On the similarities between writing and lying down in a cyanide bath
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 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.
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