At the moment, one of my favourite possessions (if ‘possession’ is ever the right word) is a slim, white and red ticket for a ballet I never saw. It’s sitting on the desk in front of me, time and date neatly stamped across the front.
Of course, the ticket is important to me not because of its appearence, but the story behind missing the show. For a week now, I’ve been trying (failing) to write about the idea of a ballet continuing without its audience, a parallel life. I’m fascinated by the idea of the unseen show, the idea of it carrying on forever, the ballerina pirhouetting endlessly like the figurine in the burgundy jewellery box my great grandma used to have who snapped into life when the mirrored lid was opened.
I danced from the age of three until I was in my early twenties and theatres have always exerted a strange hold on me. When I began to write, I wanted to write for stage, and much of that was informed by the weird glamour of countless hours in the wings at Chesterfield’s Pomegranate Theatre, checking my toe shoes, trying not to cough or even breathe.
There are many unsatisfying metaphors for poetry, and the notion of the poem as a small stage is no better than any other. But I do often think of poems as theatrical platforms, contained places where ideas and desires are enacted. Like the stage, each new poem demands a mixture of presence and detachment on the part of the writer. Sometimes, as a dancer, I used to feel as if I was watching myself from somewhere high above the lights. Other times, I forgot there was an audience.
Whenever I think about the idea of the poem as a stage for a dance between fact and fiction, invention and memory, image and object, it brings to mind the epigraph at the start of Don Paterson’s collection Nil Nil. The quote is taken from a manual on stage sound effects:
“Slamming door: a real door slammed offstage gives the best effect.”
One of the first collections of poetry I ever bought was Billy’s Rain by Hugo Williams and I’ll never forget sitting on a bench in the middle of Cambridge and reading the title poem:
When I’m lying awake, listening to rain
hammering on the roof,
the phrase comes back to me,
our code for ‘Let’s get out of here’.
We were huddled in the back of a van
with the lights, the videotape equipment
and the man with the rain machine.
‘Why can’t we use the regular rain?’ you asked,
as rain hammered on the roof.
‘That’s God’s rain’, said someone.
‘It doesn’t show up on film.
We need Billy’s rain for this one’.
When I find myself soaked to the skin, tired,
or merely bored with God’s rain,
the phrase comes back to me.
I’d say it now if I thought you were listening.
Ever since reading it, I’ve been obsessed with the idea of ‘Billy’s rain’ as a metaphor for the effect a poem can achieve, amplifying experience, enacting real change through mimicry and fiction. The ballet I never saw is still carrying on, somewhere, even if it’s only under the dim spotlights at the back of my mind.