Snow was falling and
the lake already ice.
After finding nothing by the bridge
we spotted a cabin, far to the north.
That looks like it, Kogvik said.
We kept close to the river
and worked our way up…
Crozier was on the floor
in the main room,
his back crushed,
a large piece of wood
sticking out of his belly.
A brutal death.
We found Victoria in the storage room,
swaying at the end of a long, heavy rope,
more than a week dead.
A scrawled note, found on the floor,
told of hunger and of frostbite,
and the terror of a long death.
We spent the day
quietly examining the evidence,
gathering images of the cabin,
of the scattered artefacts,
and of the dead.
We slept amid the spirits
and in the morning we headed south,
A dark and sombre piece this week, but one with a very interesting history, so I thought it would be worth sharing. It’s a found poem I wrote about three years ago, although for most of those three years I thought of it as a piece of flash fiction rather than a poem. In fact, it still exists as a flash fiction and can be found in the collection, First Light at Smidgen’s Harbour, which you can read on wattpad.
For the past six years I have been a member of the Angles Writing Group in Cambridge. I’ll talk more about the group at some point in the future, but it was at one of our meetings that we were given an article from The Guardian and asked to use it as the basis for creating a piece of found writing. Do read the article. It’s not very long and is fascinating in its own right, but it will also help to understand the process of creating a found work.
There is no definitive way to write a found poem and different people treat the exercise in very different ways. Some people will cut out words and phrases they like and rearrange them to create something entirely new, others will insist on keeping the text in its original form but create something new by blocking out large sections of it until a new message emerges. Found poems can be no more than a few words or, through the use of repetition, they can be even longer than the original text. Pretty much anything goes.
Having read the article and thought about it for a while, the first thing that struck me was how little emotion there was in it. There were facts and figures, some interesting history, some great images and even a reasonably colourful cast of characters, but getting those characters to actually express themselves in any way was going to be a tough job.
Also, another thing that occurred to me was that pretty much the entire article was written in the past tense, so this was going to affect the way I could develop the poem’s ‘voice’. And this, combined with the information-heavy nature of the article, led to the first draft of the poem being somewhat fact – and specifically number – based.
Far to the north,
129 men died.
60 miles south of where
the ship was crushed by ice.
24 metres down, the wreck,
in perfect condition.
25 April, 1848.
A scrawled note:
stuck in sea ice,
abandoned three says earlier,
start tomorrow, south to safety.
None made it.
What I was trying to achieve here was to create a contrast between the hard facts, as represented by the numbers, and the more personal tragedy of the death of the crew members. Also, I wanted to split the poem up into different blocks of time (History, Now, 25 April, 1848) so that the abandoning of the ship, the death of the crew and the recent discovery of the wreck would all run alongside each other and then come together at the end. But I wasn’t able to manage it. There just didn’t seem to be the right words available in the original text. And at the same time, there were some fantastic phrases I wanted to use but which didn’t seem to fit into the structure I’d created.
So I put this version to one side and went back to the article. This time, I pulled out every sentence, phrase or single word that I liked the sound of, and looked to see if they could be made into something cohesive.
At this point I had a revelation. Even though the article told a particular story, that didn’t mean a poem created from it had to tell the same story. This may seem kind of obvious, but during the time we spent on the exercise I’d been focussing on what the article was talking about and trying to find a way of retelling that story in a more poetic way. But what I came to realise was that the words and phrases I’d picked out were pointing me towards a very different story.
So I began again.
After finding nothing
in an early morning search,
we spotted two wine bottles on the floor,
a long, heavy rope
running through a hole in the bed
and something in the back corner of the drawer –
a scrawled note, concealed.
Suddenly I felt as if the word discovery was the most important word in the whole article. This was what I wanted to write about – the moment of discovery. But it didn’t have to be the discovery of a shipwreck. I liked the idea of discovering a crime scene, and there were helpful phrases I wanted to use such as a brutal death, encased in ice, at the bottom of an open well and in a desperate attempt to escape. In fact, I decided there were too many of them, and unless I wanted to create something truly gruesome, I probably wouldn’t be able to use them all.
And I still had the problem of fitting them all together. In terms of the story I wanted to tell, the original article was jumping all over the place, so I took the decision to chop and change the available phrases as necessary. As long as I stuck to words that actually appeared in the article, I could use them in whatever order I wanted.
Several individual words were incredibly helpful. Having decided not to use the ship as my location, I needed somewhere as the location for my crime scene, and the word cabin proved to be the perfect choice. So the ship’s cabin became a cabin in the woods, and although the word woods wasn’t itself available, I was able to create the idea that we were definitely on land by using the reference to a river, and by the very fortunate inclusion of the word bridge.
When it came to characters, I quickly realised I would need more than one narrator as there isn’t a single use of the word I in the entire article. We, however, is used several times, so I decided to make the narrator part of a search party and only ever refer to them in the plural. As for the bodies, there were plenty of names to choose from, as well as a reference to a dead man, which was convenient. I decided to go with only two bodies in the end, and having imagined them both to be something like trappers or adventurers of some sort, it occurred to me that I could make one of them a woman, thanks to the fortunate inclusion of a reference to Victoria Strait in the original article. Also, the tradition of referring to ships as she gave me access to the word her, though in the end I found I didn’t need it.
At this point the poem was in a fairly finished form. I had a setting I was pleased with, a detailed crime scene, even a slight sense of mystery. I decided I didn’t need a full explanation of what had happened as the poem is about the discovery, not the events leading up to it, but I did need some sort of resolution. So I expanded the idea of a discovery to include an investigation as well, and then, very pleasingly, I was able to make the final word of the poem the same as that in the article: home.
I don’t often write found poems. Although I can accept that the process does make the final product my own, it still feels like a bit of a shared endeavour and I have a problem with how to explain that to the reader. Adding (a found poem) as a subhead is one possibility, but that doesn’t really give any explanation as to the level of reworking that was involved. Also, it doesn’t give any reference to the original source, so I’m not sure what the point of it would be. Another option is to add a postscript with more detail – perhaps even a reference to the source – but that can get very complicated. In this case, for example, the postscript might read,
A found poem, taken from an article in The Guardian newspaper by Paul Watson entitled: Ship found in Arctic 168 years after doomed Northwest Passage attempt (12 September 2016).
which is almost long enough to be used as a found poem in its own right, and certainly long enough to wipe away any sense of emotion left over from reading the actual poem.
But on the plus side, the challenge of writing something using words you haven’t chosen for yourself can be an excellent way to get a fresh perspective on your own work and allow you, perhaps, to create something a little bit unusual. In this case, the subject matter was certainly not something I’d ever considered writing about, and the sense of stillness and lack of emotion is something I don’t always see in my poetry, and something I doubt would have been there had I chosen my own words.
And one final point. Although the poem and the prose version are almost identical, I do feel it works better as a poem. Possibly this is just me – I feel more comfortable writing poetry and I don’t think I’ve successfully come to grips with the flash format yet – but I would be interested to know what you think.