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***Caroline Smith’s “Removal” is #239 in the 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. (Right: Caroline Smith in 2020. Copyright my Caroline Smith)
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? A number of elements came together that sparked this poem. The street where I live in Wembley is mostly HMO’s (Houses in Multiple Occupation). It is a migrant community where tenants come and go frequently. This means there are always discarded mattresses in the street. When the poem came to me, I was helping a young friend to flat hunt and coping with the increasing infirmity of my elderly parents. (Left: Photo credit and copyright by Caroline Smith)
The drama of the mattresses was what I first wanted to write about. I walk past them every day. I also work with asylum seekers and undocumented migrants so I’m very aware of homelessness and the impact on people of living one step away from destitution. When we were viewing a flat for my friend, I realised the sitting tenant was being evicted. This was the moment you are asking about, that propelled me to write. I set the poem in autumn and used the abundance in John Keats’ (Right) poem ‘To Autumn’ as an element to work off.
I try not to start a poem until I have more than just a vague idea. I store quirky things in my notebooks and head until I get the glue for the poem. I then write it fairly quickly. Having said that, I do often go back to the drawing board and completely cut or change direction. I try not to get too precious about the poem and make myself be prepared to cut any line or element if it doesn’t move the poem forward. It can also take ages for the glue for a poem to come and so frustratingly I have loads of scraps of paper with ideas lying around and not enough poems! (Left: Caroline Smith's writing space. Copyright by Caroline Smith)
Where were you when you started to actually write the poem? And please describe the place in great detail. When I started putting the scraps of paper together, I was actually in my study which used to be a children’s bedroom that now has a pull-out couch rather than a bed. My desk is in front of a window that looks down the side of the house. To the left of my desk is a bookcase with the poetry books I like to read over again. The ones I have read and probably won’t be referring to are in another bookcase behind me to the right of the door. The floor is always totally covered in notes and ideas and drafts of poems so that it is impossible to get to my desk without stepping on them. (Right: view from Caroline Smith's writing space. Copyright by Caroline Smith)
What month and year did you start writing this poem? I wrote the poem in October 2018. (Left: Caroline Smith in October 2018. Copyright by Caroline Smith)
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 can’t remember how many drafts there were before it got to this stage – five or six for sure.
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? This is an earlier draft that I happened to save. One line that didn’t make the published poem was, ‘It’s a transitional time of year’. I hesitated over this line. I tend to over explain and not trust the reader enough, so I think I was right to leave it out, although it makes the first verse one line shorter than the others which still bothers me. (Right and Below Left: Caroline Smith's drafts of "Removal" Copyright by Caroline Smith.)
What do you want readers of this poem to take from this poem? In my poetry I like to juxtapose very different images and scenarios, but it’s important that they don’t seem forced or unrelated. I think the sudden introduction of my father in the last verse in this poem is a good example.
Which part of the poem was the most emotional of you to write and why? (The last verse in the poem) is the most emotional part of the poem and it springs the connection. I felt empathy for the tenant who would be evicted for my friend to get a home, but it was the experience of seeing my father coming to terms with losing his home of forty years that was the heart of the poem.
Has this poem been published before? And if so where? The poem was published in Acumen 95 September 2019. I hope it will be one of the poems in the new collection I’m writing.
Landlords are shifting out old tenants.
It’s the season of mattresses.
they are dumped in the road overnight.
Cramped in half, their
split seams erupt yellow foam
like crops of toadstools
under this grey wash
of a Saturday autumn sky.
A piece of dark cloth is tacked to the window
of this maisonette my pregnant friend
is viewing to buy. Her first home.
The tenant has been issued a Section 21,
so we could only get access now
the owner’s swept in to open the door.
The tenant follows us from room to room
leaning her cheek against the door frame,
watching. It’s the same stare
I saw on my father’s ivory face.
I was digging up plants from his garden,
he had agreed I could,
after he’d finally accepted
he had to move.
I thought he was asleep,
but he’d followed me out
shuffling slowly after me.
He stood balancing with his two sticks,
just watching at a distance
from the middle of the path.
Caroline Smith lives in Wembley where she works as the immigration and asylum caseworker for a London MP. Although originally trained as a sculptor, Caroline has now published three books of poetry. Her most recent, 'The Immigration Handbook' published by Seren Books (https://www.serenbooks.com/) in 2016 was shortlisted for the Ted Hughes Award. It was translated into Italian, in the summer of 2020; 'Il manual dell'immigrazione'.