Sophie McKeand on How She Writes a Poem

‘As the years roll by I feel I am no longer waiting at a dried-up riverside, instead I’m slowly metamorphosing into the river, and that is as much as I can hope for.’

 

Since discovering the mental landscape existed over a decade ago I’ve realised how important it is to cultivate this space when creating. For years if I’d have been asked to look inward I’d have told you there was nothing, just blackness; a void. Now I realise I was looking with my eyes closed – I was never taught how to open them. I don’t think many of us are.

I’ve been thinking, talking and writing a lot about anarchy lately. As I become more deeply involved with the process of creating it teaches me that the very act of dreaming any artform is pure anarchy. Anarchy is the antithesis of ‘doing as you are told’, or being a well-behaved cog in the machine. To create is to be autonomous; to think for yourself; to better understand the self. To truly explore another’s art is to be fully aware of your own ideas and opinions.

A river of inspiration flows through my mental landscape. I have yet to discover her source but nevertheless she sends various objects downstream for me to shape into language. When I first began working in this way I would try to control her direction and speed, or I’d ignore the latest offering if it wasn’t something the ego wanted to write about and wait for the next, or the next-but-two thing to come along. Invariably this just caused a horrific log-jam and I’ve spent months in the past bereft and crying when downriver dried up.

Now I write things as they come and have faith that, even if they’re not meant for the world in the sequence in which they arrive, they’re meant for me in that order. I have endless files of work I’ve not used, or may never use, but it all has to be written so that the thing I do use can materialise, and I learn from every piece written. The subconscious knows this. I think I’m finally grasping what it is to ‘know not-knowing’, to quote Lao Tzu.

When I was younger my grandfather wanted me to write with the right hand and encouraged me away from being my natural left-handed self. He meant well, but it has just left me with terrible left-handed handwriting and a preference for typing work straight onto a MAC or, as I’m doing now, an iPad.

To a very organised writer I must appear horribly unstructured when working. I keep the iPad next to my bed (all social media apps have been removed and the phone remains downstairs), and when feeling balanced I’ll often wake naturally around 5am with the remnants of a dream or beginnings of a poem. Sometimes I don’t write for days, but when I do I have to get it all down quickly and, if I don’t have workshops to get to, will work like this until around 10am then get up and face the day. This is my favourite method of writing but I can write anywhere. I often stop in the middle of the street to write something on my iPhone and I’ve synced the apps so I don’t lose any work. When I’m working on a piece it’s constantly running in the background of my mind – like a film playing in another room. At home, sometimes I don’t start writing until 4/5pm and then I might keep going until 9/10pm. I write in intense bursts of around 5hrs at a time, and try (but often fail) not to let that be disrupted by workshops, emails, social media and life. An early run or evening bike ride are also good for generating ideas.

When I’m facilitating and dreaming workshops and community participatory projects I cannot write the same because then the creative energy, quite rightly, belongs to the community. The river changes course and I’ve handed over a number of ideas, titles, themes and poems to these projects that I might have liked to keep for myself, but that is not the nature of community work. You have to give them everything.

I say I look horribly unstructured but it has taken over a decade to get to the point where the inspiration flows freely, unblocked and untamed. Learning to let go control and allowing the wilderness to take over has been painstakingly difficult because that isn’t who I was. The problem with a new ecosystem taking root and flourishing is accepting that a number of years will be spent in the hinterland as a natural balance slowly evolves.

Am I fully there yet? No.

But as the years roll by I feel I am no longer waiting at a dried-up riverside, instead I’m slowly metamorphosing into the river, and that is as much as I can hope for.

Sophie McKeand is an award-winning poet, TEDx speaker, and the current Young People’s Laureate Wales. She was listed as one of 30 people ‘shaping the Welsh agenda’ over the next 30 years by the Institute for Welsh Affairs, and is a Literature Wales bursary recipient for 2017. Sophie has performed internationally, in Ireland and at the Kolkata Literature Festival, India. Her poetry collection Rebel Sun is published by Parthian Books. Sophie’s poetry can also be found in the Summer 2016 volume 52.1 of Poetry Wales.

www.sophiemckeand.com

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