Welcome to our Forward Prizes 2023 ‘How I Did It’ series. This year we asked the poets shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best Single Poem (Performed) to write about the inspiration behind some of their poems from the chosen collection. Here’s Michael Pedersen on what inspired him to write ‘The Cat Prince‘.
‘The Cat Prince’ came from a cognitive conga into my memories of boyhood — a ruminative safari into the liminal space between childhood and the adult realms (just a pounce) beyond. A realm it felt like I was resisting with every fresh, kiddy, unfurling my imagination could conjure.
More specifically, the poem sees us dive head-first into the bravado of masculinity — within it are some of the earliest signs I was failing at this ceremony. Failing to live up to expectations of a more stoic, mettled, fortified form of masculinity many of my peers were fast excelling at. The formulae having been thrust down upon them via parents, siblings or peers. The requirements: lip-biting through fears; masking trepidations & vulnerabilities; and dissolving shame in the pit of the belly without so much as a whimper. A mien that risks leaving our most gooey, gorgeous and tender selves locked behind the cage of our ribs.
As the poem attests, I wasn’t having any of it, yet as a result was humiliating myself left, right and centre / sacrificing friendships all over the shop. That was until I found my clan.
In sculping the poem, I cogitated the work of writers such as Ocean Vuong and Andrew McMillan who have deftly reclaimed the (so-called) misfitting facets of their masculinity and fashioned them into a new form of being male — for me, a supreme mode of maleness. This entailed reclaiming masculinity on their own terms, with the tenacity of knowing they survived the bumps, bruises, hurdles and, in some cases, horrors of the adolescent rollercoaster. Endurance, perseverance, pluck, and they come out singing.
I was also considering the levels of hyper-detail we can inhabit in our memories if we viscerally commit to remembering them as we felt them — rather than fact-checking the minutia or being constrained by the fragility of knowing we’re likely tapping into memories of ourselves remembering rather than the primary, or source, memory. That’s to say, underpinning the poem is a conviction to the memory as it hatches now — be it part-truth part-something-else: the mind’s reimagining or re-editing / a new flavour of fleshy fidelity.
The short four lines stanzas kept me grounded on what could have very easily become a more sprawling and raggedy piece. It helped me hone the story, nay the lore, of the poem down to a collection of key incidents. These incidents birthed a sort of storyboard to the narrative — the transitioning, the transmorphing, the risk, the recruitment, the chase, the fun, and the failure. Within them, a series of fast-fire present moments of immediate consequence.
As the poem mewls to a close, I was keen to do a couple of key things within the final few stanzas. Firstly, to introduce new characters into the equation, namely the mums — their reactions fracturing the fairy-tale, oneiric playfulness of the boys’ queer world.
Secondly, to quest beyond the intensity of the present moment into what ‘The Cat Prince’ meant in a bigger sense, temporally and timeously — how embodying the cat buoyed me up, empowered and enthralled me, made me feel ‘so much more’. Within this is a notion of acknowledging the then and now / busting beyond the present and coining a conclusion more lasting.
The poem ends (as right it should) in paean to the parents / keepers / guardians who safeguard young ones of the kookier stock; those sentimentally spilling out the edges and trying to find a fit before they lose their shape.
Ostensibly, the raison d’être for writing this poem is, of course, to send out an inky cat-signal to all the feline royals who fell by the wayside, or had their purrs curtly or prematurely silenced. May they resurface with whiskers whet.
The Cat Prince
I am the Cat Prince I declare,
already on all fours,already balls naked
in the house of Hastie, where’s there’s Adam
(Hastie), Daniel & me—the Cat Prince.
We’re boyhood budbursts, twelve years
of silly in us. Adam laughs frantic
gasps, guffaws, then pegs it
to his bedroom anticipating the chase.
Daniel, wavering between cat & laddie,
compañero & fugitive, succumbs
to the gnostic glamour—strips
for a full feline transformation.
Down to our little furs, little bloods,
ready to breenge past the chide
of absent classmates, who might well
hear of this and smite us with shame.
We are cuddle kings hankering
for Adam’s adulation—all moggy moxie
we embrace the cat life, vow
inurement to the side-effects:
carpet burns, wind-lashed pimpling;
the sacrifice of language in each
falsetto yowl. As hunters we’re tasked
by the Creator: our gaze
a crosshair; our pounce a ripple
of bravura. Who else so guilefully stalks
sunbeams? We’d do well here
—it’s those damn cats again
the neighbours would learn to yawp,
as I raced by with a robin redbreast
between my jaws & Daniel finished shitting
in their rhubarb patch. It’s convenient
not to think of the killer in us,
holding back our purr, assassin still.
As we coil our new cat bodies to a spring,
Adam clambers feart atop his bed.
What happens next is louder
than we hoped for. Adam’s mum, startled
by the cacophony, arrives then screams,
curtailing the playdate. Later that night,
she calls my mum concerned.
Though my mum never mentions this.
I can only assume she was wise to it
—the mythos, the hieroglyphs—fathomed
we’d soon meet the type of trouble
that could really shake boys down:
long days when the teeth tear it out of us
& the claws don’t stop coming.
But not yet I hear her whisper,
not without this moment’s orchestra
of feeling. As a boy I was whiskerless,
weighed down by the nest of knots
squat in my belly. As a cat,
I was so much more. Of course,
as mother to the Cat Prince,
she knew all this.
Find out more and purchase The Cat Prince & Other Poems here.
Michael Pedersen is a Scottish poet and author, and the newly appointed Writer in Residence at The University of Edinburgh. His acclaimed prose debut, Boy Friends, was published by Faber & Faber in 2022 and was a Sunday Times Critics Choice. He’s unfurled three collections of poetry, the most recent being The Cat Prince & Other Poems(Little Brown, July 2023) — the title poem of which is currently shortlisted for the Forward Prizes for Poetry: Best Single Poem (Performed). Pedersen has won a Robert Louis Stevenson Fellowship and the John Mather’s Trust Rising Star of Literature Award. His work has attracted praise from voices as diverse as: Stephen Fry, Kae Tempest, Irvine Welsh, Maggie Smith, Sara Pascoe, Shirley Manson and Jackie Kay.