“I write the words. And the poem writes me.“
Good question: how does one write a poem? In the literal sense of course, it’s a case of putting pen to paper and simply writing until you have a poem there on the page. But what about the process that happens in between this? What about the journey from inspiration, to thought, to pen, to page?
I don’t believe there is any magic one-size-fits-all formula for writing a poem. I don’t even believe I do write the poem; to me, I believe the very act of writing is an extraordinary and mutual thing. I write the words. And the poem writes me.
The poem and I: we’re equals.
I don’t think, in the twelve years that I’ve been writing poetry, that I’ve ever planned a piece of writing in my mind and have it formulate on the page in the way I’d imagined. Planning a poem and sticking with it is not a skill I possess – nor is it a skill I would want to acquire, either. On the contrary, I love that a poem, like a stubborn weed, refuses to be tamed. I love that it will push upwards and insist on emerging from places most unexpected. To edit is to engage in the act of cutting it back; refining the shape, leaving only what is beautiful and necessary. And, in time, through painstaking love of the words the poem may eventually bloom in colours and shapes that astonish you.
Or it may, of course, wilt and wither away.
However, nothing is to waste. Those scraps of lines and words from any poem are seeds for future flowerings, so I tuck them safe between the pages of a notebook ready to plant again. That particular patch of earth, or this particular season, simply wasn’t right.
When I take my place in front of my laptop at four in the morning (disgusting hour of the day if it’s for work, yet a sublime hour for languishing in that haze of soporific half-dreaming), I rarely arrive with a solid plan. A theme, maybe. A snatched line that might have surfaced in a dream, if I’m lucky. But I’ll dip into a poetry book while eating breakfast (Greek yogurt, chopped almonds and cold strawberries, if this satisfies your Instagram-induced curiosity) and allow my mind to buoy itself upon the rhythm of a well-written poem. This is important so the words naturally find their ‘music’ and don’t simply drop to the page like fragments of disjointed prose.
The first line is always the hardest. It’s always a bonus if I can get to the page with that first line. If I’m struggling, I might sweep my gaze across the newspaper often left behind on the arm of the chair from yesterday, to see if a particular line or word piques my interest. From that first line, from that tiny little sprout, a poem may or may not emerge. Over time, I will allow it to grow, snip it back, tend it, then hopefully watch it blossom.
However, the process I have described here is merely scratching the surface of the mysterious act of writing poetry. There is, of course, the very living of life itself that brings about growth of the self and provides opportunity for the muse to make itself known. There must be lived experience, something real and vital that compels you to turn to paper and pen with that same urgency that compels to capture photographs of life’s precious moments. It’s a part of writing we all too often ignore, becoming disillusioned by the pressure to keep creating at all times without allowing ‘fallow’ time in writing. Without life to live, what is there to write?
Other people also have more of an impact on my work than I realise, and this is something that has become increasingly apparent to me during the challenges of lockdown. Many of us have turned to books, reading voraciously for escapism and comfort. Now, more than ever, we have needed the power of words to transport us to places both new and nostalgic. I’ve found myself revisiting old favourites in poetry (the works of Philip Gross, Seamus Heaney and Charles Baudelaire have all reemerged from the bookshelf and settled once again upon my bedside table) and discovering new works (Theresa Lola, Shakti Chattopadhyay and Srijato to name a few) with increasing fervour. I’ve engaged with people on social media through offering writing prompts and taken pleasure in reading the creative responses. I’ve connected with others through workshops, letter-writing and attending virtual readings.
We may all be miles apart, but through poetry, we find ourselves transcending the barriers of physical distance to offer comfort, inspiration and hope. I talk daily with writers from all over the world, all living through this same challenge.
Daily, these connections keep me writing.
Collaboration and performance are two things I’ve been particularly focused on in the past year. My collaborations with both Mari Ellis Dunning (our book, The Wrong Side of the Looking Glass, will be published with Black Rabbit Press and Infinity Books this year) and Oliver James Lomax (focusing on the events of the Battle of Maes Madog through the medium of love-letter poetry across the Wales-England border) have pushed my work into surprising new territory. Collaboration is an invaluable way of disrupting that traditionally solitary writing process and shattering the fourth wall to rubble. You must let another in on the unseen; to observe the often ugly, unstitched flesh of a work-in-progress. This is theirs as much as yours.
Is it a more difficult way to write? It depends. Sometimes it may take longer for you to shape the poem into something you’re both satisfied with; you may have very different visions of what works and what doesn’t. However, with both Mari and Oliver, this doesn’t seem to have been the problem I had initially anticipated, possibly because our styles click together very well in very different ways. When I’m stuck, there’s always someone else to work on my poem and turn it from something I’d otherwise have resigned to the realm of ‘mediocrity’, and to transform it into something quite beautifully unexpected. It is, at times, a rescue of sorts.
With regards to performing poetry, this has lately become as vital to the process as editing on the page. Toe-curlingly uncomfortable as it is to record yourself reciting a memorised piece of work and to watch it back, that analysis has added another dimension to the way I edit and deliver my own work. Performing my work and posting it online has not only helped me note the things in the writing and its delivery that I need to improve, but has also opened up my audience so that more people find they can access my work. This is important to me. The more people can find pleasure and meaning in poetry, the stronger the connection I have with my readers (or audience).
That’s what matters: connection. From the world around us, to the writer, to the page, and finally to the reader, a poem can create a ceaseless wave that inspires someone else to pick up their own pen and create their own words to share with others. Someone else may feel the impact of this wave, and continue the process.
Poetry is not a lonely road to walk, despite its ‘loner’ image. It’s a powerful and precious thread that runs through the tapestry of our lives, its echoes heard long after the ink of the last word has dried.