Well met; a Polished Gem: Christopher North

If you’ve followed the various strands of the cobweb for some time, you’ll have seen this photograph before. The limestone range that circles the villages of Sella and Relleu in Alicante, the village of Relleu itself, and, seen between the trees, the blue house. Almaserra, the old olive press that’s the home of today’s guest poet, Christopher North. I can say without any exaggeration that this place changed my life and made it clear to me that what I needed to do was to write poems. 

I can’t explain why it’s taken me so long to ask Christopher to be a guest, but I suppose the trigger was that this year he was one of the winners of the 2018 Poetry Business International Pamphlet Competition, a prize that he adds to the dozens he’s won over the last 20+ years. There’s a synergy here, because I’ve no doubt that the residential courses he runs at the old olive press are one of the two main reasons why I wrote poems that eventually won the same pamphlet prize in 2016. So be warned….this will not be an impartial review, but an enthusiastic ‘thank you’. 

I met Christopher at a coffee shop in Alicante Airport in 2013, where he told me that the guest tutor for the residential course I’d enrolled on was forced to cancel at short notice, and that I could have my money back and fly home, or take a punt and stay, and that he’d try to take over the tutoring duties for the week. I chose to stay, and it was one of the three best decisions I’ve ever made..we drove along the coast, and, just short of Benidorm, turned inland into a landscape I’d not imagined and which I’ve come to love. Big uncompromising limestone mountains, a blue reservoir, huge views. Places I learned to walk in and find the bones of a fox, among other things.

Christopher has quietly introduced me to a dried up 17thC dam, prehistoric cave paintings in a stifling remote valley, the best paella bar in Alicante, another which is a shrine to the Civil War and left wing revolution, a Stanza group in room decorated with crumbling late-renaissance frescoes, and, memorably a steep shale hill below a cliff where we went to find shards of Iberian pottery and where he ripped the arse out of his trousers. I wrote a sort of prose-poem for that

We’re climbing this hill

a shaly slope ,a broken spine of stone, the tilt of strata, all levels and layers , silicas, sandstones, 

blue, green, grey muds, coral flowers, when he says :  from here we have to bushwack

CUE:  

long shot from a winding canyon rim, mesquite, stallions, bitter dust,   rawhide quirts, and stetsons, cactus, creek and willow, mineshaft tailings, clapboard stables, saloon and whorehouse, Colt repeaters, pianola, mirrors, scrolled mahogany, sleeve bands, tight black bowler hats, tooled leather, spit, unshaven desperadoes, shifty mexicans and crooked sheriff, dark Apache , in his birdbone breastplate, three crow feathers pushed into his blueblack hair,  a wired up Commanche on a piebald horse, contempt like a scalp on the tip of a lance, the sage chief  of the Black Hills Sioux, with the eagle bonnet,  the softest buckskin fringe, plumes of smoke in the lodge by the oxbow’s quiet shadows, and thin dogs doing nothing in particular,  the hero carefully turned out, the  rancher’s daughters prim as prayerbooks , careless dancehall girls, their knees and tucked up skirts, their buttoned boots and ribbons, ah, so many ribbons, the double door that swings both ways, a silhouette, a shadow bringing conversations to a stuttering halt, like traffic, that exact moment that the piano stops midtune, a pause like a burial plot, just waiting on its allotment of words.

And from here, he says, we have to bushwack.

Whatever that is.

………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..

This year is the first in six years that I haven’t been to one of the writing weeks that he and his wife Marisa host. It’s been like a year without Christmas. At the old olive press I’ve met so many writers and made lasting friendships. Tutors Mimi Khalvati, Jane Draycott, and Ann Sansom. Fellow residents Jane Kite, Shirley McClure, Wendy Klein, Carole Bromley, Fokkina Macdonald, Martin Reed, the photographer Ton Out, and, especially, Hilary Elfick and Gyula Friewald. Most of them have been guests on the cobweb, and you can find them easily enough. 

I’ve checked today, and established that of the poems I’ve written in workshops there 22 have been published, four have won prizes in competitions, and one, surreally, has been read to a bilingual audience in the frigid air-conditioned basement of El Corte Inglese in Murcia.

So there you are. The people, the friendships, the amazing places. I owe him so much, this urbane, companionable, erudite, entertaining man. Time to meet him and his poems. He’ll introduce himself better than I could .

“Through the seventies and eighties I worked as surveyor doing structural surveys, mortgage valuations, court work and some house-building I was in private practice with an expanding firm – and though I read a good deal of poetry, (to keep reasonably sane), I wasn’t writing it. I did keep a journal and the odd phrase or observation suggests that there was a spark of creativity in my writing. I sold my business in 1988 and was thus contracted to a corporate. I no longer had the weight of responsibility I carried before (I had five partners and about 30 employees) so I was freed up somewhat. By a mischance I attended week long writing course in Provence run by John Fairfax, of Arvon fame, and the poet Sue Stewart, who I believe later held a creative writing fellowship at Stirling University. It was a week that changed my life. John Fairfax was particularly encouraging. 

A little later I went to a Literary festival in Devon followed by a Lumb Bank week (at John Fairfax’s suggestion) and from on then poetry became a major element in my life.  When retirement from ranging rods and valuation tables came over the horizon, I  had to honour an old promise to  my wife Marisa that we would move to her country of birth, Spain. I had long carried the idea of facilitating residential courses in poetry – and ten years mixed up with the London poetry scene, and eight years running my own poetry workshop, we looked for a place suitable for housing Arvon style residential courses. After a number of abortive negotiations we find a derelict industriel building on the lip of a ravine within the ‘casco’ of a mountain village. As soon as we saw the rear terrace with its panoramic view of terraced mountains and a 10thcentury castle, we knew we had found the right place. It was an old olive press with the machinery still there – albeit under mounds of rubble. In two years we rebuilt  the ‘Almassera’ always with the view of creating an ambience for creative courses. We had our first pilot week in 2002 .

After  ten years, in the nineties, mixed up with the London poetry scene, and eight years running my own poetry workshop, Metro-land Poets, I had the confidence and contacts to engage the poetry elite as tutors and host a huge number of aspirant poets and writers from England, Scotland, Ireland , Wales, France , Germany, Holland along with a dash of Americans. Running these courses has been an intense pleasure for us. I have attended most of the courses as a student, so had the in house perk of five or six course a year with the likes of Mark Doty, Michael Donaghy, Mimi Khalvati, Matthew Sweeney, Alfred Carn Penny Shuttle, Vicky Feaver, Ann Sansom, Tammy Yoseloff, Jo Shapcott., Christopher Reid, Graham Fawcett, James Harpur, Mario Petrucchi and others.  As a result my own poetry developed rapidly. We have also hosted retreats in our annexe in a village house.

Poetry grows in the doing of it, in causing it to become organically part of you and part of the day, every day. It is ancient, endless and essential – more so now than at any time, save possibly when the country is at war.” 

He chairs The UK Poetry Society‘ Stanza Alacant ’in Benissa, Spain which is now in its eleventh year. He is currently working on a monograph exploring his diary entries during the 25 years of the ‘Way With Words Literary Festival’ in  Dartington , Devon, England.

Christopher’s  first collection ‘A Mesh of Wires’published by Smith Doorstop was short-listed for the UK’s ‘Forward Prize’ in 1999. He has published two full collections since: ‘Explaining the Circumstances’(2010), ‘The Night Surveyor’(2014) and a joint , bilingual collection ‘Al Otro Lado del Aguilar’(2011) with Terry Gifford  – all with Oversteps Books. His pamphlet collection ‘Wolves Recently Sighted’Templar Poetry 2014 was launched in Matlock 2014 and his latest pamphlet collection ‘The Topiary of Passchendaele’was a winner in the Poetry Business competition 2018. Almassera Vellain Relleu, Alicante, Spain. (www.oldolivepress.com) He chairs The UK Poetry Society‘Stanza Alacant’in Benissa, Spain which is now in its eleventh year. He is currently working on a monograph exploring his diary entries during the 25 years of the ‘Way With Words Literary Festival’ in  Dartington , Devon, England.

And since that will have certainly whetted your appetites, it’s high time for the poems. Chris has sent me three and I like them a lot.

The Smudge of Andromeda

Counting the trillion or so stars of Andromeda

or persuading others to count the trillion or so

stars of Andromeda — and considering the 

apparent impossibility of counting

the trillion or so stars of Andromeda —

or maybe containing them in a dark room 

and closing the door — preferably a room

where despite the dark, and the curtained windows,

all the pictures on the walls are shrouded.

They will be going on and being present in the room

beside the trillion or so stars of Andromeda,

also going on and being present in the room

as outside in the evening sky and its first planets,

the wood will be breathing and the last

of the day’s swallows will be flicking through the air

seeking roosts in the darkening trees and roof spaces.

[the German astronomer Simon Marius re-discovered the Andromeda nebulae in 1612 saying it shone like a candle through horn]

What has often struck me in writing workshops with Chris is the way he seems to effortlessly manage poetry (and conversation) that uses long, complex, beautifully constructed sentences without ever losing a rhythm that gives then a musical coherence. I suppose the other thing is an erudition, and encyclopaedic knowledge that ought to be chaotic but isn’t, an erudition that’s lightly worn and which provides a huge source of surprising reference that he combines with lyricism. Which is what this poem does.

You need to read it aloud more than once, realising that the first stanza isn’t actually a sentence but a proposition that’s like an extended title (a bit like the long chapter headings of 18th C novels). I love the way it combines the confusion of ‘a smudge’ with the focussing precision of what we’re being asked to consider…the repeated trillions of stars in a room where all the pictures are shrouded, where the stars are inside and outside in the sky, and the organic rhythmical processes of dusk, the breathing of trees, and the flight of birds coming home to roof. It’s dreamlike (with all the accurate precision of dreams), incantatory and magical.

The next poem is equally magical and slightly unreal, but firmly rooted in what is effectively a narrative, and anecdote. “Remember that night when….’

The Night Surveyor: Dartington Gardens

(For Ben Okri)

After the farewell party we grabbed a bottle

and, on your suggestion, headed into the gardens,

pitch dark, rustling leaves, I don’t know how many came.

Giggling, without a torch we found the Tiltyard,

above us Cassiopeia, a slumped Great Bear.

Now be our night surveyor you said.

I declared to the six (or were there seven?):

‘The Cypress is twenty metres from the twelfth Apostle;

the fountain, two chains, fifteen eleven

Starlit dunes of Devon fields gleamed above trees

as we crossed silvered lawns and I announced:

we are four hundred feet above the sea

then led them up endless steps, finding risers with gentle kicks.

There’s this place of seven echoessomeone whispered

someone counter-whispered: No there’s only six.

Full fathom five.. I shouted from the bastion. 

No please not that one surveyor  you murmured, 

O trees of dark coral made?  – ‘No try something else.

Some bow or brooch or braid or brace, lace, latch or catch…

No echo but a leaden voice climbed inside my ear.

Over Staverton, or Berry Pomeroy’s lowly thatch

hung Jupiter, no Venus, or was it Mars?

One shouted:  I embrace the universal me,

voice cracked and small beneath shades and stars.

Two melted into trees: We remaining passed round wine.

The town below lolled in sodium as if bathing

and you yawned Get us back surveyor, I think it’s time.

I counted steps. Shadows rose and fell in bands.

Feeling for damp and stone, plotting silhouettes 

and shadows, gradually we became a chain of hands.

I really like the filmic quality of this, a film by Peter Greenaway…the draughtsman’s contract. The story of the bunch of tipsy chums stumbling around in the dark under a huge starlit sky, stumbling over silvered lawns, declaiming of bits of Shakespeare, the absurdity of it that gradually comes to its senses, and back to earth as The town below lolled in sodium. I love the way the declaiming poet comes back to the role of the measuring and sensible surveyor and the group of friends who became a chain of hands. The whole thing is witty, elegantly constructed, and ultimately life-affirming, lyrical and loving.

I’ll take a risk with the last poem, the title poem of Christopher’s winning pamphlet, selected by David Constantine. I’ve picked an image of calculated regularities and dreadful repetition.

The Topiary of Passchendaele 

Clip the box precise,

       make corners a right angle

and thus contain the Cherry tree

       in a low wall of green.

Lower the cypressus 

       to see the horizon file of poplars

flickering in afternoon wind.

        Make it horizontal, check

with a spirit level,

        always control height — 

all needs daily attention

         before cheese, fine cheese

and beer, fine beer.

Order these gardens,

          contain the beds and herbs,

they must be shielded, neat.

          Allow no thistle or spurge, 

ground must be raked clean, pure —

           cleansing makes for calm.

Be exact in measurement,

           correct in the lie of paving,

check privet, manicure the arborvitae.

           It is imperative to be uniform.

It needs hourly attention

            before cheese, fine cheese

and beer, fine beer.

It’s a poem that makes me think of the kinds of calculation that lay behind the obscene economics of concentration camps, the apparent rationality of the mathematics of slaughter in WW1. It’s done with such precision, the clipped tones of a set of instructions about clipping, the obsessive fact of tidying:

                       Allow no thistle or spurge, 

ground must be raked clean, pure —            

                       cleansing makes for calm.

As though there could be atonement in raking and minutely manicuring; as though we could take our beer and cheese with a clear conscience, conscious of a job well done.

I realise I can’t do justice to what Christopher North has done through his quietly passionate championship of poetry, to the windows he’s opened for so many writers over the years, to his own poetry.  But I can say thank you. So I will. Thank you.

NaPoWriMo: Breaking Point

wave 2

Just past the half way point of Poem-a day-April. Starters from Carrie Etter. Starters from Jo Bell. More starters than you can shake a stick at. I’m going to stick at the business of fine-tuning and editing whatever your starters have turned up. Last week it was first lines. This week it’s line breaks. So, no ideas for new poems. Just things to think about once you’ve got drafts you think may have legs.

Just one thing before we get started properly. At the end of the day, you really hope someone is going to read what you’ve written, and someone’s going to care, someone’s going to be moved, someone’s going to be entertained, or brought to tears, or to see the world just that bit differently. Otherwise, what’s it for? You really hope someone will like it enough to publish it, and you’ll put up with all the polite ‘thanks for sending us your poems but……..’ for joy of the one that says ‘we loved your work and we can’t wait to publish it.’

I was mithering some time ago about the frustrations of having won a competition, the prize for which was to have a collection published. The frustrations came from long delays and unanswered emails, the feeling that perhaps it had all been a mistake or a dream. And then, yesterday, what arrived but the proofs. There it was, with all its lovely stuff about moral rights asserted, its ISBN, its pages for dedications and acknowledgements, its Contents page…80 lovely pages. It’s a collection, what’s more, that came out of a collaboration with one of my ex-Sixth Form students, Andy Blackford. Not having seen each other for 45 years, we set out to swap a poem a week for a year, workshopping and critiquing as we went. And just like everyone up to their poetic oxters in NaPoWriMo we had no idea what would become of it. It was enough to be writing for each other. So hold on to that thought as you struggle with a nonet or a pantoum today, and maybe all your dreams will come true. I’ll make a wish for you.

Right. Line breaks. This will be a slightly edited version of a post I wrote some time ago. I hope it’ll be useful.

There should be a reason why every line ends where it does.

Contrary to the truth universally acknowledged that British children aren’t taught standard English and the conventions of writing it down, here’s the actual truth.. What they HAVE to be taught has been there in black and white in the Framework for the Literacy Hour for years. Politicians don’t trouble themselves with this kind of detail. Maybe they should. So spare a thought for the teachers of 4-7 year olds who have to make sure that young children know how to use a full stop correctly. And, as a corollary,that they have grasped the concept of a sentence sufficiently for them to recognise one when they’ve written it. Think for a moment about that. You know a sentence when you see one. You just read some. Now tell yourself what a sentence is, or what it has to do to be a sentence. Maybe you say it has to have a finite verb in it. Forget for a moment how you’d set about explaining that to a 6 year old. Now get a copy of Bleak House, open it at chapter one and read the first 30 lines or so. Lots of full stops. Sentences like these.

London.

Implacable November weather.

Fog everywhere.   

Not a finite verb in sight. Why does it work? Because these are oral sentences, written down. All grammars leak. So keep this in mind while I spend a Sunday ruminating on the business of when a poem is or isn’t a poem, and how curious and puzzling and endlessly shifting is this business of lines and line breaks. And I’m going to start with (and maybe stay with) punctuation.

jane austen letter

Think about this handwritten letter. I assume it’s in sentences….Jane Austen wrote it. I wouldn’t like to proof read the punctuation, though, because the words are close together. You don’t just need space around words, but space between them. White space is punctuation, and you need white space to put those visually insignificant punctuation marks in. The more white space you have, the easier it is. Here’s a thing. 5 and 6 year olds have to learn how to write instructional texts, and the easiest way to to get them started is to write recipes.

What’s the first thing?

Ingredients. And equipment.

You will need.    

What comes next?    A colon.  You will need:

What next?

A new line.

And then you can write a list.

What comes between items in a list?

Commas.

Or, even more fun,

*Bullet points.

A new line for each.

See how the white space lets you see clearly. And what next? Instructions. A numbered list, and a new line for each number.

  1. Take three eggs, and separate the yolks and the whites. (Full stop)….and so on.

You don’t need to define a verb (and I can’t anyway. I can tell you what it does). In each line, it’ll be the first word in the sentence. But the text you produce will be easy to read because there’ll be a lot of white space. The space shows you how to read.  The text will look a bit poem-like, because it it’ll have a justified left margin and a raggedy right-hand margin.Hold on to that.

Now, a different kind of thought. Here’s a couple of pages from Dickens.

dickens-charles-bleak-B20122-15

One thing I used to tell A level students (and, indeed, undergraduates) who were daunted by 500 page novels, was that dialogue moves the narrative and the plot along, so you can’t ignore it. On the other hand, a densely printed stretch of text is likely to be reflective or descriptive, and if you’re reading a 19thC novel in particular, the first sentence of the paragraph should tell you what’s in the paragraph, and you can ignore the rest. (This is just for a first reading, to get the shape and sweep in your mind, you understand…I never did synopses or Coles notes). What you rely on is the amount of empty space. If there’s a lot of it, you can’t ignore the text. This is hard on Thomas Hardy, but there you go.

‘And your point….?’ I hear you ask. I guess it’s that poetry is largely empty spaces round not a lot of words, and that there’s no hiding place for any word that’s not doing a job. And also that you become very conscious, as a reader, of the curious tension between what your eye tells you and what your ear tells you, and, for me, this is one of the great pleasures of poetry. One the other hand, as a writer, it’s one of the things that frightens me, because I can hardly ever explain to myself why I make a line break where I do, except that it sounds right. ‘Sounds’ rather than ‘feels’, although that’s at work too. Whatever it means.

You have to admit that working in traditional forms can often solve that problem, whatever other technical problems it creates. Iambic pentameters/ blank verse…wonderful. Close to natural speech rhythms, di DUM di DUM …five of them…and end on a stressed syllable. Line breaks? Sorted. Syllabics? Haiku? Sorted. Any rhyming poetry and you have the line-breaks for every rhyming line.

Then along comes Modernism, with its ears finely attuned to the strict rhythms of all the traditions that fed it, and careful craft apprenticships of its inventors, so it knew just which rules it was breaking, and why.

Along comes Free Verse. There’s a seductively misleading name for you. Same in the visual arts, of course. Picasso and Braque and Matisse and the rest could all handle paint and line and perspective. They served their time and knew what the rules were stopping them doing and just how to break them and why.

If you want an impassioned and wholly idiosyncratic take on this you could do a lot worse than spend 20 minutes with Bob Dylan’s musings on 50-odd years in the business of singer-songwriting. It’s a sort of ‘Tradition and the individual talent’ lecture, but a lot more fun than T S Eliot. Just Google Bob Dylan Musicares speech. You will not for a second regret it. What he constantly returns to is the trope that everything he ever created he learned from repeated absorption in other writers’ work., in older traditions. Here’s a flavour of what he said…it’s even better to listen to

These songs didn’t come out of thin air. I didn’t just make them up out of whole cloth. Contrary to what Lou Levy said, there was a precedent. It all came out of traditional music: traditional folk music, traditional rock ‘n’ roll and traditional big-band swing orchestra music.
I learned lyrics and how to write them from listening to folk songs. And I played them, and I met other people that played them back when nobody was doing it. Sang nothing but these folk songs, and they gave me the code for everything that’s fair game, that everything belongs to everyone.
For three or four years all I listened to were folk standards. I went to sleep singing folk songs. I sang them everywhere, clubs, parties, bars, coffeehouses, fields, festivals. And I met other singers along the way who did the same thing and we just learned songs from each other. I could learn one song and sing it next in an hour if I’d heard it just once.
If you sang “John Henry” as many times as me — “John Henry was a steel-driving man / Died with a hammer in his hand / John Henry said a man ain’t nothin’ but a man / Before I let that steam drill drive me down / I’ll die with that hammer in my hand.”
If you had sung that song as many times as I did, you’d have written “How many roads must a man walk down?” too.

Here’s a legend (yes he is) who is clear about what’s obvious. The more you listen, the better you hear. The more you practise, the easier it will look. There’s no short cuts.

Problem is, of course, you may not have fifty years to spare; I certainly don’t. And that still leaves us with the business of the free verse most of us are wedded to in one form or another, or unrhymed irregular stanzas, or whatever. And line breaks. I’ve honestly tried to get to grips with it, to get beyond the intuition of the ear, and the feel of internal rhythms. Pasted into the back cover of one of my workbooks is a photocopy of an article by Dana Gioia (I Googled him).

‘Thirteen ways of thinking about the poetic line’.

Every now and then I have the feeling that I sort of get it, but more often I have the same sense of hopelessness I got from Euclidean geometry when I was eleven. I ‘got’ the first couple of axioms, but when I tried to see how they all interacted they turned into wool. It’s still worth struggling with it. Line by line it all seems like commonsense. Have a go. See what you think. I like Number 4.

There should be a reason why every line ends where it does.

Yup. I’ll vote for that. Also for number 13.

The line break is nearly always audible (and always visible) even if only as a tiny pause or echo.

I really ‘get’ that..it’s that business of the tension between what your eye and your ear are simultaneously telling you. It says you have to listen.

What else? I’ve had workshops with Mimi Khalvati and with Jane Draycott, both of whom seem exquisitely at ease with the technicalities of form and line. Mimi even startled me by counting the lines of one of my poems, and declaring herself happy to find there were 26. I still don’t get it. At the end of the day, for all the elegance of their analyses, what I carried away was the awareness that it was coming down to the fact that they had more finely attuned ears than mine, that they could spot the tiniest of bum notes when I couldn’t. And perhaps that Dylan has it right. You just have to get on and do it and listen as hard as you can to as much poetry as you can.

But here’s a game you might like to play. It comes out of my genuine puzzlement about prosepoems, about my inability to see what they’re for. (I guess Carrie Etter will put me right on that).  One of the reasons for this is that I’ve been reading a lot of Hilary Mantel of late, and being struck, again and again and again, how much of her prose actually seems to be veined with what feel and sound like poems. (Whatever that means). How about this from ** The giant, O’Brien.

The Giant: ‘If only I could get a good poet. Somebody to recite at him. A good poet can recite a man to death. A poet takes a person’s earlobe between his finger and thumb and grinds it, and straight away that person dies. With a wisp of straw and a cross word they drive a man demented. They chew flesh and set it on the threshold and when a man steps over it he drops to his knees and expires.

The poet has his memorial in repetition, and the statesman in stone and bronze. The scholar’s hand lies always on his book and the thinker’s eyes on canvas travel the room to rest on each human face; the rebel has his ballad and his cross, his bigot’s garland, his wreath of rope. But for the poor man and the giant there is the scrubbed wooden slab and the slop bucket, there is the cauldron and the boiling pot, and the dunghill for his lights; so he is a stench in the nose for a day or a week, so he is a no-name, so he is oblivion. Stories cannot save him. When human memory runs out, there is the memory of animals; behind that the memory of the plants, and behind that the memory of the rocks. But the winds and the sea wear the rocks away, and the cell-line runs to its limit, where meaning falls away from it, and it loses knowledge of its own nature. Unless we plead on our knees with history, we are done for, we are lost. We must step sideways, into that country where space plaits and knots, where time folds and twists: where the years pass in a day.

Just take that first paragraph, and think what happens if you put line breaks in it. Like this:

A good poet

can recite a man to death.

A poet takes a person’s earlobe

between his finger

and thumb

and grinds it

and straight away that person dies.

With a wisp of straw

and a cross word

they drive a man demented.

They chew flesh and set it

on the threshold

and when a man steps over it

he drops to his knees and expires

 

Why those line breaks?   What changes if you make the lines longer?

 

A good poet

A good poet can recite a man to death.

A poet takes a person’s earlobe between

his finger and thumb and grinds it

and straight away that person dies.

With a wisp of straw and a cross word

they drive a man demented. They chew flesh

and set it on the threshold

and when a man steps over it

he drops to his kness and expires.

 

What have you got that the prose hasn’t? What have you lost, if anything, that the first version had? I think it’s flatter. Less engaged, more ‘reasonable’, less angry. Or try the second paragraph, or at least part of it:

But for the poor man and the giant
there is the scrubbed wooden slab
and the slop bucket,
there is the cauldron
and the boiling pot,
and the dunghill for his lights;
so he is a stench in the nose for a day or a week,
so he is a no-name,
so he is oblivion.
Stories cannot save him.

Maybe it’s because most of my first drafts come from writers’ workshops where I write flat-out in continuous ‘prose’ that I feel comfortable with this kind of game. Except that it isn’t prose, any more than these extracts from Hilary Mantel are prosaically prose. There must be some kind of governing rhythm in there that comes from things like repetitions of all kinds. Maybe it’s a question of learning to listen for it and its tricks. Anyway, if your Sunday is lacking spice, have a go with this game. At least, unlike Milton and Browning and all the other indefatigable toilers, you’ve got a word processor that lets you create version after version at the touch of a key. Aren’t we the lucky ones?

I hope you’re all on the crest of a wave this Easter. Keep riding it. No wipeouts.

 

**Hilary Mantel, The giant O’Brien  [Fourth Estate. London,. 1998]

 

breaking point

wave 1

Contrary to the truth universally acknowledged that British children aren’t taught standard English and the conventions of writing it down, here’s the actual truth.. What they HAVE to be taught has been there in black and white in the Framework for the Literacy Hour for years. Politicians don’t trouble themselves with this kind of detail. Maybe they should. So spare a thought for the teachers of 4-7 year olds who have to make sure that young children know how to use a full stop correctly. And, as a corollary,that they have grasped the concept of a sentence sufficiently for them to recognise one when they’ve written it. Think for a moment about that. You know a sentence when you see one. You just read some. Now tell yourself what a sentence is, or what it has to do to be a sentence. Maybe you say it has to have a finite verb in it. Forget for a moment how you’d set about explaining that to a 6 year old. Now get a copy of Bleak House, open it at chapter one and read the first 30 lines or so. Lots of full stops.

London. / Implacable November weather. / Fog everywhere.   

Not a finite verb in sight. Why does it work? Because these are oral sentences, written down. All grammars leak. So keep this in mind while I spend a Sunday ruminating on the business of when a poem is or isn’t a poem, and how curious and puzzling and endlessly shifting is this business of lines and line breaks. And I’m going to start with (and maybe stay with) punctuation.

jane austen

Think about this handwritten draft. I assume it’s in sentences….Jane Austen wrote it. I wouldn’t like to proof read the punctuation, though, because the words are close together. You don’t just need space around words, but space between them. White space is punctuation, and you need white space to put those visually insignificant punctuation marks in. The more white space you have, the easier it is. Here’s a thing. 5 and 6 year olds have to learn how to write instructional texts, and the easiest way to to get them started is to write recipes.

What’s the first thing?

Ingredients. And equipment.

You will need.    

What comes next?    A colon.  You will need:

What next?

A new line.

And then you can write a list.

What comes between items in a list?

Commas.

Or, even more fun,

*Bullet points.

A new line for each.

See how the white space lets you see clearly. And what next? Instructions. A numbered list, and a new line for each number.

1. Take three eggs, and separate the yolks and the whites. (Full stop)….and so on.

You don’t need to define a verb (and I can’t anyway. I can tell you what it does). In each line, it’ll be the first word in the sentence. But the text you produce will be easy to read because there’ll be a lot of white space. The space shows you how to read.  The text will look a bit poem-like, because it it’ll have a justified left margin and a raggedy right-hand margin.Hold on to that.

Now, a different kind of thought. Here’s a couple of pages from Dickens.

dickens-charles-bleak-B20122-15

One thing I used to tell A level students (and, indeed, undergraduates) who were daunted by 500 page novels, was that dialogue moves the narrative and the plot along, so you can’t ignore it. On the other hand, a densely printed stretch of text is likely to be reflective or descriptive, and if you’re reading a 19thC novel in particular, the first sentence of the paragraph should tell you what’s in the paragraph, and you can ignore the rest. (This is just for a first reading, to get the shape and sweep in your mind, you understand…I never did synopses or Coles notes). What you rely on is the amount of empty space. If there’s a lot of it, you can’t ignore the text. This is hard on Thomas Hardy, but there you go.

‘And your point….?’ I hear you ask. I guess it’s that poetry is largely empty spaces round not a lot of words, and that there’s no hiding place for any word that’s not doing a job. And also that you become very conscious, as a reader, of the curious tension between what your eye tells you and what your ear tells you, and , for me, this is one of the great pleasures of poetry. One the other hand, as a writer, it’s one of the things that frightens me, because I can hardly ever explain to myself why I make a line break where I do, except that it sounds right. ‘Sounds’ rather than ‘feels’, although that’s at work too. Whatever it means.

You have to admit that working in traditional forms can often solve that problem, whatever other technical problems it creates. Iambic pentameters/ blank verse…wonderful. Close to natural speech rhythms, di DUM di DUM …five of them…and end on a stressed syllable. Line breaks? Sorted. Syllabics? Haiku? Sorted. Any rhyming poetry and you have the line-breaks for every rhyming line. Then along comes Modernism, with its ears finely attuned to the strict rhythms of all the traditions that fed it, and careful craft apprenticships of its inventors, so it knew just which rules it was breaking, and why. Along comes Free Verse. There’s a seductively misleading name for you. Same in the visual arts, of course. Picasso and Braque and Matisse and the rest could all handle paint and line and perspective. They served their time and knew what the rules were stopping them doing and just how to break them and why.

If you want an impassioned and wholly idiosyncratic take on this you could do a lot worse than spend 20 minutes with Bob Dylan’s musings on 50-odd years in the business of singer-songwriting. It’s a sort of ‘Tradition and the individual talent’ lecture, but a lot more fun than T S Eliot. Just Google Bob Dylan Musicares speech. You will not for a second regret it. What he constantly returns to is the trope that everything he ever created he learned from repeated absorption in other writers’ work., in older traditions. Here’s a flavour of what he said…it’s even better to listen to

These songs didn’t come out of thin air. I didn’t just make them up out of whole cloth. Contrary to what Lou Levy said, there was a precedent. It all came out of traditional music: traditional folk music, traditional rock ‘n’ roll and traditional big-band swing orchestra music.
I learned lyrics and how to write them from listening to folk songs. And I played them, and I met other people that played them back when nobody was doing it. Sang nothing but these folk songs, and they gave me the code for everything that’s fair game, that everything belongs to everyone.
For three or four years all I listened to were folk standards. I went to sleep singing folk songs. I sang them everywhere, clubs, parties, bars, coffeehouses, fields, festivals. And I met other singers along the way who did the same thing and we just learned songs from each other. I could learn one song and sing it next in an hour if I’d heard it just once.
If you sang “John Henry” as many times as me — “John Henry was a steel-driving man / Died with a hammer in his hand / John Henry said a man ain’t nothin’ but a man / Before I let that steam drill drive me down / I’ll die with that hammer in my hand.”
If you had sung that song as many times as I did, you’d have written “How many roads must a man walk down?” too.

Here’s a legend (yes he is) who is clear about what’s obvious. The more you listen, the better you hear. The more you practise, the easier it will look. There’s no short cuts. Problem is, of course, you may not have fifty years to spare; I certainly don’t. And that still leaves us with the business of the free verse most of us are wedded to in one form or another, or unrhymed irregular stanzas, or whatever. And line breaks. I’ve honestly tried to get to grips with it, to get beyond the intuition of the ear, and the feel of internal rhythms. Pasted into the back cover of one of my workbooks is a photocopy of an article by Dana Gioia (I Googled him).

‘Thirteen ways of thinking about the poetic line’.

Every now and then I have the feeling that I sort of get it, but more often I have the same sense of hopelessness I got from Euclidean geometry when I was 11. I ‘got’ the first couple of axioms, but when I tried to see how they all interacted they turned into wool. It’s still worth struggling with it. Line by line it all seems like commonsense. Have a go. See what you think. I like Number 4.

There should be a reason why every line ends where it does.

Yup. I’ll vote for that. Also for number 13.

The line break is nearly always audible (and always visible) even if only as a tiny pause or echo.

I really ‘get’ that..it’s that business of the tension between what your eye and your ear are simultaneously telling you. It says you have to listen. Who else? I’ve had workshops with Mimi Khalvati and with Jane Draycott, both of whom seem exquisitely at ease with the technicalities of form and line. Mimi even startled me by counting the lines of one of my poems, and declaring herself happy to find there were 26. I still don’t get it. At the end of the day, for all the elegance of their analyses, what I carried away was the awareness that it was coming down to the fact that they had more finely attuned ears than mine, that they could spot the tiniest of bum notes when I couldn’t. And perhaps that Dylan has it right. You just have to get on and do it and listen as hard as you can to as much poetry as you can.

But here’s a game you might like to play. It comes out of my genuine puzzlement about prosepoems, about my inability to see what they’re for. And one of the reasons for this is that I’ve been reading a lot of Hilary Mantel of late, and being struck, again and again and again, how much of her prose actually seems to be veined with what feel and sound like poems. (Whatever that means). How about this from ** The giant, O’Brien.

The Giant: ‘If only I could get a good poet. Somebody to recite at him. A good poet can recite a man to death. A poet takes a person’s earlobe between his finger and thumb and grinds it, and straight away that person dies. With a wisp of straw and a cross word they drive a man demented. They chew flesh and set it on the threshold and when a man steps over it he drops to his knees and expires.

The poet has his memorial in repetition, and the statesman in stone and bronze. The scholar’s hand lies always on his book and the thinker’s eyes on canvas travel the room to rest on each human face; the rebel has his ballad and his cross, his bigot’s garland, his wreath of rope. But for the poor man and the giant there is the scrubbed wooden slab and the slop bucket, there is the cauldron and the boiling pot, and the dunghill for his lights; so he is a stench in the nose for a day or a week, so he is a no-name, so he is oblivion. Stories cannot save him. When human memory runs out, there is the memory of animals; behind that the memory of the plants, and behind that the memory of the rocks. But the winds and the sea wear the rocks away, and the cell-line runs to its limit, where meaning falls away from it, and it loses knowledge of its own nature. Unless we plead on our knees with history, we are done for, we are lost. We must step sideways, into that country where space plaits and knots, where time folds and twists: where the years pass in a day.

Just take that first paragraph, and think what happens if you put line breaks in it. Like this:

A good poet

can recite a man to death.
A poet takes a person’s earlobe
between his finger and thumb                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         and grinds it,
and straight away that person dies.
With a wisp of straw
and a cross word
they drive a man demented.
They chew flesh and set it
on the threshold
and when a man steps over it
he drops to his knees
and expires

Why those line breaks?  (apart from the fact that when this goes out via Facebook, the line ‘and grinds it’ gets right-justified, rather than left-justified. I can do nothing to change its mind about this. Soz). What changes if you make the lines longer? What have you got that the prose hasn’t? Or try the second paragraph, or at least part of it:

But for the poor man and the giant
there is the scrubbed wooden slab
and the slop bucket,
there is the cauldron
and the boiling pot,
and the dunghill for his lights;
so he is a stench in the nose for a day or a week,
so he is a no-name,
so he is oblivion.
Stories cannot save him.

Maybe it’s because most of my first drafts come from writers’ workshops where I write flat-out in continuous ‘prose’ that I feel comfortable with this kind of game. Except that it isn’t prose, any more than these extracts from Hilary Mantel are prosaically prose. There must be some kind of governing rhythm in there that comes from things like repetitions of all kinds. Maybe it’s a question of learning to listen for it and its tricks. Anyway, if your Sunday is lacking spice, have a go with this game. At least, unlike Milton and Browning and all the other indefatigable toilers, you’ve got a word processor that lets you create version after version at the touch of a key. Aren’t we the lucky ones?

Next week we’re having a guest, and you can lie back and be entertained rather than lectured and hectored. OK. Put the chairs away, and off you go. No running.

Oh, and if you’re wondering why this vanished from Facebook on Saturday night, only to reappear this Sunday morning, it’s because I took a piece of reasoned criticism to heart and made a couple of changes. x

 

**Hilary Mantel, The giant O’Brien  [Fourth Estate. London,. 1998]

as the leaves to the trees, and first line nerves

John_Keats_by_William_Hilton

What is it about portraitists  and poets ….that default pose of prophetic pensiveness? Less so with photographers, I suppose, but painters just can’t help themselves. I think that they think that they’re immortalising visionaries, all tremblingly open to the arrival of the Muse in a whisper of flame and plumage. What I see is the blank-eyed terror of the creature in the headlights. It’s very layered, isn’t it, that apparently youthfully-dismissive line of Keats? ”If poetry doesn’t come as naturally as the leaves to the tree then it had better not come at all.” Something like that. Think on, though. You can’t force a poem to be, can you? And meanwhile, there’s that screen or that sheet of blank accusing paper.

The empty page. I got the germ of this post from a recent post from Josephine Corcoran…it was about her trusty fountain pen, and boy, did it attract some responses! It struck me just how fussy I am about getting myself in the way of writing anything. I’m a pen and paper person. I don’t compose on a screen usually (though I seem quite happy to be writing this straight on to the screen; maybe that’s because it’s a sort of rambling essay, and I can go with the flow) and I certainly don’t write the first drafts of poems on a screen. Or in pencil..maybe, because that seems just too provisional and uncommitted. There’s nothing provisional about ink. Oh, and the pen and the paper have to get on well together. For years and years I would only write on unlined A4 paper, with a stainless steel Parker fountain pen. And only EVER in black ink. Don’t you agree: A5 and blue ink/biro make you think, inexorably, of Basildon Bond?…you couldn’t be writing poems on that. But then I dropped the pen and bust the nib (fine point, by the way…more friction, cleaner line, more fluency for less effort) and replacements wouldn’t wear into the smoothness of line I loved. Then I discovered Stabilo fine point felt-tip pens, and have stuck with them ever since. They are beautiful. Recently I have stopped writing only in black, and gone all frivolous with dark greens and browns and port-wine reds. I make my own notebooks…A4…and for some reason, I switched to lined paper. Maybe it was because I could buy stocks of ready-folded, lined A3 and it was easier to measure up the spaces for the kettlestitching. That’s where we are at the moment. A4 lined notebooks, fine-point Stabilo pens and a range of subdued colour. Sad innit? It’s like footballers and their lucky underpants/socks/bobble hat. But I swear I can’t settle to writing poems without the right gear.

So, here we are. Sitting at desk. Radio 2 (I can’t think in silence or in noise that’s interesting).Coffee. Notebook(s). The right kind of pen. Workshop notes in another lot of notebooks…draft poems have to have their own notebook. And a blank page. And………………

I hear the whisper of the dying Kurtz . The horror……the horror……..And tell me, all you poets, why should that be? Perhaps for you it isn’t. But it is for me. Why not just start writing, anything, anything at all, no matter what?

(At this point I wander off, downstairs, into the garden.)

(And, after some unspecified time, I wander back)

Right. Where was I? Shouldn’t go deadheading geraniums in the middle of a cobweb ramble. But it is all soft and golden and Keatsian outside. Ah, yes. I know where I was. Before I even read Josephine Corcoran’s cobweb post, someone else had planted an idea firmly in the front of my mind, and it won’t go away. Thank you, Mimi Khalvati. This is roughly what she said:

The first line of the poem contains the DNA of that poem.Home_dna2

It deserves its attention-demanding space, does that. She had said a lot of other incisive things in her workshops, about line  and stanza breaks, and the tricks they play, but this is the one that shouldered its way to the front of the queue. It made me think of the first sentences of novels. Bleak House, for instance:

‘ London.’

That’s the sentence. That’s where we are, and as sure as eggs is eggs, that’s where we’ll spend a good deal of time. Why write it, otherwise? Then, first sentence of paragraph two:

‘Fog everywhere’.

Well, we’re not going to be in a world of moral or topographic certainty, now are we? Dickens is committed, and so are we. An even more disturbing first sentence,I think, is in D.H.Lawrence : The Rainbow. Here it is:

‘The Brangwens had lived for generations on the Marsh Farm’.

If that doesn’t make you shiver involuntarily, then you’re not listening; because they’re not going to live unchanged and comfortable for very much longer are they? Changes are coming, and they are hardly likely to be comfortable ones, otherwise the novel will very soon end.

‘The Brangwens had lived for generations on the Marsh Farm, and because they had the hang of it and were quite happy, they went on living like that.’

That’s not got legs, has it? But just try to think your self into David Herbert’s head, looking at the blank sheet, and dreading writing that first sentence, because he knows that once he’s done it, his feet are set on the track, and he’s handed over all sorts of freedom and choice, for thousands and thousands of words. Who’d be a novelist, eh?

And then I started to think: but it’s even more critical in a poem, isn’t it, because there’s nowhere to hide. You’ve got maybe 10 – 20 lines, and you’ve got to grab your reader, and you’ve got to surprise and intrigue, and you daren’t give the game away too soon, and anyway, you don’t know what the game is till it’s over and you’ve lost or won. And then I began to think: it’s not even the first line. It’s worse than that. It’s actually the first word. Unusually, I started to make notes, scribble ideas, knock together a list…all very speculative, but it’s what I’m going to share if you can spare me the time. Comfortable? Here we go. What I’m going to do is work through the word classes (I know that they used to be called ‘parts of speech’ but actually they’re not…they’re parts of sentences. Of course, if you’re 10 years old, or a Primary teacher, then you are a graduate of the Literacy Hour, and you already knew that). Let’s see where we get to.

 

 

You will notice there’s just been an empty space. It is significant and symbolic. There’s been a two day gap, while I tried to make up my mind whether it was worth carrying on. Not existentially..just carrying on with this cobweb post. Thinking too precisely on the event. Prevaricating. That sort of thing. Is it going to work? have you thought this through? who wants to know, and why would they and hasn’t it all been said before and isn’t it all just a bit prententious? That sort of thing. Sod it. Here goes.

It’s all about syntax. English is all about word order, and poetry loves to play around with that to see what happens. So what’s the first bit of word language we handle? What’s the bit you learn first in a foreign language. Nouns. (And ‘that one’). As we say to the children: a noun tells you what the sentence is about. So how often is a noun the first word in any of your poems? What I did at this point was open Norman MacCaig’s Collected Poems at random (in a sequence from the late 1970’s as it happens) and copy the first lines of 30 consecutive poems. How many start with a noun? Four. That’s more than I expected:

Travelling’s fine – the stars tell me that

Everywhere place names          

Petitions pour into the Big House            

Reality isn’t what it used to be

Now, what strikes me is that they’e actually interesting nouns BUT the lines all sound more like titles than first lines…or that they’d make great titles. It’s what nouns do. And what comes along with nouns? Determiners, that’s what. (At this point I can hear the hot breath of former pupil and university lecturer in Linguistics, Anthea Fraser Gupta, on my neck…but I’ll press on and damn the consequences). You might not call them that, but they are all those useful/necessary little words…..a/the/those/this/my/her/many/ three(or any number word) and the rest. Now, how often is one of these the first word? MacCaig again:

The last word this one spoke                

That sun ray has raced to us            

That cold man with bad poems            

That green alone                                                                                                                                

The dunnock in the hedge                 

The countless generations                     

A cubic inch of some stars  

It gets me thinking. It seems that MacCaig is likelier to say ‘that’ than ‘this’ (but don’t hold me to that!) ; he’s certainly drawn to the assertive ‘that’, and ‘that’ carries more baggage than ‘the’ doesn’t it?  ‘The‘ is uncompromising too, of course. It knows where it is . The Brangwens. The pig lay on the barrow dead. ‘A‘ is always going to sound more tentative, more abstract, less assertive.. But whichever you choose will be followed by a noun or a noun phrase. English syntax makes sure of that. You’re going to play your hand early in the poem with a noun, determiners or not. Is that what you want? Mind you, we were wise enough to invent words that would do instead of nouns, and save us a lot of repetition. Pronouns, clever little workhorses. he/she/I/they/them/you/me….they can’t all be the first word in a poem, unless you’re being really subversive, but which do you favour? MacCaig at random, again.

They sit at their long tables                

You have to be stubborn             

You have more nicknames than legs         

I think of Lycidas, drowned     

I feel miserable, acting                                                            

I see an adder    

I like the almost perceptibles         

I thought they needed no Women’s Lib             

I don’t want to shuffle in a Greek theatre

This list surprised me. All those ‘I‘s’. You have to feel pretty sure of yourelf to get away with that,don’t you? Or have been steadily published for 30 years like MacCaig was then. Whatever, you have to be reflective, in some way or another, and I’m sort of suspicious of a poem starting with ‘I‘. Maybe it’s an English thing. ‘You’ is more interesting, because of the ambiguity..maybe it’s a way of avoiding ‘I’…a quick way of pretending objectivity. He/she/they are good because they are, however minutely, suspenseful; the reader is forced to read at least a bit more to find what they refer to. They don’t give the game away.

What about verbs, which tell you what’s happening in the sentence. How often is the first word of a poem a verb (not nouns like running, thinking, singing)? Odds on it’ll be a directive, an an instruction. MacCaig:       Stop looking like a purse.    That’s the only one, and it’s from my favourite toad poem. I just had second thoughts. It doesn’t have to be  a directive, does it. It could be a question, a request. Can (I)? May (I)? Might….? Or it could be sort of tentative: Let (me/us). Need to think about that. About the only one I found in my own stuff was      Listen.  Why should that be? I don’t know. If you have thoughts on this, then please share them.  Similarly, adjectives. Only one instance in my random MacCaig survey. Heartless, musical Ariel. Hard to manage an adjective as a first word.

Now then, the next bit’s slightly more complicated, so I’m going to bundle up a number of things together, and think about adverbials and adjectivals. Single words, and chunks…..phrases, clauses. I’ll be thinking about connectives at the same time. I’ve noticed that more and more of late, one of these three words will be the first in a first draft, and, often, in the nonstop of a workshop exercise I’ll start with  and   /    but   /    so. Really handy for cracking on , but also dangerously addictive. They give me a false sense of security and a spurious air of cocky self-confidence; they seem to say: ‘no need to introduce myself. I know you’ll be interested, because here I am in the middle of this fascinating stream of consciousness, and how could you not want to join me?’ As in

So I’m thinking of Ted Hughes’ gritstone house/ that tunnel of a yard, its slippery flags

which implies: ‘ you should be thinking: why’s he thinking of that? gosh, I simply have to find out’. Bingo. Am I seeing it more often in other people’s poetry? I’m not sure..but it’s catching. I’m certainly seeing lots more list poems these days and, as a consequence, lots more lines beginning with ‘and’. I sometimes wonder if everyone has done at least one workshop exercise based on Walt Whitman’s ‘Prayer for those who…..’ Oops….. I see I’m starting to go off-piste. Sure sign I should be stopping soon. OK. Adverbials, which tell us more about the verb. The where and the when and the how and the why…the warp and weft of narrative. Last bits of MacCaig, then:

Where the small burn /runs into the sea          

From its distance         

Though I’m in sunlight          

Under the broad flat stone        

When her life broke into smithereens                  

Everywhere places/ jut up  ( I know we’ve had this before, but the nice thing about words is that they do more than one kind of job. All grammars leak, said Edward Sapir, the linguist)

 

 

Where/From/Though/Under/When/Because/However/If

You could make a longer list, but the point is that they all start  longer, more complex sentences or trains of thought or lists. I think I’m always more comfortable writing any of these as a first word because it will be telling me that I have an idea in mind, and at least for a couple of lines I know where I’m going. It’ll let me know I’m going to write a story, or create a landscape, or explain someting, or have an argument. And that, I think, is what I’ve understood of Mimi Khalvati’s numinous phrase. The first line of a poem contains the DNA of that poem. If it doesn’t, it shouldn’t be the first line.

Now, none of this is of any use when you’re doing a first draft (and in any case you might be better off just writing unpunctuated prose and leaving all the fiddly stuff for later). I think what Mimi Khalvati has done for me is give me new tools in the tool bag. Redrafting tools. Reading tools. Evaluating tools. None of them stop the empty page looking any less daunting, and none of them will give you anything to say. Neither will staring at an empty page. What we all need first is to get out and do stuff and read stuff. Which is what I shall now do. I have a big piece of kit which turns the branches of pruned trees and bushes into little bits. I shall make mulch.

Who knows. I might even follow my own advice and a have a cobweb break for a week or two. Go and read stuff. Go and do stuff.

Just thought. I never mentioned ‘Maybe’  Of late, I’ve found myself starting first lines with ‘maybe’. Forget the gardening and write a new poem? Maybe.

Thanks for your time and company. See you later.

 

 

 

 

Writing workshops…opening doors and lighting candles as you go

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I remember with some fondness one of Alexei Sayle’s full-on rants, all shaven-headed aggro and strangled scouse vowels. ‘Werkshops! ****** werkshops! Legwarmers and poncy improvs…listen. If it hasn’t gorra lathe and bench fulla spanners, it’s not a werkshop!’ And recently, with no fondness at all, a Facebook post where some slack-witted journalist was having a sneery pop at Creative Writing courses..MA’s in particular. I think I said that even though my own MA course was a staggering let-down and that other friends felt equally short-changed, I had no reservations about why I paid to go on it, and why I’m happy to pay to go to poetry workshops; the reason’s simple. Because I want to learn how to do things better.

They don’t all work. I’ve been on a truly disappointing Arvon course. It was the first one I’d been on, and it might have been the last…except that because I was used to poetry workshops I knew it was because me and the tutors were a mismatch. Not their fault, I like to think when in a charitable mood. Anyway, what I want to write about is the ones that work for me and why, and also about the truly talented writers I’ve met and become friends with because of them. Nothing that follows will come as any surprise to those in the know, but I’ll be delighted if I reach anyone who’s not, and persuade them that this could be what they’re looking for (without knowing it).

clayton

Here’s one of my inspirations … missed him in that last post. Sorry Ian. Ian’s a broadcaster, writer, storyteller extraordinaire. He’s edited photgraphic essays on the days of winter Rugby League. He’s written hilariously about the music that’s been the soundtrack to his life; he’s written heartbreakingly about the death of his daughter, Billie*. He’s championed the cause of giving a voice to working-class communities in the mining villages of West Yorkshire. For years he ran a writer’s workshop at the sadly now-defunct Yorkshire Art Circus in Castleford, and that’s where I met him when I signed up for six month’s worth of Thursday morning workshops. The core of the group were women from Castleford, Normanton, Sharlston, Featherstone…towns whose pits and whose heart were ripped out in the 80’s. I didn’t learn much about writing poetry. Most of the folk were focussed on writing autobiography and family history. And, perhaps, even more than that, on telling stories. What I did learn was how to keep a note book. I wrote non-stop during each morning’s session, recording as much as I could of what people said, and what I thought about them and about their stories. I learned to write without thinking about how it looked or how it sounded, fast and impressionistically. I filled a big fat A4 notebook. I salvaged a couple of poems from it all, but the trick of letting words on to the page without worrying was the gift I was given…that and some brilliant stories. Without that experience, I doubt I could have got as much as I have from the following five years. Which takes us nicely to:peterann1

Ann and Peter Sansom. My poetry heroes. Julia Deakin introduced me to the Saturday Poetry Business writing days** when they were still based in Byram Arcade in Huddersfield. I would have been, I think, out of my depth among so many people who knew each other, and were comfortably familiar with the world of poetry and publishing and poetry readings. But I knew how to sit quiet (not like me at all) and write non-stop, regardless. So I did. I guess the format doesn’t suit everyone, the business of six or seven writing tasks, intensive 5 minute bursts of writing on the basis of the most minimal cues. It suits me because I’m lazy and I work best under pressure…paradoxically it frees me from second thoughts and second guessing and irrelevant self-censorship. It’s pure drafting, and it plunders the memory you didn’t know you had. I wrote down something Ann Sansom said about the magic of how it works : because you are writing for yourself; because you tell yourself things you didn’t know you knew. It’s a kind of ambush on the unconscious. Sit and deliver.

What the Poetry Business added to Ian Clayton’s work was, not surprisingly, poems. Sometimes I would write things that needed minimal editing, as though they’d been waiting around and hoping to be found. The picture that starts this week’s post is of a couple of the six notebooks that I’ve filled almost exclusively at P.B. workshops. And they are all in continuous prose. I can put the line breaks in later, if it’s a piece that’s worth keeping. I think I’ve done about 400 different exercises. How Ann and Peter think them up is a matter of abiding wonder. It’s always artful and without artifice, and is always about memory. The notebook page I chose to photograph is actually of a task at a different workshop, with Jane Draycott (of whom more later) but it’s typical, except that in this case the notes became a poem that won me a prize, a poem that Andrew Motion chose, and a poem that has made a huge difference to the way I think about myself as a writer. The poem is ‘Julie’. It’s in my pamphlet ‘Running out of Space’. I’ve discovered that if you click on the headline photograph you get a full-size image, large enough to read the text. What you find is that the notes are almost word for word the same as the opening of the finished poem.Somedays the gods smile. The prize money from ‘Julie’ paid for the printing of the pamphlet, and 80% of the poems in it came from Poetry Business writing days. The other thing they do is introduce you to a staggering range of contemporary poetry via the extracts they use to start many of the writing tasks. I cut them to size and stick them in my notebooks and reference them to the tasks they triggered. So I’ve learned to read more voices, and to buy more poetry. I’d never heard of Billy Collins, Alison McVety, Helen Mort, Denis O Driscol, Emily Berry, George Szirtes, and all the dozens of others. You learn from the company you keep.

There are two other things I value the Poetry Business writing days for. If the morning sessions surprise you into writing poems you didn’t know you had in you, then the afternoon sessions teach you about reading and editing. It’s hard, concentrated work, reading and listening to maybe ten other poets’ work, and getting focussed feedback on your own work. You learn that what you thought was probably pretty damn fine is, after all, provisional, and that you have to knuckle down to make it work for a reader. You learn that criticism is provisional too..a question of comments on the lines of ‘why not try this and see what happens’ and ‘do you really need this or that line/image/adjective’. You discover that readers find subtexts and layers you never anticipated. From Ann, in particular, you learn how reversing the order of a couple of lines, or, even more startling, making tiny adjustments to punctuation, can make a poem sing. Just to show we’re up to date, I was in Sheffield today, at a PB writing day, and apart from seven new sets of might-be-poems, and afternoon workshop poems of rare quality, I copied out yet another Ann Sansom bon mot. There was one poem that had a line in which poppies were growing at the edges of fields. She homed in on that one word. She said: you can come back to this; it’s one of those words: like drawing pins, that you use to stick the line together, till you can come back and fix it properly. I love that. It’s no good being a writer if you don’t learn to be a reader. So that’s one good thing. The other is to find that you’ve been admitted to a community of writers. Which takes us to:almaserra )ct 2013 051

Residential courses. If a day in the company of writers is good, then 5 or 6 or 7 days is (for me, with one exception) wonderful. I’ve said before that I like mountains and vistas and you can’t get much more of either than at the Old Olive Press. Lumb Bank is great, and so is Whitby, but this place does something extra for me. On an Arvon Course I get distracted by cooking in the afternoon. Can’t keep out of the kitchen. But at Almaserra Vella, thanks to Christopher North and Marisa, it doesn’t arise. You work flat out for three hours in the morning, eat your lunch. And then, (me, anyway), walk for miles in the afternoon, (or sit by the pool, or in the library, or in the cafe by the church) and let the words do as they will. And while you do that, someone cooks your evening meal. Astonishing. And you meet new tutors with different styles. Last year it was Jane Draycott, who, every day, added a new bit of  kit to the poetry toolbox. How to use viewpoint, voice, dialogue, setting, pace, line-length…on it went, layer after layer. And she left me with two phrases that see me through the trudgy bits of the process. She said, as she set us off on a task: off you go, opening doors, and lighting candles along the way. She said:look for the point where the poem detonates . So I do. One day I’ll be convinced I know exactly what she meant.  In a couple of weeks I’m off again. The tutor is Mimi Khalvati; she has, I’m told, a formidable reputation. Well, if you rest, you rust. I can’t wait. And please, Google ‘The Old Olive Press’….you won’t regret it. If you look closely at the picture, you can see it. It’s the blue house.

Finally, any new writing group is a daunting experience. But I find I can hide behind the physical business of non-stop writing; head down, focussed on the page, the physical act of making marks with a pen, I can blank out a room, and everyone in it, and simultaneously feel safe in the knowledge that in this situation it’s an entirely natural thing to be doing, whereas writing on my own sometimes feels terribly pose-y. And then, one day you find you want to read out something you just wrote, and that when you do, no one laughs. And you start to make friends who, it turns out, have been published and actually are famous but still treat you as an equal. Not only that, but sometimes you see poems emerging that you later meet again in published collections with the bonus you can hear the voices behind them,and the days when you first heard them. Some become especially special, as though I was somehow part of their making, even though I wasn’t. I met Kim Moore because, in one PB morning workshop, she read the draft of a poem she’d written that morning, on her way. Train journey, Barrow to Sheffield, which had such memorable images in it…the sheep that stand and drown in the incoming tide of a shallow estuary, the man waking up on the train, shouting ‘I’ve got to find the sword’ …..that it made me ask her for a copy. And she sent me one. That poem’s in her Poetry Business pamphlet competition winner: If they could speak like wolves. James Caruth, with the unfair advantage of a voice like Heaney’s, workshopped a draft that he’s written that morning. I’ve got a photocopy of the handwritten first version of ‘Lethe’ that we offered comments on, the newly-dead with her ‘ face pale as a clock.‘. That’s in another winning pamphlet: The death of narrative, and so is ‘Pigeon lofts, Penistone Road‘, from another afternoon workshop. There was Julie Mellor (yup, another winning pamphlet: Speaking through our bones) taking Heaney on with her poem about blackberries, and making me sit up straight with the image of the mole that marks a man for hanging. Julia Deakin not only workshopped poems from two collections (‘Slice’ , the tumultuous prosepoem ‘Checkpoint’, ‘Kingfisher on a tram’, amongst others) but I sat and watched her writing (5 minutes) what turned into For what we are about to receive, and the ‘Blackie’s children’s classics’ that taught us ‘that as children we belonged in prison’. And Gaia Holmes’ delicate ‘Trinkets’ asking for the gift of words you could arrange…make them say what you’ve always wanted me to say. So I’ve learned to hear the voices in poems from the voices behind them. And so much confidence

Writers’ workshops, their tutors, and friends like these help me find my voice. And if anyone asks why that’s important, I  repeat a line of Tony Harrison’s, one that should be written on every blackboard/chalkboard/whiteboard in every school in the country. The dumb go down in history, and disappear. That’s why.

Next week I promise you another undiscovered gem (except she isn’t), and, maybe some snapshots from ‘poetry readings I have been at’. Something like that. Thanks for listening.

*Ian Clayton: ‘Our Billie’ [Penguin. First published 2010]  and ‘Bringing it all back home’ [Route. 2008]

The Poetry Business pamphlets are published by Smith/Doorstop.

For details of Julia Deakin’s collections, ‘Eleven Wonders’ and ‘Without a dog’ see my post of a couple of weeks ago

**The regular Poetry Business Writing Days are on Saturdays, once a month, and meet at the Premier Inn in Sheffield (though there are also occasional PB Writing Days around the country)

You can contact the Poetry Business via their website (just Google Poetry Business) for all the information you could need about workshops, publications, competitions and submissions. And you should.

[The Poetry Business/ BankStreet Arts/ 32-40 Bank Street/ Sheffield S1 2DS]