home straight

15 March, 2010

Well, it’s the last week of term. We have one more workshop (tomorrow, at which I’ll have my last submission critiqued) and I have one more fiction class (although we have a couple more at the beginning of next term) and that’s it. A month off for the Easter holidays and then we’re into the dissertation period.

I can’t believe how quickly this term has gone. It’s been hard work, in all sorts of ways, but good, too, and I definitely feel that there’s been a bit of a change in both my writing and in the way I write. I still haven’t got really good work rhythms nailed down, which is a bit depressing, but I’ve always got there in the end.

What’s really terrifying is that after tomorrow we don’t have any more formal workshops. Next term we’ll have supervision with a tutor as we work on our dissertations, but apart from that, we’re on our own, pretty much. Our tutor this term has told us that it’s important that we keep meeting regularly on a more informal basis, and I’m guessing we’ll break into smaller groups to do that (as not everyone is actually based in Norwich). So that’s one thing; and I was recently been invited to join another, non-UEA workshop group. So hopefully I shan’t disappear into a slightly crazy, isolated mist of solo poetry-writing.

It’s quite interesting looking back at everything I’ve written this term. I think they all seem a bit more connected to each other than last term. A few pieces about being connected to the elements. A few that address the reader very directly, with a strong sense of imperative. A few dealing with the heart. This time around as I work on them getting ready for submission as coursework at the beginning of next term I’ll give myself more time and hopefully will be able to push them further rather than just edit/tinker round the edges. But we’ll see…

It’s weird the way things go… the exciting ‘aha’ feeling that I wrote about here seems to have coincided with the complete loss of any half-formed work ethic I may have had, and the last week or so has been a write-off (if you’ll forgive the pun) when it’s come to actually getting on and writing. I had to send round my last submission of term (and actually, in terms of workshops, of the year) today so this week has been rather pressured. I had a lot of ideas and a lot of notes and five poems I desperately wanted to write, but in the end I only got three sent round, and one of them was really only halfway to being an actual poem – more notes towards one, really.

But they’re done, and sent, and it feels a huge relief. I probably didn’t make it easier for myself that one of them was a villanelle, which is a ferociously demanding form, and one I’d not tried before. It’s a tercet (stanzas of three lines) form where the first and third lines are repeated alternately as a refrain in the third line of each following stanza, and the middle line of each stanza rhymes with the others, so you have only two rhymes for the whole piece and thus have to choose your words very, very carefully. And of course the whole thing succeeds or fails on those two refrains. The trick is to write two lines that will increase in significance throughout the poem rather than fall into dullness through repetition. I don’t know if I managed it, and the poem I wrote certainly turned out very differently to how I thought it might, but I’m glad I wrote it. It’s a piece about obsession, essentially, so it seemed an appropriate form, with its returning to those two lines again and again. I have no idea how it’ll be received but I’ve rather fallen in love with it myself (never quite sure if that’s a good or bad thing) so fingers crossed.

Of course the best way to write a good poem, as our tutor reminded us a few weeks ago, is to read good poems, so once I decided that this particular piece suggested itself as a villanelle I set out to read as many as I could. The best known (in the English language) is Dylan Thomas’ phenomenal ‘Do not go gentle into that good night’, but I was stunned by ‘One Art’ by Elizabeth Bishop; I’ve read her first collection, and a few anthologised pieces, but not come across this one before. Here it is:

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.

—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied.  It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

She plays fast and loose with that third line, unlike Dylan Thomas, but really, the whole thing is faultless. Incredible.

It seems almost blasphemous to say this after that tour de force, but as ever if you want to see my rather clunky offerings, just e-mail me and I’ll send them your way.

This post brought to you by dodgy white wine and the delicious Marky’s badly packed kebab

The art of losing isn't hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother's watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn't a disaster.

--Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan't have lied.  It's evident
the art of losing's not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.She

If I’d been posting a bit more regularly recently I’d have mentioned this the week it happened rather than now, but as it stands I hope it makes a nice close to this little sequence about things freeing up.

So last week was my most recent turn to be workshopped. Things were feeling quite tough by then and I was slogging away at a few things that had been rattling round my brain for a while. In the end I submitted my work pretty late, and only two pieces instead of the suggested three or four, which was a bit slack of me. Instead of pressing send on Friday afternoon before heading to Kent for a weekend with the folks, Sunday found me still sweating over the wretched things, missing out on relaxing in front of the fire with my family. Gah.

Still, I got them done, sort of, and sent round.

So where’s the freedom in this? Well, for the first time I wrote two pieces that were in free verse, which seems quite incredible to me now – that in six years I’d never written anything that wasn’t in a particular form, even if that form was one I’d borrowed or made up. I suppose I’ve always felt naturally drawn to more formal poems (and who doesn’t love a sonnet?), but a huge part of it has also been (rather embarrassingly) an uncertainty about how you go about structuring a poem – or even writing one – without a particular set of rules to follow. I guess it’s part of being a novice: when you’re learning to cook, you follow recipes (if you’re learning by yourself, that is, and not naturally adventurous). It just makes sense. Not that writing formally is easier than writing in free verse – of course it’s complex and demanding – but there is at least a safety in knowing that you’ve fulfilled the requirements, no matter how badly. When you’ve just started writing, how do know if something’s a poem or not? How do you know you’ve got to the end?

But I’d been feeling for a while that, although I love writing in form and will continue to do so, I needed to break out; that to become a better writer, I needed to experiment with free verse, even if it didn’t end up being my natural home. This was partly thanks to Alice Oswald, probably my favourite living poet and certainly the writer who got me back into poetry in my twenties. She writes both formally and in free verse, and I love both, but it’s the incredible energy of her free work that made me think I needed to just get on with it. I tried and failed all last term – back to the flailing that I mentioned yesterday. But I knew which particular image it was that needed to be written out more freely, and following that quietly paradigm-shifting workshop a couple of weeks ago I finally managed to draft something. And then another something. With much huffing and puffing, and no doubt boring my longsuffering family horribly. When they were drafted I was convinced they were rubbish – I guess when you’re doing something new it’s hard to step back from it – but I had already missed the deadline and just had to send them round. So I did, and hoped I wouldn’t get too much of a slating come the workshop.

Well, I didn’t. Our tutor kicked things off by saying that she was really impressed by the measured and confident tone of both pieces, by their striking voice and by the images, which were ‘subtle but easily located’. Someone wrote on one of the pieces that it was a really excellent, rigorous poem, and someone else wrote that it was their favourite piece of the term. I’ve had good feedback before but none so direct as this. It was all rather wonderfully surprising. It felt like I’d been using some writing muscles I didn’t even know I had.

I’m not meaning to big myself up unduly… but to get that kind of feedback is profoundly affirming, and I suppose I just want to celebrate, in the middle of what has been another hard slog of a term, the feeling that my writing has somehow broken through into something new and more free and perhaps more assured.

So, onwards and upwards. Here’s to free verse, and finding a new measure of freedom in the work I’m doing, however small.

Well stuff keeps happening; at the moment it feels like the ground is shifting underneath my feet daily. But I’ll save the latest bit of news for another time, and get back to part two of yesterday’s post.

Throughout this term our tutor’s been encouraging us to really push into our metaphors and images, to inhabit them, to not be content to leave them where they are. I’ve dutifully listened and made notes and inwardly nodded, all the while thinking but how do I do that? What does that actually mean? And then in this particular workshop a couple of weeks ago it all started clicking into place for me.

Here’s the deal, as laid out by our tutor but paraphrased and interpreted by me.

Poetry is all about the dance between image and imperative. The image, or the metaphor, is the germ of the poem. And the imperative is the thought that’s wrapped up in that image. The combination of the two of them is what makes poetry poetry. As I’ve quoted my tutor before, a poem isn’t an atmosphere or a story. It’s a particular kind of thought – something you need to express in terms that are peculiar to you and to what it is you’re trying to say. And they both arrive at once, all tangled up together: an image occurs to you that is just right for expressing something that needs to be said or explored.

This is absolutely what it’s like for me, what it is for me, 100%. But if I’ve never really seen it in such simple terms. It’s always been incredibly nebulous and frustratingly hard to pin down.

But here’s the revelation, for me. Writing poetry is all about the dance between the two things. We’ve been talking about this all term but it’s only now beginning to dawn on me. Which gives you a clear way forward when you’re trying to write. Writing is essentially a continual going back and forward between the image and the imperative, and seeing how they lead one another on.

So you’ve got a first draft. Go back to your images. Push them around. See what they might be saying about the emotional state of the of the poem. Dig a little deeper. What do they say? Are they saying what you want them to?

To be a little more specific, one way of pushing at your images might be to detach yourself entirely from the thought behind the poem – don’t try to describe how you felt or what happened – and just focus on the one image in the poem that you think is at its heart. Let’s say it’s a fortune cookie. This is the bit that’s caught up in your static, somehow. Take it out of its context and start playing with it; write twenty or thirty lines all containing that image, just free-associating and seeing where it takes you. Where does it take you? This, I finally understand, is what our tutor has been saying about really inhabiting your metaphors.

Now go back to your imperative – what it is you’re trying to say. Maybe you’re not exactly sure. That’s ok. Maybe you do. Write it out explicitly and think about how you might get that across in your images. And how have your images and their implications and resonances changed your imperative? Have they helped clarify what it is?

Now go back to your images with your new understanding of what it is you’re trying to say, and push them around a bit more. And then on to the imperative. And so on, and so on…

This is what it’s all about: the images leading the imperative on, helping you work out what it is you’re wanting to say; and the imperative directing and shaping the images. On and on in a continual dance.

Perhaps this sounds basic. Or maybe unintelligible. But it’s been an absolute revelation to me; a sort of falling down on the floor and thanking God moment. For the last six years that I’ve been writing poetry I’ve always felt that it’s like doing a magic trick involving complicated knots behind your back. Every so often you bring your hands out from behind your back and either it’s a tangled mess or you’ve got there – it just feels and looks right, and you can see that the magic has been done (and it does feel like magic, that moment when you know you’ve captured a poem). But while you’re actually trying to do the trick all the action is happening behind your back and so it all seems a bit flailing and arbitrary. What the fuck am I doing? How do I actually get to where I need to go? And that’s what’s always made it so difficult, so agonising.

But now someone’s taken your hands from behind your back and said look, here it is, and here’s the sleight of hand you need to learn. These are the basic moves. Now go. You still have to do the work – and it’s still hard work, and the magic you do is always going to be peculiar to you and thus you have to be your own teacher – but at least now you can see what you’re doing. Image and imperative. Imperative and image. Now go.

So this is making explicit and obvious something that I suppose I’ve always half- or unconsciously known – after all, I’ve been doing it all this time, just behind my back. The impulse to write a poem comes not from wanting to tell a story or convey a feeling, but when an image comes that carries its own weight and meaning and emotional force. I’ve always known this. Just not quite in these terms.

As you can probably tell I’m almost deliriously excited by this. It feels like I’ve been given the keys to the castle. Yes it’s still hard; of course it is. But it’s now a much more focused kind of hard work. Learning to dance, or learning to run perhaps – one foot after the other – image, imperative, and on, and on…

Everything is making so much sense. All the reading I’m doing, all the writing I’m doing. Everyone’s been saying the same thing all along, I just hadn’t quite seen it.

Let’s just hope my writing reflects at least in some small part all this excitement. Otherwise it’s going to be a bit embarrassing.

But I’ll leave the (tentative) answer to that for tomorrow, and a third and even more specific kind of freedom…

freedom part one

2 March, 2010

Lots seems to have happened in the two weeks since I last posted (not including yesterday) – bad girl. The day after I wrote about finding a voice, feeling tentatively optimistic about things becoming a bit easier, I had 1: some potentially paradigm-shifting news and 2: an incredibly helpful workshop, which has been trickling its way through my mind and out through my fingers ever since.  It appears that a few of us having been finding it hard to write this term, and our tutor spent a good chunk of time talking with us about what to do when that happens.

The first piece of advice she gave us was not to force it. One of the differences between poetry and prose (and I would agree with this) is that prose has its own momentum once it’s started: to a large degree you can just sit down at your desk and shove at it, no matter how uninspired you’re feeling. The same isn’t quite true of poetry. In fact it’s not true at all. I’ve written before about how it can often feel like pulling teeth (and this isn’t a question of the absence of some vaguely inspired feeling). But from November until a couple of weeks ago I was very good about not breaking the chain, trying to just crank it out, no matter what. I was in the middle of this just having fallen to pieces when our tutor pointed out to us that it really doesn’t work like that; she actively discouraged us from sitting down and trying to write every single day. Instead, tend to it. I like the difference.

So what does that mean? It means that on days when you’re stuck, the freeing advice is: put it down and do something else. The something else can be lots of things that are satellites to writing poetry while not actually being the writing itself. Like: learning the mechanics (I would recommend John Lennard’s excellent The Poetry Handbook). Like: reading really good poetry. Like: reading poets/academics on poetry (my old tutor Tom Paulin’s The Secret Life of  Poems came up, and I’d throw in Terry Eagleton’s How to Read a Poem, which I’ve mentioned briefly before). Like: the wretched but necessary task of editing drafts.

What our tutor suggested we should be doing every day is writing in a notebook. Anything. Even just one word. And push at it just a little bit further than you think you have to. The key is to always write whenever anything comes to you that has that particular quality – write it down straight away. A good half of it won’t go anywhere but you have to be attentive to it.

Another fantastic little gem was the encouragement to make a practice whenever you’re doing something meditative (like walking or running or doing the washing up or whatever) of pulling out a problematic image and playing with it.

So, freedom. The freedom not to write…

More to follow; too much for one post. But the next bit’s even better…