dissertation particulars

26 August, 2010

Well, it’s almost done. I need to give my critical commentary (a 1,500-word account of myself as a writer – terrifying) a good edit, and I’m taking my poems away with me this weekend to a festival I’m going to (madness!) so that I can continue mulling them over and make any last-minute tweaks, but really, I’m finished. Almost a week before the deadline, too – wonders will clearly never cease.

It’s been a very strange, intense time. At times I’ve felt sick with panic and wondered if I’d ever get it done (I still have a knot in my stomach); at other times it’s felt joyously focused and weirdly trance-like. I probably won’t really relax until next Wednesday, and I have no idea how I’ll feel when I finally hand in.

One of the last jobs to do is sort out the order in which I want to submit the poems. I doubt there’s a right way and a wrong way, but I feel that it is important to at least think about how they all relate to one another – and to open and close with my strongest pieces. Of course it’s hard to work out which those are… some of the pieces I’ve written I’m really attached to just because of the way they came about (the ones that just stroll in are the best), but it doesn’t necessarily follow that they’re the best.

Anyway, here’s the final roll-call. There were a few last-minute substitutions, and there may well still be a bit of shuffling around, but this is the team, in the order in which I’m expecting them to play:

All those unattended mornings. This one’s free verse, though there are some quiet rhymes that chime through it. It feels slightly Emily Dickinson-ish to me. I’m still nervous around free verse but this feels utterly right. The germ of the poem came from a dream I had in July, about a friend who told me that I should write a poem about ‘all those unattended mornings’. So I did.

Seed. More free verse, and one of the first things I wrote for the dissertation, back in June, though much has been edited out from it. I played around with the lineation and spacing this week and it totally changed the feel of the whole poem, which was a lesson in itself.

For Arin Ruth, one day old. I guess you would call this an ‘occasion’ poem, given that I wrote it to celebrate the birth of my friends’ daughter (to whom I am now godmother). It’s a straightforward sonnet, though I used a slightly unusual rhyme scheme that I lifted from Seamus Heaney’s magnificent ‘The Skylight’.

Hymn. More free verse! And another one I wrote back in June, which feels an age away now. (It was actually sunny then, for a start.) I was trying to write poems that turned up the emotional volume somewhat, but the only way I could allow myself to write an excited poem was to write it in the voice of a dog. I like it. It’s sort of e. e. cummings-ish, which is I think how dogs would write, if they could write poetry.

Oh. The first of rather too many love poems, I’m sorry to say. Also written back in June. It’s sort of free verse, though (like ‘Hymn’) it’s written in couplets. This started off as an exercise that Simon Armitage suggested when he gave a talk at UEA: write down twenty words that you associate with the thing you’re writing about. Now write the poem without using any of those words.

Our constituent parts. Another love poem. The title came to me first, which is what gave me the idea for the poem as a whole. I really enjoyed writing it: I think I did it in an afternoon, which is fast for me. It felt more like doing a crossword puzzle than anything else. It’s a sonnet, but written so that every alternate line is a footnote to the previous line. I made up the form and I really like it – I think it’s a nice conceit and works well. I also like that it’s a fairly straightforward sonnet in terms of the rhyme scheme, but you wouldn’t necessarily notice.

Ascent. Another love poem, written in fairly loose triplets. This was a fun one to write, but it took a lot of sifting to get there. I think it’s the longest one of the whole collection, but it’s still not that long.

Love poem by a button. Initially I didn’t want to group all four love poems together but actually I think this order works well. This one came from an idea I had (and wrote notes for) back in 2005: I was flicking through an old notebook and found it and was still intrigued enough by it to give it a go. Initially I wanted it to be a riddle, so that it was a love poem by an object, but you had to work out what the object was. But it soon became apparent that actually it needed to be simpler than that. The riddle idea still structures the poem, though.

The road home. This was the penultimate poem I wrote, last week. I read this beautiful quote in a book called The Sacred Journey, by Charles Foster. After it took him seven years to find the ‘Promised Land’, someone said to St Brendan that ‘you could not find it immediately because God wanted to show you his varied secrets in the great ocean.’ I was really struck by that, and then it turned itself into a poem, which quite naturally wanted to be an unrhymed sonnet. I see it as the sequel (if poems can have sequels) to my favourite of my own poems, ‘All the maps of Russia stop at Moscow’.

Swifts. Back in July-ish when I was feeling rather stressed out about coming up with enough interesting ideas for poems I spent a lot of time sitting in the back yard, or at my desk, listening to swifts screaming, or not screaming, depending on – who knows? So I wrote a poem about it. Another sonnet, but so wonky as to be almost unrecognisable.

Festival. Bit of a departure, this. A few weekends ago (around the time I wrote about feeling all dried up) I spent a day writing prose poems, just to do something, and because nothing else was happening for me. So this is a prose poem. It’s also a bit full-on. I feel quite nervous about submitting it but I think it’s better than the two other early drafts that I’ve binned. I hope so!

Haruspex. This was the last poem I wrote, just at the weekend. Like ‘Our constituent parts’ the first line just came to me, and then the central image, and I knew I had a poem on my hands. I wrote it incredibly quickly, in a morning I think. I’d been reading Seamus Heaney’s second collection, Death of a Naturalist, and I knew immediately that I wanted to use one of his forms: three stanzas of five tetrameters, rhyming aabba. The rhyme and the short metre makes it quite pointed. I think it works. I hope so.

Kreutzer etudes. More free verse. This is something I’ve wanted to write about since 2004. I don’t know how successful it is. At first I had the idea that it was going to start off in incredibly tight, almost laboured form, and then sort of wind down and gradually taper off into free verse… but it didn’t work like that. I spent a day labouring at it and then ripped it up and started again. I really want this one to be a good poem because the imperative has been a part of my life for six years but I just don’t know.

Blessing. More free verse, though it looks like it might have wanted to be a sonnet in another life. I thought I wanted to write a list poem about sunlight, but I soon realised that I wanted to write about just one particular moment of lying in the sun. I’m fond of it, though I’m not sure the title’s quite right.

Gift. Another sonnet, but with a rhyme scheme that’s purely couplets, ie aabbccdd etc. I love this one: it’s probably my favourite. It’s another one that came out of that period a few weeks back when I felt completely devoid of inspiration. None of the ideas on my list or in my notebook seemed to have any life, so I thought I’d just write about how I was feeling about life in general at that point (amazingly, not depressed about not being able to write, but excited about the next chapter). It started off gently and then this surreal image just barged its way in in the most brilliant way. I like that it surprised me like that, because that’s what the whole poem is about too.

So there you go. The complete works. Who knows how good they really are, or what kind of mark they’ll get, and all the rest. But I’m pleased with them: I think there are a few special moments. And that’s all you can really ask for, isn’t it.

If you’d like to read any/all of them, just leave me a comment or send me an e-mail.

And for anyone who’s going to Greenbelt this weekend, I’m speaking on poetry and faith in the Hub on Monday at 11.30am. Come and ask nice questions, or buy me a drink afterwards…

This post brought to you by the support of many loving and much-loved friends. Thank you.

why I write poetry

18 August, 2010

1: To move people. I think I managed to do that in some small way today.

2: ‘[Poetry] is a mystery. It is a metaphor of the other mysteries which comprise human experience. But, like some other mysteries, it gives us a feeling of illumination – one mystery giving us a name by which to know another. I confess I think of poetry in a religious way. But I don’t mean by that I regard it with any hushed and special reverence. I mean simply that I think of it as a way of using what we know, to glimpse what we do not know. I remember […] becoming aware that there was a power in the words [of a particular poem] which the words themselves could not seem to account for, and which I felt strongly but could not understand. I realized that this power must be the poetry of the lines.’ – W. S. Merwin

Two weeks today till I hand in. Top deadline tip: making trifle (from scratch, sponge fingers included) is extremely calming.

all dried up

13 August, 2010

I’m feeling the opposite of the weather, which is doing a lot of raining at the moment (at least in Norwich). I have a long list of things I thought I wanted to write about, and lots of notes and research in my notebook, but it all seems dead and dry and dusty. I really have no idea what to write about. But I still need to generate new material (as well as edit the work that I’ve already done). It feels a bit desperate, to be honest. I’m trying to do some writing exercises to loosen myself up and get things flowing, but it’s not working so far.

Last week was a good week, at least: I got three good new drafts done (which is very fast for me), and two of them I thought had a lot of promise. One came as a bit of a gift when I was trying to write something else, and I was hoping that something similar might happen this week. No luck so far.

Looking at the drafts on my wall (twelve beautiful pages of poetry) it’s clear that I have lots of work ahead of me – both in terms of finishing the dissertation and also the longer journey of writing in general – but I think I’m beginning to see how much I’ve changed and developed over the course of the year. Hopefully my writing is showing more confidence, more boldness, more fluidity. Hopefully. There are a couple of pieces on there that, once finished, I think I’ll be really pleased with. There’s something different about them: they have a freshness and a force that I often feel my writing lacks. But who can say: that’s probably for other people to decide. And hopefully there are some quite different poems up there: both in terms of subject matter and also style. Poems about dogs, buttons, newborn babies, seeds, swifts, climbing, dreams, break-ups, violin lessons, sunshine. Written in free verse, sonnets (my favourite, including an experiment with footnotes), hymns, riddles and my own made-up forms.

So. Two more weeks. The final push. Wish me luck…

This post brought to you by too much daytime tv, too much tea, too much rain and the return of tummy butterflies.

Apologies for the somewhat haphazard (and infrequent) posting recently. The deadline for the dissertation is looming and so life is mostly just a matter of the hard graft of trying to generate enough good poetry for the beginning of September, and consequently there’s not much coming my way to write about (my own reading and gems from physicists aside). Time’s running through my fingers and it’s hard not to feel overwhelmed. That said I’m doing better than I was a few weeks ago; having just three weeks left has really helped me focus, and all the other things that I was stressed about a while back just don’t seem important any more. Now it’s just me, my notebook, my desk, and a wall that’s filling up with print-outs of poems. And it’s going to stay like this until the first of September.

One great thing that’s shifted recently is my own attitude towards writing. I had an extremely helpful and encouraging conversation with a friend a month or so ago (technically he’s my spiritual director I suppose you’d say, but that sounds so formal) that seemed to help me view that really difficult phase, when you’re appalled by just how bad your initial lines are, in a completely different way. Perhaps I’m finally coming to view writing as more of an enjoyable challenge than anything else. I do hope so. But certainly the writing is coming much easier, which is of course a massive relief  – at this stage I just don’t have the time/psychic energy for forehead-clutching…

I can’t believe the year’s almost over. Just as it did last year, September seems golden, mysterious, inviting (as well as a long way away still). I’ll be relieved to hand in my dissertation, ready for a holiday, and I’m really excited about what’s coming next…