Whose Poem is it, Anyway?

I’m pleased to have a new poem on the excellent webzine, Ink, Sweat & Tears, edited by poet and artist Helen Ivory, which publishes an absorbing mix of poetry, flash fiction, book reviews and word and image pieces.

I always feel a tingle of happiness when someone indicates that they like what I’ve written, and it’s even nicer when that person isn’t, even remotely, related to me!  Acceptances are a delicious compensation for the disappointments anyone regularly submitting work will inevitably experience.

Also pleasurable, and intriguing, are the reactions of a wider audience.  Beyond the initial response of a magazine editor or competition judge, it’s fascinating to learn how others have interpreted a poem or story.  A reader’s reaction calls into question the subject of ownership.  The copyright of a piece of writing remains with the writer but a reader owns their personal response.

I was reminded of this yesterday when my poem ‘What Becomes of the Absent-Minded?’ was first published on Ink, Sweat & Tears and various people sent their reactions via Twitter and Facebook.

How did other people interpret the poem?

Several people empathised with the absent-mindedness described within the poem, while others interpreted it as being about dementia and found the poem rather sad.  Others noted that the gaps in the layout corresponded with gaps in memory.  I find all of these interpretations valid and accurate but they are made all the more intriguing to me because I hadn’t consciously wanted to write about dementia or to replicate brain activity in the poem’s layout.

What do I feel the poem is about?

I have personal experience, through family members and friends, of dementia but the spark for the poem was my own increasing absent-mindedness and forgetfulness.  It was also inspired by an encounter in a supermarket with a friend’s mother, in her late 60s, who told me that she was shopping for margarine, and that she’d had to look in her fridge, at what remained of her block of margarine, to remember how to spell it for her shopping list.

She described herself doing this in terms of huge amusement.  She commented on what a peculiar word ‘margarine’ is, as if she was encountering a fresh word in her vocabulary,  or a new word in a foreign language.  I was struck by how our relationship with language changes as we become older, whether it is because of changes in our brain activity or because of our increasing preoccupations as our lives become more complicated.  Familiar words suddenly appear alien and the soft ‘g’ in ‘margarine’ becomes as perplexing as the almost silent ‘j’ in ‘fjord’.

I shared with my friend’s mother my recent experience of lighting an oven but forgetting to put the dinner in.  Since the poem’s publication I’ve heard, via Twitter, that I’m not alone in “cooking emptiness”.  Of course, another, more poignant interpretation can also be applied to this phrase.

And as we become older and our eyesight diminishes, there are plenty of us who wave to a person, mistaking them for someone else, or who “wave / in case we’ve met”, no longer remembering all the encounters we’ve ever had in our lives.


The poem’s layout

The gaps in my poem’s layout are something of any experiment.  I am relatively new to poetry, having previously mainly written prose and plays, and I sometimes find poems which are heavily punctuated, cluttered and distracting.  I was experimenting with using spaces as punctuation, with each space standing in for a comma.  However, I am really grateful for Valerie Morton’s comment, on Ink, Sweat & Tears, that the layout of my poem is “synonymous with the gaps in memory” as I think this is entirely accurate and I like to think that this was the intention of my unconscious brain.

Thanks to all readers

As always I am so grateful to Helen Ivory for publishing my poem and providing such a great webzine, and to everyone who has read or commented on my poem, ‘What Becomes of the Absent-Minded?’


What Becomes Of The Absent-Minded?

our houses smell of burned apples and pine forests
dripping through ceilings                    we carry sausages
from room to room with a feeling that
somebody wrote a song about us
we light ovens and cook emptiness
rooms become sweaty             raw meat sweats
we remember the sausages                  we remember the ovens
we forget how to spell ‘margarine’ and look at a Stork
on a plate         cut in half        in the fjord-deep cold
to remember    we are not Nordic translators

we wave          in case we’ve met

3 thoughts on “Whose Poem is it, Anyway?”

  1. I read the poem and my initial response was that it was related to dementia then I read comments on Twitter and realised it was about general absent mindedness associated with growing older. The spacing worked very well and I loved the understated humour.

    Coming from an arts background I’m used to the idea of an art piece being open to interpretation, depending on the viewer. It’s interesting to have the artist’s story but I think poetry and prose are equally open to the reader’s interpretation too. Often subconsious forces are at work while we write, as you mention, so there could be all sorts of layered meanings the writer hasn’t perhaps realised.


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