My newest, shortest piece is the first one to be published. ‘A Mermaid in The Mermaid’ is on Stone Telling. You should look through their archives, be appropriately delighted, add your support to their patreon, and buy Here, We Cross: a collection of queer and genderfluid poetry from Stone Telling 1-7 edited by Rose Lemberg (Amazon US / UK).
About my poem: it’s set in Rye, a small town in East Sussex, England, a seaside town abandoned by the sea centuries ago. My partner’s maternal family grew up there. I visited it myself a couple of years ago, it’s one of my favourite places in the world. You can read more about my trip here. There’s an actual Mermaid Inn on Mermaid street there, so it was an obvious choice for the Joke Issue.
The moment I visit somewhere like Rye, places which are so charmingly cobblestoned with history and where much of the diverse people I encountered were tourists like me, I get thinking.
Rye is the perfect place to set a piece of historical fantasy fiction, a genre replete with images of cravats, silver teapots, billowing skirts, and sprightly pink nipples. It doesn’t have to be that way–indeed, it shouldn’t, as a narrow history ignores material evidence and constructs a narrative which harms people today, erasing their heritage. Certain readers can apparently believe in magic, fantastic beasts, and improbable economic systems, but if you suggest that brown or queer or neurodiverse characters may exist in the front and centre of your work—why, you’re taking it too far, you’re making everyone uncomfortable with your Forced Diversity, it’s simply not believable, sellable, readable. Well… ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
And just because something is A Joke doesn’t mean it can’t also be a little thoughtful. We who are marginalised are often the butt of jokes. Jokes shouldn’t have to be cruel to work; nothing bores me more than “satire” which is so clearly the end product of the same old chewed up and thoroughly digested petty bigotries, pushed out and then finger-painted in the usual patterns–only you’re supposed to admire it simply because the author says it’s satire. Please. Your jokes are bad and you should feel bad.
Er, this is not to say that a light-hearted short poem fights the good fight against hegemony. I just wanted to write a fun little poem about lesbian mermaids, and it never occurred to me to make the mermaids blonde and straight. That’s all. There may be poems which are powerful and life-changing in as many lines, but it is not mine.
The shortest thing I’ve written is also the one I have done the most teeth-gnashing over. I’ve tried to forgive myself for that: unless you make it a regular exercise, rhyming well is tricky.
Since the preferred length was just 25 lines, I thought I’d have a good go at it. The estimable Nicki Minaj only took a week to write her glorious verse in ‘Monster,’ which is essentially the only reason you should listen to that song. I worked on my piece sporadically throughout January.
It occurred to me as I was wrestling with the verse that I actually have no idea how to rhyme properly, or how to write a basic poem. There must be rules somewhere, obviously. Instead of looking them up, I hammered away at a rhyme dictionary, switched tabs to stare angrily at ‘The Walrus and the Carpenter,’ and swore a lot.
I showed my partner what I’d written and asked what would make it better.
‘Um,’ he said, ‘scansion?’
I had to re-write the whole thing, letting go of certain images I wanted to use because I just couldn’t find a single bally rhyme which would work. You know how it goes better than me, I expect.
Somehow, through all the fiddling, a poem happened. My partner talked more enthusiastically about this second version, paying particular attention to its
legs feet. I nodded. There were indeed some of those in the poem, even though it is mainly about a mermaid and a piece of the sea. I tweaked it a bit more and then off it went, all within the hour before the deadline passed in my timezone.
Is it unsightly and not terribly interesting to know that a lot of effort went into a short poem? Maybe to some. I get that. But this will serve as a reminder to myself, and perhaps another writer out there, that this is just fine. And it got me published in a zine I’ve read and enjoyed for years. So, know that.