Welcome to our Forward Prizes 2023 ‘How I Did It’ series. This year we asked the poets shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best Collection to write about the inspiration behind some of their poems from the chosen collection. Here’s Elisabeth Sennitt Clough on what inspired her to write My Name is Abilene.
My Name is Abilene was written during 2020–2022. For many people, this was an unsettling, anxiety-inducing and surreal time. Restrictions in social movement meant that I leant heavily into writing poetry as a way of creating an escape. For instance, I’d always wanted to experiment with the idea of persona since studying John Berryman during my MFA. I entered my full name (first, middle, and surnames) into an anagram maker and one of the phrases it gave me was ‘Abilene Fluorescent nightclothes’. I challenged myself to write a poem from that prompt and the title poem of the collection was the result. I stepped into the persona of Abilene, and she became an imaginative extension of my life and personality.
Just as Abilene became a situational vehicle for me, the sequences in the collection became situational vehicles for Abilene’s feelings of betrayal, heartbreak and pain to be worked through. I decided to sequence many of the poems with a gentle break (a fleuron). Flowers are an integral part of Abilene. They represent that which is delicate, but can also harm (e.g., foxgloves and deadly nightshade – to which the potato is related). It was this dualism that fascinated me, as it corresponded to the contrasts within the character Abilene.
the autumn i turn sixteen
i riddle maris pipers for 2.50 p/h cavort cavort
at the end of the row i’m the tail
on a spine of older women
who share their wisdom cavort cavort
don’t spread manure on potato land
planting during moonlight will scupper a crop cavort cavort
even after harvest potatoes live on
heat and moisture cause them to shoot cavort cavort
this season my belly prickles with love
i’ve found inside the spinney cavort cavort
all day the belt tumbles along
its dirt settles in my pores cavort cavort
one day you’re a child
the next you’re carrying one
the split and blotchy potatoes
i toss from the conveyor cavort cavort
land with a half-hearted thud
Yet, flowers also speak to the John character. There was an image in my mind early on in the development of the book that I kept returning to – a lone rain-drenched rose in a neglected garden. That image came to symbolise so much in terms of what’s going on in the collection – the fragility and external attractiveness of a rose, but one concealing pathogens and parasites nestling between its petals. This is a metaphor for the John character’s narcissism, as well as Abilene’s thorny instability.
The following poem emerged from my subconscious one evening as the sun was setting. Toothed shadows appeared on the wall that seemed to resemble Venus fly-traps:
at night the savage plants sing
good bluesy karaoke
songs in which i could lose my way
then find myself otherwise
in the america of my imagination
it could all end there
the plants, their songs and my hunger
for a recycled emotional experience
but a moth zapped by a café light box
animates their prickly lips
o leaf-miner, o fevered-away dear
the end should never be a kick of neon
trailed by a chorus of dust
my venuses know the world
needs to caress its prey first
embrace it in cilia-coated lobes
filled with nectar
there have to be stages
before an exoskeleton is snapped
its good marrow siphoned away
From the initial poetic sequence, ‘The Box of Maternal Recall’, inter-generational trauma is explored throughout My Name is Abilene, mostly inspired by my own experiences and those of my mother and grandmother. My custom of using fleurons and minimal punctuation throughout – for example, removing the grand gesture of a capital letter to enter a poem and the finality of a full stop – was intended to complement the idea of trauma as an ever-present, unregulated entity. Many of the lines in ‘The Box of Maternal Recall’ were intended to have an instructive/aphoristic quality to them, as if being passed down by a maternal figure: ‘sistren, though you may hate your life / you put your hands and feet inside the ride’.
The final poem in the collection, ‘Your Receipt’, is a nod back to that box encountered at the beginning, except the recipient is no longer the next generation daughter, but the character John. The final lines state to him: ‘Please retain for future reference. Thank you.’
Find out more and purchase My Name is Abilene here.
Elisabeth Sennitt Clough is the author of Glass (Saboteur Best Pamphlet Award), Sightings (Michael Schmidt Award), At or Below Sea Level (PBS Recommendation), The Cold Store and my name is abilene (Forward Prize Best Collection shortlist). Elisabeth is an alumna of the Arvon/Jerwood Mentorship scheme 2016, mentored by Mona Arshi, Toast Poets 2017 and Uni Slam 2019. She was also a Ledbury Emerging Poet 2017. Elisabeth was also part of the Faber Poetry Academy, under mentors Daljit Nagra and Rachael Allen in 2020/21. Her poems appear in Poem, The Forward Book of Poetry 2018, 2023, The Rialto, Mslexia, Wasafiri, Magma, The Cannon’s Mouth, Ambiti, Ink, Sweat & Tears and Stand among others. Elisabeth is editor of the Fenland Poetry Journal.