Creating the premise for your poem is a tricky enough task on any given day. Besides the obvious self-critical murmurings of ‘is this worth writing about’, once you have an idea you then need to conjure your pen (or fingers) to create some magical syntax that relays your thoughts to the reader. How many hurdles you lay at their feet is down to you and your own feelings regarding ‘accessibility’ within poetry.
When I discovered Harry Giles’ Poetry School workshop titled ‘Beyond English – Poems in Constructed Languages’ my interest was piqued and I wanted to discover how far I could comfortably push my own poetic boundaries. Without a theme or specific prompt to write to, Harry invited the group to explore a range of poems and styles with which he enthused our creative yearnings.
The first two poems he suggested we look at gave us a hint as to how broad the scope truly was, with the modern literary Scots of Hugh MacDiarmid, ‘I’ the how-dumb-deid o’ the cauld hairst nicht’ from ‘The Eemis Stane’ playing as teaser to Hannah Silva’s compacted language and text-symbol-speak of ‘Arvo Crash’: ‘He screams –she swears @ him. / There’s Ø movN ndoors.’
Initially I tried a version of an Oulipo constrained language chance-based technique, attempting to use Google translate to pass through lines from a sequence I wrote in a Philip Gross workshop into French and then use homolinguistic translation (creating or finding words from the phonetics of the source, or in this case, translated language) to create the new lines.
So this first part of the sequence put through Google translate into French became (probably incorrectly) first:
Il ya un moment suspendus de chaque côté de ce pilier tombé, un frère ou une sœur-ignorent le canard qui marche en avant, ses poussins après tout en file indienne.
and then via my attempt at homolinguistic translation:
After another two short sections I found myself in a totally surreal world where language seemed to mean everything and nothing all at once. With 10 parts to the sequence I thought perhaps this task needed more thought and so began to play with what I now felt might be an easier option – combining word sounds to create new words and threading those throughout a poem that might have an easier way in for the reader but still be within the remit of constructed language poetry.
What happened next was particularly strange. Most likely due to the playful and open nature of my earlier attempt using the homolinguistic translation technique, words began to form on the fly from memories and fragments of phrases. The title of the poem ‘witchbundle’ was the first to materialise and from that I knew roughly where I wanted to go; to create a poem that would have a historical feel with, hopefully, a fresh use of language. I’m hopeful that the end result is as joyful to read as it was to create, despite the unusual language.
I have no what jitterbug bang¹, honest
tell I. It’s a coatsniffer², a real bladesharpener³
of the once decreed. If I was to splurge
my verbals on the dinesurface4
during poletite consternation5
I’d be brought before the Magestree6;
hung by my headholder7 till the path-
dodgers8 wriggled themselves unfree.
Really, it’s all about the Barnett Way
before the New Street gets rallied
home9. Porter rule out my teethbasket
comes and followed swiftly by
a celebration of seized volumes10.
What brings the urban forespeak
to the power of centuries?11 I under-
stand your daddyhome questions12,
your pearly yawn, bad tattoo bliss13.
It’ll be a short babyflop. Just one14.
Then you’ll witchbundle15 no more.
I can box hat16.
1 – I have no what jitterbug bang – the poem is from the point of view of an executioner and I wanted the first phrase to instill the idea that this person didn’t have any knowledge of why or for what particular reasons he was being asked to behead yet another ‘witch’; someone doing his job without agreeing with the reasons for it. Jitterbug bang plays with the notion of frenetic dance and an explosive noise, a kind of verbal representation of the inverse of the comic book light bulb moment when someone has an idea. Here the idea has exploded, meaning he has no idea.
2 – coatsniffer – difficult, needing a private detective to sniff around and pick pockets to discover the reasons.
3 – real bladesharpener – so perplexing that he must just get down to the business of beheading.
4 – splurge my verbals on the dinesurface – spend all of my words at once, throw them onto the dinnertable.
5 – during poletite consternation – poletite is a combination of polite, pole (in its historical use to mean ‘perch’) & tight. Consternation used instead of and in adjunct to conversation. Therefore, a conversation in which he is trying to be polite but feels anxious about his words as he is balancing like a tightrope walker on the fence so as not to say the wrong thing for fear of being sent to prison/the executioner himself.
6 – Magestree – another set of words compacted into one to imply justice and the hanging tree by royal decree etc: Majesty, mage, tree & magistrate.
7 – headholder – neck
8 – pathdodgers – legs of a person that doesn’t want to follow the rules
9 – all about the Barnett Way before the New Street gets rallied home. – using a couple of faux street names with mock cockney in one (barnet – hair, with an added ‘t’ to give a sense of the whole head) to imply taking of the right path means you will be a reformed person and allowed to go home, otherwise we’re back to the Magestree.
10 – Porter rule out my teethbasket comes and followed swiftly by a celebration of seized volumes. – ‘If I let honesty be carried out of my mouth like so much luggage then they’ll drag all my thoughts, enough to fill many books, and celebrate at their finding’.
11 – What brings the urban forespeak to the power of centuries? – ‘Urban’ is often used to denote a category of modern slang terms and so I felt it appropriate to us here alongside a constructed word of my own ‘forespeak’ – meaning a forthright way of speaking. ‘The power of centuries’ – a comment on language progressing/changing over time, as well a hint toward the period in which the poem is set.
12 – daddyhome questions – referring to thoughts/ideas/questions which have obvious answers or are generally asked, such as ‘Daddy are we home yet?’. In this instance, of course, particularly pointing toward the witch of the title having something to say about the executioner either getting on with it or, perhaps, hoping for a reprieve.
13 – pearly yawn, bad tattoo bliss – I was aiming compare those historically thought to be witches because of their unusual ways or ideology, and the 21st century appetite for cosmetic enhancement of the body. A changing of visual representation of oneself can put you either in or outside of a social circle or community.
14 – It’ll be a short babyflop. Just one. – a reassuring statement to suggest to the witch that it will be over quickly. babyflop – the head will fall as easily as a baby out of its cradle.
15 – witchbundle – the title coming into play here, use of the word bundle attached to witch to suggest all the elements of witchery that one could get up to, but I also like the plosive sound of the ‘b’ which I feel adds a kind of humour.
16 – I can box hat – I wanted the ending of the poem to be tight, in a cheeky way. This final line is a combination of ‘I understand that’, ‘you need to understand this’, ‘have I put all the words to you right enough and parceled them up in a way that makes you understand’. All of those ideas, but in a necessarily compacted form. Hopefully it all works.
Robert Harper is the founding editor of Bare Fiction Magazine and artistic director of Bare Fiction Theatre Company. His poetry has been published by The Interpreter’s House, Wenlock Poetry Festival, Prole, Acumen, Royal Philharmonic Society, by Rebecca Goss for National Children’s Heart Week 2014, and in the anthologies fathers and what must be said (Rebel Poetry Ireland) & ‘I am part of that generation’: Poems from the 2014 PBS National Student Poetry Competition for which he was Highly Commended. He is currently completing a Masters in Creative Writing (Poetry) and Pedagogic Studies at Manchester Metropolitan University for which he is working on his first collection If I’m a Clown.