Angus Grundy on the formal challenge of fifty words.
I was quick to sign up for the 26:50 project. Then immediately had reservations. Rob Williams wrote about not wanting to be flippant. I was worried about the alternative. Wasn’t it all a bit, well, ambitious to try to sum up a life in fifty words? And writing about writers, too. People who had invested everything in their words.
When I was assigned Maria Elena Cruz Varela, the angst increased. I regretted that I couldn’t read her website, or her poems, in the original Spanish. But this feeling was soon overtaken by the challenge at hand.
The internet yielded a handful of poems in translation and a feature story. One biographical image stuck out—the details of her arrest. Ms Cruz Varela published a ‘manifesto’ which included the lines: ‘I absolutely refuse, with the only weapon at my disposal (the only weapon that interests me and that I consider effectual: The Word), to participate in what I consider to be “a closed system of impossibilities”. [...] My point of view is, No, I do not agree. Experimenting with the lives of people must be stopped’.
After interrogation, she was sentenced to two years—imprisoned for 18 months—then held under house arrest before going into exile in 1994. Meeting her shortly afterwards, Mairym Cruz-Bernal reflects in her article, ‘I had never encountered anyone like her. Her intensity made me drunk, I couldn’t follow her eyes, the movements of her head, the energy and desperation with which she spoke. As I listened to her I felt she might fly to the window and jump.’
As John Simmons wrote, constraints force you to think about structure. I wanted a form in two parts, with two images, drawing a divide between the ‘before’ and ‘after’ of incarceration. The ‘before’ of her arrest was clear. For the ‘after’, I sought an image from her work that could convey the passion that so impressed Cruz-Bernal and that comes through in the poems themselves.
Many lines stood out, especially her ambivalent relation to religion and the accoutrements of Catholicism. But the one that stayed with me as I reread the poems over several weeks was this: ‘I can't be correct, and merely lover. / We can't paint hearts with chalk on the sidewalk’.
she used ‘chalk hearts’ to represent false sentiments and a happiness she felt
was no longer available to her, I felt that her poems do bring vibrant colour
into the world—and more besides. So I adapted the image to conclude the second
half of my 50 words.
The exactness of ‘50 words’ made me think of numbers. I stumbled on the fact that the odd numbers 1-9 add up to 25. Two sets would be 50. Perfect. I wondered what it would look like. I didn’t really set out to write concrete poetry. Or even a poem. But the shape was intriguing and influenced the words. A stylized hour-glass, it symbolized both time in prison and the female form (clichéd, I know), hinting at the sensuality described in the feature story.
John, editor for our group, saw the shape as a cross and wondered if I was inspired by her name (‘cruz’ in Spanish being ‘cross’). Alas, I’m not that clever. But it’s interesting when a piece of writing elicits responses that were unintended but which nonetheless ‘work’.
The full stop that separates the two stanzas symbolized the words compressed in prison, a forced silence that would expand again with her release into the world. Once I’d written it, I also saw the shape as a visual perspective trick. Lines receding into the distance, then returning to the foreground.
I still think the 26:50 project was ambitious. But I’m happy to have contributed, even if my literary reach exceeded my grasp. The cumulative effect of each new daily dose is becoming quite powerful. Rob’s Ben-ze-drine piece, Matt Turner's beautifully judged job ad, and Margaret Oscar’s stark observation on the nature of injustice sit next to poems and other responses that show the scope and variety of different writers, different approaches. The brief was for a personal response to the writer we were assigned. For better or worse, this was mine.
you may have wondered why my piece looked different from the others. It turned
out that the ‘tumblr’ blog program couldn’t centre the text as needed. After
Rishi spent an hour trying to fix it, we opted to import the text as an image.