take a holiday/trust your mind/let the feelings in

25 May, 2010

I had my second dissertation supervision today. I’m afraid I went to it with nothing to show for myself, and feeling quite dejected at my seeming inability to write at the moment. Happily my supervisor knows what she’s doing and was both encouraging and very helpful.

The first thing she suggested was that I take a holiday of sorts. In fact she pretty much instructed me not to try to write any poetry for the next week, and instead of looking inwards (trying to write), look outwards. So: read. Read things that are old or foreign (she suggested an Italian poet, Valerio Magrelli, who’s apparently much like Paul Muldoon). Read poets’ letters and prose (especially Elizabeth Bishop). Read only for pleasure. Read obliquely. And get out and enjoy myself, doing the things I love most – walking, running, going to the cinema, to galleries, seeing people. I suppose in a way it’s that idea of stocking the pond that The Artist’s Way talks about, and which I haven’t been doing much/enough of recently. I left her office with a prescription of sorts – a list of books to consider reading, and this strict instruction not to write.

The idea is that after quite an intense process of writing continually for workshops, I’m now returning to a time where you have to allow the poetry to keep on happening in the back of your head while you get on with other stuff. The poems will emerge if I ‘trust my mind’ to keep on working at things subconsciously (Sean, you’re endorsed!).

We also talked about what exactly is so hard when you sit down to start writing – what it is that’s so distasteful. Aside from the (well-established on this blog, sorry) fact that writing just is hard, what I most struggle with is that initial stage of writing (poetry – with fiction it’s just not the same) when the first things you put down on the page are clumsy, ungainly, cringeworthy… They’re so horrible and flat and prosy and lumpen and cliched that it’s almost unbearable to get on and do it. But you have to learn to live with that messy stage, just so that you can get to the next one – sifting. I’m afraid I came up with the rather unlovely image of sticking your fingers down your throat in order to make yourself sick. Hmm, that analogy’s a bit problematic when you think about it too hard – let’s leave it there… But I found just talking about that uncomfortable and unpromising jumping-off point very helpful. I suppose in a sense it’s a part of letting go of perfectionism and learning how to play, instead. But it’s good to know that excellent poets (like my supervisor) feel similarly about it.

We talked briefly about lineation, too, and how I’m still struggling with how to end and begin lines with words that can carry the weight of their position on the page. It still confuses me but my supervisor suggested this book to give me a few ideas. (I read the first couple of chapters in the park in the sun, with an ice cream – taking the holiday idea to heart…)

And then finally we talked about turning up the emotional volume, which was perhaps the most intriguing thing of all. The conversation about lineation led on to my supervisor’s perception that I’m still somewhat afraid of letting the music come out in my writing (though I know I have a musical ear). I tend to shy away from too much volume and colour and lighting, which is somewhat ironic given that in person I’m a bit too much of a heart-on-sleeve type at times. Perhaps that’s exactly why my writing is somewhat understated emotionally and can be a bit too cool and cerebral? (This is what I mean by intriguing – when these discussions end up taking you right to the heart of who you are as a person, or at least how you perceive yourself). To some degree I think I am scared of saying too much, of being too messy on the page.

And this is where form comes in. I tend to use form a lot and actually it’s when you’re writing in a controlled/formal way that you can get away with saying quite dark and dangerous things. My villanelle from last term is a case in point: the incredibly tight form allowed me to put a lot of feeling into it, and my supervisor saw it as one of the biggest achievements of the pieces I handed in; that and a piece of terza rima, which of course is also highly structured.

So the final instruction from my supervisor was to do some shouting: to bring, next time I see her, four new drafts of pieces where I’m quite deliberately turning the volume up – expressing some of those messy emotions, like excitement and anticipation as well as anger and sadness. Apparently now is the time to start allowing the full force of myself to come through in my writing. To be honest this scares me a little; I wonder if it’s partly to do with being a woman (and a fairly emotional one, at that), and wanting to be taken seriously? But the point is not to gush out some confessional/emotional torrent; instead, as Coleridge said, it’s to write with ‘a more than usual state of emotion with more than usual order’. You take the feeling, and you apply control to it in the poem. Essentially it’s the poem you’re keeping control of, not the emotion (which is just repression and leads to boring, muted poems).

So. Exciting. And terrifying, in pretty much equal measure. I shall keep you posted.

This post brought to you by Telemann’s Double Concerto for Recorder and Bassoon and repeat listenings of Wiley’s Never Be Your Woman. Dinner courtesy of Hodder & Stoughton, conversation by my hero Dallas Willard

4 Responses to “take a holiday/trust your mind/let the feelings in”

  1. pupski said

    Sounds like a great tutorial. I had always noticed that your work is much more constrained/restrained than you are as a person – but maybe our poetic work is more revealing of our inner selves – which can be deeper darker places than we want other people to know (or ourselves sometimes).

    I can really relate to your not being able to write, i am in exactly that place myself at the moment. I haven’t written a single thing since my last tutorial and am beginning to panic a little. I am planning an outing tomorrow to try and get the juices flowing. A train journey usually works but I am thinking of a river trip…

    • kayvee said

      Yes it was great, despite my dread at actually turning up for it! And that’s really interesting, thank you.

      Hope your writing shakes itself free sometime soon. And let me know if you’d like a companion tomorrow – sounds like a great idea…

  2. popt_art said

    lovely post 🙂

  3. […] yesterday: scary, but it went well. I took along four drafts where I’d consciously tried to ‘turn up the emotional volume’, and one bonus one that I’d written very quickly that morning (which is super-fast for me). […]

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