Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Hearing Voices

I was at the Seam 27 launch last night in Foyles, which went very well indeed - although they did make us wait until the interval for the wine, which I thought a little unkind. It was quite warm in London and I was thirsty! But perhaps in the past they've suffered the horrors of poets slurring their way through a series of incomprehensible poems and decided to make us wait for the booze. Sitting hazily through guest poet Sheenagh Pugh's reading - she came after the interval - was no doubt preferable to that.

It was all excellent fun, however. I met Claire Crowther and various other poets I'd wanted to meet for ages, and some of us retired to a nearby pub afterwards for more wine and gossip, so I shall certainly go again if asked!

On the train home from London, I had intended to browse the estimable Duckworth Greek Primer - recommended to me by a friend and purchased in Foyles whilst waiting for the reading to start - but although there was much useful information to be gleaned therein, the tiny print defeated me, particularly in the matter of breathings and accents, and I decided to wait before tackling it.

Instead, I took out my little black notebook and started fiddling with some poem ideas. At the Seam launch, I read a short poem entitled 'Last Oak' from a (possibly book-length) sequence on the general theme of 'Apocalypse'. I began writing this sequence shortly after my second collection Boudicca & Co was published last October. To date though, I have only managed to write three poems towards it. This is ostensibly because other poems and themes keep getting in the way, but also perhaps because I'm finding it very hard to get a grip on the 'tone' or 'voice' of this new sequence.

Some people don't believe in a poet's voice, but I do, absolutely. To me, 'voice' is the very essence of a poet; it's an extension of their personality, and is what makes them write the way they do and make the often difficult choices we see in their work. Voices change, of course. A young poet's voice changes over the years into a mature poet's voice, and poets with revolving obsessions may change their 'voice' to suit a particular theme or subject matter. But deep down, that voice should still be recognisably their own. Even juvenilia tends to display the trademarks of the poet to come, roughly and unevenly, in embryo as it were.

Most of the poems I start writing for this new sequence fail early on and refuse to be 'fixed' because the voice I'm trying for in these poems keeps eluding me. I suspect this is because I'm not 100% convinced that I should be writing the sequence. Or, at least, not from the angle I've chosen. The 'voice' is that of a female character - a narrator, of sorts - but I can't get a fix on her. The poetry which emerges in her wake is loose, occasionally experimental, sometimes brutal and far too close to prose for my liking. There are other characters too whose voices I wish to employ in this sequence - though deploy might be a more accurate word - but I can't seem to reach their stories until I've connected more intimately with this elusive woman's voice.

What I can't work out is whether that's because I'm trying for a voice that's too far divorced from my own natural writing voice, or whether the sequence is overly ambitious in its scope and I'm a little lost and out of my league. One poem at a time is probably what I should be advising myself; make it seem a less ambitious task by cutting it into bite-sized chunks that can be tackled individually. But each poem written for a book-length sequence which may never happen is one more poem that can't go towards my next collection, and writing time for poetry is always scarce here.

My third collection is due out next summer. It will hopefully contain another sequence - a shorter one - which I'm still working on, and a larger number of individual poems, some loosely gathered around particular themes. I find it easier to work with poetry in a themed way, even if only for my own purposes rather than with any official label attached to them. As the date for that next collection comes closer though, I'll start to look at the shape of the collection more closely and possibly mark out some formal areas or divisions within the overall book if that seems appropriate. Rather like dividing knives, forks and spoons into different sections of a cutlery drawer.

Ted Hughes used to say that writing a sequence helped get the poems 'out' and I know what he meant by that. Sometimes you can stare at the blank page or screen for hours and feel utterly empty. But when that happens, if you give yourself permission to hook into a theme or a sequence which demands a different voice or character to emerge, you may perhaps sidestep the horror of 'writing yourself' and more easily write someone else instead. That's how sequences work for me, certainly. By giving me permission to thoroughly explore a theme, idea or character without necessarily requiring too much reference to my own reality.

But when the voice for the sequence doesn't come either, or comes too hard and haltingly, what then?

Answers below, if any spring to mind.


Bo said...

Read this and instantly wrote the first poem for months. Bout the Holy Spirit of all things....Sp something's caught in what you write here, Jane! I sense a slouching towards Bethlehem.
PS glad about the Duckworth!

Bo said...

Unfortunately, rereading my poem this morning, I turned out not to have been on fire with Divine Love. I was just pissed. *Sigh*.

Anonymous said...

It is interesting that you feel you get glimpses of the woman/voice. Any idea who she is?

Jane Holland said...

Oh Bo, I do understand the depression involved in "inspired" late night writing that turns out to be next day's bin fodder. Happens to me all the time. But I'm so glad you're writing at all, especially after reading one of my blog posts. (Hope you've finished polishing your thesis though, mate!)

Dear Anon, in response, it's always a tricky thing to be too specific about a work in progress, which is probably why I wasn't. Talking about a work in progress is like accidentally rubbing the dust from a butterfly's wings by gripping it too tightly. You have to keep that creative spark loose and light and free in your hand, or you risk smothering it.

But I will say that she is many different things at different times, all jumbled up in my head. For instance, a female version of the Green Man. The mischievous spirit of Albion. A modern 'goddess', like Diana. The Whore of Babylon. The last tree nymph in the last burnt-out forest ...

And she's also me.

A difficult and ambitious sequence to achieve, in other words, and one which deserves plenty of time and thought!


seam said...

Re the launch: budget and available time wouldn't run to both interval drinks and pre-performance!

Great evening, thanks to you and all the others, magnificent and generous of your time. Next launch is in Spring.

Looking forward to this sequence of yours.

Jane Holland: Editor said...

Sorry, Anne, I know it's awful to whine about WINE and it was probably the best thing, as I admitted in my blog post; if you'd handed out the wine beforehand I would have been too whoozy to do much more than snore through it all anyway!

Well, I suppose I shall have to write some more poems for this slow-moving sequence. At this rate I may finish it before 2010.