Welcome to our Forward Prizes 2021 ‘How I Did It’ series. This year we asked the poets shortlisted for the Felix Dennis Prize for Best First Collection to explain the writing process behind one of the poems in their collections. In this piece, Ralf Webb talks about ‘Love Story: Discourse Goblins’ from his collection Rotten Days in Late Summer.
I’m envious of writers who have cultivated a habit of working in actual notebooks. I think physical artifacts like that are important. Last year, I bought a stack of cheap, bright orange school exercise books with this ambition in mind. But I can’t do it. They’re just sitting on a shelf in a closet gathering dust. Whenever I try to work in a notebook, all of those empty pages instill me with a tremendous sense of guilt, as though their emptiness is an accusation that I’ve already wasted too much time not writing.
Instead, I write on a laptop. I type notes into word.docs, and give these docs weird, arbitrary titles – often, nouns that look and sound pleasing to me. Such as ‘MIST’, ‘WISTERIA’, and ‘AEROSOL’. I store these docs in a folder on my desktop (‘MISC.’) which I also fill with non-writing-related things – invoices, screenshots, work files. I guess I like the way that this makes the docs unimportant-seeming. They don’t physically sit there, accusing me with their very presence, like the notebooks.
I work on one document at a time. It might be a few weeks, or many months, before I ‘retire’ a doc and start a new one. Whenever I feel like it, I populate the current doc with notes and half-formed ideas, with random descriptions, stupid couplets and gestured-toward stanzas. Anything, really. I could call it junk. I don’t delete much of the junk – each document is a mess. But if I hit on something I like, I’ll first work on it within the doc. I’ll insert a new page, copy and paste the text, try and develop it, repeat.
Therefore, each doc consists of reams and reams of pages, many of which only contain a few lines. For eg, in the current doc I’m working in, there is a page that only contains the word: ‘Snowballs – ’. On the next page I’ve tried to develop that, and on the subsequent page I’ve abandoned it. It’s silly, maybe, but it works for me. Perhaps writing poetry here is a process of manifesting junk in order to later comb or glean that junk for something worthwhile.
If I want to commit to a semi-developed idea, I’ll copy and paste it into its own, non-arbitrarily titled document, extracting it from the chaos of the big doc and letting it aerate. There, I’ll work on it in earnest. I’ll add new stuff, delete stuff, hitting RETURN and BACKSPACE and CONTROL-Z literally hundreds of times, trying out different ways of breaking the lines; different stanza lengths; seeing how the words look on the page/screen; seeing whether this poem-in-progress feels inclined toward a particular form; reading it over and over to myself to test the rhythm of each line and the overall aural effects generated by all these tweaks and modifications. In this way I hope to turn what was junk into not-junk. Sometimes this process is quick, sometimes it goes on and on for weeks. Each big doc contains anywhere from 5k to 20k words, from which I might eventually have gleaned a small sheaf of poems – three to five, maybe.
All of the poems in Rotten Days in Late Summer emerged from this process. I could probably utilize CONTROL-F and trace the initial seed of each poem back through the arbitrarily-titled big docs in the MISC. folder… but I sort of don’t want to. Much as when a poem is finally printed, all those old docs feel inert to me now, ossified.
But writing a collection – I found out – involves more than simply gathering together some finished poems. As well as the micro architecture within each poem (if you’ll permit this metaphor) there is the macro architecture of the collection-as-whole: how the poems ‘speak’ to each other, where they sit in relation to one another, what, if anything, the collection could be said to be concretely about.
As well as ‘stand alone poems’ – nevertheless connected by setting and atmosphere – I found that I was developing sequences of poems. One of these sequences eventually became the ‘Love Stories’ – seven poems linked by theme (very broadly, they are ‘about’ different kinds – and experiences – of love and desire) and form (each poem is composed of three sonnets). I don’t mean to say that I set out specifically to write in sequence. After I had written one of these, I found that this very loose formal constraint had unlocked something – within its somewhat elastic boundary, I sensed a new tone of voice emerging; I had become less nervous about letting ideas and images unfurl across a generous number of lines; and I found that tussling with argument and conceit was generative rather than stultifying.
Across the months, I ended up with several not-junk poems-in-progress that not only shared a theme, but that also inclined themselves– even propelled themselves – toward this form. If you’ll permit another metaphor, the combination of theme and form acted as a long leash, so that, when writing these particular poems, I could explore and roam freely without getting completely lost.
LOVE STORY: DISCOURSE GOBLINS is one of the poems in this sequence. It was written in the autumn-winter of 2019, during the run-up to that general election.
Love Story: Discourse Goblins
Am I – I am, I guess – a discourse-
Bullshitter, in bed at ten a.m.
On a weekday, listening to you read
K-Punk, with uneasy joy?
That’s all I’ve got to give, ineloquently,
In reply. Everyone’s creative outputs
Are in arrears. Not ours, since
They don’t exist, except as hypothetical
High-yield potential. We could
Make it if we really wanted, we just
Don’t wanna. For breakfast, I will extract
A tin of peaches from the airing cupboard,
My ‘in case of Extreme Event’ peaches.
I don’t have much else to offer. Except
This chip on my shoulder, about
The Classics kids, their lengthy
Athletic educations, and ability
To make and acquire tastes. Sorry . . .
The bulk-bought Nescafé tastes bitter.
I read an article once that said it contained
Chemicals found in Roundup weedkiller.
Oh well. Come out from the reading,
Fold the corner of your page: I’m here,
Spooning natural yoghurt in an open shirt,
And haven’t touched palm oil
Or any refined sugars in, what, six weeks.
My stomach feels very flat and ethical.
People we know are climbing to high places.
We’d love to partner with you, if you’re ready
To win? We had high hopes, and,
Who knows, could’ve been content
Up there. But all the blue light, screen dreams,
Office hours in chain eateries,
Failure to dock at the fortunate isles
Of Fast, Free WiFi scooped us out.
Hey, look, we may be past our best.
Decommissioned. Not fit for purpose.
But we’re on it as regards oblivion.
Please, accept this breakfast bowl.
Accept this cheap and ironclad cynicism.
We’re not famous. I am completely in love.
Ralf Webb’s debut collection of poems Rotten Days in Late Summer (Penguin) is shortlisted for the Felix Dennis Prize for Best First Collection. His work has appeared in The Poetry Review, The White Review, London Review of Books and Fantastic Man.