Monday, October 26, 2009

On writing yourself into a really stupid corner

You both may have noticed that I've been rewriting my Interminable Work (aka the Snowdrop Poem) over the past few weeks. This is one of my madder projects that's been going on (and off) for more years than I care to remember: a long poem about a girl called Snowdrop who stumbles into a magical world - much against her will - one Crimbo Eve and has many adventures with fairies, sprites and various lost souls, some of whom would quite like to see her sacrificed to continue the magic of the place and, incidently, bring about the birth of a new sun to replace the one that in the midst of its winter solstice death.

Anyways, one of the strange beasties that plays a role in the story is a huge tiger. Which is my first mistake because while the rest of the poem makes great use of English folklore, there's sod all folklore in England relating to tigers. Cats, yes; tigers, no.

What happened is this. Five years ago the folks over at PFFA held a reality-style contest to find the World's Next Great Superpoet. Thankfully I resisted the urge to enter the contest, but I did play along by trying out some of the weekly challenges - one of which was to write some long nonsense verse. Being a Lear-fanatic, I had no choice except to write some verse about a tiger:

Great Tiger she sits on her rocky throne
and thinks of her world in a rumbling drone:
"What wonders I see, when the moonlight shakes
and trees make a dance with the homesick drakes -
such artfulsome drakes to unblock the clouds,
such spindle-full trees to unwrap the shrouds
for Great Mallocka Tiger.

"My stripes are a kilter of tans and blacks,
my claws are a slaughter of iron in stacks
to cleave the sweet meat. I'm a belching maw!
I snarl at the bushes and sniff the spoor,
I startle the rats and the ruddy fox
and even mankind is afraid to box
the Great Mallocka Tiger."

Great Tiger, she says: "I can see a child.
He strides through the woods with a gait so wild,
with jaggering arms and a clenching face -
what troubles him so to invade my place?
I'll stalk him through bushes and pounce him down.
I'll paddle his body and crack his crown -
I'm Great Mallocka Tiger!"
... etc, etc, etc.

Not the greatest verse in the world, I'll admit, but I liked the result. So for reasons I can't quite remember I added the poem to the Interminable Work, getting another character (the Smuggler) to perform the song as part of the Queen's Fair on the hill overlooking the Romney Marshes.

Then somewhere along the road I decided to conflate the boy in the song with one of my key characters - the Tallyman. My second mistake was to mention in several different places that this Badass fella sat on a tiger's skin. I thought I could get away with this because the Tallyman is not of English stock - proved by the fact that he talks in ghazal couplets (lord help my bad decision-making skills - have either of you ever tried writing sodding ghazals?!?).

Except that whenever I look at the Mallocka song, five years later, I can see it for the crap that it is. It has to go.

Now my mistakes so far hadn't been fatal; it would've been reasonably simple to get the Smuggler to perform a different song, and rework those sections which mention that the Tallyman sits on a tiger skin so that he sits on something a little more, well, folkloreish - say the hide of a Welsh dragon, or a Dun Cow, or whatever. That way I wouldn't have to work out a way to embroider the alien tiger into the homely folklore of the poem. But before I got the chance to do this, I made my third mistake: I wrote a new section (a couple of years back, I think, in NaPoWriMo desparation) bringing the tiger back to life, and this time the lines made for some Good Verse ...

She walks the sods and the soils of the marsh,
each saucer paw padding the dirt
into oval dents. When ditches block
her path she leaps them, pitching her limbs
in a stretch across the stagnant waters -
an arch of blacks and oranges burst
through the robes of mist, disrupting geese
from sleep in the reeds. She sniffs at the earth,
whiskers herding the hardened stalks
of winter wheat in whorls and swirls,
touching, tasting the tangs of this world.

When she spots the dam, she stops mid-pace -
a frozen bronze: the sheep looks up,
cud on the tongue, twitch-ears sculling
for a hint of sound beside the expected
creaks and cracks of her cold-hugged home.

Slow, she shifts a splinter of an inch:
let slide the muscles, let slip the claws
through the clay clods and crouch, and settle
the tail, and wait. Watch for the duck
of a head, the scrape of hoof on ice ...

... and dash! A flash of fur striping
the field; a snarl, a flick of the paw
and they tumble down, a tussle of wool
and scat - the herd stampedes, their bleats
a billow of alarms alerting neighbours:

danger! Danger! Dogs on the loose!
Teeth on the throat! Tearing and ripping -
run to the gate; gather and huddle!

But she is no hound. She hauls the meat
back to the ditch, dips through the reeds
and into the water, etching a curl
of ripples from bank to bank as she paddles
her course to the sewer, and the sea beyond.
... not perfect, of course, it can do with a bit of buffing and stuff, but there's no way I'm going to ditch this section!

Which means that, like it or not, the tiger has to stay in the story.

Which means that somehow I've got to figure out a way to make the tiger's inclusion in the cast of characters ... work.

Which is why I'm standing in the corner of my metaphorical room, paintbrush in hand, wondering how the heck I'm going to get myself out of this mess. Because the next section up for revision is the Mallocka song.

Maybe some googling can help me out ...

1 comment:

  1. Your later tiger work almost strikes me as something that is a housecat dream of tigerness. What do you think of that?