Monday 14 November 2011

following your dream

I have been a bit slack on the blogging front recently. Sometimes life just gets in the way and what little creative time I have I try and dedicate to poetry and editing.  Last week I decided to allow myself a day that I devoted mostly to reading. This seemed like a decadent and indulgent thing to do and my reaction to allowing myself to do it led me to look more closely at why I felt that way.  I suspect it has a lot to do with the attitudes of the people who surrounded me in my younger life. Although my mother was an avid reader (and it was definitely my mother that instilled in me my love of books), many other people in my younger life viewed reading as an indulgence and a waste of time. My first serious partner for example (who was dyslexic) often used to ask me why I was reading - his attitude was that I could make far better use of my time by doing something more practical.

It may be that these attitudes were the thing that held me back from studying for so long, and even when I did come to study I felt that I had to study something practical.  It was only relatively recently that I allowed myself to study something that was important to me and I did a creative writing degree and later an MA.  My only regret is that I did not pursue my dream earlier. If I had to give advice to my younger self it would be - don't listen to all those doubting voices, follow your dream!

Thursday 22 September 2011

How to order a collection

So I have finally come back to thinking about putting a collection of poems - or at least a pamphlet sized collection - that I can send off to publishers. There are several reasons why I have been putting it off and these include lack of time and fear of rejection.  Still the time has come and today I began thinking about how I would ever put the poems I have into some kind of order. This led me to thinking about what the overriding themes are within my work and I narrowed it down to: childhood/family, loss/alienation and other poems - it is these other poems that are the most problematical to place. Some of them are about place e.g. rivers, forests, journeys) but others are more abstract and harder to define.  It is hard to know how to put this body of work together in any kind of comprehensible order.  I have thought of moving through the work as if it is a life cycle starting with poems about childhood moving through to adulthood but that leaves me wondering how to place the poems about nature and other subjects. It also made me wonder do I mix my prose poems which are about a fictional family amongst more personal poems about childhood? These are difficult questions and as yet I have come up with no definite answers.

Friday 2 September 2011

Writing Away

So there is something about being away from home that makes me write. I think it is to do with beinng away from the day to day pressure of trying to earn a living etc. But it is more than that too - sometimes all I have to do is simply get on a train and I get the urge to start writing - maybe it's to do with being in a space where I can't do anything else for a while. Being on holiday also puts me in that space and couple that with reading some inspirational poetry ("Infinite Differences: Other Poetries by UK Women Poets" edited by Carrie Etter) and I am well away. I just hope that when I come to typing up and editingv that there is some reasonable poetry...

Tuesday 2 August 2011

Arvon Courses and writing exercises

Last week I was lucky enough to go on an Arvon course at Lumb Bank with tutors Philip Gross and Colette Bryce. The place is stunningly beautiful and we were lucky enough to have glorious sunshine every day. Philip and Colette are both excellent writers an d as you might expect the course was varied and inspiring. By the end of the week I felt like I had really clicked into full on writing mode. My only regret is that the course was not longer - I think I needed a couple of days at the end just to solidly write and edit. It is so easy to lose momentum once back in the world of the everyday and the internet. I have only been home a day or so and already I can feel my writing mind receding somewhat. I can really appreciate the benefits now of writing retreats and might endeavour to save up for one. Just a few days where I can solidly work on my collection without any distractions.

On the plus side I have two completed poems and the beginnings of several others - well more than beginnings but they still need some major editing.  One of them was written mostly in a workshop at Lumb Bank. It is amazing how sometime doing a set exercise can inspire you to write something you wouldn't have written otherwise and on a subject you might not have necessarily chosen for yourself. For the exercise we were all given three slips of paper and told to write a word on each. The slips were then arranged on a table in the next room and we walked round the table and chose a word which we then went away and wrote about. The word I chose was water.

I think one of the other reasons the course was so inspiring was the high calibre of the other poets - I think that we were exceptionally luck that we had a wide age range and some really talented writers. It was similar to when I was doing my MA in that when you are with talented and inspiring writers it makes you step up your game and work that bit harder.

Tuesday 19 July 2011


That day my heart was a Hollyhock:
a deep flash of red
blooming on a pale stem.

Monday 18 July 2011

Narrative Sequence

I am thinking about the narrative sequence, which seems a little ridiculous given that I am hardly writing any poems at the moment. But I am looking at them in preparation for the Arvon course I am going on next week. I don't think that there is much of a narrative sequence in my own poems - except for the prose poems, which definitely do go together - although at the moment I would say that they are a collection of poems about the same family rather than a sequence with any kind of logical order.

One of the recommended texts for the course is "Wild Iris" by Louise Gluck which, I am re-reading at the moment. I am not sure that I like the collection as much as some of her other work and it is hard to pin-point why exactly. I think it is maybe that her themes for the collection (apart from flowers) are the biggies - life, death, god etc, and although I know that most poetry (my own included) does cover these topics in some way, books that set out to look at them from the start often feel like hard work to read. Maybe I just like my poetry a bit closer to something real - as I said I don't know what it is I don't quite like about them.

I am wishing that I had a more portable copy of "Deepstep Come Shining" by C.D. Wright that I could take with me. Deepstep is one of my favourite narrative sequences (along with "Dart" by Alice Oswald) - what I like about both those books is the freshness of voice and the way the bigger subjects are in there along side very ordinary mundane day to day stuff. Both sequences also have strong voices, which is maybe something that I feel is lacking in "The Wild Iris".

It will be interesting to see how the tutors get us to look at sequences in regard to our own work. I haven't avoided writing one but just have not felt compelled to write for long periods on one subject. I suppose the closest I came was all the childhood poems that I wrote when I was doing my degree at the Art School.

Wednesday 6 July 2011

Writer's Block

I am having a bit of a writing block at the moment, which could be in part due to my operation but not really sure if that is the only reason.  Whatever the reason I need to get back on track with my writing and just at the moment I am not sure how to do it.  Perhaps it is time to do some creative writing exercises...

Saturday 4 June 2011

The trouble with writing...

I have slacked off with my blog recently - not because I am lazy, but because I have been busy and I have been putting my writing energy into writing and editing poems as well as trying to send stuff out to journals etc.  My Easter resolution was to be much more pro-active about submitting work and so far this seems to be paying off as I have already had two poems accepted.

Yesterday I printed a bunch of poems out to see if I had enough to put together a pamphlet sized collection. I find it really hard to know what to leave out and what to include - there is very little that I like of what I wrote at the art school and even of my MA work there are are only a few that I am really happy with.  I wonder if I am too critical - the trouble with creative work is that generally as you evolve you go off your earlier work. I felt the same about my art work too and in fact I recently had a purge where I threw a lot of my old work away. I don't necessarily want to do that with my poems though, I suspect some of my earlier ones can be made better and maybe I will spend a bit of time trawling through them finding the ones that are worth saving.

Tuesday 26 April 2011

Syllables and Endings

I have been reading The Triggering Town - Lectures and Essays on Poetry and Writing by Richard Hugo. I remember taking this book out of the library a couple of years ago when I was doing my Creative Writing degree but I can only assume that I never got around to reading it because I have no memory of the content - and I have had no feelings of deja-vu as I am reading.  If you haven't read it I would recommend it. I have certainly been enjoying it and will probably go back and re-read some bits at a later date.

One of the bits I found really interesting was about the use of single-syllable and multi-syllabic words in poetry.  I can't say that this is a topic that I have really thought about in great depth before. Hugo argues that multi-syllabic words have "a way of softening the impact of language" (p8) whereas single-syllable words get right to the point - they show toughness, rigidity, the warts and all world.  With this in mind I re-looked at again at a poem I have been working on - it is about dead things and starts off alluding to dead rabbits hanging on a market stall when I was a child - sure enough the first stanza which is all about memory is full of multi-syllabic words (remind, childhood, rabbits, muzzles, marbles etc), whereas the last line is almost entirely made up of single syllable words.  Obviously I am making this distinction unconsciously whilst I am writing. Maybe it is some kind of unspoken rule about the way we use language that is so ingrained in us that we do it without even realising. I am planning to look at some more poems tomorrow and see if the same rule has been applied. I suppose it could also help with those tricky endings - you know when that last line just isn't working and you just can't figure out why. I'm not keen on hard and fast rules about writing though so I think I will play it by ear!

Wednesday 13 April 2011

The Ethics of Poetry

I am finding the latest book I have been given to review a challenging read. There seems to me to be a question of ethics. A few years ago when I was doing my creative writing degree someone posted a poem on the University Bulletin board about "chavs" - I can't remember much about it now except that it was quite derogatory. What I do remember though is the massive debate that ensued about the ethics of writing and posting such a poem, the uncomfortableness of humour at someone else's expense (something that is more acceptable in stand-up comedy but less so on the page), the judgement that is both made and invited when one produces such a poem. The general consensus seemed to be that it was not acceptable.

Therein lies the problem with the collection I am reading at the moment. The poet has written a series of poems about the seamier side of society but the very writing (and reading) of them feels like a judgement has either been made or is being invited. It is an uncomfortable feeling - maybe I would have feel comfortable if the poet was writing them in persona but they are observations. I would like to know how other people feel about this.

Wednesday 23 March 2011

How to read out loud

Someone who is not really into poetry said to me at the weekend that he "got" my poems better when he heard me read them out loud. To begin with I was perturbed by this but then I realised that a most of my best work is MEANT to be read aloud. This doesn't work so well for the series of prose poems that I have been writing though, I just don't seem to know how to read them out. Tonight I am thinking that I might have to lay them out on the page differently for reading out - maybe breaking the text up. I am reluctant to do this though - they are written as prose poems surely they should be read out as such? - if I need to divide them up to read them better then surely that should be how I present them too? It's a dilemma.

And talking of reading aloud I saw Alice Oswald read at UEA a couple of weeks ago and she was awesome.  The best reader I have seen since I saw Robin Robertson last year.  I love her work anyway but she was a mesmerising reader, absolutely spell-binding.

Tuesday 8 March 2011

Whether to Read Out Loud

Over the last year or so I have been writing a series of prose poems that are written in the specific voice of a youngish girl. I like the poems but I am feeling unsure how well they will work when read aloud (especially in my adult voice). My question is are there times when poems work better on the page than read aloud or do I just need to bite the bullet and have a go at reading them?  I like to think that most good poetry works well read out loud and that in fact poetry SHOULD be read out loud wherever possible. I am not sure why am feeling so uncertain about this particular sequence, especially because I think the work itself is quite strong.  I guess you know where you are with more regular poem shapes - you have the line breaks that give you indicators of where to pause when reading. In theory the punctuation should serve the same purpose in a prose poem, however the nature of the poems is that they are written in a stream of conciousness style, which is easier to cope with on the page than read out loud.

Sunday 6 March 2011

Things that stop you writing

Writing and editing are slow at the moment. I have lots of good excuses for this - I am too busy, my work space has been suffering a plague of noise from the builders across the road, I am lacking in inspiration, worry about money, trying to find work, needing to go on a trip etc. The truth is that they are all true and none of them are. I am indeed suffering from being busy and lack of inspiration - but what exactly is it that makes us write? And what is it that at other times brings the creative process to a grinding halt. It is all to easy to blame outside factors but as any good Zen master would tell you peace and creativity come from within. When I am stressing about money, work or noise it is because I am choosing to hear those niggly worrying voices inside me over the calmer more creative ones. This is probably why many people take up meditation (and I have lots of good reasons for not doing that either!) it can put you in touch with that calmer part of your psyche.

I am feeling like I need to make a real effort to claim back my creative life from all the other things that I am allowing to encroach on it. Wish me luck...

Sunday 30 January 2011

Motivation and self-imposed deadlines

I was talking to a writer friend earlier in the week about how one can keep oneself motivated post MA. I am finding that my writing, but more especially my editing, has become sporadic now that I don't have deadlines to write for. I guess that one answer would be to set my own deadlines, but I know from experience that I don't adhere to my own deadlines in the same way - I thrive under that outside pressure, it gives me that extra push to work on my poems that bit harder.  I am also quite slack about submitting work to journals and competitions  - yet I know that this is the way to get your work known, it doesn't make sense. Last year I used the excuse of not having enough money as I was a student - yet I am still hardly submitting, I need to sort it out. My friend said that he is the same, he will have a flurry of sending stuff off and then not send any for a while - he thought maybe it was to do with rejection, and he could be right. Rejection is something that as emerging writers we have to learn to live with but it can be hard sometimes.

On a more positive note I have had had two websites ask if they can use my poems this week. I was flattered and although they weren't offering money I said yes. It is just good to get the work out there. As sci-fi writer Cory Doctorow says "an artist's enemy is obscurity..."

Wednesday 26 January 2011

The making of good prose

I have been reading quite a few novels recently and have found myself wondering - do poets make better prose writers?  I can't help but read prose with a poet's eye for detail and because of this I am keenly aware of mistakes, mixed metaphors and unintentional repetitions - things that you would never get away with in (good) poetry. It seems that one can be more sloppy in prose writing.

I am currently reading "Double Vision" by Pat Barker. It is not a bad book although I would not call it literary, the story is compelling but I feel that it could have been better edited.  There are repetitions of description  - for example she uses the metaphor of fire to describe the way light falls on snow or ice, the first time it was fresh and original but she uses it three times in as many pages.  There are also other annoying little niggles - most of the time the characters either drink coffee or whiskey whatever the time of night or day - this seemed unrealistic to me, not many people roused in the night by nightmares would choose coffee as their drink of choice.

This may be nitpicking and it could be that being so successful means that Barker is less rigorously edited by other people - a criticism which is often levelled at J.K. Rowling. But it made me think about the books I come back to again and again because not only are they good stories but they are well written, and I realised that most of the authors I love are also poets (Louise Erdrich, Anne Michaels, Paul Auster, Mervyn Peake). As a poet the economy of words used means that you have to be more rigorous with your editing - there is no choice, so it follows that this would also apply to your prose writing. However I also find that fiction writers who are also poets use language in fresh and original ways. That's not to say that there aren't fresh and original prose writers because of course there are.

This led me to look at what I as a reader want from a book. What makes a book great for me is if I am moved by both the story and the writing. With Pat Barker's book the story is moving but the writing itself is not. Maybe I am greedy but I want both, I want the prose to have that indefinable quality that makes it memorable and makes me want to read it again.