“[W}e’re long past the point where a straight white male poet can be swaggering or ‘unreliable’ with impunity; you owe it to yourself and to your future reader to ask the right sorts of questions early on, and to bring an awareness of the politics of language – the politics of your language – into the finished product.”
A poem can be either coaxed or caught, and realistically you’re going to have to do a bit of both. A purely caught poem – a poem that’s all inspiration, free of obstacle or strain – is likely to come out either blandly successful or garbled. The poem of sheer perspiration, on the other hand – well, maybe there’s a type of dogged beauty in that, but at some point it has to take on life, by which I mean it has to take you by surprise. That’s the big trick we’re all trying to pull off. When it works, it feels miraculous – though maybe it’s more a type of patient, hopeful, never quite successful self-hypnosis. These days the miracle is when I wake up startled by a line and feel I have to follow where it leads. The longer I write, the more I learn to wait, and coax, and chip away at the distractions.
Those are the overarching existential dramas. How about practicalities? Here I try not to get too prescriptive or superstitious. It’s good to set aside protected time, if you can spare it. I usually find that a morning’s best, to guarantee mental freshness and a rough timeframe – ideally, I try to allow myself an hour at least of writing badly, or not at all, before the nerves settle and good things can start to happen. Then it’s maybe an hour of solid progress – call it the time of surprises – before the synapses begin to slow again. A full morning’s probably generous, but breakfast well and take lots of breaks. Often I take my notebook for a walk so the pacing between ideas can find momentum. Other books are essential, to suggest roads not travelled and to break up the closed circuits of your thinking. I try to find a sympathetic foil for the type of thing I’m trying to write, but it has to push you as well, even make you envious. Try to set off new and compound reactions in the work.
Over the last four years, I’ve been writing a PhD on poetry and syntax, which has had knock-on effects at the creative coalface. Not all of them good, to be honest: I often have to charm myself out of worrying about it, so that a syntax can suggest itself to my brain rather than the other way around. So much depends on the outward push of energy in an opening line – the type of sentence or phrasing that sets the whole thing ticking – but it isn’t something you can try to achieve consciously. With any luck, you’ll know when you’ve found it, because you’ll feel the poem lift away from the ground. Once you’re airborne, you can glide more easily from each successive clause or image to the next – but then there’s still the conundrum of landing.
Writing my second collection, I’ve returned to longhand writing after a spell where I gave in to the easy fluency of the word processor. I remember the poems of my first collection being written mainly that way, and while it has its advantages – you can see the poem unfold a bit better, and maybe cut out some of the real dross that flows from brain to pen – overall I felt I’d lost a connection with something instinctive and important. The inner editor was engaged too quickly; he was starting to inhibit the poet, thwarting that quest for hypnosis and surprise. I also found that I’d lost a lot of valuable draft material to the backspace bar. Reunited with my notebook, I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how often the first thought – or at least an earlier thought – was the best one in a poem that’s not quite working. And it systematically factors in a valuable, game-changing edit when it comes to writing the poem up onscreen.
Last, but very much not least, comes the business of sharing the poem and asking for feedback. This, I want to emphasise, is very much part of the writing process, rather than some afterthought or editorial activity. Often it occasions a complete rethink, when I’ve baffled or annoyed the room, or thought something was blindingly obvious when it really wasn’t. Get back to the beginning and find another way in, another syntax, another way of keying in the reader in all the ways you need them to be.
This is also the stage when honest discussions about ethics and aesthetics are best had, out in the open, and with an opportunity for change. Is my poem betraying some sort of unpleasant, unthinking attitude or bias? (The answer is ‘yes’ more often than I care to admit.) I think we’re long past the point where a straight white male poet can be swaggering or ‘unreliable’ with impunity; you owe it to yourself and to your future reader to ask the right sorts of questions early on, and to bring an awareness of the politics of language – the politics of your language – into the finished product. A poem is only ever going to be as good as the reader allows it to be, so handle them with respect, and care, and with any luck you’ll receive it in return.