the poem and the picture

28 February, 2010

So much to write about. I’ve just started a new post about a few things that have been going on in the writing stakes recently, but my head isn’t quite where it should be this evening so I’ll finish that off tomorrow and for now I’ll just mention a great workshop I went to yesterday.

When a (fiction) coursemate told me that a recent favourite, Kathryn Simmonds,* was running a Poetry School workshop in Cambridge I thought it was time to check one out. Perhaps it seems overkill to be doing something like that in the middle of an MA… but we don’t really do writing exercises or have workshops structured around a theme, and I thought it’d be good to mix things up a bit. There were only a few of us, which was nice in some ways because it made it quite intimate, but I missed having a broader range of voices.

The workshop was based around the idea of the poet being an image-maker, and we started off by talking about William Carlos Williams and how his writing was all about the snapshot, the thing, and how isolating the image and letting it speak for itself is a Modernist tendency, a move away from the Romantic. We looked at lots of poems and did some writing exercises based on responding to images we were given. Writing exercises: I’ve not really done that kind of thing in a group setting before, and it’s a bit weird, especially as I write so slowly and the first 90% of everything I write tends to be drivel. But it was good to be forced to just get on and write – all part of the loosening up I’ve been feeling going on recently.

Then we talked about ekphrasis – the response of one artist to the work of another; in our case, poets responding to pieces of visual art. Lots of interesting stuff going on here, looking at poems and the pictures and photos they were responding to. Writing a response to a Lee Miller photo was one of my favourite exercises of the day. Our final exercises involved the (personal) photos that we’d been asked to bring along; unable to choose I’d taken along a whole envelope full. But when it came down to it I chose this photo:

But then of course we were asked to swap photos, and had to write about each others’, before returning to our own. Interestingly enough I was much more pleased with what I wrote about someone else’s baby snap, but I think I will return to this picture and see if I can take it somewhere.

In the mean time here’s a poem that I wrote in response to a painting five years ago. It’s one of my favourites.

Rembrandt’s The Jewish Bride

The world blooms darkly round us, gorgeous
in its strange detail, a vast house waiting
to be explored. For now, though, all that matters
is us, the glowing centre, steeped in light:
our own light. We are the sharpened point
of focus – our composition, angles,
specific cadences of touch. We begin
by examining the tiny brush-strokes
of each other – the minute creases round
your eyes, a curl of hair that frames my face –
marvelling at the luminous volume
we’ve suddenly gained, contained within this
one square inch of canvas: my hand placed on yours,
yours on the red, the beating of my heart.

This was meant to be a much shorter post. My brain is addled. Apologies for the clunkiness.

*Strangely enough, my post about her collection Sunday at the Skin Launderette is one of the external links on her wikipedia page.

finding your voice

15 February, 2010

I’ve been pretty much mute for the last week; for the first time since November I ‘broke the chain’ and went quite a few days without writing anything. It was partly an emotional response to a rather epic crash and partly simply feeling utterly uninspired by anything I was trying to write. I seem to be coming out of it now – well, I don’t have much choice, given that I have to submit work on Friday – and things seem both a little less fraught and a lot more alive. I’ve given up on the sestina for now; I did find something I wanted to hang on it but I just don’t think I’m up to the task at the moment. Instead I’m returning to some ideas that have been mulling in my mind for a good while, so hopefully I can shake something out of my sleeve by the end of the week. Wish me luck; it’s going to be tight.

In search of inspiration and a sideways look at the whole thing (and also because it’s on the reading list for this week’s fiction class) I picked up a copy of Al Alvarez‘s The Writer’s Voice. I haven’t got massively far yet but am enjoying it; for Alvarez finding your voice is what enables you to say what you want to say. I was especially intrigued by his opening quote from Keats, which I hadn’t come across before:

The Genius of Poetry must work out its own salvation in a [wo]man: it cannot be matured by law and precept, but by sensation and watchfulness in itself.

I suppose it’s the nod to St Paul and his letter to the Philippians that caught my eye; given that my writing is all tangled up with my spirituality the analogy appeals. And it rings true; yes, you can be taught craft, but cultivating your writing is something you have to do by yourself. I like the holding in balance of a certain amount of effort with the acknowledgement that it can’t be pinned down too rigidly; instead it involves ‘sensation and watchfulness’, which seems exactly right to me. So I’m trying to step back a bit, and watch and listen for what it is I need to be writing about this week.

fiction: the quest

8 February, 2010

I almost feel a little bit guilty about how much I’m enjoying my optional module this term; it’s as though I’m betraying my first love (poetry) by having a bit on the side with her younger, cooler, better-paid brother (fiction). But it’s so exciting! And so new!

This week we’re looking at stories, plots and narratives, and it’s my turn, along with another student, to give a presentation to the rest of the class. I think I managed to swipe the easy stuff: I’ll be talking about the difference between story and plot according to E. M. Forster, whose thoughts on both in Aspects of the Novel are, I think, pretty hilarious; (tragic) plot according to Aristotle in his Poetics, which of course I read last term; and finally the seven stories that make up all literature according to Christopher Booker in his magnificent The Seven Basic Plots. This last is an absolutely fascinating read. The seven basic plots, according to his taxonomy, are:

  • overcoming the monster (Beowulf, Jaws)
  • rags to riches (Cinderella, David Copperfield)
  • the quest (The Odyssey, The Lord of the Rings)
  • voyage and return (Alice in Wonderland, Brideshead Revisited)
  • comedy (Much Ado About Nothing, Pride and Prejudice)
  • tragedy (Dr Faustus, Madame Bovary)
  • rebirth (A Christmas Carol, The Secret Garden)

Of course not all stories fit neatly into just one of these categories: there’s lots of overlap between them, and many stories draw from more than one; The Lord of the Rings, for example, contains elements of all seven. And then there are the stories that show one or more of the plots ‘going wrong’ – not because they’re badly written, but because in the last couple of centuries ‘dark’ versions of each of these plots have developed; they still obey the same rules, they just don’t come to the same satisfactory endings. (At this stage I’m just taking Booker’s word for all this, as I haven’t got that far into the book. But I’m convinced by his summary so far.)

In terms of the book I’m writing, it’s very definitely a quest, with a little rags to riches and comedy thrown in. It’s so interesting thinking about all this stuff, because for Booker (and Freud, and Jung, and Northrop Frye etc etc) the fact that all the stories we tell as humans fit into such similar shapes gets right to the heart of why we tell them.

And of course it’s this question of plot – what comes next, and why – that differentiates fiction from poetry on a very basic level. As our tutor last term said, in fiction, the question is ‘what happens next?’ In poetry, the question is ‘what is this?’ Both compelling questions, but despite my dallying with fiction this term, I think it’s the latter question that haunts me…

Today we got the marks back for last term’s poetry, which was edited and handed in as coursework at the beginning of this term. I was feeling pretty anxious about picking up the marks, especially as I knew I really hadn’t got there with quite a few of the pieces I handed in. Given that, I’m feeling quietly pleased with my percentage; according to the marking scheme, it means I’m at the upper end of ‘solid work, with evident lyric ability’. Of course, as one tutor reminded us earlier this week, at this stage it’s not about ranking: it’s about the progress we’re making. And as the other tutor said to me a couple of weeks ago, there’s no universal arbiter to these things. As if to underline this, the same poem was praised as being the best by one, while the other thought its tone was too contained.

All that sounds as though I’m not that happy… but I am. It’s a good mark and I know I have a long way to go. The written reports were very helpful and I do feel that I have a little bit more of an idea as to where I’m going with my writing in a broad sense, as well as a much greater idea of what I need to do to get the technical stuff right.

Here’s a really nice comment from one of the reports:

Your poems focus on the activation of metaphor in order to describe a subtle but profound adjustment in perception or realisation. They are moving, complex, intellectually ambitious and skilful in their deployment of form… Your tone is authoritative and you have a musical ear.

And here’s some excellent advice from both:

Make yourself dig deeper here and work through yourself. Trust the imperative that made you write the poem in the first place and trust your images – don’t explain them.

Stand back a little and let image and narrative do the work. The reader will go the extra mile if that is in place.

So, encouraging stuff. But I’m glad to have it out of the way. It’s not about brownie points, but when your work is being marked, it kind of is.

… readership.

This was one of the many tasty morsels of advice that Don Paterson gave in a pre-reading Q&A for some students when he opened the UEA literary festival last week. It’s a good one, I think – because what is poetry if it’s not one person speaking to another? – and I’ve been rather wrestling with the question of readership over the last week or so. Connected to it is something else Paterson suggested: that poetry will always be a marginal artform because it requires so much from the reader. But how much can you require from your reader? And what do you do with your disappointment if you feel that your (or others’) work is just not read carefully enough to be understood? Is that a failure on the part of the poet, or the reader? Of course there isn’t an answer to that question, not really, but it’s something I know I need to keep in mind as I write.

The writing’s coming hard at the moment, it has to be said. I got some very helpful criticism in the workshop and my tutorial last week, but the amount of work to do feels overwhelming: I know I need to do a lot with the pieces that were workshopped, and I feel I need to do that sooner rather than later; but then of course I also have to generate another batch for the end of next week…

But it’s not overwhelming purely in terms of amount; it also feels very demanding – just the fact of going back to the old stuff and going into it, deeper, and writing better; rather than just tinkering with it, or editing. Our tutor this term has been quite strict about that: she’s firm that we need not just to edit but to go back to the impulse that created the poem, and go deeper into it, push our writing further. Ask ourselves what is it about this that is important to me? I’m absolutely convinced that she’s right, but I feel exhausted just thinking about it. I’ve talked about the difficulty of editing before, but this feels different. It’s as though you’ve made a great big jelly in the shape of a rabbit, and you’re proudly watching it glisten and wobble when the pâtissier walks up and says, great jelly, but I think you’ve chosen the wrong mould for it. How about you turn it into a fish, and strolls off, whistling. If they’d just said that one of the ears was a bit wonky you could have maybe tried to fix it with a knife; but apparently the entire shape is wrong, and you have to somehow turn it into a fish. How are you going to do that? It seems impossible to turn it back into a liquid form and start again. So you’re stuck with the rabbit, knowing there’s a fish in there that needs to get out, or you take a knife to it and it’ll probably all end up on the floor, or somehow you work out some strange alchemy of making it malleable again.

So. Some alchemy needs to happen and I’m not sure I have the tools, the determination or the temperament to manage it.

In the meantime I’m sketching out roughs of new poems: the sestina, and a poem about running and writing (boring, yes, I know). And I’m digging my inspiration (none of it’s coming from within right now) from two finds that I’m delighted with: Ferber’s Dictionary of Literary Symbols and Cirlot’s Dictionary of Symbols. They’re each like a super-charged Brewer’s (my favourite reference book and source of many, many treasures) for poets and if I’m not careful everything I write is going to end up full of obscure folklore. More than it already is, I mean.

To finish: go and read Paterson’s latest collection, Rain. It’s brilliant.

This post brought to you by coffee with cream, smoked paprika, more snow, Handel’s Harp Concerto in B flat major, strange dreams and Graham Swift’s devastatingly good Waterland.