled me about it, line by line'

...and the freedom of writing free from literary criticism. I'd be able to write about the dream I had at roughly that age, of becoming a visual artist and drawing freely without any confines. I remembered, in 1997, painting a pink watering can as an assignment from art class. I considered subtitling my poem 'The Red Watering Can', and subtly alluding to William Carlos William's 'Red Wheelbarrow'. I put the poem to one side and carried on searching. 

Patricia Beer's book Autumn is, as the title suggests, about the time of year and I could not find the voice of my younger self echoed in the body of work. I enjoyed Gillian Ferguson's book but for much the same reason (hers is a close meditation on the natural world and I had just moved to the city of London) I had to set it down. Lavina Greenlaw's was gorgeous but had no suitable poem and of all the books, I found Mimi Khalvati's Entries on Light, to be the most halting, captivating and meditative...

'I'm opening
    the door of shadows
on a page. In the doorway
    stands a poem

like a girl in a dress
    I see through her
to her feelings -'

...but the book is one long sequence and its length disqualified it. After two hours, I was left with Fleur's and Ruth Sharman's book Birth of the Owl Butterfly from which two poems with the potential to rewrite stood out: 'My Good Coat' and 'Fury'. On a whim I decided to read reviews of both books and dig up what I could of the poets. I discovered Fleur was a New Zealander thereby disqualifying her, leaving Ruth. Ruth, I discovered is British, but the reviews I found which were published when the book came out were overwhelmingly negative.

Penniless Press said that save a single poem on sexuality and cruelty, "The rest feel for the most part like exercises in poetry." The PN review's opening criticism seems to be that Ruth is female, and a female writing about "themes that we have come to recognise as characteristically female". Litref Reviews said "Disappointing. Small ideas tidily executed" and further down the entry, I found what appeared to be a response from Ruth herself which said:

"I disagree, this poem is my life."
- R. Sharman.

All this happened last Wednesday. Since, Sean O'Brien reviewed Jack Underwood's book Happiness for The Guardian and Dave Coates reviewed Sean's review. To be brief, Dave thinks Sean was way out of line and deftly explains why. Full disclosure: Jack Underwood is a friend. I think quite a few rays of sun shine out his ass and I have taught poetry with his poems in schools and theatres. The first time I read Happiness, the title poem from the book, I had so visceral a reaction I had to get off the public transport I was on and walk quietly. Also, I designed the Saboteur Award that Dave won this year, which I think he overwhelmingly deserved.

Nothing S.O.B (as Dave hilariously refers to him) wrote would have changed my mind about how I feel about Jack's work. Similarly none of the reviews of Ruth's book will change how the playfulness of the first poem grabbed me and drew me through the book. Perhaps, also because I am an African immigrant, and that Marina Tsvetaeva wrote 'In this most Christian of worlds, all poets are Jews', I am always drawn to underdogs and it seems the world was pitted against Ruth. If indeed Ruth wrote the response to that post, I find it heartbreaking, and in that, an anger that I will channel into my poem. There are no coincidences. 1997 was the first time I was called a N****r, the world hurled from a passer-by in school. Ruth's poem 'Fury' begins:

'I'm going to bag up
the man who yelled 'Bitch'
from a passing car

with uncles who say
they don't lay down the law
but do...

It is a perfect match for the project. Next week, I will begin writing.

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 to or tweet us @wetblackbough @InuaEllams

:: Back to Poetry Library News ::

Back to top Register for newsletter
Bookmark This Page