My former coursemate, Rupa Wood, has founded a beautiful literary journal called the Vanity Papers. The issues – which feature poetry, prose and art – are carefully curated and stunningly designed, so I was super happy to have a poem featured in their latest issue.
I’ve uploaded it below, along with some musings on the writing process.
It may seem counterintuitive, but imposing restrictions on one’s writing can be incredibly freeing. To me, staring at a blank page feels like standing in an infinite supermarket. In the face of aisle after aisle of ingredients, appliances, equipment, and brands, I am overcome by decision paralysis. Only after I consider existing recipes and limit myself to a particular selection of products can I actually get cooking. Or to discard the metaphor: only after I consider existing poetic forms and limit myself to a particular theme and structure can I actually get writing.
The stricter the parameters I put in place, the more creative I have to be in order to produce something readable. The challenge is both generative and addictive. In the past I’ve attempted writing in Orwell’s Newspeak, a stripped-back language designed to limit rebellious thought. I’ve also tried my hand at convoluted poetic forms like sestinas, which demand strict adherence to a pattern of line endings.
As time went on, I found myself searching for the perfect form to really put my writing to the test. I wanted to find something deliciously, ridiculously arbitrary. Something truly silly. I was beginning to think such a form might not exist, when, like a snowball hurled by a flipper, it hit me. Club Penguin.
Club Penguin was (oh how it pains me to use the past tense) a children’s MMO, or massively multiplayer online game. Players would navigate their penguin avatars through a fictional cartoon town, playing minigames, decorating their igloos and talking with other users.
On some servers, these conversations would be free-flowing and relatively unfiltered. On others, however, conversations were facilitated by ‘Ultimate Safe Chat’. On these extra-child-safe servers, sentences had to be constructed from a limited menu of words and phrases. As soon as the memory of it popped into my brain, I was certain that Ultimate Safe Chat was the ultimate poetic challenge. I had found my leviathan.
I did not intend for my poem to become so utterly filthy, but once I realised the potential for erotica I decided that I should either not do it at all, or go all in. I went all in. The juxtaposition of a children’s game with such sexual writing is of course unsettling. This is one of those cases where the poem took on a life of its own (something I find happens more frequently when using restrictive poetic forms). Although it was not my original intention, one could interpret the poem as a commentary on child safety online, or the inevitable failure of censorship. Alternatively, you can just enjoy the silliness.