The Birth of a Poem


You are standing (or sitting, or lying down, or doing whatever you will). Sheltering under merciful trees at a traffic junction on a hot afternoon, trailing sand through your fingers at the beach with a friend, or sitting lonely at a cafe, watching steam rise from your half-empty coffee mug, tracing the half-moon stain it leaves on the wooden table top.

There you are, slow-roasting in the sun, sniffing your Arabica flavoured fingertips, when it walks right up to you. It may make a ruckus, clumsily tripping over the army green metal-backed chairs into the tables, alarming the couple sitting cozy two rows down from you, knocking the girl’s pom pom-topped beanie askew.

But usually, it is unassuming; quiet. A familiar stranger sidling up to you to stand soundlessly at your elbow. A fellow commuter on the train. Another person waiting for the light to turn green.

Realising it is there, you look over. You are not surprised. You are calm. It has walked right out of the very landscape you are standing in.

Sometimes, if you are lucky, it has all its features filled in. It has a name, a face. You could tell the friend you are going to meet next week over lunch if its eyes were the green of sea foam tipping drunk onto the shore, or the brown of Earl Grey tea from just looking at it once– so distinct they are.

More likely than not, it has a silhouette, a form, and it is your job to write it into being. It is an invitation to creation.

Do not forget that it is yours. It has walked out of you as much as it has the landscape. It is a part of you begging for anarchy, for a life of its own. For release.

Perhaps it is your first time discovering its existence, perhaps its nib already has the well-worn roundness of stationery regularly used. But there is a pen, a pencil, in your pocket. With practice, you may be able to sketch in its face, its style, its imageries and metaphors in the few minutes before the light changes, before the waiter comes over and asks if you would like a refill.

Sometimes, this outline has to follow you around for days, weeks, before you can decide if the way its hair moves in the wind reminds you of your mother; if it has the coarse hands of a memory that still makes you ache at 3 in the morning. It may take you days of repeated revision before you get its nose right, or manage to sew the third button of its flannel in (is this flannel red or black?: Another important question).

You shuffle through the stack of cards you keep at the back of your mind, each one a memory, a lesson, till the right ones falls out. You pass each card between your two hands, weighing it’s feather-light heft in your palm; it needs to be exactly right. It needs to feel right, taste right. Its sound must lay against your tongue in exactly the right shape as you roll it around in your mouth.

It takes patience and practice. It takes the certain tenacity of mothers who have birthed enough times to know the grace needed each time. You want to create something that will wear well with the yellowing page it first took shape and breath upon. You want it to have life enough to walk on its own, even when you are not there to take it out on a leash. It needs to be confident enough to hold its own in a conversation with strangers. It needs to be yours enough to be recognisable as your own.

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