“Beyond all of them stands time, that vicious git, with its sieve of tiny holes we all want to try and sneak a poem through. But before all those the writer has his own sieve and, let’s face it, most of us have crap sieves for our own work.”
In ‘Teaching the Ape to Write Poems,’ from his 1972 collection Absences, the great American writer James Tate offers the following vision of what writing poems can be like:
They didn’t have much trouble
teaching the ape to write poems:
first they strapped him into the chair,
then tied the pencil around his hand
(the paper had already been nailed down).
Then Dr. Bluespire leaned over his shoulder
and whispered into his ear:
‘You look like a god sitting there.
Why don’t you try writing something?’
There is something in the comic vision of Tate’s ending, of course. Confidence, energy, even, God help us, self-importance, can be useful in the initial spark of a poem. Something is needed to get you over the hump of your own self-doubt, the knowledge of all of your writerly failures, to give you enough belief in the idea that has come to you to run with it for a while. But equally important, I think, is the terror of Tate’s earlier lines: ‘first they strapped him into the chair,/then tied the pencil around his hand.’ Discipline, dedication and writing routines are hugely important for me. Poems are miraculous things, and no writer knows when the next one will turn up, or even if any will ever turn up again, and my response to this anxiety is simply to work, to craft and craft each idea into the best thing I can make it at the time, to worry later, to some extent, whether it’s any good or not. As Don Paterson has it in his poem ‘Why Do You Stay Up So Late?’:
So I collect the dull things of the day
in which I see some possibility
but which are dead and which have the surprise
I don’t know, and I’ve no pool to help me tell –
so I look at them and look at them until
one thing makes a mirror in my eyes
then I paint it with the tear to make it bright.
This is why I sit up through the night.
I begin with James Tate’s monkey and Don Paterson’s late nights, in part because I don’t know how to write this piece myself. I was asked for something on how I write a poem, or on how to write a poem, and the truth is that I don’t quite know how I write poems. Sometimes I write them by writing them, and it’s really important to remember that writing is a practical, physical thing: it’s about getting words on paper, and then the slow process of changing them into good words. It’s about the generation of text, the pens and paper you use and the places you write in. But sometimes I write poems by not writing them, by staring out of the window or going for a walk, by sitting in the café, by going to the zoo. Sometimes I write poems by something happening to me which won’t appear in a poem for ten years – living can be the first draft of poems, or poems can be re-drafted lives – and sometimes I write poems in the shower in the morning, and sometimes I write them very late at night. Occasionally a poem will write itself in my head before I’ve written a word on the page. The variety of approaches to writing poems is down to the fact that I don’t write poems – the poem does, and what it needs in order to exist is up to it to decide. I think that the writer, sticking with it, being on the job, sitting down with a pen, is a crucial part of success, but there’s a guarantee that, if a poem is going to work, it will do something different to what you intended when you sat down. It will take air into its lungs, it will leap into the air, shake its ass, it will laugh its damn head off. All of the hard work a poet does is about trying to get to the point where they don’t have to do any work at all, because the poem is doing it, is being, and the writer just sits there like a court reporter, getting down everything the poem has to say for itself.
In the case of the poem in the current issue of Poetry Wales, it was written in a really uncharacteristic manner for me, because it’s the first poem I’ve ever written without a pen. I started writing fiction this past winter, having not written any for about fifteen years, but just as I don’t write poems, I don’t write fiction either. I type it. I copy and paste drafts as I’m going along and try to make them better. The ghost of Keats looks over my shoulder and calls me a twat. Then I read him what I’ve written and he goes away. Mostly I know that this is because he thinks me a lost cause, but sometimes – writers have to do this – I can almost fool myself that he’s sulking because I’ve hit a hot streak. Reading to him is an important thing, because more than I type my fiction, I say it. Auden described poetry as ‘memorable speech,’ and it’s important to remember that in order to stand any chance of achieving that status it first has to be speech. Saying what I’m writing aloud – saying this sentence, now, aloud – helps me to make it work. Rhythm and music has always been important in my poems and I think it’s there in my prose too.
One thing I had in mind when writing the piece that appears in Poetry Wales was the ‘Choose Life’ extract from Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting, posters of which adorned the bedroom walls of every student house I lived in or visited in the late 90s:
Choose life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a fucking big television, choose washing machines, cars, compact disc players and electrical tin openers. Choose good health, low cholesterol, and dental insurance. Choose fixed interest mortgage repayments. Choose a starter home. Choose your friends. Choose leisurewear and matching luggage. Choose a three-piece suite on hire purchase in a range of fucking fabrics. Choose DIY and wondering who the fuck you are on a Sunday morning. Choose sitting on that couch watching mind-numbing, spirit-crushing game shows, stuffing fucking junk food into your mouth. Choose rotting away at the end of it all, pishing your last in a miserable home, nothing more than an embarrassment to the selfish, fucked up brats you spawned to replace yourself. Choose your future. Choose life.
Trainspotting was the first film I ever managed to sneak into under-age, and I was utterly besotted with the book’s incredible vernacular energy, and at some point the extract above wrote itself across the inside of my brain, took its place among my holy texts. One impetus behind the poem which appears in Poetry Wales was the desire to write something like this, with its repetitive, rhetorical music, its sense of a life lived – for my experiences of teaching. The first half of my prose poem came out first, and the second emerged a few weeks later, in part because the first kept tapping me on the shoulder and telling me it wanted more. There’s something in all this, of course: poems – whether they’re your own or others,’ whether they’re great or failures – generate more poems, and this is another reason to keep at it.
How an extract from fiction becomes a prose poem is a question about the role of publishing in the creation of poems. One of my university tutors used to talk about the poetry canon as a giant sieve – or colander, if you will. A magazine editor might hold one sieve, and a book editor another, and prize judges and readers other sieves again. Beyond all of them stands time, that vicious git, with its sieve of tiny holes we all want to try and sneak a poem through. But before all those the writer has his own sieve and, let’s face it, most of us have crap sieves for our own work. They’re wonky as all hell, and sometimes they have massive holes and sometimes no holes at all. My ‘prose poem,’ if that’s what it is, insisted that I should include it in a submission of things which were shaped more conventionally like poems. Me it said, loudly, and then offered me outside, and it somehow snuck its way into the Word document which got sent.
To get back to that monkey I started with, then – the one in Tate’s poem or the one on my back. We need self-belief but we also need to stick with it, to sit down and write, when it’s not going well, when we don’t know what the hell we’re doing – by which I mean, more or less, all of the time. When I was in sixth form college, I played with a band, and we used to practise in the local town hall. There was another band who played in the basement – sometimes we’d have to nip down to borrow a lead or muggle through the hire costs for the hall. The room they practised in was lit by candles, thick with a dubious smoke that was the reason for them picking the secluded basement room in the first place. They were a much better band than us, and ended up signing to a decent record label and recording a really great album, but the significant difference between them and us was that we had ten songs and they had a hundred. They only had to use ten for the album, so they could just cream off the very best things. It’s the same with poems. Each one written is an opportunity to write a good one, and the rubbish ones don’t matter, because you never have to let them leave the basement, never have to show them to anyone. I learned this twenty years ago, each time I stepped into that smoke-filled room.
There’s another lesson from that experience too, though, more self-evident and harder to learn. One night, eight hours or so into an epic practice session, the drummer in the basement, who was so ‘into the music’ by that point he had little idea who or what he was, knocked over a candle. The band survived, but the hall went up in flames, and now there’s just a piece of grass, on the side of the road between here and Newbridge, where that time, those songs used to be. I think about all this each time I pass the site of the hall, am shocked again by its absence, see the grass growing there. I can’t help thinking that there might be something in all this about poems and something more, perhaps, than any of the words – any of all these things I’ve typed or spoken – which hover above.