I admit I was a little anxious about the short poem challenge Joolz set us at the end of last year. As our London Undercurrents project has progressed, I seem to have been writing longer and longer poems. One poem ended up a whopping 78 (absolutely necessary, you understand) lines.
My first attempt at a shorter poem, in the voice of a Clapham Clippie working on Route 19 during the Great War, came in at 24 lines. When Joolz and I met and swapped our ‘short’ poems, hers was an impressively compact and punchy nine lines. I’ve since revised the Clippie poem down to – ahem – 23 lines.
So to my second attempt. The starting point, as with my poem Nightlight Wicking at Price’s (featured recently on Proletarian Poetry), was the invaluable For Love and Shillings: Wandsworth Women’s Working Lives. As I read the book, I made a note of the different reasons local woman had left their jobs. Many were sacked for offences that now seem ridiculous. For example, a waitress was sacked for swapping her hours with a colleague so she could have the day off on her 21st birthday. It was common, too, well into the twentieth century, for companies to oblige women to leave when they got married. Congratulations – you’re fired! I considered constructing a poem called The Sack, weaving together some of the accounts from the book, but thought it was in danger of turning into another not-very-short poem.
Instead, I focussed on one case – a woman sacked from Cook’s Confectioners on Battersea Rise. Looking back many years later after the event, she gave a very matter-of-fact account of the circumstances that led to her dismissal. It painted a striking image in my mind and she fitted the bill for one of our feisty London Undercurrents women. A bit of online research into 1920s dance crazes, a few false starts, then I got a first phrase that rang true – I never pilfered – and bingo! Nine lines. Snap!