“The best way to write a poem is underwater. The sounds of the world, of other people are muffled. Only their underbellies and limbs ripple through the water.”
Geometric lines repeat themselves along the bottom of the pool or if you’re lucky enough to be in a clear sea shy fish suddenly appear from behind rocks. Light streaks in and metaphors float towards you in abundance.
Not that it’s always like that. Sometimes even my rhythmic breathing can’t still the incessant chatter of worries and preoccupations, about relationships, schedules or perceived failures… but at best swimming allows my mind to relax and entertain those free associations and happy accidents of language which help to write a poem.
Mostly we all write about the same things everyone has always written about which is scarily humbling. That’s why a different element like water seems to help. Paradoxically – and for me poetry and life are all about paradox – and fortunately, each of us has a unique voice, experience. If only we can cut through cliché, current (poetry) fashion, generalisation. Or, continuing with water, as Adrienne Rich wrote, when we truly ‘dive into the wreck’ and go after our truths, big or small.
I don’t do all my writing in the sea of course. I spend too long, obsessively so, in front of a screen. Before that I jot down initial ideas on paper, fill notebook after notebook. I also write poems when I’m supposed to be sleeping or doing something else. At school instead of answering questions on my Geography ‘O’ Level exam I wrote reams of poems, true rebel that I was.
Poems often begin for me with a phrase or an image. Some already carry the seeds of longer work. My most recent book began with two fragments but the entire book was already contained within them, a book-length poem in fact*. Lately I’ve been playing with both my languages, Polish and English and writing in Ponglishwhere I blend the two. My recent poem in Poetry Wales contains Ponglish, also a little Crow and came out of Snow Q, a collaborative project inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s Snow Queen. The creativity of the fine artist, composer and film-maker I worked with were wonderfully infectious.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly how poems begin, like trying to hold on to parts of a dream. Reading poetry, listening to other poets perform, immersing myself in language as well as looking and listening, noticing my surroundings, (as obvious as this sounds), nature – both water and land – allowing memory free range: all of this nourishes me. I often draw on my Polish upbringing though for my last book I chose an imaginary setting*. Some poems are written for somebody I have in mind, others are lonelier.
I thrive on encouragement coupled with strong feedback. I show my work to poetry buddies (without whom I’d never finish a poem) and mentors. Mimi Khalvati, who has nurtured so many poets in the U.K, first introduced me to the notion that editing is as much part of the creative process as writing is. This is sometimes hard to get across when teaching students who imagine the first splurge is the only real creative spark. Mimi is a ruthless and visionary editor. Certainly there is a precious energy and roughness in that first outpouring of ideas. But it’s not till I start editing that I see where the poem might go and it gets exciting. That’s where another pair of eyes helps. (Not that editors and buddies always agree so you have to figure it out…)
I edit and edit – the endless over-thinking and waffle. Then I wonder why I’ve put it off so long (using all standard procrastination techniques) when, as well as being tough, it’s pure joy. That’s when I write deeper.
*From Stray Lines to Narrative Prose Poetry – Envoi No 182 June 2019