Sunday, 17 December 2017

Arvon and a tentative return to form

It has been a busy couple of months since I last blogged. In November I went on an Arvon course at Lumb Bank. The course was called The Difficult Second Album and was aimed specifically at poets writing a second collection. I had been looking longingly at it in the brochure on and off all year, knowing that there was no way that I could afford it. However in September I decided that I would ask them for a grant - assuming they would say no - they said yes, and then I got my Arts Council grant and that paid for the other bit and the train tickets.

On arrival I was initially disappointed to find that Helen Mort was too sick to come and that Bill (Herbert) would instead be running the course with Tara Bergin who had originally been the planned mid week reader. Tara stepped in as tutor and Kim Moore took her place as midweek reader.

On the first evening we were asked a series of questions about our own writing practice (things we were happy or unhappy with, things we might want to change) and about the collection we are working on, these were questions to take away and think about during the week. This was extremely useful. I found that during the course of the week some things had begun to shift in the way I was viewing my collection and how the poems were working together as a whole.

In the morning workshops the tutors gave us lots of exercises that were designed to take us out of our comfort zones and our usual go-to ways of writing. All the exercises were fun but some were quite challenging. I found that even if I didn’t produce anything immediately usable I was almost always left with the beginnings of something to work on later. These exercises gave me some new approaches to my subject matter that I will definitely take forward and use in my collection. I produced several poems during the week that once edited might well go in the collection too.

The tutorials that I had with Tara and Bill were immensely helpful. Bill provided interesting ideas on ordering of lines and stanzas within individual poems. We also had a really interesting discussion on how the poems (and the voices of the poems) were fitting/working together in the collection as a whole – ordering the collection is something that I have been struggling with so this was really helpful. I have come away with new ideas on how to approach this – for example I am now planning to break up a sequence of poems that had previously been clumped together and use parts of it between the other poems in the book to tie them together thematically. Tara gave me some really useful ways of thinking about and owning difficult subject matter and on how to tap the power of particular poems. She also gave me a very helpful suggestion about retitling a poem to make it more alarming and powerful.

The group was lovely and right from the beginning it felt like a very supportive and creative atmosphere to be in. I came away from the week invigorated and inspired - and sad to leave the hills and my new poetry family behind.

Of course once back in everyday life it is hard to keep up the momentum. I have managed little bits of writing though, and this week I found myself writing a specular. The specular is not a form I had been particularly drawn to before, although I had written one - or rather made one (from bits of John Berryman's letters to his mother) during my week at Lumb Bank. I have been using a lot of repetition of words, phrases and lines in my recent poems - although not using strict forms. I have been using some rhyme as well, which is something I am not usually a fan of. It is interesting to me that I am being drawn to rhyme and repetition. I have often felt a real resistance to writing in form in the past. I like the way a specular can change the meaning of what has previously been said and bring new insights into the subject of the poem. I am now beginning to wonder if I will end up having anything like a sestina or villanelle in the collection - some of the repetitive poems almost feel like they could be in one of these forms - however where the subject matter is very chaotic it felt more natural that they were almost in form but not quite, so that the poem becomes as dysfunctional as its subject matter.



Tim Love said...

Some of my irrational objections to repetition are that it's used by tricksters - salesmen/preachers/politicians/chanters, and that it's an easy way to continue a poem if you've run out of ideas - repeat and fade.

The term "Form" can be used very loosely (e.g. "I'm using the thriller form", or "This is in the N+7 form"). Even sonnets, villanelles and sestinas come in many varieties nowadays, some almost unrecognisable. I've written about relaxed forms at - are relaxed acrostics as acceptable as relaxed sestinas?
I often wonder what Form is for. It can be a writing-aid, a prompt - the form conveying little meaning to the reader though useful to the poet as scaffolding. Using form mimetically (using a neat form to express neat thoughts - or using a tight form to "restrain" strong or chaotic emotion) can end up looking trite rather than organic. However, judging by the poetry collections I've recently read, it seems fashionable to thrown in a few formal poems, so you are trending in the right direction.

Julia said...

Hmm. I would not put in a poem in a strict form just for the sake of it. My relation to form has often been one of resistance - probably because I have always been a bit of a rebel, and generally the poetry I like to read is free verse. However, occasionally I find that a form suggests itself while I am writing - it is certainly not that I set out thinking I want to write a [insert whatever form here] but rather that a form either lends itself to the subject matter or would enhance the content of the poem to make it more interesting or powerful. That said I currently don't have any formal poems in the rough draft of my next collection - although the specular I wrote last week will probably go in.

I have similar relationship to rhyme and am not a fan of rhyming poetry that whacks you in the face with its rhymingness. I do think that there are ways of using repetition and rhyme that are not simply lazy - and when I say rhyme I mean it in the loosest sense. I have a poem that uses repetition in different ways to echo the monotony and painfully circuitous dysfunction of a family. It feels almost like it is in a form and sometimes people think it might be - but it deliberately isn't. It could have been tempting to go down that route and I think some one did suggest that when I workshopped it - but it felt too easy and, like you suggested, could have ended up looking trite. Being fashionable is not something I am interested in - what I am interested in is exploring the boundaries of my own writing, pushing myself further, and making my poems as good as they can be.

Tim Love said...

I don't think it's a matter of "putting" a poem in a strict form. Rather it's letting the idea of forms be in one's mind from the start in case it's needed. If form's an after-thought (all too common nowadays), it loses some potency.

You're a bit of a rebel. You're not interested in fashion. You want to push yourself further. So try form!

* "Personally I enjoy writing in a form first, then playing the same set of words through variations of different forms, lengthening the poem, shortening it, until it either 'clicks' into the right form (Robert Frost again), or decides that it wants to be 'free' verse. The move into free verse is always a pleasant surprise for a poem that has passed through so many cages and narrow ways. And such a poem bears the voice-print of strictness and discipline while also appearing to be merely spoken, inevitably, as if improvised on the spot. Your working must never show. Art must conceal art", David Morley

* "Can form make the primary chaos ... articulate without depriving it of its capacious vitality, its generative power? Can form go even further than that and actually generate that potency, opening uncertainty to curiosity, incompleteness to speculation, and turning vastness into plentitude? In my opinion the answer is yes", Lyn Hejinian