Roddy Williams – The Atheist Poet


May 2013

Racing like sperm for the welcoming bus doors,
old random act of desperate access,
we are somehow united in one aim.

Lost in this unnatural press of strangers
throwing instincts into a gene panic.
Though still we sit in pairs like chromosomes.

The oyster island stare is then deployed,
eyes glazing past the ears of those on board
these barrels of dodgy DNA.

They’re not accepted. Faces draw a blank
against those lists we’ve captured in our heads;
the tallied loved and hated, lost, betrayed.

These passengers could be first class but they
are just untested genes, at least today.

Remembering things

A lot of my work is an attempt I think to remember. When one gets to a certain age memories of childhood become a little surreal. At least mine are.
I don’t remember any of my birthdays from when I was a child, for instance. I don’t think I had a birthday party ever. Not that I ever particularly wanted one. I had cards and presents, and probably a special supper. Christmases are clearer.
Now, when I recall things, I write them down.
Many of my recollections are a touch surreal such as the Christmas – I was about ten years old – when I opened a present from my Auntie Marlene. It was very oddly shaped, and could have been – but clearly wasn’t as was evident from the surreptitious squeezes I gave it – a small spade.
I was a little stunned to discover that it was in fact a lifesized plastic macaw affixed to a perch which comprised of a black bar and a spiralled golden arch by which one could hang the parrot up from some handy hook or nail.
‘I didn’t know what else to get you,’ she said.
The surprising thing about this story is that I was delighted with it. As far as I recall I hung it from a screw that my father put in a ceiling joist.
It’s no wonder my mother worried about me in hindsight. She needn’t have. I was rational, which is more than I can say for most of my extended family.
I’m now wondering what ever happened to that parrot, and whether I gave it a name. This is important to me for reasons that squawk at me with no words.

Poetry forms – The Liwuli

I’ve been encountering obscure poetic formats recently. Here’s one. It’s called the liwuli which I first saw mentioned on the ‘Obsessed with Pipework’ Facebook page.
The liwuli, I am informed, is a form that originates from Singapore, but that’s neither here nor there. Forms are forms. I find the restriction useful in that one is forced to choose one’s words carefully and be concise.
The first stanza contains exactly 31 syllables in the form of a prose poem, and should be phrased entirely in terms of instructions.
The second stanza consists of 14 syllables and 3 lines
The third stanza consists of 10 syllables and 2 lines.
This section should be phrased entirely in terms of questions.
Well, I had a quick go.
Come back
Come back to that room
in the robot hotel
Bridge me the distance
Come soon like the winter
and stay
Brook me no delay
Make haste
I sing this to the airlines
once or twice
most every day
Why don’t they hear me?
Where are you today?
That’s not bad for ten minutes. Give it a go.

Poetry Exercise – 50 word portraits

Lately I have the feeling that my poetry is changing. It’s going in a new direction but I am as yet unclear as to what that direction may be.
Certainly, over the last year I have paid far more attention to punctuation and line breaks, experimenting with various formats. Do I really need to use commas and full stops for instance?
I’m also finding that my poems are getting longer. They used to average (leaving aside strict forms such as sonnets and haiku) around 21 lines but lately they’ve been venturing into the 30s and occasionally beyond into scary uncharted lands.
There’s also a greater element of surrealism creeping in.
Perhaps to subconsciously subvert this trend I’m currently working – in tandem with my regular poetry – on a series of vignettes comprising of exactly fifty words each, based on customers of various coffee shops I frequent.
Here I am eschewing commas and full stops, replacing them with line and paragraph breaks. I am as yet undecided about capitalisation. I’m not even sure what I plan to do with them. It’s a work in progress.
It’s also an excellent exercise in brevity, in making every word count in order to put over a short portrait or narrative. The result is therefore sometimes a little impressionistic.
Try it out. It’s a good exercise. Use a place you visit regularly and which has a changing population, like a supermarket or a bar or a prison. Study one person for a couple of minutes; their mood, their clothing, what they are doing, looking at, reading. Write a poem of exactly fifty words for each one. See where it takes you.

Wing (2010)

An angelwing was sprayed on to the blue;
a contrail streamered by a raking wind.
Some may, no doubt, see signs of the divine
in these flatulent remains, the sky’s dregs.

And yet, there’s something great there all the same.
I wondered as I watched if only I
had witnessed this. No one looks up these days
not unless a voice calls from above.

There was no voice, by the way, just in case
you think I’m heading in that direction,
just this great wing with its wind carved feathers
arcing to the left of the setting sun.
It was random, senseless, magnificent.
Then it was gone; didn’t leave a message.


Rejection – in life as in poetry – is something with which we all have to learn to deal in our own ways. Inevitably one will take it personally for the short moment following the digestion of the rejection slip or e-mail.
‘This is clearly absurd,’ you must tell yourself. ‘These editors do not know you and have no grand scheme to destroy your rise to poetry stardom. Besides, many magazines operate an anonymous policy whereby the selector or selectors have no idea who the authors may be.’
That usually works. Sometimes the inner voice whines back.
‘But this one doesn’t. They must hate me for sending something completely inappropriate for their magazine.’
I have to think this through. Are there editors so consumed with irrational hate for their potential contributors that they will refuse to publish the good stuff when they receive it?
‘I guess it is possible,’ I reply, ‘but I find it hard to imagine that your work could have been worse than the greetings card love twaddle that all editors must have to deal with.’
Apologies if you are a writer of greetings card love twaddle. It’s a worthy profession and a noble craft but not the sort of thing you tend to submit to contemporary poetry magazines.
I suspect someone will now send me a link to popular quarterly journal The Tennessee Greetings Card Love Twaddle Review (submissions open). But I digress.
‘One also has to consider the high volume of submissions some magazines receive against the number of pieces they can actually publish. Rejection doesn’t necessarily mean your work is bad, just that there was some very stiff competition.’
The digital age has been a double-edged sword in this respect. Yes, we have a fresh continent of online magazines and print magazines who accept e-mail and Submittable submissions, but this has opened the way for anyone to submit anything they want at any time of the day or night to about 80% of the market without leaving the house.
People who spend all their time the house without a good excuse shouldn’t be submitting poetry. I feel this is a bad idea. But I digress.
Rejection is painful, but it is momentary, and not personal.
Move on.
Keep Writing.

The Love Repository (2010)

Everyone waiting here was once in love
They’ve been through this experience, survived,
and all have come to have the time preserved
like rich binary jam in this, the love machine.

It will rip their love to digital bits
then convert it to a small dot love file.
Users can log in to experience
the passion and the pain, the sublime bliss,

the agony of loss, red betrayal
staining the curtains, the rapture of sex
and the ubiquitous raging madness.
All can be rescued for posterity.

The queue is long, but they wait patiently.
Their love will now be truly eternal.

Landscape Photography (2009)

I need the venture to photograph myself
face the lens boldly
an old mountain
trying to forget what I can see
the crevices
the overhangs of jaw

I’ll direct light on the north face
to catch an aspect, leave the rest concealed
unrecall it further distanced
into continents of white
rising from an inkdeep sea

I have to learn geography and me
cross the pass of exams
face my face
I could have foreign parts
I need to know
the lay of the land
‘so’ I tell myself ‘face it
it’s come to this’

to forgetting who I am
look at this face as a new place
a random set of shapes
that upsets me for no reason
like a map of home

percy pigs (2008)

he bought me percy pigs
but i don’t like percy pigs.
they’re pink and taste of vile intentions
smell like the seat of a pervert’s car.

he knows i don’t like percy pigs
and yet he bought me percy pigs.
they’re sweet as liar’s lips and
he should know i’ve had enough of those.

i’ve said i don’t like percy pigs
so why’s he bought me percy pigs?
he’ll have to eat them cold himself
like humble pie, words or revenge.

message found in a richmond menthols packet (2007)

as i smoke my last cigarette
i see the shapes of men
through the net curtains in the park-keeper’s hut
engaged in arcane park-keeper’s duties
that may involve tea
and rough council biscuits.
their hanging jackets tease a wink through the netting.

they’ve aroused the curious beast in me
that i exercise in the park.
his paws are on the window
but the doylie curtain baffles him.

meanwhile i am drowning out here, alone
in a tide of russet leaves
which has rushed in vertically as i’ve watched.

they’re watching me i know
over rims of grim cracked mugs
through the net that secrets their games
as i sink into the waves

if you find this poem
then it means i did not make it.
take it,
and present it to the town hall.
tell them
they knew i was drowning, not waving.