Poet, editor and tutor Mandy Pannett is the judge for the Earlyworks Press 2019 Poetry Competition. In this guest post, she tells the story of her latest work, The Wulf Enigma:
From the waterlogged fens to the quiet danger of ecclesiastical Lindisfarne, The Wulf enigma is a riddle, a poem, a quest covering centuries, and ultimately a love story – but not the one you think it is, and therein, perhaps, lies the answer to the enigma – Catherine Edmunds
How to catch eels
For me the word ‘enigma’ is significant. I love historical mysteries and am definitely an armchair historian. The research involved is a huge part of the fun of it all. Working on ‘The Wulf Enigma’ involved me in a lot of reading – I was able to gain access to various scholarly articles which in turn pointed me in the direction of more articles and reference books. It wasn’t just the background to ninth century Ely and monastic life that I needed, although that was crucial and I was glad to find information that hooked me out of pitfalls I was falling into – names and times of Saxon seasons, feast days, prayers for a service of enclosure etc. There were other things I had to research such as the process of making a bell, how to catch eels, how long it would take people to travel distances on foot or by cart.
Two little boys
But it’s not any old historical mystery that grabs me. I need to be totally obsessed by the subject (don’t ask me where a particular obsession comes from). For years I was fascinated by the Richard III whodunit scenario. I joined the Ricardian Society, read everything I could lay my hands on, found myself writing a whole poetry sequence and recording a CD (plus music) about the two little boys, Edward and Richard, who disappeared. It wasn’t just armchair work either – I went to Shrewsbury to try and track down an infirmary that was once there and then I travelled to Bewdley in search of a medieval building called Tickenhill where the boys stayed during the summer months. I explored the ruins and atmosphere of of Ludlow Castle until the place was as familiar to me as my own home.
Who was Shakespeare?
There have been other obsessions – a local Sussex smuggler, Steven Duck the ‘Thresher Poet’, the identity of Shakespeare – the latter interest led to my first novella ‘The Onion Stone’. And then there is the anonymous, mysterious Saxon poem ‘Wulf and Eadwacer’ which has haunted me for more years than I can remember – so much so that I needed to write about it myself, hence ‘The Wulf Enigma’.
My first love is poetry, which I’ll say a bit more about later, but I also love prose, particularly flash fiction and vignettes. I think I like these shorter forms because they share the same conciseness and need to find the perfect word that poetry requires. When I began the long narrative section of ‘The Wulf Enigma’ I toyed with the idea of writing it in the novella-in-flash style with lots of very short passages. This worked well until I needed to develop the story line and also to create tension in the different parts – so ‘Wulf’ is a mixture of lengths.
I read somewhere that a book is driven either by plot or by setting. That was a relief to me because I find it difficult to create a plot – that, for me, has to develop gradually and naturally. But I am definitely led by the setting and ‘The Wulf Enigma’ is a clear example of this. A while ago I led a workshop on inner landscapes and was delighted at the response to this, everyone in the group being keen to talk about their own meaningful landscapes which often involved a love for places they had never seen. For me, the East Anglian Fens is part of my own inner landscape – bleak, remote wind-swept, watery, muddy. Again, I don’t really know why. I’ve always felt that the setting of Saxon poem ‘Wulf and Eadwacer’ must be somewhere like the Fens so it all fitted together well.
Tell it slant
I enjoy writing poetry and prose that is non-linear, that tackles a theme from several different angles – Emily Dickinson’s remark ‘Tell all the truth, but tell it slant’ is always at the back of my mind. (Not, of course, that I do tell all the truth in my writing.) I discovered that if this approach was going to be significant in ‘Wulf’, then I needed to write the novella in different sections. Part 1 has a number of ‘voices’ discussing the countless theories behind the poem ‘Wulf and Eadwacer’, part 2 is the longest section and is in narrative form telling of events that occurred and overtook my handful of characters in ninth century Ely. The third part is about my visit to Ely and the way it links with the narrative and theme. There are several other elements of writing in the book so that it comes out as a total mix of genres.
One of the elements is poetry. Since the heart of the novella concerns the poem ‘Wulf and Eadwacer’, I thought it would add a dimension if I included a few of my own poems that seemed to relate to the theme.
Poetry, as I said, is my first love. I found my way into it through writing song lyrics for musicians to perform. This helped to give me a feeling for words – hard sounds, soft sounds, the need for brevity, accuracy and relevance. Whenever anyone talks about my poetry the word ‘musical’ is invariably used.
I enjoy writing in all sorts of styles and am particularly interested in the use of white space and the ‘look’ of a poem on a page. I have countless favourite poets from every century and my collections of different kinds of modern poetry far outweigh shelf space. When possible I try to make my own work relevant to the times we live in and the issues and dilemmas of our fragmenting world. – Mandy Pannett
You can order your copy of the Wulf Enigma here.
Poetry competition judged by Mandy Pannett entry details here