9 September, 2010

It seems hard to believe that only just over a week ago I handed in my dissertation. Since then I’ve packed up the house in Norwich (though all my stuff is still there, in boxes); left the place I’ve called home for just under a year – fifty-one weeks to be precise; seen two good friends get married; gone back to my old job in London (sort of); and am now in Kent, staying at my parents’. I feel like I have the bends, emotionally: I didn’t really have time to celebrate finishing the dissertation (unless you count an early celebration at Greenbelt), or say a proper goodbye to Norwich and all the friends I’ve made there. It was like I traded a single focus for having to think about a few too many things all at once, and get straight back into my old life back in London (though I’m living out of a suitcase for now, so it’s not really the same), and I’m waiting for it all to catch up with me. I can’t believe I was back in the office only five days after handing in.

So how does it feel? Strange, but good, I think. The whole thing really did seem to come together at the end and I was pleased with my submission as a whole, though of course there were weaker moments and the usual uncertainties. But it did feel a fitting end to an incredible year of learning. The actual hand-in was anti-climactic: I suppose that’s normal, even despite administrative annoyances. I haven’t really shown it to many people yet, though I will be doing so over the next few weeks I think.

And I’m still coming to terms with the fact that the year as a whole is over. What  a year. Hard work a lot of the time: in terms of writing, of course, but also emotionally, socially, financially. But no less good for all that. I’ve (hopefully) improved as a writer, but in a strange way that almost seems like a byproduct from where I stand at the beginning of September a year on. The main thing I’m grateful for is the experience itself. From beginning to end I have felt incredibly grateful for so many things: the chance to do it at all; the generosity of friends and family; love and encouragement from so many people (including everyone who’s read and commented on this blog). It’s felt like a gift from beginning to end – massive rupture and massive blessing. I feel I’ve changed so much. I think differently. I feel differently.

So what next? Again, I feel incredibly grateful. My old employer has given me a six-month contract doing the best bits of my old job, three days a week. It pays just about enough to live in London and spend those other two days a week writing. My plan is to carry on writing poetry (of course) and also try to get it out there a bit more – getting it published in magazines and journals if I possibly can; finish my three-quarters-written children’s book, and see if I can’t get that published; and work on my proposal to do a creative-critical PhD next year. That is: try to be a writer, however that looks.

And that, I think, is the biggest gift this year has given me: the confidence to just give it a go. To see what I can do. Who knows how it’ll turn out? But I’m game…

I feel like there’s a lot more I could say in reflection on the year as a whole, but instead I’ll just direct you to the talk I gave at Greenbelt last week. ‘Tell all the truth, but tell it slant‘ was my title, and I talked about five things that reading and writing poetry, and in particular doing so over the last year, has taught me. Despite never having done anything like it before, and being genuinely terrified, I ended up quite enjoying it and it seemed to go well – I got some brilliantly engaged questions at the end. I hope you enjoy it too.

I’m so glad I’ve written this blog as a diary of the year: it’s been good to reflect as I’ve gone along, and to talk with people about what I’ve been doing. I’m reluctant to let it go, but without a focus to write around I’m not sure I’ll manage to keep it up, and I fear it might become (even more) self-indulgent. So does anyone have any good ideas for where I can take it next? The online journal of a wannabe writer doesn’t seem quite so interesting…

I’ll end with the poem that closed my dissertation, which is hopefully not just a description of how I was feeling in the run-up to September (after all, a poem is not a story…)


You’re used to slowness, how most things take their time to shift
from one thing to the next: the way leaves emerge like mist
round trees, unfold into magnificence, then fade and fall,
and gently drift against the mossed garden wall;

the way life gathers shades and textures to itself,
the slow accretions, like dust settling quietly on a bookshelf,
or water collecting, after each soft rain, in a waterbutt;
the way things drip and pool, spread slowly, silt up;

but sometimes things are different. It’s as if an ocean liner
had sailed right down your street and brassily come to harbour
outside your front door, and holds there waiting, the sound of faint
music spilling from its deck, your face all astonishment

that life can sometimes take you beyond what you thought you knew,
delivering the horizon, a gift, to you.

This post brought to you by red wine and leather sofas. Thank you and good night.


dissertation particulars

26 August, 2010

Well, it’s almost done. I need to give my critical commentary (a 1,500-word account of myself as a writer – terrifying) a good edit, and I’m taking my poems away with me this weekend to a festival I’m going to (madness!) so that I can continue mulling them over and make any last-minute tweaks, but really, I’m finished. Almost a week before the deadline, too – wonders will clearly never cease.

It’s been a very strange, intense time. At times I’ve felt sick with panic and wondered if I’d ever get it done (I still have a knot in my stomach); at other times it’s felt joyously focused and weirdly trance-like. I probably won’t really relax until next Wednesday, and I have no idea how I’ll feel when I finally hand in.

One of the last jobs to do is sort out the order in which I want to submit the poems. I doubt there’s a right way and a wrong way, but I feel that it is important to at least think about how they all relate to one another – and to open and close with my strongest pieces. Of course it’s hard to work out which those are… some of the pieces I’ve written I’m really attached to just because of the way they came about (the ones that just stroll in are the best), but it doesn’t necessarily follow that they’re the best.

Anyway, here’s the final roll-call. There were a few last-minute substitutions, and there may well still be a bit of shuffling around, but this is the team, in the order in which I’m expecting them to play:

All those unattended mornings. This one’s free verse, though there are some quiet rhymes that chime through it. It feels slightly Emily Dickinson-ish to me. I’m still nervous around free verse but this feels utterly right. The germ of the poem came from a dream I had in July, about a friend who told me that I should write a poem about ‘all those unattended mornings’. So I did.

Seed. More free verse, and one of the first things I wrote for the dissertation, back in June, though much has been edited out from it. I played around with the lineation and spacing this week and it totally changed the feel of the whole poem, which was a lesson in itself.

For Arin Ruth, one day old. I guess you would call this an ‘occasion’ poem, given that I wrote it to celebrate the birth of my friends’ daughter (to whom I am now godmother). It’s a straightforward sonnet, though I used a slightly unusual rhyme scheme that I lifted from Seamus Heaney’s magnificent ‘The Skylight’.

Hymn. More free verse! And another one I wrote back in June, which feels an age away now. (It was actually sunny then, for a start.) I was trying to write poems that turned up the emotional volume somewhat, but the only way I could allow myself to write an excited poem was to write it in the voice of a dog. I like it. It’s sort of e. e. cummings-ish, which is I think how dogs would write, if they could write poetry.

Oh. The first of rather too many love poems, I’m sorry to say. Also written back in June. It’s sort of free verse, though (like ‘Hymn’) it’s written in couplets. This started off as an exercise that Simon Armitage suggested when he gave a talk at UEA: write down twenty words that you associate with the thing you’re writing about. Now write the poem without using any of those words.

Our constituent parts. Another love poem. The title came to me first, which is what gave me the idea for the poem as a whole. I really enjoyed writing it: I think I did it in an afternoon, which is fast for me. It felt more like doing a crossword puzzle than anything else. It’s a sonnet, but written so that every alternate line is a footnote to the previous line. I made up the form and I really like it – I think it’s a nice conceit and works well. I also like that it’s a fairly straightforward sonnet in terms of the rhyme scheme, but you wouldn’t necessarily notice.

Ascent. Another love poem, written in fairly loose triplets. This was a fun one to write, but it took a lot of sifting to get there. I think it’s the longest one of the whole collection, but it’s still not that long.

Love poem by a button. Initially I didn’t want to group all four love poems together but actually I think this order works well. This one came from an idea I had (and wrote notes for) back in 2005: I was flicking through an old notebook and found it and was still intrigued enough by it to give it a go. Initially I wanted it to be a riddle, so that it was a love poem by an object, but you had to work out what the object was. But it soon became apparent that actually it needed to be simpler than that. The riddle idea still structures the poem, though.

The road home. This was the penultimate poem I wrote, last week. I read this beautiful quote in a book called The Sacred Journey, by Charles Foster. After it took him seven years to find the ‘Promised Land’, someone said to St Brendan that ‘you could not find it immediately because God wanted to show you his varied secrets in the great ocean.’ I was really struck by that, and then it turned itself into a poem, which quite naturally wanted to be an unrhymed sonnet. I see it as the sequel (if poems can have sequels) to my favourite of my own poems, ‘All the maps of Russia stop at Moscow’.

Swifts. Back in July-ish when I was feeling rather stressed out about coming up with enough interesting ideas for poems I spent a lot of time sitting in the back yard, or at my desk, listening to swifts screaming, or not screaming, depending on – who knows? So I wrote a poem about it. Another sonnet, but so wonky as to be almost unrecognisable.

Festival. Bit of a departure, this. A few weekends ago (around the time I wrote about feeling all dried up) I spent a day writing prose poems, just to do something, and because nothing else was happening for me. So this is a prose poem. It’s also a bit full-on. I feel quite nervous about submitting it but I think it’s better than the two other early drafts that I’ve binned. I hope so!

Haruspex. This was the last poem I wrote, just at the weekend. Like ‘Our constituent parts’ the first line just came to me, and then the central image, and I knew I had a poem on my hands. I wrote it incredibly quickly, in a morning I think. I’d been reading Seamus Heaney’s second collection, Death of a Naturalist, and I knew immediately that I wanted to use one of his forms: three stanzas of five tetrameters, rhyming aabba. The rhyme and the short metre makes it quite pointed. I think it works. I hope so.

Kreutzer etudes. More free verse. This is something I’ve wanted to write about since 2004. I don’t know how successful it is. At first I had the idea that it was going to start off in incredibly tight, almost laboured form, and then sort of wind down and gradually taper off into free verse… but it didn’t work like that. I spent a day labouring at it and then ripped it up and started again. I really want this one to be a good poem because the imperative has been a part of my life for six years but I just don’t know.

Blessing. More free verse, though it looks like it might have wanted to be a sonnet in another life. I thought I wanted to write a list poem about sunlight, but I soon realised that I wanted to write about just one particular moment of lying in the sun. I’m fond of it, though I’m not sure the title’s quite right.

Gift. Another sonnet, but with a rhyme scheme that’s purely couplets, ie aabbccdd etc. I love this one: it’s probably my favourite. It’s another one that came out of that period a few weeks back when I felt completely devoid of inspiration. None of the ideas on my list or in my notebook seemed to have any life, so I thought I’d just write about how I was feeling about life in general at that point (amazingly, not depressed about not being able to write, but excited about the next chapter). It started off gently and then this surreal image just barged its way in in the most brilliant way. I like that it surprised me like that, because that’s what the whole poem is about too.

So there you go. The complete works. Who knows how good they really are, or what kind of mark they’ll get, and all the rest. But I’m pleased with them: I think there are a few special moments. And that’s all you can really ask for, isn’t it.

If you’d like to read any/all of them, just leave me a comment or send me an e-mail.

And for anyone who’s going to Greenbelt this weekend, I’m speaking on poetry and faith in the Hub on Monday at 11.30am. Come and ask nice questions, or buy me a drink afterwards…

This post brought to you by the support of many loving and much-loved friends. Thank you.

why I write poetry

18 August, 2010

1: To move people. I think I managed to do that in some small way today.

2: ‘[Poetry] is a mystery. It is a metaphor of the other mysteries which comprise human experience. But, like some other mysteries, it gives us a feeling of illumination – one mystery giving us a name by which to know another. I confess I think of poetry in a religious way. But I don’t mean by that I regard it with any hushed and special reverence. I mean simply that I think of it as a way of using what we know, to glimpse what we do not know. I remember […] becoming aware that there was a power in the words [of a particular poem] which the words themselves could not seem to account for, and which I felt strongly but could not understand. I realized that this power must be the poetry of the lines.’ – W. S. Merwin

Two weeks today till I hand in. Top deadline tip: making trifle (from scratch, sponge fingers included) is extremely calming.

all dried up

13 August, 2010

I’m feeling the opposite of the weather, which is doing a lot of raining at the moment (at least in Norwich). I have a long list of things I thought I wanted to write about, and lots of notes and research in my notebook, but it all seems dead and dry and dusty. I really have no idea what to write about. But I still need to generate new material (as well as edit the work that I’ve already done). It feels a bit desperate, to be honest. I’m trying to do some writing exercises to loosen myself up and get things flowing, but it’s not working so far.

Last week was a good week, at least: I got three good new drafts done (which is very fast for me), and two of them I thought had a lot of promise. One came as a bit of a gift when I was trying to write something else, and I was hoping that something similar might happen this week. No luck so far.

Looking at the drafts on my wall (twelve beautiful pages of poetry) it’s clear that I have lots of work ahead of me – both in terms of finishing the dissertation and also the longer journey of writing in general – but I think I’m beginning to see how much I’ve changed and developed over the course of the year. Hopefully my writing is showing more confidence, more boldness, more fluidity. Hopefully. There are a couple of pieces on there that, once finished, I think I’ll be really pleased with. There’s something different about them: they have a freshness and a force that I often feel my writing lacks. But who can say: that’s probably for other people to decide. And hopefully there are some quite different poems up there: both in terms of subject matter and also style. Poems about dogs, buttons, newborn babies, seeds, swifts, climbing, dreams, break-ups, violin lessons, sunshine. Written in free verse, sonnets (my favourite, including an experiment with footnotes), hymns, riddles and my own made-up forms.

So. Two more weeks. The final push. Wish me luck…

This post brought to you by too much daytime tv, too much tea, too much rain and the return of tummy butterflies.

Apologies for the somewhat haphazard (and infrequent) posting recently. The deadline for the dissertation is looming and so life is mostly just a matter of the hard graft of trying to generate enough good poetry for the beginning of September, and consequently there’s not much coming my way to write about (my own reading and gems from physicists aside). Time’s running through my fingers and it’s hard not to feel overwhelmed. That said I’m doing better than I was a few weeks ago; having just three weeks left has really helped me focus, and all the other things that I was stressed about a while back just don’t seem important any more. Now it’s just me, my notebook, my desk, and a wall that’s filling up with print-outs of poems. And it’s going to stay like this until the first of September.

One great thing that’s shifted recently is my own attitude towards writing. I had an extremely helpful and encouraging conversation with a friend a month or so ago (technically he’s my spiritual director I suppose you’d say, but that sounds so formal) that seemed to help me view that really difficult phase, when you’re appalled by just how bad your initial lines are, in a completely different way. Perhaps I’m finally coming to view writing as more of an enjoyable challenge than anything else. I do hope so. But certainly the writing is coming much easier, which is of course a massive relief  – at this stage I just don’t have the time/psychic energy for forehead-clutching…

I can’t believe the year’s almost over. Just as it did last year, September seems golden, mysterious, inviting (as well as a long way away still). I’ll be relieved to hand in my dissertation, ready for a holiday, and I’m really excited about what’s coming next…

The last of our lessons from the world of quantum physics: trust to serendipity to some degree; that you might pick up or generate the right idea at the right time.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot and although the terms are different, I think it’s true for writing. It’s hard to talk about inspiration without sounding weird, but the fact is, when you’re sitting down to write you need to have been grabbed by a thought or an image or an idea that you feel you need to grapple with; and those thoughts or ideas tend to emerge or come to you as gifts rather than the kind of thing you can consciously generate. So in writing there’s always going to be this kind of trusting – that something will come to you, one way or another.

The last week or so I’ve been reading Dorothea Brande’s 1934 book Becoming a Writer, which was given to me at the beginning of the course but which I’ve only just started reading. It’s not a ‘how-to’ book; in the introduction she writes that there are thousands of books and courses out there that can teach you plot and characterisation and so on, but what people need first is to learn to cultivate the habit of being a writer. Her main idea is that a writer is someone who can successfully manage the unconscious side of their personality (the spontaneous, childlike, wondering, imaginative side – where the ideas come from) as well as the conscious side (analytical, editorial, organised – which actually gets things done). You need both, but ‘in the ascendant’ at different times, to write well. I think there’s a lot of truth to what she says, and so I’ve been following her two main exercises, the first of which involves learning to draw on your unconscious – which is a way of trusting, I suppose. And that trusting is also remarkably freeing.

This post brought to you by good friends, summer heat and g&ts

More lessons from a quantum physicist.

Being good at what you do isn’t just a question of being unusually talented or smart, it’s about developing good mental habits.

  • Do it yourself/be a punk. Don’t ask an expert to do something for you. Why? Because you learn how to do things by doing them; it’s easier to do interesting things when you don’t actually know how to do them; you discover all sorts of new things along the way; and it increases the chance of serendipity.
  • Say no to the unimportant things so you can say yes to the important things. (I suppose this is related to the previous post, about trying to do interesting/special things at all.)
  • Always be trying to do things that are too hard for you, that are just beyond your reach. There are limits to what you can do, obviously, but you should always be pushing yourself. I have to say I always start off thinking that writing anything is beyond my reach.
  • Make your head your office. You should always have a few problems/ideas that you can pick up and work on wherever you are, consciously or otherwise. I like this mental habit in particular, though I haven’t yet managed to cultivate it with any kind of success. Too much of the time I equate writing with sitting silently at my desk, but I know I need to learn to be puzzling things over more of the time, and I’ve definitely solved things or had good ideas while doing the washing up or whatever. I think those are the two key points of this habit: it assuages work guilt (you don’t have to be at your desk to be at work), and it allows you to mull things over more easily both consciously and unconsciously.
  • Be strict about doing a little of whatever it is you’re doing every day – even if just for fifteen minutes. Which is the same advice as not breaking the chain.
  • Have strategies in place for dealing with failure. If you’re going to be trying to do something special, as per the previous post, and if you’re continually pushing at the limits of what you can do, you’re going to fail a lot. So you need to learn to see that 95% of what’s wrong with getting something wrong is actually your own response to it.
  • Remember that what you’re working at is an act of discovery as well as an act of creation. Knowing that it’s not all internally created takes a lot of the pressure off: the difference between quarrying a piece of rock out, and thinking that with a bit of dust you have to actually make the rock yourself.

This post brought to you by butterflies in the tummy and much-missed sisters. Welcome home Rosie!

Part one: attitude.

It’s about wanting to do something special, not just putting the hours in.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot. I suppose as a starting point it’s similar to what Paul Graham talks about in the piece I linked to a while ago, where his first question is ‘What are the most important problems in your field?’  Obviously that kind of question is slightly different in an arts context, but when I first read that piece it challenged me a lot. What is the really important stuff? What should I be writing about? What should I be attempting to do in my writing?

Then for a while (perhaps a touch pretentiously?) I started thinking that perhaps writing poetry at all is an attempt to do something special, to say something of value, just by its nature. And because it’s not a day job (nor ever will be), there isn’t this temptation to just put the hours in.

But then I got to thinking again. There’s poetry, and there’s poetry that really does provide a moment of encounter, that is heart-stoppingly beautiful, that changes the way you think about things, that delights and surprises, that changes the way you see the world. And if every time I sit down I remind myself of that possibility, and the consequent desire to do something special, then that’s got to be a good thing.

Of course it’s not as simple as sitting down and saying ‘I am going to write something special’. It’s more ‘I’m going to attempt to write something special’. And the corollary of this is that you’re going to fail lots. So just accept it, and don’t be disheartened by the inevitable.

This post brought to you by four-day weekends, swifts and Dorothea Brande, but mainly inspiring friends

writing in the bath

21 June, 2010

First of all, you have to read this brilliant piece by one of my tutors, which is his answer to the question ‘what is poetry for?’, something he was asked for an article in the Guardian (also well worth reading). At the heart of his answer is the formulation that I’ve heard him use before: fiction (and other things) asks the question what next? while poetry asks the question what is this? – and so poetry is concerned with what he calls encounter. ‘Poetry seeks a few simple movements to understand whatever is at the heart of the phenomenon encountered.’ I love that; it sums it up so perfectly for me.

On a completely unrelated note, I’ve been thinking recently about how I can be a bit more friendly towards writing; or perhaps, how I can learn to think of my writing as being friendly towards me. Too often I approach it as a chore, as something dreadful and difficult and demanding; I’ve spent enough time moaning about it on this blog, using all sorts of metaphors (digging ditches, being sick) to describe how hard I find it at times.

And yes, it is hard, we’ve established that. But I wonder if I make it too hard sometimes, overcomplicate it; I can often feel like the circumstances have to be just right before I can actually sit down to write (ie starting early enough in the day; not too excited; nothing hanging over me, etc etc). I’m sure that’s common for lots of people doing any sort of creative endeavour. But is there a way I can approach it as more of a game or a puzzle, something that I have lying around so that I pick it up and simply play with it for a while? Yes, there need to be intense periods of focus and sweat, but I’m thinking that they’ll perhaps be easier to sit down to if there’s been a more playful turning things over going on in the background more of the time. I’m thinking in particular of an inspiring friend (whose advice on procrastination and creativity I’ve mentioned before) who delighted me with the statement last week that his office is his head, and that he does a lot of physics in the bath. I think that’s brilliant, and it’s the kind of attitude I’d like to develop towards my writing, rather than always seeing it as this desperately hard work that’s confined to strict hours at my desk. (Although it does slightly worry me that perhaps the fact that I don’t already feel that way about writing means I’ll never be much good at it.)

To return to poets talking about their writing: I’ve just started reading an anthology called Don’t Ask Me What I Mean, which is a collection of poets’ pieces for the Poetry Book Society over the years. They’re all short and entertaining, giving a fascinating insight into how some favourite poets view their own work. Recommended. As a counterweight to the rest of this post, here’s some typical stubbornness from Kingsley Amis:

A poet ought to feel complimented when somebody invites him to talk about his poetry, but he is more likely to behave as if he had suddenly been hauled to his feet to reply to a toast. […] What he would probably like to say, if he is honest, is that he will see his readers or anyone else damned before he will reveal his almost total ignorance of what on earth he is up to as a poet. If he did try to formulate his ideas on the question, he knows how trite and/or pretentious they will sound. He is uneasily aware – and often actually announces – that many of poems are not as good as he would like them to be, and that, since being a poet means he is almost certain to suffer from pathological laziness, some of them are not even as good as he could make them – this he announces less often.

This post brought to you by pathological laziness, cake-baking and a new obsession with the works of Philip Glass

first-class work

18 June, 2010

The big news this week is that I got my coursework marks back from the fiction module that I took last term, and the result I got was so unexpectedly good that I actually misread it as 10% lower than it was, for about five minutes, because even getting that lower mark would have been an absolute delight. It was deliriously exciting, of course, but also a bit confusing, because it was just so much higher than any of the marks that I’ve got for my poetry. I don’t want to say that writing prose is easier than writing poetry, but I can tell you that I worked a lot harder, and for a lot longer, on my poetry than I did on this particular prose extract. So. I’m not quite sure how to rearrange all that in my head.

One thing that it has done is given me a fresh sense of urgency about the time I have left. Unless I take on some more part-time work over the summer (something I’m agonising over at the moment), I have until the beginning of September to give my dissertation every ounce that I have, and this last mark I got was so good that it (perhaps) makes getting a distinction a possibility, though I don’t really know how the mark scheme works. So there’s that. But also it would be great to use these last few months to finish the novel that my fiction coursework was an extract from, so that it’s as complete as possible before I have to go back to work. I don’t know how realistic that is, but it’s something to aim for – certainly I can get the first draft finished.

Meanwhile the poetry’s coming slow. I really need to step it up a gear. Or start digging deeper and in a more focused way.

Here’s a lovely thing: I have to confess to never listening to Poetry Please, but I did send in a request for a poem at some point last year – I can’t really remember when. So imagine my surprise when, sitting on the beach last Sunday, I got a text telling me to turn on the radio. If you go to 11.45 here you’ll hear a favourite poem of mine (rather over-read to my ears), and the reason I like it.

This post brought to you trips to the seaside, big surprises and epic amounts of fun