keep your eye on the prize…

1 February, 2010

… 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.

3 Responses to “keep your eye on the prize…”

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by maggi dawn, Katherine Venn. Katherine Venn said: new blog post: keep your eye on the prize… […]

  2. […] – trying to make it better. Not just tinkering, but getting back into its skin. Turning it from a rabbit into a fish, if […]

  3. […] be a photo-realistic portrait of something. All things I need to learn. While remembering that, as Don Paterson said, people like reading poems that move […]

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