from the editor's desk

Alexis Lateef

Training a Poetic Lens on Juvenilia

With the support of The Copyright Agency‘s Cultural Fund, and in partnership with Margaret River PressWesterly delivered our inaugural Writers’ Development Program in 2016.

Five talented emerging writers were offered professional guidance and support in developing their work for publication in Westerly, both in print and online. We are now delighted to be able to showcase their work here at the Editor’s Desk, and look forward to their inclusion in our upcoming print issue.

An Introduction to the Poem ‘Photo Day’
Alexis Lateef

‘Photo Day’ is a poem from my current manuscript. As part of the Westerly Writers’ Development Program (WDP), I have worked with wonderful editor and lecturer Marcella Polain on strengthening this collection of poems. We focused on fine-tuning those pieces that had reached an impasse in my mind, such as ‘Photo Day’. This was adapted from juvenilia written circa 2005, after my graduation from Year Twelve. As any writer can attest to, I have a jumbled collection of juvenilia written between school and during university. I was hesitant to include these in my first manuscript, which is mainly written between 2012 and 2015. ‘Photo Day’ was an exception. It was one of the few poems I felt proud of as a young writer—I had achieved a certain sentiment even if the language and imagery were still clumsy and underdeveloped.

‘Photo Day’ was added to the manuscript without extensive revision. I wasn’t sure how to approach it. My voice has matured and, hopefully, come into its own by now, and my poetry studies helped me grow and later situate myself in contemporary Australian poetry. I was struggling to adapt this poem to my current practice. Marcella’s edits as part of the WDP helped me enormously. She did suggest, early on, that I should remove a few poems from the manuscript that weren’t strong enough, but this was one she believed could work.

It was an exhilarating process to transmute skeletal juvenilia into a fleshy piece. I wanted to convey a precise, mature imagery while still capturing the teenage uncertainty that drives it. I had difficulty with ‘Photo Day’ because I wondered if editing my ‘teenage voice’ would remove the essential naivety. Many poets write works based on early experiences and aim to convey their early self convincingly by adopting a certain lexicon. It is a fine balance to sustain both the older voice looking back, and the projection of the younger voice. The irony is that juvenilia can impair the authenticity of the young voice because the nascent writer is trying to write ‘Poetically’.

Often, at the early stage of a writer’s development, we are consciously or unconsciously imitating our immediate, sporadic influences. I realised, after discussions with Marcella, that poems about youth that are written many years later appear more authentic because the mature writer has mastered the voice of the older self looking back, one that is comfortably their own, rather than gleaned from early influence. There is also the choice sprinkling of phrases derived from the lexicon of their childhood or youth.

My dilemma was that the early version oscillated between poetic emulation, a few lines of sophistication, and the blunt, flat phrases of a young writer building from cliché. It became obvious that the poem must be adapted to my mature voice. I needed to use my natural voice to convey the naivety of my young self—a young self expressed by way of a sophisticated articulation of sentiment rather than the original, teenage wording.

For example, in the early version that appears below, the second stanza begins:

There we stand, in green tunics
and striped ties, white sleeves
buttoned at the wrists.
We are not so different
from the homerooms
of a hundred years ago

The phrasing is overdone and awkwardly formal in the final lines. There is also a bland description in the beginning—the reader might think, ‘so what?’ After all, poetry is not simply narration. I needed to relate this description to the wider sentiment, which is what I aim to do, usually. With this in mind, I added metaphor to highlight our limited freedom as young people at school:

old-fashioned sleeves
buttoned at the wrists,
the way our feelings
are fastened and contained.

The poem is more nuanced now, more in line with my current craft and, yet, has not lost its teenage voice either. I also felt that, now I was comfortable with altering the original, the final lines needed to be more specific to ground the poem, to situate it, to rid it of ambiguousness. So I added a specific date about the school, instead of just the vague phrase ‘a hundred years ago’:

This uniform has not changed
for a hundred years—
if it weren’t for our hair,
it could be 1846,
the birth year of this school.

The emphasis on the school’s age, its old history, serves to stress the traditions and uniforms that bind us, which links well to the next stanza about the current time, about who we are outside of the school. This stanza was not included in the original but, in a moment of recognition of my aims in my poetic craft, I knew I needed to contrast that second stanza, that archaic history, with the modern. I was unaware of this when I first wrote this poem.

And then, there were stanzas that unconsciously employed cliché and hindered the poem’s driving force. For example, in the fourth stanza, I used the cliché ‘fertilising flowers,’ and in the fifth stanza, ‘bowels of history’. I knew what my younger self wanted to communicate, but she was unable to achieve a nuanced diction, which is an important aspect of poetic craft. In my reluctance to ‘tamper’ with the poem, in case it muddied the teenage voice, I couldn’t see that the so-called authentic voice was often derivative and counter-intuitive. Marcella pointed out this mistake.

In this process of editing, I omitted the first cliché, remembering what the novelist Henry Green once stated in an interview with The Paris Review in 1958: ‘The more you leave out, the more you highlight what you leave in.’ Simplicity where necessary is an aspect of my poetic craft that gains more importance the more I write. A key skill is in knowing when to hold back, when to pare a line down to its essential point. This can be more effective than a wordiness that might clutter the feeling—for example, just having the single line ‘I will be dead’, blunt and to the point, makes more of an impact than trying to extend that thought.

I also utilised Henry Green’s reminder in cutting out the lines:

‘Exactly the point’,
a fellow student grumbles.
I can’t help but agree
as we take our positions.

I might have thought, early on, that it accentuated the sentiment, but it was unnecessary. These lines repeat what was explained in an earlier stanza. I have realised that, in order to develop, one must be ruthless sometimes. The more you question whether certain lines needs to exist in the poem, really interrogate the poem, the stronger it becomes. Otherwise, it is just a collection of thoughts fronted by a misguided defence. Marcella and I had several conversations about the reluctance of some poets, especially young poets, to omit lines or accept that they need to change them.

The poet Don Paterson commented, in a 2012 interview with The Telegraph, that editing poetry ‘depends upon tiny shifts of sense and emphasis, context and connection’. This was certainly the case with Marcella’s feedback. I was grateful for her singling out of phrases that needed a shift when thinking of the reader, such as the description of our collars as ‘the shape of toilet bowls’. I pondered this suggestion. I thought it was humorous, very teenage. And yet, it could confuse the reader. I was referring to a school-specific colloquialism used among the girls. Our uniform was old-fashioned, and consisted of a green tunic and a blouse with a very wide collar that we referred to as ‘toilet bowls’. This was clearly a phrase that I could take a gamble on, but I ended up choosing the less ambiguous phrase ‘Victorian collars’. I decided that this fit in well with the poem’s emphasis on outdated uniforms, and the school’s beginning in Victorian times, so I sacrificed the humour for that consistency.

It’s a reminder that often we have to weigh up the pros and cons of certain phrases. Ultimately, consistency and linkage is what I aim for in my poetic craft. And yet, I also realised, with some fondness for my younger self, that certain lines worked very well, such as in the final stanza, and the space in between that and the final, isolated line. An isolated line can be used to deftly present a contradiction, or to stress the fact that something we place great significance on is actually very momentary. This is something I picked up from Elizabeth Bishop and Seamus Heaney, poets I was studying at the time, but also, more explicitly, from the Les Murray poem, ‘An Absolutely Ordinary Rainbow’.

This explanation of the editing of juvenilia, and constant referral to current poetic craft, with the help of the objective eye of an editor, hopefully stresses the benefits of a mentorship and the Westerly WDP. I decided to contribute ‘Photo Day’ to Westerly because I wanted to illustrate that, especially with such assistance, juvenile writing can be brought to a standard that meets publication. In order to indicate how the WDP and mentorship influenced this poem, I have included the original version, as it was written in late 2004, two months shy of my seventeenth birthday.

‘Photo Day’ was written to capture the trepidation that is felt at the end of compulsory education, and the looming presence of an unknowable future. The narrator wants to make an impact with her life, but can’t know what will happen or how she will get there, or whether she can stand out from countless classmates and, more existentially, whether she can transcend death. She decides to place significance on this innocuous school rite, yet there is an irony to this that is lost on her, but may seem obvious to the reader.

Enormous thanks to Marcella Polain for her generosity, time and support. Thank you to Kate Noske and Westerly Magazine for this wonderful opportunity and continuous support for emerging writers, and support for the WA literary community as a whole. Thanks to my writer friend Amy Hilhorst, for initial feedback. Thank you to the late Western Australian writer Dorothy Hewett, whose poem ‘The Dark Fires’ (which first appeared in her Collected Poems: 1940 – 1995) helped hone the emotion of ‘Photo Day’. Fittingly, it was written when she too was a schoolgirl in her final year. The epigraph to ‘Photo Day’, which comes from ‘The Dark Fires’, was necessary in cementing the paradox of my poem, as well as being a small homage to a writer who has been crucial in my own development.


Works Cited:

Henry Green, in ‘ The Art of Fiction No. 22’, The Paris Review, 19, (Summer 1958).
Don Paterson, in ‘The Mystery of Poetry Editing: from T.S. Eliot to John Burnside’, The Telegraph, January 2012.

Photo Day (Early Version)

Another homeroom in the hall;
the photographer adjusts the height
of his tripod.
Teachers stand, faces shining
with satisfaction – or is it amusement? –
as collars the shape of toilet bowls
are painfully arranged.

There we stand, in green tunics
and striped ties, white sleeves
buttoned at the wrists.
We are not so different
from homerooms
of a hundred years ago.
The sulking begins,
as reflective windows mock.

Were it not for the hairstyles
and the chatter of today
this homeroom would easily fit
into the yearbook of yesterdays ago.
‘Exactly the point’,
a fellow student grumbles.
I can’t help but agree
as we take our positions.

The camera flashes.
In a single moment
we are captured. Frozen
in the bowels of history.
I marvel at the thought.
Some girl a hundred years from now
will walk along an aging hall
and come across our faces.
Will she too ponder
what I ponder now?

I will be dead. Fertilising flowers,
so to speak. Where is the comfort in that?
The photographer asks someone to smile
as he takes another shot.
I squirm in my seat.
There is no comfort in that.

We come off the bench
and in my head
once more flow the images
of grainy black and white.
Well, somewhere in history,
there I am.
If not for anything at all,
then for this photo, here today.

I peek a look at classmates,
wonder if anyone else has realised
the significance of this measly school rite.
The thought is lost,
in the excitement of exit,
in the flurry of talk,
in the frenzy of collars rearranged.

Another homeroom files in.


Read the final version of Alexis’s poem here.

Alexis Lateef is a Perth writer. She has a BA (English Literature) from The University of Western Australia, and has worked as a tutor, bookseller, reviewer, and library officer. Her work has appeared in Westerly, Australian Poetry Journal, Southerly, Island, Australian Book Review, Cordite, Collapse Board and in other places. She is currently editing her first collection of poetry.

Westerly thanks both The Copyright Agency‘s Cultural Fund and Margaret River Press for their support of this program. 

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