Photo credit: Lorna Elizabeth | Interview by Tim Relf
I always write in prose first, longhand in my notebook, like I’m talking to someone
A Psalm for the Scaffolders
who balanced like tightrope walkers, who could run up the bracing faster than you or I could climb a ladder, who wore red shorts and worked bare-chested, who cut their safety vests in half, a psalm for the scaffolders and their vans, their steel toe-capped boots, their coffee mugs, a psalm for those who learnt to put up a scaffold standing on just one board, a psalm for the scaffolder who could put a six-inch nail in a piece of wood with just his palm, a psalm for those who don’t like rules or things taking too long, who now mustn’t go to work uncovered, who mustn’t cut their safety vests or climb without ladders, who must use three boards at all times, a psalm for the scaffolders who fall with a harness on, who have ten minutes to be rescued, a psalm for the scaffolder who fell in a clear area, a tube giving way, that long slow fall, a psalm for him, who fell thirty feet and survived, a psalm for the scaffolder who saw him fall, a psalm for those at the top of buildings, the wind whistling in their ears, the sky in their voices, for those who lift and carry and shout and swear, for those who can recite the lengths of boards and tubes like a song, a psalm for them, the ones who don’t like heights but spent their whole life hiding it, a psalm for those who work too long, a psalm for my father, a psalm for him.
On the face of it, scaffolders seem an unlikely topic for a poem. Why write this?
My dad’s a retired scaffolder and, even though a man of few words, he’s always talked about work and told me a lot of stories. This was drawn from many conversations with him but, as is often the case with my poems, they’re sparked by hearing or noticing one specific thing. In this case, it was my dad telling me he was afraid of heights. I was so taken aback that someone who’d spent their whole life up in the sky could be scared of heights. When I heard that, I knew this wasn’t just a random assemblage of facts and that it would be a poem. It’s as if something clicked in my head.
Over the years, he’d also talked a lot about how much the job had changed since he began doing it when he was 16. It really struck me how those changes – like bringing in more health and safety rules and making the job easier in many ways – should, on the face of it, have been welcomed by the people doing it. But for my dad this wasn’t the case, because they took away a lot of his freedom. So I was trying to capture that. Scaffolding is still very dangerous and physically demanding, so I wanted to honour a job that’s not had much poetry written about it.
Can you tell us about the actual writing process?
It varies, but this poem came out pretty much in one go and there wasn’t much subsequent editing. I always write in prose first, longhand in my notebook, like I’m talking to someone. At that stage, I might have three pages that I’ll cut back later. I think of that as a big rock that I’ve then got to sculpt the poem from. I’m not interested in rhythm or line breaks at that point, I just want to get the words down without slowing or stopping. If I think about how it looks on the page, that interrupts the process – it feels like another part of my brain that will make those decisions. I think my process is linked to being a twin. I used to talk really fast when I was little because I didn’t want my twin to get a word in and that’s what my first drafts are like. I’ve got to get them out as quickly as I can before anyone stops me or I stop myself!
After that point, I leave it to ‘cook’ – sometimes for a couple of weeks, sometimes for a couple of months or even longer depending on how busy I am. When I go back to it, it feels like someone else has written it which makes the editing easier.
Most of the time it’s a case of hacking away, but this was a ‘gift poem’. They just come out and I know straightaway I won’t have to do much to them. Sadly, they’re quite rare. I can tell this was a ‘gift poem’ because, when I look at it now, it feels like I got going on the first line and just kept going.
You call it a ‘gift poem’, but you had tried to write about this subject before, right?
Yes. When I was 18, my dad fell 30ft when he was working on Leicester City football stadium. He could have died, but he landed on some plastic chairs which broke his fall. His co-worker, who saw him fall, dropped a scaffolding tube which missed his head by an inch so he actually nearly died twice. He was in hospital for weeks.
I tried to write about it over and over again for about 10 years and it never worked. Sometimes, though, you have to write all the wrong versions first. Now, I feel like I was going in the wrong door to the poem – or perhaps trying to climb in the window because the door wasn’t yet open. So perhaps it didn’t come out in one go after all! I try to see all that as practise for the poem I did end up writing.
It’s like playing a musical instrument – the years of practise are what enable you to play the piece, even it if it might not involve what you’ve specifically practised.
Tell us about a few of the decisions you made in terms of word choice and structure
Often I’m trying to find the right form for a poem for a long time, but this pretty much came out as it is. The long, thin column shape felt right, as it was like a high scaffold or a tall building.
If I try to type up a poem when I first write it, it tends to falls apart, so I only do that after I’ve let it ‘cook’. I taught myself to touch type when I was 17 and I put the line breaks in when I’m typing it up. I always remember something Michael Symmons Roberts said to me: You need to be able to justify the form a poem is in – if there isn’t a reason for it, then it’s not finished.
With this poem, I was influenced by Kei Miller’s ‘Unsung’, which includes the beautiful lines
There should be a song for the man who does not sing
himself – who has lifted a woman from her bed to a wheelchair
each morning, and from a wheelchair to her bed each night
He repeats the words ‘a song’ in that and I felt the repetition of ‘a psalm’ gave my poem a real rhythm. Even though I’m not religious, I’ve been in churches all my life as a musician, so I’ve been around the language of psalms too.
I liked the idea of linking those two unlikely things: religion and scaffolding. I’ve also always been fascinated by scaffolding because it’s one of the few last areas where it’s solely men in the workplace. It feels like a secret place – with its own atmosphere – that I can’t see. If I went on a site my very existence would change it. It’s a world I can never enter fully and that interests me as a poet.