What became of the girl who counted

Uncharted Constellations from Space Cat Press

Some submission call outs on a theme can leave you cold, bereft of ideas. However, an experienced writer once told me that you should always reject your first idea, because it’s the one everyone has thought of, and think again.

When Space Cat Press put out a call out for their “Uncharted Constellations” anthology focusing on the space race, I felt bereft of ideas. It’s rare I’ll write a poem about place and in the poems where I mention the moon, it’s about its appearance, not men landing on it. I write about people. Space, beyond earth, is mostly people-less. When I wrote about one of Uranus’ moons, Miranda (all 27 of them are named after Shakespearean characters), she was personified, but I didn’t think I could pull off that trick again. The landings on earth’s moon took place before I was born so there were no memories to draw on, no stories of the TV being dragged out at school or the gathering of the family round a small screen in an attempt to feel a part of history. Space felt distant and cold.

Yes, there are women astronauts, but it’s the men who make the headlines. Tim Peake made the headlines as the ‘First British Astronaut to go into space’ in 2008, which was news to Helen Sharman who’d managed it in 1991. Valentina Tereshkova made 48 orbits in space before the moon landing. However, as recently as March 2019, an all-woman space walk had to be cancelled because there weren’t enough spacesuits in the right size. It’s easy to see why the space of rockets and landings hasn’t fired women’s imaginations to the same extent.

But, while men have grabbed the headlines, women have been buried backstage. When Charles Babbage asked Ada Lovelace to write a paper to demonstrate how his analytical engine worked because he was too busy working on his difference engine, Ada Lovelace figured the best way of doing this was by writing a program to show its workings. Even in 1969, programming was still seen as a women’s job, regarded as little more than typing. It was only as a significant anniversary of the moon landing loomed, that film decided to look at these programmers and include them in the story.

Marginalised people are definitely on my radar. Melissa Todd in her review of my “The Significance of a Dress” in The Blue Nib says, “Emma Lee creates poetry with the voice of an avenging angel, seeking out inequalities from all across the globe and down the centuries to fuel her work.” The idea of a poem about one of those mathematicians who enabled the moon landings became a natural response to Space Cat press’s call out.

One thing that did catch my imagination was Katherine Johnson’s explanation that she worked backwards. Her starting point was where Apollo 13 should land and then she worked back to work out where it need to take off, what angle, speed, etc, etc. It’s like taking a first draft of a story and working back from the ending to the beginning to ensure the logic of the story arc holds and identifying extraneous subplots or diversions that may be elegant pieces of writing but don’t move the plot on so don’t belong. Similarly, we count down to a rocket launch, from ten to one, not forwards.

The specular, or verbal mirror image, suggested itself as the form for the poem to take: a poem that works in reverse, counting down from ten to one, but can also be read from the last line to the first, from one to ten. Readers will need to get a copy of the anthology to test if that holds true for the poem.

“Uncharted Constellations” will be available from Space Cat Press from 13 September.

Emma Lee’s The Significance of a Dress is available from Arachne Press. The link also has a trailer featuring the title poems and samples of some of the poems from the collection. It is also available as an eBook.

Emma Lee The Significance of a Dress cover image

Warning: contains a poem

Poems seem to be natural subjects to podcast: they’re generally short and how a poem sounds is just as important as how the words or ordered on a page.  However, podcasting runs into the same problem as posting a poem on a blog in that neither captures the duality at the heart of every poem; that they have to work on the page in and in performance.  Here, then, is a very experimental trial in video casting (a podcast with sight of the words; no image montage or video of poem), an attempt to capture both page and sound.

Miranda’s Warning

Hey Mum, you’ve the right to remain silent
about the time you (quietly) threatened to put me on the shelf
when I wanted the pram’s motion to rock me to sleep
and you wanted to stop and actually pay for groceries

Anything you say can and will be used against you
in my “so famous I only need my first name
despite my unsupportive, inadequate mother”
theme in my future bestselling autobiography

You may have a nutritional expert present
when I blame my eating disorder and body dysmorphia
on your rewarding me with pacifying chocolate
instead of encouraging me to eat my greens

If you cannot afford a lawyer –
having funded my pocket money and your Mother’s day bouquets
– when I sue you for genetic proof you’re my parent:
that’s just tough

You know, Mum, anytime you wish,
you can decide to stay silent and not answer any questions.
Could you consider this really, really carefully,
especially at Parents’ Evenings

Bearing the above in mind, do you still want to talk to me, Mum?

(click on the title to see the whole poem, click on individual stanzas and the poem starts at that stanza)

It’s rare I instantly like a gadget.  I’m warming to Kindle which is still not available in the UK.  Last time it was my mobile phone – I can text, it tells me the name or number of whoever’s phoning me, takes pictures, plays music, has a web browser and is probably due an upgrade.

I did take to the Flip digital video camera.  The downside: it doesn’t use a rechargeable battery.  The upsides:- 

1.   You take the Flip out of the box, put the batteries in and use straightaway;

2.   A very slender instruction booklet – brilliant for people like me who can only do things in concentrated bursts of time and don’t have a solid block of several hours to sit and read a very thick instruction booklet;

3.   Flip is largely intuitive and simple to use – watch through the viewfinder, press record, zoom in or out if required, press record button again to stop, playback;

4.   Playback videos on a TV or computer;

5.   Edit if required and upload to a video sharing site.


I’ve not fully played with all Flip’s editing facilities – you can add music to videos as well – and the picture and sound quality are good enough.  It is not intended for keepsakes and memorable events where you’d use something more substantial and with a thick instruction booklet.  But for short videos uploaded to a social networking site where quality of picture and sound is somewhat reliant on what equipment people are using to view it, Flip’s hard to beat.  And it’s good for video casting poems and that’s a major plus.