Tuesday, August 28, 2007

'The Sound of Guitars'

Firenze 1985. We had not then met,
though I was in love, and the sound of guitars
led me to the Piazza della Signoria
night after night
where buskers sat cross-legged, strumming
and calling like frogs, deep
in their throats. I wore a waistcoat
and a flouncy skirt,
picked up cheap from the flea markets.
We should have danced then
under balconies
hung white with underwear,
drunk too much wine
and missed the bus back to Fiesole.
But it was 1985
and we had not then met.
So I listened to those buskers
play Zeppelin’s
Stairway to Heaven
and marvelled at their fingering,
eighteen and drunk
on the sound of guitars, on love
like the voices of men.

I'm rather proud of this little poem, 'The Sound of Guitars', not only because it won me 2nd place in last year's Warwick Words Poetry Competition but also because it only took me fifteen minutes to write. Some poems come easy, others resist being born, and far too many aren't worth the struggle to bring them into the world. But this one flashed into my head more or less fully-formed.

I do remember playing about with the penultimate line 'on the sound of guitars'; my only moment of hesitation. I think it was originally 'on the sound of guitars in the evening' and then another two lines to finish, so that I initially named that file - and the poem - 'Guitars in the Evening'.

However, I decided on printing the poem out that it was clumsy and unnecessary to add 'in the evening' when that was already implicit from the rest of the poem. I did like that strong closing rhyme of 'evening' with 'fingering' but 'men' carried the rhyme just as well and probably with more subtlety, the delayed emphasis suggesting something hidden, and so hopefully prompting a re-reading of the poem.

Anyway, I thought I'd post this poem up on Raw Light as the year is nearly up and the Warwick Words Festival will be upon us again in another month.

Warwick Words is a long weekend of poetry and literary events in the historic town of Warwick, with some very well-known names from the world of poetry performing and running workshops. Sophie Hannah, David Morley and Zoe Brigley, for instance, will be appearing in events, plus many others. There'll be a Slam taking place and a Poetry & Pints event, no doubt featuring popular local MCs Dani Carbery and Sean Kelly. Amongst these featured poets will be an event with the current Warwick Poet Laureate, Helen Yendall, who won the competition to be crowned Laureate last year with her poem 'Kettle'.

If you live locally, or maybe feel like making a special trip, the Warwick Words Festival takes place October 4th - 7th. You can find out more about these featured poets and book events in advance by visiting the Warwick Words website.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Blogdown on the Booker

This being a sordidly sunny Bank Holiday weekend for the first time in - erm, living memory? - I have decided to eschew my usual intellectual-muscle-flexing approach of formulating my own opinions and rely on those of other bloggers to entertain my regulars. Unfortunately, as we're all only too aware, there is a dearth of really strong sharp poetry bloggers in the UK, so prose fiction it must be. And what better to dwell on at the moment in prose fiction than the Booker Prize list, announced earlier this month?

If you can recommend any sharp British poetry bloggers, by the way - whose names do not already appear in my blogroll - then please comment below.

In return, you will win ... well, I can't afford to offer you sweeties, as Ms Baroque does in her plush Hackney pad, but you will gain my respect and appreciation. Worth so much more than a paper bag of barley twists and pear drops, let me assure you.

Randomly Chosen Bloggers on the Booker

This is writer Susan Hill's blog entry last week about the Booker.

Grumpy old Bookman has a few choice words to say on the recent matter of the Booker, at GOB

Dove Grey Reader opens with this: 'Aha, here it is, this is bound to be it...the Booker Turkey ...' and then 'So I started The Gathering by Anne Enright thinking I was going to hate it, no, why mess about, I was going to absolutely loath it.'

You can find the rest of that amusing review and a whole assortment of others in the same idiom (known collectively as the Bookerthon 2007) at Dove Grey Reader

Lastly, Eve's Alexandria supplies this highly informative and attractively presented Booker blog entry.


Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Fixing 'Failed' Poems: ideas and complications

A few days ago I promised Sorlil, one of my regulars here on Raw Light, a little something on the art - or otherwise - of writing poetry. So here it is.

I've just had to enter a poetry competition using four recently rewritten poems. Since I've been writing a children's fantasy novel over the past month, I didn't have a large number of good new pieces to choose from. So as the competition deadline approached, I began hunting through some old poetry files and folders in search of poems which failed to make the grade for my last collection, Boudicca & Co, but which were not entirely worthy of the bin.

Luckily, I managed to find a few hopefuls, by which I mean unfinished poems with the potential to be finished or poems which, although ostensibly finished, still felt too hollow or gauche to be allowed out in public.

Inauthenticity is what I'm describing, I suppose. When a poem strikes the reader as inauthentic, the poet has usually failed to access something in themselves, some memory or 'persona' that might allow the poem to step away from its creator and develop a creative force of its own. Sometimes that failure can be remedied by editing and rewriting, sometimes not. Often, my first instincts when writing the earliest drafts will turn out to be the most authentic-sounding parts of the poem. You can fiercely edit and scrape until the poem's been cut to ribbons, but by doing so you may lose those early instinctive marks of authenticity.

Laying a poem aside for a few months - or even years - tends to do the trick rather better than attacking it with a scalpel immediately, as you can then put distance between yourself and the original spark of the poem. When you're too close to a poem's genesis, all you see is the spark and the failure to ignite a poem from it. Later, reading it more coolly and with perhaps some humour, you may instantly see where the poem fails and, more vitally, how it can be 'fixed'. You may also be pleasantly surprised by the success of a poem that you felt was an out-and-out failure, since over-working a poem tends to make you loathe and despise it to the point where you feel it has no worth whatsoever. Which is rarely true.

Conscientious but mediocre poets have an advantage here over the sheer flash of talent, which tends to throw anything aside in a temper which is not fully realised as soon as it appears. But even the most mediocre poem which has been well-written and painstakingly brought to life has more worth than a poem which would be unspeakably brilliant if it was diligently rewritten but which will never see the inside of a publication due to laziness or despair.

So what did I change, in these 'laid-aside' poems, to make them good enough to enter in a poetry competition? Well, first of all, I read each one through several times so that I could hear the rhythm of the poem before I started carelessly hacking at it. Once I felt comfortable with the rhythm, I began making notes on the poem itself with a pencil, suggesting where unwieldy lines could be cut short or removed altogether, where metaphors had not been carried through to their logical conclusion, and where the lazy and obvious choice of a word required a rethink and perhaps a leisurely exploration in a thesaurus.

What I found, overall, was that the poems which I'd excluded from my second collection tended to be poems where the conclusion was not working. Problems within the poem were less important than the conclusion, though problems with the start of a poem usually meant the poem was never going to be worth repairing. Some poets 'mine' their older or unworkable poems for lines or phrases they can use in new poems, but I find that each poem is a world unto itself and phrases used there are non-transferable. So if I can't fix a poem, however strong a particular image or group of lines within that poem might be, they can never be removed from their natural habitat and transplanted into some new poem. That would simply transfer the original poem's failure - rather like a virus moving invisibly between people - to the new poem and destroy that one too.

So I only take old poems on for repair where the opening lines don't need any adjustment, and where the conclusion - though failing - is not beyond help. Some poems can be fixed by moving stanzas about. It's not entirely impossible that the right concluding lines to a failing poem lie somewhere already within that poem; sometimes it's just that you, as the poet, have written on past the point where the poem naturally ended, or that during an earlier redraft the original closing stanza might have shifted elsewhere in an unwise attempt to resolve a perceived problem.

So the first thing with a poor conclusion is to read through the poem carefully and see if any strong closing lines can be found within the original work. If that doesn't look likely, then finding a new image or phrase for the conclusion that hooks into an image or repeated phrase in the original is often the way to go. Trying for something completely new to the poem can be disastrous. It does occasionally work out okay, especially with very talented poets who write by the seat of their pants, but if you tend to put poems together in a more methodical, plodding manner, then suddenly leaping in with a brilliant new closing image may shear the conclusion off from the rest of the poem and leave it more fractured than when you began.

Another thing I noticed when rewriting these 'failed' poems this week is that a problematic single line within a poem may represent the main reason for that poem's failure. It's often a line which you, as the poet, love and admire and wish to retain, and feel that with just a tweak here or a polish there, it could make your poem magnificent. Yet still it sticks out like a sore thumb or ruins the lines around it, while you keep working with those other lines and blaming the poem's failure on them instead, or tweaking back and forth repeatedly, removing a comma, then replacing it, changing a word, then slithering back to the original in defeat. Eventually, the horrid truth strikes you. The most brilliant line in your poem is the reason why the poem is failing, and it must be excised.

In all these ditherings and confusions that go on when fixing problematic poems, the most useful thing seems to be arriving early at a sense of the poem's original rhythm and purpose. That's why I advocate reading it through several times and letting the poem sink into your psyche, bad lines and all, before beginning any salvage work. For its rhythm is the poem, and without grasping that fully within yourself, you will only destroy the 'good' parts of the poem by making cuts and revisions which don't take rhythm into account.

Lastly, don't be afraid of startling yourself. Each poem contains its own wisdom and reality, and makes its own rules. In other words, if your 'failed' poem insists you do something which will take it outside its original structure or meaning, and you trust that voice in your ear, then go ahead and do it, fix its problems in whichever way seems best to you. After all, there can be no progress in poetry - or within individual 'failed' poems - without a certain willingness to fall flat on your face!

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Dreams: National Poetry Day 2007

Researching the 2007 National Poetry Day theme of 'Dreams' this week, I came across a rich new verse translation by Mark Leech of the Old English poem The Dream of the Rood, a translation which in 2004 won him First Prize in the The Times Stephen Spender Prize for poetry translation.

I found Leech's translation a very sensuous and enjoyable poem, but regretted the odd dip into what might be considered archaic language, feeling that words like 'wondrous', 'laden' and the repeated 'bliss' and 'blissful', whilst true to the original and perfectly good in their own right, might have been better laid aside for a more contemporary feel to what is, after all, a timeless subject: the dramatic and powerful story of the cross of Christ, in its own words, as narrated to a dreamer.

You can find Mark Leech's prize-winning translation of this ancient Christian poem, with facing text Anglo-Saxon, at the Stephen Spender Memorial Trust website.

It's an excellent poetry competition to think of entering if you go in for translating poetry, by the way. Which I know several of my readers do ...

Saturday, August 18, 2007

What's Your Poison?

I've been in bed most of yesterday and today - where possible, with so many small kids needing to be fed and watered - suffering from a dreadful cold and sore throat that's left me weak and lethargic. I had been intending to post up something on Raw Light this weekend about my recent reading in children's fiction - most notably the new Harry Potter novel - but I find myself too weak to do so with any conviction. So I shall leave that for another day.

I get a large numbers of hits every day to this blog, from all over the world, which is very complimentary and I thank you for your visits. But I do sometimes wonder whether people reading Raw Light come for the poetry or the prose or just the occasional Holland stingers. It's such a mixed bag on Raw Light - which genuinely reflects my own inability to specialise - that I'm not sure sometimes whether I'm getting the balance right in terms of entertaining my readers.

So if you have the energy, do please leave a comment below this post letting me know why you visit Raw Light, if it's helpful to you in any way - as a reader or writer, for instance - and whether you have a marked preference for blog posts about contemporary poetry or reviews or children's fiction or writing techniques etc.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Gerry Cambridge and The Dark Horse

I had an email the other day, one of those round robin jobs, from Gerry Cambridge, editor of an established poetry magazine called The Dark Horse.

I no longer keep tabs on the world of small magazines - except for those few where my work occasionally appears! - but I was very interested to hear from Gerry, as he started up The Dark Horse roughly round the time I launched my own little poetry magazine, Blade (1995 - 1999).

I was aware of his activities before I actually met Gerry in the flesh, so we had something to talk about when that happened - unexpectedly, on an overcast weekday afternoon, both unashamedly browsing our own magazines (first or second issues, I should imagine) in the magazine section of the Poetry Library at the South Bank. I introduced myself to him, always keen to make a contact, and we swopped copies of our magazines. Being fairly unalike as editors in style and taste, we didn't keep in touch or submit to each other's magazines, but I remained aware of The Dark Horse all the time I was editing Blade, and afterwards too ...

Recently, I saw Gerry somewhere online, as I recall, and contacted him by email to catch up on what he'd been up to. I was extremely pleased - and secretly envious - to discover that The Dark Horse was still going strong. My own magazine folded in 1999, while I was at Oxford as a mature student, through a sudden and irrevocable lack of energy and commitment. To this day, I don't feel able to relaunch Blade in any format, even as an occasional online magazine, because the memory of the sheer work involved in running a small magazine is so oppressive to my psyche. Yet I loved Blade dearly and was passionate about every aspect of the magazine whilst editing it for those four incredible years.

So I salute Gerry Cambridge for continuing strong where I folded - a true old-style poetry editor and dark horse; in his own words, describing his magazine, 'passionate about poetry, and a touch contrarian.'


Here's some background on Gerry from his personal website:

Gerry Cambridge is the founder editor of The Dark Horse magazine, and has considerable interests in print design and typography. He occasionally plays harmonica as part of a duo with the Scottish singer-songwriter Neil Thomson.

He is a Royal Literary Fund Writing Fellow at the University of Edinburgh for 2006-2008, where he is based part-time in the Schools of Biological Sciences and of Physics.

And here's some background on his magazine, The Dark Horse.

The Dark Horse was founded in 1995 by the Scottish poet Gerry Cambridge. It is an international literary magazine committed to British, Irish and American poetry, and is published in Scotland. We like to think that the journal is characterised by a clear-sighted scepticism and an eye for the genuine. We believe that hype, in its presumption of consensus, is demeaning to readers of any individuality. Not that we equate poetry with solemnity. We are, by turns, or sometimes simultaneously, serious, wry, humorous, iconoclastic.

While we are glad to print poetry in metre and rhyme, we remember Randall Jarrell’s “Where poems have hearts, a metronome is beating here.” We believe that we can recognise poems of sound heart. Not being evangelical or overly partisan, we also print compelling free verse. We publish, too, a mix of stylish and engaged essays, reviews, interviews, polemics and appreciations. At times these are groundbreaking: when the late Philip Hobsbaum died in 2005, the main available source of recent information on him, quoted extensively without acknowledgement by broadsheet obituaries, was his interview with The Dark Horse in 2002. Similarly, our interview with the poet-scientist G. F. Dutton is the most extensive of its kind available. We have printed work by many established poets, but are possibly prouder of our discoveries, whether of individual poems or of poets previously unknown to us, and we love to highlight excellent yet neglected or overlooked figures. The contemporary poetry scene has a short memory which has less to do with quality than with fashion. We try to honour literary quality over literary fashion.

The Dark Horse is in the tradition of the finest ‘little’ magazines: engaged, at times contrarian, and with a commitment to excellence as we perceive it.

I hope those interested in contemporary poetry will take a few moments to check out Gerry's website and read about the Dark Horse there. Subscriptions are always welcome!

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

White-Hot First Draft?

There are two very basic schools of thought when it comes to drafting a novel.

Plan A: The White-Hot First Draft Method of Writing a Novel
As I recall, which means I could be wrong, this method was first made popular by John Braine in his book How to Write a Novel.

The writer should dash through the first draft of their novel at white-hot speed, ignoring mistakes and bad writing, just concentrating on totting up the page count and finishing the damned thing. Only once it's finished is the writer allowed to return to his or her mss with a cooler head and rewrite, tidying up erratic spellings or punctuation, and smoothing out bumps in the story detail, plot or character arcs.

Clearly, this approach requires the ability to 'switch' between writing brains: the creative brain, working at full tilt, and the editor's brain, moving critically and methodically through the finished mss.

Unfortunately, I'm not terribly good at switching off my inner critic. This means the white-hot draft option, though appealing, is never going to be the easy one for me.

Mistakes leap off the screen at me and demand instant revision. Characters insist on changing their dialogue as soon as it's spoken. And the plot ... well, the plot either has to follow a smooth and unvarying schedule or be kept under constant supervision, with each new plotpoint demanding a quick fix or rewrite in the previous chapter(s).

So I'm the sort of writer who prefers ...

Plan B: The Two Steps Forward, Three Steps Back Method of Writing a Novel
This is the way I write novels, mostly. I do plan some within an inch of their lives, prior to starting work, but still can't quite bring myself to ignore what I've just written.

The writer constantly scrutinises their work for possible errors: these can range from spelling mistakes or unhappily placed colons (see ten words back) to major problems like poor character development, jumping tension within scenes, and implausible or disastrous plot points.

There are advantages to stopping every few pages to keep your writing under control. It means you have far less editing and polishing work to do, theoretically, when you finish the book. It also means you shouldn't have to scrap the novel in the closing pages and start again at the beginning because Daisy turns out to be a man in drag on page 347 which means the man she married on page 12 is either into men in drag or has never shared a bed with her. Either of which needed to be made clear to the reader before the last chapter of the book ...

So here I am at the start - or restart, due to structural and other changes suggested on my recent Arvon course - of my teen fantasy novel. Do I write a white-hot first draft, as advocated by both Lee Weatherly and Malorie Blackman, our tutors, and also by Melvin Burgess, our mid-week reader, or do I continue with my plodding knit-one, purl-three approach to novel making?

I'm rather inclined, in my present mood, to rush into a white-hot draft. Onward and upward! But can I sustain such a punishing pace or will I start backsliding in a few days by making secret corrections while my other brain's sleeping?

And if I type too fast, will my dreaded RSI problems resurface?

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Arthur: from the Mabinogion to John Heath-Stubbs' Artorius

Being slightly closer to Birmingham now - all of five miles closer! - I took a trip there this week and bought a newish guide from the Oxford stable, this time the Oxford Guide to Arthurian Literature and Legend, by Alan Lupack.

This respectably thick paperback weighs in at just under 500 pps of dense text and covers more or less everything you could possibly want to know about King Arthur and his associated knights, relatives and hangers-on. Most interestingly, it also includes details of how these stories have been retold and repackaged through the centuries, from the Middle Ages (i.e. the likes of Marie de France and Chretien de Troyes) through to the latest (up to about 2004, that is) versions of the stories, including Arthurian-related poems like Gawain and the Green Knight. Different versions of some of the most popular stories and legends are compared for similarities and differences, and some explanation for each differing version is usually given.

I've always been interested in the Arthurian complex of stories, and I'm not alone in that, of course. At the moment, I think it might be interesting to take one or even several of these Arthurian stories and reinvent them for the twenty-first century, either in poetry or prose, as so many other writers have done, but hopefully putting my own individual stamp on them.

My personal inclination is towards creating a collection of poems around one central character or theme. Probably one of the less well-known female characters, but not necessarily. It all depends on what I need to say at the time of writing and how well the story or character in question fits that need. With Boudicca, the choice was simple. But with Arthurian legend, writers wanting to work with such well-worn material soon find themselves drowning in a sea of other versions, with no clear way 'in' to something original and worthwhile.

I'm still reading, researching and mulling this over, of course. When the right idea strikes me, or rather when the right angle into the legend opens up for me, one which will fit my style and voice as a poet, that will be the moment when I can finally start work. And there's no hurrying that process ...

Friday, August 03, 2007

Into the Fast Lane?

Now that I'm more settled in my new home and my dear step-daughter is leaving today - such a loss - my brain is slowly beginning to clear. I have many things to do over the next few months. First on the agenda is something a bit scary. Scary but not, I'm sure, all that complicated except to someone like myself. For I'm entirely self-taught on computers and only know what I can already do.

I'm talking about the apparently 'simple' step of upgrading my internet access to broadband. Which is what I'm poised to do this afternoon, armed with a wireless hub and a flimsy instruction booklet in several languages. It should be easy enough, I know. But of course I'm using a Mac rather than a PC, and we've been having problems with the phone line ever since moving in, and according to Murphy's Law 'what can go wrong will go wrong' etc.

So if you never hear from me again, you'll know what happened.