This is a series where I interview poets about their process in regards to a single poem. Today I am honoured to have the incredible Ankh Spice, whose poetry I have enjoyed for a long time on Twitter. Here, he talks about his love poem New Cloth.
Your pattern pinned itself to the fray of me
the first day. Not yet stitched, aligning
fragile tissue, judging bias – the wounded
always holding their breath.
When they remade you, I slept
on a hospital couch with your dress, bundled
like a woollen heart, to my nose. Five hours
a short time to outfit a whole woman
into her own dear self.
We tied knots with every colour we could find.
Understand, love always gets down to the wisp
beyond fabric, to stroke
the finest thread of a person – our making looms
us legacies of holes –
you fear cutting yourself short, me
born running with scissors, and all of us
rippling fast towards the great unravelling
Yet the great thumping treadle of a heart can still say
now you’re mending – billow with the wind.
D: It’s clearly a very personal, heartfelt poem. How did you initially approach it?
A: New Cloth was written as an unabashed love poem, it was always that.
As a relative newcomer to publishing my work, it was interesting and quite sad to discover that ‘love poetry’ was looked down on and unfashionable (I don’t think that’s true of poetry in a broader sense, but I’ve certainly seen it in a ‘serious publishing world’ sense), so it’s been a sort of act of defiance to persist in proudly calling it that. To say yes, love, however you define it, IS a driving force for being human and for this art, it always has been, and this strange jadedness we’ve developed towards ‘obvious sentiment’ perhaps explains a lot about why we’re in such a mess. To dismiss it as only hearts and flowers means ignoring a whole palette of what makes us so complicated.
I rarely approach my poems with any deliberate or conscious plan - I like to first let them lead me where they need to go, and spot the layers and subtexts my subconscious has already woven into them, then pull at those threads (it’s already doing it in this interview I see, because none of the sewing analogies in this sentence were intentional - finding them brought an internal nod and smile that felt just the same as them emerging in a poem).
Every detail in this poem is a real moment, and the seed image was an enduring one for Cate (who is the heart of this work). She’s never forgotten me sleeping on that hospital couch with her dress bundled up like a comforter - we’d literally not spent a night apart since we met, and I did it unconsciously. The sewing analogies grew from there - not unique for a poem that references surgery, but I wanted to write around those metaphors with a very delicate hand, to make the stitches and layers as subtle and deep as the tapestry of feeling in a long term relationship.
It also became quickly obvious that although this is an incredibly personal poem, it wanted to be more than that, too - it’s a love poem for Cate but it’s also intended as a love poem to the trans community, and really to all who have been told they are, or who have judged themselves as, broken, undone, unworthy, unfixable, any of those terms our cruel head-voices use to tell us no-one could ever love us unconditionally. Once it revealed to me what it was, it was very important to me that this poem carry that message, and with as much tenderness as I could write into it.
On top of that, it’s sadly rare to see positive portrayals in writing of truly loving, long-term relationships between men and trans women, and it shouldn’t be. This poem also wanted to look the world in the eye and proclaim itself for what it is, to challenge anyone not to see the love inside it, so I suppose it was a double-challenge. From the reactions this poem has had, I’d very shyly like to think I succeeded in meeting it.
D: Because the poem was a love poem and from a tender place was it hard to redraft? You’ve touched on it a bit there, but what is your rewriting process like?
A: Rewriting is usually a gentle thing for me, and for this poem that was particularly so. When it works well it’s intuitive, first done by feel and sound, almost like listening closely to a piece of music for a note that’s just slightly off, then tightening or loosening a string. I’ll often close my eyes, repeat a line or phrase and try and really feel whether they capture the nuance of the moment I’m describing - if a word is wrong it sort of ‘plunks’. Interestingly, for me that usually happens when something is too bland rather than too outlandish. In a way I think being blessed with that kind of process made it easier to edit such a personal piece, because the feelings and moments it references are so very intimate and held very close. You know them like you know very little else, and if you genuinely listen to the way love sounds when it speaks to you (not the way we’re told its voice should sound) then you’ll write genuine, not cliché.
With a love poem like this I think there’s also a pivot-point of sentiment versus surprise you’re constantly revolving around. By ‘surprise’ I mean the thing I always seek out in a poem, the moment that makes you do a tiny double-take because it wasn’t quite what you were expecting. I think for a very personal poem those moments work as a tension that stops it from becoming syrup, so finding those and playing with cadence and line breaks to expose them is key. For this poem, the last line in particular took some getting to, but doing some of the rewrites in a brisk southerly whipping off the water finally blew it in free.
(As an aside I’ve had so many comments that the rhythm and flow of my work sounds like the ocean even when it isn’t at all about the sea, and people say that most of all about this poem. The secret is that all of it is, because it’s what we’re made of and it’s an enormous part of my being. I do the vast majority of editing right at the feet of that other love. For my wedding vows I wrote a poem called ‘Love poem to three things’ - one was Cate and one was the sea, and that might explain a great deal.)
D: Was it difficult to take such an intimate poem and open it out to the world?
For me, the ‘letting go’ of any piece of work is part of the process. It’s an act of trust in your reader and a big act of trust in yourself. And I don’t mean that at all lightly - when I think about what we do as writers, and even more particularly as poets, I’m in awe of every one of us. It’s an immensely brave thing to offer up something you’ve created from the ripples in your own substance and lived experience (and I’m generalising that this is what all poems are because we do stitch them together from bits of ourselves when we’re not even aware we’re doing it - even if they’re not confessional or personal poems, they spring from every seed that ever floats through your weather). And it’s bold and it’s wild and it’s liberating if you can approach it that way, as a setting free rather than a march to judgement. For me, inherent in that is having faith that wherever those words land inside a reader, whatever they take from them, is exactly where they were meant to land and what they needed to be for that person, and nowhere has that been more true than with this poem. Was I worried about repercussions from bigoted or judgemental people who didn’t understand or didn’t want to understand, given the subject matter? In a way, but those repercussions were already well and truly happening, and the importance of that positive portrayal, the actual defiance of ‘this is love, dare you to deny it’ that I mentioned in my answer to the first question far outweighed any anxiety about that.
In terms of people having a window into your intimacy with a poem like this, I think that’s so often what poems that move me do, whether it’s a poem about love or a poem about brassica. There’s an invitation to the reader to move - to step right in, to be part of a little-bit-secret way of looking/living/feeling, to feel or consider something they didn’t feel before they began to read, or perhaps to remember a feeling they thought they had forgotten or couldn’t quite name. I guess it helps that I don’t have a choice about being a person who feels publicly - I move through the world with very few filters because of the way my brain works (or possibly doesn’t), and anyone who knows me knows that I can’t not express vulnerability, I can’t not just lose it a hundred times a day at even the simplest little wonder, so I’ve long since stopped being embarrassed to be seen wearing every feeling on the outside. The funny thing is that a lot of people seem to find themselves more free to express their own weird human brimmings-over when they’re in my company, and I wouldn’t change that for all the snails in the sea - particularly when it happens with men who have so often been stuck in their own patriarchal feelings-lockdown since birth. To see someone soften and ease in that way is quite lovely, and I’ve been incredibly privileged to see my poems have sort of the same effect.
D: Do you have a fixed writing process? How typical of your writing process was the creation this poem?
This question really made me smile because my writing process is probably as unfixed as they get. Most of my internal creative life (and a fair bit of my external life) works in a series of wildly flitting leaps, connected in ways that probably only make sense to me. I suspect this is a function of living with ADHD, but also just the way my brain works. It can make getting through a day very difficult, but it’s also the engine for my poetry, mental connections sparking incredibly laterally and then the work to solidify the paths between those elements. Many people who live with ADHD seem to do best by creating routines for themselves, but this is something I struggle with intensely.
I tend to approach a poem by letting it ‘brew’ first, there’ll be the seed of an idea (in the case of New Cloth the image/memory of that moment with Cate’s dress, and everything it represented) that needs to steep. Sometimes it’s a whole line or phrase, sometimes a sensation or an image, sometimes more of a loose jangly skeleton. I often use a basic notepad function on my phone to catch these seeds before they float on (because another thing about ADHD is that it can play havoc with memory), but very seldom write more down at the start. For me the brewing is physical - most of my work is solidified while I run. I’ve been gratified to find out that runner-poets are a thing, and I have a theory that for many of us it’s a really powerful ‘flow state’ conjunction. Running is incredibly meditative for me, I do it alone, with music, and always by the sea, often remote and up to 30km at a time, several days a week. I think the physical flow state it induces is literally the only time my mind stops ‘skittering’ in the non-useful ways and starts drawing together the threads of those lateral leaps into something cohesive, but perhaps it does that without removing any of the movement I find so valuable in a poem (because I’m literally moving as it happens).
Once the shape of a piece has really started to show (and this can be days, weeks, months, sometimes they split into more than one poem even), then I’ll start to actually write. For New Cloth it took a couple of weeks, and when I began to write it was mostly formed. Then there’s editing - how much and how long is hugely variable. I’ll usually try a few passes and if I get stuck, the edits are also being turned over mentally and re-stitched as I run (back to flow state).
My favourite part is the ‘click’ - there are moments editing where a connecting piece falls into place so definitely it’s audible, and that’s the most satisfying thing in the world (me being me, quite often this is finding a word or phrase that can carry the weight of multiple senses without straining). The ‘clicks’ for New Cloth were many, but the ending took several more weeks of run-and-repeat, and an amazingly blustery run with a lot of kite surfers I saw from the cliffs blew it in and almost made me whoop out loud. You truly feel it, when it’s just right. And I feel so lucky that for me this is such a very physical process. It’s another way of really feeling alive, and it, too, is very much like being in love. (And this is a cliché that would be edited from any poem I wrote, but I knew from the ‘click’ just how right Cate and I were.
So I’ll finish by saying that that’s how ‘New Cloth’ is both rare and typical of my process. Its formation began many years before I realised it as a poem - without her, it wouldn’t exist. Poets, we write life, distilled. Being out there in the teeth of it means you’re feeding it, all the time.
D: Thank you so much.
Ankh Spice is a sea-obsessed, queer-identified poet from Aotearoa (New Zealand). He writes because he doesn’t have much skin, because the tiniest detail of the world is sentient in ways we overlook - loud and raw and all we’ve got - and because he seems to have a bit of a knack for translating that. His work circles constantly around natural imagery, environmental issues, mental and physical health, living landscape and myth, narratives of queerness, physicality and anti-colonisation, and the persistent briefness of being human.
He’s grateful and a bit astonished to have had more than 100 pieces of work published on several continents over the last 2 years and refuses to rate any literary magazine as more important than any other, so doesn’t list them in author bios. Six of his poems have been nominated for Pushcart Prize, Best of the Net, or both, and his poem ‘New Cloth’ was selected as joint winner of the Poetry Archive’s WorldView2020 competition: Wordview 2020: New Cloth - Poetry Archive
He’s a co-editor at Ice Floe Press, a poetry contributing editor at Barren Magazine, and has two secret poetry collections to be published later in 2021 (details TBA).
If he’s not out running the coast, you’ll find him (and a lot of sea and nature photography) on Twitter @SeaGoatScreams, on Facebook @AnkhSpiceSeaGoatScreamsPoetry, on Soundcloud, and much of his published work on linktree.