Thursday 29 April 2010

Thinking about the Journey and the Physical form of a Poem

I find myself at a point where I am re-examining form. Although I mostly write in free verse I have always had a bit of resistance to writing in unusual forms. I am not necessarily talking about concrete poetry but unusual ways of setting poems out on the page. As a reader I have a slight aversion to poems like this and have sometimes found the practice slightly pretentious - usually when I have a read a poem several times and it is not obvious to me why they have done it. There are however obvious exceptions - Philip Gross springs to mind and also Jen Hadfield and Alice Oswald. These writers use form in unusual ways but it is immediately obvious to me why they have done so. Poems about landscape and water lend themselves well to this kind of treatment because it adds physical movement to the poems.

Being on the Creative Writing MA I am learning a lot and I have found that my writing horizons are rapidly expanding - so this week I find myself confronted with the issue of form in my poems. The new poem that I am most pleased with - Footslog - is very much about movement and the physicality of the landscape. The first draft was a stream of conciousness piece but on further drafts I quickly became aware that it needed breaking up in some way so as not to overload the reader with densely laden imagery. Initially I broke it into eight line stanzas but somehow this didn't seem quite enough. At this point I took the poem to my poetry group who suggested taking all the punctuation out of the poem. Once I had done that I liked the poem better but I still needed to resolve the issue of breaks within the lines where previously I had used commas. My initial solution to this was that I made the spaces between the words bigger at those points but I found that with every draft I wanted to make the gaps even bigger, but, for some reason, I was still resistant to the idea of moving the words down to a separate line.

I began to feel very frustrated although I was really happy with the content and order of the poem and so was slightly trepidatious about taking the poem to my tutorial. While I was waiting outside my tutor's office I started reading The Water Table by Philip Gross, a book that has some similarities to my own work in terms of content, being about the landscape and environment. Gross is a writer who does play around with form and in this book it really works adding a new layer of meaning to writing that is already incredibly strong. So in retrospect, and given all the signals, I should have been less than surprised when my tutor produced a version of my poem in which he had really played around with the form. Immediately I could see that the poem made more sense than in its linear version. It had a tremendous sense of movement and some of the actions had been made more physical by the ways that the words were placed on the page. For instance when I say "to the left" the text was on the left side of the page and when I say "on the right" the text had been moved to the right. In another line I talk about "fire dropping" and the word dropping had been "dropped" down to the next line. My tutor was, however, reluctant to give me a copy as he didn't want me to feel bound to it, and it is after all my poem. I think what I will do though is edit it without looking at his version and then come back and look at his version afterwards.

If you had told me a year ago that in a years time I would be writing poems about the landscape and in unusual forms I would probably have laughed. It just goes to show how given the right conditions as a writer our work can grow and evolve.

Sunday 25 April 2010

Scared of Reading

I am feeling somewhat worried at the moment. On Tuesday evening I give the first of about five readings that I somewhat rashly agreed to do this spring and summer. I know that it is flattering to be asked and I also know from what Don Paterson said at his post graduate question and answer session at UEA earlier this year that if you want to get anywhere in poetry then you need to get known in the poetry world, and the way to do that is to submit work and give readings. I have to confess that I have been somewhat slack about sending in work to journals and competitions over the last few months and I really need to make a concious effort to start doing so again.

But in the meantime - readings. On Tuesday night i am reading three to four poems at the Veto launch at Unit Five in Norwich. It is also a slightly sad occasion because the party is also marking the sad demise of the Creative Writing degree at Norwich University College of the Arts, the course that well and truly set me on my poetry path. Time to stop blogging I guess and go and choose some poems to read...

Friday 23 April 2010

Editing, Squirrelling and the Narrative Voice

Yesterday was all about editing. After having had such a positive (and helpful) tutorial, I knew that I had to knuckle down and get on with the real work of writing - licking those initial ideas into a more coherent shape. I am a terrible procrastinator but I knew that the time had come to get off of Facebook and into Word.

Although initially I often feel a bit precious about the stanza orders of my poems - they do often benefit from a little reordering. This has definitely been the case with my journey poems because they are highly descriptive poems about moving through particular landscapes it was sometimes hard to find the driving image of each poem and I needed this to enable me to make sense of the poems and order them in a logical way. Instead I found that I needed to look at what the poem was implying but not saying directly. It is not that the poems necessarily have any kind of underlying message but more that there is something going on beneath the surface that is alluded to - for instance in the forest poem the narrator passes through an area of the forest where trees are about to be felled - this can be seen as a metaphor for death - this, I realised during the editing process, is the central image of the poem even though it occurs quite near the end.

Other issues that I needed to confront were those of viewpoint and voice. I had written a poem called Squirrelling using the narrative voice of a squirrel, however, after talking to my tutor I realised that there was some confusion for the reader over who was actually speaking in the poem. In some places it seemed like the person speaking was a human and in other places a squirrel and this needed to be resolved. In other poems I needed to think about tense - sometimes changing the narrative voice of a poem from the third person to the first person can give it new life and energy and it can enable the reader to engage with the work more fully.

Here is the (hopefully) finished version of Squirrelling.


Wrinkle of fur on small paws
as you rustle the shiny nuts
into the hole that we have prepared.
Fluff of tail as I ascend the tree.
You dig with picky paws
amidst the dried-up leaves and tree roots,
while I run up frosted trunks
ice-picks on my feet.

For now I am content to watch,
later we will dig a frenzy
at every tree foot
trying hard to find our stash.

Tuesday 20 April 2010

Finding the point and letting go of order

The worries that I had been having about losing the heart of my poems when the more personal element was taken out somehow don't seem to be so important now. After all one of our poetry tutors said a poem is not a story or an atmosphere - it is about making a particular point - and I realise now that my journey poems are making a spiritual point.

When I started writing this series of poems I thought that they were simply poems about walking and connecting with location and nature. But of course in poetry (and life!) nothing is ever as simple as that, and as I discussed the poems with my tutor today I had one of those "Eureka" moments where it suddenly became clear to me that the poems were about far more than simply going for a walk. Footslog (which was previously called Unfurling Spring) is a poem that uses highly descriptive language to chart a physical journey through a real landscape. The poem is about nature but the underlying theme of the poem is how man affects (and is affected by) the landscape.

The poet Charles Wright makes this distinction between nature and landscape:
"Landscape is something you determine and dominate. Nature is something that determines
and dominates you."

(Wright, Charles, Quarter Notes: Improvisations and Interviews, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995)

There is an antithesis within the poem between the happy compromise between man and nature and the more destructive ways that man affects the landscape.

The second poem in the series is about Thetford Forest. The poem describes a physical journey through the forest, beginning amidst densely planted conifers and progressing into lighter natural woodland. It also describes arriving at a place where a lot of the trees are marked with yellow crosses, earmarking them for felling. As well as being about passing from one landscape to another the poem has deeper underlying themes of death and loss: death of the trees - trees being the lungs of the planet and what keeps us alive, loss of forest, loss of history and loss in general.

I had a sudden realisation when the tutor and I were discussing these larger themes that both poems could also be seen as a metaphor for the death of my mother - even though I had no conscious intention of writing about her death when I began them.

A good point that my tutor made today was that I should not get too hung up on keeping the chronological order of events intact - this order after all is only important to me, the writer. The reader won't know what order things were in on a particular walk, and the point is not to recreate the exact journey but to convey the feeling that I got from the walk that was the driving force behind writing the poem. It seems an obvious point but it is all too easy to forget.

Today's poetry tutorial was really helpful, it left me feeling excited and hopeful but it has also left me with a lot of editing to do and a lot to think about.

Saturday 17 April 2010

Losing the "heart" in my poems...

I have been thinking a lot over the past few days about the way in which my writing is changing. It is hard to pinpoint whether it is being on the Creative Writing MA that has brought about the change or whether it is the fact that my mother died earlier this year - or if one event feeds off of the other bringing about a more dramatic change than either factor would necessarily bring about on its own.

What I have noticed of late is that I seem to have finally moved beyond the need to always always be writing intensely personal poems about my dysfunctional family and my childhood. I guess that these are subjects that I will naturally keep coming back to as they are my history, so of course have played a big part in making me who I am as a writer (and a person), but it feels good for my writing to not be so interminably bound up with the past. Maybe my mother's death was the catalyst that I needed to finally be able to let go of any remaining residual anger and bitterness, or maybe I have just written enough about all that stuff for now.

My worry now though is that without this intensely personal element that my writing won't be so strong. When I showed my partner the second draft of my first journey poem his initial comment was "very descriptive". Whilst this was not a criticism I am beginning to worry about whether description is all there is, and if so is this a bad thing? Description does not necessarily engage the reader in the same way as something containing more of an element of human experience. I suppose what I am really getting at is that I have a fear that the "heart" might go out of my poems. There has to be something in a poem that speaks to the reader, that touches them in some way and I am worried that my new journey poems might not do that. I shall be very interested to hear what my tutor has to say on Tuesday.

I have an interesting mix of poems for my submission this semester: a series of poems about sorting out my mother's house after her death, the new journey poems and then there are also some slightly odd poems like the one about chopping off my own head.

Friday 16 April 2010

The Difficulty of Naming Poems

I am finding the issue naming poems really hard to resolve at present. For instance, I am writing a series of poems about mini journeys (walks) and I am unsure how to name them. They are all fairly experimental pieces in that I have really allowed myself to explore my love of putting words together in new and surprising ways - using a lot of compound adjectives. This is a practice that I started in the first year of my degree course at art school, before I had even read other writers who do this (Seamus Heaney for example), but in recent years I had moved away from this practice. I suppose that I wasn't entirely confident that it worked and I didn't want my poems to become tired or repetitive through over use of a particular device.

I guess some people would say that when you have found your true writing voice then the writing will be strong enough to carry these kind of devices and maybe that is true. Certainly in this last semester, I have come back to this practice with a renewed vigour. I am not so afraid of it now as I was. Or maybe it is that as my confidence as a writer grows I become less afraid of being criticised for it. I am still aware, of course, that over-use could make the poems seem ridiculous but I feel like at last my writing is beginning to stride out confidently just like the narrator of my poem. That doesn't mean that I am not open to criticism or changing my work, quite the contrary, I think it just means that I have moved on to a point where I can play with language in a more mature way than I was able to when I wrote those first hesitant compound adjective poems at art school. It feels good, it feels exciting. I am excited, but there is of course an element of fear involved - what if I show this new work to people and they hate it? Well I suppose that is always the risk any artist takes when they venture into new territory.

Anyway, I digress, back to the issue of titles. The first poem that I wrote in the journey series I had originally called Unfurling Spring, but when I workshopped the poem other people felt that the title didn't really fit with the overall feel of the poem. Unfurling suggests something gentle and gradual whereas the poem has a more physical urgent feel, you feel like you are tramping over the earth with the narrator. I played around with the idea of calling the poem Tramping Spring or Tramping but felt that somehow that sounded too cheap. This morning I am wondering whether to simply title the poems for the places where they take place, for example Unfurling Spring would become simply Walberswick or North Norfolk. I am slightly worried though that is just too simple and I am also worried that this type of title might be too leading, especially because the reader might already have a pre-conceived idea of the place in the poem. Maybe, however, that shouldn't matter - perhaps the poem will be able to change their pre-conceived ideas. I don't want it to detract from the poem though, or to make the reader have a pre-conceived idea about the type of person the poet is because of the location of the poem. I think that this is something that I will have to discuss with my tutor in my tutorial on Tuesday and any opinions would be greatly appreciated!

p.s. I strongly tempted to call it Walberswick Footslog.

Thursday 8 April 2010

How Long is a Line of Poetry?

I have recently hit a surprising wall in my writing practice. One of the things I had thought I was good at was knowing where to end lines - one of the comments that I received on the poems that I submitted for my degree was that my line endings were extremely well judged. But of late I just seem to have lost the art of knowing where to end lines. It's like suddenly forgetting how to swim when you at the deep end of the pool. The trouble is that the more I worry about it the worse the problem gets. I don't know what's wrong with me - why have I suddenly become incapable of judging where a line should end? Is it a crisis of confidence? Is it a sign that I should be looking even closer at my writing style?

Part of the problem may be that over the years I have changed the way that I use line endings. When I first started writing poetry my lines tended to be short, more like those of Lorca, but over time and as my own style and voice developed, I began to make my lines longer and longer. I have found that in my more recent writing I am wavering between long lines and short lines, and have lost faith in my ability to use enjambment successfully. Maybe it is time to go back to basics and do some reading about line endings and line length. I guess what might also be helpful would be to go back and look at how I used line length in my older poems and why it was successful.