The creative process flows in a myriad of ways and begins from just as many places. Each time I start a new poem, what time of day, where I am, what i’m using to write with, who i’ve just spoken to, what i’ve just read, how much i’ve slept, what i’ve eaten, will all impact on the poem’s formation and development. For this exercise I want to talk about a poem I recently wrote and the process I used to write it. The reason i’ve decided to write this, the motivation behind it, is a desire to share the experience i’ve just gone through and to explain how it differs from my usual production methods.
I began with an idea, an idea that grew from an article I read. You can follow a link to the article HERE. The article focused on an unexplained rise in CFC-11, a chemical implicated in the destruction of the ozone layer and a chemical that has been effectively banned since 1989 after the signing of the Montreal Protocol. As of 2010 no one was meant to be using it anymore. Unfortunately the chemical is effective in the production of polystyrene insulation, used externally on concrete apartment buildings. A large hole in the ozone above China and the presence of increasing quantities of CFC-11 lead to an investigation that revealed it was still being used in China on a massive scale.
We live in a relatively new apartment building, less than five years old and when we first moved in the view outside our bedroom window was of a field. That field is gone now, replaced by more towering apartment buildings. As these buildings were constructed I remember seeing the stacks of polystyrene being trimmed and fitted to the walls, a practice that was completely alien to me. The image stuck and once I read this article my stomach sank. It was this polystyrene, adorning the buildings around me and adorning the very building I now lived in, that was contributing to the destruction of our future. My idea was set.
This idea is a pretty big one and if truth be told, rather dry, meaning it would be hard to create an engaging poem from it but I persisted. Somewhere in my head is the desire to become a more relevant poet, a poet that deals with, comments on, attempts to understand and bring focus to the issues that inhabit our lives. But i’m also very much aware that we live in a world where many are sick of trying to engage or because of a complete lack of trust, can’t be bothered engaging. To write poems that deal with ‘dry’ issues runs the potential of turning off any potential audience. Ultimately, I would like an audience. Dealing with an idea like CFC-11 is not engaging but because this idea was very relevant with my world and because it brought up strong emotions I pushed on.
I wrote. As with many of my poems, once the idea or notion was fixed, I begin at the beginning and wrote a poem. It was 17 lines long and had occasionally interesting turns of phrase. It wasn’t terrible but it wasn’t good and it didn’t reflect the strength of the idea. I put a line through it and began again. This time I didn’t aim at writing a poem, instead I collected ideas. I searched through feelings and perspectives, through uses of space and reactions, I searched for villains and shaped arguments. My pages were crowded but I wasn’t any closer to getting to the poem. Sure I had clarified some of my thoughts and came up with a few insights but my words were dry and boring. I started again.
This time, with a closer sense of the voice I was attempting to get to, I wrote a poem. This one was 48 lines long, broken into four line stanzas. It had structure and movement, it told a story and had a clear conclusion. It was closer to where I needed to be but it was still as dry a desert. It wasn’t engaging in the least.
Up until this point I had been working for several days on this poem, with a soft lead pencil on blank sheets of paper. I needed to see how this new poem looked on the screen. I typed it up and read it through, stanza by stanza, line by line. Again it was okay but it wasn’t great and yet again it wasn’t engaging. A reader would have switched off after the first line break. This idea was important and I wanted it read. It must be noted, normally I do not have the audience, the reader, in mind when I write. An idea comes and I write. More often than not the poem will tell me the form it wants and it will tell me how long it needs to be. This one was different. The idea was big and full of clutter. It needed peeling back to reveal the glitter underneath. I needed to dig for it.
I printed the poem out, upping the font so it took up a page an a half but if I were to cut pieces away or add words I had the room to do it with. Once I started cutting I was surprised just how much needed to be removed. What was 48 lines was quickly whittled away until there were only 16 remaining. The four line stanzas were gone, replaced by stanzas of 2 or 3 lines. All the work i’d done, all the ideas I had come up with, had been distilled and hopefully what was left was stronger and able to convey the depth of my frustrations, anger and sadness that came from reading that original article.
It was a labourious process, at times a struggle and as I may have mentioned, I very rarely work this way, preferring instead to let the poem dictate it’s own development. This time however, I felt as I had hewn it from stone. I will let it sit for a day or so, trust to instinct to discover if any of these little doubts will result in changes but at this stage they will be only minor. The poem is called ‘These Walls’ and the next step is to find places to send it in the hope it will be published.