Story Arcs and Safety Nets: Plotting ‘Little Piece of Harm’ | Chris JonesPosted: March 16, 2021
Usually I come to longer poems with a good idea of where I am heading in terms of the overall design of the project. I don’t go so far as to have post-it notes pinned to the wall detailing actions scene by scene, or graphs that outline the trajectory of a character’s situation, her mood and feelings. Because these longer pieces have been discrete or manageable enough to carry around in my head, I have always worked toward designated points in each sequence where key incidents occur. These markers act as narrative hinges on which I hang the rest of the story. For most of my projects, when I begin shaping the poems into some sort of order, I do have an end point, a definitive climax in mind.
With Little Piece of Harm I didn’t have this ‘safety net’ nailed in place. There were themes or ideas that I knew I wanted to incorporate in a longer sequence of poems. I did carry around this notion I wanted to write a ‘novel’ in verse. I have a lot of admiration for Vikram Seth’s The Golden Gate – a scrupulously plotted, engaging narrative written in ‘Pushkin’ style sonnets. A couple of years ago I read Ben Borak’s verse-novel Donjong Heights and was impressed by its coupling of bespoke rhyming and narrative drive over the course of one hundred and fifty pages. I knew from early on in the planning of my project I wanted my story to take place over a continuous twenty-four-hour period of time. In terms of setting, I planned to write a sequence that explored the geographical reach of Sheffield, how its urban settings (main artery roads, shops, factories) rub up against what you might describe as rural landmarks (rivers, woods, fields) and vice versa. I have considered this kind of cross-pollination before in my sequence ‘At the End of the Road, a River’ where I tracked the route of the River Don as it flows through various terrains, though predominantly along the streets and factories of northern and eastern Sheffield. In this new work, I wanted to explore the city’s western outlook of hillsides, woods, ridges and reservoirs.
The plotting of Little Piece of Harm is a much more haphazard or partial blueprint to reconstruct. Early on, I established that I wanted to kick-start the storytelling by focusing on an event that would literally stop a city: after some deliberation, I decided on the shooting of a policeman as the ‘inciting incident’ for the sequence. How much this was going to be a central concern I didn’t know. Was this a terrorist incident? How much of the aftermath of the killing, the police search, the movements of the gunman, was I going to elaborate on? Essentially, I knew I wanted this act of violence to be a catalyst where the characters we meet in the story reflect on moments of crisis, departure or resolution in their own lives. Most of us come upon episodes of violence, premeditated or not, through the medium of social media or via our television screens. When I am confronted with these extraordinary situations, wherever they happen in the world (but particularly – perhaps more myopically – in Britain), I often think about how I would react if placed in the vicinity of an attack. At the same time, I reflect on what is important to me – my family, the relationships I have with a wider community of friends – as a way of coming to terms in my own mind with such terrible, life-changing acts.
Running parallel with this ‘major’ news story in the poem, I wanted to conjure up this narrator who is looking outward at what is happening to his city but is also preoccupied with personal issues of his own making. We see Pete – who acts as the chronicler for the majority of the sequence – walking out from familiar suburban streets into countryside, meeting people along the way, and talking to them, unbidden or not, about pivotal moments in their lives. Pete’s own story is addressed obliquely to begin with. I must admit I was working through the details of his own backstory as I was developing the sequence: it took me a number of years before the full nature of his own failings and disappointments came into focus. The structural issues that I had to keep returning to though were tying together the two dominant narrative designs: the shooting of the policeman (and how people reacted to this brutality), and Pete coming to terms with the fact that his wife and young son have left him to return to Canada.
How I came to some understanding whereby I found a way of tying together the ‘macro’ events with Pete’s own personal discomfort is perhaps best relayed through the original ideas I had for poems at the start of the project. The first two poems I had a tangible grasp of – that I knew I wanted to include in the sequence – involve a woman who attempts to intervene when she realises her son has taken a knife into school, and in the other piece, a man who talks about the labours and sacrifices of supporting a son as he grows up and finds his own way in the world. Looking back now I can see that both ‘Someone Else’s Child’ and ‘The Speed of Light’ are united by underlying themes that play out through the rest of the sequence. Both characters talk to Pete about what it means to be a parent – what they have invested in their children and how their lives have been shaped by these familial responsibilities. Not every poem repeats this same pattern (‘A Wintering Bird’ for instance looks at the relationship from the child’s point of view, thinking about a parent’s alienation) but the care and time and patience of looking after another individual is a significant thread that holds Little Piece of Harm together. I have to say this realisation didn’t come to me straightaway – that what I was writing about, really writing about, was not so much the big concerns of potential terrorist incidents and public trauma, but more private considerations associated with home life and family histories. When I came to understand this was the fundamental principle that governed the design of the story, it meant I could address all aspects of the sequence with more certainty, imagination and clarity.
When I look back at my original plans for the poem, I feel that one or two of those initial aims – like writing a novel in verse – haven’t been met (it’s a novella at best). But that doesn’t really matter. Some of the issues I considered substantial at the beginning of the project are not as important to me now: I have become increasingly circumspect about the shooting being defined as a terrorist incident, for example. All of the characters have their own opinions about the shooting and its aftermath, and this is the message I have carried with me through the writing process: we all create our own interpretations of events as a means of supporting core narratives that underpin and illuminate our own lives. When I came to terms with – and understood – the key themes that I was addressing, Pete’s predicament and journey made much more sense to me: I could find a way of ‘filling in the gaps’ in his story, writing those final poems that brought the public news of a killing with his own private shame together.
This is the first in a series of three blog posts reflecting on the development of Little Piece of Harm. The second and third posts will appear on this site in the coming weeks.
Images by Emma Bolland.