Guest editor Patience Agbabi introduces her pick of prose and poetry on the theme of Idols
‘We all have idols. Play like anyone you care about but try to be yourself while you’re doing so.’ BB King
King’s idols were blues musicians. And many of you were inspired by artists of various kinds. There were tributes to writers, painters, pop and screen idols. There were also moving celebrations or elegies for family members. These works inspired me to reread Carol Ann Duffy’s Warming Her Pearls, the sensual poem of undeclared desire, and Raymond Carver’s edgy and dramatic What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.
By contrast, several writers explored religious themes. There were strong pieces on spirituality and death; disturbing pieces on witchcraft and voodoo; and a few focused on the nature of idolatry. This took me to the root of the word: ‘eidos’ in Greek is shape or form. I was never in any doubt that the work that stood out revered language and form as well as dealing with the theme in an original way. It had a confident, distinctive voice.
I especially enjoyed the stories. Four stood out: a further six scored well. I revisited these ten and agonised for weeks, adding a couple from the next level down that had got under my skin, then dropped them again. A moving story within a story let itself down from lack of proofreading. Two descriptive pieces had stunning imagery but one read like a diary entry with an ending tagged on, the other resembled the opening sequence of a film and I was left unsatisfied. A disturbing, multilayered piece kept drawing me back, but some passages were overwritten so I had to let it go. There was a witty but poignant piece that almost made it. It was 99 per cent there, but I finally chose another piece that was 95 per cent there but more stylistically ambitious. Yes, I took a few risks in my choices. I’ve always preferred writing that’s brilliant and flawed to something less ambitious that’s almost perfect. However objective I’ve attempted to be in this process, ultimately I had to trust my instinct.
I’m rereading The Canterbury Tales and am struck by the vibrancy of Chaucer’s characters, the earthiness of their speech. Character and voice attract me more than plot. ‘A Life in Numbers’ has a totally convincing voice, a
woman from the US Deep South with OCD and a dark humour: ‘Reverend Kingston said that Lucifer had left the child and I thought something dreadful about the reverend straight away, so I knew he hadn’t gone nowhere.’ The story takes formal and emotional risks which are generally well handled. Also based in the Deep South is ‘Daddy,’ an acutely observed child’s perspective on life’s cycle of sex and violence. Its hidden gem is ‘six silver bullets, all smooth and polished, nestling all secret on red velvet.’ A story I savoured again and again.
Visual art, voyeurism and sexuality are the themes of ‘Just Looking.’ The metaphor from the title permeates the entire narrative. Many of the strongest pieces used the title to signal multi-layered themes. The power of a title should not be underestimated: it fires a
work of art. Here, the sexual tension is palpable, especially in the discussion of the portrait of Tilda Swinton, and there’s a luscious paragraph that drew me deep into the artist’s creative world. ‘Being Auntie Gina’ also uses a layered title. I admired the present-tense narrative with its period detail, the glamorous Gina herself who ‘sashays through the back door’ as well as her niece’s ferocious desire to emulate her. The secondary characters are memorable, the writing is dynamic and filmic, with interruptions that give the reader the sense they’re eavesdropping. The ending is perfect.
‘Fragments’ is a quieter domestic piece about a miscarriage and mental health which disturbed me so much I had to revisit it to try to be objective. It grew on me. There’s an excellent passage depicting a lie so con
vincing I found myself wanting it to be true. I had become emotionally involved. ‘The Portuguese Café,’ also has mental health as a primary theme. Its strength lies in its descriptions and observations. ‘It was the kind of laughter that made strangers start, caused his ex-housemates to dangle cigarettes nervously at him.’ Humane and often understated, it was a pleasure to read.
I found the poetry more challenging. By nature of its concentrated language, poetry is more difficult. And, as a poet, I’m more opinionated and less forgiving. However, some things can be easily fixed to make a poem more accessible. Many poems substituted a line ending for punctuation i.e., had they written the same sentence in prose, they would have inserted a comma. If you don’t insert a comma at the end of a line, the sense will flow into the next line and confuse the reader. Enjambment should always be a deliberate device. And, as I stated earlier, beware typos. Ask someone else to proofread your work before you submit it. Finally, be inspired by other voices as you write but try to be yourself while you’re doing so; don’t aspire to a ‘poetic voice.’ This often leads to obscurity. Get someone else to read your work before you submit it, someone who doesn’t love you. I became frustrated with poems that were intelligent and imaginative but trying too hard to be poems. I finally chose poems that made me want to revisit them to savour the language rather than try to decipher them. But I read each poem several times to give it a chance to unfold.
I ended up with a shortlist of ten and added several more that kept nudging my consciousness. There were several pieces inspired by works of art which showed talent but ultimately needed to be published alongside the original; they didn’t stand alone. Others were completely obscure. There’s a danger writing poems about paintings or sculptures: they often describe what the painting is, using far too many images and losing the reader. Better to write a narrative than an abstract impressionistic poem. There were also poems that were formally innovative but needed several more drafts to work. I applaud these pieces, but they were unfinished.
The ones I chose were creative with the
LY N D O N D O U G L A S
:P H OTO