NaPoWriMo: it ain’t what you do…or maybe it really is

matt_bush_red_bull_free_solo

What set me off today was a post in Carrie’s NaPoWriMo

what do you do with that trembly feelingwhen you think you have written a really good poem, or perhaps it’s not ……[Hazell Hammond] 

I wrote back (pompously enough)

when you feel it, when it excites you, when it’s like someone else wrote it through you……then trust it. Leave it for a couple of days. Then go back. If it still does it, it’s the biz.

The fact is, sometimes you just know. There’s a poem in my collection that did that for me. What it does for anyone else is not my business, but I know I love performing it at poetry readings, the rhythm of it. I wrote the first version of it at Saturday workshop in Sheffield, nearly two years ago. The first task. 10.30am. Here’s your opening phrase. Off you go. Don’t think about it, don’t edit it, don’t stop. Here’s a slightly unfocussed scan from my notebook.

in the meantime notes

And now, here’s the final version, from the collection

In the meantime

 

because that’s how it is, the sparrow

flying into the meadhall, bewildered

by smoke-reek, gusts of beer-breath,

out of the wild dark and into the half-

light of embers, sweat, the steam

of fermenting rushes, and maybe

a harp and an epic that means nothing

in a language it doesn’t know, this sparrow,

frantic to be out there, and maybe

it perches on a tarry roof beam, catches

a wingtip, comes up against thatch

like a moth on a curtain, and it beats

its wings, it beats its wings, it tastes

a wind with the scent of rain, the thin

smell of snow, of stars, and somehow

it’s out into the turbulence of everywhere,

and who knows what happens next.

When I typed this on a screen for the first time, the line breaks seemed to fall naturally, it seemed to want a roughly eight-syllabled line, and the four stressed syllables of Anglo-Saxon verse. It wanted to be a single sentence. It wanted to be urgent. I think there are three small edits to a piece that took about three minutes to write. Some days it’s like that. Most, it isn’t. The thing is, you have no idea what prompt will kickstart something you really want to say. If it does, it won’t come out of nowhere. I must have been to Whitby, or been reading something about Caedmon, or the Farnes..I don’t know. But I know that in two years of compulsory Early English courses at University, the story of Caedmon was the only thing I ever read that came close to moving me.

whitby Poetry Business 2015 028

This will be my last post on the cobweb for NaPoWriMo. It’s been great to be involved. What I’d like to do is to say why I’ve written about 40 poem-shaped drafts since I started, and why I haven’t actually used many of the carefully crafted prompts that Carrire Etter has provided for her huge and hugely enthusiastic group. Mainly, it’s because I took the opportunity to go through the backlog of notes I’ve made in workshops, to look at the ones I’ve not done anything with, and to ask if, perhaps, any of then have legs. It turns out that they had, and I’m gradually removing the post-its and bits of paper that marked where they were. What I haven’t been able to do, apart from finding out what might be done with a pantoum (I’d never heard of it till now) is to follow prompts which focus on a particular form, whether it’s a sestina, a triolet, a terza rima, a rondo redoublé, or whatever.

For whatever reason, I just can’t do it. Maybe I mean that I don’t want to, in case I ‘fail’. Whatever that means. I’m going to use a reworked version of a post from January 2015 later on to explore it a bit further. But if you’re pushed for time, I’ll borrow a very simple justification that Clare Shaw used in one of her incredibly generous NaPoWriMo posts some  days ago.

NaPoWriMo Day 13.
Ghazals! they’re ace in the right hands, but I don’t have those hands. I made two attempts to write one and it’s too late and I’m to tired to keep on trying; so about 11.30pm I returned to a poem I started writing in response to a poem by John Foggin about a broken pot. Mine’s about a broken pot too.

On the other hand, when she’s aked to write a letter to someone, this happens

Letter to my mother

It’s been a long time,
there’s so much to catch up on.
I have a nine-year old daughter.
You’d like my partner.
I’m doing well in the ways
that count. As for the news – we’ll fall out
before we get started
and it’s late
and the light’s getting too faint
for writing. Just tell me about yourself,

things that matter:
how many skips of a stone
you could make on the water,
the roses, the nameless trees.
Let’s leave all the bad stuff to one side.
Tell me about mass, the tide of the voices,
how words were a river –
tell me what it was like to be seized by a river.
Tell me about your God
and when were you most yourself

in your garden; tell me about your lawn
and how did it feel when the stones
fell out from your walls, when the path faded;
when your world softened
and lost its edges; when you were broken
and couldn’t be mended;
when the words got stuck
in your throat. When people were ghosts
and you wouldn’t wear glasses; when you got lost;
when world was all losses.

Now tell me birdsong and flowers.
Tell me the importance of very good manners.
Do you remember the Lakes? Do you visit?
Do you recall how high the grass grew
and how it was sweet
at the roots? Can you taste it?
It’s late. Can you open your eyes,
can you speak, can you tell me
before the light goes out
completely?

I fancy this was written in one great sweep, no pauses, no stopping and worrying. The first 30 lines are all one sentence…well, almost. That line with the ghosts. I could see that you might have a semi-colon after ‘throat’, and I can see that maybe it did, and then got changed, to segue into the final stanza which is all short sentences, question after question; it’s in a panic, that last stanza , I think…. in a desperate rush to say everything before the last chance is gone, like trying to save all your precious things before the flood takes them …and it knows it’s going to fail, that the light’s going to go out, and that there never was enough time, and if there was, we never saw it was there. So, when Hazell Hammond asks about that trembly feeling when you think you have written a really really good poem then I can say I not only know what it feels like, but I can see when it’s happened to someone else. And for me, it’s nearly always because they’ve taken a risk with their own emotions, not edited them or dressed them up.

So, this post was in its earlier incarnation, prompted by Jenny Joseph’s Warning and was interesting itself in irresponsibility, unselfconsciousness, and risktaking. I’ve always been attracted by the notion of embracing irresponsiblity and eccentricity, but fight shy of their corollaries of physical and emotional and spiritual risk. I’m attracted to  those writers who take those kinds of risks in poetry, and I declare a preference for poems and poets that are courageous and unflinching.

For various reasons, I’m advised against eating processed meats, so sausages are out, and I’ve never been keen on wearing purple or rattling sticks along railings. Extravert behaviour has always come fairly easily, but  real risk-taking is something I’ve basically tried to keep at arms’ length, and without that, I see no way towards achieving the edge that I respond to so readily in other people’s poems.

I’m going to see if I can articulate this better . It may be that I have to come at it obliquely and crabwise. Fingers crossed, then. First of all, let’s declare that when I rock up at various writers’ workshops I invariably react negatively to exercises in ‘form’. My writing mind responds well to pressure and strictures about time, and cues about, say, how many lines I’m allowed, and even about the imposition of keywords to plant in each line. But that’s about it. What I can’t do is sit down and plan to squeeze an idea or a feeling into a terza rima, or a sestina or a sonnet. I can’t see the point of it. I’m not saying there isn’t one, but I find it quite hard enough to find out what I think I’m thinking or feeling, and what it might mean, without things being edited out by form or rhyme.

Rhythm is the thing  I need to think with . All my first and early drafts are in flat-out prose that attaches to a particular rhythm…which will in turn attach to the feel of a line length that I can fine tune later. In fact, while I’m having a ‘wearing purple’ day, I want poems where the form follows the drive of meaning and feeling. I like the playfulness, the wit, the rhetoric, the memorisabilty of rhyme in other people’s poems, but much of the time, they get in the way of what I want to say or feel. I’m always pleased to add to the bag of tricks and techniques, but almost always they’re the ones that help me to cut out what’s inessential, that make what’s left feel surprising and inevitable. I want holding forms, but there are beautifully crafted poems out there full of beautifully crafted observations and reflections and images that seem to sit there just to be admired. Like Faberge eggs. Exquisite and pointless bits of showing off. Don’t ask me for examples. I have few enough friends as it is. I’m just inviting you to see where I am before I go on about where I want to be.

Another ‘wearing purple’ thought. My Facebook pages are full of poetry and things about poetry. And there are so many people posting about how many collections have been bought and devoured. There are so many of you out there, reading so many poems. And here’s the thing. I don’t. I can go for days and weeks with one or two poems that affect me. Art galleries have the same effect. I can take in maybe four images (if it’s a good show) and then I want no more. After that the rest will simply blur into unmeaning. Two or three examples. There was a Stanley Spencer retrospective at the Tate Liverpool some years ago. Wonderful images everywhere. But it was as much as I could do to sit in front of ‘The resurrection at Cookham’. Enough there to fill my mind for years. Same with Peter Blake. Fantastic canvasses, but just one of his Ruralist self-portraits had enough ideas to last the week.

lautrec

The Alte Pinakothek in Munich has a Rubens room that’s like walking through a celestial butchers’ cold room, but, tucked in a corner of a 19thC room, is a little Lautrec oil sketch. It’s on a piece of torn card. It’s of a bone-tired,  redhaired prostitute. The intensity of his imaginative engagement and unflinching raw honesty and tenderness is worth a room full of  gilt-framed blowsy renaissance treasures. That picture is like the poems I want to write. But trying to say what I mean is turning out to be like trying to describe vertigo. If you’ve ever frozen up at the top of a ladder, or on a rockface, or on seacliff path you know exactly what I mean. And if you haven’t, you don’t. Ah well. By the way, let’s be clear. I’m not for a second suggesting that there’s too much poetry around. Just that there’s too much for me to take in, and quite enough that moves me and excites me to be troubled about the rest.

There’s another thing I must say before I forget . What CAN’T workshops and exercises and boxes of tricks do  (well, for me, at least)? They may make you you more inventive, but they won’t make you more awake to what’s going on around you. If I’m not feeling, imagining the world, minute by minute, whatever will I be writing about? How do I grow more curious about, and more involved in, living and all its complexities. I know there’s a reflexiveness about being absorbed in creative works and being able to be absorbed in living, and being honest about it. But. Kim Moore gave me the keyword to hang on to. Value judgements about poetry are neither here nor there. ‘Good’ is irrelevant. What matters is whether it’s true or not. Don’t ask me to explain that. It’s like vertigo. But you know viscerally as well as intellectually when things are true or not. Don’t you? I don’t want to wear purple. I want to take the risks in engaging with the world ‘out there’  that end up with ‘true’.

And another thing (there’s no shape to this any more. Sorry). Curiosity. That ability to ask. What if? Why? About anything and everything. That would free me up, get the kinks and stiffness out of the way I write, I think. Couple of examples. I was at a workshop at the Orangery in Wakefield a couple of years ago, and strugglingling to concentrate, because I’d given up the chance of going to see Batley Bulldogs play Featherstone in a Championship play-off in order to go to the workshop. That’s commitment, that is. But two things made me sit up, and stuck like burrs. Kim Moore said both of them. The first thing was about an exercise in which we’d been invited to concentrate on a painting we knew, and to work with it. Kim said : have you ever wondered what it would be like to follow the painting round the edges to where it carries on. Something like that. The other was when she mused about geese being herded to market. Why would they walk when they can fly? she asked. Something like that. Both ideas still bother me. But I love and envy the idea of being able to think outside the frame, outside the obvious logic. The other example was in an email from Gaia Holmes. She said that maybe if you named all the bones in the body you’d call something up.  Wow! Just let that reverberate in your mind. Wonderful. I must learn to be free to imagine like that.

Düne_dead_gull_on_seashore

So, where are we. I think I’ll stop after a couple more short thoughts. My Facebook pages are full of other writers’  resolutions to write a poem every day in April…it’s struck chords around the web, has that. But there’s a corollary. Let’s say you can manage an hour or two a day. What will go on in all the other hours?  Because that’s where the work will come from.

Say you take your photograph of a drowned bird on shingly beach, and the wind blowing in from the Outer Islands. What does it mean to you? What do you mean to it? What does it mean? Why does it matter? Because if doesn’t, why did you take a photograph?

Here’s my NaPoWriMo wish for you. That things will matter more. And here’s one for me. For the awful daring of a moment’s surrender. Preferably, lots of them.

4 thoughts on “NaPoWriMo: it ain’t what you do…or maybe it really is

  1. And what does it mean when a reader clicks the ‘Like’ button on a blog post/tweet/Facebook status update? Well, for me, it usually means that the person who took the trouble to share it has left me with an image/idea/thought/question – a ‘take-away’ to cogitate over. Thank you, John 🙂

    Like

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