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Frances Presley on How She Writes a Poem

‘See if the draft poem has thematic and technical substance or throw it away. Subject it to all the tests you can think of.’ 

In September’s instalment of ‘How to write a poem’ Frances Presley shares her lovely and instructive wisdom for approaching a poem:

1. Write a sequence of poems with a theme and a form, such as Neolithic stone settings and visual poetics. It means you don’t have to constantly think about how to write the next poem, but should be flexible enough to allow changes of direction.

2. Be in a landscape. Take with you a pre-determined poetic. See what happens when it is subject to land slips and torrential rain. Abandon conscious control and note what happens around you and inside you.

3. Try ‘blind writing’ which like ‘blind drawing’ focuses on the thing seen rather than the page and allows the lines, the words, to emerge. Use all your senses and remember that the referee with peripheral vision is no use if her brain is blind.

4. Be in a source text. Lift the language of other writers, both good and bad. Look in the archives of forgotten women, such as Exmoor historian Hazel Eardley-Wilmot, for their letters, unpublished manuscripts and diaries. Rewrite and redesign source texts to reveal their concealed meanings.

5. Collaborate with artists, musicians and, for a real challenge, other poets. Through collaboration you create something that is neither one nor the other but a third entity. The best collaboration is simultaneous, non-hierarchical and feminist, as well as an act of love.

6. See if the draft poem has thematic and technical substance or throw it away. Subject it to all the tests you can think of.

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Frances Presley is a poet whose writing is widely published. Most of her work up until 2009 can be found in Paravane (Salt, 2004); Myne (Shearsman, 2006) and Lines of Sight (Shearsman, 2009). Since then she has produced An Alphabet for Alina with artist Peterjon Skelt (Five Seasons, 2012) and Halse for Hazel (Shearsman, 2014) which received an Arts Council award, with its companion volume, Sallow (Leafe, 2016). Her work is in the anthologies Infinite Difference (2010), Ground Aslant: radical landscape poetry (2011) and Out of Everywhere2 (2015). She has translated Salt on the eye: selected poems, by Hanne Bramness (Shearsman, 2007); Outside the Institution: selected poems by Lars Amund Vaage (Shearsman, 2010) and No film in the camera by Hanne Bramness (Shearsman, 2013). She lives in London but also writes in Somerset with the visual poet and performer Tilla Brading. You can also find Frances’ poems in Poetry Wales Spring 2016 Vol 51.3.

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Sallow was published last year by Leafe Press. It continues a long sequence of poems about the languages of trees, Halse for Hazel (Shearsman, 2014), especially those used by women, including local dialect and botanic classification. Halse for Hazel began on the hills of Exmoor and Sallow explores low lying wetland areas, mapping political and environmental pressures. ‘Crack willow’ is a collaborative text with Harriet Tarlo from a walk near her home in Yorkshire. The poems are juxtaposed with images by the artist Irma Irsara.

Sallow, by Frances Presley with images by Irma Irsara, 24pp, published by Open House editions, an imprint of Leafe Press, www.leafepress.com. £4.50 (inc. postage), £6.50 RRP.

‘I found her work a highly pleasant revelation, at once thoroughly alert and judged yet delightfully manic and far-reaching in its wildness, risks and resultant freedoms’ David Morley, Poetry Review

 ‘Presley’s work sleights the relationship between landscape and language, each deploying (or deployed) as markers for the human eye.’ C. Waldrep, Kenyon Review

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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Blog: Rebel Sun by Sophie McKeand

Expectation poem by Sophie McKeand

 

 

Expectation (neu addo a bygwyth) is one of the political poems from Rebel Sun. The Russian propoganda-inspired artwork by Andy Garside giving the reader the heads-up that left-wing socialist/Marxist/anarchist politics will inform elements of the content. Over a decade ago, when first starting out writing, everything I created was political but after a while I became disillusioned with the entire process, discovered the work of Childe Roland, Rhys Trimble and Zoë Skoulding, as well as Anne Waldman and Jay Griffiths, and veered off into the relative obscurity of the left field (or forest).

The poems in Rebel Sun knit together all of the various elements of experimentation, politics and community I’ve been immersed in over recent years, with a strong focus on (re)connecting with the natural world. I am as much a part of the north Wales landscape as any oak or wave or starling and Rebel Sun is acknowledgement of that.

Explaining the exact nature of a poem feels too didactic, but this collection is absolutely about taking a stand politically. I see the after-effects of colonialism as a patriarchal dish still being force-fed to the land and her people in Wales. But after a long winter, maybe spring is coming.

The Cymraeg is taken from a weather report:

bydd hi’n ddiwrnod ansefydlog yfory gwasgedd isel

yn dod â gwyntoedd cryfion a glaw}}}

Roughly translated (I am still learning the language) this is:

tomorrow will be a day of unstable low pressure,

bringing strong winds and rain}}}

I am saying there is a storm brewing in Wales and have used Cymraeg to illustrate that, perhaps, this is where the uprising begins.

The sub-heading: neu addo a bygwth or promises and threats, is referencing the many ways the Welsh population have been marginalised by a political system presided over by a Westminster government who actively seem to work against the best interests of the majority of people in Wales. Those in power make lavish gifts of things we neither want, or need (larder rats), and manage our expectations by reinforcing the idea that Wales could not survive alone.

Rebel Sun also references political and academic figures such as Lewis Valentine and Leonard Goldstein who held strong left wing beliefs even when it cost them dearly. I have a deep admiration for anybody willing to do this in order to create a better world for everybody, not just themselves, and wanted to pay homage to the fact that their legacy lives on long after they have folded into earth.

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Rebel Sun is out now with Parthian Books: https://www.parthianbooks.com/collections/pre-order/products/rebel-sun

 

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Eric Ngalle Charles on how he writes poetry

‘I write then I revisit until I can relive the memory again exactly as I remember it.’

Eric Ngalle Charles is a Cameroonian born Wales based writer, poet and dramatist. He provides us with a vivid insight into his writing process and how memory inspires and informs his poetry.

‘I have little memory triggers. The other day I saw an insect with very tiny legs, it looked like it was doing press-ups on this huge tree, it took me back in time to when my mother first told me about the antics of the ‘’Molikilikili’’ (preying mantis) and the Ngo’le (millipede) as we sat around the fireside and the August rains pounded the thatch roof of our kitchen.

Two years after my daughter was born I wrote a poem ‘Playing with your white hair’ which was published in my first poetry anthology Between a Mountain and a Sea. As I plaited her hair, the memory carried me all the way to when I was 11 years old growing up in a place called Mundemba in Ndian Division, Cameroon. One of my chores was to search my brother in law’s head for white hair. He was like a father to me, ‘What greater love express from father to son than playing with your white hair’ is a line from the poem. I write then I revisit until I can relive the memory again exactly as I remember it.

I am fascinated by blindness as a metaphor. Ben Okri writes in his book, Famished Road, ‘We are all born blind, some chose to see, some chose to remain blind.’ James Baldwin takes it even further by asking ‘Can blindness be desired? What have those eyes seen to desire to see no more?’ In these post-truth times I guess as a poet we have the duty to ask, ponder this issue of blindness, do we allow the chaotic state of the world to continue? Shall we speak or shall we all retire into a hill in Abertawe. These are the kind of questions my mind asks, these are the things that trigger different memories.

Each poem is as unique as its author. When I was travelling from Swansea to LLandudno, the view, the mountains, the sea inspired Hiraeth, it reminded me so much of home that I wrote the poem ‘Between a Mountain and a Sea’ as a tribute to Wales and at the same time planning my homecoming.

Last but not least, I am fascinated by languages, if I hear people quarrelling, lovers holding hands and speaking, ‘my spirit craves, my mind wonders’ – I want to be under a tree and just drift.’

Eric’s poetry can be found in Poetry Wales volume 52.2 , Winter 2016 issue.

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Emily Blewitt’s ‘How I Write a Poem’

With April comes spring and so does an exciting poetry collection by a fresh new voice. Emily Blewitt shares her thoughts on how to write a poem with us.

‘The poem has to have time to settle before I edit. I have to trust that whatever cul-de-sacs or corners I’ve written myself into, I’ll be able to escape.’

I can write anywhere, more or less, but I must have space: head-space; space on the page. I like to write in notebooks, first. The notebook must be good, but not too good to spoil.

The initial idea niggles, humming in the background. Sometimes, a single line appears first. I take it for a walk, test its stamina. There are lines that haunt. There are texts I read that enable writing because their rhythm is infectious. I see something, or remember something, in a different way because of them. I notice the world and its potential. I witness – look at this, this. This here is true; this is important. It usually happens when I’m supposed to be doing something else.

I handwrite first and then move to the laptop to write through the initial draft. And it is through – there is no way but through. My ideas shift and transform; the trick is not to be disappointed. If I’m lucky, there’ll be a tipping point – a point at which the words take on a momentum of their own, quickly and surprisingly. The words become a poem, and this poem often has very little to do with the original intention of writing a poem. The stabilisers come off; we’re free-wheeling down the hill; it feels like flight. The poem sings. It almost – but not quite – writes itself. Perhaps it gives the impression of writing itself, but I have to run to catch up with it. I do catch up with it.

The poem has to have time to settle before I edit. I have to trust that whatever cul-de-sacs or corners I’ve written myself into, I’ll be able to escape. This calls for faith – though not the religious sort. I have to stop tinkering for a little while, to trust that the poem will find its shape. That I’ll find the balancing point again. It becomes intuitive, to know when to press the thing and when to leave it.

Emily Blewitt was born in Carmarthen, Wales. She studied at Oxford and York, and has a PhD from Cardiff University, where she specialised in poetic representations of pregnancy in nineteenth-century and contemporary women’s writing.  She has published poetry in The Rialto, Ambit, Poetry Wales, The Interpreter’s House, Furies, Hinterland, Brittle Star, and Cheval, and was Highly Commended for best individual poem in the 2016 Forward Prizes. Her debut poetry collection, This Is Not A Rescue, is published by Seren Books. Emily’s poetry featured in spring 2016 issue of Poetry Wales, 51.3.

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Editorial: Future/ No Future

If you follow political, economic, scientific or cultural life – anything outside the everyday and personal – you may have noticed that the future keeps getting cancelled.

We latch onto a hope that something positive and progressive will come about – the full Brexit catastrophe won’t actually happen, fascist bullies won’t win power, wars in Syria and Yemen will be resolved peacefully, a new way to stop climate change will be found and progressive social movements will bring back some democratic power to people. Repeatedly and rapidly these hopeful havens come undone.

The contemporary, with these frequent shocks coming in quick or even simultaneously through the medium of fast media, is a strange place to inhabit, a seizure of confusion, ‘lossy’ to use Nathan Jones’s words here. The narratives we reassure ourselves with, the analyses, the explanations, the predictions, very quickly come unstuck as events unfold beyond our grasp.

There has to be a positive conception of the future in order to survive and get on with things. In order to resist aggressively there has to be a vision of a future to move towards. And there will inevitably always be a future despite how grim it appears in our present. Cancellation has not actually happened; to say that there is no alternative to our present paralyses just as much as the disappointment that the future we had in mind has not materialised.

Artists, musicians and poets and writers keep forming utopian strategies in the hope that some ideas will catch up / catch on. So the antithesis of Future/No Future is the theme for this issue. Nathan Jones, Peter Finch, Elizabeth-Jane Burnett and Ailbhe Darcy explore the anxious experience of a future-present with its disappointments, its insistencies. Nicky Arscott, Cris Paul and Gareth Leaman consider dystopia and utopia. Harry Giles gives us science fiction poetry in Scots, coincidentally anticipating Nihaal Faizal’s discovery of sketches made in the sci fi future. Meirion Jordan offers a warning for the future of Welsh language culture. Many other poets included here give us their latest which in itself is a futurism in language. Meanwhile Miriam Elin Jones asks why there are no poets in future Wales, or at least in Welsh language science fiction.

This Cymruddyfodoliaeth  – Cambrofuturism – is in fact one of the inspirations for this issue. The fact that a small oppressed minority culture can think big and think forward, at the prompting of Afrofuturism and Afro-pessimism, is quite a spur. Instead of turning, as we so often do here, to the nostalgic past, these writers and artists imagine something else ahead. Chwyldro. Cymruddyfodoliaeth  is both pessimistic and optimistic. With a utopian hope, a dystopian rationalism and a necessary radicalism. On her recent Cambrofuturistic album Gwenno echoes Saunders Lewis’s stark 1962 warning Tynged yr Iaith , (The future of the language). She sings (and translates):

Paid, paid anghofio fod dy galon yn y chwyldro
paid anghofio, fod dy galon yn y chwyldro

Don’t, don’t forget that your heart is in the revolution
don’t forget that, your heart is in the revolution

Raymond Williams wrote that to be radical is to make hope possible rather than despair convincing. But how to make hope that helps us survive without placing our selves in false refuges, distractions from the need to act? We can now note that revolutionary hope can probably never be one promised land, a singular utopian deliverance, but many turnings towards the sun and back to earth. After all, dystopia is already here and it is far more complex and glitchy than fiction has presented it thus far.

Our dystopian present continually contradicts the already-past imagining of the future. And we can really only access the future via this present. So this issue, though it names the future is actually taking measure of the anxious present. Or presents. Peter Finch describes the ‘destination’ of the contemporary after a 1950s childhood of anticipation: ‘It’s an ante chamber stop off layby kerb backroom sidecar flap pocket edge liminal redoubt fog of Sargasso debris dust detritus washed up beach line bust and […more].’ Meanwhile, Nathan Jones makes an extensive exploration of this ‘traumatic time’, ‘that turning out of anticipation’s slack into regret’s puppet’. This is a contradictory moment where the ‘manbaby’ politician-businessman holds violent power over the  prematurely aged child refugee. He asks what happens to language in this conflicted moment, imagining the neologism as a refugee camp – a temporary one-use refuge in language overspilling at the fractures of the techno-geological era – the violent warping shifts of the anthropocene.

This present is our only resource for the future and for hope. It can also be beautiful. Elizabeth-Jane Burnett writes of a moment swimming in the water between political leaders, ‘this is the moment/ we own in the shoulders down/no air’, here there are ‘no post-facts unless that means poems’. So this ‘future’ moment is glitch, fluxy, lossy, sublime, poem, an antechamber that bleeds. It insists. What is it. This starts to wonder…

NIA DAVIES

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Happy International Women’s Day!

‘Poems sometimes arrive during a daydream’

Today we celebrate International Women’s Day with March’s featured poet, Josephine Corcoran, on how she approaches the business of writing a poem.

I was at a Poetry Business Writing Day in Sheffield in January, and poet and tutor Ann Sansom told us not to be surprised if we wrote a finished, or near-finished, poem during the workshop. “You might have been carrying the idea for this poem in your head for weeks, months, or even years,” Ann said, explaining that a writing prompt can sometimes act as the trigger we’ve been missing. This is definitely true for me. I spend a lot of time thinking about poems before I start writing, and then, once I’ve begun a poem, I can spend years trapped inside it, not knowing how to reach the end. Often it’s reading other people’s poems which help me find the way. A lot of the Writing Day prompts were based on poems so this explains why they’re very helpful.

Ideas for my poems arrive via jokes, overheard remarks, dreams, memories, news items, films and radio programmes (I don’t watch much telly), images, and via other poems, of course.

I often work on several poems at once. I tinker with a poem until I’m stuck then move on to another one. In between, I try to keep all my channels open, reading, observing, listening, and jotting down phrases, words, lines in my notebook. It’s all a mystery, really. I wish I could follow the same formula every day and produce a manuscript of poems at the end of every week. The reality is, I’m a slow, daydreamy writer but poems sometimes arrive during a daydream.

Josephine Corcoran’s pamphlet The Misplaced House was published by tall-lighthouse in November 2014. She is the founder and editor of And Other Poems an online poetry journal.

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February’s poet, Giles L. Turnbull, shares his approach to writing poetry

‘Poems themselves like to have a little time for their words to get to know each other — gossip and squabble, fall out and flirt.’

  1. Pay Attention

I used to love catching sight of things happening in the peripheries of my vision. A person precariously swaying towards the traffic on a busy street, as if being propelled from behind by an unseen force, or a small mouse scurrying alongside the rails as an Underground train pulled into Blackfriars station could easily find their way into a poem. Now that I’ve been blind for nine years I try to pay attention to ideas triggered by my other senses. I get more inspired by news from the peripheries rather than the headlines.

 

  1. Be Sensible

Thirty years of sighted life means I have many visual images stored in my brain. I remember what different colours look like and I can still imagine buildings that I’ve never before seen if I can find a description of the architectural style or the colours and material of the bricks and how the roof is tiled. When I look back over old poems I realise that other senses took a back seat compared to visual images. Nowadays I always take a step back from any poem I am writing and make sure that other senses are not overlooked — I want to let the reader smell the smoking jacket hanging on the banister or hear the sofa springs creak as a person plonks his derriere down, not just what colours the jacket and sofa are.

 

  1. Breathe

I generally find that I write better poems when I remember to breathe. I’m a firm believer that a poem also needs to have space to breathe. I like to let the poem sit and simmer for a few days giving it chance for its flavours to develop. When you make a cup of tea in a teapot you let your tea brew, and if you’re barbecuing steak you may well let it rest in a marinade to tenderise and let the flavours infuse before cooking. When I finish a draft of a poem I will leave it for a couple of days before coming back to it with rested eyes. Poems themselves like to have a little time for their words to get to know each other — gossip and squabble, fall out and flirt. I like to let the words have that breathing space to loosen up before coming back to me with their own ideas.

 

Giles L. Turnbull - author photo_GTB (Claire McNamee, Lumb Bank Nov 2016)Giles L. Turnbull is a blind poet. He spent the first half of his life in North Yorkshire before moving to South Wales to study chemistry at Swansea University. He has lived in South Wales ever since, apart from a 5-year sojourn Stateside and two years in London. His debut pamphlet, Dressing Up, is published by Cinnamon Press.

 

Giles’s article ‘Embracing the Visual’ – a focus on poetry and disability can be found in Poetry Wales Summer issue 2016, 52.1

‘Many Forms Bleed’ – Nia Davies on how she writes a poem

January’s poet, and editor of Poetry Wales, kicks us off on a new series of monthly features where we ask a poet to impart their knowledge and experience of writing a poem. How do they do it? What approach do they take? What gets them writing? Each poem is as unique as its author, and so is the writing process, so we bring to you a monthly instalment and a very unique insight into some of Poetry Wales’s poets.

Here is Nia’s succinct (and poetic) approach:

1. Fill up to overflowing on language then breathe out

2. Process, interrogate, translate, listen

3. Eat many forms. Destroy many forms. Remember that many forms bleed

57bf5a4d6af37Her forthcoming collection: All Fours is due out with Bloodaxe in June 2017

Bodies. Rhythms. Motion. Sounds. All fours is a debut collection of poetry from Nia Davies, a book of rituals in language that stalk the space between what is uttered and what is meant. These poems are haunted by the strange traces of the longest words in the world and folk-mythic figures such as Sinbad, Eurydice, Mossy Coat, Pan and Baba Yaga. They pose riddles with multiple or mysterious answers.

A swerving sweary jump into a terrain that is both comically musical and perplexedly political,All fours speaks of the (mis)adventures of sex and human communication, a life full-to-bursting with burning questions.

Nia Davies writes rich and adventurous poems. Her work feels borderless, influenced by experimental American and eastern European poetries. In the event that an “I” surfaces in her work, it is defiantly plastic and multivalent.’ – Dai George

 

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