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.

Friday, 13 January 2017

Writing through the lens of what we know


Do we seek to write the opposite of what we know, or do we often use as our "writing muscle" the tools we were given in our formative years? In Contemporary British Poetry and the City Peter Barry suggests the latter - giving as an example Roy Fisher, who in his later life relocated to the English countryside, yet his poetry remained very much located in the urban environments he knew so well. I think there is some truth in this hypothesis - my own writing, for instance, often resides in a small town - a somewhat claustrophobic urban space that is surrounded on all sides by a brooding army of evergreen trees.

I am currently reading Edgelands by Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts and I find myself wondering if the whole town of my childhood is an edgeland of sorts. It is a kind of odd urban sprawl that rather like an over enthusiastic creeper has attached itself to the the few remaining historic landmarks sending out hundreds of shoots and runners. And yet despite this seeming sprawl of housing estates and industrial estates, the Thetford of my childhood was very much contained - contained by the thick and brooding pine forest planted and managed by The Forestry Commission that surrounded it. This inky perimeter gave the town a hemmed-in claustrophobic feeling.

Before the town was eventually bypassed there was a high metal footbridge that went over the All (the main Norwich to London trunk road). The bridge was built to enable pedestrians to pass safely over the road from the estate where I lived to the housing estate, cemetery and industrial estates on the other side of the road, without risking life and limb. As teenagers my friends and I spent many evenings on top of this bridge; smoking roll-ups and weed, playing guitar and just hanging out. The bridge enabled the casual viewer to observe how truly surrounded by forest the town actually was. We had been told it of course, every year or so someone from The Forestry Commission or the Fire Service would come to our primary school to pummel into our heads, through talks and videos, the dangers of setting deliberate or accidental forest fires. They never mentioned the threat to the town itself directly - it was more by implication, but any potential invader would have stood atop that bridge and seen immediately how vulnerable to fire the town was.

The town itself consisted of six or seven sprawling housing estates (mostly council housing, and largely in the 1960s and 70s filled with London overspill families like mine, who had chosen re-location with a job attached over squalid high rises in London), two rivers, a small but thriving town centre and several large industrial estates full of large and small factories. There was also a big golf course, the Grammar School's massive expanse of playing fields and a large common. It is amongst these landmarks - and the more historic landmarks of the town, that some of my poetry resides. Even if it doesn't always allude to it directly there is often a feeling, a sense of it being there in the background somewhere, this odd juxtaposition between rural and urban that I grew up with. It's like a mood or a coloured lens through which I view the world.

You can read my poem about Thetford Forest on the Oxford Brookes University website here.



BOOKS READ IN 2016

  • 166) Ground Water - Matthew Hollis (poetry, re read)
  • 165) The Blindfold - Siri Hustvedt (fiction)
  • 164) Sunshine - Melissa Lee-Houghton (poetry)
  • 163) Acts of God - Ellen Gilchrist (fiction, short stories)
  • 162) Ghosts - Anna Wigley (poetry)
  • 161) Bearings - Isobel Dixon (poetry)
  • 160) Domestic Interior - Stephanie Brown (poetry)
  • 159) Jam - Cliff Yates (poetry)
  • 158) Book of Bones - Kathy Gee (poetry)
  • 157) nothing more to it than bubbles - Jane Burn (poetry)
  • 156) Fifth Business - Robertson Davies (fiction)
  • 155) The Swell - Jessica Mookherjee (poetry)
  • 154) Catch - Fiona Sampson (poetry)
  • 153) The World's Two Smallest Humans - Julia Copus (poetry)
  • 152) Some Perfect Year - Cameron Gearen (poetry)
  • 151) Amazon - Catherine Ayres (poetry)
  • 150) Serious Concerns - Wendy Cope (poetry)
  • 149) What Just Happened - Sara Berkeley Tolchin (poetry)
  • 148) Pictures from an Exhibition - Maureen Duffy (poetry)
  • 147) Memorandum: Poems for the Fallen - Vanessa Gebbie (poetry)
  • 146) The Keys to the Jail - Keetje Kuipers (poetry)
  • 145) The Terrible - Daniel Sluman (poetry)
  • 144) The Stonegate Devil - Carole Bromley (poetry)
  • 143) Grief Is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter (poetry)
  • 142) The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly - Sun-mi Hwang (fiction)
  • 141) The Game Parade - Maurice Spillane (poetry)
  • 140) The Most Beautiful Thing - Satya Robyn (fiction)
  • 139) Fragile Houses - Nina Lewis (poetry)
  • 138) Coyote - Colin Winnette (fiction)
  • 137) Girl on a Train - A.J. Waines (fiction)
  • 136) This Changes Things - Claire Askew (poetry)
  • 135) Small Nuclear Family - Mel Pryor (poetry)
  • 134) The Mother's Tongue - Heid E. Erdrich (poetry)
  • 133) Bee Journal - Sean Borodale (poetry, re-read)
  • 132) Almanacs - Jen Hadfield (poetry)
  • 131) Balzac And The Little Chinese Seamstress - Dai Sijie (fiction)
  • 130) The Illusion of Separateness - Simon Van Booy (fiction)
  • 129) The Marriage of Heaven and Hell - William Blake
  • 128) My Sunshine Away - M.O. Walsh (fiction)
  • 127) Lapidary - Rosamund Stanhope (poetry)
  • 126) Asylum - Janet Simon (poetry)
  • 125) Snowdrops - A.D. Miller (fiction)
  • 124) The Art of Falling - Kim Moore (poetry)
  • 123) Old School - Tobias Wolff (fiction)
  • 122) Pessimism for Beginners - Sophie Hannah (poetry, re-read)
  • 121) Wife - Tiphanie Yanique (poetry)
  • 120) An Ocean in Iowa - Peter Hedges (fiction)
  • 119) Weeds and Wild Flowers - Alice Oswald (poetry, re-read)
  • 118) What I Loved - Siri Hustvedt (fiction)
  • 117) The Case of the Imaginary Detective - Karen Joy Fowler (fiction)
  • 116) Spacecraft - John McCollough (poetry)
  • 115) Handwriting - Michael Ondaajte (poetry)
  • 114) Crowd Sensations - Judy Brown (poetry)
  • 113) Sharp Objects - Gillian Flynn (fiction)
  • 112) The Sea - John Banville (fiction)
  • 111) The Flower and the Plough - Rachel Piercey (poetry)
  • 110) The Perks of Being a Wallflower - Stephen Chbosky (fiction)
  • 109) The Lighthouse - Alison Moore (fiction)
  • 108) The Forward Book of Poetry 2017 (poetry)
  • 107) He Wants - Alison Moore (fiction)
  • 106) Kink and Particle - Tiffany Atkinson (poetry, re-read)
  • 105) Little Usherette - Michael Scott (poetry)
  • 104) Say Something Back - Denise Riley (poetry)
  • 103) The Boy from the Chemist is Here to See You - Paul Farley (poetry, re-read)
  • 102) The Tortilla Curtain - T.C. Boyle (fiction)
  • 101) Falling Awake - Alice Oswald (poetry)
  • 100) The Treekeeper's Tale - Pascale Petit (poetry)
  • 99) We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves - Karen Joy Fowler (fiction)
  • 98) Doors Opening - Sally Festing (poetry)
  • 97) Articles of Twinship - Peter Wallis (poetry)
  • 96) Bad Influence Girl - Janet Rogerson (poetry)
  • 95) The Sea House - Esther Freud (fiction)
  • 94) Dark Pool Ripple - Mike Saunders (poetry)
  • 93) Shed - Martin Figura and Natty Peterkin (poetry)
  • 92) Instructions for a Heatwave - Maggie O'Farrell (fiction)
  • 91) Our Tragic Universe - Scarlett Thomas (fiction)
  • 90) Travels in the Scriptorium - Paul Auster (fiction)
  • 89) Boyhood - J.M. Coetzee (non fiction)
  • 88) One - Sarah Crossan (fiction)
  • 87) The End of the World Running Club - Adrian J. Walker (fiction)
  • 86) Girl in the Dog-tooth Coat by Zelda Chappel (poetry)
  • 85) Groundings by Nicola Warwick (poetry)
  • 84) No Map Could Show Them by Helen Mort (poetry)
  • 83) The Skin Diary by Abegail Morley (poetry)
  • 82) Girl of Ink and Stars by Kiran Milwood Hargrave (fiction)
  • 81) Emergency Poet by Deborah Alma (poetry)
  • 80) The Beechwood Airship Interviews by Dan Richards (non fiction)
  • 79) Hometown - Carrie Etter (fiction)
  • 78) Scar - Carrie Etter (poetry)
  • 77) The Forward Book of Poetry 2015 (poetry)
  • 76) Torn Awake by Forrest Gander (poetry)
  • 75) Catulla et al by Tiffany Atkinson (poetry)
  • 74) Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera (fiction)
  • 73) Tilt by Jean Sprackland (poetry)
  • 72) This Can't Be Life by Dana Ward (poetry)
  • 71) The Stripping Point by Brian Henry (poetry)
  • 70) Daredevils by Shawn Vestal (fiction)
  • 69) Kink and Particle by Tiffany Atkinson (poetry)
  • 68) Long Haul Travellers - Sheenagh Pugh (poetry)
  • 67) Redgrove's Wife - Penelope Shuttle (poetry, re read)
  • 66) Prufrock and Other Observations by T.S. Eliot (poetry)
  • 65) The Bonniest Companie by Kathleen Jamie (poetry)
  • 64) Dr Zeeman's Catastrophe Machine by Martin Figura (poetry)
  • 63) On the Saltmarsh - Ruth Valentine (poetry)
  • 62) Here and Now by Paul Auster, J.M. Coetzee (non fiction)
  • 61) Bones Never Lie - Kathy Reichs (fiction)
  • 60) Dissolve to L.A. - James Trevelyan and Enma Wright (poetry)
  • 59) Snow Child - Abegail Morley (poetry)
  • 58) Primers: Volume One - Maureen Cullen, Lucy Ingrams, Katie Griffiths (poetry)
  • 57) Myrtle - Ruth Wiggins (poetry)
  • 56) salt. - Nayyirah Waheed (poetry)
  • 55) So Many Moving Parts - Tiffany Atkinson (poetry)
  • 54) Long Time No See - Hannah Lowe (non fiction)
  • 53) True Tales of the Countryside - Deborah Alma (poetry)
  • 52) The Soho Leopard - Ruth Padel (poetry)
  • 51) Deep Lane - Mark Doty (poetry)
  • 50) Our Post-Soviet History Unfolds: Poems - Eleanor Lerman (poetry)
  • 49) The Brooklyn Follies - Paul Auster (fiction)
  • 48) Mr. Vertigo - Paul Auster (fiction)
  • 47) Alphabet - Inger Christensen (poetry)
  • 46) Virgin: A History Of Virgin Records - Terry Southern (non fiction)
  • 45) Leviathan - Paul Auster (fiction)
  • 44) Deep Field - Mark Doty (poetry)
  • 43) Bones of the Lost - Kathy Reichs (fiction)
  • 42) Skin Divers - Anne Michaels (poetry, re read)
  • 41) The Plucking Shed - Jill McEvoy (poetry)
  • 40) Cathedral - Raymond Carver (fiction, short stories, re-read)
  • 39) The Print Museum - Heidi Williamson (poetry)
  • 38) The Life and Death of Sophie Stark - Anna North (fiction)
  • 37) The Book of Illusions - Paul Auster (fiction)
  • 36) Not in This World - Tracey Herd (poetry)
  • 35) Curves to the Apple: The Reproduction of Profiles, Lawn of Excluded Middle, Reluctant Gravities - Rosmarie Waldrop (poetry)
  • 34) The Summer Without Men - Siri Hustvedt (fiction)
  • 33) Antler - John Clegg (poetry)
  • 32) Loudness - Judy Brown (poetry)
  • 31) The Old Man and the Sea - Ernest Hemingway (fiction)
  • 30) How We Light - Nick Sturm (poetry)
  • 29) A Farewell to Arms - Ernest Hemingway (fiction)
  • 28) One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich - Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (fiction, re-read)
  • 27) Actual Cloud - Dalton Day (poetry)
  • 26) Out of Everywhere - Maggie O'Sullivan (editor) (poetry)
  • 25) The Music of Chance - Paul Auster (fiction)
  • 24) The Gathering - Ann Enright (fiction)
  • 23) Kid - Simon Armitage (poetry, re-read)
  • 22) The Razor's Edge - W. Somerset Maugham (fiction)
  • 21) The Remains - Annie Freud (poetry)
  • 20) The Good Doctor - Damon Galgut (fiction)
  • 19) Shingle Street - Blake Morrison (poetry)
  • 18) Elephant and Other Stories - Raymond Carver (fiction, short-stores, re-read)
  • 17) Oracle Night - Paul Auster (fiction)
  • 16) In the Kingdom of Men - Kim Barnes (fiction)
  • 15) A Country Called Home - Kim Barnes (fiction)
  • 14) Paul Klee: Painting Music - Hajo Düchting (non fiction)
  • 13) With Deer - Aase Berg (poetry)
  • 12) The Fifteen Minute Rule - Caroline Buchanan (non fiction)
  • 11) Selected Poems - Denise Riley (poetry)
  • 10) The Poet, The Lion, Talking Pictures... - C.D. Wright (poetry/essay)
  • 9) The Yellow Wallpaper - Charlotte Perkins Gilman (fiction)
  • 8) The Cherry Tree Cafe - Heidi Swain (fiction)
  • 7) Narrow Road to the Interior: And Other Writings - Matsuo Bashō (poetry)
  • 6) The Bird Artist - Howard Norman (fiction)
  • 5) Passing - Nella Larsen (fiction)
  • 4) The Life and Works of Chagall - Nathaniel Harris (non fiction)
  • 3) The Terrors - Tom Chivers (poetry)
  • 2) Red Dust Road - Jackie Kay (non fiction)
  • 1) The Last Pilot - Ben Johncock (fiction)

Tuesday, 27 December 2016

Back to Writing (finally)

It's always interesting to me how time off from teaching and the internet can start me writing again. Throw in a good poetry book or two and I am well away. After a worryingly dry spell that has lasted a good couple of months, just the odd poem here and there, I have written twenty two pages over the last three days. I put this down, in part, to the influence of Melissa Lee-Houghton's book Sunshine, which I received as a Christmas present. I had been looking forward to reading Houghton's latest collection as I really loved her last book Beautiful Girls. Houghton taps into some of the same themes that come up from my own past - although her past is even bleaker and darker, but somehow (like reading Sharon Olds and Pascale Petit) reading these poems gives me a kind of permission to return and explore some of the darker aspects of my own past. Of course it's not just the themes - I have to find the writing style exciting too and I do find Lee-Houghton's use of language both exciting and inspiring.

I am not largely (well I don't think I am) a confessional poet - although when I first started taking poetry writing seriously I did err towards writing in that style. In fact I wrote largely in a confessional style until mid way through my MA when my style started changing and evolving - it wasn't that I stopped writing about that stuff completely, but I felt less need to tackle those themes head on. A lot of the poems in my collection Bird Sisters, for instance, do touch on family tension and difficult (mostly familial) relationships, but they deal with them either in a fictional or a metaphorical way - for example in one sequence the narrator's sister is an owl.

These new poems that I have been writing are more in the style of my poem Friday Night King's Head, which was published on Proletarian Poetry earlier this year. Friday Night King's Head is from a sequence of stream of consciousness style prose poems that I have been writing occasionally over the last couple of years. The poems are dense and prosey - and usually explore one event or incident (Friday Night King's Head is about one Friday night in my old local). Sometimes the poems jump from one theme to another echoing the way memory and thought works, and sometimes they explore one subject more deeply - for example one of the poems is a list of things that as a child/teen the narrator was told not to do, each sentence starting with the word don't. The poem offers a slow revealing of the family dynamic - this poem was in part inspired by Lee-Houghton's poem A Good Home, which starts with the words "Don't run on the lawn." (In recognition of this I will put "after Melissa Lee-Houghton in italics below the title - I know there is a technical name for this but I can't think of it right now).

It feels exciting to be writing again after such a dry spell. It makes me realise how writing makes me feel happier and more fulfilled. I know I have been doing things that have been detrimental to my creativity - printing out all the Cafe Writers competition poems for example and i also wrote cover endorsements for a couple of books which takes concentration and close reading. I just hope that now I am back in the saddle that I can keep this writing momentum up.