Sunday, 17 December 2017

Arvon and a tentative return to form

It has been a busy couple of months since I last blogged. In November I went on an Arvon course at Lumb Bank. The course was called The Difficult Second Album and was aimed specifically at poets writing a second collection. I had been looking longingly at it in the brochure on and off all year, knowing that there was no way that I could afford it. However in September I decided that I would ask them for a grant - assuming they would say no - they said yes, and then I got my Arts Council grant and that paid for the other bit and the train tickets.

On arrival I was initially disappointed to find that Helen Mort was too sick to come and that Bill (Herbert) would instead be running the course with Tara Bergin who had originally been the planned mid week reader. Tara stepped in as tutor and Kim Moore took her place as midweek reader.

On the first evening we were asked a series of questions about our own writing practice (things we were happy or unhappy with, things we might want to change) and about the collection we are working on, these were questions to take away and think about during the week. This was extremely useful. I found that during the course of the week some things had begun to shift in the way I was viewing my collection and how the poems were working together as a whole.

In the morning workshops the tutors gave us lots of exercises that were designed to take us out of our comfort zones and our usual go-to ways of writing. All the exercises were fun but some were quite challenging. I found that even if I didn’t produce anything immediately usable I was almost always left with the beginnings of something to work on later. These exercises gave me some new approaches to my subject matter that I will definitely take forward and use in my collection. I produced several poems during the week that once edited might well go in the collection too.

The tutorials that I had with Tara and Bill were immensely helpful. Bill provided interesting ideas on ordering of lines and stanzas within individual poems. We also had a really interesting discussion on how the poems (and the voices of the poems) were fitting/working together in the collection as a whole – ordering the collection is something that I have been struggling with so this was really helpful. I have come away with new ideas on how to approach this – for example I am now planning to break up a sequence of poems that had previously been clumped together and use parts of it between the other poems in the book to tie them together thematically. Tara gave me some really useful ways of thinking about and owning difficult subject matter and on how to tap the power of particular poems. She also gave me a very helpful suggestion about retitling a poem to make it more alarming and powerful.

The group was lovely and right from the beginning it felt like a very supportive and creative atmosphere to be in. I came away from the week invigorated and inspired - and sad to leave the hills and my new poetry family behind.

Of course once back in everyday life it is hard to keep up the momentum. I have managed little bits of writing though, and this week I found myself writing a specular. The specular is not a form I had been particularly drawn to before, although I had written one - or rather made one (from bits of John Berryman's letters to his mother) during my week at Lumb Bank. I have been using a lot of repetition of words, phrases and lines in my recent poems - although not using strict forms. I have been using some rhyme as well, which is something I am not usually a fan of. It is interesting to me that I am being drawn to rhyme and repetition. I have often felt a real resistance to writing in form in the past. I like the way a specular can change the meaning of what has previously been said and bring new insights into the subject of the poem. I am now beginning to wonder if I will end up having anything like a sestina or villanelle in the collection - some of the repetitive poems almost feel like they could be in one of these forms - however where the subject matter is very chaotic it felt more natural that they were almost in form but not quite, so that the poem becomes as dysfunctional as its subject matter.


Saturday, 11 November 2017

Home Town - Notes to Self:

That feeling of belonging yet not belonging

A feeling of unsafeness now in some of the old familiar places

The way I no longer fit, though it haunts my dreams

The way places change

The way people change

Wanting to tread those familiar paths

Looking for familiar faces in the precinct

Place names and what they represent

Stories we tell ourselves

Memories or half memories

The things that make up the self

The way things look different

That slight sense of disappointment

The way places change

The way it still fits like a comfy old shoe

But there is a hole in the sole and it rubs a little where your feet have got wider

But you remember where it took you and you can't quite let go

Sunday, 29 October 2017

Self as Hometown (or hometown as self)

The idea of hometown is something that I have been exploring in my writing recently - exactly what hometown means to me, where my hometown is, what it is/was like, what effect the environment that I grew up in had on me etc. I have often found myself perplexed by the term hometown - people often ask me what my hometown is and I am never really sure how to answer them. Is it the place I was born, the place where I spent my formative years, or is it the place that I have lived in for the longest amount of time? Or is it the place that I am most drawn to - the place that feels like home? In these migratory times I suspect that there are many people who feel just as rootless as I do. I rather envy people like my son, who was born, grew up and still lives in the same place. I usually answer the question by saying where I grew up, the place where I spent my formative years. This is the place that I am revisiting in some of the poems for my new collection, not just the place itself, but the people and the attitudes of the place and time. Hometown also suggests to me the idea of self and selfhood, as if the self is a type of hometown whose streets and borders change over the years much like those of a real town. Buildings are knocked down and newer modern ones are erected. The self, of course, operates within the language and parameters of the actual hometown. It is, when one starts to examine it, a many layered, multi-faceted thing. And, of course, our recognisable self begins to be formed in our hometown during our formative years, it is moulded by our families and schools, the people we meet and the experiences we have - both good and bad. I am not sure exactly where the collection is going to go, but I am finding it an exciting process getting there. 

Thursday, 21 September 2017

The Difficult Second Collection

I am working on my second poetry collection. I have been working on it for what seems like a long time. Writing poems is not the problem for me, I have pretty regular flurries of writing. The hardest part, for me, is putting the collection together - deciding what order to put the poems in, where the gaps are, what to leave out.

The trouble is that it is hard to always be objective about your own writing. I think that I am fairly objective when editing. I am good at taking on board criticism and responding accordingly. I am actually a pretty rigorous editor of my own work - I edit and re-edit. I am always tweaking right up until publication. But viewing the poems as a body of work that work together as single beast is quite another thing. I had a few nights away earlier in the year to try and get to grips with it. I ordered the poems, then I re-ordered them, and then I ordered them again. Then I gave up and started writing. By the third day (when it was almost time to go home) I had started writing a sequence. I think that the sequence is going to be important to the collection, but I haven't had the mental space to get much further with it at home.

One of the things that happens if I am away on my own is that I get into a creative rhythm. It takes a few days to hit it - usually around three. I have to do a lot of reading and a lot of mediocre writing, then suddenly I hit my stride and I am away. When I was writing my first collection I had a week away in Wells-next-the-sea. I thought I had gone there to work on ordering the collection. What happened instead was that I wrote one of the major sequences in the book. It is rare that I write proper sequences at home. I don't have the time or the mental space that it needs. I don't have a designated workspace. I have work and demands and noisy neighbours and all the day to day stuff that I am able to put aside temporarily when I am away.

I have applied for an Arts Council grant - one of the things I have asked for is time away to write.

Wednesday, 26 July 2017

some thoughts on subject matter and away time

In my writing at the moment I am exploring place/time/class through methods that are both usual and more experimental than in my first collection. I plan to explore the idea of "hometown" and what it means and how it is located in time and space - and currently I am exploring my own experience of hometown by writing about the place where I grew up. I am exploring in the idea of belonging and not belonging through examination of my own past and experiences growing up in a small town in rural Norfolk in the 1980s -  a small town fraught with its own particular prejudices and restrictions.

When I was away for a few days recently I began to write a sequence of poems that are a more fictional exploration of the them. To really get inside a sequence one needs time and space. I find it takes me two to three days to switch off and tune in, by the third or fourth day away I start to write in a new and more exciting way (unfortunately I only had four nights away this time). Sequences that spring from these away spaces and reading times are very different to to poems and sequences written at home; they arrive from an unbroken thread of creative thinking and I may, given the time, write ten to fifteen poems about the same characters or on the same subject over a few days. I won't keep all those of course, but writing that many means that I really explore something deeply and that the finished poem will only contain the strongest of the stanzas/poems I have written. It is important to mention too that reading is an important part of this process.

I was trying to describe to a friend how this away time works on me and I could only liken it to an opening out of the brain. At home (and in the city) I my thinking feels very constricted and compartmentalised. I do a lot of different things and consequently I have lots of different threads of thinking tumbling over each other vying for space - writing/reading/editing Lighthouse/teaching/Biblio/Stanza/social stuff/Gatehouse/domestic chores/my son/mentoring etc. I cope with this by trying to contain each thing - but it means that my head is very crowded and stressed. When I go away I am able to put most of that stuff aside and after a while it feels like my mind is expanding outwards - a bit like someone taking the blinkers off and allowing the light to pour in. It is a great feeling and I would really like to try doing it for longer than a few days at a time because I suspect that it would have a dramatic effect on my writing. Unfortunately finances do not allow for that right now.

Sunday, 16 April 2017

Never simply the bird (some thoughts on what poetry does)

Poetry is that thing that happens between seeing the bird (or hearing the bird) and recognising the bird. It helps us to recognise the bird – but more than that – it helps us to understand the bird in some way, or to think about the bird (that ordinary bird that you see everyday on your street or in your garden) in new and different ways. Poetry adds meaning to the bird (or cat or house or whatever). Sometimes it puts the bird in a context we might never have expected, or it takes that ordinary common garden bird and shows us how extraordinary it is, and somehow it simultaneously tells us something about ourselves or about (human) life, love, meaning etc. The poet may not have set out to intentionally do this. He/she may simply have set out to write a poem about the bird or to write about the place that he/she always sees the bird, or about how the bird makes him/her feel. But that’s the beauty of (good) poetry – it does something secret, something other, it’s where the magic happens. Good poetry moves and changes the reader; it shows us new ways to put words together, it gives us new ways to feel and view the world, or it reveals to us something about ourselves and our own personal connection with the world.

Saturday, 11 March 2017

The mercurial mind - ways in which to read poetry

When I first started reading poetry I approached it as I would a novel - thinking I had to read one collection at a time from cover to cover, then I began dipping in and out. Now I read cover to cover but I may well have several collections on the go at any given time. Take today for instance, I read a pamphlet sized collection cover to cover and made notes on it for an endorsement I am writing, but I have also dipped into several other collections I am reading, as well as reading bits of a journal and reading some poems online. This seems to me a very natural way of reading. It is rare that a poetry collection is so riveting that I can't put it down and have to compulsively read it straight through - although it does happen (and is a treat when it does) and some poetry collections take a great deal of concentration and mental processing - in these cases I can only read a few pages at a time before I need to take a break. Using my old mode of poetry reading I would have probably put the book down after those few pages and gone and found something else to do or read a novel. Now, if I choose to, I can move onto reading a different collection.

I seem to have developed this mercurial mind approach to reading in general. I still tend only to read one novel at a time (although I may have several I have started and stopped and might later come back to) but I will also have several poetry collections, a short story collection or two and several non fiction books on the go at any given time. In fact Goodreads tells me that I am currently reading 36 books. I think I developed this way of reading when I was studying - I like it it means I spend more time reading overall and that I read more books - something that feels more urgent as you get older. and feel you might be running out of time.

I don't do massively close readings of every poetry collection I read. I usually give more attention to the books I find more engaging. Collections where I want to come back to particular poems again and again. With these collections I sometimes make notes or post snippets on Twitter so that I can remember them later - and perhaps to entice other readers to seek out the book. If I am not finding a collection engaging or am finding it difficult I don't usually give up. Often I will try reading poems several times or reading them aloud to see if I can make more sense of them or get a feel for them. Sometimes I put the book away on a to read pile so that I can come back to it later - it might simply be that I am not in the right frame of mind for it - after all we bring all our emotional states and baggage to a reading of any book. There are, of course, books I don't love. These tend to be discarded after reading - these could be mediocre writing, but they can also be books that I am simply not ready for yet. I remember reading a few books when I did my degree and hating them - Ted Hughes Crow was one of them - I loathed it - I found the language ugly and heavy and too masculine. However a couple of years later I suddenly had a hankering to read it and this time I loved it - it was all those things of course but now I "got it." I think I simply wasn't ready for it yet the first time I was introduced to it. I think of it as a kind of reading evolution. It's like studying art - most people don't love abstract without first gaining an appreciation of more conventional forms - it's like you work your way up to abstract through studying the history of art so that when you get there you can fully appreciate it. Poetry is the same I think - one starts with the more conventional and works one's way towards an appreciation of the more surreal and experimental.