…… if I had wings and I could fly
I know where I would go
But until that day, I’m gonna sit right here
And watch the river flow (Bob Dylan)
I’ve read two things in the last couple of days that set me thinking. One is a book and the other a poetry blog post.
I just rediscovered the book in my Kindle Library. Outpost: a journey to the wild ends of the earth by Dan Richards [Canongate. 2019] It sits happily with Nan Shepherd, Robert Macfarlane, Roger Deakin et al. Another of those books that persuade me I compensate for not being able to be physically ‘out there’ in wild places. A bit like dieting by eating tons of meusli.
There’s a chapter in which he takes himself off to a Bauhaus-inspired writing retreat in Switzerland. It sounds like my worst nightmare: minimalist rectangular naked spaces entirely made of plywood. In no time at all, he’s writing that the real essentials are a chair and a table of good height, a pencil, some paper, a door that locks and a comfortable bed. Despite having all that to hand, before you can say Roald Dahl, he’s riffing on being in Roger Deakin’s cluttered comfy hut, full of distracting sound and texture and interest. He faffs and fidgets. He writes I think Deakin cherished distractions.
Me too. I can’t write in silence …the nearest I get to a silence which actually works for me is in a writing workshop where everyone is writing for five minutes or so, and I’m vaguely aware of their sighing or shifting or the scratching of pens and pencils or the creak and shuffle of a chair, but unable to break off and wander about. It’s like being in an exam, and that suits me fine.
What the book made me consider is what actually makes me get down to writing when I’m the only one to make me. Or, if you like, what stops me from just cracking on. And why do I do it anyway?
The second thing was one of Robin Houghton’s excellent poetry blog posts. (there’s a link to follow at the end)
These are the bits that stuck in my mind.
” *How easily do poem titles come to you? How about book/pamphlet titles? And what about collection titles?
*But now I’m working on a full collection, I’m coming up against two issues. The first is not having a collection title. None of the individual poem titles feel substantial enough to carry the whole book. And yet without at least a decent working title, it’s hard to refer to it and even think of it as an (almost) fully-fledged collection.
*My second issue is that I have the urge to change quite a few of the poem titles, mostly because I think that will help them to ‘speak’ to each other in the context of the book. I suppose that illustrates how unwedded I am to my first choices of titles. Perhaps I will change them temporarily, to help with the ordering and also to help me have an idea of the book’s themes firmly in my mind (which will help with selling it/talking about it). And maybe the new titles will stick, maybe not.”
The thing is, I don’t have a problem with titles. What I do have a problem with is the business of working on a full collection. Because (I think) I’ve just finished one. I realise that it’s the first time I’ve admitted in print that I was putting a collection together. It’s the first one that I’ve done that wasn’t the result of winning a competition or of putting stuff together to submit for a competition (or the one that I had to do for an MA that I hated doing). Quite simply, it arose from the realisation that I’m running out time, and the accompanying sense that I’d like to tie up loose ends and leave everything neat and orderly. It’s the kind of urge that had me stripping my classroom at the end of each term, cleaning, sweeping, ready for a new term and new ideas. Or, if I was leaving, a new occupant. It’s a collection that includes a sequence that’s taken me at least five years to fettle. Whether it works or not, I can’t say, but the book and the blog I shared at the beginning made me think I’d like to reflect on why it took so long. Here we go.
Nearly six years ago I wrote a post called “Please, Miss, I don’t know what to write. “
I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now, a lot less sure of myself. I said, brusquely enough, that if you can’t write right now, if you’re blocked, or whatever, it’s because there’s nothing you urgently need to say, and you’d be better off going out into the world and collecting memories and experiences.
I need to rethink this, because as often as not the problem is not having nothing to write about, but having too much. At some point in that post in the long ago I riffed on the business of the business of assembling stuff to be written about… research, if you like. I wrote:
“I’ve scribbled a list of the stuff that was hanging about waiting to be read, or re-read. The stuff with post-it notelets stuck in it. William Tyndale, British mining disasters, a journey through the English moorlands, A sky full of birds by Matt Merritt, Antarctica (including the remastered films: South(Shackleton) and Scott of the Antarctic, David Wilson’s new pamphlet: Slope [smith/doorstop 2016].Tectonic plates. Coal measures and the Jurassic. The building of the Himalaya.
“I know that at least a bit of that ( the mining disasters, the Jurassic) comes from a poetry reading at the Red Shed in a distant past when the Agbrigg Poets performed a sequence about the 1972 Lofthouse Colliery disaster …which happened only a couple of miles from where I live, but might as well have been on the moon. I know that as a result of that, I’ve been finding out about Oshibana. And I can’t make myself write about any of it. It needs to settle into my thinking, become something I don’t know that I know, and wait for it to be surprised into a shape I can share.
” I noted something that I just had to write down after a conversation with the poet, Helen Mort.
Helen said: I can make poems to be written, and they might be OK, but that’s all “
That was over five years ago, and ever since I’ve been in the business of trying to deal with the problem of making sense of why the story of the Lofthouse Disaster bothers me. The nub of the story is that in working on a new coal seam 750 feet down, the men at the face broke through into a disused 19th C shaft which had gradually filled with 3 million gallons of foul water. The men were overwhelmed by the flood. Seven were killed, and the body of only one could be recovered.
What’s haunted me is the sense of an infinite regression of causes. Why did these men die? Before anyone could cut galleries and cut into the seams wherever they led, shafts had to be sunk. Three miles from Lofthouse, a shaft at Low Laithes had to be abandoned and forgotten. Before any of that, there had to be coal seams deep in the earth. So there had to be huge swamps millions of years earlier, as parts of the earth’s crust travelled infinitely slowly northwards. There had to be a crust, a mantle, a core. There had to be a primaeval cloud of gas; there had to be something coming from nothing, and maybe there had to be a god.
And so I overloaded my head with stuff, I went on trying to make poems be written, and peddled the idea of a sequence of poems around various courses and workshops.
One famous poet told me it wouldn’t do as poetry because it was a narrative and full of information. Another may have been closer to the truth when suggesting that perhaps it could be a radio ballad.
A kind of salvation was offered by another who showed me how to make a diagrammatic web of possibilities and suggested that I could interleave a sequence with short(er) poems about different mining disasters…..this gradually coalesced into a notion of four poems : four elements -earth, air, fire, water- and four events.
I suppose, too, that there are images which stay when everything else goes vague. There’s the Tollund Man that haunted Heaney’s imagination, a man apparently at peace and perfectly preserved. And there are the impressions of leaves in split coal that, as a child, I found marvellous. I began to think of the tens of thousands of miners who died underground, becoming as much part of the earth as ammonites and archeopteryx.
I tinkered with verse forms that could handle the business of balancing necessary documentary information and the need for compression, memorabilty, the moments that draw a reader in. And so it went, for five years. A week or so ago I think I finally laid it to rest. For better or worse, I’ve knocked a collection together. I’ve tidied my classroom. Thanks to Bob Horne of Calder Valley Poetry, it’ll be out in a month or so. It will be called Pressed for time. Originally I thought it would be called Where the masons went but I guess that although it was a line in one of the poems, it was altogether too cryptic. Titles were never the problem.
It occurs to me that I should say that coalminers, the cosmos and the Big Bang are only part of the collection which wanders around museums, hospitals, seashores, art galleries, Primary Schools, a Greek mountain, a Spanish village, scaffolds and a railway station, among other stuff. I have been much taken by the practice of Helen Ivory, a poet I like very much. You may have noticed that on Facebook she will post poems from her last collection as teasers and trailers. It worked for me. She also writes, tantalisingly, about what’s coming next. There will be witches.
So here goes with the first of an occasional series of teasers and amuses bouches from Pressed for time. Pretentious? Moi?
I’d like to be out there, where the masons went
when the last blocks were cut and laid.
Not the obvious places;
not tavernas in the evening,
the lapping of blue/pink/silver waters.
I’d like to sit up there, the ridge, in that moment
with the quail and her dustball chicks
on the old pack-trail from Sella to Relleu,
limestone hot, and Benidorm winking in the distance.
A little family of quail in the dust and shade
of a fin of stone, stratum of an ancient seabed
crumpled, folded, cracked, pushed up into the sky
by Africa grinding north, an infinitely slow
collision of continents sliding on molten seas
deep below the crust.
All this cataclysmic silence
and the anxieties of small birds, scuttling
past a makeshift shrine: a blackened plaster Jesus
lacking forearms and one leg, wreathed
in dried grasses, flowers, tied to the fingerpost
that points one way to Relleu, one to Sella
and the bulk of Puigcampo, head in cloud,
feet in a tectonic train-smash – the Triassic, the Jurassic.
That day in Edale: a straight white plume
from the tall chimney in the green hills,
grey walls walking up and over the tops,
a castle in a cleft, a boy sealed in the shaft
he could not be moved from; a river running out.
The slumped scar of Mam Tor, the axe-split
pass of Winatts. Snow in the air.
Stone steps cut wet and steep into the heart
of the fell; slick mud, the air not quite chill,
a long crawl beneath a tombstone slab,
and maybe this is what burial is like.
Resurrection is a widening chamber,
the held breath of water running,
sour odours: limestone, gritstone, marl.
What a thing, to let the voices of children
and their glow-worm helmet lamps dwindle
and snuff out in darkness beyond the squeeze
of a fat clay gut. Strange to sit in perfect dark,
to come to know it fits perfectly as skin;
to know silence, to settle into it.
For now, I guess I’ll just settle down, wait for the collection to ‘come out’, and watch the river flow.
[Link to Robin’s poetry blog. The post I reference was on 16/01/2022]