Sunday 28 February 2010

It's not about the Numbers

In the last week I have been thinking a lot about what the Creative Writing MA actually means to me. I am generally a person who is very hard on myself. I don't like doing badly or being mediocre at anything - and with regards to studying of any kind that equates to less than top marks. I generally drive myself quite hard when I am doing any kind of course and more often than not this shows in the marks that I receive - for instance I got a first for my degree, which, of course I was very pleased with, but I am aware that I would have disappointed to have got anything less than a first. I am finding the MA though, much more difficult and am coming to realize that I may have to settle for lower marks than I am used to.

This is as it should be. An MA is meant to be harder and this is one of the reasons that I chose to do it _ I wanted a challenge. I am also up against stiffer competition so to speak - the standard of writing is very high - this is a good thing and it forces me to raise my own game and work that bit harder. We are also made to look much more critically and rigorously at our work, to unpick it and look harder at what the words are doing, what we are conveying (or trying to convey). We are required to look closer at our writing and re-examine the minute particulars - whether our metaphors are working, whether we are using mixed metaphors and looking in depth at whether our words are really working in the poem, whether they have earned their place. I realized today when I was looking back over the work that I handed in last term that I am really beginning to take this new level of self-critique on board and I found myself looking at the poems with much more critical eyes and picking out the places where they are not quite working.

I wish though, that the first set of marks didn't count towards the final marks of the MA. I feel like I have learnt so much in such a small space of time, and looking at my poetry and my essay from last term I feel like I could have done so much better. Of course this is all part of the great learning curve and there are one or two poems from last term that I am still happy with and I had some very positive feedback from my tutors. I felt towards the end of that first term that I was just beginning to break out of my self-imposed containment field and was beginning to write in a freer and more expansive way and I am hoping that this will continue for the foreseeable future. I guess the main problem for me is getting past the problem of whether or not I will get top marks. I need to focus on the fact that I am doing a course I love and that I am learning so much and so quickly - I only wish that the MA lasted two years instead of one!

Wednesday 24 February 2010

The Poet's Portable Workshop

Yesterday I was looking for a book in the university library and I found a section of books about creativity - in particular writing poetry. I ended up going home without the book that I had originally been looking for but with a stack of other books instead, the idea being that they might help jump start my creativity and help with my writing practice.

I started reading the first of these books last night. It is really interesting, it is called In the Palm of Your Hand - The Poet's Portable Workshop and it is by Steve Kowit, who is an author I have never heard of. Some of what I have read so far is fairly basic stuff - stuff about point of view, showing not telling etc. But I think it is good to be reminded of these things from time to time and have examples where what he is talking about is working well. later on in the book there are writing exercises as well and I am looking forward to doing those. One of the things that our lecturer this term has done is given us the occasional writing exercise to kick start our brains and I love them. I nearly always get some kind of usable idea out of writing exercises. One of the poems that I am working on at the moment is a poem called Swimming Lesson and it came out of a writing exercise I did with the Access to Writing group at City College.

Monday 15 February 2010

Line Endings and the Dance

It seems as if this term all the conceptions and ideas that I had of how to make a poem good are being turned on their head. For instance I had come to understand that you should try not to end a line on a weak word (for example and, in, the etc.) but then last week our lecturer said in the poetry workshop that it CAN be OK to end on a weak word as long as the word that follows it on the next line is a strong one. To give an example we were looking at a poem about the countryside and the poet had ended some lines with words like 'as' and 'in' - but this was OK because the following words were 'owls' and 'time' which are strong words. It made me stop and think again about my own writing style - it seems that as soon as I begin to think that I might be beginning to know what I am doing everything changes and I am forced to re-examine the way I do things and why I do them.

I am still not writing as much as I would like but at least I am writing a little bit - although some of it is coming directly out of the things that are happening in my personal life, which is only to be expected I suppose but it means I don't necessarily want to share it with the world just yet (if ever).

I am enjoying the poetry workshops immensely though (and not just because they are a distraction from everything else that is going on). Last week the lecturer said two things in particular that have stayed with me: the first was that as poets (or indeed writers) we should write about "things that come to us and haunt us indirectly," and the other was that "a good poem can be reduced to the steps of a dance." I really liked these two ideas - the first because it seemed so lovely and I think that she is right and that by and large those are the things that I try and write about. When I try and write about other things (things that I think that I "ought" to be writing about perhaps) my writing is nowhere near so successful and feels false and laboured. The second idea I just love because it is such a good analogy.

Sunday 14 February 2010

Evolution and Risk Taking in Poetry

It is odd how quickly one's writing can evolve. I have just re-read my post from Thursday and realised that I have already completely edited the last line of that stanza out. I took a risk when deciding what poems to send round for this week's MA poetry workshop and decided to send two that had come from what has been happening to me recently (i.e. my mother's death and all the stuff that goes with it) and the narrative poem which I mentioned in my last post. Sending the poem Fire felt like the biggest risk because as I said before I have written it in a form that I am not entirely comfortable with. However rather than leaving it on the laptop for posterity I decided to take a risk and show it to the class. That way either my fears will be vindicated and they will tell me that it's a load of s*** or there might be something I can salvage from it. In fact they might give me some clue as to how I can use the narrative form in a more successful way. That is what we are on the MA for: to take risks in a safe and supportive environment, which, hopefully, will allow our writing to grow and develop.

(original artwork by pupski)

Thursday 11 February 2010

Back to the Source

The advice of my poetry lecturer this term has been to go back to the place where a poem comes from and see what else you find.

Wise words but not as easy as one might think. I think that largely I have avoided doing this in my writing practice. I tend to write something and then go back and edit it several times, shaping it what I hope is a finely honed poem.

But is rare that I actually add much more to the original words. This is partly through fear of spoiling it and partly through a kind of preciousness about what I have written and I realise now that this is both short-sighted and a little arrogant. I am not doing my work any favours and if I want to take that leap sideways which George Szirtes spoke of last term I need to be able to go back and re access the source of my ideas.

I tried this earlier this week in a poem I was writing about a house fire. I am not happy with the poem itself because I feel it is too much of a narrative and I shy away from writing that kind of poem generally, mainly because the long narrative poem is not a form that I excel at. But hey I am on a poetry MA and it is a good time to be trying my hand at taking risks and writing different styles and on different subjects - trying not to just write in the usual ways about the usual subjects. Anyway to get back to the point I wrote quite a bit of the poem in a a kind of free writing exercise kind of way and then instead of coming back to it later and simply typing it up and trying to lick it into shape I actually went back into the subject and wrote a whole lot more. I was surprised at how much more was there - it is just a shame that I don't like the poem.

here is a short extract:

I hear the throaty rumble of fire engines along the track,
the shouts of men in braces and helmets as they haul the heavy body
of the hose across the field to the river below the wood.
And now the house begins to creak and groan
like a ship straining at its moorings in a violent storm,
its sad mouth collapses in on itself
while its prematurely clouded eyes cry tears of river water.