Because I have to, sometimes an idea comes into my head and it rattles around till it just has to be written down. I don’t know at the start of a poem where it is going to take me. Othertimes I use poetry as a way of exploring the world and people around me, of trying to understand something I may have read or seen. For instance I once read an item in a newspaper about a man who built his own guillotine and then committed suicide using it! This started me thinking about him obtaining the materials and building it in his house, how long it took and what his thought processes might have been. This led to me exploring these ideas through a poem.
My book Exposure: Snapshot from the life of Lee Miller, came about due to my fascination, some (my wife for one) would say obsession with the American born photographer Lee Miller. My attempt to produce a sort of biography through poems was really my way of discovering what made her tick. I used poems to look at Lee Miller through the eyes of people that knew her and to try and see the world through her eyes and camera. By trying in my head to put myself in her shoes and look at the events and people that shaped her life and the world around her, these poems helped me to get a better understanding of what made her become the remarkable woman that she was.
I did lots of research for the book, not just into facts about Lee Miller, but into historical information and social mores of the times that she lived through. I looked at reviews of art exhibitions, the treatment of gonorrhoea in 1914, the geology of the Sahara, the prevalent attitudes to sex and those that rebelled against the norm. I read WW2 MI5 documents about Lee, autobiographies of other WW2 photographers, Lee’s reports, letters and telegrams from the front. I read surrealist manifestos, post-feminist books about female surrealist of the twenties and thirties; about the surrealist group in Cairo and the anti modern art stance of the authorities there. I read about photographic techniques and catalogues of camera equipment available at the time. I read autobiographies of Lee’s friends, lovers and rivals. Most of this information didn’t make its way directly into the book, but it filtered through my brain and informed the poems. Lee was a woman who took every opportunity life offered to her, and if the opportunities weren’t offered she’d make them for herself. My writing allowed me to explore her strengths and her vulnerability, the trauma of her sexual abuse as a child and her suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder after World War Two.
Before the book was published I sent a copy of the manuscript the Lee’s son Antony Penrose and was humbled when he wrote back calling it “a perceptive and touching portrait of my mother.”
Derek Adams is the author of Exposure – a life in snapshots
This is a blog written by Dempsey & Windle poets about their inspiration for writing poetry