As is Poetry School tradition, we’ve asked the five poets shortlisted for this year’s Forward Prize for Best First Collection to write about the process behind their award-nominated work. Over the weeks leading up to the award ceremony on 21st September, look out for ‘How I Did It’ articles from Nick Makoha, Richard Georges, Eric Langley and Ocean Vuong. But up first, it’s Maria Apichella discussing her book, Psalmody.
I shifted in my chair, scrutinizing the examiner’s pursed lips, his knitted brows. I was like a cat-watching terrier, expecting anything. Then he looked up from his scribbled notes, took off his glasses and asked: ‘Where did you get them?’
‘Get what, exactly?’
Was this the dreaded trick viva question? Was I about to fall down into the black hole of semantics that I had heard about from other PhD friends.
‘These surreal images. People as carrots blended into a soup, dreams like big purple grapes, picking friends like peaches in the market. Where did all that come from?’
We all know how spending prolonged time with others can influence us. Couples may unconsciously imitate each other’s mannerisms. Students sharing a house borrow each other’s clothes, slang, or develop similar eating habits. Well, our writing can become like what we read. Or at least that’s how it was with me.
During the formation of Psalmody, I read the poetic books of the Jewish Bible: Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Proverbs, but mostly the Psalms with all their visions, ritualistic blessings, barbaric curses and ecstatic worship. I absorbed the images of bodies running, being thirsty or sleepy. I relished the language of food; honey, milk and apples. I loved the vivid landscapes filled with rocks dissolving into streams of water and green pastures.
The Psalms are not ethereal in the way we may think of spiritual poetry today. The language is rooted in the human body. The voices call up to heaven as if to a neighbour on the next floor asking for help, saying hello.
The poet Robert Orr writes: ‘One of the perils of being human, and of lyric poetry, is narcissism, the solipsistic sense that the self is all there is’. However, this is not a problem in the Psalms. People living in ancient eastern cultures had no concept of the poet as a solitary figure, writing thoughts and feelings divorced from the greater community. Being part of a unit was more important than being an individual; yet the Psalmists poems are emotive, and they wrote in the first person. Using personal pronouns was sociological. It aimed to unify the group in praying and praising God during times of crisis, thanksgiving and seasonal festivals. The language expressed the complex experiences of Hebrews throughout the centuries, uttering visceral feelings. This is why they chose images and metaphors that assault the senses – the human body, food and landscape. They were intrinsic to their understanding of the world, self and God. I wanted to see if I could write like that.
When you are in Wordswoth’s ‘hot’ place of writing, images buzz like bees. You pluck at them, slapping them down on the page before they scatter. Later, you sit in silence, look at the mess and revise, tweak, develop or cut, hoping they will capture your emotions and led to some themes. As Dr. Johnson said, ‘No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money.’ I imagine the Psalmists wrote in the same way, for commission. It was real poetry to performed in public. But poetry only works if it tells a universal story. All the emotion, all these prayers and petitions in Psalmody needed a framework, or they would only make sense to me. The desire to be heard is endemic to my generation, so I cried out to be understood. Soon, I found I was writing about an atheist man and a religious woman trying to understand each other.
Psalmody focuses on a woman’s inner turmoil as she clashes with David, the ruddy skinned, guitar-playing squaddie whose atheism is an anathema to her. I show this by creating voices in dialogue. She talks to David and God, only it’s like overhearing one end of an intense phone call. Without hearing David or God, you catch the gist through tone of voice. The pauses and gaps are significant, accenting the responses. For example, Poem 12.
‘I’m a cartographer,’ he says.
‘Land reader, paper-pusher.
More than a recruit.
I’m like King David
the virile, weepy bard.
Didn’t he say it’s not good to be alone?
or was that Jehovah Jireh
whose grace is sufficient for thee?’
Psalmody contains contemporary speech from David and the female speaker struggling to communicate who they are. For example, in Poem 25, the speaker tries to describes herself.
From birth I was cast
upon God. I was born
hungry. I never had enough.
This is almost a direct quote from Psalm 71:6:
From my birth I have relied on you;
you brought me forth from my mother’s womb.
Poem 31 also borrows from the Psalms. I quoted Psalm 131:2 but replaced the word ‘soul’ with ‘mind’. The Psalm reads:
But I have stilled and quieted my
like a weaned child with its mother,
like a weaned child is my soul within
My poem reads:
Like a weaned child is my mind
Six-o clock again I thank you
for the butternut
we share from a flask
on the bench.
After the archaic first two lines, the phrasing becomes modern and matter-of-fact; although the phrase “I thank you” fits naturally into both registers, providing a link between them.
Another example is in Poem 29. The speaker reflects on her father, an artist, but his style is so much more vivid or ‘obnoxious’ in comparison to the chic style of David’s mother. She realizes she’s more like her father, who ‘sees rocks as springs’. This image comes from Psalm 114:7-8:
Tremble, O earth, at the presence of the Lord,
at the presence of the God of Jacob,
who turns the rock into a pool,
the hard rock into springs of water.
The image of rocks melting at the presence of God is symbolic of the otherworldliness of faith. It is a powerful image: rocks being transformed into water, a classic metaphor for blessing as water is the stuff of life. The speaker is reminded that she has been brought up to believe that faith is dynamic.
My father paints but they’re obnoxious; vast
canvases, too big for walls, they spread
red haze, rock-blue,
granite lipped. I am like him,
seeing rocks as springs.
The mountains dissolving
into red, white, pink wine set at our table.
We drink all to the dregs and gravel.
Several times in the Psalms, the poets used the image of inner struggle being like falling over. For example, Psalm 94:18 reads:
When I said, “My foot is slipping”,
your love, O Lord, supported me.
Poem 74 reads:
My foot would have slipped but the Rescuer
was already there, and knew the whole boring story.
He caught me
like a scent,
Poem 82 also draws on several Psalms in rhythm and content. The speaker quotes Psalm 73:13:
Surely in vain I have kept my heart pure
and have washed my hands in innocence.
My poem reads:
I have tried to keep pure.
Washed my face in the milky-
morning light that pours each morning
to the floor of my days. (Poem 133)
As a product of the 21st Century, I read some lyric poetry as private words, addressed in public. But like the ancient Hebrews, I seek to write for the generation to which I belong about letting God know how I feel.
So, where do my images come from? As I have suggested, they come from a collection far older, far richer and far better than simply my own experiences. Yet, I also drew on my own subjectivity, fusing ancient and modern.
What has been
will be again,
what has been done
will be done again;
there is nothing new
under the sun.
 Robert Orr, ‘One Whole Voice: What is the Difference between a Poem and a Prayer?’, Poetry Foundation, 1 February 2012 <http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/article/243400> [accessed 28/09/14], (para 4 of 9).
Sigmund Mowinckel, The Psalms in Israel’s Worship, trans. by D.R. Ap-Thomas, [Volumes I & II] (Oxford: Basil Blackwell Publisher Limited, 1962), II, p. 1. p. 27.
Maria Apichella writes poetry and memoir. ‘Psalmody’ (Eyewear) is shortlisted for the Forward First Collection Prize. ‘Paga’ won the Cinnamon Press Pamphlet Competition. Follow her blog at mariaapichella.com