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.