Most of what you do as a writer is slow and gradual. Even if you’re writing short poems, and you can finish one in an afternoon, the process by which they coalesce into a collection can take several years. Occasionally, though, an abrupt and unexpected jolt moves things along much more quickly – some kind of revelation which throws new light on the material you’ve been writing or thinking about.
This was the process by which I arrived at The Meanwhile Sites – my first full-length collection of poems, out now from Salt Publishing.
The poems in the collection came together over a period of five years or so. For much of that time I had no sense at all of writing a book. In fact, the oldest poems that were eventually included in The Meanwhile Sites were the first I’d written in at least 20 years.
But then I came across an article about a block of housing in west London called Hope Gardens. It was built from shipping containers, which would be later be removed to make way for another, more permanent development. Because that later development wasn’t scheduled to begin for several years, the location could be put to another use in the short term.
There was a growing trend, said the article, for urban planners and local authorities to embrace temporary developments of this kind – so much so that a term had emerged to refer specifically to the locations on which they were built. These locations were being called ‘meanwhile sites’.
If Hope Gardens was a project with the temporary designed in, then a parallel phenomenon had been trending in the retail and hospitality industries – the ‘pop-up’ shop, café or bar. In fact, it seemed to me, the defining feature of British society since the economic crash of the late 2000s has been a constant sense of precarity. Austerity and depletion. Anything could close down at any moment. Don’t get too comfy.
And what do you know, these were the very themes that I’d been thinking and writing about. The concepts threading those poems together were suddenly, abundantly apparent. I had a book on the way.
When I visited Hope Gardens, perhaps my biggest takeaway was to rethink the whole idea of ‘temporary’ and ‘permanent’, seeing it as a false dichotomy. Instead there are only lifespans, which differ in length. So I wrote two things (Acton and The Meanwhile Sites) which together became the centrepiece poems of the book.
When we talk about lifespans, we’re not just talking about buildings and businesses, of course. We’re talking aspects of the natural landscape. Technologies, and the analogue world. Industries. Ways of doing things. Governments and nations. Entire cultures and ecosystems.
So the very first image in The Meanwhile Sites is of two people on a path which is itself part of a coastline being eroded by the sea.
And then, as the collection continued to take shape, the pandemic came as a reminder that already limited lifespans – including those of our own species – can unexpectedly become shorter still.
No more spoilers though. It’s publication day and my book is ready for you. If you’re interested, please read it while you can.
The Meanwhile Sites on the Salt Publishing website
And at Bookshop.org
(buy here to support independent bookshops)
And at the Poetry Book Society
The Meanwhile Sites official soundtrack
Check out this playlist of tracks chosen to accompany the book
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