Just what everyone wants to read!
If you want to skip the lengthy preamble then scroll down to the bit that says “Why”; if you want to skip that scroll down to the bit that says “How”; if you want to skip that then I want to skip you. Go skip yourself.
Rather than just giving my first poetry book a wistful arty title like, erm, say, “Whispering Shadows”, or a humorous down-to-earth one like “The Trials and Tribulations of…” I went a step further and gave my first poetry book the wistful-arty-humorous-down-to-earth, overwrought, self-important, possibly annoying, title and subtitle of:
Has Doubts: Volume One “Mistaken for art or rubbish”
If you were being mean you’d say it was the worst of both worlds. But there’s a reason I did it. Well, a couple of reasons.
My old poetry blog that I set up around 2010 was called “…Has Doubts”. Yes with an ellipsis at the front, indicating the absent author’s name. (Alexander Velky.) I thought (and still think, in spite of any evidence you might present) this is a great title. For a blog, for a book, for a life; for anything. It stemmed from an idea I entertained very briefly one afternoon while working in my job as a music journalist in a semi-converted abattoir off Brick Lane one day of starting a one-man electronica (possibly blogtronica) act called “Doubts”. I thought Doubts was a great name for a band, because back then every good idea I had was channelled into the long-sailed ship of me somehow discovering an aptitude for music. But as so often happens with imaginary band names, it was soon replaced with another: Bogwoppit. After my favourite children’s book. The word (Doubts, not Bogwoppit) hung around and became like a favourite secret or a treasured possession.
So it became my new blog title. The title of the new blog that was just for poetry, that is – I started three that year: one for wine-reviews, one for book-reviews. But I also harboured ambitions of it one day being the name for my first volume of poetry.
In late 2010 I started organizing my poems into what I thought might constitute a volume – i.e. about 20 of them; a book or pamphlet about 50 pages long. It was at that point a “best of” taken from a modest pool of about 50 poems I’d written in the year 2010, with most of my favourites in the first half of the book. But on reading it through it lacked coherence. This is what it looked like:
Well, firstly because I wanted to print them; and a book doesn’t work like a blog or a compost heap where you can just keep adding stuff and adding stuff until you die, never turning it over with a pitchfork and just ignoring the possibility it might consume your garden. Actually, that last bit is only applicable to compost heaps.
Even if I didn’t print them, which at this point was only an idea, I knew I wanted to organize them. Writing is often the ordering and rationalizing of thought. Poetry, perhaps less so. But maybe that’s it; maybe in finding a presentation that made sense I would be able to apply my desire for order and rationalization to my least ordered and rational worldly remnants. An administrative afterthought to the creative process.
Entertaining this idea meant recognizing the limitations of my creations, or imposing limitations on them. In short, putting the poems in a box.
In facing my disappointment at the spectacle of a bunch of poems I’d written in a year arbitrarily shuffled together, I was reminded what bothered me about a lot of the modern (and ancient) single-author poetry collections I’d read over the years: they weren’t really about anything. I didn’t want a book people would dip in and out of. I wanted something that would be read (or was at least meant to be read) from start to finish.
I wrote the manifesto for the “Has Doubts” blog around this time. It was long and convoluted and born out of a desire to impose meaning over the poems in a way that was perhaps not entirely fair or natural or likely to succeed: like the attempted Germanization of Central- and Eastern-European Slavic peoples.
But a lot of good art I’d been looking at and reading about had emerged from “movements” that had “manifestos”, and working in a postmodernist anything-goes wasteland I was jealous. Jealous of those beautiful boxes.
The genesis of my poetry had been in a need to channel the storytelling I felt was my calling. It began in song lyrics for a band I abandoned in Wales. And never got anywhere, as I persistently refused to learn to play a musical instrument throughout my youth, despite being very sure that if I did I would be very good at it. So I was left with literally hundreds of lyrics – rhyming couplets for the most parts, some more adventurous – which were becoming less and less musically inclined all the time. At some point in the mid 2000s (when I was in living Prague, in fact) I began to put them in a folder marked “Poetry” instead of “Lyrics”. This felt very naughty, but also quite sensible. (I can’t think of an analogy for that.)
The early poems were usually narrative, following on from the early lyrics. Except that their subjects were more mundane and, I felt, more real. There was less angst, poorly researched social commentary and attempted romance; and more in the way of old men euthanizing dogs, women struggling with unlovable foetuses, and people waiting for trains that never came. For me, these snippets of rhythmical rural melodrama worked better than the 6 or 7 novels I’d half-written by this point; mainly because they came to an end, but also because they were just more bearable. More readable. Just.
I was quick to seize on the idea and box them up with an overarching narrative; indeed, an unlikely 6-act-tragedy structure borrowed entirely from the plot of Thomas Hardy’s Return of the Native – my favourite novel at that time.
So the precursor to “…Has Doubts”, posted sporadically on my even older blog (called “thesvenhunter” for no real reason), was this sprawling collection of loosely embroidered narrative poetry, originally called “Misery”, but later elongated to the less miserable but more sarcastic “Goodbye Misery, Hello Joy!”. The plot was probably hard to follow for any of the few readers who received a (home-printed) copy. I enjoyed writing it more than reading it, and, although I may one day return to it, it served a purpose in three ways: one, earning me a single runner-up place in a poetry competition in 2010; two: giving me an opportunity to bribe friends to act out the (then half-finished) collection over the course of a long absinthe-and-sandwiches-fuelled afternoon in Upper Clapton; three: it got me going, and I very gradually started writing poems regularly, in other styles about other things. For the first time since school.
This (I mean, that which is contained within the above three paragraphs) is why I was underwhelmed by the idea of a “Whispering Shadows” type collection of unrelated meditations on the themes of place and self. (No offence meant if anyone out there actually has called their poetry collection “Whispering Shadows”.)
And so, partly due to my Has Doubts Manifesto (which I will not – indeed can not – reproduce here), but probably mainly in spite of it, themes very soon began to emerge in my supposedly free writing. Themes of subject: not just the themes of structure. (Loosely iambic rhyming couplets.) And a few more-satisfying or at least more-coherent volumes began to suggest themselves. To “heap up on the horizon”, to borrow from Larkin.
The first decision was whether the first collection would be about art or history. Those were the two (very broad) themes that were most frequently occurring by 2011. (With feminism, or possibly gender a close third.)
7 of the original 2010 poems fitted the history theme – more specifically, the fraught relationship between history and truth; but 8 fitted the art theme – more specifically, the fraught relationship between art and commerce. I wasn’t yet sure what fraught relationship belonging to feminism I was exploring (or might yet explore). And noticing that I had 8 (or, by this point probably at least 16) poems that seemed loosely related to a theme, I went ahead with that.
“Mistaken for art or rubbish” grew out of my faith in the poem Alchemy and a friend (hi Jon!)’s faith in the poem whose name I used for the title. Almost every other poem in there is a variation upon a theme discussed in one of these two. The former displeased the only reviewer so far for the curious reason that it was unrealistic; but that was sort of the point. The poet was a convenient metaphor for artists in general; and I was well aware of the immense audacity I had in daring to subject others to my art, so I found it amusing to present the poet (myself) struggling with the trappings of fame and fortune because it was an absolutely impossible outcome. For me the poem would not have worked if the scenario was at all realistic. And that counts for many of the other allegorically inclined numbers. MFAOR was the exact opposite, being entirely and perhaps embarassingly “authentic”, and full of unsatisfactory answers to difficult questions.
The as-yet-unpublished second collection works (or doesn’t, depending on your tastes!) in a very similar way. It sprang from about 15 already-written poems, but really its genesis was in two: A rhyme for all time (giving it the title “Rhymes for all times”) and Kuzka’s mother. One is a sort of daft rhyming-nonsense skip through all of history, generating a sort of mania which could lead one to elation or despair, and almost arbitrarily choosing the former in this instance; the latter is a more focused attempt to capture the human condition by juxtaposing fact with fiction: imagining (more-or-less making up) the situation of a Russian soldier working in the frozen wastelands of Nova Zemlya on the Tsar Bomba project during the Cold War. History, truth, significance, etc.
But right now I’m more interested in talking about the third and fourth collections, which are only just forming.
For a long time I thought the third collection would be about feminism, because a few existing poems (This is what a feminist looks like (TIWAFLL), In the men’s room, Wearing pink) seemed to suggest this theme. But other than a nagging suspicion that the world doesn’t really need a 30-year-old white British male to write such a thing, the more I wrote, the more it really didn’t… take off like the others had. It failed to really capture my imagination, let alone run with it. It felt a lot more like I was saying things rather than asking things; and asking things had been the central pillar of the idea of Has Doubts from the start.
Where was the fraught relationship I was looking for?
Of course, when it finally occurred to me recently what Volume Three (which I am still determined will be called “In the men’s room”, because it’s a brilliant title) was really about, it was an answer that had been staring me in the face for ages.
It came with two completely different poems. Not TIWAFLL, which besides being a feminist statement of intent, still works for me as a question about motivation: why should the privileged seek equality? (A question I think is worth asking.) And not Wearing pink, which, besides being a (well-worn) comment on the formation of gender, still works for me as a question about conformity. I think. Maybe. I’ll get back to you on that one. And not In the men’s room itself, which is was and remains a very short simple poem about how disgusting men’s public toilets are. The question it asks is as simple as: Why do men (and I don’t know which men, but it’s a lot of them) shit on walls in public toilets?
No, the two poems that told me what “In the men’s room” was really about were Taxonomy and Good companions, rarely blended.
The former is a poem about bear-collecting delivered by a mad professor who may be contemporary but is probably Victorian. He unknowingly pokes fun at man’s desire for order and ownership and gendered pronouns and the “universal he“. But he also, in a weird way, talks of man’s “love” of nature, and asks – among other things – can a consuming and jealous love be called love? I could go into detail about this, but I’ll save it for another year. It’s proven my most popular poem in its brief outings so I feel funny about it. Sort of proud but jealous. Sort of… well… Fritzly; like I want to lock it in a cellar and never let it out. And if that seems in bad taste I only use the metaphor because it’s entirely relevant to the subject matter of “In the men’s room”, which imagines the world as one giant public lavatory where faceless men are free to shit on walls and get away with it, and nobody really knows why they feel the need to do it.
Poem number two is Good companions, rarely blended. And like one or two poems in each collection it is drawn from a tiny and ever-decreasing pool of poems I wrote after “Goodbye Misery…” and before I set up “…Has Doubts”. It’s a weird poem which I had long thought both too weird and not good enough to place alongside my contemporary efforts. Now I think it’s better than anything I’ve done in a long time. It has a convoluted but unexciting structure with persistent obvious rhymes, like much of my work. But unlike much of my work, it’s split down the middle into two barely related parts dealing respectively with the history of a popular German wine grape and a doomed love affair between two homosexual wine-enthusiasts, one of whom has just decided that they are not in fact a homosexual man, but a heterosexual female.
The doubt that prevented me from promoting this poem to “publishable” status in my own mind hitherto was largely based around my own lack of experience of homosexual relationships or gender realignment. But to be honest I know bugger all about art, or history, or… erm… poetry. And that’s never stopped me before. So, it suddenly dawned on me that this poem, which I had previously dismissed as an afternoon’s flight of fancy, is actually brilliant. It juxtaposes the delightful history of viticulture (man’s meddling with nature, playing God in a quest for perfection) with the individual tragedy (and triumph, I suppose) of a person born into the wrong gender – the wrong body, and being able, thanks to said same meddling, to overcome this and take a step toward liberty. The doomed romance is only the filter for the storyteller. The questions I feel this poem poses are above and beyond those I’d previously thought so well (and so subtly) posed by Taxonomy.
And in a flash, I have it: the third collection is about the loaded and duplicitous concept of nature, and what is natural. Sex and gender are a very important part of this, but it is to be explored as a much greater and more pervasive whole. “In the men’s room” can now finally begin to take shape.
Sounds boring? Been done before? Sod you! You’re wrong! It won’t be. And it hasn’t be. (een.)
The best and most irritating part of this is that several other poems I had thought previously would be central to the ethos of “In the men’s room” have consequently been revealed as nothing of the sort”
Spokes, The misery tune, My species is in danger – these are poems about death, not nature!
Now I am faced with a whole new quandary: how to make a collection of poems about death interesting or original. Sheesh.