I'm trying to come to terms with something I find benign and monstrous in equal measure, and that is the fact of writing poetry.
Benign because, well, what are poems? Nothing. Just words. And monstrous, because the nothing of poetry is in fact something: the self sliding out and turning, to face itself. Almost, but not quite, a mirror. Where narrative is words following an idea, I think in poetry, often it's the words that lead. Someone at work recently chided me that all poetry was 'heart vomit'. It's true, the words do just come out. But equally I find myself tethered to them as if I am on a leash.
I never knew I wrote poems until maybe a year ago. Because I hadn't read much poetry, I didn't think I wrote it. I thought of what I wrote (when I wrote, which was not heaps) as more of a non-fiction narrative form that had no plot or characters and was slightly kinder on the ear than your average paragraph. It wasn't until 2016 when someone had the audacity to call me a poet to my face that I started to think about the form itself.
Up until this point, I'd primarily thought of poetry as a noun, not a verb. To me, it was a label; a club I knew about but wasn't a member of. Poetry went its way, and I went mine. I was happy for us to nod at each other in the corridors, sure, but interaction beyond that level felt like I was overstepping my bounds. You can get tied up in labels and definitions to the point of excluding yourself from doing anything, I suppose. When I think about it, I've written a lot of poems.
I wrote my first fully-formed poem when I was five. It was an illustrated, handwritten one (obviously, this was the nineties) that my mum framed in a soft grey cardboard matte-board, and put on our mantlepiece. It's still there, somewhere, in amongst bank statements and junk mail and christening photographs and things that don't work anymore.
It went like this, with tiny in-line paintings of flowers, a rising sun, and the night sky, like watercolour emojis:
Black is the night
Yellow is the day
In the evening, it is orange
And the sun is red
It wasn't until I was in my twenties that I found out that this first poem was also my first experience of editorial censorship, albeit repressed somewhere in the back pocket of my subconscious.
'Claire,' mum said, 'I always thought your original version was better'
It turned out that my dad, a writer himself, had ruthlessly edited my five year old heart vomit. I remembered it as having been more of a collaborative process at the time. But, at mum's request, when I was 21, I went back in with a pencil, crossed the altered bits out and changed the text back to the original, which mum remembered as:
Black is the night
Yellow is the day
In the evening it comes orange
And the sun is pink
She was right. It is better this way. I remembered this poem, written and restored over the course of 16 years, because I wrote another one today, sick (again) at home. Maybe it's an update on the theme. Some things in life feel so inevitable that it must be fate. But the truth is that nothing is meant to be. Night follows day. Day follows night. And the sun is pink. Truth.
Life rains down like fate in fat streaks
Like a sheet of hard steel in the wind
I try not to feel
But in the end I crumple and fold.
Useless tears track salt lines
Down my face
I breathe in the sticky sting
Of the liquid I have made
Into my skin and I begin
To melt again
To mould myself around the things that are happening
and to buffer against the things in my way
and I make them shiny so that I can see them
I take the bitter moon and swallow it, cursing
And then I spit light back at the day
Note that this last poem was edited after I published this blog post, and may be edited again. If it's important to you to know what version you are reading, you can email me and I'll tell you.