Turning Memories Into Poetry

As I’ve said before, I didn’t have the happiest childhood. Among other things, I was subjected to that hand in the night we’ve all heard about. Writing poems about it isn’t easy but it is necessary. Otherwise, I’d still be stuck in the writer’s block I suffered for decades when I wouldn’t face my past.

Confessional poetry is not the style I would have chosen for myself. But having learned the hard way that self-censorship doesn’t work, I’ve also learned blurting doesn’t either. Memories have to be turned into good poems.

Here’s the first draft of one of them.

The Consolation of Birds

Stay with me as I work
this through, the curlew’s graze
the crow’s flight by the window while
I sit, a huddled mass of silenced
words. We are the unspoken, full
of complicated thoughts we could not
name. Birds flew by heavy
with colour, that was all
we knew. They had wings
and a beak and were free
on a wind we could not see.
Let loose upon that wind great
cries we could not hear. Glass
and other sadnesses blocked up
our ears. Our tongues
were too young for all
of it. Branches swayed without
our knowing what
they were. Our minds made
black holes in the earth
for our memories to crawl
into. If you cut them
still, they lived.

I wrote this poem a few months after receiving a really lovely rejection letter from Arc Poetry Magazine in October of 2008. The rejection letter included comments from three readers who all advised me to be less blatant with my memories, to learn how to allude to them, to trust the reader to follow me. They also, bless them, encouraged me to keep writing.

In the draft above, you can see that I have committed quite a few serious sins. I move from first person singular to plural without any explanation. In two lines, I manage to hammer home that it’s all about ‘silenced words’, ‘unspoken’, ‘complicated thoughts we could not name’. Rather a heavy-handed attempt to be less blatant. The poem goes downhill from there, to the point where I say the birds had wings and a beak. Sigh.

You’d have thought I would have thrown this draft out. But I loved how the poem opened. The poetry group that I belong to also loved it – they found it to be a very intimate invitation. So I set to work pruning.

First off, I took the poem back to a single point of view, first person singular. Then I changed the first bird. The yellow-breasted warbler allows me to subtly set up a couple of images in the reader’s mind. I also use the naming of the birds as a way of signalling the two different time frames in the poem.

A small change in the title plus the tightening of each line allows the images in the poem to speak without needing to spell anything out.

The Bewilderment of Birds

Stay with me as I work
this through, the yellow-breasted warbler
and the crow’s flight returning me
to when I was young. I looked
out on birds then too, soft
with colour or none. I knew
no names. Nor could I see
the wind they were free on
nor hear the cries
they made. Glass
and other sadnesses blocked
my ears. My tongue
was too small to speak.
Black holes in the earth
were where my memories
crawled. If you cut them
still they live.

PS: One of my namesakes in the world, Gillian Wallace, the former Deputy Attorney General for British Columbia, died in March. She was a lovely woman who cared about human rights and helped bring about freedom of information and other important legislation. You can read one of her obituaries here.



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