Friday, 10 December 2010

Maps, Memories and Editing

It is always interesting taking a poem to a workshopping group. although sometimes it can be a little nerve-wracking. You can never anticipate how other people will read your poem or what they will read into it. The poem I took to my group yesterday was about a specific memory - but what I found interesting was that when the others read it they saw it as fantasy rather than a memory.  Thinking it about it afterwards I realised that the poem has many layers but these layers are not all easily apparent to the reader. The first idea is that life is viewed as a map or a series of maps, the second is that memory is used as a means of escape from unwanted thoughts - here memory is also used as a kind of fantasy - although the fantasy is something real that is remembered.

Here is the first few lines (but bear in mind it does need a lot more work:

If you travel far and fast enough
you might even escape
the unrolled map of your childhood,
you might sneak off its edges
and into some dream of narrow lanes
high hedges, man made hills.

In a place like this
you might find yourself
under a canal bridge with a small boy
blowing on a harmonica beside you,
watching birds skimming the water...

In the poem at the moment the idea of the map is in the first and last stanza but not in the ones in between and it was suggested that more could be made of the maps which I think is an interesting idea. I was not worried that they viewed it as a fantasy rather than a memory - the beauty of sharing is that sometimes other people read something in a completely different way than the writer intended. Some people get irate about this but I don't mind it - if I did I would simply re-edit to try and make my meaning more implicit.  

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Poetry Readings, Telephone Boxes and Interpreting Poetry

Last night I gave a short reading (three poems) at the "Salon" event at The Arts Centre. The Salon is run by Writers' Centre Norwich and is primarily a networking event with a couple of short readings.  I was very nervous about reading as it was not really a "poetry crowd", but I had some great feedback afterwards.

image courtesy of Jrennie84
One man I talked to wanted to discuss the meaning of my poem Telephone Box - he thought that the message I was trying to convey was that it is harder to talk to someone who is far away than someone who is nearby - say in the next house.  This is an over-simplified view of the line in question: "it is difficult to talk over distances and mean anything" - I think that the meaning of this line is less literal but more metaphorical, it is emblematic of human relationships and the difficulty of human interaction.  I believe that it is more difficult to communicate effectively over any distance, big or small, than it is to communicate with someone face to face.  However greater physical distance also affects the way the mind views the separation and this can increase the potential for miscommunication and feelings of alienation.

The fact that the conversation in the poem takes place in a telephone box serves to increase the sense of isolation and disaffection of the speaker. There is, however, a deeper meaning than the one conversation. The poem could be said to be about the wider human experience of miscommunication and alienation - experiences that go beyond those of a phone-call but that can happen when you are speaking to someone in the flesh. With human interaction there often comes a large or small level of evasiveness and a lack of complete honesty. People also understand and interpret one another's words in terms of their own experience (ego if you like) and their own particular state of mind at the time the interaction takes place.  We also look for hidden meaning in one another's words using the tools available to us - reading of facial expressions, what we know about the speaker and their history etc.  All this means that even when you are talking face to face there is plenty of room for misunderstanding, misinterpretation and consequently alienation.

I chose the vehicle of the telephone call to convey this idea of how humans have trouble communicating with one another - the telephone box itself reinforces the idea of separateness, how ultimately we are all alone.

Friday, 3 December 2010

A Bit About Inspiration

I have been trying to observe my writing habits this week. I already know that I write much more if I write my morning pages regularly but this week I have also noticed that a catalyst to writing (or a change to writing style) can be a change of notebook.

Earlier on this year I went to a poetry workshop at Writers' Centre Norwich with John Mcauliffe and he talked about how his poetry writing was affected by the size of notebook he chose to write in. He said that he had started taking a bigger notebook out with him so that his writing was less limited and had longer lines. I had never really paid attention to this before and have experimented with varying the size of book I take out - although for convenience I do normally end up with quite a small one.

What I noticed this week, however, was that my writing became more sparky when I started writing in a new notebook. I always have several notebooks on the go - my writing is messy I guess, a bit like me, I generally have a large notebook (A4) that I use for morning pages and writing at home and one or two smaller ones that I carry around for writing in when I am out. I also try and buy notebooks that are quite attractive - it seems to help my creative process somehow to have an inspiring notebook, so it's great when I get given them as presents - they may stay on a shelf for ages but I always use them eventually. This week I noticed a book that had been sitting unused on my piano for quite some time, it had been given to me as a present over a year ago and for some reason the time had never been right to use it. Yesterday, however, I picked it up and opened it and the ideas just started to flow. It was a little like having a change of scene but without having to go anywhere.

The other thing that is nearly always guaranteed to trigger writing for me if I am feeling creatively constipated is reading.  If you don't read other poets you can't be a good poet yourself - I really believe it as simple as that! It would be a bit like trying to create art without ever having seen any art or knowing what art is. For me it is a vital part of the creative process. I do, like anyone else, have those times where I try to read book after book and nothing inspires me and in those times I usually turn to the few favouritess that I go back to again and again. I have a whole host of favourite poetry books, but there seem to certain ones that galvanise me into wanting to write more than others - I'm not sure why those books in particular - it must be something about the voice or the writing style. Two such books are Budapest to Babel by Agnes Lehoczky and Like Something Flying Backwards by C.D. Wright.

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Escaping the Thought Rut

I seem to be a bit immobilized at the moment by weather and health but I am trying to make the most of it by reading and working my way through a book called How to Write a Poem by John Redmond. It might seem like quite a basic title but actually I am finding it really useful. The chapter titles are what you would expect from this type of book - basic stuff like "Viewpoint", "Image", "The Question of Voices" etc, but they are well written and each chapter has a writing task at the end related to the chapter that you have just read.

I love this kind of book - I think that however practised a writer you are it doesn't hurt to go back over the basics once in a while.  Sometimes you might learn something new or be reminded of something that you have forgotten. I find the writing exercises really helpful too - anything that takes you out of your own thinking rut (and we all have one) has got to be good and occasionally they have inspired a really good poem that I may not have otherwise written.

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Book Groups and Writing Dilemmas

It is great that post MA I am still writing, but I have observed in myself of late a distinct lack of discipline when it comes to editing.  In fact I have done virtually no editing at all since the MA ended - I can only surmise that it is the lack of any definite deadline that has made me so lazy.  

Instead I have been putting quite a lot of energy into preparation for the poetry book group I am running. There were five of us at the first meeting but quite a few more people have said that they are interested in coming - although I suspect that the snow might put a few people off this week!  I have enjoyed the research aspect (must be the perpetual student in me!) - writing questions, looking up difficult words etc. and I have started posting the notes I have made onto a new blog, which you can find at poetry book group if you are interested. This month we are looking at "Dart" by Alice Oswald.

A friend in one of my workshopping groups recently commented that my writing seemed a lot more relaxed now I was not on the MA. I wasn't sure what she meant exactly but I found it an interesting comment and have since have tried to examine whether this is true and if so why. It is hard to tell if my writing became uptight as a result of my mother dying or being on the MA, or a combination of the two.  I also find myself wondering if this new relaxedness within my writing is  a good thing or a bad thing. I liked the change in direction that my work took during my final semester at UEA, I have written before about my reluctance to be pigeon-holed as a writer who only writes about the human condition and dysfunction, but I have also experienced some resistance to this change in direction from some of my writing buddies who felt that some of the new work more rural work didn't have quite the edge that my previous work had. Initially I was annoyed and alarmed by this - I wondered what would happen if I could no longer write about anything personal. I think it was an aberration though, probably caused by the death of my mother and everything that surrounded it, and I am finally starting to write some more human stuff again.

Friday, 15 October 2010

Writing slumps and prose poems

I went into a bit of a slump after my dissertation. I knew that it was going to be hard when the course ended - there is always an element of grieving when something comes to an end. What I didn't anticipate was that I wouldn't be able to write. I went into a kind of writing wasteland, I wasn't even inspired to write any blog posts and this went on for several weeks.

I am happy to report though that I have, if somewhat tentatively, started writing again. I wrote several small things last week, one of which was a prose poem. The prose poem is an interesting development. I wrote my first one in the first term of my MA. David and I had gone to Derbyshire for a short holiday and we were staying in an old (and damp) cottage by a church at the top of a hill. I don't know if it was the change of scenery but I found myself writing in a completely different style to usual. I wrote a poem which I originally called "Sin-Eating" and is now called "Lent". The poem is written in a child's voice and has a slightly American feel to it. The narrator is part of a large religious family and the poem is a kind of stream of conciousness narration. I was pleased with it and it drew a good response from my MA class who requested that I write more in the same vane. Unfortunately though, this didn't happen - no more writing in this style was forthcoming and I wondered if it was perhaps a fluke, a one-off inspired by being in an unfamiliar environment. When I was writing the poems for my dissertation however, another prose poem emerged and appeared to be in the same voice as the first one, and then last week I found myself writing another. I was surprised but pleased and am wondering if over time they will develop into a small collection.

Friday, 24 September 2010

Just The Beginning?

So my creative dissertation has been handed in and on the whole I was quite pleased with it. My writing over  the course of the last year has changed dramatically. I came to the MA writing mainly semi-autobiographical poems about my dysfunctional family and growing up on a Thetford council estate. But recently I have moved away from using my past as the main subject of the poems. The need to write such deeply personal and uncomfortable poetry seemed to dissipate somewhat with the death of my mother and although what I was writing was still personal it had a different register and was more universally accessible. I found I no longer felt the need to write solely about childhood but was drawn to new subject matter. It was as if my mother’s passing and the end of what had become a difficult relationship had released me from the need to keep going back over old ground. I found myself in new writing territory. The journeys within my poems changed from the child’s journey into adulthood to physical journeys through real landscape. My reading matter has reflected this and I have been drawn to the river poems of Alice Oswald, T.S. Eliot, Ted Hughes and Philip Gross. 
I felt a sense of trepidation when I began these new poems. I wasn’t used to writing without the recognizable anchor of the past and was worried that without the obvious human element that the poems might lack something vital.  I didn’t want them to be purely descriptive. I also began to find that the language available to me somehow wasn’t adequate for what I wanted to express and I wanted to change it somehow. I tried to do this by using compound adjectives, a technique that Seamus Heaney often uses and one that I have always liked. I used this technique a lot when I first started writing poetry seriously. I also found myself wanting to play with the form of the poems. I have never been a fan of concrete poetry but these new poems felt like they needed to move around on the page. Redcastle Furze, for instance, felt flat in its early drafts - once I started moving the text around and took out the punctuation it gained a new momentum. The final version echoes the physical path that the narrator takes through the estate as well as giving clear emphasises when read aloud (projective poetry).

…the page can be used like a canvas, the lines stuck like pieces of a collage, or the page can be air, giving the lines room to move like the parts of a mobile.[1]

From the journey poems it seemed a natural progression to write from my personal rural experiences – I lived for ten years in a commune and also travelled around staying in other communities during that time.  From this time I drew inspiration for poems about wooding and milking cows (although only the cow poems made it into the dissertation).
By semester three I finally began to feel that I understood how to be rigorous with my editing: to recognize weaker lines (not as easy as it sounds) and what works/doesn't work. My practice now is to go back again and again when I feel a poem is finished and take out even more lines and words than I have would have done before. I have also learnt to detach myself from the subject matter and the need to include every detail when writing from direct experience – a poem is not an autobiography – to hold too tightly to the facts when writing can lead to a poem that doesn't make senses or excludes the reader. It is the greater truth rather than the actual truth of an experience that is the crux of a poem. A useful bit of advice given to me by a tutor was to examine each element of the poem separately – e.g. metaphor, punctuation or line endings. I used to try to look at everything at once and this made for much sloppier editing as well as an overwhelming feeling of where do I begin. I have also found it helpful to write down the imperative of each poem. The imperative is not the subject matter - for instance the subject of The Mound is a children's playground but the imperative is the loss of innocence.  It is not always easy to know what the imperative is, even in one's own poems, and this is where work-shopping can be invaluable. My block this semester has been in editing rather than writing.  Yare Song was problematic and eventually I put it away for a month before looking at it again. This worked as when I finally came back to it I immediately saw that I needed to cut more lines out rather than add lines to it – I had been stifling the imperative with uninteresting description.
The MA has been an exciting journey for me. My subject area has widened considerably and my writing has gone in new and exciting directions. Someone said to me recently that a previous student on the course had told her that it was only six months after the course had finished that she finally began to realise the profound effect that it had had on her - it's like you need that time to really begin to process and assimilate the intense learning journey you have been on. I feel for me that although I can see a real progression in my work: especially between my first and final submissions,  in some ways, my journey has just begun.

Monday, 23 August 2010

The lost art of punctuation

I realized today that I haven't written a blog post for almost a month. I was away for a week of that time but the real reason for not posting is that I have been too busy writing, editing and re-editing my work.  It feels like a struggle. Just when I think that a poem is finished I take it to a workshop and realise that there is more work to be done. I am trying not to get down about it. I know that the more I work on them the more rigorous I am being but at the same time I am trying not to repeat the mistake of over-editing until the heart has gone. These extra edits are generally small - losing words, phrases or lines and playing around with punctuation.

Talking of punctuation - I seem to have suddenly lost the art of knowing how to use it properly. I have never had a huge problem with it before - except perhaps the occasional over-usage of commas - but this semester I am struggling with it. part of the trouble is that it feels like the rules of punctuation should be different for poetry - if you took a poem and wrote it out as prose (I have tried this) and punctuate it like prose then reformat it as a poem it often feels over punctuated. I seem to be erring towards wanting less and less punctuation within my poems. Maybe it is to do with their subject matter - journey poems and poems about nature seem to warrant different treatment from the poems that I was writing before which were mostly about human concerns and very personal. Those semi-autobiographical poems seemed to need similar treatment (if a slightly lighter hand) to prose poems.

I came across an interesting blog on the subject of punctuation within poetry which you can read here

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

It's in the Editing...

I think I have finally realised what it means to be more rigorous with my poetry editing. The trick is: to learn how to recognize the weaker lines (not always as easy as it sounds); to get feedback about what works and what doesn't (what seems blindingly obvious to the writer may leave the reader completely flummoxed! The trick with that one is to detach oneself from the subject matter - especially if it based on a real place/person/event) and then to carefully question each part of the poem and look at how/if it is working, look for clich├ęs (can you say it in a more unusual/interesting way?) check out whether or not your metaphors are working and whether they are conflicting with one another (for instance in a recent poem I had children swarming like ants but in the next line they were worming through a tube - these are conflicting metaphors that could confuse the reader).  

Another practice I have been finding really useful as part of my editing process is to look at each poem and try and write down what I think the imperative is. The imperative is not the subject matter - for instance the subject matter of the poem I mentioned earlier was a children's playground but the imperative of the poem is the loss of innocence - how things seems different as we grow up and how we try and hold onto that innocence.  It is not always easy to know what the imperative is, even of one's own poems and this is where work-shopping can be invaluable. Once your work has been critiqued it is good to try and explain what the work is really about (if it wasn't clear already). When I work-shoppped my poem about the playground for the first time it became clear to me by the end that the poem wasn't actually achieving the goal I had set it and I was able to rectify this with a few simple changes.  

Thursday, 8 July 2010

Where has the "I" gone?

I had a great work-shopping session with a friend on Tuesday morning and  she raised quite an interesting question about my recent poetry - which was where has the "I" gone? And looking back at the body of work that I have produced on the MA it does seem that the "I" has been somewhat absent from my work. I find this extremely interesting, especially so because the work that I produced on my creative writing degree at the art school had a very strong sense of self and was intensely personal and firmly rooted in time and place. So where has this self gone? Is it that I haven't felt comfortable enough to be as candid as that on the MA? Is it that I have worked through those issues and moved on in my writing? Or is it that I have been responding to the comments of one of my tutors that some of my poems were less accessible because they were so personal?

The poems that I wrote about cleaning out my mum's house are personal but in a different way than the poems that I used to write, and the same with my journey poems. The new poems are more about what is happening around the "I" than about the "I" itself. This is very interesting and I think that there is a definite danger that if I am not careful  the poems might become too detached and therefore less accessible to the reader.  The "I" could simply become a thing that the landscape and circumstances surround and act upon rather than taking a central role.

My question is does the loss of the"I" make the poems dislocated and ultimately less powerful, less believable or is the "I" implicit in the narrative voice?

My friend also raised the question about whether some of the poems were doing enough. For example I had written a poem about milking and she questioned whether or not I should give voice to the wider issues that the whole idea of milking evokes.  Heaney, for instance, almost always has a deeper issue in his poems about rural and domestic life. My worry though, is that I don't want to state these deeper issues to openly - aren't the issues of farming, motherhood etc implied in any poem about milking?  I found myself wondering later exactly what the imperative of the poem I had written was - was it the problematical relationship between mother and child/human and animal, was it the ethics of farming, or was it a little of all of these?  One of the things I wanted to do was to dispel a little of the myth of the beauty and glory of rural pastimes. There is a great romanticism (especially in literature) attached to the milking of cows but I found it to be somewhat unpleasant and I wanted to convey this in the poem.

Monday, 21 June 2010

The art of reading

I was having lunch with a friend today and he said that he had been in a kind of reading desert and I knew exactly what he meant. I went through something very similar myself last year and it lasted most of the summer and right into the first term of my MA. It wasn't that I wasn't trying to read poetry - I was getting book after book out of the library but I just couldn't connect with any of them, and it was the same with criticism and novels at first. At one point I began to think that maybe I was finished with poetry (quite worrying when you have just started a poetry MA!).  I finally found my way back to reading though - I started off with short stories - things like Raymond Carver and Sylvia Plath - things that people had said that my poetry reminded them of. Then I graduated to reading novels, just for the fun of it and with no pressure, and it was through reading novels that I gradually found my way back to reading poetry.

Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels had been sitting in my reading pile for ages, at least a year. I had bought it in a charity shop in Edinburgh as I had remembered that George Szirtes had listed it as a must read book in the first year of my degree course. But as is the way of it, I had bought it with good intentions but had never actually read it. Then in the first term of my MA Anne Michaels came to give a reading at UEA and I went to hear her. I was so glad I did - she was amazing, a really good reader and such beautiful (and poetic writing). I went straight home and began to read Fugitive Pieces. It is a beautiful  book, deeply descriptive, thought provoking and with deep insight into the nature of human relationships - if you have only ever seen the film I would highly recommend reading the book as it is so much better!  Anyway reading it made me want to read Anne Michaels's poetry as I thought that if she writes prose this beautifully then her poetry must be amazing, and I was right she has a very sensual and physical style of writing (I have written about this before) and it rekindled my love for poetry.

Friday, 11 June 2010

Real poems vs processing poems

I have come to realise that as a writer it is important to recognize the difference between a real poem and a processing poem. A processing poem is a way of working through all that garbage in one's head, and it is precisely because of this that it is not easily accessible to the casual reader.

A 'real' poem, of course can serve the same purpose but does it in a way that makes it more widely accessible.  It speaks of things that the reader can relate to, or talks of personal issues in a way that makes them universally understandable. A good example of this is the poems that I wrote about clearing out my mum's house after she died. The poems speak of personal experience but not in an intensely personal way - they are not as deeply personal in the way that some of my other poems have been and this makes them stronger I think.

Entering an intensely personal and uncomfortable realm can be a disturbing experience for the reader. Some of Sharon Olds earlier poems take you to this kind of place and because of that they are difficult to read. Over the years she has developed ways of offering the reader a way in to her poems (e.g. making them more of a narrative) which makes them, not exactly less disturbing but easier for the reader who hasn't shared the experience to enter the poem, understand it and not feel so excluded from it.

Thursday, 10 June 2010

An experiment with form

Unusually for me, over the last week, I have been overtaken by a strong urge to write in form. I am not exactly resistant to writing in form, it's just that I don't do it very often and I feel that I don't do it very well.  My attempts usually seem laboured and unnatural nothing like the poems that Seamus Heaney and Don Paterson write that make writing in form seem so effortless and natural.

My tutor said a really interesting thing today though, which really echoes what I have been thinking.  She said that you shouldn't set out to write in form - for example thinking "right today I am going to write a villanelle." She said start writing and if the subject matter suits it then the form will come.I see now that my mistake with my previous attempts at form was that I chose the form first and tried to make it fit the subject matter (or make the subject matter fit it). This time the form came because I felt it suited the subject matter. I have been writing about rivers and I felt that the sestina would be the perfect form to reflect the river, its repetitions echoing the musicality of the water.

I am not saying that I am there yet - the poem still needs a lot of work, but it seems to be working...

Sunday, 6 June 2010

Examining the minutiae

 I really need to start examining my writing more closely and asking more questions of it: what is it that a particular poem is trying to achieve (beyond the obvious subject matter)? What is the poem saying that I didn't intend it to say? Are the words hanging together satisfactorily? Can I expand on the central idea even more?

Being on the MA and especially the last term has made me look at my work more closely than I ever have before. Our tutor this term is very pedantic about examining the minutiae of a poem and looking at how or if they are working. To begin with I found this very hard but I have really begun to notice in the last couple of weeks how I am beginning to take on board and really value this practice. It is as if I have made a little hop forward in my own little poetic evolution. Of course this doesn't necessarily mean that I am writing better poetry, but it does mean that I will be examining what I do write more carefully.  

My tutor has also suggested that I need to go back to the core idea of my poems and see if I can get more out of them. To find the place where the poem takes off and try and get back into that space and see where it takes me. This is something that I find really difficult and I have found that I am really resisting doing it and I am not really sure why. It could be that I am scared at what will come up if I do it - of revealing too much of my core, my inner self, or it could simply be that I am scared of finding a vacuum - a vacancy, that there simply is no more than what I have already written.

I have also come to realise, after the Les Murray workshop and re-reading my other tutor's comments on my last submission, that I have to work even harder at editing my work, that it can be honed down even further than I have been doing and that this will make the work even stronger. I already lose on average a good quarter to a third from the original draft of a poem, but sometimes just cutting that extra bit more can make all of the difference.   

I am also beginning to come round to the idea of trying to write in form. I haven't wanted to do this for a long time but i have been thinking about it for the last couple of weeks. I am not holding my breath for a fantastic outcome: I have never written anything in form that I have been entirely satisfied with. It will be good to try it on again though, like an old coat, and see if it fits any better after having been away from it for a while.  

Thursday, 27 May 2010

Seeing Things from a New Perspective

I have been struggling with my writing practice over the last couple of weeks. It is partly due to the fact that I am busy but is mostly due to a complete lack of inspiration.  I was beginning to get panicky as I have a dissertation tutorial on Tuesday and I basically haven't done any writing or editing since my last one. I have been trying too: I reinstated morning pages, I have been trying to read more and more diversely but nothing. Finally I decided that some drastic action was needed and today I decided to give myself the day off and to take myself on an outing. What Julia Cameron would term as both an artists date and filling my creative well. I decided to go on a river trip. i had been on one a couple of years ago and really enjoyed it and I have also been really attracted to rivers recently and have found myself wanting to read about them and write about them. I have recently read Alice Oswald's fabulous book "Dart" and I am currently (no pun intended) reading "The Water Table" by Philip Gross and have found both books mesmerizing.  

City boats in Norwich runs a daily river trip throughout the summer, the trip lasts three and three quarter hours and goes along the river Wensum and then the river Yare and eventually into one of the broads, where it turns round and heads back.  It is a great trip the boat driver gives a bit of commentary on the outward trip - mostly pointing out wildlife, landmarks and a bit of river history which I didn't mind at all. On the way back he is mostly quiet. I thoroughly enjoyed myself - I had a glass of wine and later a cup of tea and I scribbled furiously in my notebook for at least half the time. Sometimes you just need to get out of your comfort zone to give your imagination a kick start, too see things from a different or unusual perspective. Of course I have no idea if I have written anything remotely coherent or useful but just the fact of filling those pages feels like I've made a step in the right direction!

(This post was written was written after two large glasses of wine so sorry for any incoherence)

Friday, 21 May 2010

The Dance, The Intellect and The Dream

This week I went to a master class with the Australian poet Les Murray. The class itself wasn’t as interesting as I had hoped but he is a lovely man as well as being an amazing writer and he did give us a few wise nuggets about the process of writing poetry.  One interesting thing that he said was that there are three parts to a poem – the dance, the intellect and the dream and the mystery is how much of each of these that you put in.  This rings really true for me and I know that some of my poems that don’t quite work have too much of one of these – normally intellect. It also reminded me of something our tutor said at the beginning of last term, which was that a good poem can be reduced to the steps of a dance. This is  an interesting idea – but I would say that it is not just any old dance – for instance you wouldn’t’ liken it to the skinhead moonstomp where you would just wade right in and trample all over your subject matter. But there is also a case for not being too delicate with your subject matter, pussyfooting around it and never quite getting to the point. I suppose if I had to liken it to a particular dance it would possibly be the tango...

Sunday, 16 May 2010

A Poem is a Commotion

On Wednesday night the American poet Peter Gizzi gave a reading at UEA. I had not heard of him before I got the email inviting us to the reading but promptly looked him up on the inter-web and read a couple of poems that were really good. He was really inspiring and afterwards talked a little about writing - one of the things that he said was that "a poem is a commotion" which was really similar to something our tutor said last term - she said  that "a poem is a disturbance". When she first said it I was quite resistant to the idea but over the recent weeks I have endeavoured to observe where it is that my poems actually come from, where they begin.  In doing this I have begun to realise that she is right, often there is a physical disturbance or agitation that comes before a poem. The disturbance will come and then there will be an urgent need to write - like a mini birth I guess. Sometimes it can feel a bit like the feeling that you get when you are about to be sick (but without the actual nausea). Or it can feel like when you are building up to a big cough or a sneeze.  It is a very odd sensation and it often arises after I have read something inspiring or if I have been to a reading. But at other times it comes if I am on a journey (walk, train, car etc.) or in a new place. Sometimes it happens when I am simply walking along the street and over the years I have learnt to stop, get out my notebook and pen and write it down - because otherwise the idea is usually gone by the time I reach my destination. It's like when an idea comes just as you are dropping off to sleep - you might think that you will remember it in the morning but usually you don't. Sleep somehow seems to flush those ideas out however great and fully formed they seem at the time.

Sunday, 2 May 2010

Evolution, Research and the Creative Process

David Hockney on the Southbank Show tonight said that most of his work is research and he articulated exactly what I feel about my own work. Maybe it comes from being a perpetual student and my thirst for learning or maybe it is just the natural evolutionary process of creation but I always feel that whatever I am doing is just a small step along the path to something else, perhaps something bigger and better, perhaps just something different. It is certainly true that my work has evolved over the past few years and I am often pleased and surprised by the new turns it takes.

I also think that as time has gone on I have wanted to do more research around my subjects matters - so that as well as writing from direct experience of the countryside I find that I am now wanting to read books about how the landscape has been shaped. The only trouble is that there is not enough time to read about all the things that I am interested in!

Saturday, 1 May 2010

Big Journey, Small Journey

I am wondering if it is enough to write a collection of poems that are about journeys or does there have to be more to it, some deeper meaning behind it? Should the poems be making some kind of bigger point -should the collection be some kind of metaphorical or spiritual journey, or perhaps echo the journey through life?

One of our poetry tutors told us that a poem should not be a story or an atmosphere - so the question I need to ask myself is are my journey poems merely an atmosphere? They are certainly trying to capture both the atmosphere and essence of a particular place. I suppose, though, that for a poem to be purely an atmosphere it would have to be nothing more than a physical description of a place. On first reading my poems are just that, but I am also trying to convey something more, to give the reader something beyond place that they can relate to (so that you could read them without ever having been to the places within them and still get something from them). This is where the ideas of how man affects the environment and the idea of a life journey (life/death) come in. Through physical description the poems convey a sense of how man changes the landscape - using ideas such as: fields, crops, litter, signs, etc. The use of devices such as the crosses on trees waiting to be felled also indicates this physical changing of the landscape but also alludes to the idea of life and death.

Thursday, 29 April 2010

Thinking about the Journey and the Physical form of a Poem

I find myself at a point where I am re-examining form. Although I mostly write in free verse I have always had a bit of resistance to writing in unusual forms. I am not necessarily talking about concrete poetry but unusual ways of setting poems out on the page. As a reader I have a slight aversion to poems like this and have sometimes found the practice slightly pretentious - usually when I have a read a poem several times and it is not obvious to me why they have done it. There are however obvious exceptions - Philip Gross springs to mind and also Jen Hadfield and Alice Oswald. These writers use form in unusual ways but it is immediately obvious to me why they have done so. Poems about landscape and water lend themselves well to this kind of treatment because it adds physical movement to the poems.

Being on the Creative Writing MA I am learning a lot and I have found that my writing horizons are rapidly expanding - so this week I find myself confronted with the issue of form in my poems. The new poem that I am most pleased with - Footslog - is very much about movement and the physicality of the landscape. The first draft was a stream of conciousness piece but on further drafts I quickly became aware that it needed breaking up in some way so as not to overload the reader with densely laden imagery. Initially I broke it into eight line stanzas but somehow this didn't seem quite enough. At this point I took the poem to my poetry group who suggested taking all the punctuation out of the poem. Once I had done that I liked the poem better but I still needed to resolve the issue of breaks within the lines where previously I had used commas. My initial solution to this was that I made the spaces between the words bigger at those points but I found that with every draft I wanted to make the gaps even bigger, but, for some reason, I was still resistant to the idea of moving the words down to a separate line.

I began to feel very frustrated although I was really happy with the content and order of the poem and so was slightly trepidatious about taking the poem to my tutorial. While I was waiting outside my tutor's office I started reading The Water Table by Philip Gross, a book that has some similarities to my own work in terms of content, being about the landscape and environment. Gross is a writer who does play around with form and in this book it really works adding a new layer of meaning to writing that is already incredibly strong. So in retrospect, and given all the signals, I should have been less than surprised when my tutor produced a version of my poem in which he had really played around with the form. Immediately I could see that the poem made more sense than in its linear version. It had a tremendous sense of movement and some of the actions had been made more physical by the ways that the words were placed on the page. For instance when I say "to the left" the text was on the left side of the page and when I say "on the right" the text had been moved to the right. In another line I talk about "fire dropping" and the word dropping had been "dropped" down to the next line. My tutor was, however, reluctant to give me a copy as he didn't want me to feel bound to it, and it is after all my poem. I think what I will do though is edit it without looking at his version and then come back and look at his version afterwards.

If you had told me a year ago that in a years time I would be writing poems about the landscape and in unusual forms I would probably have laughed. It just goes to show how given the right conditions as a writer our work can grow and evolve.

Sunday, 25 April 2010

Scared of Reading

I am feeling somewhat worried at the moment. On Tuesday evening I give the first of about five readings that I somewhat rashly agreed to do this spring and summer. I know that it is flattering to be asked and I also know from what Don Paterson said at his post graduate question and answer session at UEA earlier this year that if you want to get anywhere in poetry then you need to get known in the poetry world, and the way to do that is to submit work and give readings. I have to confess that I have been somewhat slack about sending in work to journals and competitions over the last few months and I really need to make a concious effort to start doing so again.

But in the meantime - readings. On Tuesday night i am reading three to four poems at the Veto launch at Unit Five in Norwich. It is also a slightly sad occasion because the party is also marking the sad demise of the Creative Writing degree at Norwich University College of the Arts, the course that well and truly set me on my poetry path. Time to stop blogging I guess and go and choose some poems to read...

Friday, 23 April 2010

Editing, Squirrelling and the Narrative Voice

Yesterday was all about editing. After having had such a positive (and helpful) tutorial, I knew that I had to knuckle down and get on with the real work of writing - licking those initial ideas into a more coherent shape. I am a terrible procrastinator but I knew that the time had come to get off of Facebook and into Word.

Although initially I often feel a bit precious about the stanza orders of my poems - they do often benefit from a little reordering. This has definitely been the case with my journey poems because they are highly descriptive poems about moving through particular landscapes it was sometimes hard to find the driving image of each poem and I needed this to enable me to make sense of the poems and order them in a logical way. Instead I found that I needed to look at what the poem was implying but not saying directly. It is not that the poems necessarily have any kind of underlying message but more that there is something going on beneath the surface that is alluded to - for instance in the forest poem the narrator passes through an area of the forest where trees are about to be felled - this can be seen as a metaphor for death - this, I realised during the editing process, is the central image of the poem even though it occurs quite near the end.

Other issues that I needed to confront were those of viewpoint and voice. I had written a poem called Squirrelling using the narrative voice of a squirrel, however, after talking to my tutor I realised that there was some confusion for the reader over who was actually speaking in the poem. In some places it seemed like the person speaking was a human and in other places a squirrel and this needed to be resolved. In other poems I needed to think about tense - sometimes changing the narrative voice of a poem from the third person to the first person can give it new life and energy and it can enable the reader to engage with the work more fully.

Here is the (hopefully) finished version of Squirrelling.


Wrinkle of fur on small paws
as you rustle the shiny nuts
into the hole that we have prepared.
Fluff of tail as I ascend the tree.
You dig with picky paws
amidst the dried-up leaves and tree roots,
while I run up frosted trunks
ice-picks on my feet.

For now I am content to watch,
later we will dig a frenzy
at every tree foot
trying hard to find our stash.

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Finding the point and letting go of order

The worries that I had been having about losing the heart of my poems when the more personal element was taken out somehow don't seem to be so important now. After all one of our poetry tutors said a poem is not a story or an atmosphere - it is about making a particular point - and I realise now that my journey poems are making a spiritual point.

When I started writing this series of poems I thought that they were simply poems about walking and connecting with location and nature. But of course in poetry (and life!) nothing is ever as simple as that, and as I discussed the poems with my tutor today I had one of those "Eureka" moments where it suddenly became clear to me that the poems were about far more than simply going for a walk. Footslog (which was previously called Unfurling Spring) is a poem that uses highly descriptive language to chart a physical journey through a real landscape. The poem is about nature but the underlying theme of the poem is how man affects (and is affected by) the landscape.

The poet Charles Wright makes this distinction between nature and landscape:
"Landscape is something you determine and dominate. Nature is something that determines
and dominates you."

(Wright, Charles, Quarter Notes: Improvisations and Interviews, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995)

There is an antithesis within the poem between the happy compromise between man and nature and the more destructive ways that man affects the landscape.

The second poem in the series is about Thetford Forest. The poem describes a physical journey through the forest, beginning amidst densely planted conifers and progressing into lighter natural woodland. It also describes arriving at a place where a lot of the trees are marked with yellow crosses, earmarking them for felling. As well as being about passing from one landscape to another the poem has deeper underlying themes of death and loss: death of the trees - trees being the lungs of the planet and what keeps us alive, loss of forest, loss of history and loss in general.

I had a sudden realisation when the tutor and I were discussing these larger themes that both poems could also be seen as a metaphor for the death of my mother - even though I had no conscious intention of writing about her death when I began them.

A good point that my tutor made today was that I should not get too hung up on keeping the chronological order of events intact - this order after all is only important to me, the writer. The reader won't know what order things were in on a particular walk, and the point is not to recreate the exact journey but to convey the feeling that I got from the walk that was the driving force behind writing the poem. It seems an obvious point but it is all too easy to forget.

Today's poetry tutorial was really helpful, it left me feeling excited and hopeful but it has also left me with a lot of editing to do and a lot to think about.

Saturday, 17 April 2010

Losing the "heart" in my poems...

I have been thinking a lot over the past few days about the way in which my writing is changing. It is hard to pinpoint whether it is being on the Creative Writing MA that has brought about the change or whether it is the fact that my mother died earlier this year - or if one event feeds off of the other bringing about a more dramatic change than either factor would necessarily bring about on its own.

What I have noticed of late is that I seem to have finally moved beyond the need to always always be writing intensely personal poems about my dysfunctional family and my childhood. I guess that these are subjects that I will naturally keep coming back to as they are my history, so of course have played a big part in making me who I am as a writer (and a person), but it feels good for my writing to not be so interminably bound up with the past. Maybe my mother's death was the catalyst that I needed to finally be able to let go of any remaining residual anger and bitterness, or maybe I have just written enough about all that stuff for now.

My worry now though is that without this intensely personal element that my writing won't be so strong. When I showed my partner the second draft of my first journey poem his initial comment was "very descriptive". Whilst this was not a criticism I am beginning to worry about whether description is all there is, and if so is this a bad thing? Description does not necessarily engage the reader in the same way as something containing more of an element of human experience. I suppose what I am really getting at is that I have a fear that the "heart" might go out of my poems. There has to be something in a poem that speaks to the reader, that touches them in some way and I am worried that my new journey poems might not do that. I shall be very interested to hear what my tutor has to say on Tuesday.

I have an interesting mix of poems for my submission this semester: a series of poems about sorting out my mother's house after her death, the new journey poems and then there are also some slightly odd poems like the one about chopping off my own head.

Friday, 16 April 2010

The Difficulty of Naming Poems

I am finding the issue naming poems really hard to resolve at present. For instance, I am writing a series of poems about mini journeys (walks) and I am unsure how to name them. They are all fairly experimental pieces in that I have really allowed myself to explore my love of putting words together in new and surprising ways - using a lot of compound adjectives. This is a practice that I started in the first year of my degree course at art school, before I had even read other writers who do this (Seamus Heaney for example), but in recent years I had moved away from this practice. I suppose that I wasn't entirely confident that it worked and I didn't want my poems to become tired or repetitive through over use of a particular device.

I guess some people would say that when you have found your true writing voice then the writing will be strong enough to carry these kind of devices and maybe that is true. Certainly in this last semester, I have come back to this practice with a renewed vigour. I am not so afraid of it now as I was. Or maybe it is that as my confidence as a writer grows I become less afraid of being criticised for it. I am still aware, of course, that over-use could make the poems seem ridiculous but I feel like at last my writing is beginning to stride out confidently just like the narrator of my poem. That doesn't mean that I am not open to criticism or changing my work, quite the contrary, I think it just means that I have moved on to a point where I can play with language in a more mature way than I was able to when I wrote those first hesitant compound adjective poems at art school. It feels good, it feels exciting. I am excited, but there is of course an element of fear involved - what if I show this new work to people and they hate it? Well I suppose that is always the risk any artist takes when they venture into new territory.

Anyway, I digress, back to the issue of titles. The first poem that I wrote in the journey series I had originally called Unfurling Spring, but when I workshopped the poem other people felt that the title didn't really fit with the overall feel of the poem. Unfurling suggests something gentle and gradual whereas the poem has a more physical urgent feel, you feel like you are tramping over the earth with the narrator. I played around with the idea of calling the poem Tramping Spring or Tramping but felt that somehow that sounded too cheap. This morning I am wondering whether to simply title the poems for the places where they take place, for example Unfurling Spring would become simply Walberswick or North Norfolk. I am slightly worried though that is just too simple and I am also worried that this type of title might be too leading, especially because the reader might already have a pre-conceived idea of the place in the poem. Maybe, however, that shouldn't matter - perhaps the poem will be able to change their pre-conceived ideas. I don't want it to detract from the poem though, or to make the reader have a pre-conceived idea about the type of person the poet is because of the location of the poem. I think that this is something that I will have to discuss with my tutor in my tutorial on Tuesday and any opinions would be greatly appreciated!

p.s. I strongly tempted to call it Walberswick Footslog.

Thursday, 8 April 2010

How Long is a Line of Poetry?

I have recently hit a surprising wall in my writing practice. One of the things I had thought I was good at was knowing where to end lines - one of the comments that I received on the poems that I submitted for my degree was that my line endings were extremely well judged. But of late I just seem to have lost the art of knowing where to end lines. It's like suddenly forgetting how to swim when you at the deep end of the pool. The trouble is that the more I worry about it the worse the problem gets. I don't know what's wrong with me - why have I suddenly become incapable of judging where a line should end? Is it a crisis of confidence? Is it a sign that I should be looking even closer at my writing style?

Part of the problem may be that over the years I have changed the way that I use line endings. When I first started writing poetry my lines tended to be short, more like those of Lorca, but over time and as my own style and voice developed, I began to make my lines longer and longer. I have found that in my more recent writing I am wavering between long lines and short lines, and have lost faith in my ability to use enjambment successfully. Maybe it is time to go back to basics and do some reading about line endings and line length. I guess what might also be helpful would be to go back and look at how I used line length in my older poems and why it was successful.

Thursday, 18 March 2010

The Wrecking Light - The Magic of Robin Robinson

I have to confess that after last night's reading at the UEA Literature Festival and the preceding post grad. student question and answer session, I have more than a little poetry crush on Robin Robertson. I had recently read two of Robinson's books - A Painted Field and his new book The Wrecking Light and I enjoyed both of them. but sometimes hearing a poet read their work is like having the light suddenly switched on when you have been sitting in a room as darkness falls - you suddenly see things with more clarity and appreciation.

Robertson said some really interesting things about the writing process in the question and answer session, too many to mention here but one particular pearl of wisdom that struck a chord with me was that "a poem will tend to some of the anxieties of the subconscious."

But for me it was his poetry reading that really wove the night's magic. His reading was spellbinding - possibly one of the best I have seen - he has a great reading voice and sense of timing and that coupled with the mythical and mystical subject matter of some of the poems hit just the right pitch. He also ended on a really powerful poem called "At Roane Head" which is a dark and mysterious piece and was just the right choice to leave the audience wanting more. You can listen to Robin reading some of his older poems here or read the poem At Roane Head here.

Sunday, 28 February 2010

It's not about the Numbers

In the last week I have been thinking a lot about what the Creative Writing MA actually means to me. I am generally a person who is very hard on myself. I don't like doing badly or being mediocre at anything - and with regards to studying of any kind that equates to less than top marks. I generally drive myself quite hard when I am doing any kind of course and more often than not this shows in the marks that I receive - for instance I got a first for my degree, which, of course I was very pleased with, but I am aware that I would have disappointed to have got anything less than a first. I am finding the MA though, much more difficult and am coming to realize that I may have to settle for lower marks than I am used to.

This is as it should be. An MA is meant to be harder and this is one of the reasons that I chose to do it _ I wanted a challenge. I am also up against stiffer competition so to speak - the standard of writing is very high - this is a good thing and it forces me to raise my own game and work that bit harder. We are also made to look much more critically and rigorously at our work, to unpick it and look harder at what the words are doing, what we are conveying (or trying to convey). We are required to look closer at our writing and re-examine the minute particulars - whether our metaphors are working, whether we are using mixed metaphors and looking in depth at whether our words are really working in the poem, whether they have earned their place. I realized today when I was looking back over the work that I handed in last term that I am really beginning to take this new level of self-critique on board and I found myself looking at the poems with much more critical eyes and picking out the places where they are not quite working.

I wish though, that the first set of marks didn't count towards the final marks of the MA. I feel like I have learnt so much in such a small space of time, and looking at my poetry and my essay from last term I feel like I could have done so much better. Of course this is all part of the great learning curve and there are one or two poems from last term that I am still happy with and I had some very positive feedback from my tutors. I felt towards the end of that first term that I was just beginning to break out of my self-imposed containment field and was beginning to write in a freer and more expansive way and I am hoping that this will continue for the foreseeable future. I guess the main problem for me is getting past the problem of whether or not I will get top marks. I need to focus on the fact that I am doing a course I love and that I am learning so much and so quickly - I only wish that the MA lasted two years instead of one!

Wednesday, 24 February 2010

The Poet's Portable Workshop

Yesterday I was looking for a book in the university library and I found a section of books about creativity - in particular writing poetry. I ended up going home without the book that I had originally been looking for but with a stack of other books instead, the idea being that they might help jump start my creativity and help with my writing practice.

I started reading the first of these books last night. It is really interesting, it is called In the Palm of Your Hand - The Poet's Portable Workshop and it is by Steve Kowit, who is an author I have never heard of. Some of what I have read so far is fairly basic stuff - stuff about point of view, showing not telling etc. But I think it is good to be reminded of these things from time to time and have examples where what he is talking about is working well. later on in the book there are writing exercises as well and I am looking forward to doing those. One of the things that our lecturer this term has done is given us the occasional writing exercise to kick start our brains and I love them. I nearly always get some kind of usable idea out of writing exercises. One of the poems that I am working on at the moment is a poem called Swimming Lesson and it came out of a writing exercise I did with the Access to Writing group at City College.

Monday, 15 February 2010

Line Endings and the Dance

It seems as if this term all the conceptions and ideas that I had of how to make a poem good are being turned on their head. For instance I had come to understand that you should try not to end a line on a weak word (for example and, in, the etc.) but then last week our lecturer said in the poetry workshop that it CAN be OK to end on a weak word as long as the word that follows it on the next line is a strong one. To give an example we were looking at a poem about the countryside and the poet had ended some lines with words like 'as' and 'in' - but this was OK because the following words were 'owls' and 'time' which are strong words. It made me stop and think again about my own writing style - it seems that as soon as I begin to think that I might be beginning to know what I am doing everything changes and I am forced to re-examine the way I do things and why I do them.

I am still not writing as much as I would like but at least I am writing a little bit - although some of it is coming directly out of the things that are happening in my personal life, which is only to be expected I suppose but it means I don't necessarily want to share it with the world just yet (if ever).

I am enjoying the poetry workshops immensely though (and not just because they are a distraction from everything else that is going on). Last week the lecturer said two things in particular that have stayed with me: the first was that as poets (or indeed writers) we should write about "things that come to us and haunt us indirectly," and the other was that "a good poem can be reduced to the steps of a dance." I really liked these two ideas - the first because it seemed so lovely and I think that she is right and that by and large those are the things that I try and write about. When I try and write about other things (things that I think that I "ought" to be writing about perhaps) my writing is nowhere near so successful and feels false and laboured. The second idea I just love because it is such a good analogy.

Sunday, 14 February 2010

Evolution and Risk Taking in Poetry

It is odd how quickly one's writing can evolve. I have just re-read my post from Thursday and realised that I have already completely edited the last line of that stanza out. I took a risk when deciding what poems to send round for this week's MA poetry workshop and decided to send two that had come from what has been happening to me recently (i.e. my mother's death and all the stuff that goes with it) and the narrative poem which I mentioned in my last post. Sending the poem Fire felt like the biggest risk because as I said before I have written it in a form that I am not entirely comfortable with. However rather than leaving it on the laptop for posterity I decided to take a risk and show it to the class. That way either my fears will be vindicated and they will tell me that it's a load of s*** or there might be something I can salvage from it. In fact they might give me some clue as to how I can use the narrative form in a more successful way. That is what we are on the MA for: to take risks in a safe and supportive environment, which, hopefully, will allow our writing to grow and develop.

(original artwork by pupski)

Thursday, 11 February 2010

Back to the Source

The advice of my poetry lecturer this term has been to go back to the place where a poem comes from and see what else you find.

Wise words but not as easy as one might think. I think that largely I have avoided doing this in my writing practice. I tend to write something and then go back and edit it several times, shaping it what I hope is a finely honed poem.

But is rare that I actually add much more to the original words. This is partly through fear of spoiling it and partly through a kind of preciousness about what I have written and I realise now that this is both short-sighted and a little arrogant. I am not doing my work any favours and if I want to take that leap sideways which George Szirtes spoke of last term I need to be able to go back and re access the source of my ideas.

I tried this earlier this week in a poem I was writing about a house fire. I am not happy with the poem itself because I feel it is too much of a narrative and I shy away from writing that kind of poem generally, mainly because the long narrative poem is not a form that I excel at. But hey I am on a poetry MA and it is a good time to be trying my hand at taking risks and writing different styles and on different subjects - trying not to just write in the usual ways about the usual subjects. Anyway to get back to the point I wrote quite a bit of the poem in a a kind of free writing exercise kind of way and then instead of coming back to it later and simply typing it up and trying to lick it into shape I actually went back into the subject and wrote a whole lot more. I was surprised at how much more was there - it is just a shame that I don't like the poem.

here is a short extract:

I hear the throaty rumble of fire engines along the track,
the shouts of men in braces and helmets as they haul the heavy body
of the hose across the field to the river below the wood.
And now the house begins to creak and groan
like a ship straining at its moorings in a violent storm,
its sad mouth collapses in on itself
while its prematurely clouded eyes cry tears of river water.