This lovely anthology has just come out from Beautiful Dragons Collaborations (£7.99), edited by Rebecca Bilkau. There is a poem inspired by 88 constellations, written by 88 different poets. I thought it might be interesting to discuss how I worked at my choice of constellation, because increasingly these kind of commissions are happening for poets across the range. I think this is a good thing. I learned to write to order through being asked to contribute to children’s poetry anthologies back in the day, when requests would come in for poems on various themes. Sitting down at the desk and forcing myself to have a go, and to find an angle on themes like football, which I had little knowledge of, and topics like magic, which I did, was huge fun and got me into over 50 anthologies for children published by Macmillan, OUP, Walker Books, Collins and so on, and it also gave me discipline.
So when Rebecca invited me to choose a constellation and write a poem in under 30 lines, I was up for the challenge. Some of the constellations had already been taken, but I did feel attracted to Perseus, so I grabbed that one. I’ve loved the Greek myth since I first read it retold for children, when I was about six, I did try to move away from the story to some extent but it kept coming back to me. I would advise poets writing a commissioned poem to read around the subject for a while and jot down any promising pieces of information, which may or may not be used, but give the mind a chance to get into the zone. After the reseach phase, I like to leave things for a while, to sink in and penetrate into the creative parts of the brain.
I tend not to write from an idea but listen to the words when they come into my mind – all very romantic-sounding, I know, but that is how poems first come and tap me on the shoulder. It may be very different from other poets. I had a feeling I wanted to hear Perseus’ own voice. I was intrigued by how unpromising a start in life he had, with his virgin mother imprisoned in a tower and a heavy prophecy laid on him. I had to edit his story down, so couldn’t cover everything.
I wanted my opening to suggest the sexiness of Zeus’ seduction of Danae, so had the rain coming in through ‘the slit/ from a sky of unbroken blue’, to suggest both the window and Danae’s body. Danae and the baby boy were put into a locked wooden box to drown but they were rescued and brought up by a kindly fisherman. I created a rather swaggering, braggart voice for Perseus, because in the story he seemed fearless and full of energy, rescuing Andromeda, killing Medusa, encountering all sorts of fearsome creatures. My research on the constellation came in handy. I didn’t want to construct Andromeda as a maiden who was easy prey, and when I read that her constellation was nearby, but not part of Perseus’, it gave me a way to suggest her independence: ‘Andromeda’s always near, but her own person’. I included some of the star names because they were pleasing to the ear and referenced things in his story. I tend to include physicality in my poems because I am quite sensuous in my approach to life, and often enjoy textures and scents. So the image about Medusa’s head ‘dangling/ from my hand like a weighted sack’ seemed to work visually as well as through touch.
Perseus’ story involves a lot of sea travel but in the afterlife, he lives in the sky. This gave me my title, ‘From Sea to Sky’, and my lst line: ‘I, always on the sea, have learned to fly’. When I had finished the poem I had to edit it down to be under 30 lines, which is a great discipline. I ended up rejigging the stanzas a little and tightening it up all over, after showing it to my crit group, which is made up of only six of us, all very different, but all poets I admire. They made some useful suggestions, which I mostly acted upon.
I am very pleased with my finished poem and am in some great company. I am still perusing the poems, but I particularly admire Jan Dean’s witty ‘Above Ard-Na- Bruthaich’, Steven Waling’s ‘Kepler 10b in Draco’, Anja Konig’s ‘Light on the galactic tide’ and no doubt more favourites will emerge when I have had time to read further.
I’d like to thank Rebecca for thinking of me. We didn’t know each other prior to the project and it’s good to have made a new friend, even if it is just in the virtual world.