“I don’t follow a skeleton, or pad out a structure, rather the poem emerges like a road lit by headlights.”
I never know what a poem will be about when I start writing it. And if it’s a successful poem, I won’t know what it’s about once it’s finished.
I write line by line, and find it very difficult to move to the next line unless the last one is exactly as it should be. In this sense, I don’t follow a skeleton, or pad out a structure, rather the poem emerges like a road lit by headlights. I learn about it as I go. I enjoy the risk, the potential for accidents and not knowing.
I remember hearing an Ella Fitzgerald interview; when asked how she retained such originality in her scat singing and improvisation, she explained ‘I stole everything I ever heard, but mostly I stole from the horns’. I find that as I write a poem over days or weeks, it will wait in the wings as I go about my day, and I will begin to tune into little overheard phrases from bus rides, adverts, and conversations in waiting rooms: ‘angel hair pasta’, ‘a careless elegance’, ‘her dark hair against the white dress’. These little units of language take on strange importance and harmony, and as I play with placing them inside the poem, unexpected meanings arise.
And here, as a story or a message starts to emerge, I have to fight the will to tie the poem up in a bow, to decide what it’s about. I find it really important to remain in that place of curiosity, of attentive playing, of watching the poem unfold without too much interference. I remember hearing a talk by George Saunders where he advises writers to ‘keep themselves mystified’ because ‘this thing defies systemisation’. Indeed, if we arrive at a poem with the conclusions we came to from the last one, it never works. Our tools are poem specific, and always require risk.
If I’m stuck, it’s usually because I haven’t told the truth. By this I mean that I may have written about ‘a terrific yearning for connection’, when what I actually meant was ‘a terrific yearning for a storm so severe it leaves you deaf for a week’. As the vague abstraction ‘connection’ is replaced with the more honest concrete image, the poem regains momentum and can move forwards.
Finally, I frisk my verbs, frisk my adjectives, and become hysterically keen to produce, as Coleridge says ‘the best words in the best order’. I triple check to see if I have been glib or lazy, and I pour myself into revision as an act of love.