Friday, November 30, 2018

#44 Backstory of the Poem "This poem Is too neat' By Jonathan P. Taylor

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***This is the forty-forth in a never-ending series called BACKSTORY OF THE POEM where the Chris Rice Cooper Blog (CRC) focuses on one specific poem and how the poet wrote that specific poem.  All BACKSTORY OF THE POEM links are at the end of this piece. 
#44 Backstory of the Poem
“This poem is too neat”
by Jonathan P Taylor

Can you go through the step-by-step process of writing this poem from the moment the idea was first conceived in your brain until final form?   Clearly, very earliest memories are a treasure trove for writers, as they are for psychologists – and for similar reasons. I’d been thinking for a long while about a poem about one of my earliest memories – going to the art deco swimming pool in Trentham Gardens (Above Right: Fair Use), near our family home in Stoke-on-Trent, UK, in the hot summer of 1976 and 1977 (see I didn’t realise the memory was so early in my life, until I found out that the pool was closed far sooner than I’d thought. It was closed in 1977 (I think), because of subsidence: Stoke is riddled with coal mines, and the pool was closed because of cracks appearing in it. Afterwards, we used to glimpse the dilapidated, decaying, almost ghostly pool as it was left to rot, gradually reclaimed by nature.
We loved the lido – but I must have been tiny, and can barely remember anything about it, apart from being surrounded by mummies’ legs in the training pool, and not being able to work out which pair of legs belonged to my mummy. Then I remember climbing back into our car, shivering, and my father saying he (and, for that matter, the rest of us too) would get pneumonia if we stayed out any longer. It’s so strange, almost uncanny, that this is among my first memories, given that – as the poem says – it was pneumonia which killed him in the end. (Left - Jonathan's parents in 1968.  Copyright permission granted by Jonathan P Taylor for this CRC Blog Post Only) 
I felt compelled to write about that horrible coincidence – if it is a coincidence, and not some peculiar kind of retrospective revision on the part of my memory, or even (if we’re going to get mystical) some kind of pre-vision or prophecy. But in writing about it, the circularity of it felt forced – one of those moments where reality seems unbelievable, even though it is true. So my initial drafts of the poem just felt forced – ‘too neat.’ I put it to one side, and only returned to the idea a lot later, when I realised that the ‘neatness’ of the memory was precisely the point. The memory really is too (painfully) neat, ‘too pat,’ and that was what the poem should be about – the way that reality, like poetic form, seems to trap us sometimes in these circular histories, recurring images, painful repetition compulsions. I realised that the poem should draw attention to itself, to its own form, precisely because that’s what history often does. It’s a very common aesthetic trick in poems, essays, journalistic articles, stories, memoirs, pieces of music, to circle back to an opening image at the end; but maybe this common cyclical form in art reflects what happens in life, too. (Right:  Jonathan's father in 1969.  Copyright permission granted by Jonathan P. Taylor for this CRC Blog Post Only) 

Where were you when you started to actually write the poem?  And please describe the place in great detail.   I’d tried for a long time to write about this moment in my life before – so some of it was ‘written’ in my head while doing other things (e.g. driving, making tea, having a bath). But primarily I write in a very unglamorous location: the end of the sofa, with a laptop, often with our twins playing round me or watching TV. I’m not precious about writing – I don’t need silence or any particular place – I just write when I get the chance, wherever I get the chance. It doesn’t matter if there are My Little Ponies surrounding me, or a loud cartoon on the TV. You learn to filter certain things out when you’ve got twins, I suppose: I’ve never had a problem concentrating, perhaps because I love writing so much.  (Left:  Jonathan's writing space with his daughter Miranda's turtle on the keyboard.  Copyright permission granted by Jonathan P Taylor for this CRC Blog Post Only)  

What month and year did you start writing this poem?   I feel that most poems are squirreling away in the dark until they emerge into full daylight – that is, the starting-point for most poems is a bit invisible, just as you don’t necessarily remember the beginnings of dreams. So I wanted to write something about this earliest memory for many years, and I know I made notes about the old lido when I was writing my memoir about my father, Take Me Home (Granta, 2007). I don’t have those notes any more, and was thinking (or dreaming) much more in prose back then. But no doubt the ideas fed into the poem. I actually put the words on paper (or, rather, on a laptop) in late 2015, I think, and then messed with them for a few weeks and months (alongside various other pieces I was working on). My father died in 2001, but grief doesn’t end – it just morphs, mutates, assumes new images; and fourteen years after his death, I found myself writing about it again in various forms.

How many drafts of this poem did you write before going to the final? (And can you share a photograph of your rough drafts with pen markings on it?)   I have no idea! I don’t suppose I really do separate drafts: I just keep editing a poem, reshaping it, experimenting with it over time, in a fluid way. Perhaps part of the reason for this is that I write a lot on screen these days – so editing can be continual. I’d love to be able to share a photo of a rough draft with pen markings – but I’ve lost my notebook. Perhaps the twins have stolen my notebook to draw bunnies and ponies on. (Jonathan with his twin daughters in February 2017.  Copyright permission granted by Jonathan P Taylor for this CRC Blog Post Only)

Were there any lines in any of your rough drafts of this poem that were not in the final version?  And can you share them with us?   I remember trying to describe the beautiful art deco lido more in earlier drafts. But then I realised that, really, I was just working from photos of it – my own memory was much more fragmentary, much more pointillistic. I wanted to reflect this in the poem. After all, the poem is partly about the structure of memory, so it needs to be true to how I remembered things – not to external photos, or nostalgic websites. (Right: 1960s photo of children at Trentham Gardens art deco lido.  Fair Use) 

What do you want readers of this poem to take from this poem?   That’s a difficult question: a poem should, by definition, be open-ended, allow a reader to inhabit it, find themselves in it, find their own resonances and echoes within it. Clearly, the poem is very personal to me – but, as I realised when I was writing the memoir many years ago, there has to be something underlying the personal which connects with readers. This can be obvious, on the surface (as in “ooh, that very same thing happened to me”), or it can be on a much more profound, emotional, psychological or even unconscious level. No-one’s presumably going to recognise what happens in the poem on the obvious level of “ooh, that very same thing happened to me”; but perhaps there’s something here about family, loss, grief, memory, a terrible (and retrospective) illusion of predestination or determinism, which might, on some level, chime with others. It wouldn’t be for me to pre-empt that as a writer, though – it’s no doubt up to the reader. (Left:  Jonathan in April of 2017.  Copyright permission granted by Jonathan P Taylor for this CRC Blog Post Only) 
The point is, I think, that all writing – and particularly memoiristic writing – is structured around both sameness and difference, convergence and divergence, recognition and defamiliarisation. In other words, all writing – and, as I say, particularly autobiographical and biographical writing – moves about on a spectrum between readerly identification and its opposite. If a poem or work of autobiography entirely mirrored the reader’s experiences or emotions, the reader would become bored; if the work had no point of contact at any level with the reader’s experiences or emotions, it would seem alien, bewildering. So a piece of writing needs both.  

Which part of the poem was the most emotional of you to write and why?    All of it – but I wanted it to be very direct and harsh when it comes to my father’s death (‘many years later he did get it and died’), to communicate some idea of the shocking finality of that moment. And after all, the poem is about destiny or fate (or at least, the retrospective illusion of these things), and how harsh and painful that sense of circularity can feel. (Left:  Jonathan's father in the 1990s.  Copyright permission granted by Jonathan P Taylor for this CRC Blog Post Only) 
Has this poem been published before?  And if so where?   It’s been published in my new collection, Cassandra Complex (Shoestring, 2018), and also in Clear Poetry in 2016:

This poem is too neat

The end of this poem will be too neat, too pat.
It will do that circular thing of coming back
to an image or memory at the start, of connecting
something very early with something sad
years later.

The start of the poem will describe
my very first memory of leaving the outdoor
Art Deco lido in Trentham Gardens
which was full of dozens of mummies’ bare legs
and was apparently closed when I was four.
I recall all of us shivering in towels in the car
and asking my father what pneumonia was
because he’d told us he’d get it if we didn’t
leave right away. He explained what it was
and many years later he did get it and died.

I told you the end of this poem would be too neat,
too pat, as if a poem can lock you into a pattern
and there’s no getting out of it.

Jonathan Taylor is an author, editor, lecturer and critic. His books include the poetry collection Cassandra Complex (Shoestring, 2018), the memoir Take Me Home (Granta, 2007), and the novel Melissa (Salt, 2015). He directs the MA in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester in the UK. (Left: Copyright permission granted by Jonathan P Taylor for this CRC Blog Post Only)
Originally from Stoke-on-Trent, he now lives in Leicestershire with his wife, the poet Maria Taylor, and their twin daughters, Miranda and Rosalind.
Contact info?   His website is or  (Right:  Jonathan and wife Maria in July of 2018.  Copyright permission granted by Jonathan P Taylor for this CRC Blog Post Only)


001  December 29, 2017
Margo Berdeshevksy’s “12-24”

002  January 08, 2018
Alexis Rhone Fancher’s “82 Miles From the Beach, We Order The Lobster At Clear Lake Café”

003 January 12, 2018
Barbara Crooker’s “Orange”

004 January 22, 2018
Sonia Saikaley’s “Modern Matsushima”

005 January 29, 2018
Ellen Foos’s “Side Yard”

006 February 03, 2018
Susan Sundwall’s “The Ringmaster”

007 February 09, 2018
Leslea Newman’s “That Night”

008 February 17, 2018
Alexis Rhone Fancher “June Fairchild Isn’t Dead”

009 February 24, 2018
Charles Clifford Brooks III “The Gift of the Year With Granny”

010 March 03, 2018
Scott Thomas Outlar’s “The Natural Reflection of Your Palms”

011 March 10, 2018
Anya Francesca Jenkins’s “After Diane Beatty’s Photograph “History Abandoned”

012  March 17, 2018
Angela Narciso Torres’s “What I Learned This Week”

013 March 24, 2018
Jan Steckel’s “Holiday On ICE”

014 March 31, 2018
Ibrahim Honjo’s “Colors”

015 April 14, 2018
Marilyn Kallett’s “Ode to Disappointment”

016  April 27, 2018
Beth Copeland’s “Reliquary”

017  May 12, 2018
Marlon L Fick’s “The Swallows of Barcelona”

018  May 25, 2018

019  June 09, 2018
Alexis Rhone Fancher’s “Stiletto Killer. . . A Surmise”

020 June 16, 2018
Charles Rammelkamp’s “At Last I Can Start Suffering”

021  July 05, 2018
Marla Shaw O’Neill’s “Wind Chimes”

022 July 13, 2018
Julia Gordon-Bramer’s “Studying Ariel”

023 July 20, 2018
Bill Yarrow’s “Jesus Zombie”

024  July 27, 2018
Telaina Eriksen’s “Brag 2016”

025  August 01, 2018
Seth Berg’s “It is only Yourself that Bends – so Wake up!”

026  August 07, 2018
David Herrle’s “Devil In the Details”

027  August 13, 2018
Gloria Mindock’s “Carmen Polo, Lady Necklaces, 2017”

028  August 21, 2018
Connie Post’s “Two Deaths”

029  August 30, 2018
Mary Harwell Sayler’s “Faces in a Crowd”

030 September 16, 2018
Larry Jaffe’s “The Risking Point”

031  September 24, 2018
Mark Lee Webb’s “After We Drove”

032  October 04, 2018
Melissa Studdard’s “Astral”

033 October 13, 2018
Robert Craven’s “I Have A Bass Guitar Called Vanessa”

034  October 17, 2018
David Sullivan’s “Paper Mache Peaches of Heaven”

035 October 23, 2018
Timothy Gager’s “Sobriety”

036  October 30, 2018
Gary Glauber’s “The Second Breakfast”

037  November 04, 2018
Heather Forbes-McKeon’s “Melania’s Deaf Tone Jacket”

038 November 11, 2018
Andrena Zawinski’s “Women of the Fields”

039  November 00, 2018
Gordon Hilger’s “Poe”

040 November 16, 2018
Rita Quillen’s “My Children Question Me About Poetry” and “Deathbed Dreams”

041 November 20, 2018
Jonathan Kevin Rice’s “Dog Sitting”

042 November 22, 2018
Haroldo Barbosa Filho’s “Mountain”

043  November 27, 2018
Megan Merchant’s “Grief Flowers”

044 November 30, 2018