Thursday, August 14, 2008

Writing 'Fifth': the creative process

‘Fifth’, which was written over several months in 2004 and published in my last collection, Boudicca & Co (Salt, 2006), is a poem of special significance for me because it represents my first tentative attempt at writing a poem after more than three years of complete writer's block.

The poem is about my last and fifth pregnancy, hence the title. The title itself alternated early on between ‘Fifth’, the more prosaic ‘Number Five’, and ‘Indigo’, my daughter’s name. ‘Indigo’ was too personal (I feel it’s a mistake to use names in poems, or too many personal details, if only because some distance between a poem and the poet’s reality needs to be maintained for artistic reasons) and ‘Number Five’ felt too clumsy, so ‘Fifth’ it was.

The early on-screen draft which follows - I used to revise my first few drafts on screen, a practice I later abandoned for the hands-on feel of pen and paper - shows how the poem shifts and shortens before reaching its final published form. Though some stanzas were lost and others moved about, it does retain its basic form, i.e. the quatrain structure.

At one stage, beginning to lose confidence in ever finding the best close to this poem, I did experiment with longer stanzas. But, as with so many decisions made in the intense chill of editing, it did not take and I slipped, with some relief, back to quatrains.

First, here's an early draft of ‘Fifth’:

I meant to stop at two, then three,
then a fourth appeared.
Perhaps I could try hiding
under the covers, or not washing.

Three days since the blood failed,
and the test turns blue,
a miniature sea between my hands,
nine months to the far horizon.

The midwives press down hard
into my flesh: two fingers higher
than before. The cold rim
of a fetal trumpet listens for a beat.

This must be a girl again, I’m sick
as a drunk all morning
and the world tilts when I walk
like a ship sliding in a bottle.

Twelve weeks and my waist begins
to thicken. I still can’t hold
anything down, and the boys
are too heavy to carry upstairs.

Five months on, it feels
like a fish tickling, this tiny hand
or foot, dredged up
against my diaphragm.

At full term plus ten, my waters
are broken. Maybe an hour
goes past with me crouched there,
moaning and rocking.

At last her body slithers, long
and wet, from the depths,
eyes screwed up tight
and her mouth hauled open.


This draft is a reasonable narrative poem, but not what I wanted. In search of a more solid ‘out’ to the poem - and thinking a joke might provide a neat conclusion - I shunted the first stanza here down to become the final stanza.

Luckily something better occurred to me later and back it came, returning as stanza 2. Following that change, the original second stanza, ‘Three days since the blood failed’, moved up to pole position as the new opening.

That’s quite unusual for me; even when I really mess about with the guts of a poem, the first few lines rarely change, as though they have set the tone and changing them would wreck the whole poem. Here though, the edit worked.

Stanza 3 got the chop altogether. My instinct was to keep the poem’s focus on me and my unborn baby, and the presence of a midwife felt like an intrusion. Stanzas 3, 4 and 5 then moved up, with 5 undergoing extensive revisions as the end of the poem loomed and I pushed for a new, stronger conclusion. With this in mind, 7 and 8 were also jettisoned in favour of a tighter final stanza.

These revisions meant rethinking my original intentions. In this early draft, you can see how I was trying to follow the pregnancy from a postive test result right through to the labour ward. But when I removed the midwife and shifted the poem’s focus to my relationship with the unborn baby, the actual birth became irrelevant. The title and general tone implied a happy outcome anyway, so reinforcing that was unnecessary.

Unfortunately, this left me with one of the toughest dilemmas of all, i.e. how best to close the poem?

Here, I laid the poem aside for a few months. I returned to it periodically during that time, making minor changes - there’s always one more comma to be pruned - but found no conclusive solution.

Eventually it struck me that there’s something mystical about a woman’s relationship with her invisible - yet omnipresent - unborn baby, a mysticism which was not reflected by this early draft. With hindsight, I think this was for two reasons: first, the poem’s neat quatrain structure had dictated a commonsense tone, and second, my lack of confidence had prevented me from manipulating and adapting that form to my own purposes.

You have to remember that I hadn’t written a poem for over three years when ‘Fifth’ suddenly came to me, out of the blue. In such reduced circumstances any poem is miraculous. So I was reluctant to mess too much with those early drafts, however pedestrian, in case I jinxed my return to poetry.

These days I might say ‘let’s see what happens with couplets’ or ‘let’s turn the poem on its head, see whether that works.’ But at this stage I wasn’t interested in being adventurous; I was just struggling to produce something workmanlike and possibly even publishable.

To achieve that, I looked at the images and motifs of the original draft, hunting for ways to expand and develop them into a stronger ending. The most obvious motif was dictated both by the proto-title, ‘Indigo’, and the initial blue of the pregnancy test, giving me: ‘sea’, ‘blue’, ‘horizon’, ‘ship’, (sea-)‘sick’, ‘fish’, ‘waters’, ‘rocking’, ‘wet’, ‘depths’ and even ‘hauled’.

It was only a short leap from there to ‘pearl’, which then suggested ‘shell’, both of which worked in the context of a pregnancy. ‘Pearl’ was also useful for both its sacred and its parental connotations (I’m thinking here of early Christian imagery, and the poignant medieval poem ‘Pearl’). And every child knows that a shell is a mystical object; once the home of long vanished sea-creatures, you can hold a shell to your ear to hear the whisper of invisible seas.

With such resonances in place, shaping the elusive final stanzas became easier.

So here’s ‘Fifth’, as it appeared in my second collection, ‘Boudicca & Co’ (Salt, 2006):

Three days since the blood failed,
and the test turns blue,
a miniature sea between my hands,
nine months to the far horizon.

This must be a girl again, I’m sick
as a drunk all morning
and the world tilts when I walk
like a ship sliding in a bottle.

Twelve weeks and my waist begins
to thicken. I can’t hold
anything down, and the boys
are too heavy to carry upstairs.

I meant to stop at two, then three,
then a fourth appeared.
Perhaps I could try hiding
under the covers, or not washing.

This stubborn foot wedged high
under my diaphragm is
more than a fish by thirty weeks:
it’s a rich pearl pushing

against an opalescent shell, a poem,
a number, sonic reality;
refusing to be got rid of, cleaving
like a shadow, part of me.


As you can see, the order of the stanzas has been rearranged yet again and the poem is now only six quatrains long (the earliest drafts had nine). And although the quatrains had been more or less unrhymed throughout, suddenly a strong rhyme has appeared, instinctively, to close the poem by coupling ‘reality’ with ‘part of me’.

But the most interesting result of these revisions is that ‘Fifth’ now feels like two poems in one. The first is light-hearted in tone and mainly concerned with the dragging changes of a pregnant woman’s body. The second later poem feels more complex, an introspective on ‘what is hidden’ and how an unborn child can inhabit and even swamp a woman’s psyche.

At the end, I even hint at the growing impossibility of termination - tests had wrongly told us the baby would be Down’s Syndrome, making this pregnancy a particularly emotional one. So the choice of an archaic word like ‘cleave’ feels very deliberate, suggesting for me an unbreakable bond of flesh and blood, the ancient concept of kinship as something which takes precedence over all other considerations, including disability. And these two poems have been welded together by the revision process into one - more or less - organic whole.

It’s possible, then, to trace in these changes not only the path of a single poem but also the progress of a returning poet. If the early stanzas feel a little crude and closed, they are just workmanlike enough to withstand the necessary bashes and collisons of the revision process. And the closing stanzas, written after my first clumsy enthusiasm had faded, are reaching towards a more open and suggestive poetry, the sort of work the poet could only dimly - alas! - remember at that stage.

So the finished poem has a title, a definable shape, a satisfactory opening and conclusion, and has survived the dangerous throes of revision. Not brilliant, but an auspicious birth nonetheless!

6 comments:

Women Rule Writer said...

Great poem, Jane, and a great explanation about arriving at the final poem.
I love the way we, as poets, can refer to so much by saying so little, in a sense. No one but you would have understood the ref to Down's Syndrome, but it's there for you, and now for us, as readers.
Thanks for this post.

Women Rule Writer said...

I linked to this post from my blog.

Jane Holland said...

Cheers, m'dear.

I wrote this piece last September, at the request of an essay anthology editor. Sadly, plans for the anthology seem to have stalled, so I asked if I could publish it on Raw Light instead. Apparently, if the anthology goes ahead, it will still appear there regardless.

Meanwhile at least it's being put to good use ...

PJ Nolan said...

Hi Jane. Linked to this from WRW's blog. Indeed a fine poem and much, much stronger for the editing process. This is something I'm tightroping at the moment myself, walking that scary line between the urge and the edit. While I can be more rigorous with editing prose (after giving myself that vital permission to write a crap first draft) - I can often freeze in the head lights of a fresh spill of verse. The fear of trying to whittle beech into birch - the danger of ending up with bark mulch!!! Thanks for writing about this.

Jane Holland said...

Many thanks, PJ.

I've noticed in the past that these blog posts about the writing or editing process seem to be the most popular with other bloggers ... I should definitely do this more often, instead of waffling on in my usual way about nothing in particular!

Jx

BarbaraS said...

I enjoyed this close read of the process of revising and writing. You explain the process very clearly, and I like the justifications for the changes, they make good sense.