On Tuesday I went to Tunbridge Wells, where my poem ‘Cigar’ had won second prize in the Kent and Sussex Poetry Society Open Competition. I’d entered at the last minute, without much expectation of anything happening, so was delighted and a bit startled when I got the news a couple of weeks ago.
The Kent and Sussex Poetry Society, a wonderful body that has existed since the 1920s (when it was founded by Vita Sackville-West, I’m told) gave me and the First Prize winner, Andrew Soye, and other prize winners a superb meal (sadly Jo Bell, who won third prize and with whom I read a few weeks ago in Manchester, couldn’t be there). Afterwards the judge, Pascale Petit, gave an exciting reading: superb and very powerful poems, some of them not yet published in book form.
Later I remembered how my poem was written – I was actually having a cigar, as I occasionally do, and the poem came when I had nothing to write on. So I dismembered the cigar packet and wrote on that. I’m sure other poets have grabbed bizarre bits of paper or card in similar circumstances rather than lose a poem! (Please write and tell me if you’ve done this, and maybe even send a scan!)
So I thought it would be fun to show the actual bits and pieces that got the first draft scribbled on them. Here they are below, with the final version of the poem following – quite a bit changed, as you’ll see if you bother to decipher the scribble! Sorry I can’t position the bits better, but I’m limited by the way the blog format works: it won’t let me put things just where I’d like them!
It would have, unrolled, a small book’s
surface area. My first was a gift
from the man at the next table
of the pavement café at the Hotel Inglaterra.
He worked, he said,
at the Partagás factory, where they read
the newspaper aloud all morning,
and in the afternoon novels and poetry
while, adept as conjurers’,
the workers’ hands rip, stuff and wrap. More words
went into it than I shall ever draw out.
The tobacco-god is a bird with scarlet plumage
and mother-of-pearl eyes. His four
attendants are the green
spirit of the fresh leaf, the brown of the dried,
the red spirit of fire and the blue of smoke.
The red visits only for flaring instants;
is fickle, demands nurture. The green
is memory and imagination. The blue
is a girl dressed in feathers: lapis, lavender, sky.
When she kisses
her tongue is sharp as seabrine, chocolate, chilli.
She says the word tabaco is Carib,
from a language whose last speaker
has been dead four hundred years. But the brown
lives in my hand this moment, brittle
and crisp as a chrysalis. Filtered
through his crushed spirals,
molecular poems thread themselves
into my genes, become part of the air I breathe,
the words I speak. Both of us end in ash.