Lenni: I really loved Helen’s blog post about characters in poems and the surreal, analysing what possibilities arise when you give a character a title but not a name. I am also a big fan of Emily Berry, mentioned in Helen’s post, and Our Love Could Spoil Dinner by her is one of my favourite poems of all time – I think the line ‘Oh Robusta you inferior bean’ very often and it always makes me smile. I love that it appears as a line of dialogue – I’m interested in making characters say strange things to each other in poems. So this point of connection was a starting off point for our poems, which feature both unnamed characters and weird dialogue. There is a tremendous sense of character in Helen’s lines – the hopeful romanticism of the retired archaeologist, listening out for the evening frogs who are “asking for love”, and the dryly witty speaker of the second poem, uncertain and self-effacing – “None of my skills have real-world applications./ The professional Jane Austen obsessive frowned.” Writing these was such an enjoyable process, and the turn-taking way we wrote them has produced poems that feel out of my usual style, with a driving narrative and quite a lot of action (especially the second one). I was always excited to see what Helen would make happen next! Both of the ending stanzas are by Helen and she takes the poems to beautiful and surprising places – I think both end on a kind of contemplative moment.
Helen: Having known each other since we were teenagers (#FoyleYoungPoets4eva), Lenni and I are long overdue some kind of collaboration. When the Poetry Business said Lenni would be their second digital Poet in Residence, it seemed like the perfect opportunity. On the final day of my residency, I asked Poetry Business Twitter followers to answer weird questions like naming a hobby of someone in their family, a phrase that gets on their nerves every time someone says it, what they wanted to be when they grew up and so on. We used some of the answers as prompts for our writing – Lenni started two poems, and I responded, and we went back and forth until we had made something fun, integrating quotes from PB followers in each stanza. I think Lenni is just amazing, and working with her pushed me to think about the beauty in my lines much more than I ordinarily would. How could I live up to that opening line ‘Romeo, sit down’ and the sunset through the blinds? Or the vibrant and quick scene-setting of the ‘elegant narrow boots … hilted in mud up to the knee’? We’ve included the questions and the responses at the end of this post, so you can use them yourself to write your own poems, collaborative or otherwise.
Romeo, sit down. I’m retired so unable to retire,
and at this time of the afternoon I prefer
to watch the sunset through the blinds
and take a good look at the day behind,
the evening ahead, and pour something for myself.
Can you spot the frogs? I heard them croaking
last night, scaring the trees with sound.
A frog can roar when the listener
has a full glass and an open mind.
Did you know they are asking for love?
Before these still and peach-colour evenings,
I was an archaeologist, making sense
(in the dirt, on my knees) of fragments
of glasses like this one, of occasional bones.
I wanted for nothing, but sounds like these frogs.
Romeo, I’m trying to teach you something here.
When the paranoid man says, “Touch wood,”
isn’t it worth listening? Look – out, beyond
the tree’s curly wigs – even in the dark,
light is still coming our way.
The professional Jane Austen obsessive
said “Today’s expedition was fabulous”
but now our elegant narrow boots
were hilted in mud up to the knee
and we were lost somewhere
in the grounds of a manor.
I can’t read maps: I wanted to be a ballerina.
My parents called me Twinkle Toes
aspirationally. My pliés looked like indigestion
problems. My sissonnes injured many.
None of my skills have real-world applications.
The professional Jane Austen obsessive frowned.
We had strayed too far. A firework crack whipped
through the air, we ducked. The farmer striding
towards us through the sudden waist high maize
said “You dodged a bullet there” and for once
I felt satisfied with my movement,
its agility, precision. My bonnet had flown
away like a white goose into the crops.
At the end of the day, we are ducks
squelching in the mud. This is what
the Jane Austen obsessive seemed
to be saying, as she vomited into the reeds
by the pond, by the maize, by the manor house in the rain.
What’s the last text message you received (and are willing to share…)?
@helen_bowell: My last text is just: Xx And my last message was on WhatsApp: Cheeky
@iniquitousreal1: Text: Today’s expedition was fabulous WhatsApp: Yeah you dodged a bullet there
@BaitTheLines: Tabbi is due her next dose of drontal; “£70 a cubic tonne seasoned split and delivered. Kiln dried are £95”
@jamilapoetry: text: I’ll go later to collect it! X whatsapp: It’s going to be hats I think
@LenniSanders: My last whatsapp message: “Can you spot the frogs? We heard them croaking” Text: “Your The Dustpan and Brush Store parcel has been delivered. Find your delivery info here.” (I bought a broom)
@moiragauthor: WhatsApp: Max is grumpy that his knees have vanished
@jayantdkash: Text: phew phew WhatsApp: Ohh great. Thanks.
What was your childhood dream job?
@helen_bowell: I wanted to be a pop star. I think this is down to the fact that every teen TV programme/film at the time was about becoming famous by singing (Pop Idol, HSM, Cheetah Girls, etc.).
@iniquitousreal1: I wanted to be a lawyer. A teacher once told me that they could imagine me in a suit with a briefcase going to court. The thought of having that professional image made me happy at the time lol so it interested me.
@BaitTheLines: a lighthouse keeper
@LenniSanders: when I was very small, for a bit I wanted to be a farmer and then when I was a teenager I wanted to be a journalist
@jayantdkash: A software engineer/perhaps a hacker more so.
@craftygreenpoet: I wanted to be a ballerina, despite the fact that anyone who saw me dance ballet would have immediately realised I would never be allowed on stage
@jenlareine: I wanted to be an archaeologist for a bit!
What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever overhead (or thought you overhead) in public?
@LenniSanders: I’m actually struggling a bit to think of one! maybe does something written by a stranger I read count? in Manchester Art Gallery, people had written their responses to a sculpture on a bit of card. Someone wrote “it reminds me of my love”, I made a note of it because I liked it
@moiragauthor: On a bus (in the olden days), mother to her son: “Romeo, sit down”
Give us… a phrase that gets on your nerves whenever someone says it? + a hobby/interest of someone in your family. Now turn it into dialogue.
@iniquitousreal1: “Touch wood,” the paranoid man said. Also, my uncle has an interest in the whole Wiccan scene.
@BaitTheLines: “run that past me again”
@LenniSanders: “Ok…..????” said the pianist
@jenlareine: ‘At the end of the day…’ the cheesemonger began.
@craftygreenpoet: “Have you done anything exciting today?” the jewellery maker asked.
What is a more descriptive job title than your actual job title?
@BaitTheLines: “retired so unable to retire”
@iniquitousreal1: Not a student but a pen distributor, someone who doesn’t spend their time efficiently, and an individual who’s only value to their peers is the fact that they know the answers for the assignment.
@moiragauthor: Word merchant