by Hazel Anna Rogers for the Carl Kruse Blog
I have been writing poetry for many years now. Lust was the hallmark of my earlier works, though not always of the romantic kind. I wrote long performance poems that were without nuance or metaphor, poems that recounted my life’s struggles in meandering pages of endless verse using the most simple of rhyming couplets to bind the lines together. I wrote lustfully and vigorously, each moment of pain unfolding onto a page before me, words that brought relief to me and twisted sympathy out of my audience, wringing tears and gasps out of them word by word.
I dislike my early poetry. It feels begging and sincerely unimaginative to me. That isn’t to say my works weren’t enjoyed by others; when I performed in the final stage of the Shropshire Young Poet Laureate competition, people came up to me after I had performed and told me how I had made them cry, how brave I was, how worthy I was of my new title of Young Poet Laureate. Looking back, I resent the fact my poetry took so much from those who heard it. It feels as though I manipulated the sentiments of the collective in order to rise in glory, rather than sharing the most genuine representation of my passion regardless of how it was received. The poem that charmed them most was that which recounted the story of my anorexia. Here are a few words from that very poem:
I shan’t eat a thing
But of course
I gave in
An apple as small as the palm of my hand
A guilt as wide as all the world’s sand
I told myself
And sure enough
A month went by after that week
That week of hunger so fierce
When it kicked my stomach
My mind it pierced.
At the time, the words showered on me after I won fell upon my ears like a warm breeze. I felt carried by the warmth and love of my audience. It was as though I were cuddled up in my duvet drifting through a dream. I felt validated. I felt proud that I had made something so resonant and beautiful out of the terrifying nightmare that my eating disorder had been. I felt like I could be something, someone. Fame licked my neck and I let her take me in.
Hazel Anna Rogers
After all of the jubilation of my win had faded away, and my year of performances and talks had quickly dissipated, my poetry faded too. I wrote less. My writing had become defined by public reception, and the quiet, slow beginnings of my poetry had been locked away while I basked in compliments from all around. I was living in an American Dream on the other side of the Atlantic, and, as Steven F. Messner and Richard Rosenfeld put so very eloquently, my belief in ‘the Dream [was] sufficiently high to justify a continued commitment to this cultural goal’ (See: Crime and the American Dream, New EDN, 2004, Belmond, Wadsworth, 2007, p.6).
I was committed to my poetry for the sole purpose of social gratification. And once that was gone, my poetry was gone too, for a time at least.
I wrote next to nothing during my first year at university. I can’t find anything that I wrote, anywhere. I took to the culture of drinking and would get so unbearably drunk that I wouldn’t be able to join my housemates on their forays into the nightlife of Leeds. With the stress of university, the constant strain of my eating disorder still stamping its mark into my days, the heartbreak of losing my first love, and my continued alcoholic habits, there was no space for creativity.
The poems that I wrote when au pairing in Paris and working in Santorini were lacklustre. Forgettable. I had been sucked into the Instagram sphere of poetic minimalism and quasi-spirituality, and it showed. My poems were short, formless, and dull, with perhaps some vague reference to love or loss. They’re pretty little things, and well-catered to the social media audience I was writing them to, but they lacked the depth and substance of the poetry that I love to read:
I dreamed of you
Everything was the same
And you smiled and well I did too
We were in love
But I woke up
And there’s nothing more to say.
I had given up on reading during that time. The obsession I had with books as a young child who would read at breaktime during school and hold onto a book during mealtimes had been pushed aside. Taking the time to read a book felt strange, like my time was being wasted, like sitting down to read was tedious and slothful. I had rejected something essential, something so vital to me, and replaced it with an empty diet of Instagram posts, Youtube videos, and blogs. I had stopped playing piano, one of the most beautiful dedications of time I think I ever committed to while I was growing up. I could think up a number of reasons as to why I stopped doing the things that had given my life so much meaning up until then, but I suppose I was just unhappy. Nothing fulfilled me. It took new love to turn all of that around.
I went to a music festival in the summer of 2018, the first I had ever been to, though it has been disputed amongst my friends as to whether it ‘counts’ as a festival considering it was only a one day affair. I met my last boyfriend there, in the midst of sweating crowds, honking vendors, and the relentless heat of summer. We spoke the next day of books and music and language, and it was as though something had reawakened inside of me. I could harken it – arbitrarily, as I’m not the pious sort – to some sort of religious calling, because that’s what it felt like. The names of authors, musicians, and artists clapped like thunder through my skull, each sentence coming out more excitably and erratically than the last. I was delayed on my train home, and in the waiting room of Hove Station picked up a copy of NoViolet Bulawayo’s novel ‘We Need New Names’. I had finished it once I got home (it is worth noting here that I had lost my phone, which helped considerably with my concentration). Bulawayo’s words whistled through me like wildfire. I needed a new name too, a new purpose and renewed worth. Why had I left it so long? I thought. Why did I ever let this go?
Cliched it may sound as a student of Literature, one of my earliest loves was William Shakespeare. I kept a large tome of his ‘Collected Works’ by my bedside and would learn and recite soliloquies and short passages every time I went to bed. That huge book seemed to hold in it all I could every feel or say condensed into the form of sonnets and plays. I felt Hamlet’s agony as my own, Romeo’s yearning speeches I heard in my own voice, Isabella’s incensed monologues spoke to my own internal rage. Isolated in my eating disorder, I would read the last lines of Sonnet 30 –
But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
All losses are restor’d, and sorrows end.
– and weep on my loneliness as I felt asleep. I think the long hours I spent reading and dissecting his work fed into my obsession with form, which was the next trajectory my poetry was to take as I entered into my later teen years.
Love entered me. I surrendered to its welcoming embrace and hailed back all the prior loves I had left to rot in my memory. I read and read and read. And I began writing again too. Form was the thing, the ‘rub’. I wrote sonnets and attempted to write epics (which always ended up being rather too short to be considered so), and I experimented with free verse in ways I had never done before. I painstakingly counted syllables and wracked my brain for synonyms and metaphors and beauty. I wrote and rewrote reams and reams of verse. And it was wonderful. Self-doubt and constant self-deprecation fell away in the faces of purpose and joy. The piano in my family home was dusted off, and all the memories came flooding back. The harmonies, the melancholic nocturnes, the patient gnossiennes, the exuberant waltzes. It was all there, hibernating in the abyss of a never-ending winter that had suddenly been showered with rays of melting sunshine. I melted into my piano and my writing. Looking over the poems that I wrote back then, I don’t actually think that my writing was anywhere near what it is today. But the words are true, and love runs through them as clearly as water.
My patient muscle, endure a moment
This sweet verisimilitude, at last
Thy heart hath stomach’d a long malcontent
Dreaded dusk, morns of dread, that too did pass
My love is wider than it all, o bliss!
Music, lament, for lyrics much a-chang’d
A diff’rent melody my fingers kissed
Cradle me, my dove, play your chords in vain.
No traverse so seemingly endless
Than that across the pebbles towards thou.
In sheets of salt, cover my head and tress
Drench me in words and sea and waves of sound
I am here in thy arms, thy quiet rose,
Plant me gently, in the place thou hast chose.
So, where do we go from here? In many ways, the poetry I wrote throughout 2018 and 2019 was similar to the poetry from the start of my journey, albeit more technically and emotionally astute. I would show all the poems I had written to my boyfriend, thus there remained a sort of attachment to validation in my poetry. That isn’t inherently bad. I think criticism and compliment are essential to becoming a better poet. But I catered so readily to his eye, an eye I knew was most fixated on the importance of classical form and complex language. I enjoyed what I wrote, and I like most of it now, but I know that at the back of my mind I often let the influence of my knowledge of my partner’s mind influence how I wrote. I wasn’t completely free, yet, to write however I wished to. Constraint breathes through these poems, as I read them, evocative and mature as they are. I had to let go.
The first time, I believe, that I truly let go of the constraints of social pressures on my poetry was the night I performed my winning poem at the Brighton and Hove Poetry Festival. I came runner-up in the student competition and arrived with my boyfriend and best friend to perform on the night. As we became increasingly despairing at the calibre of the poetry we were watching, I began drinking. I started to enjoy the whole affair, laughing when it wasn’t appropriate then holding in the giggles while my boyfriend shot me fierce glares due to my inability to control myself. I didn’t want to control myself, and that made me want to laugh ever more. Then, I was called up. I swaggered on stage, made the audience laugh as I sipped my drink and feigned some sort of bewilderment at what I was to do, then began reading. Halfway through, having realised that I hadn’t actually explained the premise of my poem, I halted. I briefly explained the poem, then continued to read the end of it. The interruption of my ‘flow’ enraged my then boyfriend, who claimed I had ruined the poem and made quite a fool out of myself. I remained glowing under his frustrations, so wonderfully amused at my buffoonery that I couldn’t help but laugh. He gave up lecturing me, and I exchanged knowing winks with our third companion, who told me he’d found my ‘act’ brilliantly funny. I was filled with joy as we walked home through the night. I had nothing to prove to anyone. I was untouchable and filled with pride. I slept well that night. This is the poem I performed that night.
‘Tis darker than when I climbed the stairs
The moon is rising behind a buttermilk sky
The green turns to black
The trees to skeletal protrusions leading a sordid jamboree over the pastures –
It is in these days
When the sun meets the ferns
And the forest, as if breathing
Pulses and sways
Wintertide morn on fronds
Waterlogged foliole –
This is where the sky meets the hills
And the trees, as though living
Quiver and shudder in the wind –
The lights are bright in this here capsule.
I am between loves of mine.
Adieuing and gooddaying
And now, perhaps anticlimactically, we come to today. Days I spend whittling away my work-pile and drifting into irrelevant daydreams as I contemplate which task to tackle next. My mind is in other worlds, and it is wistful and longing. I watch the autumn days draw ever shorter, and the leaves littering my garden turn from green, to brown, to black, to mulch. I have days of bursting inspiration, moments that capture my heart so fully I cannot contain them and I simply must place them onto a page, arranging them so the folly of the moment is everlasting. I write less in the first person, giving my voice instead to the world around me.
The lines I have written in this last year reverberate in my mind long after I finish writing them. I feel connected to these poems in ways I didn’t know that I could towards my own writing. Of course, I would love recognition, I would love people to read my poems in books and dissect them in classes as I sit, laughing at their misconceived notions on my true intent. But I am happy to simply let my pen scrawl and sculpt away regardless of its end product, regardless of who will see it or enjoy it.
So I guess you’ll just have to imagine what those poems look like. Or maybe you’ll read them somewhere, someday. Who knows.
Blog homepage at https://www.carlkruse.com
Contact: carl AT carlkruse DOT com
Other articles by Hazel include On Being Lonely, Anticipation Anxiety, and Jellyfish and the Mystery of the Ocean.
Carl Kruse is also on Clearvoice.