Poetry Wales is delighted to announce the appointment of our new Reviews Editor, George Sandifer-Smith. By way of introduction, George explains the process behind writing his poem ‘Sandwich inspector’ as well as his hopes and plans for reviews…
Lunchtime is vital. Waft of delivered bread slowing into crouton fodder two aisles away as automatons check stranger’s bags. A woman in a green uniform swears quietly, seething, effing. She hasn’t got the time. Me neither. Already I’m seven minutes deep into my hour. Prawns leer from crumby duvets drenched in Marie Rose. Falafels crushed into gritty little molehills dry healthily between wholegrain slices. I almost make it to £3 with an orange juice, no bits, and crisps, spicy. Where is the perfect sandwich? At this rate the best bench will be gone and I will have to feast by the bursting belching bin where gulls gather, their grey meat ripe for rumours about the fried chicken on Pier Street. Tuna? Too much brazen Atlantic backdraft and cadmium, I saw a documentary. Focus. Chicken, fine – but why sweetcorn and mayo? Polluting the sandwich as I pollute this hour, this spare slab of clock-face that I’m wolfing down, choking on, so greedy am I for real time.
How I Wrote ‘Sandwich inspector’
Writing about food is always a joy – it’s just, for me, a difficult joy to get right! ‘Sandwich inspector’ is an example of one of those poems that took years to come together – it started life as an observation on someone else inspecting pre-packaged sandwiches before considering my own feelings about them. Between that other person picking up sandwiches in Aberystwyth Arts Centre in early 2015 and me finishing the poem in Cardiff in 2020, there is a ghostly trail of lunchtimes and different jobs.
The original version of this poem was written while considering the leisurely time one could spend looking at sandwiches, seeking out the right combination of flavours, given the privilege of no deadlines, no responsibilities. I’d felt that, in contrast, the hour out for lunch I’d taken was a golden hour to think of nothing but the delight of a sandwich – both a blessing and a reminder that time is short.
That first line, then, lays out the mission statement. That was added in later – that “lunchtime is vital”. The original opening line began later, with “Waft of delivered bread”, but with this particular poem I felt a confidence was required. It is a poem about time, therefore the reader’s time is to be respected – ‘here is what you will be reading right now’.
The temporality of the poem is carried through the description – the bread “slowing into crouton fodder” and the note that seven minutes of the lunch hour are already up. There is an element of the absurd I hoped to bring into it with “Prawns leer from crumby duvets” – the prawns have all the time in the world. They are dead crustaceans, their next part in the life cycle a challenge to someone else’s choice at lunchtime.
That absurdity is also there with the falafels that “dry healthily” – the protagonist is aware that these would be a healthier choice, but is worried he won’t enjoy their scratchy dryness. The descriptive elements are intended to emphasise the privilege in the absurdity, the absurdity in the privilege. We delight in food, even the lowly pre-packaged sandwich, but it is ultimately a ridiculous thing to be quite so concerned over.
Carrying on the theme of lunchtime’s vitality, the poem asks “Where is the perfect sandwich?” with some frustration. It again returns to the ridiculous pressure a lot of people (or is just me?) place on these gaps in the working day. Generally poetry requires research for me and even this one – for its final run-through – about sandwiches and their significance in our working lives sent me back to my favourite regular food column, ‘How to eat’, by Tony Naylor writing for the Guardian. I love getting to know the textures and flavours through the eyes and tastebuds of others – the comments section on Naylor’s articles proved particularly useful here. Everybody has different tastes and they’re often weird in some way (I include myself here, as someone whose favourite treat a cheese and Marmite sandwich). Katherine Stansfield’s written some excellent poems in this field – perhaps most notably ‘How to make a good crisp sandwich’ and ‘Socks or cheese?’, which are handily side-by-side in her collection Playing House.
The actual ‘how’ of ‘how I write a poem’ more generally is harder to put together – ‘Sandwich inspector’ is just one example of writing one poem, and letting it sit for years. Sometimes it doesn’t take years for a poem to come together – most of the time, thank goodness. Sometimes, a first line will arrive, and more will follow. Sometimes that first line that arrives is actually the first line of a second verse. Or a last line. There are other times when I have a couple of phrases and a theme, where the work must then be patient – Samantha Wynne-Rhydderch taught me the approach with these, to draw up a table with your themes on one side and a cluster of words and phrases on the other. Visualising what you want from the poem and what you might use to make that wish come true – that can be particularly good for when you’re writing about a difficult subject, like the pandemic.
There’s no exact route to a finished draft – sometimes the poem tells you what it’s about as you’re writing it, and sometimes you set out with a specific thing to say.
Part of writing this article is also introducing myself to you as the new Reviews Editor of Poetry Wales. To say I’m delighted to be here is an understatement of galactic proportions – having my poem ‘The White Telephone Box’ published in the summer 2021 edition of Poetry Wales was a career highlight and I’m delighted to be joining Zoe and the team to bring you the treasure that is poetry. In my capacity as Reviews Editor, I’m looking to uphold the standards of the magazine’s previous fifty-seven years and to keep the voices in poetry and criticism as diverse as they are in real life. We want to hear from writers and critics from every background – have you had a collection or anthology published that is relevant or concerned with the world as it truly is now? We’d like to hear from you. Or would you like to write reviews on books like this? We’d also like to hear from you!
I’m hoping to also put some work into additional review content – a magazine is only so big and there are so many collections and chapbooks/pamphlets in particular published every month – and I’m hoping to work with Zoe to build a space for that on the website. There are so many platforms for poetry to be heard now and I’m hoping to find a way to make a little bit more room to review it all.
I look forward to working with this community to create a fair and safe space for criticism and make sure equality and diversity are well-served. Now, I imagine I have some emails to reply to…
To get in touch with George about reviews or reviewing, please email firstname.lastname@example.org