Saturday, 11 November 2017

Home Town - Notes to Self:

That feeling of belonging yet not belonging

A feeling of unsafeness now in some of the old familiar places

The way I no longer fit, though it haunts my dreams

The way places change

The way people change

Wanting to tread those familiar paths

Looking for familiar faces in the precinct

Place names and what they represent

Stories we tell ourselves

Memories or half memories

The things that make up the self

The way things look different

That slight sense of disappointment

The way places change

The way it still fits like a comfy old shoe

But there is a hole in the sole and it rubs a little where your feet have got wider

But you remember where it took you and you can't quite let go

Sunday, 29 October 2017

Self as Hometown (or hometown as self)

The idea of hometown is something that I have been exploring in my writing recently - exactly what hometown means to me, where my hometown is, what it is/was like, what effect the environment that I grew up in had on me etc. I have often found myself perplexed by the term hometown - people often ask me what my hometown is and I am never really sure how to answer them. Is it the place I was born, the place where I spent my formative years, or is it the place that I have lived in for the longest amount of time? Or is it the place that I am most drawn to - the place that feels like home? In these migratory times I suspect that there are many people who feel just as rootless as I do. I rather envy people like my son, who was born, grew up and still lives in the same place. I usually answer the question by saying where I grew up, the place where I spent my formative years. This is the place that I am revisiting in some of the poems for my new collection, not just the place itself, but the people and the attitudes of the place and time. Hometown also suggests to me the idea of self and selfhood, as if the self is a type of hometown whose streets and borders change over the years much like those of a real town. Buildings are knocked down and newer modern ones are erected. The self, of course, operates within the language and parameters of the actual hometown. It is, when one starts to examine it, a many layered, multi-faceted thing. And, of course, our recognisable self begins to be formed in our hometown during our formative years, it is moulded by our families and schools, the people we meet and the experiences we have - both good and bad. I am not sure exactly where the collection is going to go, but I am finding it an exciting process getting there. 

Thursday, 21 September 2017

The Difficult Second Collection

I am working on my second poetry collection. I have been working on it for what seems like a long time. Writing poems is not the problem for me, I have pretty regular flurries of writing. The hardest part, for me, is putting the collection together - deciding what order to put the poems in, where the gaps are, what to leave out.

The trouble is that it is hard to always be objective about your own writing. I think that I am fairly objective when editing. I am good at taking on board criticism and responding accordingly. I am actually a pretty rigorous editor of my own work - I edit and re-edit. I am always tweaking right up until publication. But viewing the poems as a body of work that work together as single beast is quite another thing. I had a few nights away earlier in the year to try and get to grips with it. I ordered the poems, then I re-ordered them, and then I ordered them again. Then I gave up and started writing. By the third day (when it was almost time to go home) I had started writing a sequence. I think that the sequence is going to be important to the collection, but I haven't had the mental space to get much further with it at home.

One of the things that happens if I am away on my own is that I get into a creative rhythm. It takes a few days to hit it - usually around three. I have to do a lot of reading and a lot of mediocre writing, then suddenly I hit my stride and I am away. When I was writing my first collection I had a week away in Wells-next-the-sea. I thought I had gone there to work on ordering the collection. What happened instead was that I wrote one of the major sequences in the book. It is rare that I write proper sequences at home. I don't have the time or the mental space that it needs. I don't have a designated workspace. I have work and demands and noisy neighbours and all the day to day stuff that I am able to put aside temporarily when I am away.

I have applied for an Arts Council grant - one of the things I have asked for is time away to write.

Wednesday, 26 July 2017

some thoughts on subject matter and away time

In my writing at the moment I am exploring place/time/class through methods that are both usual and more experimental than in my first collection. I plan to explore the idea of "hometown" and what it means and how it is located in time and space - and currently I am exploring my own experience of hometown by writing about the place where I grew up. I am exploring in the idea of belonging and not belonging through examination of my own past and experiences growing up in a small town in rural Norfolk in the 1980s -  a small town fraught with its own particular prejudices and restrictions.

When I was away for a few days recently I began to write a sequence of poems that are a more fictional exploration of the them. To really get inside a sequence one needs time and space. I find it takes me two to three days to switch off and tune in, by the third or fourth day away I start to write in a new and more exciting way (unfortunately I only had four nights away this time). Sequences that spring from these away spaces and reading times are very different to to poems and sequences written at home; they arrive from an unbroken thread of creative thinking and I may, given the time, write ten to fifteen poems about the same characters or on the same subject over a few days. I won't keep all those of course, but writing that many means that I really explore something deeply and that the finished poem will only contain the strongest of the stanzas/poems I have written. It is important to mention too that reading is an important part of this process.

I was trying to describe to a friend how this away time works on me and I could only liken it to an opening out of the brain. At home (and in the city) I my thinking feels very constricted and compartmentalised. I do a lot of different things and consequently I have lots of different threads of thinking tumbling over each other vying for space - writing/reading/editing Lighthouse/teaching/Biblio/Stanza/social stuff/Gatehouse/domestic chores/my son/mentoring etc. I cope with this by trying to contain each thing - but it means that my head is very crowded and stressed. When I go away I am able to put most of that stuff aside and after a while it feels like my mind is expanding outwards - a bit like someone taking the blinkers off and allowing the light to pour in. It is a great feeling and I would really like to try doing it for longer than a few days at a time because I suspect that it would have a dramatic effect on my writing. Unfortunately finances do not allow for that right now.

Sunday, 16 April 2017

Never simply the bird (some thoughts on what poetry does)

Poetry is that thing that happens between seeing the bird (or hearing the bird) and recognising the bird. It helps us to recognise the bird – but more than that – it helps us to understand the bird in some way, or to think about the bird (that ordinary bird that you see everyday on your street or in your garden) in new and different ways. Poetry adds meaning to the bird (or cat or house or whatever). Sometimes it puts the bird in a context we might never have expected, or it takes that ordinary common garden bird and shows us how extraordinary it is, and somehow it simultaneously tells us something about ourselves or about (human) life, love, meaning etc. The poet may not have set out to intentionally do this. He/she may simply have set out to write a poem about the bird or to write about the place that he/she always sees the bird, or about how the bird makes him/her feel. But that’s the beauty of (good) poetry – it does something secret, something other, it’s where the magic happens. Good poetry moves and changes the reader; it shows us new ways to put words together, it gives us new ways to feel and view the world, or it reveals to us something about ourselves and our own personal connection with the world.

Saturday, 11 March 2017

The mercurial mind - ways in which to read poetry

When I first started reading poetry I approached it as I would a novel - thinking I had to read one collection at a time from cover to cover, then I began dipping in and out. Now I read cover to cover but I may well have several collections on the go at any given time. Take today for instance, I read a pamphlet sized collection cover to cover and made notes on it for an endorsement I am writing, but I have also dipped into several other collections I am reading, as well as reading bits of a journal and reading some poems online. This seems to me a very natural way of reading. It is rare that a poetry collection is so riveting that I can't put it down and have to compulsively read it straight through - although it does happen (and is a treat when it does) and some poetry collections take a great deal of concentration and mental processing - in these cases I can only read a few pages at a time before I need to take a break. Using my old mode of poetry reading I would have probably put the book down after those few pages and gone and found something else to do or read a novel. Now, if I choose to, I can move onto reading a different collection.

I seem to have developed this mercurial mind approach to reading in general. I still tend only to read one novel at a time (although I may have several I have started and stopped and might later come back to) but I will also have several poetry collections, a short story collection or two and several non fiction books on the go at any given time. In fact Goodreads tells me that I am currently reading 36 books. I think I developed this way of reading when I was studying - I like it it means I spend more time reading overall and that I read more books - something that feels more urgent as you get older. and feel you might be running out of time.

I don't do massively close readings of every poetry collection I read. I usually give more attention to the books I find more engaging. Collections where I want to come back to particular poems again and again. With these collections I sometimes make notes or post snippets on Twitter so that I can remember them later - and perhaps to entice other readers to seek out the book. If I am not finding a collection engaging or am finding it difficult I don't usually give up. Often I will try reading poems several times or reading them aloud to see if I can make more sense of them or get a feel for them. Sometimes I put the book away on a to read pile so that I can come back to it later - it might simply be that I am not in the right frame of mind for it - after all we bring all our emotional states and baggage to a reading of any book. There are, of course, books I don't love. These tend to be discarded after reading - these could be mediocre writing, but they can also be books that I am simply not ready for yet. I remember reading a few books when I did my degree and hating them - Ted Hughes Crow was one of them - I loathed it - I found the language ugly and heavy and too masculine. However a couple of years later I suddenly had a hankering to read it and this time I loved it - it was all those things of course but now I "got it." I think I simply wasn't ready for it yet the first time I was introduced to it. I think of it as a kind of reading evolution. It's like studying art - most people don't love abstract without first gaining an appreciation of more conventional forms - it's like you work your way up to abstract through studying the history of art so that when you get there you can fully appreciate it. Poetry is the same I think - one starts with the more conventional and works one's way towards an appreciation of the more surreal and experimental.

Friday, 13 January 2017

Writing through the lens of what we know

Do we seek to write the opposite of what we know, or do we often use as our "writing muscle" the tools we were given in our formative years? In Contemporary British Poetry and the City Peter Barry suggests the latter - giving as an example Roy Fisher, who in his later life relocated to the English countryside, yet his poetry remained very much located in the urban environments he knew so well. I think there is some truth in this hypothesis - my own writing, for instance, often resides in a small town - a somewhat claustrophobic urban space that is surrounded on all sides by a brooding army of evergreen trees.

I am currently reading Edgelands by Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts and I find myself wondering if the whole town of my childhood is an edgeland of sorts. It is a kind of odd urban sprawl that rather like an over enthusiastic creeper has attached itself to the the few remaining historic landmarks sending out hundreds of shoots and runners. And yet despite this seeming sprawl of housing estates and industrial estates, the Thetford of my childhood was very much contained - contained by the thick and brooding pine forest planted and managed by The Forestry Commission that surrounded it. This inky perimeter gave the town a hemmed-in claustrophobic feeling.

Before the town was eventually bypassed there was a high metal footbridge that went over the All (the main Norwich to London trunk road). The bridge was built to enable pedestrians to pass safely over the road from the estate where I lived to the housing estate, cemetery and industrial estates on the other side of the road, without risking life and limb. As teenagers my friends and I spent many evenings on top of this bridge; smoking roll-ups and weed, playing guitar and just hanging out. The bridge enabled the casual viewer to observe how truly surrounded by forest the town actually was. We had been told it of course, every year or so someone from The Forestry Commission or the Fire Service would come to our primary school to pummel into our heads, through talks and videos, the dangers of setting deliberate or accidental forest fires. They never mentioned the threat to the town itself directly - it was more by implication, but any potential invader would have stood atop that bridge and seen immediately how vulnerable to fire the town was.

The town itself consisted of six or seven sprawling housing estates (mostly council housing, and largely in the 1960s and 70s filled with London overspill families like mine, who had chosen re-location with a job attached over squalid high rises in London), two rivers, a small but thriving town centre and several large industrial estates full of large and small factories. There was also a big golf course, the Grammar School's massive expanse of playing fields and a large common. It is amongst these landmarks - and the more historic landmarks of the town, that some of my poetry resides. Even if it doesn't always allude to it directly there is often a feeling, a sense of it being there in the background somewhere, this odd juxtaposition between rural and urban that I grew up with. It's like a mood or a coloured lens through which I view the world.

You can read my poem about Thetford Forest on the Oxford Brookes University website here.