Saturday, January 29, 2011

Writing Classes, and the Line-Break in Free Verse

I wrote a poem this week in which I had some line-breaks which seemed, at least to a couple of other people to whom I showed my nascent poem, dodgy.

By dodgy, I mean there was a suggestion by these good folks that 'the line should not have broken there'. In fact, I'd go further and say there was a suggestion by these early readers of my poem - a poem still very much in draft form and therefore more vulnerable to critique than if I'd finished tinkering with it - that there are 'rules' about where a line should break in free verse, and I had not obeyed those rules.

A pretty standard response to a poem-in-draft for those who frequent creative writing classes, in other words.

Luckily for me - and I say luckily, because creative writing classes represent the kind of mental and emotional torture which would bring me out in hives if I actually suffered from such nervous physical reactions - I have spent my life avoiding discussing early drafts of my poems in public. Which is an excellent thing in itself, but does mean that the horror and dubious joy of 'sharing poems' in a class situation is new to me. That is, I've taught creative writing classes, but am not used to finding myself on the other side of a critique, i.e. being the student and not the teacher.

What worries me about writing classes is the personal agenda behind some of the comments that get fired at the writer in the hot seat. And there is always an agenda, even if it's just an opinion that wants to get aired or an insecure ego that feels the need to diminish someone else's.

But due to my course structure, I thought a writing-based class would be useful for me, and so I signed up. And useful it has been, as it has generated this little discussion.

So I had these dodgy line-breaks in my poem.

I saw them as risky, yes. Unconventional, probably. But not 'wrong' in any sense. They were what they were. Indeed, I know of no rules about line-breaks in free verse, except some eminently sensible but unspoken ones like 'try not to break after and or the' because it rapidly makes a nonsense of your poem. But even those quasi-rules can be broken if the poet is confident enough and has a good reason to do so, which includes wishing to prove it can be done.

One line had two full sentences in it, plus the first word - a noun - of a sentence which continued on the next line.

It was complained that this orphaned noun should be reunited with the rest of its family on the following line, which would then contain a whole sentence, unbroken. The line above would also then contain two unbroken sentences - with no messy, raggedy word dangling over the edge afterwards.

However, I wanted the emphasis to fall on the strong verb following that noun, so I placed that verb as the first word of the next line. I also wanted to suggest continuity of idea and action, so all three sentences would be linked via this enjambement.

The other complaint was about a line, higher up the poem, which consisted of only one word. Not a sentence in itself, but a word from the middle of a sentence. A word plucked out of obscurity and used as the lynch-pin around which the poem's action and point of view would turn.

I was told - pretty much without any concession that this was opinion rather than fact - that I could not have that one word on its own line. No way, no how.

Being open to opinion, I have considered whether I should change that word for a stronger synonym. I may yet do so, since the complaint flags up a potential weakness there. But I do not consider that it can be argued that having that word on a line of its own is somehow 'wrong'.

If there are no rules in free verse, how can we possibly decide something is 'right' or 'wrong'?

I agree that many writers desperately need to adhere to some kind of rule of thumb about the sounds and rhythms of free verse, otherwise they produce nothing work heading nowhere. But what that rule might be or how on earth we are supposed to reach a consensus about it is beyond me.

So what are the 'rules' about free verse?

Are there any rules at all?

If not, why do poets bother to argue about decisions like line-breaks or sound echoes or rhythms?

Can anyone definitively state that my line should not be broken where I choose to break it (because the line-break sounds and seems to fall best at that point, in my opinion as poet) and tell me how and why it is possible to be prescriptive about something so tenuous?

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Letting it all hang out

I suffer from a major conflict in my poetry writing, between the in-built compulsion to be neat and tidy - to an almost anal extent - and a desire to stuff all that prissy nonsense and just bloody well write.

I was looking a few nights ago at Vidyan Ravinthiran's excellent article on Ted Hughes and Poetic Embarrassment at Frances Leviston's Verse Palace (over a year old now, I think, but well worth a revisit) and thinking, YES! What the hell am I doing, shaving lines to a bare minimum, fussing over commas and spaces and 'poetic tone' in what must ultimately become heavily engineered poems?

I should be writing poems whose truth and meaning are just as important as their look on the page or their sound on the air - if not more important.

It's easy to forget, when lost in the idea of crafting a poem, of being a poet, of not only publishing each poem you write but actively expecting to publish it, that a poem exists for a reason beyond careerism and craft. Or it should do.

In his article, Vidyan describes what I call just bloody well writing the poem as humiliatingly akin to 'heading out to a party with your flies deliberately left undone, bra straps on show, then doing drunken impressions of David Brent. Not fashionably mussed and crumpled – just wrong, embarrassable, vulnerable.'

He then compares the cringe-making but raw and startling electricity of some of Ted Hughes' wilder work with what we tend to see in the better magazines and on well-bred publishers' lists these days: 'so many finicky, unambitious, slightly self-regarding poems, whose aim seems simply to get from the top of the page to the bottom without tripping up, without using any excess adjectives, without putting themselves on the line, being photographed from their less flattering side.'

Vidyan hits it right on the head. I thought about all this at the TS Eliot Prize readings the other night, where the work on show was beautifully-written, resonant, polished, poetic, yet rarely gave me a glimpse of the sheer urgency and violent poetic drive and power that one gets from even the slightest of Ted Hughes' poems. (With the exception of Brian Turner's work, perhaps - though I'd like to see him achieve that sledgehammer effect without having to use the bodies of unknown civilians to do it.)

So, what does this mean? That I should write poetry with my breasts hanging out and my hair unkempt and a slightly Ancient Mariner look to my eyes? Well, maybe I should.

It can't be any worse than writing poems in the mealy-mouthed, cold-sweat fear of the embarrassment of 'getting it wrong'.

Monday, January 24, 2011

TS Eliot Prize Readings: Sunday January 23rd, 2011

So a funny thing happened to me at the TS Eliot readings last night, in London's magnificent Royal Festival Hall.

I was in the bar after the readings, chewing the fat with various poetry practitioners, when a woman leapt up to me and announced that she went to junior school with me - 33 years ago!

When I had recovered from my astonishment, I discovered that we had apparently been planning to write a novel together - just before I was removed from the school, and indeed mainland Britain, and sent off to school in the Isle of Man.

What was truly astonishing was her ability to recognise me after all these years. My memories of junior school are so dim and far-off (probably because I moved away) that I can't even recall teachers' names, though I remember the school itself. Have I changed so little since I was ten years old? What a frightening - and perhaps also comforting - thought.

But to the poetry!

I was in a box - not because I'm insufferably posh; it was all I could get at the last minute - and could see poet and editor Tom Chivers in a box opposite me, live-tweeting for the Poetry Book Society all through the proceedings.

The line-up was as follows: Simon Armitage, John Haynes, Brian Turner, Robin Robertson, Pascale Petit, Fiona Sampson, Sam Willetts, Annie Freud, Seamus Heaney and Derek Walcott (who couldn't be there, so Daljit Nagra read for him).

All the shortlisted titles can be bought via the Poetry Book Society website. 

Setting my stall out right away, Simon Armitage is my personal favourite to win this year's prize. There's often a perception about Armitage that he's too 'popular' to be taken seriously, and indeed one accusation being levelled at this particular book - Seeing Stars - is that it's composed of fragments or anecdotes or prose poems, not straightforward poetry. I was delighted with his poem about a sperm-whale, loved his delivery, and think Simon opened the evening's proceedings with great aplomb and a vast, almost casual talent. I don't think he'll win this year, but I'd love to see him do it all the same. Go, Simon!

John Haynes surprised me. I'd expected him to be a much younger man, for some unknown reason, but he's not. He has a shock of white hair and a somewhat tremulous way of speaking his (formal) verse from his new book You, and although I wasn't desperately enamoured of the long poem he read, he impressed me with an obviously warm, engaging and honest personality.

Former US soldier Brian Turner made me want to throw something at him. I restrained myself admirably, of course, but gosh, I was seething by the time he had finished. He came on stage and read a long, detailed, list-style poem from the point of view of hundreds of deeply unfortunate civilians in Iraq - as they fell to their deaths from a bridge during the war: men, women, free-falling children, a heavily pregnant woman whose child 'will never have a name' - or words to that effect. It was highly manipulative and sanctimonious in tone. I found this review quotation from John Bradley online: 'Brian Turner, a veteran of the Iraq war, continues this tradition of using poetry to inform and educate.' To educate is the key phrase there. It was highly disturbing to listen to, and the worst kind of sensationalism - I seriously wanted to put my fingers in my ears at one point, when he began describing the broken bodies of dead children.

The people in my box defended him afterwards, citing a tradition of war poetry by soldiers. But those soldier-poets were, in general, writing from the point of view of soldiers. Not from the point of view of horrifically dying civilians.

To be clear about this, his poem was NOT written like a news bulletin or factual report, which - in an ideal world - does not set out to treat subjects in a personal, emotive or intrusive way. His poem had the audacity and bad taste to enter at length into the mind of a young child falling to his death, a pregnant woman falling to her death, another helplessly watching her child free-fall beside her, and to capitalise on the power and horror of those real experiences. To use them as a springboard for his writing. In those moments, being forced to listen to Brian Turner describe those unfortunate people's deaths in such minute detail, the word 'poem' died a little for me, and became nothing more than one more act of grubby sensationalism in a world of the self-seeking and the desensitised.

Robin Robertson. Well, what can I say? I love his luminous, tightly-worked lyrics, and in the past have often read them in order to find a path back into poetry when feeling lost. However, there's a sparingness about them that has always been a little problematic for me, a quality of under-speak. Like the poetry has been pared away to mere slivers of language by a master craftsman. And while that felt marvellous for me at one stage, looking to such lyricism to save me from a general lack of inspiration, I was waiting to see how Robertson had moved on from his last book, and his reading last night didn't particularly convince me that he had. His subject matter was unrelentingly grim too, even dour, and his poetry 'slivers' seemed to lack some essential spark which they once possessed for me. I thought the same about his book, The Wrecking Light, when I bought it some months back, i.e. that it was a little too much like its predecessors. But he's probably still a strong contender to win this.

Pascale Petit is, of course, a poet of enormous power and imagination. I find her subject matter disturbing as well, but there is a sense of connection there, so strong and human as to be utterly understandable in her case. Some of her imagery is so startling and apposite, you almost wish to applaud it during the poem. I would certainly be happy to see her book What the Water Gave Me win this year's prize.  

The same applies to Fiona Sampson, whose new book Rough Music seems to continue on from where Common Prayer left off. She has a lyricism that falls delicately on the ear, so that her power lies largely in an accumulative effect. This may make her less of a candidate for the prize, which would be a shame, as there is much to be prized in Sampson's subtlety of approach, her musicality and an easy, natural talent for language and its nuances in poetry.

Sam Willetts was unknown to me before last night. I will now seek out his work - New Light for the Old Dark. He can be a gently comic as well as a dark and elegiac poet, and although a win by Willetts would be a shock - this is his debut, after all - I would be perfectly able to see how the judges could come to such a decision. His work possesses both light and shade, subtlety and force, to a powerful and mature degree, and hints at greater things to come. A newcomer to watch!

Annie Freud - well, I already gave her book The Mirabelles a big thumbs-up in the pages of the most recent Poetry Review, so I shall not discuss her at length. But she is another likely candidate for the prize this year. Her work is also mature, powerful, and - most importantly perhaps, as far as long-term success is concerned - is written with personality rather than a desire to be applauded. As compere and poet Ian McMillan mentioned in his introduction, Annie Freud writes what is most dear to her heart and ignores all other considerations. The fact that she couples this determination with a keen understanding of poetic form and structure makes her book another strong contender this year.

Seamus Heaney came on to huge applause, and was probably the most applauded poet of the night, in fact. It was clear from the audience reaction - apparently nearly 2000-strong in the vast arena - that this was the man many of them had come to hear. He looked and sounded a great deal older than when I last saw him read, at the Cheltenham Festival in - I think - 1995, just after he had won the Nobel Prize. But despite that, he was clearly the crowd's favourite by the end of the night. And his poems were sound as ever, always so perfectly formed and rounded. Good luck to him.

Derek Walcott's work was read - very engagingly too - by Daljit Nagra. Daljit threw a few jokes of his own in, but I'm sure Derek wouldn't have minded, and it certainly lightened the evening for the audience. The first sonnet he read was a corker, where the aged poet - in a wheelchair - meets an old flame - also wheelchair-bound - in an airport lounge, as I recall. By turns humorous, wry, despairing, lovesick, and full of the spark of poetic reinitiation, this was the second highlight poem of the evening for me, alongside Simon Armitage's sperm-whale.

Which is where I came in ...

The announcement of this year TS Eliot Prize winner will be made this evening in London.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

What's In A Title?

This is a quirky essay I wrote about poetry titles, and which first appeared in James Midgley's excellent journal Mimesis in either late 2008 or 2009.

My grateful thanks go to James for publishing it in Mimesis, a magazine which sadly doesn't still appear to be active.

What's In A Title?
A title is a title is a title. Right? It’s a simple framing device, a doorway into the world of the poem. The title of a poem is the ‘in’ just as the last line is the ‘out’. It’s about yin and yang. What else is there to say on the subject?
Perhaps you’ve read the occasional theory on this, thought about it in passing, frowned over an inapposite choice, made the right one unerringly yourself - or made the wrong one and been unable to do a thing about it. All of which suggests that it’s not so simple. That maybe a title is rather more than a doorway and a framing device, that maybe there’s something compulsive and instinctual about the selection of a title, something deeply linked to the poem’s psyche.

In exploring this question further, I don’t intend to look at the titles of collections in this context, because those serve a different overall purpose than the simple poem title. Instead, to kick off the discussion, here are some of the words, phrases and images that occurred to me when playing around with the basic question, ‘How to define the title of a poem?’

Amongst other things, the title of a poem is a handle; a moniker; an entrance; an epiphany; an overview; a hinge; a first glimpse of the narrator; an illustration; a cover blurb; a foreword; a container; a puzzle; a mnemonic; a dreamscape; a proto-metaphor; a clue; a red herring; an impression; a surname; a signpost; a subtext; a précis; a brochure; a ritual; a contract; an escape clause; a souvenir; a programme; a translation; a polyglot; a market stall; an all-you-can-eat buffet; a description; a label; a magician’s hat; the secret name of the muse; an asylum; a safe house: a double entendre; an invocation; a spell; a charm; a warning; a skeleton key; a portmanteau; a joke; a mystery; a gesture; a flashlight; a tablecloth; a plot; a deception; a cast list; a question; an answer; a command; a suggestion; a conundrum; a kiss; a sword; a formula; a surprise.

Let’s unpack some of those, and bring in examples to help with that process. I’m going to choose most of these examples at random, by scanning down the contents lists of collections near my desk in search of titles which might illustrate some of the phrases above, but a few of these titles were already in my mind when I sat down to write this short essay.

1.         Ted Hughes: Examination at the Womb-door
2.         Tobias Hill: A Bowl of Green Fruit
3.         Jacob Polley: Votive
4.         Joanne Limburg: The Fall
5.         Alice Oswald: Dunt
6.         Ezra Pound: In a Station of the Metro
7.         Don Paterson: The Forest of the Suicides
8.         Jane Griffiths: Travelling Light
9.         Catherine Smith: The World is Ending Pass the Vodka
10.       Sylvia Plath: Lady Lazarus
11.       David Morley: To Feed the Dead Who Would Come Disguised as Birds
12.       U.A. Fanthorpe: Not My Best Side
13.       Moniza Alvi: I Would Like To Be a Dot in a Painting by Miro
14.       Geoffrey Hill: Ovid in the Third Reich
15.       Stevie Smith: Not Waving but Drowning
16.       Katy Evans-Bush: The Life Mask
17.       Vicki Feaver: The Gun
18.       Elizabeth Bishop: At the Fishhouses

This first title, Ted Hughes’ ‘Examination at the Womb-door’, may be comic (who gets quizzed whilst being born, after all?) but in the context of the poem is actually quite a straightforward title. It comes early on in his macabre 1970 sequence Crow and does more or less what it says on the tin, though with the usual Hughes twist: ‘Who owns these scrawny little feet? Death./Who owns this bristly scorched-looking face? Death.’ So this title comes under the following headings: first glimpse of the narrator; a joke; a gesture; a ritual; a (literal, here) entrance; a cast list; a conundrum. Entertaining, yes, and ironic too, but not particularly layered with mystery and potential. Indeed, Hughes rarely does the heavily-laden poem title. He tends to present a bare-looking stall; you only see the rich and strange when you stop to ‘examine’ it.

Joanne Limburg’s ‘The Fall’ looks far more promising. So little is given for us to work on, yet paradoxically so much; immediately we need to ask questions, begin to whittle down the possibilities. Is this poem about the past or future? Is it about one person? (An incompetent mountaineer, for instance.) Or is it a biblical reference, encompassing all of humankind? Or perhaps it’s the American term for autumn and we should expect something Keatsian here from Limburg. With ‘The Fall’, we can’t choose between options until we start reading, so this title must be, variously, a subtext; a magician’s hat; a double entendre; a mystery; a tablecloth; a question.

So now categories of poem are beginning to emerge from the earlier list of possibilities. Some titles are straightforward; they describe the contents of the poem in an - apparently - unmetaphorical manner. Others provide a more oblique approach; they suggest rather than describe, leaving interpretation up to the reader.

In the first category, we could at first glance put Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘At the Fishhouses’, Catherine Smith’s ‘The World is Ending Pass the Vodka’ and Tobias Hill’s ‘A Bowl of Green Fruit’.
But no, you start reading, and even Hill’s innocent-sounding title, so reminiscent of a still life painting, proves deceptive: new love turns out to be like unripe fruit, and lovers must wait patiently for it to mature, for ‘kisses//sweetening in our mouths,/ the hearts softening,/the riddles undoing themselves.’ By golly, it was a metaphor!

How about Oswald’s ‘Dunt’, then? The name of a river - like her long poem ‘Dart’ - this one has got to be straightforward description. And so it could be. Except that it’s such a short, hard name, Dunt. Reminds me of ‘dunce’ or ‘don’t’ or ‘shunt’ or ... other similar words. And somehow the poem itself can’t get started, anymore than the river can get flowing. It stutters. It repeats itself. It bangs up against the intractable, like a ram obstinately headbutting a fence pole. ‘Try again,’ it orders us (or the river, or the poet). Like a poor page upload or an engaged telephone line. ‘Try again.’ 

So even what seems like a straightforward name-as-title - here, ‘Dunt’ - may actually be working hand-in-hand with the poem that follows it as a proto-metaphor, its impact based on sound and repetition; a subtext; a charm; a ritual; the secret name of the muse; a cast list; a command.

The second category, that of the slippery or suggestive oblique, is easier to fill. Poetry abounds with such titles, being a medium perfectly adapted to the metaphorical. Here we might put Jacob Polley’s ‘Votive’, Jane Griffiths’ potentially straightforward ‘Travelling Light’ (reminiscent perhaps of Don Paterson’s pun-based ‘Landing Light’) and ‘Not My Best Side’ by U.A. Fanthorpe. We could hazard a guess at what’s going on here, judging by these titles, but even our best guesses would lack substance. Because of their slippery nature, it’s impossible to get a proper grasp on the poem from such titles; first the poem has to be read, and understood, and then the title can be returned to, for re-evaluation, to add an extra dimension to the reading experience.

Some extremely oblique titles, however, are rather good at conjuring up the world of the poem without presenting the poem itself. Try Stevie Smith’s ‘Not Waving but Drowning’. The poem is hilarious and poignant and hugely memorable. Yet you could actually imagine all of it simply by concentrating on the title alone; the title is so brilliantly comprehensive, the poem itself is almost superfluous to requirements. So ‘Not Waving but Drowning’ is an all-you-can-eat buffet; a précis; a portmanteau; a label; a mnemonic; a joke; an illustration.

There is a third category though, which seems to straddle the other two: the semi-metaphor or false-friend. This is the deceptive title, the one which appears to be leading you in one direction, and indeed may do so to a certain extent, but then suddenly you find yourself in an unexpected place, without the guidebook or companions you were expecting. Titles from the list above which might fall into this category include Sylvia Plath’s ‘Lady Lazarus’ and Ezra Pound’s ‘In a Station of the Metro’. You could even slip Vicki Feaver’s ‘The Gun’ in there too.
In Plath’s poem, her shining energies and serial poetic violences wipe away the comfortable Biblical reference to Lazarus redivivus, leaving the reader disturbed and off-balance. Ezra Pound’s apparently straightforward ‘In a Station of the Metro’ would seem to promise a realistic, peopled, urban poem - and indeed gives us one, but packed into very few words; an impressionistic snapshot of modern life, taken with a soft focus lens.

And Feaver’s simple ‘The Gun’ might suggest something politically correct, or perhaps tragic, the accident or act of violence that ruined someone’s life; instead, the poem seems almost to revere the power of the gun itself, and its ability to change our lives with the mere fact of its presence. Is Feaver playing devil’s advocate here? The title gives us no clues; only reading the poem line-by-line may bring us to a deeper understanding of its purpose. Such a title, highlighting some elements whilst missing vital others, apparently friendly but designed to trip us up or lead us astray, is a magician’s hat; an asylum; a red herring; a warning; a gesture; a flashlight; a deception; an escape clause; a sword; a surprise.

What difference does the category of a title make to us as readers? The ‘in’ of a title can be a critical aid when the poem itself is fairly opaque - a clue, thank god! - or a delightful provocation when the poem seems at first glance suspiciously simple. It is also a way for the poet to make first contact with the reader.
For instance, on reading a playful or ironic, tongue-in-cheek title like Geoffrey Hill’s ‘Ovid in the Third Reich’ or Moniza Alvi’s ‘I Would Like To Be a Dot in a Painting by Miro’, you know instantly that you are to be entertained as well as sung to. That this is not merely a joke, but the title as first glimpse of the narrator; a signpost; a brochure; a market stall; a safe house; an answer; a kiss.

The title, then, is a pact with the reader (though some pacts - as we have seen above - are based on a relationship of deception, often by prior arrangement if the poet is well-known for such trickery). But the metaphorical is more satisfying, on the whole, than the straightforward and the downright deceptive. After all, if we wanted to read something simple and self-explanatory, we would hardly be turning to poetry for that experience.
And as poets, of course, a substantial number of us like to butter our own egos with the more slippery title, with references that demonstrate our wide reading and metaphors that challenge the reader to play catch-up.
For where there’s no mystery, there’s no allure. Right?

So we might see ‘The Forest of the Suicides’ on a contents list and wonder, is Don Paterson about to entertain us, depress us, frighten us, or leave us none the wiser? Here, the title tantalises and suggests. It paints half a picture: the poem completes it. Katy Evans-Bush gives us ‘The Life Mask’ and we think, yes! before even turning to it, the metaphor is so powerful.
And what of David Morley’s eloquent but mysterious ‘To Feed the Dead Who Would Come Disguised as Birds’? Here we find the poem as epiphany; a puzzle; a dreamscape; a polyglot; a spell; a cast list; a conundrum.

But the title remains a viable entrance to the poem throughout its various, deceptive changes of appearance and purpose. The best titles are linked symbiotically to the poem which they open; with these, poem and handle exist side-by-side with complete naturalness and no amount of imagining could bring a reader, once familiar with that poem, to think of it with an alternate title.
When everything is working in harmony, the title as doorway to the poem is greater than itself; in other words, like Doctor Who’s TARDIS, the good title is bigger on the inside than the outside. (It may even travel in time.) So always stop and examine it. To neglect the potential significance of a title, to read it in haste or forget to glance at it on your way in, is to enter the poem not only without knocking, but without any idea of what you may find there.
And with good poetry, that might just prove dangerous.  

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

David Morley's "Enchantment"

Off to Warwick University tonight for the official launch of poet David Morley's latest poetry collection from Carcanet: "Enchantment".

And it is an enchanting book, I can highly recommend it.

8pm, Wednesday 19th January, 2011
Venue: The Capital Studio, Millburn House, Warwick University, Coventry, CV4 7HS
Entry: Free
Carcanet Press invites you to the launch of 'Enchantment' by David Morley.
David Morley's 'Enchantment' reinvents the oral tradition of poetry as a form of magic, marvel and making. Opening with a celebration of friendship, the poems tell the world into being. In myths of origin and the natural world, the terrible chronicles of history and the saving power of folk wisdom, the poet weaves spells of Romany and circus language, invents forms and shapes, drawing his readers into a "lit circle" magical and true.
For more information visit

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Get Writing!

For those based in the south of the UK, next month I'll be appearing at the Get Writing Conference, based at the University of Hertfordshire.

My talk/workshop is on Making the Transition from Poetry & Short Fiction to Novels.

In other words, how to write long after years of writing short.

I'll also be taking pitches for Embrace Books later in the day, alongside a wide range of other editors, agents, publishers ...

The conference is a fast-paced, one-day affair on Saturday 19th February. Hope to see some of you there!

Sunday, January 09, 2011

The Dream of the Rood

Franks Casket (7th Century)

Many of you will know of my long-standing obsession with Anglo-Saxon and that I have already published various translations of Old English poetry.

Yesterday, I decided, quite out of the blue, that I would translate the Old English poem The Dream of the Rood into a modern English poem.

The Dream is one of the oldest poems in Old English in existence, possibly dating from around or before the 7th century.

I say 'out of the blue', but actually I have been considering it for some years. Over a decade, in fact. And lately the idea has been slipping in and out of my head more frequently. But not with any real seriousness until late yesterday evening, when I leapt off the sofa, snatched up a copy of the Anglo-Saxon text from the bookshelf, and started making notes in the margins.

I have often found, throughout my writing life, that spontaneous, bolt-from-the-blue decisions like this are highly propitious and nearly always end in a finished, successful publication.

This translation may take several months. The Dream of the Rood is longer than my previous OE translation, The Wanderer, which took about 6-8 weeks in all.

First, I translate the poem myself.

Then I look at other translations and compare them with my own and each other.

Then I begin to write my own version in poem-form.

(Version, please note, rather than translation, because I believe only a prose version of a poem can be called a translation. Once you attempt poetry in a second language, it can never be considered a straight translation, but only a version; however close you come to the original, the new poem will always try to assert itself over the old one, in one way or another.)

I tend to work very slowly with these versions from the Old English, writing only a few lines of the poem per day, feeling my way through it.

Wish me luck. I'll let you know how it's progressing. At least the initial own-translation shouldn't take too long, as I first translated the poem in 1998. But my OE is a trifle rusty!

For those interested in poetic translations, my rather controversial version of The Wanderer appears in my latest poetry collection, Camper Van Blues, newly available in paperback from Salt.

Monday, January 03, 2011

Creative Redrafting Workshops

Since I've been discussing creative redrafting on Facebook these past few days, I thought it might be a good idea to post up some links to my 2010 Creative Redrafting Workshops.

They were originally written for redrafting poems, but apply equally to prose. 

My online workshops were commissioned by the women's writing magazine Mslexia and appeared in five parts, now gathered together at their workshops links page:

Part 1
First Drafts are Not Holy Relics -
"Have you ever abandoned a difficult first draft that was going nowhere?"

Part II
Second Draft Onwards -
"Dare to do the thing that frightens you: rewrite in an entirely new way."

Part III
Building a Family Tree -
"Mixing it up with a little incest may be the most profitable way forward."

Part IV
Find the Core -
"Every poem has a secret core on which its power depends."

Part V
Strong Redrafts are New Creations In Their Own Right -
"The most obvious way to spot when a poem is finished is when you become heartily sick of it."

Hope you enjoy working with some of my redrafting ideas. If you have any feedback on the workshop suggestions and exercises, please do post your comments here below!

Saturday, January 01, 2011

BBC Radio Coventry and Warwickshire

Starting the new decade with a radio broadcast tomorrow morning (Sunday) on BBC Radio Coventry and Warwickshire, who have a 'reading the newspapers' show that I sometimes get invited to do, along with one or two other guests. We discuss local and national news stories live on radio, and get to eat some lovely cakes during the traffic and other news breaks.

It's a fun way to spend the morning.

For those who might like to listen in, the host of the show is Liz Kershaw, and this is the webpage: Liz Kershaw 10am.

Afterwards, I intend to shop, since the BBC studios are right in the heart of the old city centre, below the world-famous cathedral and only three minutes' walk from the main shopping area. 

Books, of course, will be my main purchase tomorrow. But I do need some new slippers too.