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.