Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Essence and similarity

Sitting on a bus today I found myself wondering if you can write anything without being influenced by things that you have read to a greater or lesser extent?  Since starting my series of domestic poems I have been reading Tender Buttons by Gertrude Stein, Species of Spaces and Other Pieces by Georges Perec and Recyclopedia: S*PeRM**K*T, and Muse & Drudge by Harryette Mullen. I had already read quite a bit of Charles Simic and Vasko Popa.  I am not consciously emulating any of these writers in my work, but I do believe that we are (at lease subtly and sometimes more so) influenced by the things that we have read - especially if we find them inspiring - if they speak to us in a language that excites us and that we can relate to.

What is interesting to me is that some of the earlier poems in the domestic object series have a similar sound and feel to some of the pieces in Tender Buttons - and these were the ones that I wrote before I started reading it. This led me to wonder whether there is some innate quality in these inanimate domestic objects that is somehow tapped into and embodied by anyone who tries to tap into the essence of them through writing.  If you try to capture the true essence of an object is it inevitable that there will be some similarity to other work where the writer has tried to do the same thing?  Does this similarity make the work any less valid?

Friday, 14 September 2012

Object Relationships

So today my Friday creative class started again, and in keeping with my current obsession we had a session about domestic and household objects and how they can be used in poetry and prose.  One of the poems we looked at was "Fork" by Charles Simic which drew a mixed reaction form the students.   - one of them described it as being slightly sinister because it seemed to be turning the hand into something  horrible.

I like the possibility that the object can act upon or change its user. Usually we view inanimate objects as being  passive - they are used by us for our own ends. We might change the object but we don't usually expect the object to change us.  It left me wondering do we act on the object or does the object act on us? What if we are changed in some way by picking up and object and using it? Do we become the object or an extension of the object when we pick it up, or does it become part of, or an extension of, us?  And if the object does change us then do we remain changed once we put it down again, and if so how long does the change last for - is it permanent?  What is our relationship to the object? Does it have one with us?

Monday, 10 September 2012

Capturing the essence

Good to eat and they appeal - Farm fresh onions by pupski
 a photo by pupski on Flickr.

If you are trying to capture the essence of a thing in a few lines is this enough of anything to be a poem? I am not sure that it is. If you have a few short pieces together is this enough to be a poem? Maybe, but I am still not sure. Are these short vignettes more satisfying for the writer than the reader? Is it merely an indulgent exploration of the it-ness of things, or is it something more?

Today I have been thinking about vegetables - writing a series of small pieces: each one focussing on a vegetable, and each one short - maybe one, two or three lines long.  I am not entirely happy with all of them yet. i wanted to capture the essence of the thing, but not be too obvious. That makes the process sound a lot more deliberate than it was.  To begin with it was a little more like automatic writing - but that makes it sound less deliberate than it was.  I have changed some words that didn't sound right or that I had repeated too often. It was an interesting exercise. One thing I discovered was that the same words kept coming up over and over (hence the changes) and that overtly foodie words started to creep in too - words like sweet and flavour.  These words are OK in moderation, and the spontaneous nature of the pieces means that I don't want to change too much.  I think I will write a few more and see how (or if) they all hang together. If nothing else it is an interesting experiment.

Thursday, 6 September 2012

More about the fork

Fork detail courtesy of George Hart 
To know something anew in language is almost impossible.  In art the idea of painting an object without bringing in your pre-conceived idea of that object is more achievable. In painting you can focus on the negative space around the object thus building the object almost accidentally.  You can also break the object down to its component parts, or you can focus on the colour or the light.  The very act of naming something brings with it,without our even meaning to, the whole weight of what we know about the object being named, and our own personal history with it. Natty Peterkin (an illustrator) commented that "in art you are constructing an object whilst in writing you are de-constructing it - breaking it down to its individual elements." Naming an object is an act of translation: we are translating the object out of its original form and into another.  And if we translate the name of the item from one language to another we are still bringing with us the weight of what we already know about it.

I have also found myself wondering if some objects are just so "of themselves" that they are harder to liken to anything else, or think of in abstract terms. For example, I have been writing a series of small poems about domestic objects - some of those objects I found relatively easy to write about, but others were really hard to get to grips with.  The one I struggled with most was the fork.  I found myself asking questions: what is the fork like? Is it like anything else? A comb? (not really) A trident? (a kind of fork) A garden fork? (still a fork)  A seed head? (maybe) A claw? (better) A telegraph pole? A tree in a nuclear winter?

 Forks can be changed in works of art - I have seen mobiles and sculptures made with them - but they are still immediately recognizable as forks.  For some reason it is really hard to disguise a fork, whereas some other objects can be changed more easily.  A friend recently showed me a beautiful silver bracelet - after I had looked at it for a minute or so she told me that it was made from silver sugar tongs - I could then immediately see that it was indeed made of sugar tongs, but on first look the sugar tongs presence was not obvious.

Does the problem I have with the fork stem from the fact that it is the most used item of cutlery? (at least in our house). I think that's why I found Padrika Tarrant's book The Knife Drawer so compelling - the idea that something so embedded in our culture and everyday lives as cutlery could come to life and turn on us is profoundly disturbing.

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Unknowing a Fork

Surely it's impossible to write of a familiar object like the fork without employing all the language and memories and feelings and pre-conceived ideas that you have about that object? It is a familiar object - it is a fork - it is the epitome of your every day breakfast, lunch and dinner table. It encompasses years and years of what you were taught, of what you learned and what you know. To write about a fork it is nigh on impossible not to evoke its forkiness. To apply the principle of ostranenie is possible - making us look at the fork in a new light - but it is still the fork we know, just viewed from a different perspective.  You can't unknow a fork once you know one (unless you have Alzheimer's or a memory killing crack on the head).  Forkdom is inherent within us - the only way to unknow a fork would be to time travel back to babyhood to learn a fork in all its guises for the first time.

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Writing the Domestic

Have been writing a lot of poems about the domestic of late - and I don't mean that in the houseworky, housewife, domestic poetry sense. But I am interested in domestic concerns - looking afresh at the everyday: rooms; houses on my street;  those overlooked spaces like cupboards and draws, sheds and outhouses.

Writing about such concerns has naturally sent me in quest of other writers who have explored this territory. Charles Sinic seemed like an obvious place to start as his poem Fork immediately sprang to mind, and someone in one of my workshopping groups recommended Species of Spaces and Other Pieces by Georges Perec, which I have bought but as yet haven't had time to read. What I have been reading this week is Tender Buttons by Gertrude Stein. Stein employs ostranenie to the extreme - her writing about objects is both ridiculous and sublime prose poetry written in a stream of conciousness style. Stein juxtaposes seemingly unrelated, utterly surprising and often beautiful images, but it is quite hard to read too much of it in one go. I can read three or four poems at a time and then I need a while to process them, and I will often read them again when I come back to the book. These are poems that you can come back to again and again and they will keep revealing new layers of meaning.

At the same time I have reading a collection of poems called A Light Sense of Light by Caribbean poet Kei Miller. Miller's work doesn't address the domestic directly, but his language is fresh and inspiring. It is probably the best collection that I have read this year, and the combination Miller's fresh use of language and Stein's surreal juxtapositions has been really inspiring whenever inspiration has been flagging.