On writing Clouds Cannot Cover Us
I often say that if I didn’t already love poetry by the time we studied it in secondary school, I’d have hated poetry. The work we studied didn’t reflect our lives or experiences, and the idea that form stood above all else was frustrating to say the least. All of this was exacerbated by the fact that there seems to be a gap in the poetry world; there’s lots of poetry for children, there’s lots of poetry for adults, but there seems to be so little YA poetry to bridge that gap and lead readers further on their literary journey. I was so excited when Troika suggested that I could help fill it.
The first thing to think about, when you’re writing a poetry collection, is what you want it to say. In many ways, a collection of poetry is one big poem, and poems (like poets) always have something to say. In writing this collection I thought about what I cared about as a teenager, and what I care about now. I thought about what it is I wanted to say. I was even persuaded (somehow) to dig up some of my old poems, ones I wrote as a teenager in high school and, after giving them a bit of an edit, include one or two of them in the collection.
It turns out that what I wanted to say was what I wanted to hear as a teenager - the truth. No “protecting” young people from the issues, no minimising their problems or experiences. No lies. What I wanted to say, what I hope this collection says, is: “The world is terrible. I get it. I see it. I know. But I promise you, there’s still good out there.”
This book doesn’t shy away from “issues” it tackles, among other things, domestic violence, general violence, homelessness, class divides, family strife, transphobia, islamophobia, anti-semitism, death, refugees, white supremacy, disability, poverty, and more. It is the world as it is, and will hopefully enable young people to see their lives reflected back at them in a way that is both helpful and affirming.
Knowing the industry, I worried that this would be too much for a publisher, but Troika had asked me, specifically, for a poetry book for teenagers. They’d seen me perform. They’d read my work. They had actually met me (big mistake). They knew what they were getting into, or at least, I hoped they did. I sent off the manuscript - it felt like a game of chicken, where I was waiting for one of us to blink. I made lists in my head - which poems I’d be happy to get rid of, which topics might be ‘too much’, and which topics were too personal, or too important, to compromise on.
They didn’t blink.
We had a meeting, to discuss the order of the poems, the format of the book, how to make it familiar and appealing to as wide a range of readers as possible. They acknowledged the personal nature of many of the poems, and asked if I could make it into a narrative, if it could follow my life in some way. Then they did the unexpected, and instead of asking me to cut poems out, they asked for even more. I went away. I dug through my notebooks. I pinned poem titles on a giant corkboard and tried to see if they could fit in a semi-autobiographical narrative. The day I found an old poem about my own birth felt like a sign - I had an opening. But where next?
Being trans means that my life does feel almost like it comes in two halves. I have lived in this world as two people: The person I was before; angry, confused, violent, trying to find out what was wrong, trying to find my place in a world that didn’t want me. And the person I am now; proud, confident, at peace with myself, trying to forge a future to be proud of. With that in mind, I divided the book into two parts. The first half is filled with problems, anger, and confusion, and the poems in turn are often filled with industrial and urban imagery, dark, and claustrophobic. The second half is filled with hope, change, and growth - the poems here are often filled with natural imagery, they are lighter, softer, quieter - kinder.
My hope is that as well as bridging the gap in poetry, into which so many young people fall, this book will also help people. Poetry has a power far greater than any other form of literature, it allows people to see, and feel seen. The intrinsic unknowability of a poem, the way it allows people to take from it what they most need in that moment, is something so often overlooked in the search for the “real” or “correct” interpretation, but it is unbelievably important; especially for a YA audience, who are so often searching for… something.
Hopefully this collection will act as a lifeline, and a mirror, and a friendly voice. Hopefully it will offer young people the affirmation and hope they so often need. Hopefully it brings a bit of good into the world. Hopefully it helps people.
[This piece was originally written for the Youth Libraries Group]