Wednesday, 8 June 2016

The story of a poem

Looking back through my files, I find the first typewritten draft torn from the secondhand dot matrix printer I bought not long after arriving in Almendralejo. A creature of habit, I've only ever dated poems once they move from notebook to screen, so here it is: January 1998. The title is different, of course, as is the layout of the stanzas, but the poem has been born.

I must have gone back to it in a couple of months later, as there are handwritten corrections all over the sheet and a note: "Rev' March '98". Of course, I'm sure to have thought it was finished at that point. How wrong I was.

A few weeks afterwards, I returned to the poem. There's another typewritten draft, which indicates more extensive revisions back in my notebook prior to a second visit to the dot matrix. However, frustration must have set in: "UNF" for unfinished is scrawled across the bottom.

Later on that month - April '98 - I had another go at polishing off this awkward, obstreperous bunch of lines. I must have been reasonably happy with the result, as I sent it, with a shiny new title, as part of a submission to Evangeline Paterson (a fabulous, understated poet and editor, much missed) at Other Poetry. She published it that autumn.

At this point there's a pause, although I recall having posted it that year to a dear friend who died in a mountaineering accident not long afterwards. It was hidden among many failures. She chose it as her favourite.

Come 2009, I was preparing my submission to HappenStance Press for what would become Inventing Truth, my first pamphlet. I picked this poem up again, reread it and realised I could improve it, change the flow of the stanzas, tweak the title. Helena Nelson, my editor, wasn't fully convinced. She sidelined it to a list of possibles in early 2010, so I went at it again. Still she put up cogent arguments against its inclusion. It correctly lost out a couple of months before publication.

I knew that poem was important, not just because of its journey, but because it highlighted a specific facet of my verse. Nevertheless, I also knew it wasn't quite over the line. Every few months, I continued to chip away at it: November 2013, August 2014, May 2015. My first full collection was the aim.

Until today. It's still in my manuscript, holding on for dear life. This time, in adulthood, over eighteen years after its birth, it's going to make the cut. When might the book appear? More news on that in due course...


  1. Dear Matthew

    It's funny how you can write some poems straight out and others you really have to wrestle with. My fine poet father used to say that writing a poem was a bit like throwing a pot. Sometimes it's perfect but far more often it requires a lot of work to make it remotely acceptable.

    Best wishes from Simon R. Gladdish

  2. I think some people automatically discount verse they wrote many years ago if it wasn't published at the time, so it's nice to read this story. I know I wouldn't want to publish a lot of what I wrote in my early twenties (ie. ten years ago or more...). On the other hand, in the last couple of years I've had a few poems published which were written around that time. One was a runner-up in a competition and was published in an accompanying anthology, and I think I was 21 when I wrote it, maybe 22. Another which I wrote when I was 24 was recently published and nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and yet another I wrote around the same time has just been accepted. Sometimes you just know that a poem is worth trying with, even it takes years to find it a home, and whether or not it needs considerable revision.

    1. Hi Clarissa,

      Thanks for commenting. Like you, I've had to discard a lot of rubbish over the years, but sometimes poems just click unexpectedly or fit in the tone and cadence of a manuscript...

  3. We circle around our poems, eyeing them as a raptor eyes prey - and it takes as long as it takes. Sometimes it's 15 years (or more) before a poem breaks free and finds its place, perhaps in a magazine, perhaps in a pamphlet, perhaps in a book. If the poem is a true, and relates to whatever is happening in the poet's route through writing and ways of writing then that's all that matters.

    1. Hi Davina,

      Thanks for commenting. I agree 100%, but there's also role reversal at times, isn't there? Certain poems hunt us down and force us to write them!