Keep My Soul: on writing a memoir in verse
Susan Bradley Smith is a Melbourne-based writer and a Wheeler Centre Hot Desk fellow. During her fellowship, Susan has been working on a collection of poems, called The Screaming Middle. It's an ambitious project, which has seen Susan writing a poem every day for a year. Here Susan describes the process of writing for her life.
It was words that worked, in the end. Lines from a poem by the 20th-century English poet Stevie Smith became my mantra for the year I turned 50:
Oh Lion in a peculiar guise,
Sharp Roman road to Paradise,
Come eat me up, I'll pay thy toll
With all my flesh, and keep my soul.
Families have their tough times. How do you keep your soul intact when it is in line to be grated? Smith had set me a challenge. The poet Gwen Harwood warned that children can eat you alive, but rather than surrender to that threat, I began an experiment in life-boating.
Beginning the moment I turned 50, I would write a poem a day for a year. And I did. But the project quickly began to change form. What began as a wandering free-verse capture of daily life soon transformed into a strict tanka regime. (The tanka is a form of classical Japanese poetry, longer than a haiku, and has 31 syllables in five lines).
The project required some bravery as once I announced the plan, people started holding me to it. I now had family asking me, ‘Have you written your poem yet?’ as though it were another chore. I chose the tanka form, frankly, because their historic format of five lines with a syllabic spend of 5/7/5/7/7 more often than not allowed me to tweet the poem, which I’d decided should also be part of the experiment. Who reads poetry on social media? Would I make new friends around the world? Find a publisher? Or simply become an embarrassment? By the time the year was up, I’d written a book, lost a job, spent all my money, and become addicted to more than Twitter … but kept my soul. This I know. More than that, the jury is out.
It was a tough and interesting year, so you could say I was lucky with my raw material.
I’d long been curious about what people have done or begun at landmark times in their life. Times of change, or stocktake. I’d casually collected stories of new hobbies taken up or adventures embarked upon. One friend had promised herself daily sex with her husband as her challenge (that’s a good story), but I wanted something private; secret even (that part didn’t last long). Even though I have diaries as old as 1973, my fidelity to confessional practice had long ago lost its honesty and innocence. ‘The year of the tanka’ (as I now refer to my experiment) returned me to myself. Truth had become a literary construction in much of my writing. But working on the book saw me playing salon games with myself (naming writers who piss me off, for example) and writing through the squalor of betrayal. This reminded me of how I had routinely silenced myself.
I love the genre of confessional writing, and this experiment has taught me not only that I know very little as a writer and scholar, but it has also created a new humility in my practice.
It was a tough and interesting year, so you could say I was lucky with my raw material. A new kind of pain demands a new expressive modality, or even a new sentiment. One of the most famous short stories ever written (and often wongly attributed to Ernest Hemingway) and one that is held up as a benchmark of the power of literary compression is the micromemoir: ‘For Sale. Baby Shoes. Never worn’. It is what remains unsaid that creates the power of this story, because as shocked and sympathetic readers we must cooperate in imagining the causality. We construct the larger canvas of pain behind this elliptical tragedy. This is something I enjoyed most in writing my tanka memoir.
For the overall structure, I found inspiration in work that combined music and poetry. I wanted to rework the poems into an overarching verse narrative with a meditative strain that transcended the chronological structure of a quotidian memoir. Kindertotenlieder (‘Songs on the Death of Children’) by the Austrian romantic composer Gustav Mahler inspired me most. This song-cycle was based on 428 poems written in 1833-34 by the grieving poet Friedrich Rückert after the death of his two children. Two lines from the cycle particularly resonated:
Du musst nicht die Nacht in dir verschränken
musst sie ins ew'ge Licht versenken.
You must not enfold the night in you.
You must sink it in eternal light.
Harwood accepts fate and faithfully documents it. Smith jokes with it, and enters into competition. But Mahler and Rückert surrender to fate, and endeavour to use the confessional as a psychological tool to cope with loss. Although I didn’t understand this at the time of writing, I see The Screaming Middle as an idiomatic cousin to that enterprise, not so much an attempt at poetic resuscitation but a gasp for solace. An unfolding.
Three Poems From The Screaming Middle
We are all as old
As linen, crushed lilies first
Sweet then pungent
And bruised, but at this meeting
We all have coloured pencils.
Sibling song (morning)
I saw my brother
from my bedroom window, he
was walking his dog
at fiveish after the night’s
rain, along satin ocean.
Thrill a minute (up)
Two kids in the surf,
one stropping off southwards,
sand hard, heart heavy, eyes
wet with salted umbrage when
we—the love police—find him.