We saw The Paper Cinema’s telling of The Odyssey a few nights ago. No words were spoken, but the live animations were accompanied by three extremely talented musicians armed with a host of sound effects to bring thunder, motorbikes and a giant cyclops to life.
The drawings were beautiful, the music evocative, and the story-telling full of action and very humorous. I’ve rarely seen anything so creative and instantaneous. It was a graphic novel come to life.
When Jackson Pollock was asked, of painting, “How do you know when you’ve finished?” He replied, “How do you know when you’ve finished making love?”
I’m about to try The Rialto with some poems, having worked on these particular pieces for around two years on and off. At various times I thought they were ‘nearly there’ but after a cooling off period I would dive back in. There were tendons to be stretched, forests to manicure, buried machinery to be unearthed. At a recent work in progress meet up with some friends, I announced that a poem was ‘basically done’ only to spend the next two weeks making one small adjustment after another.
But what does it mean for writing to be ‘finished’? Digitally published texts can be edited at any time and even traditional books are frequently revised between editions and printings. There are three versions of Wordsworth’s The Prelude, or Growth of a Poet’s Mind: 1799, 1805 and 1850 (published posthumously). Paul Valery claimed that “A poem is never finished, only abandoned”. Auden agreed with Valery. He also believed the most painful type of poem for the poet to be “the good ideas which his incompetence or impatience prevented from coming to much”. He revisited some of his published pieces many times over his career. I’ve carried the Valery quote around for a long time but I don’t necessarily agree. There is a point at which the forces in a poem pull the rubble into a whole, like a planet pulling itself into a sphere.
How much landscaping should you do once this has happened? A good rule of thumb might be if you can read your poem without wanting to make a single change. Put it aside for an hour. A night. Show it to someone without having to explain or apologise for it. Work on something else for a few weeks. Inspiration is ongoing: it can grow steadily or quickly, like grass. Your subconscious mind holds on to things long after you’ve put them down. Writing goes deeper and is more mysterious than we think.
The ideal would be to combine the spontaneity of your first thought with patience and clarity. After all, what you have on the page may only be a framework for what you really intend to say. Emanuel Lasker, the great chess master said, “If you find a good move, look for a better one”. You may have a good line, but is there something better? You should be prepared to ask that question for a long time. This means living with the work. Waiting. A poem is a journey. You will cover unexpected distance before it is done. A good amount of that distance is time. Seasons change. A new landscape takes shape.
Am I sure that these poems are finished now? Yes. Maybe. I’ve been celebrating a friend’s birthday with a few ales so my judgement might be impaired. I’ll sleep on it one more night.
I’ve been shortlisted for the Live Canon 2012 poetry competition. The brilliant thing about this competition is that you get to see your poem, and those of the other hopefuls, performed by some great actors. Humour, darkness and beauty all shine more brightly in the embodiment and interpretation that actors can breathe into a piece.
My poem is ‘Weather’. Last year I was shortlisted with ‘The Clay Body’ and seeing that long poem performed on stage is one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had when it comes to writing. You can check out the full shortlist on the Live Canon website. This inventive troupe do so much to promote poetry of all eras.
I’ve just finished reading Margaret Craven’s I Heard the Owl Call My Name. For a novel that’s 133 pages it took me a long time to read. It’s about an Anglican priest who is unaware that he has only three years to live. The bishop is told this by the priest’s doctor and sends the young ordinand to Kingcome, British Columbia to live with First Nations Indians.
“You almost have to throw the book against the wall because you are so intensely alive that you need a break.”
The following passage is Jim, one of the major characters, describing the lifecycle of salmon.
“Both the males and the females die. On the way up the river the swimmer will pass the fingerlings of his kind coming down to the sea. They want to go and are afraid to go. They still swim upstream, but gently, letting the river carry them downstream tail first, and the birds and the larger fish prey upon them to devour them, and pretty soon they turn to face their dangers.”
The richness of the work is too much, although intellectually absorbed it takes time to settle at the back of the mind and deeper in the heart. So I put the book down and go back to mundane things.
Until I saw Crow performed at The Borough Hall tonight, I don’t think I’d realised how well dance and poetry complement each other. They are physical in different ways. Poetry is a language we read with the body and the senses. Dance struggles between freedom and the corporeality of the body. Like poets, dancers can contort the language of the everyday and ‘make it new’. They are naturally symbolic arts and share a vicarious attraction.
Ted Hughes’ trickster was inventively staged thanks to Handspring’s beautifully incomplete puppetry. We saw Crow literally animated from a spitball of black lace, metal and ink to something eerily human and then something still more mysterious.
I sent a batch of poems to Poetry London yesterday. Sending to magazines is a great excuse to catch up on any issues you haven’t read in a while. They give you a sense of what’s happening in poetry. It’s refreshing to see emerging themes and styles. How far this is because of the editorial vision or the movements of a collective muse is difficult to know. If it were obvious the magazine would probably feel laboured and didactic.
But even when you are familiar with a magazine, it’s not really possible to second guess what the editor wants to read because, in all likelihood, the editor wants to be surprised. All we can say is that the poem has to be one of the silver bullets: self-contained enough to survive when separated from the body of your work. Perhaps all poems should be.
Tonight was my second poetry workshop with Joe and Hugh. While you might normally go to the pub to chat and catch up, it’s good to meet with the feeling of purpose a workshop session brings. That shared sense of purpose you get from meeting other writers has re-energised me, adding a social dimension to what is otherwise a solitary pursuit. It’s great to read their work and try between us to elucidate something about the craft.
We rounded off the night by hunting bats using Joe’s echolocation detector. This impressive gizmo translated bat calls into a range that we could hear. We watched pipistrelles fly under the bridge, snatching moths above the river and spinning through streetlights, and all the while we were eavesdropping on their high frequency chatter. A hidden language made briefly perceptible.
My hope is to have some poems published in a magazine this year, so I haven’t entered any competitions up until now. Whilst regrouping following a volley of rejection letters, I noticed that the deadline for The Bridport Prize was approaching. Tempt not a desperate man. I’ve been shortlisted for The Bridport a few times and felt that it deserved another attempt.
It’s quite easy to get excited about competitions, with the prize money and the anonymity that means even an unknown can hope to be discovered. The work of submitting to magazines can fall by the wayside all too easily, and I’ve neglected it in the past. I’ve earmarked a handful of the best journals to submit to during the latter half of the year, so check back here to see how I get on.