My friend of multifarious talents Sophie Herxheimer, invited me to take part in ‘the writing process blog tour’ – a sort of chain letter connecting writers’ thoughts and ideas about how and what they write. You can read Sophie’s blog here and my response below.
What am I working on?
I published my first book last year and I’m now seeing reviews coming out. It feels scary to be back at the beginning somehow, and not know if another book is even within my reach. I want to write something that feels different to the book – subject matter is one consideration, but also I’d like to play about with form and genre a bit more. I’d really like to create a poetry comic, for example, inspired by Bianca Stone and through taking part in Chrissy Williams’s Poetry and Comics group. Reading a lot is really important in this context. If I’m to write something that feels new I need to have something new in my head. I’m reading Noelle Kocot, Rae Armantrout and Oli Hazzard, plus the manuscripts of Mark Waldron, Crispin Best, Nia Davies and Rebecca Perry. Reading has gently disrupting effect on my thinking, creating a new kind of orderliness as though I’ve dusted down the book shelves and selected a new sweep of ornaments to draw the eye.
I’m also editing an anthology of poems on friendship among women – Best Friends Forever (forthcoming from The Emma Press). I’ve selected all the poems and I’m now scrutinising the poems for any edits and working on the ordering of the collection. I loved how Sara Peters grouped poems in her book 1996 and I’m looking at whether that will work for the anthology. I’m also reading poems for the next issue of Poems in Which.
I find I need to have one or two projects on the go at once. One thing I’d love to do is stage a festival of women poets, so once I’ve finished work on Best Friends Forever I’m going to begin looking at how I might pull that off.
How does my work differ from others in its genre?
As an aside, I am interested in blurring of genre – I’m a big fan of prose poems and have become more interested in visual poetry recently. In terms of my own work I guess my work is made distinct by a gurlesque aesthetic, a quite particular syntax and sporadic officious diction to undercut the sugar (which must come from being a civil servant). I’m aiming for tenderness, a naïve directness (“see this heart on my face”), humour and self-admonishment/interrogation of thought. The poem is where I can reveal both the real and the longed-for.
Why do I write what I do?
I explored this a bit in the essay I wrote for Michelle McGrane’s Peony Moon blog. I am afraid of dying and I’m afraid of wasting this life. I am interested in poetry as a way of making a good dream fixed and remaking it again and again till I’m surrounded by all the good dreams. Or of bottling a dark dream and forcing it to sit still till I can look it in the eyes and not turn away. I’m also – even though my ego is both driving this and unhappy to admit it – attempting to make a permanent record of my own living.
How does my writing process work?
I am the least diligent of all the writers. Writing is a particular mood, but I don’t know how to achieve that mood. My ideal scenario is to wake up hungover early on a Saturday morning, my laptop on my lap in bed and when I lay my fingers on the keys something happens. This was the same technique I used when I used to write piano music. I’d say 2 out of 5 times something happens and usually this is a complete poem. I write line by line till it is finished, editing as I go. I save the files every few minutes so ‘v.1 v.2 v.3 >>>>>> v.19’ etc so I can go back and check to see if I edited something out too early. Once it’s done I send to one or two close friends to read, then I’ll think about what they’ve said for a week or so and make any edits. Then it’s pretty much done.
But since my book it’s been taking many months to get to a complete draft of a poem. I think that’s probably a good thing, though I’m terribly impatient so find it frustrating. When I feel as though I’ve not written a poem for an age I usually turn to collage, which I find relatively easy and fun, especially if I find the right text to use (here’s some examples #YesAllWomen and Our Princesses and their Dogs). This helps me get a sense of accomplishment (instant gratification) and relax a bit about the poems that are in my own words. Or I read poetry or prose and take a few words I like and see if something comes of that. And if that doesn’t work I sort through my wardrobe or do the washing up and forget about writing poems altogether.
I find that if I don’t have a free weekend morning once in a while I won’t write full poems at all, but I am writing fragments all the time on my twitter feed. I use it as notebook for images or lines, but I guess I’m also publishing one line poems on there, in my series of ‘unrequited love for’ and ‘poem in which’ tweets. I love getting the bus everywhere because it’s not underground (I don’t like being underground), I get phone reception and I get to see life happening in relatively natural light. Some ideas I don’t tweet, perhaps because they’re not quite fully formed or a bit too abstract, so they go my iPhone notes. I also occasionally get lines come to me in very long work meetings, so they go in the back of my work notebook, and that’s just about the only time I write things out long hand.
I guess overall I don’t feel I have a ‘process’ really, and in some ways writing for me is about liberating me from the process-driven world of my day job. Having said that, while the idea of scheduling time to write has never appealed to me, occasionally it’s worked. When I did the Poetry School’s Shingle Street residency I was terrified a whole week of ‘time to write’ would actually inhibit the act of writing. I came away from the residency with three new poems.
I’ve invited Alex MacDonald, Rebecca Perry and Julia Bird to take part next. Alex and Julia will answer on their own blogs and I’ll host Rebecca’s response here.
Alex MacDonald lives and works in London. He has had his poetry published in The Quietus, Clinic II and English PEN and was shortlisted for the Poetry School / Pig Hog Poetry Prize. He hosted a series of readings at the V&A Museum on independent poetry publishers and was recently the Poet in Residence for the Poetry School.
Rebecca Perry is a graduate of Manchester’s Centre for New Writing and currently lives in London. Her poetry has appeared most recently in Poetry London and The Rialto, and she has work forthcoming in The Salt Anthology of New Writing and Best British Poetry 2013. Her debut collection Beauty/Beauty is forthcoming from Bloodaxe.