I don’t really know why I decided to write about ninjas–I knew about them in a general pop-culture way, like most people, but I hadn’t read up about or studied them in particular. I liked the fact that, as a subject, they were non-realistic, not part of everyday life.
I also thought it would be funny to write a poem about ninjas–you don’t expect to find them in the ‘serious’ world of poetry. I deliberately didn’t do any research on them when I was writing the poem, as I didn’t want to be influenced by external information; this was something of a departure for me, as I usually find research inspiring (or at least helpful when I get stuck partway through a poem I’m working on, which happens often).
Before starting ‘On Ninjas’ I’d written (at intervals) two poems called ‘The Birds’ and ‘The Robots’, in a kind of made-up form–every line in the poems was exactly a sentence long, with the lines grouped into quatrains. Both of the poems were in the third person; most of the lines began repetitively with the word ‘They’. All of these things were the opposite of what I usually did in poems, so they seemed like fun experiments at the time, a novelty. I’d also never had any kind of pattern or template for how to write a poem before, so it was exciting to have something to fall back on when I was feeling otherwise uninspired.
Ever since developing repetitive strain injury about fifteen years ago, I’ve had to draft everything in longhand; before that I’d always written straight onto the computer and liked it. The only good thing about writing by hand (apart from not having to carry a laptop everywhere) is that I can look back at the drafts and see how lame some of my original thoughts were. This page is the first draft of ‘On Ninjas’:
In the third line I was trying to describe the ninjas levitating, but ended up dropping it for the moment. I tried it again in the fifth line (‘They levitate by thinking about a bird’s wing folding’), but again decided to put it aside; on the next draft (below), the line is relegated to the bottom of the page, for possible use later.
You can see that the levitation line finally found a home (in a somewhat different form) in the third stanza, third line, as ‘They know how to levitate by thinking about birds’ feet’. I felt that birds’ feet were less obvious than the original image, ‘a bird’s wing folding’ (which had been inspired by origami cranes).
On the right-hand side of the page I was jotting down various words that came to mind as I was writing that day, a kind of word bank (or word hoard, to take a Seamus Heaney phrase out of context) to be drawn on as needed. In this draft, I was able to incorporate the words ‘preternaturally’ and ‘mission’; the words ‘mastery’ and ‘ruthless’ didn’t make it into the poem until a couple of days later. These lists or notes to myself are really helpful when I’m in the midst of drafting a poem, as I don’t usually do any free writing or brainstorming beforehand; the notes let me keep track of fresh thoughts that spring up while I’m working on another part of the poem.
This is a later draft, where I was flailing around trying to write the poem’s last stanza–lots of false starts and stray thoughts that didn’t pan out. I was aware (probably too much so) that this would be the last stanza of the poem, as I was running out of things to say about ninjas. Like a lot of people, I struggle massively with endings; it often takes me as long to think of a satisfactory last line as it does to write the whole rest of the poem. I’m always having to fight the impulse of wanting to produce a resounding, ‘perfect’ ending–of course I do want to come up with one, but the self-consciousness of trying to do so generally leads to bad, flat, or overblown writing. So my method is pretty much: Throw everything against the wall and see what sticks.
This is the next day’s draft, still full of loose ends (or indeed, dead ends). One of the new lines I devised, ‘They can change places with each other by thinking about numbers’, later ended up replacing the weak first line of the fourth stanza (‘They can throw paper in formation to cover their tracks’). So at least I got something out of the day’s work.
After a number of further drafts, I ended up with the final version of the poem:
They eat four-cheese pizzas with three of the cheeses removed¹.
They make friendship bracelets out of aluminium foil and poison.
They open windows just by thinking about opening windows.
They take ballet lessons to improve the speed of their circular arm movements.
The ninjas are coming, coming to save us from muggers²
And disorganised thieves and slobs who want to kill us.
The way to spot a ninja is to look for someone wearing black pyjamas—
Preternaturally neat black pyjamas— with a hood for cover.
The way to tell one ninja from another is by the ankles.
The way to tell one ninja from another is you can’t³.
They know how to levitate by thinking about birds’ feet.
They make terrible cater waiters4 because no-one can hear them coming.
Their mission is to save us from chaos with their acute tumbling skills5
And their climbing proficiency. They don’t want to dismember
Bad jazz musicians or art teachers or con men, but they will.
They know how to escape from a trap by running in place very, very fast.
They can change places with each other by thinking about numbers.
They turn themselves into fog to get out of attending boring parties.
They make single-serving Lancashire hotpots6 to show their culinary mastery.
They take turns doing the laundry. (It’s easy: no whites or colours7.)
The ninjas are here to help us. They are as ruthless as history
Or defenestration. They are pitiless as a swarm of bees, or evolution.
They know how to throw fireballs and do their own taxes.
They hate litter and small children8. They are here to fix9 us.
1 – ‘They eat four-cheese pizzas with three of the cheeses removed’ – I figured this would be the ultimate example of an impossible skill, as no one can remove three kinds of cheese (or two, or one) once four cheeses have been melted together on top of a pizza. In the back of my mind I think I was influenced by the description of entropy and time’s arrow in Tom Stoppard’s play Arcadia, where the character Thomasina says: ‘When you stir your rice pudding, . . . the spoonful of jam spreads itself round making red trails. . . But if you stir backward, the jam will not come together again’. This line in the poem also can be read as a kind of joke, since a four-cheese pizza with three of the cheeses withheld would just be a Margherita, nothing special or exotic at all.
2 – ‘The ninjas are coming, coming to save us from muggers’ – At this point I wanted to break up the pattern established in the first four lines of the poem, which all began with the word ‘They’ and ended with full stops, and to change up the rhythm of the lines. ‘The ninjas are coming’ might subliminally have its origin in the cry ‘The British are coming!’, which every American schoolchild learns was shouted by Paul Revere to warn the locals before the opening battle of the Revolutionary War (a myth, as it turns out).
3 – ‘The way to tell one ninja from another is you can’t’ – Based on the example of various American poets, like Lucie Brock-Broido and Amy Woolard, I’ve been trying to incorporate ‘incorrect’ syntax or grammar in my poems at times, to break free from the rules of correct usage. This line was one of my first attempts at doing so. (Unfortunately I was a copy editor in a previous life, so breaking the rules goes against all my instincts.)
4 – ‘They make terrible cater waiters’ – Cater waiters are the staff hired to work at fancy events who circulate with trays of canapés and drinks; an American term.
5 – ‘Their mission is to save us from chaos with their acute tumbling skills’ – Here again I wanted to avoid repeating the format of the previous stanza, in which all the lines were complete sentences; I was beginning to see the structure of the poem as alternating between two types of stanzas. I.e., the first and third stanzas were mostly about the ninjas’ abilities, while the second and fourth stanzas described their purpose or mission, ‘to save us’. I don’t usually set about structuring poems as deliberately as this, but maybe I should.
6 – ‘They make single-serving Lancashire hotpots’ – This image was intended to show how incredible the ninjas’ powers are–by definition, a Lancashire hotpot is made in a casserole or large baking dish to feed multiple people, so a single-serving one would be paradoxical. This line is also a hat-tip to the first line of the poem, which was likewise about paradoxical foodstuffs.
7 – ‘It’s easy: no whites or colours’ – This was inspired by the earlier reference in the poem to black pyjamas. Because I was running out of ideas, I was casting back to the rest of the poem in an attempt to generate new material.
8 – ‘They hate litter and small children’ – This list of what ninjas hate went through many, many changes in the drafting phase before ending up as ‘litter and small children’. I enjoy putting lists of things in poems (even lists of just two, like this one), but picking items that are both interesting/unexpected and musically/rhythmically right for the line they occur in is a huge challenge.
9 – ‘They are here to fix’ – Similarly, I struggled to find an appropriate verb in place of ‘fix’ here. ‘Correct’, ‘change’, ‘improve’, and ‘protect’ were some of the ones I tried and rejected, based on a combination of sound and sense. I’m still not entirely happy with ‘fix’.
Jane Yeh was born in America and educated at Harvard University. She holds master’s degrees from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and Manchester Metropolitan University. Her first collection of poems, Marabou (Carcanet, 2005), was shortlisted for the Whitbread, Forward, and Aldeburgh poetry prizes. Her latest collection, The Ninjas, was published by Carcanet in 2012. She was a judge for the 2013 National Poetry Competition and was named a Next Generation poet by the Poetry Book Society in 2014.
Fascinating to have the insight behind the ninja-thinking. I like the collection a lot – playful, skilful and always surprising. My 8-year-old son picked the book up because of the cover and title, and The Ninjas is now one of his favourite poems. Mine too.
Your son obviously has discerning taste! I love it. Thanks for your very kind remarks!
I am sending this poem on to all my pals with small boys, many of whom tote cardboard ninja stars, and one of whom had a ninja birthday party featuring cake completely iced in black fondant (apparently it is devilishly difficult to make icing truly black!). PS I so relate to your comment about damping down your copy editor’s brain, I too am a copy editor and struggle with using ‘incorrect’ syntax. Isn’t it fun to do so, though?