Tag Archives: creativity

Poetry Bites #7: Locating the Full-Stop

A friend’s teenage daughter asked a question to help with a presentation she had to do at school and it got me thinking. The question was around whether poems are ever finished. It echoed others I had received from students during my teaching years. Is this poem/piece of writing completed? Can it ever be said to be finished?

There is the famous quote from French poet, Paul Valéry (1871-1945): A poem is never finished only abandoned. Which suggests it is indeed difficult to know the end point of a poem.

I think a poem, perhaps more than any other type of writing, begins with a conversation with oneself. Some of our deepest conversations with ourselves are life-long and, therefore, so is the working through it in writing. Themes and characters reappear in writers’ works over and over. Colm Tóibín is the first to admit he has spent many a novel trying to deal with the early death of his father and the relationship with his mother.

However, I do believe a poem captures a moment in that process, which means it can have a full-stop at its end. I think it is can even be healthy to find that full-stop so we avoid returning and returning again to the same spin of the record. When I was training to be a psychotherapeutic counsellor we would get exasperated with ourselves for ‘playing the same record’ when we repeated old scripts or behaviours. It came as something of a relief when someone suggested, yes it’s the same record, but it’s a different track. Finishing a poem could help us move the needle to an alternative groove.

Concluding our work on a poem could also depend on whether we want to share our conversation with another. This brings in all sorts of considerations about comprehensibility, acceptability and whether we are open to our writing being understood in different ways from how we intended. Writers have very varying attitudes to the latter. Some want to retain a lot of control over how their work is read and what is taken from it. Personally, I love to hear others interpreting my poems in their own way – even if it is not at all as I anticipated – because it shows they are engaging with it and finding their own personal meanings in it. (I should say there would be a limit to this, I would not want my poems used in a way to promote something I found abhorrent. I hope never to hear Trump reciting something I have written at one of his rallies!)

I have noticed that some writers and students of writing seem to want everything they write to be directed towards an audience. Visual artists are allowed their studies and sketches, musicians can practise their scales, dancers have their warm-up routines, but writers? Once words are on the paper they should be destined for a finished piece. For me, this is not the best approach. As creatives we also require the space to experiment and develop. I have ‘delivered’ A Wake of Crows, my first novel of three to the publisher Constable. I am now turning to the second, Drowning Not Waving. It will be essentially a re-working of a novel I have already ‘finished’ but I am changing both narrative characters. It means that the story as seen through ‘Sarah’s’ eyes won’t be read by anyone (a good third of the novel as it was originally written). But it is not obsolete, it is not wasted. I have learnt so much about Sarah (who is still in the novel) by writing through her, this will enrich the new version.

Evaluating our own work
Deciding whether a poem is finished will entail some evaluation of our work. My friend, writer and artist, Jane Poulton asked me once: how do we evaluate our own work?

My first response was, with great difficulty. Though it certainly becomes easier with practice, with writing, with reading (as a writer, ie critically) and with the support of friends who are writers. We do need to be aware of our own internal psychological processes. Generally are we perfectionists? In other walks of life, do we think we are rubbish at everything? What shape is our internal critic in? All these things will effect how we evaluate our writing. And whether we can finish. Perfectionists tend to find it hard to say it’s done, for example.

Plus, who are we evaluating it for? Is there a real audience/editor? Are we clear about what they want from us? Or are we evaluating it with an ‘imagined’ audience – this can be within or outside of awareness. For instance, when we evaluate our work are we unconsciously trying to prove something to a parent or a teacher (who are no longer even around)?

Bringing psychological processes within awareness aids assessing whether they are helpful or not and how they might be attuned to be more beneficial.

JP, herself had some more useful thoughts which she is happy for me to share. She suggested some questions:

  • Would I want to read this if I hadn’t written it?
  • Is this so personal other people might not identify with it?
  • Am I making enough bridges/connections for readers to identify with it?
  • What – specifically – would be relevant to anyone else?
  • What will others take from this?
  • What is really essential to this story/poem?
  • What could I take out and it not really matter?
  • Is it in a relevant style bearing in mind the subject matter?

She also cautions avoiding repetitions – saying the same thing in other ways – and overt sentimentality. She counsels a lightness of touch, less is usually more – suggestions often carry more impact than long descriptions of something.

On re-reading her contribution, JP did want me to point out that she doesn’t always manage to, and sometimes chooses not to, follow her own checklist.

Finding your own way to a conclusion
Since I consider a poem to be an essence of a moment, or of me in a moment, then I rarely go back to one to re-write once I deem it finished. Other writers are completely the opposite, forever revising and reworking. There are some poems which I would not share anymore because I do not judge they have stood the test of time. However, I would not alter them. I sometimes like to return to older poems to chart my journey – emotionally or as a poet. But if I want to return to the theme or image, since I am in a different place (in terms of understanding, psychologically, age-wise, geographically), I will make a new poem.

How do you know if something you have written is finished?

 

Musings #1: Pantser or Planner

For devotees of this blog – thank you for staying loyal – the concept of pantser or planner, when it comes to writing a novel, will not be new. However, to recap:

  • a planner plans meticulously each twist and turn in their novel before they start writing;
  • a pantser writes ‘by the seat of their pants’. They start writing without any real idea of where their story is going or even what it might be about.

I used to be a pantser. After now writing six crime novels – three self published, two unpublished and currently one under contract with Constable/Little Brown – I am moving towards becoming a planner. And, like many things in life it is a continuum, not an ‘either/or’. Or it should be, I believe, for any writer.

‘Pantser’ is joyously following your imagination and characters where they wilt. It means the writing surprises you the writer and will, therefore, surprise the reader. It will mean the writing can really plumb the layers of your sub-conscious and come up with what is truly original, unique to you and what you really what you want to say. On the other hand, perhaps especially with a crime novel, at least keeping a plan as you go along saves time in the future. Clues and red herrings have to tie up in the end. Whatever is written later in the novel has to be presaged by something earlier on. Tweaking or rewriting earlier passages in the re-drafting process means things have to be altered down the line. A prosaic example: in my current novel, A Wake of Crows, late on in the rewrites I decided my main protagonist had to have married when she was just 20, rather than just 19, this changes the wedding anniversary she thinks about in the ‘now’ of the story.

Val McDermid has said she has moved from being a planner towards being more of a pantser and, let’s be honest, her novels have improved over time (perhaps not just for this reason, learning ones craft is also important – writers are rarely born, they have to be developed). I was interested to learn from Ian Rankin (interviewed at the Edinburgh International Book Fair 2020, more of that below) that he writes a first draft and then does the research – a pantser turns planner. I would imagine this must mean the second draft requires a good amount of care in keeping everything straight.

What are you, pantser or planner?

Collage postcard by Kate Evans, Summer 2020

Zoomed Out
This pandemic has spawned a host of new language in the usage of once familiar words. Pandemic, in itself, was once something which happened elsewhere but not to us – not anymore. Self and isolation when brought together have developed new meanings (and attendant feelings). Language is always evolving, though often more slowly, it is interesting (if unnerving) to watch it happen over just a few months.

Many of us are spending more time online. Hence the term ‘zoomed out’ (other platforms are available) to suggest too much screen time. I know I have been zoomed out more than once. However, there has been an upside to being forced more into the digital realm. I am a devotee of radio and am now discovering and enjoying more and more podcasts. Plus various events which I would never have thought to attend in person have become accessible to me. For instance, I joined an excellent series of poetry workshops exploring racism facilitated by Charmaine Pollard (https://charmainepollardcounselling.co.uk/) and Victoria Field (https://thepoetrypractice.co.uk/home/about/). In addition, here are a few other suggestions which may serve as an antidote to feeling zoomed out:

This is all pretty much free, so don’t forget, if you can, donate to a cultural organisation, they really need our financial support right now.

Have you any digital recommendations?

 

Guest Post: Victoria Field

This week I have the pleasure of welcoming poet Victoria Field to my blog to talk about her new collection, A Speech of Birds (available: Francis Boutle Publishers). I first met Victoria through Lapidus – the home for those interested in words and wellbeing. She is a trained poetry therapist and described by ‘Poetry Review’ as one of the UK’s pioneers in writing and healing, having co-edited three books on therapeutic writing (https://thepoetrypractice.co.uk/home/about/).

She has also had three previous collections of poetry published, the most recent receiving the Holyer and Gof Award for Poetry and Drama. However, I have to admit to having a particular partiality for her memoir of pilgrimage, marriage and loss Baggage: A Book of Leavings (published in 2016): https://www.amazon.co.uk/Victoria-Field/e/B0034P81Z4.

A Speech of Birds brings together poems which evoke place and the turning of the seasons. They gently unpeel on the page. They draw the reader in, bringing forth emotions of loss and joy and everything in between, but most of all inducing a moment of stillness and reflection.

I chose one poem from the collection, ‘For Destruction, Water, Boscastle, 2004’, to be reproduced here and asked Victoria to give the reader some ideas about the roots of the piece and the writing of it.

Not Boscastle, but the Lake District. Photo by Mark Vesey.

 

For Destruction, Water

Boscastle, 2004

The day our love was over, seventy cars
were swept into the harbour, a helicopter
lifted six stricken children from a drowning roof.

When she moved into our bed, there was only an inch
of air below the ceiling as the woman, gasping,
crossed her lounge and swam up the stairs.

It was unexpected, even though a tourist,
I don’t know from Adam, photographed
a black wall of cloud shadowing Crackington sands.

No one cares about the cars
but I can’t forget the puzzled eyes of our dog
in the rear window’s crazy slide-by.

At first, it was a bit of a laugh,
getting drenched in a downpour showing
no signs of ending – sometimes we want things

to be other than they are – sea-spray to come vertically,
a river where once was a road  – to see ourselves afresh
through another’s eyes. A skidding bus,

raindrops big as sweets make us feel more alive.
I kept going to church, mumbling the words
like that farmer stuck at the top of a tree,

reciting prayers he didn’t know he knew.
I packed box after box
and you wept at the sight of the van

while all the shoes from Clovelly Clothing
and a Coke machine for good measure,
washed up useless on beaches in Westward Ho!

Summer visitors took shelter in the Wellington Hotel
where a local recalled the other river, sixth-sensed
its hurtle and dash down the village street,

shouted Everyone out!  It was a miracle nobody died
when mud filled every crevice of the deserted bar.
Now it’s all been rebuilt – some say improved.

No, no one actually died.

 

Victoria Field

A Speech of Birds, my latest collection, includes, as well as recent work, some poems first drafted more than fifteen years ago.

Poems sometimes arrive like ‘morbid secretions’ (Housman), or more happily, burst out like ‘brief musical cries of the spirit’ (used of Jane Kenyon). Others emerge slowly and need to be wrestled with for years before they feel ready for sending out for publication. For Destruction, Water is one of the latter kinds.

 

 

 

Boscastle in North Cornwall is a place I’ve visited many dozens of times. Like a favourite poem, it is always fresh and capable of revealing new depths. I first went there in the mid 90s with a man I later married. I was new to that part of the world and could hardly believe such beauty existed. It was a time of  personal upheaval when I was about to exchange a globe-trotting job for rootedness in a small town in Cornwall. There are only small towns in Cornwall.

Since then, I have walked the cliff path in both directions, in all seasons. I’ve been up and down the Valency Valley, alone and with friends, on days trips and combined with overnights in the haunted Wellington Hotel or the refurbished youth hostel. For six months I lived nearby on Bodmin Moor.

Bostcastle is where a dear friend from Devon and I met regularly for years, to walk, talk and catch up over lunch.

It’s a place where I feel porous. Boscastle has entered me. I’ve left traces of my past selves there. I’ve done so literally when swimming in the rivers or sweating on the cliff tops and transpersonally, in an out-of-time way. I’m connected to Boscastle through my own memories and also the novels and poems of Thomas Hardy (Beeney Cliff, A Pair of Blue Eyes), poems by Charles Causley and contemporary Cornish poets.

So when my marriage finally collapsed in the same week as the village was destroyed by floods, I conflated the two events. Perhaps it’s a case of the pathetic fallacy writ large, or else a way of seeing personal grief in the context of wider public events. Probably both.

Poems are always ongoing conversations with other poets. I love Robert Frost and his poem Fire and Ice is a touchstone for me. It’s one of those short rhyming, perfectly-formed diamonds of a poem, easily carried in the head and the heart.

My title, For Destruction, Water is a homage to Fire and Ice, and came first, before I wrote the rest of it.  In the mid-noughties, I attended a Poetry School class with Penelope Shuttle in Falmouth and I remember working on the poem then.

I’ve found a draft on my computer dated March 2007 and around 30 subsequent revised versions. It’s been longer, shorter, funnier, sadder, whinier and more and less personal.

I sent it out from time to time and eventually it  was published in Raceme in 2015. Then I included it in my memoir, Baggage, published in 2016. The umbilical cord was cut, the poem was out in the world and I stopped revising it.

Putting together A Speech of Birds meant revisiting all my poems to decide what to include. I wondered whether For Destruction, Water was too old, too worked.  But to quote Faulkner, ‘The past is never dead. It’s not even past’. Revisiting places, events, poems and experiences can always lead to new insights.

Boscastle isn’t the same after the floods of sixteen years ago, but then it was never the same. Nor am I.

Footnote:  some readers have contacted me concerned about the reference to ‘our dog’ in the poem. I made that bit up – our dog stayed happily in the former marital home and died at a great age. According to the internet, in spite of an estimated two billion litres of water flowing through the village, miraculously no companion animals were reported missing.

 

The RA mid-Summer Exhibition, Final Day: Sun

15cmx10.5cm. Watercolour pencil & oil pastel on paper.

The inspiration for this piece is the mural by Edvard Munch which I saw in Oslo several years back. It is huge, whereas my image is small. Munch’s sun is exuberant, a stark contrast to his many more sombre and tortured images. Using the sun as a symbol of hope is perhaps trite. I do want to believe we will come out of this pandemic wiser and kinder. I am not sure I can believe it. I am not sure whether the sun is rising or sinking.

The RA (Royal Avenue) mid-Summer Exhibition

Generally I dislike the mid-summer solstice. It always comes too early to be mid-way through the summer, to be mid-way through the year. This year it feels even more poorly placed. For me, the first half of 2020 has been weighted with a stew of emotions. First off, there was my contract with Constable for three novels – an ambition finally realised which I have held since I was 19. Then my father-in-law died. Then the pandemic descended. Then George Floyd was murdered. And all along, others have tragically died or been killed or been attacked or have had their lives turned upside down in one way or another.

I am aware that every day in every year is soaked in suffering for many, many people, not to mention for the earth and our fellow species. More often than not, my experience of this is mediated through the TV screen. Undoubtedly, this has continued even as I have hunkered down into my own ‘back-yard’.

There has been the counterbalance, in the form of acts of kindness and concern, cooperation and innovation. Plus, perhaps, a shifting in our joint assessment of what is important and needs preserving or changing.

These last six months, my small world has become more freighted than usual with a diverse swirl of feelings. I have responded to this with images and texts. I have decided to show them in the RA (Royal Avenue) online mid-Summer exhibition. There’s no doubt, that in some cases, the idea for the piece has outstripped my skills for realising it. However, for me, they do still capture an essence of a moment in the last half a year.

 

The RA mid-Summer Exhibition, Day 9: We are Inter-species

Photo. Original image: A4. Acrylic & collage on paper.

 

Sometimes things go wrong… I have failed to upload my track, so this is the text:

‘I did this collage in March. I wanted to make a statement about how we humans are part of a delicate ecosystem formed with other animals, plants, the earth… and we ignore this at our peril. Since then I have become saddened at the way our own species appears to have become increasingly divided and factious. I want us to celebrate our diversity and delight in our differences. I want us to call out injustices. I want us to remember we share 99.9% of our DNA. We are the same family. We are the same species.’

 

The RA (Royal Avenue) mid-Summer Exhibition

Generally I dislike the mid-summer solstice. It always comes too early to be mid-way through the summer, to be mid-way through the year. This year it feels even more poorly placed. For me, the first half of 2020 has been weighted with a stew of emotions. First off, there was my contract with Constable for three novels – an ambition finally realised which I have held since I was 19. Then my father-in-law died. Then the pandemic descended. Then George Floyd was murdered. And all along, others have tragically died or been killed or been attacked or have had their lives turned upside down in one way or another.

I am aware that every day in every year is soaked in suffering for many, many people, not to mention for the earth and our fellow species. More often than not, my experience of this is mediated through the TV screen. Undoubtedly, this has continued even as I have hunkered down into my own ‘back-yard’.

There has been the counterbalance, in the form of acts of kindness and concern, cooperation and innovation. Plus, perhaps, a shifting in our joint assessment of what is important and needs preserving or changing.

These last six months, my small world has become more freighted than usual with a diverse swirl of feelings. I have responded to this with images and texts. I have decided to show them in the RA (Royal Avenue) online mid-Summer exhibition. There’s no doubt, that in some cases, the idea for the piece has outstripped my skills for realising it. However, for me, they do still capture an essence of a moment in the last half a year.

The RA mid-Summer Exhibition, Day 8: See you in Scarborough

15cmx10.5cm. Watercolour pencil & felt tip on paper

 

The RA (Royal Avenue) mid-Summer Exhibition

Generally I dislike the mid-summer solstice. It always comes too early to be mid-way through the summer, to be mid-way through the year. This year it feels even more poorly placed. For me, the first half of 2020 has been weighted with a stew of emotions. First off, there was my contract with Constable for three novels – an ambition finally realised which I have held since I was 19. Then my father-in-law died. Then the pandemic descended. Then George Floyd was murdered. And all along, others have tragically died or been killed or been attacked or have had their lives turned upside down in one way or another.

I am aware that every day in every year is soaked in suffering for many, many people, not to mention for the earth and our fellow species. More often than not, my experience of this is mediated through the TV screen. Undoubtedly, this has continued even as I have hunkered down into my own ‘back-yard’.

There has been the counterbalance, in the form of acts of kindness and concern, cooperation and innovation. Plus, perhaps, a shifting in our joint assessment of what is important and needs preserving or changing.

These last six months, my small world has become more freighted than usual with a diverse swirl of feelings. I have responded to this with images and texts. I have decided to show them in the RA (Royal Avenue) online mid-Summer exhibition. There’s no doubt, that in some cases, the idea for the piece has outstripped my skills for realising it. However, for me, they do still capture an essence of a moment in the last half a year.

The RA mid-Summer Exhibition, Day 7: Love Matters

15cmx10.5cm collage & oil pastels on paper

 

The RA (Royal Avenue) mid-Summer Exhibition

Generally I dislike the mid-summer solstice. It always comes too early to be mid-way through the summer, to be mid-way through the year. This year it feels even more poorly placed. For me, the first half of 2020 has been weighted with a stew of emotions. First off, there was my contract with Constable for three novels – an ambition finally realised which I have held since I was 19. Then my father-in-law died. Then the pandemic descended. Then George Floyd was murdered. And all along, others have tragically died or been killed or been attacked or have had their lives turned upside down in one way or another.

I am aware that every day in every year is soaked in suffering for many, many people, not to mention for the earth and our fellow species. More often than not, my experience of this is mediated through the TV screen. Undoubtedly, this has continued even as I have hunkered down into my own ‘back-yard’.

There has been the counterbalance, in the form of acts of kindness and concern, cooperation and innovation. Plus, perhaps, a shifting in our joint assessment of what is important and needs preserving or changing.

These last six months, my small world has become more freighted than usual with a diverse swirl of feelings. I have responded to this with images and texts. I have decided to show them in the RA (Royal Avenue) online mid-Summer exhibition. There’s no doubt, that in some cases, the idea for the piece has outstripped my skills for realising it. However, for me, they do still capture an essence of a moment in the last half a year.

 

The RA mid-Summer Exhibition, Day 6: Over the Rainbow

15cmx10.5cm. Oil pastels and pen on paper

5th June 2020: death toll tops 40,000 in the UK

 

The RA (Royal Avenue) mid-Summer Exhibition

Generally I dislike the mid-summer solstice. It always comes too early to be mid-way through the summer, to be mid-way through the year. This year it feels even more poorly placed. For me, the first half of 2020 has been weighted with a stew of emotions. First off, there was my contract with Constable for three novels – an ambition finally realised which I have held since I was 19. Then my father-in-law died. Then the pandemic descended. Then George Floyd was murdered. And all along, others have tragically died or been killed or been attacked or have had their lives turned upside down in one way or another.

I am aware that every day in every year is soaked in suffering for many, many people, not to mention for the earth and our fellow species. More often than not, my experience of this is mediated through the TV screen. Undoubtedly, this has continued even as I have hunkered down into my own ‘back-yard’.

There has been the counterbalance, in the form of acts of kindness and concern, cooperation and innovation. Plus, perhaps, a shifting in our joint assessment of what is important and needs preserving or changing.

These last six months, my small world has become more freighted than usual with a diverse swirl of feelings. I have responded to this with images and texts. I have decided to show them in the RA (Royal Avenue) online mid-Summer exhibition. There’s no doubt, that in some cases, the idea for the piece has outstripped my skills for realising it. However, for me, they do still capture an essence of a moment in the last half a year.

The RA mid-Summer Exhibition, Day 5: Zooming

15cmx10.5cm. Collage & pen on paper

 

The RA (Royal Avenue) mid-Summer Exhibition

Generally I dislike the mid-summer solstice. It always comes too early to be mid-way through the summer, to be mid-way through the year. This year it feels even more poorly placed. For me, the first half of 2020 has been weighted with a stew of emotions. First off, there was my contract with Constable for three novels – an ambition finally realised which I have held since I was 19. Then my father-in-law died. Then the pandemic descended. Then George Floyd was murdered. And all along, others have tragically died or been killed or been attacked or have had their lives turned upside down in one way or another.

I am aware that every day in every year is soaked in suffering for many, many people, not to mention for the earth and our fellow species. More often than not, my experience of this is mediated through the TV screen. Undoubtedly, this has continued even as I have hunkered down into my own ‘back-yard’.

There has been the counterbalance, in the form of acts of kindness and concern, cooperation and innovation. Plus, perhaps, a shifting in our joint assessment of what is important and needs preserving or changing.

These last six months, my small world has become more freighted than usual with a diverse swirl of feelings. I have responded to this with images and texts. I have decided to show them in the RA (Royal Avenue) online mid-Summer exhibition. There’s no doubt, that in some cases, the idea for the piece has outstripped my skills for realising it. However, for me, they do still capture an essence of a moment in the last half a year.

The RA mid-Summer Exhibition, Day 4: Social Distancing

15cmx10.5cm water colour pencils, acrylic, pen on paper

Every day, it seemed, our language was being altered with additional vocabulary. ‘Social distancing’, the words not new, but when put together, creating a new concept. The inspiration for the image above came from the work of Madge Gill (1882-1961). ‘Gill made hundreds of beautiful coloured drawings, mostly of women, alone or in a crowd. With their blank, staring eyes and faint smiles, they might represent Gill’s stillborn daughter or the situation of women more generally.’ (Voyaging Out, British Women artists from suffrage to the sixties, Carolyn Trant, page 69.)

 

The RA (Royal Avenue) mid-Summer Exhibition

Generally I dislike the mid-summer solstice. It always comes too early to be mid-way through the summer, to be mid-way through the year. This year it feels even more poorly placed. For me, the first half of 2020 has been weighted with a stew of emotions. First off, there was my contract with Constable for three novels – an ambition finally realised which I have held since I was 19. Then my father-in-law died. Then the pandemic descended. Then George Floyd was murdered. And all along, others have tragically died or been killed or been attacked or have had their lives turned upside down in one way or another.

I am aware that every day in every year is soaked in suffering for many, many people, not to mention for the earth and our fellow species. More often than not, my experience of this is mediated through the TV screen. Undoubtedly, this has continued even as I have hunkered down into my own ‘back-yard’.

There has been the counterbalance, in the form of acts of kindness and concern, cooperation and innovation. Plus, perhaps, a shifting in our joint assessment of what is important and needs preserving or changing.

These last six months, my small world has become more freighted than usual with a diverse swirl of feelings. I have responded to this with images and texts. I have decided to show them in the RA (Royal Avenue) online mid-Summer exhibition. There’s no doubt, that in some cases, the idea for the piece has outstripped my skills for realising it. However, for me, they do still capture an essence of a moment in the last half a year.