Thursday, November 29, 2007

Salt Autumn Party

I'm off down to London later today, for tonight's Salt Autumn Party at Foyles. This involves readings by a whole host of Salt poets who have new or newish books out, plus vino and nibbles for the rest of us.

I'm also hoping there may be a trip to the nearest pub afterwards, then I'll be back on the late train and home for about half past midnight.

Work for the train includes a sheaf of unpublished poems that need revisions and some Latin homework - a modern verse translation of a shortish passage from the Aeneid. I've finished the actual translation as a rough draft but I need to improve on the poetry itself, to avoid embarrassment in my evening class.

One of the big problems with my modern version of the Aeneid passage - she says, easily distracted from the main purpose of her blog entry - is that part-way through, it suddenly started to rhyme. And the effect was rather good in places. So I decided to rewrite the less mellifluous first half and 'fit in' some rhymes to smooth out the transition from blank to rhyming.


To make matters worse, some of the rhymes were not only full but distinctly Victorian in places. For instance, 'fell' - in the sense of grim/terrible - to rhyme with 'hell'.

So the whole thing needs more work. To put it mildly. Okay, it may only be a short piece for my Latin evening class, but I still want it to be good, damn it!

Saturday, November 24, 2007

On the True Endings of Poems

I sent my second poetry collection, Boudicca & Co., to the much-admired poet Geoffrey Hill a few weeks ago. In response he sent me a note - completely unlooked for, so doubly delightful to receive - making various comments on my poems, including a suggestion to lop off some ten or so lines from the end of one of my favourites.

Having tried this major surgery, curious to see the result, I realised he was right. It did work better without the 'official' ending. This led me to look at why that should be the case, and whether I could perform the same service for any other of my poems that might be over-written.

First though, I wanted to check something I was already uneasily suspicious of, namely that I was still suffering from the novice poet's heavy-handed 'this is the moral of my tale'-style ending. Like most poets, I'd like to think my endings are reasonably apposite and not too predictable. But scouring through them, I felt too few of them possessed any real gravitas, and I think it was the open-ended quality of Hill's suggested ending for my poem - not trying to wrap everything up in a neat lyrical parcel, but throwing a powerful line or two out to the wind instead - that gave that poem its new authority.

So, il miglior fabbro?

Perhaps, though it's important in these situations to trust your own instincts and not merely bow to criticism, however venerable the critic. No one can know your work or intentions better than yourself, after all.

Indeed, trust is at the heart of this issue. Hill's comment was a valuable insight into the nature of poetic trust - i.e. the poet trusting his or her instincts enough to leave the poem at what feels like a dangerously unfinished point, instead of hurrying straight in with nails and rope, anxious to tether the end of the poem to a fixed point.

There has to be space for the reader to sweep in behind you, I suppose, bearing in mind that the reader is a vital part of that triangle: poet, poem, reader. (An unread poem is like a dead limb on a tree - it exists in real time, a part of the whole, but has neither life nor purpose.) So the open ending is a dynamic one for the poem. By contrast, a closed, box-like ending - summing up the poem's purpose or adopting some coy moralising stance - rejects the poem's potential by too sharply defining and limiting the reader's interpretation.

Okay, so we can agree that messages are for Western Union. But can we trust the reader to work it out on their own? And can we trust ourselves to write so brilliantly that we no longer need to qualify everything in the final throes?

It's far easier in a sequence of inter-connected poems, I've found, to experiment with this 'open' style ending. Poems in a sequence tend to lean on each other for authority, significance and lyrical echoes. The stand-alone poem is a rather different beast, tradition alone - perhaps going all the way back to Petrarch in the Middle Ages - dictating that we provide a sound-bite ending to the modern lyric, something to help the reader get the point of those clever metaphors, similes and other dazzling tropes you may have employed.

So if you throw the latter kind of poem open at the end, letting cold air rush into all those unexplained silences, will the poem still work? And will it still qualify as a lyric?

I think it must change the nature of a lyric poem to chop it off at the foot, to leave the moral or purpose behind the poem dangling. This probably connects to its origins in the sonnet form, a marvellous box of delights, seemingly always tied off neatly at the end with its own declaration of intent or shot at literary immortality, e.g.

So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.
(Sonnet 18, W.S.)

But the changes in formal direction over the past 150-odd years - poetry gradually spiralling out into a plethora of forms and contradictory definitions - must suggest something about a fundamental change in our perception of what poetry is and why we need it (if, indeed, we need it at all). So perhaps Hill is right and it really is time to relax our grip on the telling last line, the moral of the tale, the conclusion to the riddle. To let the poem hang out there, exposed to the elements and - no doubt - the ridicule of critics.

Again, it's dangerous to take too much on trust, especially in terms of your own writing, where instinct and sound experience should take precedence over the opinion of others, but it's equally dangerous not to at least listen to the oracle when it speaks, and consider all the various possibilities before responding.

Sometimes you find even the most unlikely signpost is pointing you in roughly the direction you intended to take anyway.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Surprised and Chastened

Yes, hard to believe of yours truly, but I was both surprised and chastened tonight, attending a local writers' 'fayre' - a sort of sprawling Meet the Author affair - in Warwick Library. I was asked to come along in early October, during the Warwick Words Festival, and just blithely assumed that it would be a bunch of odd-bods and eccentrics, self-publishing their poems, or biographies of their - even more eccentric - grandfathers, or pamphlets on the history of local churches etc.

So you can imagine how silly I felt, one of only two poets in a room of successful novelists and other writers, sitting there with my two slim volumes, surrounded on all sides by talented and prolific writers. Right opposite my table was the fun and bubbly children's writer, Meg Harper, and beside her Justin Richards, a prolific writer for children, particularly well-known to my husband as a writer of Doctor Who novels and other associated titles. A few tables down there was Rosie Goodwin, with her highly popular novels, and a prestigiously brilliant salesman of his children's fantasy novels, the irrepressible Mark Robson.

There were many others, too numerous to mention, but they included a cluster of sci-fi authors, historians, a brand-new children's poet - whose name I will add when I discover where on earth I've put her book! - and the newly published Jill Fraser, with a substantial novel about life in a former vicarage, 'More Tea, Less Vicar', a fascinating writer with whom I chatted for some half an hour. It was a great evening, truly enjoyable, and a real eye-opener - I simply had no idea how many superb writers we have living here in the Warwickshire area.

So I came home tonight with renewed 'prose' energy, aware that I absolutely must finish putting together my third poetry collection for next summer, but also that I owe it to myself to finish that novel too - still on the back burner, after several years now. It's odd how dispiriting it can feel to have work systematically rejected, but also wonderful how quickly the creative juices can begin flowing again when you get to meet and chat in person with other writers, some of them at the same stage as you, others further ahead, and a few just starting out on that lengthy and often cruel journey to publication.

Onward and upward.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Still Playing Catch-Up

Okay, here it is - this week's TO DO list:
  • Prepare books etc. for the reading/book selling gig I'm doing this Wednesday evening at Warwick Library - roughly 7pm, if you're in the area.
  • Revise 'on screen' the large sheaf of poems I've been editing by hand in cafes and in bed since the start of last week. I find it hard to actually edit on screen, but still like to see the work as it might appear printed, so prefer to work by hand on hard copies of my poems and then type up the revisions to study the finished product. Sometimes the revisions work and sometimes they don't, which is when the whole process begins again.
  • Keep working at my latest poem - now roughly two pages long, scribbled in pencil in my favourite black moleskin notebook, with much feverish crossing-out and many alternate versions circled or pointed to with arrows.
  • Continue 'translating' the various extracts from Homer's Iliad in my Greek anthology - with the help of copious notes for the weak linguist, of course. Having spent the better part of the last two years studying Classical Greek, it would be a shame not to keep working at my Greek now the course has finished - even if only for a few desultory hours a week.
  • Update my Warwick Laureate blog: it's been several weeks since my last confession and I don't want people to think I've died!
  • Make a definite date in my iCal to touch base with my fantasy novel again, now about a third of the way through. It seems to be a recurring pattern that I work on it for about three months of the year - one month in the summer, and two months in the winter, usually around the Christmas holidays. I'm not sure why that is, except possibly that a novel always feels like it needs a longer 'run' than writing poetry, and those times of the year are more conducive to being set aside for long-term projects like that. If I had an agent begging for the book, of course, I would throw everything else aside and finish it. Instead my immediate priority has to be poetry, even though it doesn't pay as well as a novel, because I know I can place my poetry and it won't just get sent from publisher to publisher for the next few years. I've written three unpublished novels over the past ten years, and there are few things more depressing for a writer than having lovingly written and polished something that never sees a book shelf.
  • Write up some notes I've made on a friend's poems and send them to him, before he also thinks I've died!
  • Prepare a blog entry on my trip to the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival. It's been several weeks since I came back from the east coast, weighed down with new books of poetry and criticism, and I still haven't blogged about my adventures there. Bad Jane.
  • Finish the chocolate truffles left over from my birthday on Saturday. That has to be my favourite job on the list - definitely one to do today!

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Anglo-Saxon Reconstruction Village at West Stow

Back in the summer, after a violent altercation with some over-zealous home school blog-ring folks, I set my home school blog to Private. That means only my family - and any interested friends - can catch up with what we've been doing recently on the home education front. However, the drawback of that decision is that people searching for photos and other information on various of my blog entries - such as the following one on the Anglo-Saxon Village at West Stow - are no longer able to access the information.

So, since I'm steeped in poetry revisions and not yet ready to blog about Aldeburgh Poetry Festival, I'm reposting it here for the world to see. Apologies for those who only want to read about writing on this blog, but normal service should be resumed once I've finished tinkering with the latest draft of my third collection.


Last month we took a two-day trip from the Midlands across Cambridgeshire into Norfolk and Suffolk. One of the best places we visited in this brief trip was the Anglo-Saxon Reconstruction Village at West Stow. This is a small portion of an Anglo-Saxon village reconstructed on an original site where many artefacts have already been found. The work was supervised and carried out by archaeologists and other experts using traditional methods and trying to get the reconstructed 'village' as close as possible to how they think the Anglo-Saxons might have lived.

The kids absolutely loved their trip. We bought some handcrafted kids' swords and bows and arrows in the shop, for messing about with afterwards in nearby Thetford forest, plus some books on runes and Old English. Here are some photos from our day at the centre:

The village consists of five or six buildings in a loose cluster: individual huts for living and sleeping in, such as the one pictured above, a larger meeting house, and several crafts buildings such as a hut for spinning and weaving wool on looms, a hut for firing pots and woodworking, for grinding corn, and also some covered or open areas where animals could be kept.

The kids enjoyed pretending to cook around this open hearth. People used to think there would be a hole in the thatch, rather like a chimney, for smoke to escape, but this is now considered unlikely. I presume smoke would simply have drifted up and slowly out through the thatched roof. Those Saxon huts must have been very smoky places on a windless day!

The huts are mainly constructed of wood, with the typical thatched roof you can see in the picture. Some are different styles, constructed as experiments to see which style of housing would be most practical and provide the most likely explanations for some difficult questions the archaeologists wanted to answer.

One of their main problems was the existence of a mysterious pit excavated underneath each original Anglo-Saxon hut on the site. Various explanations for its use were considered, but in the end, the archaeologists have decided to remain open to ideas on that score, as it's hard to prove definitively what the pit was used for.

Here's a lovely atmospheric shot of M. lurking behind a hanging pot on one of the raised 'sleeping' areas. As you can see, it's very dark inside these little huts, especially with the fire unlit and the door pulled to.

The roof beams were probably used for hanging dried food on (for smoking, perhaps, over the fire) and also for general storage of equipment, such as nets, household goods and cooking utensils.

Still, I'm sure that with the fire crackling nicely on those long dark evenings, and an enclosed bed of rushes and perhaps even furs to retire to after the last chores had been done, and perhaps a little poetry had been listened to, an Anglo-Saxon hut would have felt like quite a cosy place, even in our British winters.

The wool-crafting, woodworking, corn grinding and pot-firing workshops would have been built apart from the living quarters, as they are now at West Stow. There were also areas set aside for corn and other crops to be grown and for animals to graze, with probably a small pig-sty of some description on the site. Chickens would have had the run of the place, and some of the more vulnerable animals may possibly have spent the worst of the winter indoors with the villagers!

The Anglo-Saxons used a Runic Alphabet for some of their writing, particularly when commemorating something important or when writing on a sacred object.

This is a Rune on the doorpost of one of the reconstructed houses. It represents the letter 'h', as you should be able to guess, and would have been engraved on stone monuments, weapons and armour. This runic writing system is called the furthorc, after the first few letters, just as our alphabet comes from the first two letters of the Greek writing system, alpha and beta (α & β).

It was a fantastic day out and, if you're a history hound, I can thoroughly recommend the trip. Take boots for the mud on wet days though, and a picnic if it's fine weather! There is a cafe there but eating al fresco under the trees, surrounded by new oaks, is a lovely experience after visiting the Saxon village. And if you go into the nearby forest areas, be prepared for some Blair Witch Project scenes in the woods afterwards. That's a wooden broadsword my son is wielding there, by the way!

Find some more text and pictures about the West Stow Anglo-Saxon Reconstruction Village at 'Experimental Archaeology'.

And, since this particular post is now attracting so many visitors every month, here's another link, this time to the Friends of West Stow Village: more photographs, opening times, and other useful information.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Aldeburgh Poetry Festival, thick fog and a Breton lay

I got back from the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival rather later than I would have liked last night, not wanting to beat the old banger into the ground, so nudging her gently the hundred and fifty-odd miles back from the Suffolk coast to Warwickshire.

Fog clamped in on me for the last half-hour, making the journey even slower; down to 30 miles an hour on the motorway on some stretches, so thick it was like driving inside a cloud. Which I suppose is exactly what I was doing. It brought back memories of long anxious trips over the 'mountain' in my Isle of Man days, the heights of Snaefell being prone to thick dangerous fog patches, particularly at this time of year.

My husband blamed the fireworks for last night's pea-souper. But I couldn't help wondering how much damage such minor activities as fireworks can really cause, having seen numerous industrial towers continuously belching out smoke in the flatlands of Suffolk and further into the Midlands on my way home.

For the next day or so, I need to sit down, mull over what I saw and heard at Aldeburgh, and then write up some sort of meaningful account for Raw Light.

Meanwhile, here's a link to The Expulsion of the Blatant Beast, one of my favourite - though highly eccentric - blogs on poetry, spirituality, and Celtic & other languages, featuring a delightful Breton lay available both as written words and sung, via YouTube.