The Odyssey was read to me as a child by my parents. It was a children’s version of it, rather than the actual Ancient Greek poem. Because of this the story of Odysseus’s journey home was always something I knew about and always occupied a space in my head. Around ten years ago I began writing a sequence based on this story, and for a long while I abandoned it. Joining WordPress late last year gave me a platform to write articles and also showcase my poetry. It also gave me the impetus to finally complete the sequence and publish it. I thought I would use this article to discuss the writing of this sequence, and my reasoning behind it.
When I first wrote this sequence it was only comprised of three parts, what is now Telemachus Returns, Eurylochus Laments, and Odysseus Returns. Originally they had different titles: The son waits in his father’s house, The sailors lament, and The sea-wanderer treads the ocean paths home. At that stage I left it there. I even submitted it for publication, but the usual places that published my work weren’t interested in it at the time. Sometime later I began writing Penelope Waits, as a sort of introduction to the main sequence. It appeared in a journal, but after it was published I ended up rewriting it, as I was not happy with the version I had sent (the perils of sending out work before it’s ready). Still later I began writing Calypso Sings with the idea that Penelope Waits and that poem would bookend the sequence. Calypso Sings was never quite finished as it was too long and wordy and needed a substantial rewriting. But at the time the energy wasn’t in me to complete it. I lost the vision for the sequence and so I left it at that for a while. Around a couple of years later I thought why not write another poem with Athena voicing it and break-up the sequence so it would alternate a female/male voice. That was as far as I got, as what became Athena Watches only existed in fragments and though I kept the idea of extending the sequence to six parts I abandoned it at that time and it became a yet another unfinished project for me. I wanted to complete it but I lacked the energy for it. And so it stayed this way until I joined WordPress. Near the start of this year I began thinking why not revisit this sequence and finally finish it? I had an audience for it now and I thought if I published it one part at a time it would force me to actually finally complete it, so this is what I began doing. So basically I backed myself into a corner. Some of the parts needed a lot of rewriting and the Athena poem had to be written from scratch from half-remembered fragments in a notebook.
I gave myself several rules. Firstly, none of the main characters were to be named in the body of the poems. I don’t why I initially made this rule, but I ended up sticking to it rather faithfully. Secondly, I wanted an alternate female/male order to the sequence. I think I wanted that as it suits my OCD: six parts, three of them female characters, and three of them male. I wanted it to start with Penelope and end with Odysseus. Thirdly I wanted it to be a retelling. I wanted to (mostly) stick to the original story, but change details where relevant. Lastly I wanted it to be told in a first person narrative. I wanted to tell the story through the perceptions of different characters. This would mean you would get their own perspective on it which might not necessarily be the same as another characters or even the story we know.
Penelope Waits and Telemachus Schemes have been pretty much unchanged for some time now. So it made it easy at the start to publish both of those without needing to do work on them, so that gave me a two week breathing space to get Calypso Sings in publishable form (which for me is not long). At this point I reread most of the Odyssey. I have two versions of the Odyssey here, one in prose and one in poetry. As I had to read it quickly I opted for the prose version. The extant version I had of Calypso Sings was too long and inexact. I had her saying things I didn’t think she would say, in fact some of that ended up in Athena Watches. I decided that though she was a goddess her contact with both gods and humans was limited. I wanted her to have a naïvety of the world and people generally as she lives mostly alone on her island. It did give me the opportunity to play around with some sensual and sexual imagery which I found quite fun to write. Once I established the character of Calypso the poem began to fall in place and I was able to remove all unnecessary passages that weren’t relevant. I also added details like what food she fed to Odysseus, and the idea that she really loved him. Eurylochus Laments also needed substantial rewrites. Originally it was an unnamed sailor, but as only four other sailors are named in the Odyssey I chose Eurylochus as he was the second in command and was often a bit defiant to Odysseus, so happily the character actually fitted the querulous tone of the poem. In the Odyssey it’s actually Eurylochus that gets them all killed when he convinces the other sailors to kill and eat the cows that belonged to the Sun, but the Eurylochus in my version is cynical and is aware they will never get home. The opening stanza, which was new, came to me when I was out walking one afternoon and I had to hurry home to write it down before I forgot it. Athena Watches was written from scratch. I took some of what Calypso initially said in Calypso Sings and gave it to Athena instead. Writing this took a while. In the end I took the idea that Athena feels responsible for it all and wants to make it right (to the best of her ability) and that formed the basis of the poem. I removed a stanza that I wanted to keep in but it jarred with the flow of the poem and even though I tried putting it in different parts of the poem it never sat right. The stanza about Athena knowing that the gods are part of the story too, was followed with this:
eventually they will dispense
their appetites & desires
left unchecked & unburdened
will consume the world
I liked this stanza as it created an echo to the modern age we live in, but it just seemed to stall the flow of the poem and didn’t fit in so well with what came after and so I sadly removed it. The beginning of Odysseus Returns was all new. The original poem I wrote all those years ago wasn’t that long, but a lot of it survived in a slightly different form. I liked the idea that he finally gets home after all these years, and then regrets it and wishes he was back with Calypso. This was a major departure from the Odyssey which has him getting home and then stops there once he is king again. The ending I wrote of him being unfaithful is alluded to in Penelope Waits. When I first published Odysseus Returns I grew unhappy with it and ended up doing yet another rewrite. The ending needed something more and it lacked energy. So I made the poem more tight and rewrote bits all through the poem. I also had the ending mirror the beginning of the poem, giving you the hint that maybe he’s going to set off again.
I hope this was informative. I just wanted to talk about the creative process in regards to this sequence. As it was something that was hanging over my head for ten years it felt good to finally see it all completed. Though I’m not sure a poem is ever completed. It reminds me of the quote about how a movie is never finished, only abandoned, and sometimes I feel that way about some of my work.
This also gives me the opportunity to use the artwork I found but didn’t use at the time. More Durn chapters shortly 🙂