Friday, 9 March 2018

Powers of (Poetic) Prophecy by editor Tom Sastry

We're currrently running a call for poems about the future – here's editor Tom Sastry on prophetic poetry with the future:

'The future is what will happen in the time after the present. Its arrival is considered inevitable due to the existence of time and the laws of physics.' - Wikipedia

In 2014, I wrote a poem about the sudden disappearance of Britain’s clowns following a period of persecution. Two years later, I chose it as the title poem of my pamphlet. The pamphlet was published in October 2016 – which just happened to be the month of the global Killer Clowns panic. 

There was a very gratifying laugh when I boasted about my powers of prophecy at the launch. Depending on your idea of luck, I got lucky. But it wasn’t lucky for everyone. There were reports that a teenager in Pennsylvania was murdered by someone wearing a clown mask. It later turned out that it was the victim who had been wearing the mask.

The coincidence between the subject of my poem and one the big news stories of October 2016 was just that – a coincidence. But what happened wasn’t surprising. Panics happen. People do dreadful things in a panic. Every day, in a thousand ordinary places, a door opens onto the extreme and someone passes through.

The clown panic was already fizzling out when a man often depicted as a malevolent clown was elected to the most powerful office in the world. Again, this was a normal kind of awful event: erratic and unsuitable people assume positions of power all the time. The only thing we didn’t know was that it was about to happen in the US.

This makes it an event perfectly suited to future writing. If you imagine what the US would look like after several years of a Trump Presidency, or what the UK, following in its wake, might become, you will certainly get some of the specifics wrong. But if you write well, you will be addressing a theme which is certain to remain relevant: how human beings adapt to the destruction of norms they have taken for granted, or how they resist it. Political shocks, like moral panics, are likely to always be with us.

Other inevitable but unpredictable events are closer to home. The next day of brilliant sunshine; the day you wear your favourite shirt for the last time; the death of any one of us. These events might occasion a poem. Alternatively, you might want to write from the point of view of someone who is anticipating them, or refusing to believe they are possible.

In a slightly different vein, could you write about someone who thinks too much or too little about the future? Have you ever imagined what happens when someone visits a psychic? Or an economic forecaster?

Technology offers another way in. The relationship between humans and machines increasingly challenges our intuitions about what it is to be alive, or conscious, or human. Here too, the accuracy of the prediction is not the point. The functional abilities of your robot butler are much less interesting than your relationship with it.

Then there’s religion. What does it do to people when they believe that the Four Horsemen are already galloping up the far side of the hill? What happens when they fail to arrive? At what point in a believer’s life do Scriptural accounts of the End of Days feel most relevant?

If that sounds too rarefied, try this: do you believe that you have reached your final form or are you waiting to change again? What about your partner?

Put some of those thoughts into a poem –  which could be set anywhere and be about anything – and you have a future poem.

1 comment:

  1. Michelle Diaz09/03/2018, 14:30

    Great stuff - an interesting read Tom