What I did on the weekend …

Way back in December last year, as I was first wallowing in the delights of Canadian poetry and checking out the magazines that had published poems I particularly enjoyed, I came across something that sounded interesting: the Contemporary Verse 2 Two-Day Poem Competition. Very simple – you sign up, and at midnight on the first day of the contest you would be emailed a list of ten words which you must then use in a new poem. Everyone gets the same words, and you have to use them all, in the exact form provided (so no changing the tense, that sort of thing). And you had two days in which to do it.

One of the things that sold the competition to me was the way they choose winners – a First, Second and Third place (quite usual), plus an Editor’s Choice (ooh, bonus!) and a People’s Choice (double bonus!) and an Editor’s Dad’s Choice. At which point I fell hopelessly in love and decided that I had to give it a go. The fact that you could also get a heavily discounted subscription to the magazine along with your entry was the chocolate sprinkles on the whipped cream on the icing on the cake.

But that was back in December. I had completely forgotten about the competition, so it came as somethig of a surprise when I receieved the first email about it, counting down the last few days to go until it all kicked off. Crikey. A complicating factor was that we were looking at a fine weekend here, after yet another week of heavy rain. My garden needed me in ways that weren’t really easy to put off. Plus we’re in the middle of trying to replace our old logburner, so I was also sending emails off to tradesmen and suppliers and so on. Not an atmosphere entirely conducive to creativity. writingmugBut hey, my students manage to come up with poems in half an hour, and I was going to have two days. Previous years’ words had been really interesting and evocative – salt, becoming, furuncle, bearded, fortune, hinky, animate, fervent, prune, and emerald in 2016; satellite, ham, soaking, lapsed, stencil, mirrored, before, pyrite, faked, and appliances in 2015; and booster, timbres, cramp, unlocked, putative, wolf, barge, versions, probably and tag in 2014. So interesting mixtures of tense and form, with one tricky word thrown in to stretch you. But lots of possibility. (As was proven repeatedly by the quality of the winning poems.)

Yep. Like to guess the words we got, 5 pm Saturday afternoon, New Zealand time? They were:

  • bunk – ok, noun or verb, quite casual;
  • dank – again, interesting word, lots of possibility although likely to head down a slightly Gothic path;
  • stippled – nice adjective, just have to avoid pairing it with ‘shadow’ and miring myself in cliche;
  • begets – cool bananas, lots to do with this one;
  • unroofed – oooh, yes! this is starting to take shape;
  • foundling – hmm, definitely nudging me towards the Gothic (but lets be honest: it doesn’t take much);
  • bombastic – a bit of a challenge. But I can work with that;
  • daguerreotype – hmm, another tricky one,  but againI think I can work with it;
  • copacetic – what? Where did that come from? I don’t even know what it means. (whimper)
  • absquatulated – you’re making this up! WTF?! Abwhatsulated?!!

It was at this point that I started having a small panic attack.

Four stonklingly long, overly-complicatated words. I mean, I could manage bombastic and daguerreotype, but the other two how-the-hell-do-you-even-use-this-in-a-sentence words … no idea. (For those who are wondering, “copacetic” means ‘in excellent order’, and “absquatulated” means ‘buggered off’. Apparently. Although I may be paraphrasing the latter.)

So began two days of writing hell. And vast quantities of avoidance. On the other hand, I did make a new compost heap. And cleaned the toilet. Both toilets, actually. And got a fresh coat of paint on the cupboard doors.

I tried everything. Freewriting (you don’t want to know how many pages were just ARGH!!!!!! and a random assortment of swear words), defining parts of speech and doing a noun-to-noun verb-to-verb substitution into a handy poem by someone else, researching the etymology of the words, coming up with rhymes (good luck with that), trying to use a form of some sort … I just couldn’t find a way in. Saturday night turned into Sunday morning, which turned into Sunday afternoon, which turned into Sunday night … the whole time my poor brain was doing a hamster-wheel thing, churning the words over and over – Dank! churn churn churn Bombastic! churn churn churn Copacetic! churn churn churn squeak churn Foundling! churn churn … Eventually Monday morning came, and I was facing something even worse than a blank page: a page with lots of scribble, but nothing even remotely resembling a poem.

I tried to comfort myself with the words of Thomas Edison – I have not failed. I’ve just found 10000 ways that won’t work – but that didn’t help much. Ultimately I just had to do the hardest thing of all – sit there, and write. And keep writing. And writing. And writing. Brute force and bloody-mindedness. To the accompaniment of Ludovico Einaudi’s Experience (a really great piece of music: enjoy!):

Eventually it all did – sorta – work. I ended up needing to break into the Easter egg stash for fuel, but I got something done. Something that could, if you screwed your eyes up and squinted the right way, having first adopted an open, friendly and enthusiastic mood, have passed for a poem. So at 2pm I went outside for the first time since feeding the chooks, and pottered for half an hour. Then came back inside to try and edit some sense into the damn poem, and make copacestic and absquatulated less like the mutt’s nuts. By which I mean I hid them amongst other words of similar bombast, and hoped for the best.

All the time I’m doing this, the clock is ticking down. A fact that I suddenly realised with five minutes to the deadline.

They were not pretty minutes. I had to quickly bang it all into MS Word, check the contest rules for how exactly it was meant to be formatted (and I have a horrible feeling that I cocked at least one of the requirements up … argh), open an email, attach the document, add my contact details and title of the entry to the body of the email, and hit “send”.

I heard the swoosh sound of the email being sent as the clock on my computer ticked over to 5 pm. Immediately after which, my “you’ve got mail!” sound played, and a cheery email from the competition organisers appeared, announcing the competition closed for another year.

I have no idea if I managed to squeak in under the deadline by the narrowest of all possible margins, or if I did the face-palm opposite, and miss by the narrowest of possible margins. Either way, I thik we’re talking Planck units.

So there you have it. My crit groups will have the opportunity to see the carnage for themselves. I think there may be a worthwhile poem in there, somewhere.

But I suspect it won’t include the words “copacetic” or “absquatuated”.

Tragedy (when you lose control and you got no soul)

1 from ‘Moonlit Ocean’ by Rowey GI’ve just spent a week trying to work out, to my own satisfaction, the difference between ‘unknowable’ and ‘unnamable’.

I know. It’s simple – the first means ‘you can’t know it’ and the second ‘you can’t name it’. But there’s so much more to it than that. It’s to do with a poem I’ve been working on – it was actually the first poem I managed to write this year. It’s somewhat influenced by an incredibly beautiful and eerie poem by Robert Frost:

The Most of It

 

He thought he kept the universe alone;
For all the voice in answer he could wake
Was but the mocking echo of his own
From some tree–hidden cliff across the lake.
Some morning from the boulder–broken beach
He would cry out on life, that what it wants
Is not its own love back in copy speech,
But counter–love, original response.
And nothing ever came of what he cried
Unless it was the embodiment that crashed
In the cliff’s talus on the other side,
And then in the far distant water splashed,
But after a time allowed for it to swim,
Instead of proving human when it neared
And someone else additional to him,
As a great buck it powerfully appeared,
Pushing the crumpled water up ahead,
And landed pouring like a waterfall,
And stumbled through the rocks with horny tread,
And forced the underbrush—and that was all.

 

– Robert Frost

Gorgeous, isn’t it? It’s a side of Frost that most people don’t realise is there – I think of it as his wild side, his mystical side. ‘The Road Not Taken’ has a hint of it, and so does ‘Acquainted With The Night’. It’s where Mary Oliver takes off from, I think. And it’s a dangerous place, especially in this (cynical) modern world. It’s so easy to tip over into a kind of gnomic pretension. Earning it, is hard.

Which brings me back to my word dilema. I’ll give you the relevant two lines, so you get some sense of context:

and something unknowable
wades out onto the furthest shore.

 

2 from ‘Moonlit Ocean’ by Rowey G

Part of the problem is that I don’t think of ‘unknowable’ as menacing, but it seems other people do. I’m sure you could
psychoanalyse that fact and derive some sort of insight into the differences between people’s upbringings. But from my considerably simpler point of view, it’s mainly a bugger.

Unknowable, to me, is just simply that – something beyond understanding. Something fundamentally other. Sacred things are unknowable. The vastness of the universe is also unknowable (virtually by definition), but it doesn’t make me feel afraid. To my thinking, ‘fear of the unknown’ is actually a misnomer – you don’t really fear the things you don’t know. You fear they may contain things that are dangerous (which is something you know) or malicious (ditto) or which will harm you (yadda). That will overwhelm you (a feeling you remember from childhood at least, and a state you strive to avoid) or overpower you (ditto yet again). What you fear is the potential peril, and the fact that it’s a sort of existential fog. Which in turn means you can’t see clearly enough into whatever it is to be able to set up appropriate defenses. But the scary part of ‘potential peril’ is the peril, not the potential. And you only feel these fears when you are already in a state of alarm. Your fear reflected back to you, like lights reflecting off a bank of fog. Otherwise it’s an amazing well of possibility. Something to explore. Somewhere you can empty yourself out into.

O-kay, that took a rather more philosophical turn than I had intended. Back to the original point: that I find ‘unknowable’ a numinous thing, not a threatening thing. And the views of all the people who’ve read the poem are (so far) split 50/50 on it, with half saying they find it menacing, and half quite the opposite.

‘Unnamable’ is also problematic. To me, it’s much more menacing – ‘nameless dread’ is the first phrase that comes to mind when I think of it. (We are not going to get into a long, rambling dissertation on the many possible shades of meaning or implication of that phrase, and why it might also be a misnomer. Do that on your own time.)

As you’ll probably have worked out, what I’m wanting for that final couplet is something of the same sense of strangeness and agency as the ending of the Frost poem. I’d assumed that the fact I have the whatever it is (unknowable or unnamable or … thing) wading out onto the furthest shore would have been a release of tension – it’s obviously moving away from the speaker, and therefore (I thought) is not a threat to them. Is probably not even aware of them, in much the same way that Frost’s stag swims towards him, past him, gets out of the water and disappears into the undergrowth – and that is all. Which is why ‘unknowable‘ seemed right to me – it’s so completely other that it isn’t even aware of the speaker. It exists in its own space.

But obviously there were enough other people disagreeing with that assumption for me to have to try and find some other approach. Or at least to consider another approach. Unnameable … unknowable … other? I could use ‘other’, but I would have to italicise it to make people read it properly, and I prefer the level of understatement that I currently have, with the linebreak doing the work behind the scenes. Another suggestion that was made was that I could try and bring some menace into the poem a bit earlier – this was from the people who thought of the ending as menacing – so that it seemed a more natural way of concluding. Except the poem isn’t meant to be menacing.

…?!!

Argh. Welcome to the world (or possibly ‘ongoing mental breakdown’) of the practicing poet.