“That’s just how it goes. If you take risks, you can’t expect things to work out all the time.”
When I was starting to get into poetry in the late 90’s I read the poetry chapter in The Writers Handbook. In the introduction to that chapter was a paragraph about sending poems to magazines. Whoever wrote the introduction said that you shouldn’t be worried about editors stealing your ideas because poems were words, not ideas. I thought: Why can’t a poem be an idea?
I am essentially a lyric poet. That has always been my comfort zone. But I have spent much of the last ten years resisting it. Instead I have looked at different ways of presenting poems. I have asked myself ‘What is a poem?’ I have wondered whether I can give the task of creating the poem to the reader, or the audience? Can I translate the physical body of a book instead of its contents? Can I present a book of poems that is entirely made out of ideas for books of poems?
My poetry slowly became a poetry of ideas. I don’t like the term conceptual poet, as all too often it seems to refer to someone who collates other people’s texts and recontextualises them. I’m not really into that. I prefer work that starts with a creative idea and works through the various manifestations of that idea.
Most of the time ideas and inspiration come from outside of poetry. I get a lot of ideas from reading about, and looking at the work of, artists: John Latham, Jenny Holzer, Joseph Kusuth, Yoko Ono, Lawrence Wiener and Vito Acconci. I always remember Brion Gysin’s famous quote that ‘Writing is 50 years behind painting’, though I prefer to think that Poetry is 50 years behind art, so I’m always looking at visual, performance, and sound art for ideas. I read a lot of biographies and memoirs. Sometimes just a throwaway thought or phrase can spark an idea that results in a book, an object, or a performance.
How do you write a poem?
Sometimes I am working on several projects that end up coming together as one project. My brain tricks me into thinking they are independent ideas, but sometimes they are not. Those ideas all end up being part of the same book/performance/text.
Sometimes I work through ideas and realise that they aren’t worth pursuing.
There have been times when I’ve invested months of effort into a project only to realise that it doesn’t work. That’s just how it goes. If you take risks, you can’t expect things to work out all the time.
The two sequences featured in the new issue of Poetry Wales are both from much longer works.
A book of poems is a book that is made up entirely of ideas for books of poems. The whole thing came about through my habit of writing down ideas for poems and artworks. I had quite a few and thought that I’d never have time to make them all, so I figured I’d keeping collecting my ideas and present them as works in their own right.
A Piece is a sequence of poems created using a dictionary and Robert Creeley’s famous poem, A Piece. The poems were composed using a variation on the Oulipo’s method N+7. In N+7 the writer removes nouns from an existing piece of literature, finds those words in a dictionary, reads 7 nouns (or entries) down the dictionary’s column and uses that new word as a replacement in the original text.
Using The Collins Paperback English Dictionary, published 1990, I selected both instances of the words ‘one’ in Creeley’s poem and replaced them with the next entry in the dictionary; an N+1. I then found the entry for ‘two’, and moved two words forward in the dictionary; an N+2. Finally, I chose the entry for ‘three’, and moved three words forward; an N+3. For each of the poems in my versions of A Piece I repeated the process of N+1, N+2, N+3, using the new set of words as the starting point. The sequence ends after all the entries for the letter O — all the N+1s — were used up.
The idea for this work just came to me whilst reading Creeley’s poem. I’ve read his collected poems 1945-75 front to back three times. The first two times I read it I guess A Piece didn’t have much of an effect on me. But, third time around, when I got to A Piece the idea was just staring at me in the face. It seemed like that poem had been written with that process in mind. I started writing my versions of A Piece straight away. It took me a year to write and ended up being nearly 500 pages long.
A Piece is published in full by If P Then Q.