“If you’re a poet, I don’t think there’s ever a time when you’re not writing.”
In his poem ‘Night Fishing’, Glyn Edwards likens the writing process to wrestling with a pike thrashing in his throat in the middle of the night, which he’d haul ‘from my head in waking gloom / and wrap its snarl in puddled paper.’ I love the energy of his description, the idea that this ruthless, restless creature must be grappled onto the page before the ‘fluency in its jewelled flanks’ can be found.
I, too, am a restless writer, and working on a poem is often a very physical thing. Messy as well, involving countless sheets of lined A4 paper, numerous pens, cake crumbs, discarded chocolate wrappers and a good deal of caffeine. While I do spend many long hours at the laptop redrafting poems, the early stages of composition usually involve movement. I’ll walk, dig the garden, go for a drive or a swim, do the ironing, all the time thinking about the poem. There’s a huge correlation between this activity and the way my brain works.
I’ve always found that the more I work, the more ideas come. Of course, there are fallow periods where inspiration is thin on the ground, but at those times I either set myself an exercise to kick-start the process, or put poetry to one side and do something completely different; my daily diary, a long email, a letter to a friend. I love the discipline of writing, look forward to that moment when you wake in the morning and remember that there’s a new piece waiting, a whole day ahead for you and the poem to get to know each other.
Poems often come from something small, and from the unlikeliest of places. A snippet heard on the radio, a news item, a conversation in the local shop. A smell or taste. The spider carefully weaving its web across the window, a car backfiring in the street. Any of these might spark off a memory, make a connection in the mind. Once the idea has taken root, I’ll spend a few days scribbling random thoughts, words and lines, and doing any necessary research. I try to be as accurate as possible in what I write, and will read obsessively round a subject, visit libraries, spend hours on the internet. By the time I begin to write the poem I’ll have many pages of handwritten scrawl to work with. Shaping it into a finished piece may take days or months, even years. Sometimes I’ll get to 60 or so drafts, then abandon the poem completely. At other times it will come quickly, and need minimal revision. Before I consider it finished, I’ll read it out loud, too, because that’s by far the best way to find the flaws.
Starting a new poem, I generally have no idea how it’s going to end, nor how it will be structured. Early drafts are written in a single continuous block of lines. Although I do occasionally begin with the intention of writing in a particular form, the poem itself usually decides what it wants to be. Sometimes a recurring pattern will indicate tercets or couplets. At other times I’ll force it into four-line stanzas until I hear the poem screaming out in protest, and give in to its desire to be re-shaped into two long ones. I’ve always enjoyed experimenting with rhyme, rhythm and metre. Often I’ll do several versions of the same piece, trying it out with set numbers of syllables or seeing what it would look like in a different form. I might alter the tense, or rewrite the narrative voice. Editing can also change the shape at a later stage, as hacking away at superfluous images or stanzas frequently suggests a much better way to structure it.
I find peer-feedback extremely useful as part of the revision process. I belong to several excellent poetry groups, and their critical eye is really valuable in spotting glaring errors or suggesting alternative ways the poem might develop. It’s been particularly helpful in lockdown to have that contact. Writing in isolation can be a lonely business, but we’ve been finding new online routes to share work and keep in touch, and that’s been a life-saver in these difficult times.
I write a lot about the interaction between human/animal worlds, often using surreal imagery to blur the lines between the two. To me, nature isn’t a separate thing, something outside of everyday life, but an integral part of it. ‘Heron’, which features in the current issue of Poetry Wales, draws parallels between the heron of the poem and my late father. It was coming up to the anniversary of his death when I wrote it, and I’d been thinking about him a lot. By chance I was up early one day, and witnessed the local heron making off with the last of our goldfish, a big brute of a fish who had been in our pond for over 12 years, and was almost part of the family. So those two ideas, the heron and my father – who was so very graceful in his last moments ‒ came together quite naturally in my mind.
If you’re a poet, I don’t think there’s ever a time when you’re not writing. You may not be sitting down with paper and pen, but whatever you’re doing, the brain is observing, making connections, storing away images and forming them into words, and you’ll bring these out later when you sit at your desk. Writing is a joy, a privilege, and it’s also that grapple with a threshing pike. But for that one, wonderful moment when the right word comes, or you find the exact way to describe what you’re seeing, it’s worth all the aggravation, the heartache and constant self-doubt.