Friday 10 January 2020

How I wrote 'The Bleakest Show on Earth'

I’ve just concluded a huge, intense writing session, finally completing my poem ‘The Bleakest Show on Earth’. The method I used was a little different from the path I’ve followed for other poems, so I thought it might be interesting to share what just happened.

My usual way of working is this: I search for inspiration, think of an idea, come up with a suitable rhyming scheme, then put down a few lines to see if it’s going to work out. Sometimes it doesn’t – the rhyming scheme may be too restrictive, or just doesn’t seem to fit with what I need. That’s easy to change, so when I find something which ‘fits’, off I go. Sometimes I veer away from my original path, which is more normal if I only have a vague idea about where I was going with it!

The length of the poem dictates itself. ‘The Queen of Every Nightmare’ didn’t want to go beyond 4 stanzas, and those were hard-fought battles to get them onto the page. It’s a very dense, very intense poem, a hard one to craft to my satisfaction. Whereas ‘The Giant Who Could Not Sing’ flowed easily off the keyboard, is a long, long poem, and it’s a much lighter piece.

Back to ‘The Bleakest Show on Earth’. I had no ideas for this poem, not at first, so my thoughts were that I could go to DeviantArt and look at some random posts and pick something which spoke to me. To avoid having to find something (DA is a big place), I usually look for an artist or a curated group which fits my own (dark) tastes. In this case I found a group called ‘Dark-Asphyxiation’ which seemed to fit the bill. Here’s a link:
There is some fantastic art there, but perhaps I was overloaded with too much quality to pick just one, and meanwhile nothing was telling me ‘here is a story you should tell’. So that in itself gave me the idea – what if I told all of the stories I was seeing?

Time to sidetrack again. Back in 2011 I wrote one of my favourite poems, ‘Who I Am’, which tells about the regret someone has at the end of their life. It’s a series of rhyming couplets, which are connected by the theme of the poem, but in actual fact could be jumbled up and put into any order (though in practice, I did rearrange the couplets to find what flowed best). There’s a ‘header’ and a ‘footer’ to lead in and out of the poem, but the meat of the poem is a list of ‘things’, which I wrote by creating those couplets as they presented themselves to my imagination, and putting them into the finished poem.

Back to the present. The thing with the couplets? Didn’t want to do that. What I decided to do was look at every image in the DA group and write a single line, the first impression which came into my head. No thinking, no ‘let me sit back and consider what I’m seeing’. Look at the picture, write something down.

So that’s what happened. I ended up writing two pages of single-line thoughts, 104 in total. Here are the first 20, to give you some idea about what I ended up with:
  • Tainted angels burning high upon a bridge
  • Flower-covered maidens frozen in an icy pool of their own tears
  • A bloody-nosed young girl who could not bear to go school
  • A hand closed tight upon the eye now blinded in its palm / grasp / grip
  • A choking mass of cobwebs fill the mouth and blind the eyes
  • A wedding veil torn apart, still covering the bride’s head, bruised
  • A broken body lying in a field of burning skulls / burning body + broken bones
  • A priest whose robes hide the things he has stolen
  • A silver-haired child carrying her heart in a dirty carrier bag
  • A old man kneeling in the ruins of his home
  • A well-dressed woman, strangled by a feathered scarf around her neck
  • A girl without hands trying to feed herself, but she has no mouth
  • A woman waiting beneath the surface of a stagnant pool
  • Burning stairs, above and below, with people trapped between
  • A dying child, being comforted by the woman who killed her
  • An army of crows, circling their mistress
  • A boat carrying children to their deaths
  • A snake-eyed woman, fingers pushing into her own skin
  • A witch, cutting out her own tongue
  • An angel crying, lying on a broken shield
You may be able to fit some of these with the images in the DA group, but I should add that when I clicked on the art to look at it, sometimes that would lead to other images from the same artist, so if they steered me towards an idea I wrote that down too. It was not a strict ‘I must have one line for every image’, but I kept within the general area, made a few detours, and ended up with 104 ‘scenes’.

In ‘Who I Am’ I had many rhyming couplets. Here, I had no rhymes at all, just a list of scenes. I had no theme and no title. If I came up with some poetry, what form would it take? Could I write one couplet per scene? Possibly. But what I decided to do was find some kind of theme where, like ‘Who I am’, I could simply add the scenes in any order. I could then pick any two of the lines I’d created, make them rhyme, and add them to the poem.

So at this point I really had to find a theme. You can’t just throw something into a poem if the poem has no direction at all. How would these scenes all fit together. They would make a list of some kind, but a list of... what? Here are the ideas I went through before I settled on the final one:
  • Things I have seen but never want to see again
  • Day trip to Hell
  • Demonic job interview
  • A collection of broken/damaged souls. Is the collector trying to fix them? Or did he break them himself?
  • Museum of madness
  • Dinner party guests, or just a party
  • Carnival freak show
Right there. That was it. A carnival freak show. The first stanza is four lines, inviting you in to see the freaks and oddities inside. It’s a ‘roll up, roll up, come and see the...’ idea, and every line which follows begins with ‘See the...’, as if the carnival barker is calling out the attractions one by one.

That also gave me the title, a variation of ‘The Greatest Show on Earth’, which of course was now ‘The Bleakest Show on Earth’.

So, my next question: do I want to use the same structure and rhyming scheme as ‘Who I Am’? I am always wary of doing that, not wanting to re-visit old ideas, but here it was irresistible. That was decided. Compare the two poems, and you’ll see the obvious similarities, but only in the structure. This new poem’s content is a completely different beast.

I now had 104 one-line scenes, which I needed to pair up into rhyming couplets, but at first there was no need to do that. I reasoned that I could put some structure into 20 or so lines, the 15 beats per line of the rhyming scheme, and then later I would put together pairs of lines which rhymed. This would have been very effective if any of my line endings had rhymed, but I had 20+ single lines, so then I began the much tougher work of pushing new lines to couple with existing lines.

That’s the hard grind of my poetry. I use an online rhyming dictionary, RhymeZone, which does exactly what you would expect. Type in a word and it gives you words which rhyme. But, and this is so important, it also gives you synonyms and related words. In my case I could then change the word at the end of the line, to see if it could fit with any of the 20 or more lines I’d already prepared. Or I could change the end of any of those lines to fit. And so on. That is very much a simplification, but basically I use  RhymeZone as a tool to give me as many words as possible, which I could not possibly think of so effectively, at least not with my limited human capacity!

Many of the 104 one-liners did not make it into the final poem. Some were too similar to existing scenes, some were simply weaker ideas, not good enough to be of any use – remember that each time I’d written down the first thing in my head, so some ‘chaff’ was to be expected. Some of the scenes were mixed together, or elements from one were used elsewhere. If I needed a particular character doing something else, I made it happen, or invented someone, or something, new. Remember that none of this is ever set in stone. The one-liners were ideas, to be changed and manipulated at will, which is why my initial list looks less like the final poem than you might otherwise expect.

As always, the poem seemed to tell me when it was done. My list of good ideas dwindled, and I paired the last few couplets with some difficulty. I ended up throwing a few 15-beat structured lines away because they just weren’t good enough.

Now I had the poem, it just needed an ending, the ‘punch in the face’ and the ‘what just happened there?’ all in one. You may be reading this before reading the poem itself, so I won’t add a spoiler, but I will say that I am pleased with the ending, and it all wrapped everything up nicely in a single 4-line stanza.

Poems like this don’t happen every day. Using this method I’ve now written two, one in 2011 and one in 2020. Although I used the same rhyming scheme in both ‘Who I Am’ and ‘The Bleakest Show on Earth’, and the similarities are obvious if you compare them, they are very different stories. They stand apart, but they also stand together. I’ve wanted to use the techniques employed in ‘Who I Am’ for a long time, and I think I took it to a different level. I’ve ended up with a piece of work of which I am extremely proud. And that is all I ever want from my writing.