Redrafting the Cosmos: workshopping poems from our recent Stars challenge, part 2

coloured-foil-stars-Clarissa-de-WetImage by Clarissa de Wet

Our selected poets from the Stars Challenge share their poems before and after feedback.

Congratulations to our selected poets – Ursula Knights, Serena Cooke, Jonny Rodgers, Natasha Bailey and Zohar Mendzelevski-Steinberg – who approached the theme of Stars with such verve and imagination.

Ursula, Serena and Jonny’s poems were discussed in Selected Poets part I; here we showcase Natasha and Zohar’s work, shown before and after feedback, so others can see the processes the poets went through in redrafting their work.

 

‘Orion in the Tropics’ by Natasha Bailey

We chose Natasha’s poem because of its assured tone and complex atmosphere. We loved the deft use of myth – we get enough of the story from the poem but it doesn’t feel dictated by a strict external narrative.

Natasha’s use of language is highly imaginative but also skilful and sophisticated. She paints the atmosphere with just a few choice words at the beginning of the poem, “picture-house…waistcoated…tip me a wink”.

We enjoyed the clever switch around of images in “feeble imitations of lanterns” (of course normally it’s the other way round) and the poignant image of Cassiopeia as “poor bent queen”. The internal rhymes and half-rhymes throughout create a beautiful music and the mixing of long and short sentences keeps the poem flowing.

The final version is just below. After, we’ll show you the original version and the suggestions we made to help Natasha think about how she could polish her poem.

 

Orion in the Tropics

I knew a boy once, he used to take me out,
not to the picture-house, not dancing
nor to hear a waistcoated man play jazz
and tip me a wink over his trumpet
(You with this lady? You a lucky guy, man)
Nothing I’d have wanted to do, he liked to stargaze
to laugh at those lonely blue stones,
their feeble imitations of lanterns.
He’d point out Cassiopeia, poor bent queen,
her daughter pursued by a monstrous whale,
Hercules and his slaughtered lion, the discarded lyre of Orpheus.
Dead music traced out in points of ice.
We’d lie in the spaces between the fallen mangoes
come back smeared with sweet pulp, red lumps on our arms.
(Mosquitoes do not care for distant chunks of rock.)
He liked to hunt the frogs. Rubber-legged, slit-pupilled like sheep,
too fast for his clumsy male hands. That’s how it happened.
He couldn’t have known it was there; jointed tail, black plastic armour.
Androctonus. Man-killer. I can still hear him howl.
Sometimes I drive back at night, to park and hang my head from the window,
to follow a white meteoric streak, to map the trajectories of planets.
He can’t kiss me now, his constellation is headless.

 

We thought that Natasha could play around with the punctuation to enhance the effect. She added a full-stop after “Androctonus” to create an abrupt feel to that line that suits the subject matter – the sudden sting!

In line 7, we wondered if the poem needed both “misery” and “lonely”, as they rather imply each other. Natasha cut “misery” and now the line is tighter and the lovely music of “lonely” and “stones” is given lots of room.

To make the lines about the scorpion punchier, we suggested cutting the two instances of “the” in line 18. As with the full stop, it suits the dense, frightening body of the scorpion to make the line more compact.

Natasha decided to change the title of her poem; the original version was just called ‘Orion’. The new title sets up a particular atmosphere right from the start – we get an immediate sense of heat and vibrant colours.

Original version:

I knew a boy once, he used to take me out,
not to the picture-house, not dancing
nor to hear a waistcoated man play jazz
and tip me a wink over his trumpet
(You with this lady? You a lucky guy, man)
Nothing I’d have wanted to do, he liked to stargaze
to laugh at the misery of those lonely blue stones,
their feeble imitations of lanterns.
He’d point out Cassiopeia, poor bent queen,
her daughter pursued by a monstrous whale
Hercules and his slaughtered lion, the discarded lyre of Orpheus.
Dead music traced out in points of ice.
We’d lie in the spaces between the fallen mangoes
come back smeared with sweet pulp, red lumps on our arms.
(Mosquitoes do not care for distant chunks of rock.)
He liked to hunt the frogs. Rubber-legged, slit-pupilled like sheep,
too fast for his clumsy male hands. That’s how it happened.
He couldn’t have known it was there, the jointed tail, the black plastic armour.
Androctonus, man-killer. I can still hear him howl.
Sometimes I drive back at night, to park and hang my head from the window,
to follow a white meteoric streak, to map the trajectories of planets.
He can’t kiss me now, his constellation is headless.

 

 

‘Wild Theories About Starlight’ by Zohar Mendzelevski-Steinberg

Zohar sent in two poems, both of which we loved.

‘Wild Theories About Starlight’ has a very arresting title, and Zohar follows through with a powerful tone and inventive images: “pin-cushion globe”, “intergalactic trains”, “lofty towers”, “drunken fools”.

The mixture of myth, science, mystery and familiarity is brilliant, and makes the poem fresh and interesting. Our favourite line is “The first and final station: all photons out!” which uses the familiar language of train travel but applies it to a scientific theme.

Zohar builds this tension between the recognisable and mysterious into the whole poem – so we have a pin-cushion used by a god and drunken fools who live in light-cages.

 

Wild Theories About Starlight

Starlight:
Shards of light stuck into our pin-cushion globe
Left there by some forgetful god
still sewing the glowing threads through the black velvet.

Elongated intergalactic trains rushing in to Earth,
The first and final station: all photons out!

Lofty towers of energy collapsing at the speed of light,
Their decay spanning a billion years of the upright
Strung-out senescence of elderly rays.

Darts thrown out in all directions by the angry, burning stars
To land blazing at the frozen station-planets
Along the solar routes.

The light sends us messages, streaming forth
The life of another world, encoded in electromagnetic waves.

Beams propping up the stars against each other:
Drunken fools in their centrifugal isolation.
Living in flimsy light-cages,
Afraid of dropping through a rent in gravity.

Unilluminated by their bright lights:
Nobody home.

 

We suggested to Zohar that line 3 of the original version had some spare words which she could get rid of. Zohar took a lot of the words out and really tightened the line up. Likewise with “Elongated intergalactic trains” – it is such a fabulous image, we said why not dive straight in and get rid of “The”!

Zohar reworked stanza 3 after we suggested that the original stanza was a bit confusing – how could the towers be swiftly crumbling and still standing? The new stanza captures the contrast between the speed that light travels and the millions of years that stars take to die.

We also suggested that she expand on stanza 4 to explain a bit more about who/what was throwing the darts and what the targets were. Now we get a new dimension to the theories about starlight – that stars have their own personalities.

The last stanza was so full of wonderful images, we thought that Zohar could add some punctuation to give each image more room to sink in. Breaking a long sentence into shorter sentences can encourage the reader to linger on the images, instead of racing past them to get to the end of the sentence.

As an experiment, we suggested separating “nobody home” from the sentence before it –
this would give “Nobody home” even greater impact, and suggest that it is one of the “wild theories” of the title – implying that there might be “somebody home” elsewhere in the universe!

Original version:

Starlight
Shards of light stuck into our pin-cushion globe
Left there by some forgetful god
Who is still sewing all the glowing threads into the black velvet space

The elongated intergalactic trains rushing in to Earth
The first and final station: all photons out!

Lofty towers of energy swiftly crumbling
But a thousand years of decay and they are still standing strong

Darts thrown out in all directions in the hope of hitting the targets
Dotted throughout the deep, dark sea of emptiness

Imagining if the light sends us messages, beaming
Beams propping up the stars against each other,
Drunken fools in their isolation,
Living in light-cages in case they should drop through a rent in gravity
Unilluminated by their bright lights: nobody home.

 

‘Afterbirth of the Stars’ by Zohar Mendzelevski-Steinberg

Zohar’s second poem ‘Afterbirth of the Stars’ also uses vivid, original imagery – molecules and atoms being “couriered”, the “wake of ice”, “soft-burnt palms” and the wild accumulation of parts which make up the stardust.

The repetition of the first line is great – it creates a strong voice for the stardust and a lovely musical quality. It’s a very powerful poem, with a Biblical-sounding ending.

 

Afterbirth of the Stars

I am stardust.

In me linger the molecules, the atoms
Couriered across the galaxy in a black carriage
With a wake of spiralling ice
To reach no home for centuries, no warm planetary parking spot
Which my elements have pierced, ravaged and seeded.

In me linger the molecules, the atoms
Broken apart by internecine, incandescent collisions
Spewed out from ruptures punched into the crust by a fiery core,
Exuded by the caveman, the dinosaur, the earliest lifeforms,
The creatures which are far away in space and time.

In me linger the molecules, the atoms
Of the water that birthed the original Life,
With her celestial, soft-burnt palms
Shaping the delicate membranes harbouring
All the future lives in this world.

I am made of everything that ever was.
Everything that will be, will come from me.

 

The imagery in the first stanza is so beautiful that “spiralling into the infinite hollowness” didn’t seem as fresh. Zohar did some cutting and now the lines focus on the sad, lovely image of the carriage travelling through space but reaching no home.

Lines 2 and 3 of the second stanza were word-heavy and particularly adjective-heavy, so we suggested Zohar give them a bit of a trim. Zohar chose which words were doing the most work, and pared the line back, maintaining the sense of the original line but focusing on the forceful half-rhymes of “ruptures”, “punched” and “crust”.

The last stanza is very powerful, and we suggested enhancing this by putting a full stop after “I am made of everything that ever was”. This really slows these two lines down and gives them extra weight. It’s amazing what a tiny bit of punctuation can do!

Original version:

I am stardust.

In me linger the molecules, the atoms
Couriered across the galaxy in a black carriage
With a wake of ice, spiralling into the infinite hollowness
To reach no home, no warm planetary berth
Which my elements pierce and ravage and seed.

In me linger the molecules, the atoms
Broken apart by internecine, incandescent collisions searing the roused dawn air
Spewed out by the ruptures punched into the baking crust by the Earth’s raging, fiery core
Exuded by the caveman, the dinosaur, the earliest lifeforms
The creatures which are far away, in space and time.

In me linger the molecules, the atoms
Of the water that birthed the original Life
With her celestial, soft-burnt palms
Shaping the delicate membranes harbouring
All the future lives in this world.

I am made of everything that ever was
Everything that will be, will come from me.

 

The workshopping process

Workshopping is a valuable opportunity to see into your readers’ minds. If you have been caught up in your poem, it can be very useful to have a fresh perspective, someone who doesn’t know all the background and who hasn’t read it a hundred times. Workshop readers can often pick up on things you have missed, and will bring their own varied opinions. Then it’s up to you to pick and choose what you want to include!

It was great how open all the poets were to suggestions about their poems. Jonny, whose poem is featured in Selected Poets part I, told us how useful he finds the workshopping process:

“I’ve organised workshops on constructive criticism in the past and I think it’s a process that is so valuable but underused by young writers…

Your feedback was great because it wasn’t too intrusive. Instead of attempting to hijack the poem or twist it into an awkward pose, your comments allowed me to prune off bits that were getting in the way of its force and clarity. One of the challenges of re-drafting is remembering to interrogate each word every time you go back through a line; you have to shine a light in its eyes and make it justify its place.”

If you have a friend who is interested in poetry, why not arrange a workshop together? Swap poems, and encourage your friend to be honest about what works and what doesn’t work. Make sure you both justify your opinions – if you say you don’t like something, you have to explain why!

Or if you prefer to work on your poem yourself, try leaving it for a week, and in the meantime make a list of things you want to check. You could use our features about the Stars challenge to give you some ideas – you might create a tick-list with things to check when you come back to your poem fresh from the week’s break.

Read more of our feedback on selected poets.

Read our general feedback on your poems about stars.

Both features contain tips for redrafting your work!

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