I’ve never knowingly stolen anybody’s poem but I can see how I could.

I’ve never knowingly stolen anybody’s poem but I can see how I could.

Both my arms this week came out in red blotches and my legs are still covered in little bruises, particularly just above the knee. Why? Because I’ve been dusting, that’s why.

The dusting didn’t cause the bruises but I think it made my arms blotchy, because I’ve stopped dusting now and the blotches have gone away. It was carrying the boxes and bags up the ladder that bruised my legs.

I’ve been reading and responding to poetry submissions every day, and after that I’ve been trying to make sufficient space to live in. Last week-end, a floor was finally put into our roof, and this was a marvellous opportunity to file the archives under the rafters.

HappenStance generates a huge amount of paper. I keep a fat wallet of papers and correspondence for every publication (there have been about 110 of them so far). Then there are the publisher’s copies – boxes of them, the business correspondence, the accounts. Oh dear me. And the publications themselves.

Latterly it wasn’t actually possible to get into the ‘spare’ bedroom and the space beneath the stairs was not a space. There were also boxes of flyers and pamphlets in the sitting room, and the submissions box was in the conservatory, which leaks.

I firmly believe the physical environment in which I work corresponds closely with my mental territory. Clutter, clutter, clutter.

It took five days to move all the stuff, put it into boxes, label them, carry them into different parts of the roof, dust and re-order the books which stretch from floor to ceiling on three walls, as well as on seven other bookcases. I’m not a great duster normally. Spiders like me.

But it’s done, and at last I can think more clearly. One eerie thought is uppermost: the next person to open these boxes is not particularly likely to be me. Most of my files will only be examined, if they are examined at all, after I am gone.

In fact, one of the motivating factors for the labeling of things was the thought that my poor children would be overwhelmed with the stuff. And even if they offered most of the HappenStance files to the National Library (which may not want them, let’s face it), the librarians would quail. We’re approaching an age of electronic files. What was H Nelson doing with all this PAPER?

Back to the stolen poems. I had a huge box of personal correspondence under the table to my left. The box had plastic wallets of letters and poems from various people and it sat underneath the wire basket in which I collect paper for recycling. A lot of it.

Originally the correspondence box, which was very large and dated back to the late 1990s, had a sort of filing system, in that I did keep letters by person, in a polywallet (or two) for each correspondent.

But as time went on, and pressure built up, I started just to stuff papers into the box, with a person’s latest communication somewhere near their polywallet, but not in it, because the wallet was full.

Opening this box was fascinating, of course, though also lamentable because I knew I should have done it all better, and the pages of some letters had become separated from themselves, and I simply hadn’t time to marry them all up again. There were cards with illegible signatures: I had no idea who had sent them, or when, because they weren’t dated. I found an old poem of my own, copied out in my mother’s handwriting – I think I wrote it when I was at school. Nobody but me would know what it was.

I found a Valentine poem written by my mother, unsigned. I think she may well have forgotten she ever wrote it. But at least I know.

Several other poems had become detached from the letters that once accompanied them. Most of them had names on them, so I could file them with the letters of their authors. But there were a few with no name, no address, no date.

I sat on the floor on the landing, surrounded by a scattering of unnamed poems. In three cases, I thought I might have written them myself, but I’m not sure. There were two I really liked. I wrote an awful lot of poems once. Were they mine? Or whose were they?

I suggest to poets sending in submissions they should add their name and address to every sheet. Often it’s the tried and tested poets who are most resistant to this idea. They believe nobody will treat their valuable poems carelessly or drop them on the floor or misfile them, or remove them from the annoying red binder. They are wrong. Ultimately poems are no more than dust collectors.

And tomorrow, more will arrive.

I did the decent thing with the author-less poems that could have been mine. I put them in the paper bin. Honestly.

James Thurber cartoon


  1. You have my sympathy. I’ve run ourt of space and I am not even an editor. Every surface in every room is weighed down with paper. I had to clear a bed when I changed bedrooms because I had taken down the curtains in my usual one. And what do I do with copies of Poetry Review dating back to 1960, a whole run of Acumen, long runs of Ambit, Samp;hire etc. I’m going to bed to forget about it – or maybe I could write a poem about it!

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