“And there’s the external physicality: evolving lines while walking, pacing, declaiming, throwing my arms around – heading outside at intervals just to listen, breathe.“
Looking back over other contributions to ‘How I write a poem’ it’s striking how many experiences I identify with: ‘Yes to that!’ Or ‘Oh yes definitely’– the mysterious beginnings of a poem, the active state of ‘fallow’ which isn’t fallow at all, the way a poem sometimes writes itself, how we often start not knowing where or how or in what form, the poem will end, even when we have a pre-evolved story or choose a structure that determines a certain path for the poem’s expression. And for many of us the trigger for a poem can be multifarious, from a scrap of dream, conversation, or a headline, the music of a certain phrase, a prompt, even a word, to the desire to communicate a particular theme, story, historical moment, or aspect of our own experience. Desire is key here: an obsession that feels bodily, grips the heart, refuses to let go until it’s released into form. Perhaps this is what Robert Frost meant when he wrote “A poem begins as a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong, a homesickness, a lovesickness”
Such opening manoeuvres will swiftly accrue images and associations; sometimes these are very eclectic – a magpie horde of disparate, synesthetic, elements that can be woven to make a nest. That nest is a a coherent verbal shelter from which to view the capacious world. Both threshold and holding space. Also important may be a research journey that can both expand the poem’s field and contract it to a precise focus. For me both these routes will be linked to a sensed speech-music and sometimes a highly particular soundscape but will also be intensely visual and filmic. Whether developing an image, or tracking information, I become immediately ‘elsewhere’ in a kinetic visual world, peopled with speaking characters (not necessarily human). Colour and light too are paramount for me. Initially I ‘see’ my poems as colour compositions and ones that can dim, mutate, intensify, merge. In many ways, colour prefigures verbal meaning. Colour is important both as theme and strategy in my new collection, Restorations.
And there’s the external physicality: evolving lines while walking, pacing, declaiming, throwing my arms around – heading outside at intervals just to listen, breathe. Poetry writing is inherently holistic. But I would say it is, for me, always fed by, and often in subtle dialogue with, my reading of other poets, contemporary and historical. It’s like gathering a cast around me, (sometimes argumentative, often opinionated, mostly supportive) – the living and the ghostly.
Then the middle journey, where your job is to curate with ferocious honesty: going through draft after draft, refining, experimenting, re-shaping, cutting, adding, honing, tweaking line-breaks, shuffling around phrases, interrogating punctuation or structure, embracing or deserting this rhyme, that rhythm, testing the music aloud in the shower, the hillside, the car (best of all!). This process is often a back and forth between my position as writer and an imagined reader who needs to know where they are, where they are going, what the poem is about – and who is highly allergic to mixed metaphor, unnecessary qualifiers, dangling participles, or abstraction. Often, showing work-in-progress to actual trusted readers is part of this stage, but not too soon; I need to feel confident the poem is essentially solid enough to take criticism and bounce back stronger… to arrive, after a few days, or weeks, months, sometimes years, at a place of ‘A ha! – there you are.’ That moment always carries the shock of transformation.
And the certain precious times of day when creativity flows (with me it’s around 9am) to the point where it dwindles (around 1pm) only to resurge again (around 6pm inconveniently). If I’m lucky enough to have days when I can simply write i.e. not working, home-educating, or otherwise committed, there is a fine art to getting the coffee poured and the dishwasher loaded before that limited time of largess.
For me, writing a poem is, in other words, linked to the body, and bodied-forth voice. Body in a particular place, setting, time of day, even weather. It can also be shaped by contingencies, life’s demands or inequalities, that space and pace a poem’s evolution, even cause it to change course because the world, and my focus, can change in the interval between writing sessions. Even when sustained writing is impossible, a daily writing habit, however short, matters. In those few moments you re-establish the necessity of the poetic act and your voice as one that has a right to be heard. I think of Claudia Rankine’s deeply political words in Citizen, true for so many: “Then the voice in your head silently tells you to take your foot off your throat because just getting along shouldn’t be an ambition.”
After creation a lull: I need a few days to let the world of one poem recede before I can embark on another.
Beyond body, writing poetry is also about listening, communication, diligence, and alchemy. Alchemy, metamorphosis, seems to be at the heart – a moment when the language of the poem leaps beyond all the mechanics of effort I put in. When it works the physical to ignite the metaphysical. This is the engine both of how I write and of which themes or stories engross me. It’s also why poetry springs from the oral music of language and that music derives from emotion/thought as metre, pattern, repetition, syntax and ellipsis, voice’s cadence and voice’s silence. The basic score is breath itself which by its very nature forms the music into poetic lines. Through these musical elements, language can reach to levels that can’t be articulated by words alone, multiplying, like an acoustic chamber, the resonance of imagery. Alice Oswald writes of poetry as ‘carving from sound’ – a wonderful idea that links craft with music and both as a journey towards, and beyond, meaning.