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#Afterhours Blog 16 | 15-Oct-15

14/ 10/15

Today I began looking for the 18th 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 Saturday I gave a talk at TEDxBrixton about the changing nature of masculinity, about barbershops and about depression in men. The talk was built around a research trip for a play, my three year old nephew Malachi, and the subject matter I want to deal with in this poem: in my penultimate year in Dublin, in 2001, a close friend of mine called Steven took his own life. It profoundly changed the way I thought about everything: knowledge, trust, emotion, truth, meaning, language, poetry, freedom and friendship. Steven loved talking and our relationship thrived on argument. It was the bridge on which we met in those early days in Ireland. Racism and ignorance were thriving; my sister was once asked if she got her period like 'normal' people. In the midst of it all, Steven and I discovered a mutual respect and love for language in each other and our time for bantering became crystals, jewels we guarded during those mundane school lessons, trying to outdo each other, purely for the sake of using words dazzlingly. He used to call me Shake-Ell-Speare or Sheik Elmmspeare - a nod to my Muslim/North African heritage, and to William Shakespeare. Steven thought I'd be a writer long before I ever considered it and I started writing that late summer after he was buried. I wanted to fill up the time we'd usually spend arguing or making each other laugh in school, with something.... anything. I tried to recreate our arguments, to invent some, and eventually, unavoidably, to sound like Shakespeare. I was terrible at it.

In Steven's final hours, he called or texted everyone in our small group of friends. Days after, we pieced together everything and saw that all his messages added up to final wave, that he was saying goodbye to us, but individually, we did not understand or see this. The only person Steven didn't call was me. It haunted me for years. It still does. I questioned if I had been a good enough friend. If I had offended him in the days before somehow. If he just didn't think it was worth dropping me a line. If his phone ran out of battery. I went wild with reasons and reasoning. It haunts me still.

Out on a date a few years ago, I spoke about this to the lady I was with and she suggested something I never considered: perhaps Steven didn't contact me because he knew I was the only person who could talk him out of it. I ran away from the table, into the men's toilets, stayed and stood there for eleven full minutes until my breath became regular and blood returned to my face. I don't know what to think and still have not deconstructed what that means or might have meant. I have been avoiding writing about this for fourteen years, but I think I can do this now.

The task then is to find a poem on this subject matter or one broad enough that I can write a response to about Steven. I start by looking through The Poetry Review and The Poetry Book Society Recommendations for 2001 and I find poems by Lavina Greenlaw, Helen Dunmore, Colette Bryce, Elizabeth Bartlett. 'The Spirit Staircase', 'The Man on the Roof', 'The Word' and 'The Burden' are their poem-titles respectively and some are just too close to how Steven took his life that I instinctively shrink from them. They are gorgeous poems, and 'The Word' by Colette Bryce, which is about Jesus Christ and what was done to him is broad enough. I put this to the side.

Of the PBS recommendations, I look through Gillian Allnutt's Lintel, Wendy Cope's If I don't Know, Tracey Herd's Dead Redhead, Selima Hill's Bunny, Pascale Petit's Zoo Father and Helen Dunmore's Out of the Blue. They are fantastic as they are haunting. Bunny is sad and beautiful, Dead Redhead is incredibly inventive, Out of the Blue is lyrical but Zoo Father took my breath away over and over again. I read it a few years ago when the poet Jay Bernard proved one could write magical-realist yet physical and visceral poetry, simply by giving me one poem from the book to read. Re-reading Pascale Petit's book again, with this new intention, feels like having a late low-lit lunch with an old weathered friend and finding painful truths anew.

At the day's end, I am left with these poems to choose from:
'My Father's Lungs' - Pascale Petit
'The Word' - Colette Bryce
'If only' - Helen Dunmore

Though I am terrified of where this will take me emotionally, down memory lane or  beyond, I'll begin writing later tonight.

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

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