Hello! This is Ross Sutherland. I’m going to talk about my poem Infinite Lives. I thought I’d tell you the story of how and why I wrote it.
The poem was written in 2012 (published in my collection ‘Emergency Window’). It was inspired by this sentence:
“A poem tries to escape it’s own subject matter”
I don’t know who said it originally. I heard it from the poet Billy Collins. We start off on line one of the poem, in one place. Then, by the end of the poem, we’ve moved somewhere else entirely. When the poet sat down and wrote that first line, they had no idea where they were going to end up! I like this description of poetry. It really speaks to the me personally and helps explain the reason that I write. I want the poem to surprise me- to move me somewhere I wasn’t expecting. Writing a poem is a voyage of discovery (I know that sounds cheesy). You just go on your nerve.
I often find myself standing in front of classrooms yelling, “Poets are fakers! They want to pretend that they have all the answers, but they don’t! They’re making it up as they go along!”
I wanted to give an exercise to my students to explain this process. Here’s what I said to them:
“Find a memory. Go deep into your past and find something. It can be anything. Write down all you can remember. Keep describing that memory, until you find an object *inside* that memory that makes you think of *another* memory. As soon as you think of that object, transport yourself through time to that new memory – now repeat the process! Repeat again and again, creating a chain of memories that has you jumping back and forth through your lifespan.”
Through this process, time becomes fluid- we’re jumping through time based on the tiniest things: the smell of petrol, the sound of a klaxon, a dog bite, etc, etc.
I tried out this exercise myself. Here’s my notes:
I remember the first time I watched Star Wars. (1980) It was on TV. I was at a friend’s house. It was Easter. I remember eating a Yorkie egg and the burning remains of the Death Star. Those two images are connected in my head- easter eggs and a burning spaceship!
Which reminds me of playing space invaders. (1983) I loved the video arcade so much that I would play it in my head, even when there was no one else around. I remember hallucinating Space Invaders on the wall of my grandma’s lounge. On holiday (usually a campsite in France), I would spend all my money on the arcades, then go back to the tent to play dominos with my family.
Which reminds me of the rough edge of the dominos. Another strong memory from childhood. I associate that texture so powerfully with my family. We never felt more of a single unit than when we were playing dominos.
Which reminds me of the dashboard of the family car: same texture as a domino. But this is a much later memory (1996). By this time, I am 15, working as a salesman for Dixons- an electrical retailers. My job involved selling kettles and toasters to old ladies. I used to rest my head against the dashboard when my Dad drove me to work on a Sunday morning. I used to have fantasies about the car crashing. I would try to steer the car off the road with my mind, similar to how I used to play space invaders in my head. This was the start of a difficult period of my life – I would find myself imagining my death almost constantly. It became an unhealthy obsession.
Which reminds me of an actual car crash I was in, two years later. (1998)No one was injured. But I’ve never been a good passenger ever since. I fell out the door of a car that was going about 25/30 miles an hour. My body hit the pavement and slid down the road until it hit a postbox…
Which reminds me of that bit in Westerns, when the bartender throws a beer along the edge of bar. You know? The beer slides perfectly along the whole length of the bar and into the waiting hand of the thirsty cowboy. I watched those films when I was little, and I thought the trick was was done with special effects. Years later, I watched a Western on DVD – one of the extras on the DVD was a compilation of glasses smashing – all the times that the barman messed up the trick. I finally understood how it worked – all the mistakes are hidden from the viewer. We just see the one perfect take.
Having finished this exercise, I looked back over the material I’d collected. I’d started with a memory of Easter, age 4, and ended up in the DVD extras of a Western. In that sense, I’d fulfilled the brief. I’d been drawn by my subconscious- I’d escaped my own subject matter.
However, there was definitely a theme going through my journey. Almost every memory had focussed on “crashes” – most of these crashes were simulated crashes- playing videogames in my head, the deathstar exploding, fantasising about my car crashing, etc. I was surprised to discover this. It had not been my intention to talk about this. This was a present day anxiety finding its way into my work.
I think about death a lot. I’m one of those people that constantly asks themselves, “what if?” What if I stepped off this train platform / high ledge / etc. I don’t feel suicidal. I’m just running simulations. But this behaviour seems to be troubling me on a subconscious level. The poem was telling me this.
This is why the final part of the poem becomes so important. The “OK I finally get it” moment is a memory of me (as a child) realising how cinema is made! We hide the bad takes, we only show the good. And this is perhaps a lesson I can take into my own life. We all have negative thoughts. We all simulate bad things in our heads. And all these simulations are like out-takes from a film- we needed to work through them to get to the “good” take. We try try try again, until we get it right.
I suppose this poem was my way of saying to myself, “Ross, if you think you’re crazy. You’re not alone.”
…And it’s hardly an original idea. Quite boring really. But it was a necessary thing for me to write and go through.
Confession time- I think this poem was damaged a bit in the edit. I worked with my editor at Penned in the Margins, on editing the poem down to the final version. It was a much longer piece that we condensed down. Together, we blurred the edges of each memory, made the poem feel more dream-like. The idea was to recreate the way that humans connect memories in their head- synapses move fast, the connections come and go quickly. However, I think that the poem loses some of it’s sense in the process.
I really agree with this comment from Kristoffer Cornils:
“I don’t like to consider those two concepts – »reality« and »virtuality« – as opposed entities, but rather as complementary to each other, if not completely indistinguishable.”
It pains me that this did not come through in the poem. Cornils hits upon the point that is just beyond the reach of the poem. It’s an idea that I was striving towards, but the poem ends too soon. Fantasy and memory intertwine- we cannot separate one from the other, and our worldview is built from their synthesis.
I would like to comment on Stefan Mesch’s reading, but I can only read it though Google Translate, which is pretty hard! (If there is a version in English, please post it below and I’ll add some comments).
It’s clear Mesch didn’t like it but it’s hard to respond further. Reading Mesch’s criticism through GT is a bit like hearing your neighbours insulting you through the wall. You find yourself straining extra hard to hear it, but all you can gather is a feeling!
Ah, in that sense. It’s a bit like reading poetry.
Anyway, whether you liked it or hated it, I’m happy to respond in the comments below