polishing up, finishing off

30 November, 2009

One of the things I find hardest about writing (apart from sitting down and actually ruddy doing it, of course) is going back to a poem after it’s been workshopped and trying to edit it. Even if you’re well aware of the poem’s limitations, in between the writing and the editing it somehow seems to solidify and resist further work. A word or two here and there is ok; rewriting whole lines I find really hard. Somehow that initial feeling you had while writing the poem has hardened and refuses to let you warm it up again and reshape it. (One of my coursemates described this kind of difficulty in much more colourful terms, but I’ll spare you the hilarious analogy.)

So it’s taken me longer than it really ought to do the tinkering that was required of the terza rima sequence I wrote at the end of October. I think I need a second opinion (or two) on some of the changes; I’ve gone through and dealt with all the clunky bits that were pointed out to me, and written a different ending to the whole thing, but at this distance I can’t work out if I’ve done enough, or just added more clunk. I have, however, submitted it (and a piece that was workshopped first-time round) to a poetry magazine, which is the first time I’ve ever done that (having been meaning to since the beginning of last year). So, fingers crossed. And again, if you want to see either piece, drop me a line.

What other news. Well, advent is here; last night I went to a very beautiful and atmospheric advent service at the cathedral. The anglican church certainly does mystery, and beauty, and symbolism very well: sitting in darkness, watching the spread of light from the choir’s candles, was a rich moment. But I’m still agonising over what to do with my advent/Christmas card offering this year. Tear it all up and start again? Try to make something out of what I already have?… We’ll see, I guess.

Week three of The Artist’s Way. I’m still enjoying it, despite the pseudo-spiritual weirdy Americanness of it. I’m convinced that writing the morning pages are helpful on lots of levels. I’ve been doing all sorts of things that I was a bit too stressed out to do a few weeks ago, including lots of feeding people recently (always nice).

But just as helpful, if not more so in terms of actual writing, is Jerry Seinfeld’s productivity secret, kindly passed on to me by Maggi Dawn. Since printing off a calendar for the rest of the year (I’ll get a proper wall planner for 2010), I haven’t missed a day’s writing. Which has got to be some kind of a record (when it comes to poetry, anyway). Thanks, Maggi!

This post brought to you by visiting friends, advent candles, the magic of Sunday roasts and their beautiful fall-out, and long runs round the broad

jumping sideways

28 November, 2009

The end of another week: only two left till the end of term*– which is quite frightening, really. I sent round three poems to the group yesterday: they’ll be my last to be critiqued at the workshop next week, until next term.

I got them sent round, but I have to say I’m frustrated that – so close to the end of term – I’m still struggling with the business of actually writing. I’m coming up against the usual procrastination, as well as a feeling of not knowing what I’m doing, where to start… (although once I have started, it’s not usually as difficult as I fear it will be – and in fact sometimes things do actually flow). I know it’s all a learning curve but I was rather hoping I’d have got into some good patterns by now. Well, onwards and upwards I guess.

Our tutor’s kept on encouraging us to push ourselves, to try something different, to ‘jump sideways’ and see where we land – and it doesn’t necessarily matter if things don’t ‘work’ as such. Last time I submitted a sequence in terza rima for the workshop, which was an experiment; this time round as well as a sonnet, which is the form I find comes most naturally to me, I tried to do something completely different in the two other pieces I wrote.

One – the first poem I’ve written in response to being dumped earlier on in the year – I just let take its own shape, which ended up being two fairly regular quatrains. Actually it was a really enjoyable piece to write, and it really did seem to know the form it wanted to be. So that was a good thing to find out: sometimes you can just see where the writing takes you.

The other I had thought I wanted to be my new advent piece (I didn’t really get anywhere with the one I was trying to write back in October), and I drew on a lot of biblical imagery for it. Again I thought I’d just let it feel its way down the page – I really wanted it to be free verse – but in the end it turned into seven lots of two couplets (it’s called ‘Seven ways of looking at the beloved’), and although the metre’s loose the couplets make it much more regular than I had imagined it might be. So again – nice to see that you can trust writing to tend to the form it might want to take. However the piece also turned out to be a lot more personal/cryptic/mysterious than I was expecting, so although it may well turn into something I really like, I doubt it’ll be going out on my Christmas cards this year. So that’s another surprise, and it means back to the drawing board for a completely new advent poem, or else try to resurrect the Saint Andrew idea I had last month. We’ll see. (In the mean time if you’d like to see any of these three pieces just leave a comment and I’ll e-mail them to you.)

So it’s been interesting to see that even as I’ve tried to jump sideways into writing differently (ie free verse, not set forms), my writing itself has done its own thing too. I suppose that’s quite heartening…


*hilariously I initially wrote ‘term’ as ‘time’. So if the world does end on the 12th of December, just remember that you heard it here first.

This post brought to you by all the music beginning with ‘B’, beautiful autumn sunshine, home-made soup and cooking with friends. Amen!

an unseen helping hand

23 November, 2009

Week two of The Artist’s Way and I’m still trying to keep the scepticism in check and just go with the flow. This week’s chapter was interesting; a lot about scepticism (ie getting over it) – particularly towards the idea that there might just be an ‘unseen helping hand’ willing us to be creative… I read that and snorted, even though my own faith informs the writing I try to do to a large degree – and then I thought about all the planets that aligned that enabled me to be here in Norwich, doing this course. Lots of nudges, lots of opportunities – even down to yesterday morning’s sermon tying in directly to the Advent poem I’m trying to write at the moment.

I’m really hoping that this will be my experience sooner rather than later:

You will learn that it is actually easier to write than not write… You will learn to enjoy the process of being a creative channel and to surrender your need to control the result. You will discover the joy of practising your creativity. The process, not the product, will become your focus.

I’ll keep you posted…

This week’s post brought to you by the magic of new toilet-seats (yes really), finally getting the freelancing under control, thinking about the aleph-bet, and the Beastie Boys

bits and pieces

20 November, 2009

Hmm, not feeling amazingly inspired to write today; I’ve got a few g&ts in me and really I just want to watch the latest episode of Generation Kill again. (If you haven’t seen this fantastic miniseries from the creators of The Wire, sort that out now.) But it’s Friday, and I didn’t post on Monday, so it’s got to be done really.

It’s been a lumpy sort of week; I’m still finding it hard to organise my time and myself in general, though I’ve slowly been putting into practice some of my running reflections. Workshop time is coming round again quickly and I’ve got to write three new pieces and finish off my Rosie poem, which has been hard work but is nearly there, I think (and got some positive noises at last week’s informal workshop). This time around I’ve set myself the challenge of writing at least two of my new pieces ‘after’ Alice Oswald, having reminded myself of how much I love her writing by doing a little presentation of her fantastic poem ‘Pruning in Frost’ in this week’s workshop. I’ve decided to scrap the St Andrew first draft that I did back in October and start on something completely new for this year’s Advent/Christmas poem… got an idea that feels exciting so hopefully something interesting will come of that.

Fascinating reading for this week’s Poetics (Edmund Burke; Ernest Fenellosa; Paul éluard & Andre Bréton; Jacques Lacan), and a really good seminar this afternoon; for one reason and another we were a small class this week and our discussion was really enjoyable – as well as silly at times; somehow I seem to get the giggles quite a lot in our Poetics lectures. We talk about such abstract concepts – I love it but for some reason I just find it hilarious, too. My highlight of the class was discussing Lacan’s metaphor ‘Love is a pebble laughing in the sunlight’. Good, isn’t it? Especially as we’d already established that poetry is basically metaphor.

Also on Poetics, I’ve pretty much decided that I’m going to write my essay for the module on ideas around inspiration and the writing process. We’ll be looking at this in class in a few week’s time but I’m already collecting extra reading for it, and hoping to generate more ideas over the next week or so… To that end I borrowed a coursemate’s copy of Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way as it’s one of those classic creativity/self-help texts and I thought a modern voice would be interesting to bring into the mix. It’s fairly ubiquitous but I’ve always avoided it until now because it seemed so… well, self-helpy, and American. But I thought I’d actually give it a go (ie do the exercises it suggests) as well as just reading it, and I’m finding it fascinating so far. It’s a twelve-week course so I’m only right at the beginning, and who knows how helpful I’ll ultimately find it, but it’s certainly interesting. The two main ‘tools’ the author recommends are 1: morning pages – three pages of freehand stream of consciousness; and 2: the ‘artist date’ – where you basically go out and ‘stock the pond’ by doing anything interesting/stimulating: going to a gallery, for a walk, watching an old film etc etc. Both tools have been very interesting to use; the morning pages have uncovered a lot of anger and frustration… and for the artist date this week I took myself to Norwich cathedral and a tour of the Broderers’ Guild workshop, where volunteers make new and repair old ecclesiastical  furnishings and vestments for the diocese and beyond… fascinating. (I love learning all the vocabulary of a craft that I know nothing about – lots of detail for a poem maybe…)

Finally I went to see Bright Star last night, Jane Campion’s film about the love affair between John Keats and Fanny Brawne, currently being hailed as the only recent film about a poet worth watching. I had some problems with the story as a whole but I’d tend to agree. Lots more gorgeous sewing detail (the opening scenes are very sensual – and suggestive – or is that just me?), some actual poetry, beautifully shot and some genuinely poetic scenes (in the best sense of the word). Worth seeing at the cinema just to enjoy the quality of the light, I reckon.

This post brought to you with music from Amon Tobin; encouraging conversations and hilarious stories by Estelle; trip to the cinema by Matthew.



As I was running round the park this morning, reflecting on starting running again (after over a year of being pretty inactive), I found myself thinking about how my experience of running might relate to writing – mainly because I’ve found them both so hard and scary in the past, and all of a sudden I’m now learning again to do this thing I thought I hated (ie running). I’ve actually thought about this quite a lot while huffing and puffing my way around the park over the last few weeks; at times it’s felt like I’ve been putting my energy into learning to run while I’ve been waiting for my brain/heart/soul/whichever bit of you the poems come from to feel like it’s ready to start learning to write in earnest. Almost as if my body’s doing the thinking for a while until the rest of me catches up. I can’t quite explain it, but it’s given me hope in a weird sort of way. I’ve really struggled not just with the writing but with organising my time and being productive at all the last few weeks – and then struggled with feeling guilty about it.

But as I struggled round the park this morning, I was thinking, if I can do this – if I can learn to run again, and make myself do something (ie exercise) that I’ve never liked and has never come naturally to me – then I can do this whole time/writing/working thing. I can. And I started thinking about the parallels and what my body has been teaching me while it’s been learning to run and I’ve been trying to write…

  • I need a plan. The great thing about the last eight weeks’ running is that I’ve had a timetable: do this amount of walking/running, on these days. Someone’s done the thinking/planning for me, so I can just get on and follow it, knowing that if I do so I will be able to run 5k at the end of it. And I think this is key for my studying/reading/writing etc. Without a map of what I’m doing it’s too easy to dither and delay and – whoops – before you know it, the whole day’s gone. Or a good proportion of it, anyway. It’s time to start timetabling my day/week and making sure I can just get on with stuff without having the agony of trying to decide what to do this particular moment.
  • I need to do the hardest thing first. Although there haven’t been many mornings when I’ve actively looked forward to going for a run (especially during the middle few weeks), apart from being ill/away I haven’t missed a single run, which is kind of astonishing to me given how lazy I actually am, and how much resistance you can feel to getting out into the cold/rain and doing some exercise. And the only way I’ve done it is by making it the first thing I do on running days. So there’s no messing about, and it just gets done. So I need to decide, I think, how the first two hours of my day are going to be spent, ie doing the thing I find hardest first. I won’t tell you what that is right now, but amazingly something has supplanted even the actual writing of poetry as ‘hardest thing to get around to’.
  • I need to start slowly. If I’d just tried to go for a 30 minute run eight weeks ago, I would have hated it, failed, and probably hurt myself. Instead I started out really small – almost pathetically small – running for a minute, walking for a minute, and building up from there, until this morning. And no wonder I fail and then feel guilty when I’m expecting to straight away be able to do a smooth eight-hour work day of poetry or whatever. I need somehow to timetable in really small bite-sized chunks of whatever it is I’m doing – both so it’s easier to achieve and also so it’s less terrifying. In the same way that I could say to myself, come on, you can run for just one minute – anyone can – so I can say to myself, come on, sit down and do some editing for just thirty minutes, and then we’ll do something different.
  • I need to find satisfaction in it. The more I’ve run, the more I’ve enjoyed it; it’s a combination of knowing that I’m getting better, simply enjoying being outside, and, well, finding out that I can actually enjoy running (though not all the time). I guess I’ve just got to hope that the more productive I am, the more I’ll find pleasure in it. I can’t force it, but hopefully expecting it to become more fun (at least some of the time) will be motivation in itself.
  • I need the right kit. One of the best things about running is that you really only need a pair of shoes to do it. But I did find that once I’d started replacing my thick, hot gear for lighter, better running stuff, it helped a lot. Not just because it was more comfortable to run in, but because I suddenly felt like a runner. I’m not quite sure yet how this might map on to writing, but I think having a clear workspace is probably a large part of the battle. And maybe if I get all my filing done this weekend…

Well, that’s it. Hope these reflections aren’t too tediously self-help flavoured… it’s just what I’ve been turning over in my mind recently.

This post brought to you by Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty, Pow at the Mustard Lounge, Marky’s badly packed kebab and repeated viewings of Generation Kill. Swooning courtesy of Alexander Skarsgård.

the principal object

9 November, 2009

‘The principal object, then, which I proposed to myself in these Poems was to chuse incidents and situations from common life, and to relate or describe them, throughout, as far as was possible, in a selection of language really used by men; and, at the same time, to throw over them a certain colouring of imagination, whereby ordinary things should be presented to the mind in an unusual way; and, further, and above all, to make these incidents and situations interesting by tracing in them, truly though not ostentatiously, the primary laws of our nature: chiefly, as far as regards the manner in which we associate ideas in a state of excitement.’

– From Wordsworth‘s preface to Lyrical Ballads (1802)

word clouds

4 November, 2009

Hmm, I’m not brilliant at this blogging thing, am I?

This week is officially reading week at UEA, but (hardworking poets that we are) we had a workshop this week anyway, and our week off from Poetics actually happened last week, so it’s business as usual. But I did take advantage of having last Friday off and had five days away up north, visiting friends in the wilds of Northumberland and then cousins in Newcastle. It was just the tonic: I got loads of writing done (though it was pretty frantic at times – sorry, Kerry!), quite a bit of reading, and generally just enjoyed being somewhere different and catching up with brilliant people. Highlights included Saturday’s walks in the woods and by the sea at Tynemouth, eating lots of home-made soup and sitting round the kitchen table setting the world to rights while drinking whisky…

Following the last time my work was critiqued, and the subsequent tutorial, I wanted to write something a bit longer and try to experiment somehow. It was a bit of a rush to get it finished but I really enjoyed stringing together three little childhood vignettes (not necessarily my own…) into one linked poem, all written in terza rima. Although I found the form really challenging – the rhymes interlock aba/bcb/cdc/ded etc, so that you have to find three rhymes for the last word of each line – I really enjoyed stretching out and writing something bigger than usual: I’m not generally brilliant at length. And the flow of terza rima really suits narrative, I think. I was happy with what I wrote, and then got some really helpful feedback in the workshop yesterday: most people seemed to like it, and highlighted the slightly clunky/overdone bits. A bit more tinkering and it’ll be a really nice piece of work, I think. And there may be plans afoot to collaborate with someone to do something musical with it…

This week in Poetics we’re talking about poetic diction, with cues from Dante, Wordsworth, Eliot and Mikhail Bakhtin. Part of our prep for the seminar is to come up with a list of words that we think are part of the contemporary poetic lexicon, which is a really interesting idea (and reminds me of one of the first books on writing poetry that I remember reading, Peter Sansom’s Writing Poems, which suggested that words like ‘shard’ and ‘lozenge’ are much over-used in contemporary writing). But I thought I’d cheat and get a computer to do some of the thinking for me, by putting in the text of all the most beautiful poems that the class came up with a few weeks ago into www.wordle.net and seeing what it looked like. Here’s the result:

poetic diction fixed

Clearly ‘like’ is the winner – poets being fans of simile, I guess – followed by ‘love’, ‘weeps’, ‘night’, ‘now’, ‘silence’ and so on. Here’s the word cloud of my own writing:

KV poetry word cloud

Again it seems I’m fond of simile, along with ‘earth’, ‘one’ and ‘weight’… It’s a lovely tool to use and there are lots of different ways of displaying the results; here’s my latest three-part sequence:

Three Children word cloud

Isn’t it gorgeous?…

As an aside: I’m probably not going to put much more of my poetry up on here, but if you’d like to read any of it, just leave me a comment or drop me an e-mail and I’ll send it on.

This post brought to you by redbush chai and Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty, with thanks to Kerry, Dave, Joe, Rachel, Ruth and Dave for the northern hospitality