In my last blog, Creativity and the Slow Life, I talked about my quest for a slower way of living, a slower, more meaningful way of being a writer, and how I was exploring the works of other writers, looking at how they write but also why they write. because I’m quite focused on this journey I feel that almost everything I am doing at the minute; every poet I interview for Spelt, every poetry collection I read, every class I teach, is reflecting something back to me about my own practice. I think I needed to be self aware and open enough for this to happen and I’m pleased that I am now able to stand in front of myself as a person, and as a writer, and make decisions around my own practice and my own development; decisions that are about growth and happiness as much about the validation of publication and ‘success’. Which all sounds terribly pretentious, but that is part of the problem that I have with myself. I come from a place where working as an artist or a writer isn’t a real job and even though I know and am certain that this is what I am, even though I aspire to be a writer, to do the thing that I think I’m good at, to acknowledge and accept and use the compulsion that I have to create, use it to be a good writer, a good artist, I can’t quite shed that voice, the skin that hangs about me in shreds spelling out pretension. That word, pretension opens the door to other well worn internal phrases of mine, spoken from the ghosts of my own life: Who does she think she is and she thinks she’s better than us.
The thing that stops me from reaching a place of satisfaction with myself though, is in fact me. I am a meme.
If nothing changes, things remain the same.
This year is very much about doing work on myself, and on my writing practice. As part of that journey I am actively reading about other writers and their own journeys, how they face their own writing demons, how they develop as writers. It is a journey of absolute joy, and of connecting in a very real way to writers that I respect immensely. In my last blog I recommended Tanya Shadrick’s The Cure for Sleep. This time round I want to recommend to you Why I Write Poetry, edited by Ian Humphreys and published by nine Arches Press. It’s a collection of essays by poets on (you guessed it) why they write poetry, but also on how they approach their practice and the big and small things that they have done to find their own way, to find their own voice, to be true to themselves, to write authentically. The essays are wildly different from each other. Vahni Capildeo’s essay – Skull Sutra: On Writing the Body – is a piece of incredible creativity in its own right and simply couldn’t have been written by any other poet, such is the strength of their voice that I felt the essay could have been a prose poem. I absolutely recognised the connection to landscape and the way of responding to that landscape that I found in Jean Sprackland’s In Praise of Emptiness: On Writing about Place and Paying Attention, and found myself experimenting with my senses when out walking and writing because of that essay. There are essays in this collection that gave me insights into backgrounds that I could never have known about, Romalyn Ante’s essay – Pusikit: On Working as a Poet While Working for a Living is incredibly moving. I found it inspiring, it made me look at myself and ask myself where my own obstacles were and whether they were truly obstacles, or excuses. I found Daniel Sluman’s essay How I Built a New Voice: On writing and Living as a Disabled Writer astonishingly good also. The idea that a writer would choose to take the risk of stepping away from publication, awards, the striving and comparison that makes up so much of being ‘successful’ as a poet in order to develop a new way of writing authentically about their own existence struck a chord with me, in fact seeing someone else doing this was like being given permission to do that myself. Similarly, the way that Jacqueline Saphra writes about her own journey to poetry from a different career is just beautiful, invigorating. He essay Keep Ithaca Always in Your Mind: On the Journey and value of Poetry is another essay that has allowed me to revisit my own practice but also to remind myself of why I want to write in the first place. I posted on social media that I simply cannot recommend this collection of essays highly enough, it is better, in my very humble opinion, than any ‘how to’ book of craft, because the voices in this book are not talking about how, but why, which must be the most overlooked question in writing. Why do you want to write, what is the purpose? Why does it matter to you that you pull down your poems and set them on the page, or unwind the spool of thread that is your own story, or that you create a place of joy and safety for others in a world that you create. As a species we have always created, it is the thing that separates us from other non human animals, it is the thing that joins all of us together. That compulsion to change and translate experience into art is powerful, incantatory, magical. If you are a poet, you need this book in your life. I read one essay a day as part of my morning routine alongside journalling, morning papers, reading poetry etc. I found such solace in the beautifully curated pieces. It really is one of the best collections of essays i have read and one that I will come back to.
In other news I read my commissioned working class poem at the fantastic and wonderfully well organised Lyra Bristol Festival last week. I did not cry. Though I thought I would. It is reproduced below with kind permission of the festival. It’s a variation on a golden shovel. the version on the postcard is slightly shorter than the original version and the full title is Twelve Hour Working Day as a Golden Shovel.
My intention for the commission was to reflect back the narrative of the quote used, bending it to reflect one common moment from my own childhood. My dad was a bus driver, his last job of the day was to clean his own bus down before returning home to our little house. He must have been exhausted. I wanted to say something about the stereotyping of working class people, especially where poverty is concerned. But I wanted to do that without shouting about it. We didn’t live in poverty growing up, but we were often on a line between not quite having enough and having enough. We were aware that there was only ever a couple of steps between our lives and lives of poverty and desperation and there was an inbuilt respect for that, and awareness of it that stays with you if you come from a working class background. To be working class is to have restricted opportunities, and sometimes that restriction comes from within the community, within your own family. The fear of that line being crossed is enough to pressure children to not try and do something as flighty as be a writer or an artist, that fear pushes them to have a real job and have qualifications if you can get them and to have that stability that takes you further from that line. It’s where the voice in my head gets the idea of pretension and the act of creativity. Anyway, I got through the poem. And my mum and dad really liked it, which was surprising as they don’t really get this sort of poetry. Being able to explain the use of the quote and the motive behind it helps and I think my dad liked the recognition of those hard, hard years. His chemo starts next week and I’ll be driving him to Hull for it. I imagine he will have plenty of criticism over my driving and weirdly, right now I welcome that normality.
I’ve talked enough.
Until next time