Editing Poetry: Some Examples

Each poem is only as good as its last (or should that be ‘latest’?) incarnation. Elizabeth Bishop would spend years polishing her poems, making them briefer in the process, packing them with hidden meaning and memorable imagery.

But do we sometimes over-edit things? To test out this hypothesis, I’ll share some of the transformations one of my poems has undergone. I’m still not quite happy with it, but really do want to/need to  write it.

The first version of ‘Who Am I? (Third Culture Kid)‘ appeared quite early on in the life of this blog. I was initially quite proud of it, felt it was honest and heartfelt, and it got some positive comments. Then I took it to a poetry workshop and received lots of comments and suggestions, which made me realise it was not as clear or as precise as it might be. I felt it needed more ‘explanation’, so instead of cutting, I added to it. Here is the second version:

Moving on, I think –
what a blessing!
Head down, prepare
for exit, re-entry, again and again,
glad to stay moss-free,
rolling past the moved-upon
with a wave, a whoopee!

But ultimately revenge is theirs:
for they sprout roots, link up, form tissue
richly alive with shared hours and tales.
Shortcuts roll glib off their tongues,
always creating and leading their own trend,
while the mover is running to catch up,
to fuddle in the language of past generations,
never quite getting the nuance or slang.
I fear we are a shade disappointing:
we stammer, we marvel at the wrong thing.
Our plumage exotic, not enough erotic,
our glamour too alien when you want to preen.
Askew, inefficient, never quite sufficient,
alignment and meekness passed us by.
So easy to shoot at, never enough time
to grieve. Nor find reason or season to rhyme.

So I’ve learnt to hide my real thoughts
my own thoughts
my solitude

Who am I?
I am all that is half-forgotten,
all the places in which I’ve left my heart,
all that is preserved in the mud.
I’m done with digging!
I dare not show you all my layers
for fear the rubble may bury you.

See that flying line of geese? There’s one just off,
destroying the symmetry…

But it too has learnt.
Above all, this:
a short answer to the question:
‘Where are you from?’
just enough humour to colour it harmless.

Unsurprisingly, this was too verbose, too prosy, forcing things down the reader’s throat rather than startling them with an unexpected insight. I tried to experiment a bit with lines and punctuation, in a vain attempt to ‘spice it up’. I suppose I was also aiming for a contrast between cultures – the more oral, ‘hip-hop’ verses alternating with calmer, almost erudite verses. Here’s that opening stanza again in this version:

Moving on                                          what a blessing!

Head down/ prepare

for exit, re-entry                              again and again

glad to stay moss-free//

rolling past the moved-upon

with a wave                                        a whoopee!

Thanks to my poetry tutor, I began to understand some of the poetic bad habits I had picked up along the way. It wasn’t the layout on the page that was the problem, nor the topic itself. There was a kernel of truth there that people could connect with, but I needed to find a way to ‘tell it slant’.

My current attempt has reduced the poem to just the following lines:

Who am I?
I am all that is half-forgotten,
half-mourned, misunderstood.
I am all the places in which I’ve left my heart.
All buried deep inside,
calling halt to excavation.
I am all I dare not show you
for fear you will drown
in my impure
clinging mud.

Not sure that this is going to be the final version, though… 

February Reading and Challenges Update

So yes, you may have noticed that I have fallen ever so slightly off the TBR Double Dare waggon this month (ahem! five books or so, without counting the ‘official review copies’). I am all for a combination of planning and serendipity, but this is ridiculous! I blame a conspiracy of libraries and reviewers/editors who are far too good at PR. So here is the summary:

Books from the TBR Pile:

Jenny Offill: Dept. of Speculation

Eva Dolan: Long Way Home

Eva Dolan: Tell No Tales

Tuula Karjalainen: Tove Jansson – Work and Love   [Not reviewed because I want to write a feature on her, the Moomins, The Sculptor’s Daughter. She is one of my favourite writers and a great artist as well.]

avionbussiRead for Reviews:

Jean-Pierre Alaux & Noël Balen: Cognac Conspiracies (transl. by Sally Pane)

Pierre Lemaitre: Camille – the last in the Verhoeven trilogy, to be reviewed shortly on CFL

Michel Bussi: After the Crash – coming out next week, to be reviewed on CFL

Book Club Read:

Fred Vargas: The Chalk Circle Man (reread) – not my favourite of the Adamsberg series, as it’s the first one and has a lot of set-up, but still a quirky notch above the rest

Library Impulse Loans:

Karim Miske: Arab Jazz

partttimeindianSherman Alexie: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

I don’t know why I don’t read YA literature more often – perhaps because a  lot of it is derivative and too ready to jump onto bandwagons and second-guess the trends. This one rings so true and is heartbreakingly matter-of-fact. It also fulfills one of my North America slots for Global Reading Challenge, as I’d never looked at Native American culture before in a novel. The pain of living ‘between’ cultures, of never being fully accepted in either of them, the unsentimental view of the flaws of each type of lifestyle, yet plenty of humour and tenderness to temper it all: I loved it!

Hubert Mingarelli: La route de Beit Zara

Another book that meets my Global Reading Challenge requirements – this time for Israel/Middle East/Asia. Despite the fact that it’s written by a Frenchman.

Sold to me via word of mouth:

Kate Hamer: The Girl in the Red Coat

Twelve books, of which a third were from the TBR pile, a quarter for professional reviews and only a third snuck in unexpectedly… When I put it like that, it doesn’t sound too bad, does it? Seven of the books were by foreign writers, but six of those were by French writers. So perhaps I am swapping the comfort and familiarity of Anglo writers with Gallic ones?

Seven crime fiction novels. My top crime read of the month (which is linked up to the Crime Fiction Pick of the Month meme hosted by Mysteries in Paradise) was undoubtedly Eva Dolan’s Long Way Home. A multi-layered story with real contemporary resonance. But Camille came close for the storytelling momentum, while Arab Jazz was excellent at showing us a less romaticised picture of Paris.

Anyway, next month will bring the huge, huge temptation that is Quais du Polar in Lyon. How can I possibly not impulse buy books and get them signed by so many wonderful authors? Wish me luck…

Friday Fun: It’s Chateau Time Again!

Why, I do believe it’s been quite a while since I posted any pictures of castles and manor houses… High time I remedied that. On this occasion, it’s all chateaux from my region, Rhone Alpes. Just to show you what you can move into, should you choose to become my neighbour! Something for all tastes, from medieval to 19th century, from modest proportions to royal.

Chateau de la Teyssonniere, Ain Tourism website.
Chateau de la Teyssonniere, Ain Tourism website.
Chateau de Grilly, Agence-clerc.fr
Chateau de Grilly, Agence-clerc.fr
Chateau de Prevessin. This one has been snapped up by a watch manufacturer for use as a workshop.
Chateau de Prevessin. This one has been snapped up by a watch manufacturer for use as a workshop.
Name unknown, from Prestige Property.
Name unknown, from Prestige Property.
Chateau Herbey, From A Vendre A Louer website.
Chateau Herbey, From A Vendre A Louer website.
Name Unknown, near Geneva. Mhmimmobilier website.
Name Unknown, near Geneva. MHM Immobilier website.

Don’t forget to invite me over for a cup of tea when you do move in…

Jousting for Attention

Walk up, walk up, fair knights and ladies! Meeting in battle today for the first time ever are two poems of very different composure, manner and attire. The first, inspired by a verse from a ballad by that incomparable bard Sir Timothy of Br’ian, is serious and moody. A knight of darkness, riding to the rescue of damsels in distress. The second jumped fresh as a daisy from a line from Lady Claudia’s Book of Adventurous Deeds: sweet, rambunctious and all white fluffiness. They are competing here for your favours. Which one will get your vote?

From kidswindow.co.uk
From kidswindow.co.uk

 

1) One day you stop filling in cracks

with smiles, guts and vapour.

One day the paint becomes too heavy for the wall.

One night your eyes unblink in reddened wakefulness

and never come to rest again.

One morning your boots start walking all by themselves.

 

2)  Time is a thin line on a cat’s back.

When you most want to tickle it awake

and grab it by its fleeting softness,

it scampers away in offended silence.

Yet when you blissfully ignore,

pace forth in multitasking skullduggery,

reluctant to waste a drop…

it curls into a placid ball

and purrs contentment into your impatient lap.

 

These two poems are in response to our ‘medievally themed’ week at dVerse Poets Pub, where we are bidding fond farewell (but not adieu) to Claudia and Brian, our founding parents. Do come over and join the celebrations! [I have marked the lines from their poems in italics.]

Brian claudia

Parenthood, Loss and Grief: Reading with a Theme

It’s typical of my reading: I have a higgledy-piggledy collection of books on my night-table, get distracted by someone’s urgent recommendation, read with a fine disregard for the original plan… and nevertheless find a pattern. This time, it’s about a parent learning to deal with the loss of a much-loved only child and finding ways of grieving and coping.

katehamerThe first book is Kate Hamer’s ‘The Girl in the Red Coat’, published by Faber and Faber today. You know how I’ve been objecting to ‘Girl’ titles, especially when they refer to mature women? Well, in this case it is not just annoying marketing to cash in on the ‘Gone Girl’ fever (with echoes of ‘Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’ thrown in for good measure). In this case, it is justified: the girl is just eight years old. Her name is Carmel and she is the daughter of Beth, a woman who is still trying to come to terms with single motherhood and her husband’s leaving her for another woman. Carmel and her mother have a very close relationship, but there is something slightly odd about Carmel’s dreaminess, her other-worldly charm and ability to understand what other people are feeling.  She sometimes blurts out funny little statements, mature beyond her age, which cast a chill on any mother’s heart. Hamer is excellent at playing on our most primitive fears as a parent, on our fierce protective instincts:

‘You realise, Mum, that I won’t always be with you,’ she said, her voice small and breathy in the fading light.

Maybe my heart should have frozen then. Maybe I should have turned and gathered her up and taken her home. Kept her shut away in a fortress or a tower. Locked with a golden key that I would swallow, so my stomach would have to be cut open before she could be found. But of course I thought it meant nothing, nothing at all.

Carmel has a tendency to fall into a daydream and wander off. Very near the start of the book, Beth loses her in a maze, so we are not surprised when the mother becomes overly anxious about letting the girl out of her sight. Luckily, the little girl likes red things, so when they go to a local storytelling festival, her mother is reassured that she can easily pick her daughter out in the crowd by her bright red coat. Unfortunately, so can others and very soon Beth’s worst fears are realised: Carmel disappears and is tricked into believing that she is not being kidnapped. Beth has to cope with her overwhelming sense of grief and guilt, her ex-husband’s accusations of not having looked after their daughter properly, the endless not knowing.

This is being marketed as a thriller, but, despite the ‘will they won’t they find the child’ element, the focus of the story is neither on the police investigation nor on actual crimes. The timeframe is much longer than the one to which crime fiction readers may be accustomed – a matter of years rather than days. This is very much a book about the process of grieving, coming to terms with all that has been lost and trying to find a reason to go on. We alternate between the points of view of Beth and Carmel and see how they both fight to keep hold of their identity and their memories of each other. They each find support and friendship in the most unlikely of places.

Written in a very oral, often breathless style, liberally sprinkled with lyrical passages, it’s a book you have to surrender to and just go with the flow. It starts out as a familiar British domestic thriller, and then morphs into a tale of poverty, miracle healings, deceit and a need to believe which seems to come out straight out of ‘True Detective’. Child narrators can be tricky to handle, but on the whole Carmel’s voice rings true: she is, after all, a very precocious eight-year-old. It is Beth, however, who is the most moving, whom  I can identify with, and she has pushed through her pain to become a philosopher and a poet:

I have a strange image of the two of us. That all these years we were tiny insects and the world was made of a huge beast – some kind of cattle. That we roamed and roamed across its back and even climbed up, one on the tip of each horn, and from there we tried to wave to each other. But being tiny we could not see, and the chasm was too great, and there wasn’t anything that could bridge that gap.

routeMingarelliIn the second book, Hubert Mingarelli’s ‘La route de Beit Zera’ (my translation: ‘The Road to Beit Zera’), set in present-day Israel, Stepan has lost his son Yankel because of a shooting at a border crossing into Palestine. He knows exactly where his son has fled to: New Zealand, and he writes to him every day, ruining his eyesight to make little boxes that he sells for a pittance, trying to save up enough money to visit his son. His only companion is his faithful dog, now grown old and incontinent, although he receives occasional visits from his old friend Samuelson, who used to be a border guard like him, and therefore understands the mix of shame, fear and compassion of his old life.  Israeli novels tend to avoid describing the Arab-Israeli conflict and mutual distrust, and it could be argued that Mingarelli is French and therefore not able to understand the complexity of the situation, but it seems to me he describes those ambiguous feelings very well:

…every night he’d fall asleep in the company of all those that he’d stopped and searched, on the street, at the barriers. He took with him in his sleep their empty gaze, disguising their hatred. And when he woke up, he was afraid of all these men and hated them just as much as they hated him. This fear grew, night after night, but whenever he had to search an Arab who was the same age as his father, he tried to impress upon him, with his hands, that he had no wish to humiliate him, and in patting him all along the body as cautiously as possible, he expected some kind of gesture, something impossible, a small flicker of gratitude in his eyes. But his gaze remained resolutely empty and later, in his sleep, turned murderous and full of hatred.

A young Arab boy comes into Stepan’s life. He appears wordlessly from the edge of the forest and forms a deep bond with Stepan’s dog, although the two of them barely exchange any words. He comes and slips away at night, doesn’t reappear for days, but gradually Stepan starts to look forward to his visits.  They are united in their suffering as they watch the decline of the dog, a decline they are powerless to stop. Perhaps the boy or the dog or both represent Stepan’s son, or maybe they are ways in which he can expiate his past.

Mingarelli has endless compassion for each one of his characters: we enter the cheerful world of the Palestinian man who is accidentally shot, as he returns from work, trying to find a name for his soon-to-be-born son; we see how Samuelson’s drunken stupor momentarily relieves his pain; towards the end of the book, we even become acquainted with the boy’s mother, who trembles with fear every time her son goes away she knows not where, yet learns not to ask questions; and, of course, the nameless dog, who can’t quite gambol through the forest anymore to enjoy her greatest pleasure in life: drinking water from the pools formed at the roots of trees.

From babelio.com
From babelio.com

Sadly, Mingarelli’s book is currently only available in French. His deceptively brief yet very moving novellas are ripe for translation, however, and I don’t just say that because he is practically a neighbour of mine, living in a tiny hamlet in the French Alps.  If you do want to try him in English, Portobello Books published ‘A Meal in Winter’ (transl. Sam Taylor) in 2013.

 

 

 

Acceptance Speeches and Gratitude

JK Simmons receiving his Oscar, photo by John Shearer by AP Photo.
JK Simmons receiving his Oscar, photo by John Shearer by AP Photo.

Warning: this post is incredibly loud and extremely personal. Viewers of a more generalist or nervous disposition should skip ahead to the next book review.

I heard that, with small exceptions, the Oscars ceremony on Sunday night was overly long and dull. I was never planning to watch it and was only mildly interested in the winners. [I have only seen 2-3 of the films across all nominated categories, most of them on airplanes, such is my social life]. But I struggled downstairs with a terrible migraine, so got to see live reactions on Twitter to the music, the surprise awards, the speeches.

Ah, the speeches! Some of them were political, rebellious, personal, memorable…  good for them. Typical acceptance speeches, of course, are all about gratitude, acknowledgement and thanks to collaborators and supporters. ‘I thank my parents, my spouse, my children, my dog…’

What to do, however, if those nearest and dearest are not at all supportive? I’ve written about it before. I’ve written a poem about it from the point of view of the supportive (and hitherto neglected) spouse. I’m not going to repeat myself. I don’t want to whine. I’ll just share with you a collection of anecdotes. Some of them are personal, some of them have been told to me by others. I suspect there is a glint of universality in most of them.

I really, really want to become a writer. All my teachers tell me I have talent. — What a waste of your intellectual capacities! You could do so many other things. Do that as a hobby, once you have got a good job under your belt, such as medicine or economics.

I did get to study what I was passionate about: languages and then anthropology. I even briefly got to work as an academic, but … it’s not like social sciences are real sciences, right? Surely an academic job in real science takes precedence. Why don’t you find a nice portable job, that you can take with you wherever you have to go to follow your husband?

This consultancy job is taking off, and you may be paid three times as much as your spouse, but it’s not really conducive to family life, is it? If you want to raise happy children, shouldn’t you find something more part-time, more flexible, even if it’s lower paid?

Patricia Arquette's rousing speech on gender equality. Photo from the Daily Mail.
Patricia Arquette’s rousing speech on gender equality. Photo from the Daily Mail.

Oh, come off it, being a trailing spouse isn’t that bad, is it? So you had to quit your job, but just look at your lifestyle in what is considered one of the most livable cities in the world! You can meet your lady friends for coffee and lunch, you can go to the gym, or, better still, explore the lovely nature surrounding you. You’ve got time on your hands, such a luxury! Lonely – psha! You can Skype your friends and family anytime. Anyone would envy you!

What do you mean, you want to start your own business? But who is going to handle all the organisational things this family needs? After all, you’re the only one who can speak the language…

What do you mean, you want to cut back on your work to focus on your writing? Writing will never pay the bills. If you’re not the next J K Rowling, you might as well not bother. Focus on your real job – just don’t travel so much with it. I can’t handle the kids all day – there’s very little time to do anything while they are in school.

OK, sure, honey, I’m supportive. When are you going to finish that book? Why are you wasting time on poetry? What have you been doing all day, why are you so tired? When are you going to get your book contract? Why should I go to the parents’ evening instead of you, so you can write –  haven’t you had enough time during the day?

Marion Cotillard in 2008. Photo: Digital Spy.
Marion Cotillard in 2008. Photo: Digital Spy.

This past weekend I had good news. After years of unseen labour and cold showers, I had very positive and personalised feedback about my writing from editors and agents at a conference organised by the Geneva Writers’ Group. They encouraged me to keep going, to finish my second novel as quickly as possible and to send it to them. Yes, I know there’s a long, hard road still ahead of me, that there are no guarantees. But it’s that first step, and so much better than I had ever allowed myself to hope for.

I come home in a disbelieving, golden haze, basking in their warm words. I open the door very nearly breathless, eager to celebrate with my loved ones, bring out the bugles, roll out the red carpet, open the champagne. Instead, I don’t even get the question: ‘So, how did it go?’

I’m realistic about the attention span and degree of empathy of little boys. In my exuberance, I pour out my joy regardless… but soon get bogged down in dinner questions, homework completed, cooking, setting the table and preparing schoolbags for the first day back after the holidays. I get to hear about levels completed on Super Mario Galaxy during my absence, while the older ‘child’ barely raises his head from his phone to listen to my anecdotes about the day. I expect to be brought down to earth by family commitments and daily life – but not necessarily a ball and chain weighing me down just as I am soaring.

Finally, at supper, I open a bottle of Pouilly-Fuissé that I’ve been keeping for special occasions and say, ‘Here’s to me!’ as we clinked our glasses.

‘Oh,’ replies my supportive spouse, ‘Why you?’

 

This is whom I’m going to mention in my acceptance speech:

P1020409

 

 

What Got You Hooked on Crime, Rebecca Kreisher?

RebeccaKreisher

Today I have the great pleasure of introducing yet another crime fiction lover and blogger to you. Rebecca Kreisher blogs as Ms. Wordopolis , primarily about crime fiction. She is passionate about translated crime and likes to challenge herself by reading books set in countries all over the world. You can also find Rebecca on Twitter.

How did you get hooked on crime fiction?

While I read and loved Nancy Drew mysteries when I was little, I wasn’t really hooked on the genre until I was much older. Patricial Cornwell, Sara Paretsky and Sue Grafton are what hooked me as a twenty-something law student.

Are there any particular types of crime fiction or subgenres that you prefer to read and why?

I tend to gravitate to police procedurals such as those by Arnaldur Indriðason, because I’ve moved on from the PI novels I used to read.

What is the most memorable book you have read recently?

Gunshot Road by Adrian Hyland was a recent favorite. It was more of a thriller than I expected, and the social/political commentary was quite good as well.

If you had to choose only one series or only one author to take with you to a deserted island, whom would you choose?

I’d bring the Wallander series by Henning Mankell, both because I haven’t finished the series yet and because the books themselves tend to run long.

TBRRebeccaWhat are you looking forward to reading in the near future?

I’ve been catching up with Laura Lippman lately, and I’m looking forward to her newest Hush Hush.

Outside your criminal reading pursuits, what author/series/book/genre do you find yourself regularly recommending to your friends?

Honestly, I usually recommend crime novels, so this is a difficult question to answer. I like Allegra Goodman and Ann Patchett for smart fiction, and Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns: the Epic Story of America’s Great Migration for nonfiction.

 

Thank you, Rebecca, for some great suggestions here. Several authors I’ve been meaning to explore further – like Laura Lippman. But I will stay strong for a month or so longer, for the sake of my TBR Double Dare Challenge!

For previous participants in the series, just follow this link. If you would like to take part, please let me know via the comments or on Twitter – we always love to hear about other people’s criminal passions!