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 :)

4 Kommentare

  • Anna

    hey, that explains a lot about the poem. thaaanks for posting that! i really like that idea of making something out of memories in that way….

  • paul

    i also wanted to say that i really like your poetry. we are reading it in class now and finally we are doing something that is a bit different from all that old blahblahblah. thanks for that!

  • Stefan Mesch

    Hi Ross!

    I took an hour and made a very, very quick and careless translation of my text.

    but basically, my questions were answered by your notes.

    my one criticism that remains is: I would not have been able to crack / get / understand this without your notes. the notes were essential:

    First idea: literature from kids’ POV tends to bore me – because kids don’t plan / determine / design a lot of their world; they don’t know a lot, and often, they are reactive and passive and stay onlookers of their own stories. A lot of authors also try to force an atmosphere of: „look! Isn’t that cute and magical and droll?“

    thus, child heroes / protagonists tend to get on my nerves: being a child myself made me feel limited, powerless and stupid, and anyone who wants to write about his / her childhood, but only finds the same old kitschy imagery for that („Our couch was an island! The garden was a jungle! My bed a comfy cave! Our summers wanted to go on forever!“ etc.) is losing my respect:

    In 9 of 10 cases, texts – like everything else – fail. But texts featuring children have an even higher quota: 98 of 100 don’t work for me. So you’re threading on thin ice here, Ross Sutherland.

    Second idea: this is my third poem by Ross Sutherland, and the first one that seems so British (or Scottish?) that I am turning to Google for help right away:

    „try try try again“ was written / coined my William Hickson, a British pedagogue.

    Are „lounges“ and „living rooms“ one and the same thing?

    Do Yorkie Easter Eggs always feature this heavy-vehicles-and-construction-site-design I saw on Google? Is that some kind of Kinder Suprise, specifically marketed to boys?

    Dixons is a retailer of electronics and household stuff: maybe the British analogue of „Saturn“? But there are no bartenders at Dixons, right? And there is no Dixons commercials that features a saloon bar, is there (or even: a commercial with a bar AND respective outtakes?).

    Third idea: I like a lot of the texts smaller ideas and techniques: who is manouvering the vehicle (or: spacecraft?) over the mantelpiece? It’s not „me“, it’s not „my hand“, it’s „my mind“ – because these maneuvers are born inside a kid’s head / mind, and the narrator knows this well: living-room based Space Battles take places mostly inside the head / mind / imagination!

    The same kid and their same imagination then burns down „a billion ships“ and deals with his Yorkie egg in the same merciless way as the „Stars Wars“ rebels dealt with the Death Sar. I’m also taken by / enjoying the fantasy that, once the family’s car leaves the road, the kid’s head is slushing / sliding across the pavement the same way a cool, moist beer is sliding across the bar:

    to kids, death is a much more simple, immediate, blunt concept, there are less taboos to think about „the unthinkable“, and any kid old enough to watch „Star Wars“ on TV has also seen his / her fair shares of car crashes on TV. So: to talk and fantasize about a quick, gruesome death? Yep – that IS something that kids do, and it fits well. I like this a lot.

    If I apply this reading / interpretation, the title fits, too: if you have „infinite lives“ in a video game, you can go wild (inside the game), press every button, try around, take your time and act LIKE A KID.

    There is a small thing / image in the text that I like best: on vacation, the narrator’s parents are playing a game where you have to join / connect individual game pieces and hope that they fit. To me, this might be a nice metaphor for: „My parents truly loved each other, and they tried to fit with each other“…?

    Fourth Idea: If I was an editor and had to work with Ross Sutherland, I had a lot of smaller grievances and problems concerning individual words: The narrator is not playing inside his / her own lounge / living room, but at a place of some „you“ character who also has a grandmother. But both these characters – the grandmother and the „you“ – never make any further impact. I also don’t understand what’s happening to the car’s dashboard: are the parents in France and try to recreate / rebuild it using dominoes („reconstructing“ = design it anew?), or is the kid building all-new and ever-changing virtual fantasy game worlds in his head ON THIS DASHBOARD („reconstructing“ = building it all anew, but only inside your mind) just before the kid is thrown out of the car? But then, on car rides, kids tend to take the backseat – so the dashboard is pretty far away from their POV and their perception.

    I also can’t make sense of the bartenders’ actions: the narrator seems to think that these barkeeps are fakers / phoneys, while (?) he is watching how they push a beer down the bar? When do kids get to see barkeepers? And: once the kid can see the deleted scenes and outtakes, he realizes that they are, in fact, NOT fakers? What are these outtakes showing? How barkeepers are failing to slide a beer down the bar? And the beer falls down? This fits the title’s „try try try“ motiv of repeated… tries. But I don’t know what kind of ACTUAL, REAL bar memory of a child I am supposed to picture here, and what „outtakes“ could be seen by a kid in such a setting. Dislike.

    Fifth idea: for the first time, I also want to object to many choices of Konstatin Ames, the translator: using the logic of video games, „infinite lives“ would best be translated as „uncountable, countless lives“, not „neverending lives“. Also: „um eine Lounge dreidimensional zu erfassen“ (Stefan’s interpretation of Konstantin’s translation: „to perceive a lounge in all three dimensions“) sounds too technical and blurry: maybe „to understand all three dimensions of a lounge“ would be better. I would not translate „mists“ but „misty scattering of stars“ [the words for „nebulae“ and „mist“/“fog“ is the same in German, so if you use „Nebel“, most people think of general „mist“, not astronomical stuff] and I’d rather use „board on top of a fireplace“, not „shielding / panelling of a fireplace“. [Edit: Konstantin Ames reminds me that he DID translate „Infinite LIVES“, in the plural: I misread that and was sloppy!]

    The most important thing: the kid is thrown out of the car then „slides“ across the intersection. To me, „sailing“ is too soft / bland a word, here: I want the head to „slosh“ and „slide“ and „slither“ and „foam“! Blood! Grey matter! The same wetness as a glass or a bottle of beer when it is sliding across the bar! Please give me the full-scale delightful children’s-mind-horror-version of this event!

    Did I like reading this? A lot, yes. But it seems half-baked, poorly thought-out, and once I like closer at individual scenes, they seem threadbare / don’t make sense. Mr. Sutherland, what was your plan here? I don’t think that Sutherland did find the very best words here to describe what he set out to describe.

    Worst word: I am bored by the „glittering skies“ above Fance, and for 10 minutes, I have been googling the „last words“ of the Death Star („Standby, Standby“? Or the „You may fire when ready“ said by Grand Moff Tarkin?). I like the abrupt, quick and likeable ending „OK I finally get it“… but personally, I do NOT get this poem’s final „Eureka!“-Moment (or at least: I’m completely lost when it comes to the Outtake-Bartender-Beer-Bar-setup), and thus, I am frustrated to read „ah great: I get it!“, „Wow: I understand!“ at the end of text that I, personally, do NOT understand, and that makes me suspect that it’s the fault of unclear and haphazardly picked word choices that keeps readers from being able to crack the meaning and cry „OK I finally get it!“ themselves.

    Later thoughts:

    I don’t know why a kid that loves sci-fi starts having death visions and fantasies while driving to a place that sells electronics (of all places!)

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