In the first of an exclusive new series where we ask top writers to talk about the composition of a single work, Maria Apichella explores Psalmody, the poetry collection currently on the Forward Prize shortlist for debut collections.
When I worked as a cleaner, I had two types of clients. Those that tidied before I pressed their doorbells and those that didn’t. Oddly enough, I preferred the latter. I loved to be alone with a cup of strong tea, a loud radio and rolled up sleeves. The trick is to focus on the details and work outwards. I created order beauty. I got the same sense of hard-earned satisfaction when I finished the clutter of writing my book. Psalmody is love story between a spiritual woman and an atheist solider in Ceredigion. Like washing a pile of dishes plate by plate, the book progressed poem by poem. Building a clear narrative was messy work.
As part of my PhD, I needed to write 10,000 words of poetry. At first, I had no direction, like being given a gun and told to shoot with no particular target, but I had deadlines and a vague interest in poetry exploring the ecstatic. My tutor said ‘study the Psalms; no one else has. They’re not cool.’ I wanted to, but I did not know how. Should I write about violence, war and masculinity? I tried and it was awful. My other tutor said, just write about what you are interested in, what you know. That was driving steep Welsh roads, working odd jobs, cooking with friends, making bonfires, praying, and camping in the library. So, I wrote about those things; as Nora Ephron said, everything is copy.
At first, I tried to make each poem draw on all five senses, showing not telling, etc. However, there was no cohesion or solid connection with the Psalms. Yet, as I studied these Bronze Age poems in more depth, I saw some unexpected parallels. They too drew on imagery from local landscape. Mine was Ceredigion, theirs was Israel. The Psalms were also poems of celebration and lament, full of physicality and food such as honey and bread.
Like mine, they were written for the purpose of processing real communal and personal situations, although neither mine or theirs are confessional. Rather, they were offered up to God as complaints, bargains and praises. I liked this raw and direct addressing of God.
The Psalms’ main clusters were hymns, individual thanksgiving, community and individual laments. I decided to categorise mine like this as well, writing poems of praise and invective.
It soon became apparent that a narrative was emerging so I honed in on fleshing out my main characters, a man and a woman dancing around love. Yet Psalmody is not driven by events. It focuses on the woman’s inner turmoil as she clashes with David, the guitar-playing, man-of-the-earth, squaddie whose atheist beliefs are an anathema to her soul. For this reason, I wanted there to be spaces, pauses and areas of ambiguity to reflect the tension. However, after my first draft was laid out on my bedroom floor like a storyboard, I saw there were too many gaps. I did not have enough links between each poem to follow any accessible logic.
As I cogitated over this with friends, one suggested I read Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers. This book explores myth-inspired story telling paradigms and is based on an adaptation of the well-known theory of the hero’s journey which Joseph Campbell introduced in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces. To summarise, a hero goes on a which includes several stages. The first is the departure and separation from the ordinary world. The hero is called to an adventure, which she usually rejects at first. The second is the descent, when the hero goes through tests, initiations or ordeals. Finally, there is the return home and the transformation of the hero.
Exploring this structure helped me move away from the internal mechanics of each poem and to look at the wider scope. I saw that in order to create a story, there needed to be a clear narrative arc. The tradition of storytelling is generally to start with creating an ordinary world where we see the character within the routine of their daily life. So, I wrote Poem 1 which opens with the unnamed female speaker driving to Bala with a box of cakes she has made for a student party.
Friday traffic to Bala
through mizzle, alone,
psalms whispering like a cassette.
The moon criss-
crossing the A
497, revelation of hills
like a face shimmering in a dark car.
Gravel prattles. I’ve arrived. The honey
cakes hot in Tupperware; apple, cinnamon
imbues. I’m tired; jangled, I carry a box
of many flavoured choices.
Friends of other friends roil, the front
door ajar, smokers silhouetted like saints,
arms wide, palms open. ‘Come
in, and know us better.’
The beat of the evening is underway. A couple
neck in the corner, a man in thick
glasses chews the crackling. Crystal
glasses scattered like puddles, filled
or spilled, maroon wine, ochre beer alight
under candle and lamp. Cakes left in the hubble-
bubble kitchen, so many faces half-recognised
from the Arts Centre, Tree House, Barclay’s,
the Bus Stop.
A man laughs; a ring-
leader on leave.
He’s strumming on a stool.
‘Sing for us, David,’
David acts as her ‘call to adventure’ and is the catalysis for the rest of the story.
By applying the principles of the Hero’s Journey, I was able to create a convincing narrative, whilst at the same time creating valid lyric poems which engage with the themes and imagery from the Psalms. With hindsight, it’s as easy as washing and sorting the dishes piece by piece.
Among the many things I learned while working on my PhD, being a cleaner and a poet is not so different. In each case, you are faced with something needing to be brought into order. We can’t exist in chaos but it’s often the starting point. Sorting the mess is the key element that fosters the creative process.
 Christopher Vogler, The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Storytellers and Screenwriters, Third Edition (Studio City, CA: Michael Wiese Productions, 2007), (p. 6).