On Using Duffy’s ‘Tall’

Happy New Year. As with everything else it begins with a blank page. I have a bad habit of filling January the first’s page with promises, vague detailed determinations that hang over me for a month like understudies to Dickens’ ghosts and finally fade in February with barely a whimper, the moral of their story forgotten or fried.  

In my defence, it’s the wrong time to make new promises; the beginning of January is the end of fun and comfort. The length of winter stretches before us, cold and callous, testing our determinations – it’s all so very peak bleak. And so we fail, we fall, we sink into the tantalising almost-snow of a frozen few weeks and we wait for Easter, promises of betterment dropped in favour of the promise of chocolate. 

This year, my sure-to-fail promise is the same as every year: to write more and to write with more discipline and create more writing that I can share. It (probably) won’t last. To give myself a better chance, however, I’m beginning a new series: ‘On Using…’ I’ll be looking at the inspirations a writer (that will be me) might use to kick start and continue their writing. 

First up is a poem. If you haven’t read Carol Ann Duffy’s ‘Tall’, from her ‘Feminine Gospels’ collection, then click here. It is, as with everything Duffy does, a cracker. Poetry is an excellent source of inspiration; personas and voices are laid out for us, windows of understanding and empathy for situations and responses we may never experience ourselves, and all waiting to be used by the struggling writer.  

In ‘Tall’, Duffy creates a female persona grown tall, prominent in her adult life. I’ll be honest: I had not read this poem before I created my character, Stella, she who kills zombies, but years after her inception Duffy’s poem has helped me to maintain my work on the ‘Stella the Zombie Killer’ series (I’m just getting going with Volume Five). Stella’s primary influence was Joss Whedon’s Buffy, she who slays vampires, but not Buffy the high school student. Stella is an adult, a prominent woman in what would have been a beautiful new world ruined by a zombie apocalypse. Her prominence was assured by her success in the Cynosure Games, a new extreme sport in which the players are biomechanically enhanced (Stella, like Buffy, is stronger and faster than everyone else), and after the dead rose, survivors looked to her. They saw her as tall. In Duffy’s ‘Tall’ she describes her persona’s first meeting: 

‘Somebody whooped. She stooped 
Hands on both knees 
And stared at his scared face 
The red heart tattooed on his small chest. He turned 
And fled like a boy’ 

A prominent woman, a powerful woman, scares people. That’s something I want to continue to explore in my Stella series. For a male writer, trying to present the response of a powerful woman to the pressures of being a saviour can be tricky. Whedon’s TV show provides only so much inspiration until it starts to be a retelling of the same stories. For a male hero, it’s enough to save, to keep people physically safe, but for women the expectation becomes so much more: the lucky few who fall under Stella’s protection expect more of her, some even demand it. The female hero becomes responsible for wellbeing, compassion, nursing, mothering, love and sex. And if she doesn’t provide these things, fear and mistrust follow. How does a woman respond to this? 

In my books I can have her kill some more zombies, take on an angel (zombie cyborgs from that beautiful new world that was ruined) or fight with the survivors who want to use her for her power and influence. But it always comes back to the central idea that she feels the pressure placed on her by others, either deliberately or in some mistaken expression of love and loyalty. In Duffy’s poem, the persona ‘needed a turret’ and she hides there ‘at the edge of town’. Just like Stella’s gift shop in the Victoria and Albert. And just like Stella, the persona is beset by ‘pilgrims’. She is forced to retreat. Just like Stella, the ‘stars trembled’ as she grew taller and taller. Power is something that we expect to find in certain packages, in certain people. Neither Duffy’s persona nor Stella fit with these prejudices. Duffy’s poem and my books try to explore how prejudice is maintained and altered. 

As I continue to write Stella’s story, I use Duffy’s persona to guide me. Towards the end of the poem Duffy shows us the inevitable:  

Was colder, aloner, no wiser. What could she see 
Up there? She told them what kind of weather 
Was heading their way’ 

Stella’s story will continue to be one of loneliness. She will grow ‘colder’, not seem to grow ‘wiser’ and she will be ‘aloner’.  And yet, she will continue to watch, warn and protect. Duffy’s poem, like all inspiration, helps me to form my own ideas, guides me in my writing. Maybe she’ll even give me that kick start to remember my promises and dedications. See you next week (or month or year…). 

On Using Duffy’s ‘Tall’

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