Published: Aftermath

Back in 2009 John Birmingham put out a call over The Twitter for poets who read science-fiction thrillers, which a friend passed on to me for some reason. I got in touch and soon received an intriguing email from John about “needing to talk post apocalypse poetry”.

Turned out John was working on the sequel to Without Warning, a book of his about a mysterious wave of energy making half of the people in the USA disappear, and the resultant worldwide chaos. He had planned for the sequel to open with an official ceremony at which the US Poet Laureate read a poem reflecting on the wave and its aftermath, and he was looking for a poet to outsource the actual poem-writing bit to.

I very much enjoy writing poetry on spec, and this particular commission had the added bonus of being not only kind of tweaky, but also an opportunity to look at at the personal costs and emotional consequences of a high-concept science fiction event, which I also very much enjoy.

The real sweetener was John’s offer to officially appoint me as the US Poet Laureate of the fictional universe in which his books were set. I’m pretty sure that offer’s never going to happen in this universe, so I jumped at the chance.

After America finally hit the shelves a few months ago and I had the odd experience of meeting my fictional counterpart, a “thin, nervous man in a slightly ill-fitting suit”. The opening scene that features Poet Laureate Adam Ford and the poem that I wrote for him to read is pretty much what I had been expecting: a few asides about poetry as something to be endured and a little bit of big-tough-confident-action-hero-turned-President meets shy-nervous-bookish-poet-type-who-comes-into-his-own-when-immersed-in-his-art.

As I read over the poem as it appeared in After America I thought I detected a couple of changes here and there, so I dug up the original final draft I’d sent John and confirmed that, yes, in three or four places some words had been changed or deleted.

This is the version of the poem I sent John:

Aftermath

They weren’t lost at sea. They aren’t MIA.
We weren’t at their side as they breathed their last.
There are no bodies to identify.
They were here. Then they weren’t. That’s all.
We’re left behind with nothing to point to,
No evidence that says, “this happened here”,
No shadows burned into the sides of buildings,
No mountain of glasses, suitcases and shoes,
No pile of skulls, no handheld footage
Of papers and shattered glass raining down.
Just the near-infinite density of collective grief
That distorts our universe like a black hole –
Grief that we, the undisappeared,
All bear as one as we search for our place
In this strange, new, far-too-different world.

And this is the poem as it appeared in After America:

…’This is a poem called “Aftermath”,’ he said.

‘They weren’t lost at sea. They aren’t missing in action.
We weren’t at their side as they breathed their last.
There are no bodies to identify.
They were here. Then they weren’t.
We’re left behind with nothing to point to,
No evidence that says, “This happened here”,
No shadows burned into the sides of buildings,
No mountain of glasses, suitcases and shoes,
No pile of skulls, no handheld footage
Of papers and shattered glass raining down.
Just the near-infinite density of collected grief
That distorts our universe like a black hole –
Grief that we, who remain,
All bear as one as we search for our place
In this strange, new, far-too-different world.’

Now, I want to make it clear at this point that I have absolutely no problem with the changes that were made. The deal was that I wrote the poem for John to use in any way he wanted, and he was more than entitled to make any changes at all that he or his editors decided were necessary.

Being a poet, though, I’m the kind of person that spends a lot of time deliberating on things like when to break a line or exactly what specific words to use, so when other people make even the tiniest changes to the wording of poems (mine or others), I’m a little bit fascinated as to why they make those changes (cf. the legend about Ezra Pound’s changing a dash in one of his haiku to a semicolon forty years after he wrote the original version and declaring the poem finally finished).

I got in touch with John and asked if he would be okay with me asking a series of overly pedantic questions that could quite easily be interpreted as antagonistic and passive-aggressive (but which weren’t).

He explained that some of his changes had been plot-related, making the poem fit better with his intentions regarding the book’s revelations about the true nature of the mysterious wave that started all the trouble in the first place, and he very generously agreed to indulge my prediliction for minutiae with his answers to my questions.

Here, then are my slight interrogations about the reasons behind the revisions to the poem, and John’s answers:

In the first line  you spelled out “MIA” as “missing in action”, which alters the rhthym of the line a bit (I was going for a loose kind of free verse rhythm) – why did you decide to spell it out? Was MIA too obscure a term?

Not being a poet, ‘loose kind of free verse rhythms’ are a bit beyond my ear. But MIA had a technical sound to it that I wanted to soften.

In the 4th line you deleted the sentence “That’s all”. How come?

“That’s all” felt like it was pushing the disappearance a little harder than needed. 500 million deaths doesn’t need overemphasizing.

In line 11 you changed “collective grief” to “collected grief”. How come?

Not sure. might have been a transcription error.

In line 13 you changed “we, the undisappeared” to “we, who remain” – was that because of the secret Wave understanding that you mentioned in your last email?

Undisappeared just sounded like too Orwellian a term on reflection, but also there was an element of Secret Wave business in there. a clue to anyone who’d care to find it, about what became of them. ‘we who remain’ implies a taking away, rather than just a simple negation.

There were no real amazing revelations in our exchange, but it is interesting to see what happens to a poem when it needs to fit another author’s requirements in terms of authorial voice and plot.

In some ways I guess the experience is more like writing advertising copy: the writing has a job to do, and if it doesn’t do it well enough, it has to be changed. I’ll be honest and say I was sad to see “undisappeared” go (I love a good poetic portmanteau), but c’est la guerre, right?

All in all it was a cute little writing exercise that I’m well chuffed with. I never knew I wanted to be a fictional poet laureate until the offer came my way, but once it did it was something that haunted me day and night until I had achieved it. It’s always nice to be able to give your mum something new to brag about to her friends.

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Poet. Author. Beard. Husband. Dad. Four chickens. Dog. Cat. I can sometimes fix my lawnmower.

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Posted in i would like to recommend these people's writing, neopulp, people who are nice enough to publish me, poems, Published work, the writing process
9 comments on “Published: Aftermath
  1. ashleycapes says:

    Awesome! Really enjoyed the insight into the process, Adam

  2. havock21 says:

    Interesting Adam, I can tell you, having met the man a few times..JESUS, talk about an un-bearable ego…

    No, not really, actually a top bloke. Nice post, and very interesting.

    cheers

    “Havock”

  3. Amerigo Vespucci says:

    Great to read the comments. It’s not often that we get to see poetry in technothrillers, and I agree with you on “undisappeared.”

    • Adam Ford says:

      Well, I defer to JB in all matters re: The Wave, but thanks for your comment. Might I say that it’s nice to meet the man they named the Americas after? An honour, sir!

  4. YB says:

    Since we are into nitt gritty: – where you write “weren’t” do you intend it to be said / thought as a blunt “wernt”, and extended ‘were-nt” or a separated “were not”?

    • Adam Ford says:

      You mean as pronounced in the poem? In terms of the poem’s rhythm? I guess I was going for the first option, a one-syllable version of the word, which is the way I pronounce it, but I can see how it would vary depending on the speaker’s accent.

      It’s a good point – I’m confident that “wernt” is the common Australian pronounciation (pronounciation? pronunciation? i never know with that word…), but I’m not so sure about the US pronounciation. It hadn’t occurred to me until now that I should have been writing this poem with an American accent in mind.

      Who knows, though? Maybe Poet Laureate Adam Ford is an expat Aussie?

  5. Therbs says:

    You carefully nurture the piece only for JB to slam down his whisky glass and come stomping all over your work, muddy boots and all.
    Seriously, I liked how you explain the angst of even having one word changed after carefully choosing and placing each of them to create the mood and the flow. Over at his blog we saw him do a bit of poetry touting and it was great to see the result in the book. Nicely done.

  6. YB says:

    Australia still has pronunciation based on class – rougher ‘wernt’ for rougher people, and the other two for the more genteel.

    • Adam Ford says:

      I have to say I’ve no memory of ever hearing anyone here in Australia saying “wer-ent”, YB, and as a pretty good example of Middle Class Australia myself, it’s not from hanging out with “rougher” crowds.

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About Adam

I'm the author of the poetry collections The Third Fruit is a Bird and Not Quite the Man for the Job, the novel Man Bites Dog and the short story collection Heroes and Civilians.
contact: adamatsya@gmail.com
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Quelle Grammage!
This morning, between the pages of a poetry book, I was gifted with a stranger's reading list. I am really enjoying watching these two poems of mine returning to the earth from whence they are about. 20 new #anticline poemzeens ready to collect at the #chewton dropoff. location in my profile. 
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