Poetry is a funny game. You spend countless hours holed up inside your thoughts meticulously thrashing out what you conceive as your best idea. Drafting and re-drafting. Before drafting again. Then comes the final edit. And the end product often looks somewhat alien and disconnected from your initial idea.
But there is a frustrating beauty in this process. And amid the labouring, sometimes, only sometimes, a break presents itself. Most often, out of the blue and from the least expected of places.
Mine came from Montreal, Canada. A place I had never visited, via an editor compiling an anthology of poems inspired by the folk singer, Leonard Cohen. My words were published beside those of Margaret Atwood on pages eight and nine.
It seemed rude, when invited, not to join the other poets for a tour of North America in order to read our work during US poetry month. So I applied for a credit card (poetry doesn’t pay – unless you’re a beneficiary of nepotism or an Oxbridge graduate), booked some flights and dusted off my moleskin.
What follows here are a few snippets from that journey. Drafted only the once. And never re-edited.
New York, New York
Arriving at JFK airport I was overwhelmed by the heat and my sensible, warm winter jacket was dropped into the bin immediately. The machine-gun turrets appeared to snarl at me while I waited in line at passport control. Americans are notorious for being strict jobsworths in this regard. And only hours earlier I had been apprehended before boarding the plane at Heathrow. I believe it was related to the thick beard I am currently sporting. I was quick to point out I was just a poet, not a terrorist. But this didn't go down too well and as such I was a marked man. However, the female security guards I was handed over to for a bag check, following the thorough body search, were more agreeable characters. They chuckled as I asked if they stopped every handsome devil with a beard. They both insisted this wasn’t the case and that most people were stopped. Not just those with large amounts of facial hair - such as myself, students and Arabs. Anyway, I took a cab ride from JFK to Fort Hamilton Parkway in Brooklyn where I would be staying with a very kind Russian couple. Whom I'd never met!
My first day in Brooklyn was spent on the Subway. I rather cockily told my hosts I would be fine navigating my way around it, having used it before. That might have been true would I have been staying in Manhattan, however the trains that serve the other boroughs weren't so crystal clear. I would go so far as calling them muddled. A couple of hours of frustrated head-scratching, and an accidental trip to Queens later, I made my way to Coney Island. It was like stepping out of a timewarp. The place has been left to rot since the 1980s. Yet thousands of people still visited the beach. Ghetto blasters kicked out Jay-Z, while scores of Japanese tourists made home videos in the sand as the bemused, disused theme park watched on. The abandoned rollercoasters offered a strange backdrop to this lively affair. I took in the sights - it must have been some kind of college half-term - and made my way along the beach. Eventually everything became Russian. Soviet Bloc signage replaced the tired, faded posters advertising the once famous, long-closed attractions. Gangs of frail old men sat beside each other on benches playing chess. I sat with them and watched a game. I pretended to understand what they were saying by smiling and nodding as they spoke. But I played dumb by keeping quiet and chain-smoking cigarettes. They must have thought me to be a pretty strange character. After Coney Island I joined my hosts for some drinks in Williamsburg. Hipsters sneered on every street corner. Only they weren't really hip. The coolest guys were sat at my table. And they didn't spend hours in front of the mirror doing their hair and pouting before they went out. At least the guys didn't anyway. The barmaid was quite obviously trying to get me drunk. She over-poured each whiskey to the point it engulfed my stomach with flames every time one went down. I'm sure it had nothing to do with the fact I still hadn't gotten used to the dollar bills and had been leaving five bucks behind after every drink. A drunken poetry reading followed.