Friday, 16 November 2018

Running with it - back to writing (again)

After a few weeks of barely writing (post hand in slump!) I have been on a writing binge. Partly fuelled by the workshops and readings I went to at Aldeburgh Poetry Festival and partly fuelled by a shift in my poetry thinking - something too hard to quantify exactly, but nevertheless I know it has happened. It's true I have been reading a lot and that definitely helps, and not just poetry books, but books concerned with writing - I found Mark Doty's "The Art of Description" particularly inspiring and really readable. Through looking closely at some well known (and not so well known) poems Doty focusses in on the essence of what makes good poems good.

Which brings me to this week when I was lucky enough to attend not one but two really inspiring poetry events. the first was Jacob Polley performing his show "Lamanby" at the National Centre for Writing in Norwich. "Lamanby" is a show featuring poems from Polley's award winning collection Jackself with video, sounds and music and atmospheric lighting, the Medieval Dragon Hall was the perfect setting for it. Polley is a superb performer and I am still thinking about the show almost a week later and have started re-reading the book - which, has, in turn, fed into my writing. The second inspiring performance I attended this week was Jill Abram's Stablemates in London featuring Mark Doty, Andrew McMillan and Fiona Benson. I don't very often book up for events in London as it is such a pain to get there, but Mark Doty rarely comes to Britain so it was too good an opportunity to pass up. I was certainly not disappointed - what an evening. Benson read from her forthcoming collection - the poems were mostly concerned with rape - to be honest I found them quite harrowing and was glad that she went first, though I think the book will be really good. Andrew McMillan is always a joy to hear read and did not disappoint. He read from "Playtime". Mark Doty was amazing - he read a bunch of new poems of his laptop. He was erudite and engaging and I went home with my poetry well brimming over and very pleased I had gone.

I started my latest writing binge in Aldeburgh. I began writing almost the minute I got there - it was like I had been given permission to put on my writing head - and I haven't really stopped since. I have begun several things that might become sequences of sorts. One thing came out of an exercise that I set my Friday class. We had been talking about sequences and what kinds  of topics might be good to write sequences about. We had brainstormed a list and I suggested writing about the thing on your list that you were least attracted to writing about. My subject was writing. I never usually write poems about writing - it's just not my thing - so that was the topic I felt I had to choose. I had bought in some books of sequences - one of which was "Cooling Time: An American Poetry Vigil" by C.D. Wright. The book is an exploration of writing, part essay, part poetry, part memoir. I picked it up and started flicking through it for inspiration and some phrases in pages I had previously bookmarked leaped out at me. This is how my sequence started - it is part comment on writing process, part fictional narrative and is interspersed with quotes by C.D. Wright. I am interested in juxtaposing the different elements against each other - I am not sure if it works but I found it exciting to write and edit. here is a short extract:

"The bishop had stopped paying attention and was dipping his biscuit into his lukewarm tea.

The poems were roaring along the road outside the overlarge window, they had the shapes of busses and lorries, cars even – but I wasn’t fooled.

‘Some of us do not read or write particularly for pleasure or instruction, but to be changed, healed, changed.’ (C.D. Wright)

When I returned from the bathroom the bishop was scrutinizing my notebook.

Your trouble, he said, is the undercurrents, everything beneath your surface is oily dark."

Thursday, 13 September 2018

Ye Gods

It is September. I am doing the September write a poem a day challenge. I am doing it because since I went to Rugby to meet with my editor and we licked my collection into a final order I have not been writing much, and I miss it. I need to get back to it.

After the initial excitement of finalising when the book is coming out (May since you ask), and the tweaking of the poems - I went into a kind of limbo. I wasn't too worried, I recognise the pattern. At university we called it the post hand in slump. However much you think it won't happen, it does. I see my son go through it every time he comes back from being on tour with his band, and every time they finish an album. I have seen my friends go through it too once they have sent collections off to their publishers.

The second stage after finalising a collection (and I recognise this from last time too) is the oh my god what have I done phase. The phase where you become convinced that your book will upset and offend everyone on the planet. The phase where you start to doubt yourself and your choices - where it is tempting to fiddle and tweak - and mostly at this stage it is best to sit on your hands and not do that (beyond the odd comma) because the book has been accepted and edited after all. It's also best not to burn the manuscript, blow up the computer, or run screaming into the distance - all of which become hugely tempting at this point in the process. It's funny I had been thinking about this when I was walking into the city today and my friend Rose who is preparing for her first art show posted about it on Facebook. She described it as the urge to throw herself out of a window. Yes I get that - I really do. I am hoping writing a poem a day - even if it's just five minutes of writing (which mostly it is). I am on day 13 and so far I have written one thing I like - onwards and upwards.

Monday, 21 May 2018

Collection Update

Over a month since I last blogged and a lot has happened.

Firstly I went away to a little chalet on the Norfolk coast that has no internet and spent several days finally getting the new collection in an order that I was relatively happy with. There is a kind of magic that happens when I am away from home alone, and that coupled with the fact that I was mid way through NaPoWriMo meant that as well as working on the collection order I also wrote a whole new sequence of poems. The new sequence is very different so it won't go in the collection I am currently working on - it may be a pamphlet in its own right, or it may turn out to be the beginnings of another collection - only time will tell. I am quite excited about it though.

I did finish the ordering and then last week I went to Rugby to meet with Jane at Nine Arches HQ. I have to admit I was more than a little nervous in case she didn't like it. Luckily she did! We spent a very intense and productive day going through the collection poem by poem - the upshot was that the order is now pretty fixed. We took thirteen poems out and I need to find or write something to bring together the final section. I am very happy with it. There is still a bit of work to do - but it doesn't feel insurmountable. We settled on "Threat" as the title - which was the title I have liked all along - but we took the poem of the same title out as it is not strong enough to bear the weight of being the title poem. Publication date has been set as end of January 2019. Very exciting.

Monday, 2 April 2018

collection as an entity in its own right - making sense of chaos

The second day of NaPoWriMo (National Poetry Writing Month) and today marks a long awaited return to thinking about my collection. At the beginning of March I went to see my mentor (Pascale Petit) in Cornwall and I have avoided looking at it since. I had thought it was finished and I had shown it to a friend who also thought it was finished. Pascale, however, didn't agree. She felt that the title was misleading and that I needed to rethink the sections and put a different poem as the opener. She was right of course, it is just uncomfortable to hear and involves a major rethink of order. Since I saw her I have been engaged in a period of busyness, creative procrastination and avoidance, but of course while all that is going on the subconscious mind is worrying away at the problem.

Today I started really thinking about the order in earnest. Pascale was definitely right about the poem she suggested as the opener. I realised that I have  been resistant to putting it first because it feels more scary, as of course it sets the whole tone for the book. Aside from that I am still nowhere near knowing how to reorder the poems. This morning I spent some time looking at some of my favourite collections (All My Mad Mothers, What the Living Do, Falling Awake and Say Something Back) to see how they are ordered. I also re-read Ordering the Storm: How to Put Together a Book of Poems, which is a book I read when I was working on my first collection. One of the things I realised from reading it again is that maybe I have been too obvious in clumping themed poems together - for example family poems, relationship poems, home town poems etc. I may need to be more fluid in my connections and find other ways that the poems speak to one another. Originally the book was divided into five sections, the titles of which were: Honey Don't Blow Up the Kids; Heart is where the Home Is; Tell Me More Lies About Love; Family and Other Distractions; and Evidence of Body. I may keep a couple of these in some form but I am not sure yet.

To help me think about order I started thinking about what the themes are in a less overt way. This is what I have come up with so far:

body as an entity in its own right

body as a house for the soul or spirit

body as commodity (that which we have become)

grief vs guilt

making sense of the past

making sense of emotion

the physical weight of the past

class and the struggle to know where/how/if one fits in

the family as guardian and destroyer

self vs identity

the curse/blessing of femininity (woman and her relationship to the world)

hometown (where do we come from/where do we really belong?)

Of course some of these overlap one another, but I am hoping it will help me think about how the poems hang together. I have also started writing more bits that may help tie it all together. I had also been waiting to see if a sequence I started in Devon was good enough to go into the collection - it's always wise to get a bit of distance between writing something and deciding if it actually has legs. It is too easy to get overexcited about something fresh and think it is the best thing you have written. I think this sequence is good enough though and including it will change the shape of the whole, which is probably a good thing. The hardest thing will be saying goodbye to a few poems that I am fond of and that have already been published. Never easy but it will make for a better MS in the long run.

My plan now is to work some more on order and fitting the new poems in and then make a date to meet up with Jane at Nine Arches Press, who has brilliant editorial eye.

Read about ordering my first collection here

Sunday, 11 March 2018

Mother's Day Poem - Knitting

My mother is knitting a womb,
soft click of needles in the semi-darkness,
pictures from the turned down TV
reflected in the half-moons of her glasses,

she watches a mime of cowboys
slinging guns in a dusty street,
a stampede of shooting and horses;
all that death.

My mother is knitting a womb,
out of wool the colour of wine or blood,
her glass of wine on the low coffee table,
a man falls down dead in the dust.

My mother smiles,
she hears me in the doorway,
come in dear she says don’t just stand there,
I sit down next to her in the semi-darkness,

sinking into the cushions of the old red sofa,
she pours me a glass of wine,
a man falls off a roof,
a horse rolls in the dust.

Julia Webb

Sunday, 11 February 2018

New Directions and Big Decisions

This collection that I am working on is becoming increasingly problematic - not so much because of its themes or even the ordering of the poems - but because it is simply too big - and to make matters worse I can't stop writing. I have culled it by about half already and it is still at 90 plus A4 pages. I know I shouldn't moan - most people I have spoken to have pointed out that this is surely a good problem to have, and in some ways they are right. I am beginning to wonder whether I should pull one of the threads out (hoping, of course, that the whole thing doesn't unravel like an old jumper) and make it the back bone of another book.

To do that feels rather scary. For one thing most writers want to put their best stuff in their collections - why wouldn't you? For another thing there is no guarantee that I will even have a third collection published. I am lucky to have a second - and if the second is not well received I may not get another chance. The things I am writing now feel risky, and at the same time I am finding it incredibly exciting. Things that I am doing with my Arts Council funding (like the research trip to London) seem to be really bearing fruit and taking my ideas in new directions. The new stuff feels more rooted in the physical and less in the landscape of personal history - this in itself I find intriguing as I went to London to look more at my 'personal history' and while I did do that I found myself more moved by the physicality of the places I visited than any past connections. I would like to spend more time visiting there to see what more will come.

Saturday, 27 January 2018

A few thoughts about the use of language in poems

Language is glorious isn't it? For the last few months I have been fascinated by colloquialisms - those cliched sayings (often metaphors) that people use all the time in everyday speech. This morning, for example, I am obsessed with the phrase "the whole kit and caboodle." Looking it up on the internet I can find several different definitions and roots it stems from - but actually that's not what interests me about it. What I love is the sound of it. The shapes it forces the mouth into when you say it out loud. The images it conjures when you put it into the mouth of someone in a story or a poem. You can instantly imagine the type of person who might say it. In the poems I have been working on for my new collection I have slipped in a few of these kind of phrases. Yes they ARE cliched, but they are also the language of everyday speech and using the language of the everyday can make poetry more accessible. I think one can occasionally get away with using a cliched phrase when it is done deliberately and for a good reason. When you can't get away with it is when it is simply down to lazy writing - the phrase is used because it was the first that came to hand, or worse still - you hadn't noticed it's a cliche. Well I think I have got away with it. I guess time will tell.

Another thing I like to do is make up words or run words together (I got my class to write poems where they joined two words together and now a couple of my students are obsessed with it). I did an exercise from Helena Nelson's How (Not) to Get Your Poetry Published which asked me to make up a word and use it in a poem. Making up a word is surprisingly difficult but it is fun to try. In the end I made up several words and used them all in one poem. For me it helped that I had an idea of the poem I wanted to write using the word and I wanted the word to sound wistful. You can read my poem here on Amaryllis. I think I can get away with it because it is one poem - although if I did it too often it could feel tired or gimmicky. For me the excitement of writing poetry is being able to constantly reinvent style and try out new things. I am influenced by what I am reading of course (both prose and poetry) but also by what's going on around me and by the world in general. I was reading a poem by Lynn Emanuel this morning (from her collection Then Suddenly) where she compares prose to poetry and she pretty much summed up how I feel about it (and why I have never finished my bits of novels). In poetry you don't need all the detail - the reader does a lot more of the work of getting from a to b themselves. "So please, don't ask me for a little trail of bread crumbs to get from the smile to the bedroom, and from the bedroom to the death at the end, although you can ask me a lot about death. That's all I like, the very beginning and the very end. I haven't got the stomach for the rest of it." (Lynn Emanuel 'The Politics of Narrative')