Sahel

Tall man beneath a straightabove sun
makes his own shade with a blanket
and a stick and folds himself inside
to eat a few old dates, close his eyes,
not think about the afternoon ahead.

Young woman beneath a water jar
sways past, stops, returns and fills
an old tin cup with no drop spilled,
exchanges it for a smile, refuses a date,
melts away into the haze and dust.

Tall man dreams he's a tree, with legs
that curl deepdeep down into the cool,
with arms that reach out and out
across the sand, and no dust in those
breezy fingers through his hair.

Young woman returns, coils herself
around around around his trunk,
reaches upupup with her cupcupcup
and each sip is like the first rain
of the season, over and over and over.

Tall man is slow to wake, and hot,
but the afternoon, now not so bad.

Something new this time out – so new, in fact, that it’s almost the last thing I had published. You can read it in a slightly more unfinished version on Visual Verse.

Visual Verse is a great site, and one of the reasons the start of the month is such a productive time for my writing. I look forward to each prompt and worry every month that this time I’ll not be able to come up with any ideas, or will create something I don’t like, but every month I give it a go, and at the end of my hour I have something I’m prepared to submit. Almost every month.

But there is a downside to it as well, which is that there’s never enough time to polish, and what gets submitted is almost never the finished version. In one sense this doesn’t matter, because I can keep working on it while I’m waiting to see if it’s been accepted, and if it isn’t accepted, then it’s mine to do with as I want. But when my poems are accepted (as this one was) then I have a problem. Do I leave it in a state that was good enough to get it published, or do I keep working at it to make it even better? If the difference is just a couple of words, or the placement of a comma, then it doesn’t really matter either way, but what about if I want to completely rewrite it? Should I? Will I not just be making it worse?

The reason I’m telling you all this is because this week’s poem was very much one of the ones that I’m still in two minds about. So much so, in fact, that I have a completely different version of it that I’ll get to in a little while, so you can decide which you think is the better one.

But on to the poem as it was submitted…

For those who don’t know, with Visual Verse you get an hour to study an image, come up with the idea for a poem (or short story), write somewhere between 50 and 500 words, edit it, and then submit. It’s a lot to do in an hour, so before I settle down to begin I make sure I’m in the right frame of mind for writing. Otherwise I can easily find I’ve been staring at the image for twenty minutes without having any idea what I want to say, and then even if an idea does come to me, I’m just churning out rubbish for half an hour and by the time it comes to submitting, I’m not even sure I want to.

This one was a bit like that, at least when I first looked at the image. Nothing came immediately to mind. You don’t have to write about the image, simply use it as a starting point, but I’ve generally found that I end up writing something directly related to what I can see, and here there was nothing I could think of that made sense – it was a figure sitting cross-legged and watering some tiny shoots growing out of its head. (Click on the link earlier in the text if you didn’t bother and you can see it for yourselves).

After ten minutes or so I was still fishing around for anything that might kick-start the ideas process and I remembered something I had been reading a few days previously about the Great Green Wall of Africa – planting trees in order to try and prevent the further desertification of north Africa. There, that was an idea and it would have to do. So there then followed ten more hurried minutes of looking stuff up on Google – particularly photos – to give me some idea of the setting for what I would write. Feeling that I needed to get something down on paper, I then began to write.

At first it was just describing the scene I imagined in my head. A young man who has been working all morning in the heat of the semi-desert stops for a much-needed lunch break and tries to find some bit of shade where he can have a quick nap. At first I placed him beneath one of the newly-planted trees, before realising they would be too small to offer any shade, so instead I imagined him sitting against a brick wall and making his own shade. And the point was, he would sleep and dream he was a tree – which would tie in nicely with the shoots growing out of the person’s head in the prompt image.

So I wrote the first stanza. I didn’t have the time to spend on any sort of careful rhyme scheme, so I just wrote the description of what I could see in my mind, split up the sentences so that the lines were about the same length as each other and had a think about what I had come up with.

But I needed more than that. I needed at least one more character, so that there could be some interaction, possibly conversation, so that the poem was not simply a long description. That’s when I imagined the young woman walking past with her water. The man calls out to her, asking for a drink, but in a playful, possibly even flirtatious way.

That didn’t work. The man had ended the first stanza by closing his eyes, so maybe it was the woman who spoke to him. Why would she speak to him? Because she can see he’s hot and thirsty and would appreciate a drink. She feels sorry for him. I tried a couple of different short dialogues, but they were taking up too much space and not really adding anything to the poem, and in the end I decided the scene played out perfectly well without dialogue anyway.

By now I had the basis for some structure. The first stanza was five lines long, so I cut down the second until it, too, was five lines. And I also made the first lines mirror each other as an added link.

Then I moved on to the point of the poem, which was the dream. At first I wanted the man to dream he was in the shade of some beautiful big tree, but then it seemed to make more sense if he was actually the tree himself. And because he has been so affected by the woman’s kindness, he dreams about her as well. So she comes back in the fourth stanza – again, proving some balance in terms of structure.

But now that he’s a tree, she has to be something different as well. As I was starting to run low on time, I went with my first idea, which was that she was some type of serpent – not a sinister one, as in the Garden of Eden story, but a nice one. I just liked the image of her coiling herself around the trunk of the tree, round and round, and reaching up to give him the drink of water as she had in real life. That was really all I was thinking, but some of the feedback I received suggested there was something definitely sexual about the imagery, and actually, having thought about it, I was happy to leave it there as a possibility, even though I hadn’t meant it to be that in the first place.

And then I just needed something to round off the whole thing. Obviously the man has to wake up and in some way compare his dream to his real life experience, but I didn’t want to end the poem negatively, so rather than have him wake up and regret the dream ending, he could wake up and keep the wonderful memory of the dream with him, thereby making his afternoon’s work so much more bearable.

So that was the poem, finished within the hour and with a few minutes spare for the briefest of edits. There wasn’t much I wasn’t happy with, but I did feel it lacked anything that made it stand out. So I decided to spice up some of the description by joining the words together, to make the poem seem more relaxed and playful. ‘Straightabove’, in line 1 was an easy first choice as it was almost there anyway. Line 12 was originally, ‘that curl deep, deep into the cool soil,’ but that sounded a bit too formal and I really liked the look, as well as the sound, of ‘deepdeep’ instead.

Line 18: ‘reaches upupup with her cupcupcup’ almost didn’t make it in at all. It was originally, ‘reaches carefully up with her tin cup’, but the rhyme of ‘up’ and ‘cup’ kept nagging at me, as did the rhythm of the line which seems to want an extra word added before ‘tin’ – ‘reaches carefully up with her big tin cup’, or something like that, but that just made it seem too comical, rather than playful. I came up with the idea of tripling the words, decided I liked it and decided it was too bad if no one else did.

And then of course, as always, a last-minute scrabble around for a title. And this one really was last-minute, so I settled on Sahel – not because it has any real connection with the poem, but just because it would be a very shorthand way of setting the scene, and because it sounded exotic.

I have made two subsequent changes to the published version. The first is to change ‘breeze’ to ‘breezy’ in line 15. I just prefer it, and it also adds another syllable, which I think helps the two lines flow better. And I’ve added an extra ‘and over’ at the end of line 20, mostly for the same reasons.

Now, that’s all well and good. I have a new poem and it’s been published. But in discussion with my writing group, something came up that I’m going to talk about here, and there’s sort of two points in one.

I’m not north African and I’ve never lived in the Sahel. So the question is, should I really be writing poems like this? Obviously, in one sense, anybody can write about anything they want, but in circumstances like these that terrible phrase, cultural appropriation rears its ugly head and perhaps needs to be considered. Personally, I don’t believe that dipping into a culture – or life, or experience, or anything else for that matter – that is not my own is appropriation. I call it imagination, or empathy, and it’s what writers should be doing. Yes, you need to be careful when you do it, because you may well be writing about things you don’t fully understand, but I don’t think that necessarily means you shouldn’t give it a go. In fact, isn’t that the whole point? I hope so, because if I can never put myself in anyone else’s shoes, my writing is going to become incredibly one-dimensional and involve an awful lot of middle-aged white men and not much else.

But here’s the second part of the issue. Whether or not I feel I can write about anything I want, no matter how exotic, perhaps the end result would be better if I stuck to things that were closer to home. One comment about Sahel – which came from someone who has read a fair bit of my poetry – was that it didn’t really fit with most of my other poems and so might struggle to find a suitable home in a collection. Why had I chosen to write about an African man in a distant country when the poem could just as easily have been based in Cambridge and used local people as its characters?

Good point. The answer is partly that the poem was based on an image, and the image made me think of Africa, but that’s certainly not the whole answer. To be honest, I’m not sure I know what the whole answer actually is.

But it was still a good question, and also something of a challenge. Why not see if I could write the same poem but set it slightly closer to home. Obviously some things would have to change, but the interaction between the two characters and the subsequent dream was the core of the poem, and it should be possible to recreate that in a different environment…

Doorway

Pavement man beneath a straightdown rain
makes his own shelter with cardboard
and a stick and folds himself inside
to smoke a roll-up, close his eyes,
not think about the afternoon ahead.

Young woman beneath a red umbrella
steps purposefully past, pauses, returns,
sets down her just-bought coffee,
exchanges it for a smile, refuses a smoke,
soaks back into the crowd and the rain.

Pavement man dreams he's a tree, with legs
that curl deepdeep down into the heat,
with arms that reach out and out
across the city, and no chill in those
breezy fingers through his hair.

Young woman returns, coils herself
around around around his trunk,
reaches upupup with her cupcupcup
and each sip is like the first sun of Spring,
over and over and over.

Pavement man is slow to wake, and cold,
but the afternoon, now not so bad.

Honestly, I’m not convinced. I think the change of scene works well enough, and I like the idea of the pavement man, hidden away beneath some spare cardboard in some narrow doorway, trying to keep himself dry while he has a smoke. It’s a good image, and in many ways it works better than the original.

The switch from hot to cold, from sun to rain, also works okay. Also, the young woman worked really well – she had to be beneath something, to relate back to the opening line, and an umbrella was the obvious choice. And the cup of coffee was perfect, as I needed to warm up my pavement man, not cool him down. But I didn’t want her swaying past – that seemed completely out of place – and it took me a while before I settled on ‘steps purposefully past’, which I think does the job but is not as elegant as it could be.

The dream was much more of a problem. There didn’t really seem to be any reason why the man would dream of being a tree and it felt very out of place in a city centre. But what else could he become? A building? That was a possibility, but I really liked the images of his legs curling down into the ground and his arms stretching out to either side. His basement pushing down and his balconies stretching out was a terrible alternative.

And then there’s the whole sexual undertones thing. Well, it’s his dream and he’s entitled to dream what he wants, but somehow the slight magical realism element seems to work much better in sub-Saharan Africa than it does in the streets of Cambridge. And to be honest, the entire fourth stanza now seems awkward and out of place. It’s too tied in with nature to fit the new setting, I feel.

And the playful use of double words and the ‘upupup with her cupcupcup’ don’t really seem to fit either. These, and all the natural imagery, were a result of the decision to base it in Africa. For Cambridge, it feels like I need something more concrete, more down-to-Earth and less magical. Maybe it’s still possible, but for now it feels like the more I change it, the more I’m losing what made the original so much fun to write and what made it (presumably) good enough to publish.

Having said all that, the exercise of rewriting the poem and moving it much closer to home was a great challenge and not something I’ve tried before. It wasn’t an unqualified success, but it was certainly worth the effort and I’m really glad I gave it a go. If nothing else, I now have two poems for the price of one.