Friday, 25 February 2011

I have been the cause of poetry in others

While I am presently inspired to write poetry, and make my family sit down and read/listen to successive drafts, I hadn't noticed my eldest son, quietly scribbling himself. I come home from class each week, waffling about what I've learned and Kez soaks it up like a sponge. He started showing me his poems, and I've been astonished. They are good. They are really good. No wonder he's my first choice of editor when I want to present fiction for workshopping. I took most of his comments on my fantastic fiction piece to heart, but disagreed with two of them. My tutor picked both up as problematic. Now I'm more consciously sharing some of the ideas I'm still absorbing, and he's listening to my ideas on editing. 

The MA has been a terrifically steep learning curve for me, I haven't got an education in literature to fall back on, and I come away from each class with my head buzzing. I have found the cost - being away from a husband and the rest of my children - has been high but the benefits have been spectacular. Not just for my writing, but for the two boys I have down in Winchester. I will miss the ideas that float around the class, sometimes too many to grab and scribble in my notebook. Consequently, I'm trying to get everything in, the reading, the classes, talks. I'm also hoping to go to the Winchester Poetry Weekend (11-13 March) to see Neil Astley and Francesca Beard on their sessions. I think I might drag Kez along.   

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Inspired by Philip Gross

Last night we met Philip Gross, the poet/novelist. He read from his books, all of which were wonderful poems in their own right, but I mostly enjoyed his comments on how he came to write them, what context they came out of. Having been moved to tears by his sequence 'The Wasting Game' (I really recommend the book they are reprinted in, Change of Address) I was then amazed by his poems from a collaboration with a photographer called I Spy Pinhole Eye.

Philip's poems started out more solid, with less white space on the page, less indentations and much longer stanzas. Now, his poems are more spaced out, more considered, and he uses punctuation like musical notation for the spacing in time of the words. His book The Water Table won the T.S.Eliot prize for 2009, an honour he described as a year long distraction from actually writing.

One of the provocative questions he posed was taken up by a fellow student on our course blog, Writers Ink. What, at the core of us, makes us write? That was the question that seemed to keep a fellow student and I standing in the gloom on a street corner discussing big questions like: 'why write' and 'why do an MA?' That's a hard one. I'm not desperate to have a book published, I primarily wanted to do an MA because I love teaching and would love to move into teaching creative writing - not especially for people with masses of talent but people who want to explore 'self' through writing. I suppose I'm still thinking in terms of mental health and therapy. What I do know is, I would still write even if I had no interest in publication, but I do want to get published, I just don't have a burning need to do so. Philip Gross struck me as a man who writes what he wants, what he loves, and ignores the savvy, business side of writing. He's found a lifestyle that suits him, is paid to write and talk about writing, and has an expressive outlet. That sounds perfect.

A363 also had an assignment, an outline of the EMA we have to write for May (which is going to be a very busy month). I sent in my ideas for the first chapters of a book, and one question my tutor asked was - what is the big idea at the heart of the book? What question are you trying to answer? That flummoxed me (fabulous word, flummoxed) as I really couldn't tell you. Having thought about it overnight, I've decided it's a book about second chances. Now I have to concentrate on poetry and get that out of the way before I can go back to novelling, as the two parts of my brain don't work well together.

Monday, 21 February 2011

When will poetry be finished?

I'm writing a series of poems about my sister, who died in 1999 on her thirty-sixth birthday. I spoke to Sarah almost every day, and we both had a sounding board, someone we could tell anything to. I miss that. So I'm writing about her but I start with a huge rambling freewrite that somehow falls into lines, then I trim and sort and try and make a poem out of it. I was on Betsy Lerner's website this morning (see blogroll) and someone had quoted Paul Valery translated by William H. Gass: 'No work is ever done but only, finally, in grief abandoned.' That's exactly how it feels to me. 

My first draft was 38 lines of rambling, some lines I just liked the words (like using suckered for starfish, as they have little sucker feet) and some felt emotional to me, like 'did she leave an oval in the sand?' I did wonder if the following line: 'Is one of these depressions hers?' is too obvious but played around with it. 

I ended up with (first 8 lines):

We tread between starfishes
suckered onto the harbour sand.
Hermit crabs patrol the tideline
shells casting long shadows.

My sister played here, between jelly shoes
and sunhat, collecting shells
and sea-frosted glass, into patterns
that wash away as memory hollows.

And so on. Now I'm fussing over 'long shadows' even though that's the main memory, all marching in the same direction, the late evening making the shadows extend into what looked like bar codes along the shore. I'm mixing the muddy harbour with the sandy one where I live too, poetic license. My sister adored the sea, swam in all weathers, we shared a love for the beach in rough weather too. When we both had babies, we would get a friend to babysit at high tide on windy days, go down to the nearby beach and throw ourselves into the rollers for an exhilarating hour like children. Then back to sensible, earth bound activities like nappies and babies. I remember her absentmindedly pulling out a breast for her baby son, circled with flattened seaweed. I miss her.

Friday, 18 February 2011

Fantastic Fantastic Fiction

I went to session 2 of 'Fantastic fiction' and was completely inspired. Talking about where magic fits into story made me think about how magic works for each world. In some you aim a wand and shout a bit of bastard Latin, in others you have to train for years and have huge powers, in others it's just a pushing of the illusion of reality a bit to the left. I love playing with magic in stories, having grown up with The Ship That Flew by Hilda Lewis (wonderful old story, historical now), the C.S.Lewis Narnia Books, The Sword in the Stone by T.H.White etc.

The exercise for this week is: starting with a magical object, write something in a world where magic works. This means I have to define the rules of that magic. I started thinking about traditional 'spells', often rhymed verses that are used to do everything from warding off plague to getting babies to sleep in nursery rhymes; to chants of blessings and curses used in witchcraft across the world. It seems words, like in prayers, are given enormous power. Bizarrely, my children used to chant 'Lemon Jelly Jaffa Cakes' before we got to a car park to get the parking fairy to leave us a space. The power of words seem to be built into our mythology. I was thinking about the words: 'I hope you get cancer'. A lot of people, including me, wouldn't use those words, because they would be uncomfortable, perhaps superstitiously so, in case the words have some power of their own. Some people are hugely comforted by a blessing from a priest. I feel uncomfortable f I don't say 'Be careful' to my husband before he drives off. So I thought it would be fun to write something that reflected that mythology because words written down often carry the power with them. I'll see how it goes.
Meanwhile, I'm homesick again. It's sunny in Devon.

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Why blog?

I feel like I had to defend the idea of blogging yesterday to a lecturer. So, what are blogs for? I blogged, to start with, because I wanted to organise my own thoughts and doubts about writing. I didn't really think about an audience, but as I got more confident I started looking at other peoples' blogs and found they were very useful. Here are my reasons for blogging:

To journal about the writing process (very 'therapy' I know but writing is often cathartic)
To connect with other writers with the same issues
To connect with writers with different issues
To be inspired by other writers and their stories
To be entertained or informed
To keep up to date with the literary world
As a writing exercise (I have a 1000 word a day writing habit or I fall into writer's block)
As a record of my journey to look back on
For the ideas, inspirations and support I get from comments and emails
To be part of a wider writing community

So, to all those bloggers out there whose blogs I regularly visit although I don't always leave comments, thank you for taking the time to inspire, encourage, amuse, connect and entertain with other writers. I'm headed for a very busy week and it will be nice to focus attention back on writing.

In the meantime, I've written a short piece for the fiction as homework. Three other people have done the same and emailed them round. They are all good. One is way better than mine (teeth gnashing gently). Nothing raises my game more than competition, so this will be good for me, and it got me writing the book again and, more importantly, going back and editing the new chapters for plot. This seems to be my new method. Write 2-3 chapters then go back and look for inconsistencies and awkward bits before I worry about the actual writing. I've also written a poem for the poetry class, though it's still in prose form at the moment. I wonder if I will be the only one?

So, I was wondering fellow bloggers: Why do you blog?

Monday, 14 February 2011

Ungrateful Undergraduates

I'm lucky enough to be sitting in on a class on poetry on the undergraduate programme, led by Julian Stannard who won the 2010 Troubadour prize with The Seabirds of Pimilico Hanker After Sapphires. I was looking forward to some help with titles, so I'd love to know what that one was about. I sat down, and as usual, was a few minutes early. 4pm came and went. A new face appeared, then a little gaggle of students, and finally the lecturer. I got loads out of his class, lots of new ideas about lineation, Lowell, drawing the line between prose and poetry. We looked at Quoof by Paul Muldoon (which I love), a number of Lowell poems and some of his prose, which we cut into poems with a stroke of our pens. That was all fine and good and helpful. But the other students - what a mixed bunch. A couple (apart from giglling themselves silly over a few stray words) contributed, made an effort. The rest just sat there as if waiting for the bell to go off. Few had brought books. We had been told to bring poems we had written, none had done so (I had two, and copies). They whinge about their workload but actually, mine is twice as big and I'm squeezing in their class on top. For fun. And I'm the only one doing the work!

That aside, I'm on top of the work again. 800 word scene written for the fantastic fiction and emailed around the group, which is nerve-racking because I really don't know people. TMA04 off, the EMA proposal. Should be OK, it's only marked as a pass or fail. Poetry working well, and I've tidied up all my notes and worked through some of the additional research. I'm looking forward to having my assignments back, if only to put my mind to rest. But that class - terrible. Next week we're doing some workshopping (what? They don't write anything!) and the following week Myra Schneider is coming to take the class.

Meanwhile, back at home, husband and kids have been putting onions in the garden, battling the fuschias (it is brilliant to live in a place where the worst weeds are fuschias, though) and clearing out the flat - ready for us all to move back in June. We're already planning the end of the MA! Rant over.

Sunday, 13 February 2011

Productive weekend

I've been busy. Another chapter for the book and more poems. I've always been a bit baffled by sequences of poems, but I love Douglas Dunn's elegy. It was written around the time that his wife died and in the year afterwards. Quite apart from having had a similar experience when Steve died, the poems talk about a loss as a human experience. It was also interesting comparing the way a man - one particular man - dealt with his loss. It was strange, because I dreamed about Steve last night, and he's been dead for twenty years this year.

I'm hoping to write a group of poems about my sister and her death. I already have several randomly written over the last couple of years, and a few bits of fiction that reflect her. I'm playing with them, seeing if they make a poem. One is a description I wrote of cooking a curry, and it reminded me of Sarah when I wrote it, because she bought me the book (by Madhur Jaffrey) and we both used it a lot. We used to swap recipes, and ingredients. I often got packets of herbs and spices through the post, with aromatic letters full of jokes and laments and ideas, peppered with recipe ideas.

For light relief I have the book to work on and after the fantastic fiction session I had a revelation about the world in which Sadie and Jack live. So I'm writing with the anti-magic Nazis coming for Sadie...All very exciting to write. Also, how do you get a very large dog down a narrow tunnel? We managed it in the end...inspired by memories of my retriever wedging herself under the kids' beds when a bath was mentioned, or considered.

Saturday, 12 February 2011

Writing your self

That's Your Self not 'yourself', by Myra Schneider. Myra is coming to the University of Winchester to give a talk but first she is teaching my poetry group for 2 hours. She writes poetry (e.g. Circling the Core and Insisting on Yellow about her personal experiences as well as writing useful books like Writing Your Self. I'm looking for starting points for poetry and finding it tricky to come up with personal stuff. I don't like exposing myself or My Self, I tend to tell people about myself in very matter-of-fact ways, or not at all. As a therapist, of course, one of the most important boundaries is that you keep that stuff to yourself. I'm looking forward to the session in a few weeks time but nervous about it, so I'm preparing by giving some of her methods a go.

The poetry course is looking at this confessional style of poetry and I started a few of the exercises in Writing Your Self purely to get some raw material for work for the module. The first exercises are the sort I like, where you just let your mind splurge onto the page from somewhere at the back. I started with the prompt Love is ... and pasted thirty or so down a page and then just let my fingers fill them in.

I ended up with some interesting ideas which translated into a sonnet. Due to the peculiar rules of the OU on plagiarising yourself (don't ask) I can't put the poem up, but the here are some of my starting points:

Love is as disappointing as an empty sweet wrapper
Love is the reason for breathing out
Love is loneliness
Love is children reborn again each day
Love is the bright colours in a  rainbow
Love is the chocolate biscuits in the tin, the ones with the foil on
Love is hope for every morning

I do wonder if a year of therapy might be better for me than a year at university, but you get the drift. Myra's poems are sometimes painful to read, I wonder at the reason for publishing such personal poetry? And, just because the poems are in the first person, are they autobiographical (and if not, does that matter?). I find talking about loss creates such a reaction from other people I end up feeling uncomfortable, trying to make them feel better about my pain. Even if you write an imagined poem people relate it to you, in a way they don't in fiction. Although I did write a story about a serial killer and people left me alone for the summer... I'm going to throw myself at it anyway, and if it's too painful I can always run away and start again under a new name.

Thursday, 10 February 2011

Fantastic Fiction - first class

Well, that was fun.  Even if was a bit nerve racking to walk into a room full of strangers who are already welded into a unit, but they were warm and interesting and I learned a lot from them. The topic was looking at world building in fantasy, even if the only thing that isn't 'real' about your world is one tiny detail. We looked at Incarceron by Catherine Fisher who managed to create two fantasy world in just one book. There's a review here, by The Bookbag.

No wonder so many fantasy books are so long. You have to create the rules for your world and then convince your reader of those to make the story credible. The tutor set us homework, a scene that introduces a character and the world/rules of a fantasy story. Tall order in just 800 words, and the thing is to be workshopped next week so we have to get on and do it over the weekend. So off to a flying start. It's good to be working on something again, there was this breathing space between the assignments going in and the modules starting that felt like a vacuum, my imagination seemed to go on holiday for ten days (I imagine it went skiing with son, no. 1 because he has written loads since he got back.) Anyway, it's back, and it's flying. The session gave me an interesting idea for the book which I'm playing with. Not to mention some ideas for the poetry and the course blog. 

Meanwhile, the EMA for my Open University course needs some consideration, and to avoid a complete workload pile-up in May I'm getting on with the last one of those assignments now. It's difficult to switch gears between the courses, it's so much easier when they are in the same area like the poetry. 

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Starting the Publishing Project.

A quiet start to the MA proper, just 6 of us sat around looking at the publishing project module. In addition to the actual assignment, there is a class anthology to create, with work submitted from everyone to be edited and squeezed into the booklet. It's not that difficult, but I think editing an anthology will be a lot of work just at the time when we need to be working on assignments. Which means some people will have to be editors etc. of other students work. The other option is to look after the course blog instead. I'm happy to have a go at that, it's in blogger which makes it even easier. Then all I have to do is submit something for the anthology, which is, after all, a showcase of our work. Seems straightforward, but because the group is in two parts, I have to wait around to see what the other half decides, and they might all want to take on the blog... They can't make me edit the anthology. Can they?

Meanwhile I have to do something creative (OK) and then write a rationale about it (Ah). I'm assuming this is a bit like the commentaries I've been writing, and I've got a fair amount of helpful suggestions from the BA poetry module handbook. But words like 'write a critical essay on your creative blahdy blah' trickle into my head like lumpy soup and just sit there, indigestible.

If I'm going to write an essay I need a big question and a load of research papers and books. 'Can traumatic labour produce PTSD?' (The actual question was a lot longer) was a pushover for my MSc. 4000 words summarising the relationship between the triggering trauma and the effect it had later, coming up. References, sure, pages of them. Case studies? Check. Clinical experience? Loads of it. Easy peasy. I even got a distinction and it only took a weekend in the hospital library and two days to write. (I'm showing off at this point). But 1500 words of Rationale (see, it mysteriously has a capital letter) is terrifying. I would hate to write something really creative and then fail on this thing I can't even identify!

People assume I will be doing fiction but I really want to do poetry. The thing is, I probably won't ever get another chance to take a poetry course and while I am learning loads in fiction, that's much easier to keep pushing forwards. Oodles of books, I even live near an Arvon centre. I'll be putting in a big chunk of the book for the dissertation and so I want to capitalise on all the help the course has given me on my poetry. The poetry module is pushing towards publication, so it will be good research for the publishing project too. I'll learn all about selling a book in class and about selling poetry in the other class. I think it's an opportunity I don't want to miss. I'm rambling, that's how insecure I am at the moment. Everything seems a bit like it's slipped its moorings and the tide's going out... 


Tuesday, 8 February 2011

New poetry module

I turned up for my poetry class (the one I am very unofficially in - no paper trail exists) with my brand new notebook and pencils sharp and ready. Wow! I had so much fun. The class is only 2 hours which helps because it is really dense. The other students (just 5 of them) are highly motivated and one of them is doing a poetry final year project (FYP, must learn the lingo). The first thing the tutor gave us is a handout of current poetry magazines - BA students get this kind of assistance, MA students have to find it out for themselves - as suggested we get on and submit poems. Now. Get on with it. Then they will have something to report on in their rationale, the commentary they have to write about their assignment. I, on the other hand, realised I have a publishing project coming up and could just do the same. So I sent set of poems to two magazines, Brittle Star and Iota. The process of submitting can be useful for the rationale, and any response I get can be reported on. There is a list of current poetry journals and mags at the Poetry Library website. It turns out, poetry magazines have lovely names like Monkey Kettle and Obsessed with Pipework. They must be creative sorts.

We also worked off two prompts, Climbing Everest which I and two other people translated into old age, and Eurostar which I found turned into a fictionalised plan to go to Paris. The theme of the module is 'confessional' poetry, like Sharon Olds, Sylvia Plath and Robert Lowell, personal accounts which as he said, don't mean they are actually biographical. We can use our real lives to pull out themes that we then use to explore a fictional character or someone we know about. Having just read buckets of Erica Jong (recommended) and some of the books on the reading list, I can see the appeal but it does leave you very exposed. I've had some emotional hollows in my life, I'm not sure I want to splat them on the page like Olds does with such art.

We also talked about the relationship between creativity and mental illness, (useful link via Rosie's blog) especially depression. As someone who has been depressed I can say personally, that looking back on the dark days might provide food for thought, but productivity falls off completely when I'm depressed. My intellect is fine, I can write non-fiction but creative stuff just makes me feel worse. On the other hand, research suggests drugs like Prozac actually kill creativity too, as they appear to suppress imagination. I can't take the stuff, so I'm not in a position to judge, but the old tricyclics didn't do that for me, they enabled me to write, just dark, dark stuff. I'm looking forward to next week. Oh, and Myra Schneider, whose books I love, is coming to do a workshop and read in week 4. Can't wait.   

Monday, 7 February 2011

Sylvia Plath

Sylvia Plath's one of those people I knew more gossip about than poems she had written. A363 gave us You're to play with, and I've sat down and read Ariel now from cover to cover. I fell in love with Tulips. The poem is about the black and white scene of a 1960's hospital ward...
Look how white everything is, how quiet, how snowed-in

...with the almost violent intrusion of the scarlet tulips:
The tulips are too red in the first place, they hurt me.
Even through the gift paper I could hear them breathe
Lightly, through their swaddlings, like an awful baby. 

Plath talks about her husband and child as smiling, the smiles catching on her skin with little smiling hooks. The focus of the poem, like many of the poems written in the last months before her death, is about the relationship between rude life and the tranquillity of death. I have mainly avoided Plath - and Woolf for that matter - because the exploration of depression and suicide is something that I have experienced in my own family. But there's something powerful about Plath's poems that makes them so much more about her vivid experience of life than just about the lead up to her suicide.

And I am aware of my heart: it opens and closes
Its bowl of red blooms out of sheer love of me.
The water I taste is warm and salt, like the sea,
And comes from a country far away as health.
Perhaps it is that too vivid experience of life that created an intolerable stress for her, but fed her poetry. I often feel with writing poetry, you could be lost in it, just fall into it. As you try and describe authentically feelings that don't have words, you are forced to re-experience it, even if the poem is about something else. Your poetic palette is your own experience of feelings, including anguish and agony. I found this with life writing, too, you have to delve into memories and complex feelings. I started a poem about the children's ward my daughter was on (for most of a year) surrounded by children with life shortening illnesses, which is a polite euphemism for circumstances where you feel flayed alive, more by hope than by bad news, which are braced for, but the loss of hope... and all around your personal disaster movie, are all these others. I think it has the makings of a good poem, but I sit and cry when I edit it. As a therapist, I can see the benefits of draining that agonising collection of pain. As a poet, I suspect it would be better to leave well alone.

Sunday, 6 February 2011

Back to School

Next week, the new semester starts so I have sharpened my pencils, bought a new notebook and am ready to start. Being overly anxious I have also read 80% of the reading lists including the poetry and am having sleepless nights about maths tests I haven't studied for and not being able to find the right rooms. This is all about meeting new people, really. I'm starting to think asking to sit in with a poetry class for no earthly reason is a bit daft but how else am I going to get ahead in poetry? And it fits with A363. Oh, seem to have answered my own question.

Anyway, tomorrow I'll start poetry, Tuesday afternoon is full-timers publishing project and Wednesday is fantastic fiction. Incidentally, I have just read Cliff McNish's Breathe, a ghost story for children with tougher skins than me, apparently. It scared me half to death. Excellent read if you keep the light on anyway. My mind seems to either write poetry or fiction, and it needs a week or so to change gear, which is a bit of a challenge. I seem to be less flexible now I'm older, in all departments.

Meantime, the time away has given me time to think about what we want to do after the course ends. Of course, I will have a dissertation to write and an EMA to hand in for A363 but then we need to settle down to another strange year. No. 1 son's final year at college but first serious look at university, older daughter's year away travelling, no. 3 son's first year at the local college, middle son's middle year at university (yes, kid, now the work begins!), youngest will hit her teens next year... the house we bought for us and a batch of tiny spongers is now bursting at the seams with all these young adults and their partners and friends. So going home means long talks, looking on Rightmove for new houses, falling in love with our present's all very confusing. Kids leaving home is difficult, but them not leaving home appears to have its problems as well. I'm looking forward to the distraction of studying again, as soon as I can get back into it.

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Pantoums, villanelles and sestinas, oh my.

Have I said, recently, how brilliant the Open University courses are? A215, of course, can't really be beaten, even if people do weep over the poetry TMA. But A363 threw up some absolute gems in chapter 13, which I turned to with a complete creative blockage akin to a week without vegetables. The work was about metaphor, and set some lovely exercises and examples to play with. My favourite was Sylvia Plath's wonderful You're, which is a kind of riddle, as she piles on metaphor after metaphor.

'...Trawling your dark as owls do.
Mute as a turnip from the Fourth
of July to All Fools' Day

O high riser, my little loaf...'

She also describes the baby as 'our well-travelled prawn', fantastic!
But, in poetry and certainly prose, less is more.

These are my 14.3 exercises:
  • The telephone operator spidered to her desk by a web of calls, looping in copper silk.
  • The basket weaver, thumbs reworking the tree into coracles for cats.
  • The ploughman: Horses work the land, dragging the tools, surging forward in harness like waves against a boat, like sails dragging the furrows to the shore, dragging the man in their tidal wake.
  • The blacksmith plays his ringing music, hammer spitting off sparks, the finale drowned in a veil of steam.
 Then, starting chapter 15 (again) I started looking at pantoums, having bodged a sestina over the weekend.

We sat on slated steps, to watch the light 1
fade into bat colours, grey 2
misting with midges in smoky flight 3
the swallows in their last pass stay 4

Then you use line 2 and 4 as the first and third line of the next stanza:

fade into bat colours, grey 2
the orange glow tints the limewashed walls 5
the swallows in their last pass stay 4
screaming their came-for-the-summery-calls  6 ... and so on

It forces you to come up with some really good lines and reuse them to mean different things, like sestinas. It's really easy to write a rubbish one, but I'm looking forward to putting something better together. On to sonnets. I have found Stephen Fry's An Ode Less Travelled invaluable,
especially in the examples and the explanation of the different styles of sonnet. I think it's a really funny read and really helped me find my way through metre especially. Bizarrely, I have to be careful not to 'publish' something that I might use in an assignment. I don't think of a blog as published, since it's only you and me reading it, and I'm not too sure about you!

In my blocked phase I sat down and wrote a scene by scene synopsis of chapters 1-9 of the novel, spotting big inconsistencies along the way. If I can't get on with clearing those up I hope to at least start chapter 10. Meantime, my tutor has thrown down the gauntlet about a comment I made on our tutor forums about almost marrying an invertebrate!