Author: Dr Hannah Copley
On Saturday 30th October I sat in my spare bedroom and launched my new poetry collection towards a Zoom audience. I read through the chat. I enjoyed the ‘applause’ reaction, and at the end I watched as people turned on their cameras and silently clapped their hands together. Then, on Sunday 31st, the date of its official release, I propped it up next to a carved pumpkin and tweeted about its Halloween birthday. There. Done.
Last night, like all the nights before it, I was reading to my daughter. She is in the midst of a Dr Seuss craze, so each evening we have been busy rhyming cats with hats and eggs and ham with Sam I am. She enjoys the short words and knows the rhyme schemes by heart. All poetry should rhyme.
Last night we went back to Oh, The Places You’ll Go! In it, we recited the plight of those stuck in The Waiting Place:
Waiting for a train to go or a bus to come,
or a plane to go or the mail to come,
or the rain to go or the phone to ring,
or the snow to snow or waiting around for a Yes or No
or waiting for their hair to grow.
The world that surrounds them is a surrealist horror. Melting clocks and fishing lines dangling to nowhere, queues of nameless characters snaking off the page, polite lines at bus stops, and everyone just staring intently ahead into the near distance.
My poetry collection ‘Speculum’ has been forthcoming for nearly ten years. In that time it has gone through hundreds of iterations. It has changed names numerous times. Themes too. It is unrecognisable to itself, as poems have been dropped in, edited, merged and shuffled, removed and then dropped back in again. Like the ship of Theseus. Like a hastily erected city. And all this time I have called it forthcoming. In all this time I have thought of myself as somehow forthcoming too. As in, soon I will feel like a proper writer.
Forthcoming refers to something imminent. Something just about to take place. Something certain. The forthcoming football season.
Forthcoming is a predictive word, denoting readiness or availability when needed. Often it is used negatively. They were less forthcoming with a plan for how to fix this mess.
Forthcoming is a word that suggests an arrival. As in, my book is forthcoming. Soon I will arrive.
There is this sense of the forthcoming in Ted Hughes’s famous poem, ‘The Thought Fox’. The poem opens:
I imagine this midnight moment’s forest.
Something else is alive
Beside the clock’s loneliness
And this blank page where my fingers move.
Nothing is at a standstill here. This is not The Waiting Place. This is not my badly planned city. The poem, the pen, the world around it – all are alive, twitching, ready. The reader senses the imminence of a poem. When it arrives, heralded by the ‘sudden sharp hot stink of fox’, we are not surprised:
It enters the dark hole of the head.
The window is starless still; the clock ticks,
The page is printed.
See, it’s as easy as that.
People often think that poems and stories and books and scientific research and literary acclaim happen fast. That an apple falls from a tree and an idea is planted and grown within a year. That it is easy to go from the ‘dark hole of the head’ to the printed page. Sometimes I feel that a big part of my job as a creative writing lecturer is disappointing people.
In an article for The Honest Ulsterman, the poet Victoria Kennefick reflects on the equal joy and anxiety of publishing her first book – Eat Or We Both Starve – in 2021. ‘It seemed so strange’, she said, that my life-long dream was coming true in the middle of a pandemic.
To a lesser extent I can identify with this. Zoom launches are strange and special things – important too, as they make literature and culture more accessible. But going from forthcoming to arrived at a time when the world seems to be in its own Waiting Place is surreal. Even more so when the world written into the early poems is no longer recognisable as the world of the reader.
This is just a small feeling really. An admission of ego more than anything. It’s a tiny fraction of the experience that students at school and university have gone through – and are still going through – amid this pandemic. It is hard to feel forthcoming – to be about to graduate, to be about to leave education, to be about to move on to the unknown – in a moment of waiting. It is hard to arrive at a place that nobody can yet predict or fully understand.
And yet this very notion of being forthcoming is harmful. I should know. It is bound up in the imposter syndrome that so many of us experience.
My daughter wishes she were grown up. She says that she is ‘almost’ big. I want her time to slow down. I want her to be able to relish every moment of her becoming. I want her to know that she is already a person. Equally, I desperately want each of my students to know that they are already someone; that they are already writers and thinkers and scholars. I want them to forget the word forthcoming and relish their time as undergraduates and postgraduates. Being a writer, I want them to know, is not simply bound up in a book or a prize or a degree. It does not wait. It does not suddenly arrive. It was and is always there in the ‘dark hole of the head’. There is no need to wait.
Dr Hannah Copley is a poet, non-fiction writer, editor and critic. She has been a member of the creative writing lecturing team at the University of Westminster since January 2019. Her latest poetry collection, ‘Speculum‘, engages with archival material and historical records to explore the hidden lives and stories behind scientific progress.