Writing is a process, just as making a sculpture or designing a building is a process. In abstract, that’s a reassuring fact, one that can make the whole daunting task feel more approachable, less life-or-death. In practice, however, I often find that it’s no consolation at all. The process can hurt.
For me, the first step in writing anything is almost always finding a startling or evocative image to hang the rest of the piece off. Actually, scrap that. The first step is ignoring the first step and searching in vain for a high concept approach, something really clever, funny or both. This is my way of biding my time (and gnashing my teeth) until the necessary image presents itself.
When I was tasked with writing a poem about a randomly assigned object in the V&A's British Galleries for the 26 Treasures exhibition, I spent an embarrassing amount of time trying to get the leopard flagon to talk. Or trying to get its makers (two men from Elkington & Co in Birmingham) to talk. Or trying to get a hypothetical tourist standing in front of the object to talk – offering up some accidental American profundity.
I was listening when I should simply have been looking.
Don’t get me wrong. This object has a fascinating story to tell. Several fascinating stories, in fact. I could write a lot more than 62 words around what I’ve learned about the electrotype process, a patented Victorian discovery that I previously knew nothing about. How this cat came back from the Kremlin as a plaster cast and took a nice long bath in lukewarm cyanide. How the Elkington employees (wearing protective clothing, presumably) hooked up an
this heraldic emblem biting down
on gilded gremlin teeth
this silver fur-coat wearing thin
over a skeleton of lesser metal
this celebratory vessel forged
in a bath of odourless cyanide
this power-symbol forced to shield
an embarrassment of leopardness
this wild animal with locked-up eyes
only seeing the bright side
this mythic star-gazer studying
a whole small sky of round electric lights
How I wrote 'Leopard Flagon',
or The uncanny similarities between writing and lying down in a cyanide bath
presumably) hooked up an electrical current to the vat and watched invisible silver particles in the solution begin to magically form a priceless coating across their prize. How they dried it off and burnished its surfaces to approximate the sheen of the original – a sheen that makes the leopard flagon seem to glow, almost golden, under the British Galleries spotlighting.
The leopard flagon does talk. For 126 years, it’s been engaged in a silent conversation with shadows and light. Its upturned eyes, almost invisible until I stood on my toes, were the clue that I needed. They’re like the finger twitch that allows the seemingly vegetative patient to communicate. I followed their gaze and saw what they see, perpetually, a blinding cluster of overhead track lighting.
Sometime later in the V&A café, after my caffe Americano cup had emptied and my notebook had filled up with demoralizing scribblings, that image came back to me as a phrase, as the ‘whole small sky of round electric lights’. At last, I could move on to the next step.
So often, the writing process is like lying down in a room-temperature bath and waiting for someone to switch on the electricity.
I went back to the leopard flagon and had another good look. Any tourist who happened to be passing at the moment I finally peered behind the obtrusive shield (and spotted the overgrown garlic bulb hidden there) could probably write a poem about the sound that spontaneously escaped from my mouth.
'Leopard Flagon' was part of 26 Treasures, an exhibition that spread from the V&A in London to other UK museums, and ultimately became an award-winning book.