Saturday, March 24, 2007

Why the Pen is Still Mightier than the Keyboard

As I was saying in a previous post to Raw Light, since dragging myself out of childhood I have always written straight to a keyboard; first, onto the humble typewriter as a teenager and young adult, then later onto a computer, drafting straight onto the screen both for poetry and prose. I found it helped me to see - especially with poetry - how the finished work would look on the printed page.

For poetry in particular, line endings and the white spaces created by stanza breaks seem to fall into sharper focus in print or on screen, where on paper they are often all but invisible.

That's down to my dreadful scribble, though. Writers with cleaner handwriting than mine - or who are more disciplined at keeping their lines straight and evenly spaced - probably don't suffer from the same problem, i.e. being unable to decipher their own scrawl at a later date, let alone see how it might translate to the printed page.

But editing a poem is a different matter. There I need to escape from that clinical 'finished' air of the computer screen and get back to my scribble, to free myself up for making those necessary changes before I can start typing again.

So the ink pen comes out, as I'm a visceral sort of creature and find pencil too anaemic a medium for writing - unless making marginal notes in a book where pen marks always look like an act of desecration - and it does have to be good black ink, preferably from a fountain pen. Something that writes boldly, that feels strong and certain in my hand, a pen that means business.

Last week I happened to find some old Selfridges vouchers in the back of a drawer, dating back a couple of Christmases, and we drove into central Birmingham to spend them at the Bullring. I had intended to get my husband an expensive silk tie, something pointlessly extravagant, but then he made the foolish mistake of leaving me alone in the Selfridges stationery department before we reached menswear.

That's when I caught sight of the pen, waiting for me in a glass cabinet like Sleeping Beauty, still and silent. Deep red, naturally enough for a Scorpio, is my favourite colour. And this pen is a real beauty, smooth and red and exquisitely sensual to hold.

The assistant took it out of the cabinet for me to try, my husband's tie was forgotten, and the pen ate up all those vouchers instead ...

To return to my earlier point, I want to explain how that act of revising poems by hand actually works and why it's so important to me. And the easiest way for me to do that is probably to show the act of revision in progress.

So I've leafed through old drafts of published poems - I throw most of them out now because the accumulation of paper is simply too much otherwise - and have found a few that may illustrate what I mean. These are early drafts of a poem called Desert Mother which was published last year in my second collection, Boudicca & Co. (Salt Publishing).

As you will see from the scans I've taken of these early drafts, the title is one of the most revised and agonised over parts of a poem for me. Sometimes the right title comes to me very early on, and that rightness seems to inform the whole process of writing the poem. But in most cases, the working title keeps changing over the life of a poem-in-draft, and is sometimes still in doubt even as a book is going to print.

The body of the poem is also changed as the drafts pile up. Sometimes I return to earlier drafts and reinstate lines which have been cut, but mostly I simply discard those embryo drafts and only work on later versions when revising for publication. What I'm usually looking for are ways of economising with language and sound.

Fewer words, or more specifically, the most telling words. Clean, clear strokes on the page, rather like a striking piece of calligraphy. Also listening for the words which hit the right note at the right pitch and rhythm for that poem. All of which are tremendously difficult to achieve, especially if you're trying to achieve such a stern level of economy and accuracy throughout a poem and not just in those miraculous lines where it came naturally at the first-ever draft.

The first few and last few lines are nearly always the worst troublemakers, as these drafts show. Often a poem will simply sit in a file for several years because I can't satisfy myself with one or two lines. If I'm lucky the right version will eventually present itself. If not, the poem gets thrown away or is lost as I upgrade computers and fail to copy all the older poems on file. I rarely keep paper copies, again because of lack of space for all those fiddly drafts.

No wonder I take so long to put together my poetry collections ...

Here's 'The Rucksack'

NB. To read these drafts more closely, click on the image and a slightly enlarged version should open in a new window.

And here's 'Tomorrow, Lord'

Now here below is the finished poem - if any of my poems can be described as finished! - as it appears in Boudicca & Co. (Salt Publishing, 2006).

As you can see, the title has now become the more self-explanatory 'Desert Mother' and the subtitle clearly indicates where the original inspiration for this poem came from, i.e. The Sayings of the Desert Fathers. To emphasise this, but also to give the poem added context, I merged the original rather vague 'mother and father' lines into a more authoritative, framing reference to prominent members of the communities, namely the Sisters and Abba Macarius.

It's a plain-looking poem on the page, maybe even a little clumsy in some of its line ending. But in performance, it can be an extremely effective piece of poetic theatre.

Desert Mother
(After Fortitude 38 and 39, The Sayings of the Desert Fathers)

My cell is the pillar of cloud
where God spoke to Moses.
It’s the furnace I stand in,
morning and evening,
an intolerable column of fire
between me and God.

Each day I pack my rucksack, peer out
at the desert. The Sisters
weep for me. Abba Macarius
prays for me. I press
imaginary footprints into the sand,
my hated cell shrinking
in the distance,
nothing but a hot dusty hell
I’ve crouched in
these seventeen years.

And each night
I lay down my rucksack for a pillow
and praise God
saying, ‘Tomorrow, Lord.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Writing in Cafes

I love writing in cafes. Writing any old thing, prose or poetry or articles or personal letters. I even enjoy doing my Ancient Greek in cafes, if I can manage to haul all the books I need along to the place in question. Prose can demand research materials to hand, earlier pages, or a synopsis to glance at now and then. But when writing a poem, all you really need is some paper and a pen or pencil. It's the ultimate portable art.

I usually write poetry longhand these days, using a proper ink pen, a fountain pen preferably, with strong black ink, something that will sink into the paper. And the paper doesn't have to be in some beautiful arty loose-leaf book, though I do occasionally use those. Often I find the best poems emerge out of scribbled lines on tattered envelopes, with many false starts and crossings-out, developing later into something worth saving.

I used to write all my poems straight onto the computer, even at the very start of my writing career when I was hammering away at some archaic Amstrad, but at some stage I started to enjoy writing whilst sitting alone in my greenhouse or my camper van and that slowly changed the way I worked. I no longer have either a greenhouse or a camper van - alas, I miss them both terribly! - but I still tend to write first drafts of poems longhand now, usually in a cafe.

Today I was working on a poem for teenagers that I've been commissioned to write. It didn't quite come right, but I've made a start on the idea and there are odd little shreds in this first draft that may appear later in the final poem.

It would have been nice to finish that new poem today. But I've not been well this week - a bad chest cold and a threatened ear infection - so I don't blame myself too much for not getting a poem right at the first attempt. Sometimes you do have to worry at poems, let them go for a few days, maybe chip away at them from time to time, not force them to emerge before they're ready.

So instead I came home and started to draft something up for one of my other blogs, the one I use to document the home educating of my three youngest children. We went off to visit the Anglo-Saxon Reconstruction Village at West Stow in Suffolk last month, and I've now finally posted up the various photos I took, plus some general information about the Anglo-Saxon village, on my 'Home Schoolers in Warwickshire' blog.

If you're interested, you can find that blog at