9 minute read

This is a series where I interview poets about their process in regards to a single poem. Today we have the fantastic Elizabeth McGeown, who I have been lucky enough to meet at various poetry nights over zoom in the last year.


On telling a friend I am writing to an insect theme
and finding out months later she has assumed I meant maggots

But Maggots do not cross my mind at all:
the plump rot-seeking them of single mind.
Fat little white and wriggling shits with gall,
but Maggots do not cross my mind at all.
First time you found a dead bird, held in thrall,
turn over corpse, the bird’s eye sockets blind.
But Maggots do not cross my mind at all;
the plump rot-seeking them of single mind.

Death should be still, not undead, filled with things
which almost serve to stand the bird upright.
Excited bubbling underneath the wings;
death should be still, not undead, filled with things.
Beak opens for a squawk, this dead bird sings
a music jelly-filled, so moist, this blight.
Death should be still, not undead, filled with things
which almost serve to stand the bird upright.

First published by Abridged

D: Why did you want to respond to your friends comment about maggots?

E: Mainly my reaction to her response. I’m horribly secretive about my writing, and works-in-progress are never seen by anyone, although Zoom has allowed me to join a few feedback groups for ‘finished’ poems. Occasionally I’ll allude to something very vaguely online by saying that I’m shoehorning in a zebra reference or suchlike, but overall I keep my writing cards pretty close to my chest. Hence my unwillingness to tell her exactly what I was working on. The conversation really came about as she wanted reassurance that I wasn’t writing about spiders (because she has a phobia) and I was happy to reassure her, which is when she mentioned about the maggots. My immediate reaction was a huge ‘Of course not!’ because that’s not what I was writing about and then for a couple of days I was in turn bemused that she’d thought that, but also aware it wasn’t too far off something I would do.

I realised it would be amusing (to me; perhaps no-one else) to actually write a poem about the poem I wasn’t writing and had no intention of writing. I jotted down a few musings about the childhood incident of finding the (quite dead, not a zombie at all) bird and put them aside. I’ve been attending the weekly Allographic Write-Ins all through lockdown and sometimes they have prompts. Not too long after the maggot conversation, the form we looked at was a triolet and I realised being trapped in a repeated rhyming cycle that becomes increasingly more horrific while denying I was thinking about the thing I actually was thinking about was probably the ideal way to express my response to her.

D: How did you find the challenge of writing to the form of triolet?

E: I’ve always enjoyed writing in rhyme. When I started writing poetry I rhymed a lot more than I do now. For a couple of years I nearly phased it out entirely but it seems to always come back and I feel it’s an old friend. Especially since during lockdown I’ve been experimenting a little with repeated forms and found myself thinking in iambic pentameter on some of my socially distanced walks. The main problem is trying to switch the iambs off so you can sleep at night… I also really enjoy the tricksy minutiae that a lot of people seem to dislike: syllable counting and trying to not back yourself into a corner with a bad rhyme and archaic language. Having said that, I love a bit of archaic language. It’s never that far out of step with my style anyway!

So, this was great fun. It’s almost a sonnet-triolet hybrid. I did cheat a little, in that a real triolet should only be half the length; one stanza. When I’d finished the first stanza I looked at my sketched notes and realised I had more to say. I considered if I wanted to stop writing but felt that the poem would benefit from the second stanza. Did it benefit or was it self-indulgent? I certainly prefer it this way but a purist would likely be horrified. I’m generally from the ‘make it longer’ school of editing.

D: You mentioned you expand while editing, how else do you edit your poems?

E: Oh wow, this is where it gets difficult. Both answering the question, and the process itself. This particular piece wasn’t edited a huge amount because when you’re dealing with something that strict syllabically there’s only so much leeway you have. But in general, editing is a little bit of a mystery to me and something I’m trying to learn more about. I’ve got past the mindset that the original version of the poem was sent down by angels and nothing must tear it asunder which is something I find a lot of new writers fall into? I quite like editing these days and careful reading, especially of longer pieces shows that I do tend to say the same thing three times in slightly different ways, which isn’t necessary. Reading aloud makes that apparent: if you read something aloud and you’re even boring yourself, it needs cutting.

I’ve attended several workshops in the past year and they’ve all suggested different things: removing every instance of the word ‘the’, removing first lines and last lines because the story might not need as much framing as you think it does (that the framing you think it requires is the framing you require to begin the process). I’m also beginning to enjoy disrupting sentence structure in different ways. I’ve joined a few feedback groups this year as well and while the group format is tricky as everyone has their own individual style generally around 50% of the suggestions you get for any one poem are really useful. Ask me next year and I might have shed enough of my ego to call it 75%.

D: How do you know when your poems are finished?

E: I only recently heard that adage (I don’t know who said it originally) about poems never being finished, simply abandoned and there’s definitely some truth in it. It’s so hard to define when something is completely finished that it’s easier to say I know for sure when a poem is unfinished. I’ve had pieces half-finished and then brought them to a performance-worthy conclusion after two years of limbo. They’ve then became part of my regular set so a huge gap in-between isn’t a problem to me (although the occasional diligent editor will note a disjointedness and I’ll pretend I don’t know what they’re talking about). I’ve tried to force a few unfinished pieces to finished level at open mics in the past because lots of other people can get away with that mysterious abrupt ending thing and honestly, it just feels like I’m reading half-baked nonsense, so I’ve quietly brushed those pieces aside, to be returned to later. Maybe.

The real danger lies when something is ‘good enough’ and you have a good beginning and ending and honestly, kinda fudge the middle. I love beginnings and endings and sometimes have managed to fool myself that it’s all there if I have a great title and last line, especially if you share it and get a good response. If it was ‘good enough’ for that audience, it’s good enough in general, right? Then there will be sections that maybe bore you slightly but you think because you’re getting an enthusiastic reception you’ve somehow got away with it? Honestly, if a section bores you, go back to it and fix it. It’s a hassle. Editing is a hassle, I know. The more you do it though, the better you’ll get at it. But those lines you really love? Imagine if the poem was ALL those lines without any filler? Isn’t that a tempting prospect?

Or simply send a brand new poem to a magazine submission call. The fastest way to realise something is unfinished is knowing someone cool is reading it and judging it. If you want to vomit at this thought, are relieved when it gets rejected or thrown into chaos when it’s somehow accepted, you were much too hasty with the send button.

D: Has writing this poem changed anything about how you write?

E: Initially I would say no, as isn’t all writing is part of a natural progression that was happening anyway? But looking at it more deeply, a few things happened. I started to become more adventurous with titles after this. Originally the part of the title in italics was just meant as a sort of joke to myself, a personal nod to the conversation that brought the whole thing about but I realised there was no real reason it shouldn’t be included when I submitted the poem to a magazine. I felt it provided another dimension and realised that all the struggles I’d had with titles up until this point (generally just picking a couple of words from the body of the poem) were because I was thinking too small and if I wanted to get outlandish, I should absolutely let myself. From then on I’ve had a heck of a lot of fun just calling poems whatever the heck I wanted to, to the point where I sometimes think of titles before the poems now.

I also see form as more relevant than I did. For a while I was using certain forms as brain-training, puzzle-like exercises and enjoying coming up with rhymes just for personal satisfaction. I didn’t see it as ever going anywhere as most modern poetry I read is free verse and rhyme/form seemed to be looked down upon as doggerel. This was the first rhyming poem I’ve ever felt reasonably confident in sending to a journal, and the first rhyming poem I’ve had accepted which gave me confidence. Does form give rhyme legitimacy? I’ve since found some currently active poets using different forms and I’m really enjoying the discovery. I think I’ll definitely revisit different forms, especially as some workshops I’m attending at the moment seem to be leaning that way.

D: Thank you so much.

Elizabeth McGeown is from Belfast, Northern Ireland. She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize by iambapoet and has featured in publications including Banshee, Abridged, The Blue Nib and Riggwelter. As a spoken word artist she is the winner of the 2019 Cuirt Literary Festival Spoken Word Platform, is an All-Ulster Poetry Slam champion, has been a finalist in the All-Ireland Poetry Slam four times, and represented Northern Ireland at the 2019 Hammer & Tongue UK Slam Finals in the Royal Albert Hall. She has received funding from University of Atypical, Arts Council Northern Ireland and The National Lottery to work on her first pamphlet and full-length spoken word show.

Her website is elizabethmcgeown.com/

Her Twitter is here.



Stay up to date

Subscribe below for my latest posts delivered automatically to your inbox

* indicates required