It gave me an eerie feeling of déjà vu, though quite explicably – I had experienced this before, only the previous week.
One hot day in July I was walking along a street when I passed a second-hand bookshop. The owner, having nothing better to do, had brought out a chair and was sitting in the doorway to enjoy the sunshine. It gave me an eerie feeling of déjà vu, though quite explicably – I had experienced this before, only the previous week. I walked along this street at this time every Tuesday on my way to play badminton, and the man was usually there in his doorway. I had a sudden fantasy that the man and the bookshop only existed on Tuesday afternoons, that place and time had merged into one, and everyone else I passed on that brief walk to the leisure centre seemed to me part of that imaginary Tuesday world.
When I got home that evening I started to write a poem about it. For some reason, though, I didn’t follow my usual practice of writing a lot of notes in longhand and gradually, over several days, assembling them into a whole. Instead I sat down at the computer and typed a first line:
As I went down to Friday Street,
I had changed Tuesday to Friday, because I vaguely remembered that there are several villages with the peculiar name of Friday Street – besides, there is something magical and hauntingly ephemeral about Friday, the start of the weekend.
It was clearly the first line of a ballad, and the rest of it followed over the next couple of hours. Because I was writing on a screen, the poem had a shape already as it began to emerge. Because it’s so easy to change things on a computer, I felt confident enough to start at the beginning and go through to the end, waiting, if necessary for a long time, for the next line to occur to me. And this method of working seemed to lend itself to regular form rather than the free verse I had mostly written up to then.
And that is how I’ve written ever since, on a computer, starting a poem at the beginning and going through to the end, with long periods of daydreaming when I get stuck. After a couple of years of exploring the iambic pentameter, first with full rhyme then half-rhyme, I moved on to syllabics, where you only count the syllables rather than both syllables and stresses, and they remain my favourite form, usually now without rhyme. I still sometimes write free verse, but every poem I write must have a shape, a structure. I never sit down at the computer to write until I’ve decided what it is.
Matthew Francis is a poet, novelist and professor in the Department of English and Creative Writing at Aberystwyth University. He is the author of seven poetry collections, two novels, and a collection of short stories. He is also the editor of W.S. Graham’s New Collected Poems, and author of a study of Graham, Where the People Are. He lives in west Wales with his wife, Creina. His poetry was recently published in Poetry Wales Stay-at-Home Special Issue.