CK Williams

The slush pile

At the moment, I find myself in that strange neutral space “between projects”. It seems that I hardly ever write the odd stand-alone poem anymore; these days my poems are part of a larger scheme, a sequence or a collaboration. I have found that manner of working keeps me lively; there is always something on the go. Until there isn’t, of course. Two collaborations have just come to an end, and nothing has fired my imagination to start something new. It is in times like this that I turn to my “slush pile”, the place I have dumped poems that have never really come to anything; abandoned drafts, failed attempts, false starts. I never bin any of my drafts, and so, by necessity, the “slush pile” folder is thick (there is a similar electronic version of this, perhaps more charitably called “misc poems”). I know that most writers have an equivalent folder lurking somewhere, usually under a similar name. A poet friend (who is perhaps greener than I am) calls hers “the compost heap” (although most of the stuff she digs out is wonderful – nothing like the garbage I’ve hidden away in mine – so the name is apt, as great poems grow in it). I am always telling my students never to throw anything away, and so I ought to set a good example.

The slush pile also acts as a stroll down memory lane. I used to assiduously date my drafts (a habit that I have fallen out of and really must adopt again), and so a trawl through the slush archive is also a way of recalling how I felt and what I wrote about it in a previous period in my life. Inevitably, some things make me cringe, and I have to fight the desire to chuck away drafts that represent my younger, more self-conscious, self-indulgent self. But occasionally, I find a way of completing a thought, of seeing the end of a journey I started some years ago. Time is a great thing, especially in the germination of a poem. CK Williams once gave a talk on the drafting process where he revealed that many of his poems go through a couple of hundred drafts, and that there was one he’d been working on for twenty-five years which still wasn’t finished (that was five years ago now – I wonder if he’s still working on it?). My record is nine years, for a poem called The Saints: . I had the first couple of stanzas from the first draft or so, and could never find a way to move on from them. The next two came a few years after that. I can’t remember how I eventually came up with the final two stanzas – it may have been something as simple as sitting on the bus (which would tally with the image) and suddenly having a eureka moment. I carried that poem in my head for years, knowing somehow I would find a way of finishing what I’d started.

This is a poem from the last collection, retrieved from the slush pile. I must have started it in the late eighties, so I hadn’t been living in London for very long. It is a poem about foreignness, of the romantic version of London that tourists have, and how that view shifts once you become a resident. I haven’t changed much by way of sentiment, but the older poet in me has learned to trim excess, and so the poem is leaner, more streamlined than its younger cousin. The poem has always started with that opening image of workmen unearthing the ancient layers of the city; a phenomenon that fascinated me when I first moved here, and has never ceased to fascinate me. When I first arrived here, you could buy postcards of women’s breasts with beady eyes drawn over the nipples and whiskers, like little mice, and ‘Welcome to London’ beneath; they halted me in my tracks the first time I saw them, but if they are still around I haven’t noticed. A lot of the references are lost to me now, but I do remember the genus of one image: I was in Chelsea, near the river, one afternoon in the summer, and a film crew were shooting a scene that called for rain. It wasn’t raining, so they brought in these huge machines with hoses on the end, and created a weird localised downpour (hence, “drenched in their own storm”). The city was still a place of surreal mystery to me then; I have a very different view of it now, all these years later. Revisiting the poem made me see London anew.

Wish you were

Men are tearing up the pavement.
They unearth Roman bones, sometimes treasure,

sometimes just the dirt
on which all of this is built.

We pick our way through debris. I show you scars,
bombsites and brownfields.

You buy a postcard of boobs
disguised as cartoon mice, send it to yourself;

you were never sentimental.
You stare at skinny girls, with their mascara

and period clothes, their chignons swept into nets,
drenched in their own storm.

I know how they feel. You want to see
Cockneys, a coat of whitewash.

You have monuments of your own.