Evolution of a poem

One of my poems, Love in reverse, has just been published in the latest edition of Mslexia. It was chosen by guest judge Sarah Dunant as part of their new writing section, themed ‘The Affair’.  This poem of mine is quite old. If you’re interested, this is how it evolved.

About ten years ago I went to the only two Arvon courses I’ve ever attended. (They are brilliant. Must go to some more.) In one summer, I spent two separate weeks learning more about writing poetry than I thought possible. The first one was run by Jo Shapcott and Don Paterson; the second by Carol Ann Duffy and Jackie Kay. Aside from the learning, they are fabulous networking opportunities. I met Daljit Nagra before he was published by Faber. John Glenday was the guest reader half way through the first week: he has been a constant supporter and encourager of my writing ever since. As anyone who has been to an Arvon week will know, you meet so many totally different people, each creative in their own way, that the cumulative spark can be exhilarating.

Yes, of course there was drunkenness, arguments, cabin fever, tears and all the social awkwardnesses that happen by Thursday, but that is apparently all to be expected and mostly beneficial. What I remember is the total step-change my writing experienced.

I arrived able to turn a phrase, knowing I can make people laugh by being a clever dick or flashing a silly rhyme. What I learned was how to embrace laying a bit more of myself on the line. Daring to fail. Not retreating into the safe place of humour – at least, not all the time.

Love in reverse started some time during that first week. It was baggy and long-winded. There were too many verses. It was prose split into lines: we’ve all seen that. Between the courses I tinkered with it, cut it, boiled it down a bit, then took it along to the second one.

In one of Carol Ann Duffy’s workshops, each of us put one of our poems anonymously into a hat, and drew out somebody else’s to read blind to the others. That was the first time I’d ever heard one of mine read out loud by somebody else. The atmosphere was supportive and critical: the best kind of group in which to learn. When Love in reverse had ended, the critiques had finished and I’d owned up to writing it, Carol Ann started a round of applause that seemed to go on for as long as it took my face to blush completely. Mortified though I was at the time, what I took away from that week was a conviction that sometimes, just sometimes, I can write something that other people like.

Of course, it was rearranged in the months after that, applying what I had learned. I sent it off, in bundles of other poems, to various literary magazines for the next couple of years, all of which – without exception – rejected it. Perhaps I should have put in my covering letter that Carol Ann Duffy loved it. But I’m too chicken to namedrop like that. Until now. I pulled it out recently when I saw Mslexia had their ‘affair’ theme. Tinkered a bit more, sent it off, and it was picked. Carol Ann is no longer the only other person on the planet to like it.

Here it is. It has a small swear. Don’t read if you’re offended by that.

Love in Reverse

If only one could love backwards
there would be so much to look forward to:

that final irritation a welcome slap,
a pleasure prepaid, the tinnitus

of affection’s decay. A sanguine smile
would know the shit yet to navigate.

It could take years before you reach
the open road. Landmarks are discussed

from miles back: recollections sharpen,
surface and balloon away. You fall silent.

You sweat, bite, burn; can’t sleep, won’t eat,
fuck until you don’t remember

what turns him on. You fret about commitment,
grow awkward, even shy. Details shine –

a finger brushing hair from your face,
the taste of wine – until a knot tightens

and your vertigo fractures. Then you share
one long look of perfect balance

which pulls you to a new magnetic north
and aims you gently at the far horizon

where you drop, vanishing for your journey
on the underside. With a quiet pop,

normality clears painlessly, without shadow,
like noon over ants. Here we stand

until next time, fresh with hope,
our memories only flickers in the dark.