Friday, 28 October 2011

The waiting game

I've been thinking hard about the writing process this week. After hydrodaktulopsychicharmonica came out last November, I wrote very little poetry until April, when I did NaPoWriMo. From then until the start of September, I did little more than revise a few of the poems written during that month.

It wasn't exactly writer's block, though. I don't think I've ever exactly rushed to get poems out there - I tend to revise a lot and the last book, for example, contained some poems that had their origin six or seven years ago - but I had decided that I'd really take my time before sending anything out to magazines, e-zines, etc.

In the last six weeks or so, though, I've started to write some new material alongside the continuing revisions, and rather to my surprise most of the poems seem to have been arriving 'complete'. That's not to say finished, but whole poems, rather than fragments (at other times I've often had beginnings and endings with no middle, or middle sections in desperate need of something to bookend them). I've resisted the temptation to send any of them out there yet, but it has had me wondering about how much of the process of composition takes place before you ever pick up pen, or keyboard. I have, I realise, been slowly writing these poems in my head for the last 12 months - it's only now the urge to get them down on paper has become irresistible.

Then, at Monday night's Nine Arches/Crystal Clear Creators Shindig, I was going to read a poem called Azul at the open mic. I started writing it about three years ago, and I'd read it a couple of times previously, at the Colour Conference at Warwick University earlier this year, and at the last Nottingham Shindig. I'd always felt that it needed more tweaking though, and as I sat there on Monday night, I suddenly realised what. I changed things around when I read it, rewrote it when I got home, and I think it's now a much stronger poem. Again, I wonder if the rewriting's actually been taking place each time I've read it, each time I've looked at it in frustration and bafflement.

So, the waiting game seems to be working for me at the moment. The problem, of course, is knowing when to trust first impressions and go with something the moment it hits the page. But that'd be a nice problem to have.


Caroline Gill said...

I enjoyed Penelope Shuttle's words on her creative process in the new edition of The Rialto. Always fascinating to see how poets work. A number of my friends seem to produce quality poems fast. I'm slow and begin to wonder sometimes what qualities the tortoise actually has over the hare in this respect! As for poems that arrive more or less complete, well, again, this aspect of the art all but totally eludes me ... much more a case of LABOURING (hopefully - and indeed a fair amount of the time) by Dylan's 'singing light'.

Alan Baker said...

I find increasingly that my pattern of writing is to not write much for weeks, or months, and then find - as you say Matt - complete poems arrive very quickly. I think the subconscious does work behind the scenes, and it's taken me a long time to relax and just accept it. I also find that, even when I'm filling notebooks (or text files) with material, the poems made out of this material are assembled quite quickly; as if the subconscious needs time to assimilate the raw materials, but once it's done so, the poems just happen. Fascinating subject.

Maria Taylor said...

I really enjoyed this post, Matt because it raises so many important points about the writing process, we can all relate to this. I think reading aloud also helps the editing process. An audience helps to bring things into a sharper focus. By the way I loved Azul both times I heard it, and look forward to reading the finished product!

Caroline Gill said...

Alan (above) has set me on a mini quest to investigate the difference - if there is one - between the part played by the unconscious mind and the subconscious one. I suspect it's largely a matter of levels of depth, but I'm no philosopher/psychologist!

Matt Merritt said...

Alan - I think that's exactly it. It took me a long time to be able to relax enough to accept that sometimes poems happen that way. And I think you raise an interesting point about assimilating raw materials, in the form of notes. I do write notes, diaries, etc almost every day, even when I'm not trying to write poetry. I'm a big believer in what Mark Goodwin says about a writer's first job being to write.

Caroline - I haven't read the new Rialto yet, but I'll look forward to that - Penelope Shuttle's always interesting. I think whichever way it appears to happen, though, quality poems are generally down to hard slog - I'm not a big believer in the muse, as such.

Maria - thanks for the kind comments, and I certainly agree that reading out loud (to an audience) makes a huge difference. I'm going to try a couple more new poems at the open mic in Polesworth on Thursday.

Aisling Tempany said...

This is a really interesting post, and it is one of the things I never get about creative writing exercises, or some poetry writing classes. I don't know if there is a thing you can do to help you write, I think you just get a poem when its time.

I often get the writing bug in the night, because i can't sleep (i know, cliche!) and will draft something up, and then re-think it in the morning.

Some of my poems have actually come about as a result of deadlines. This is why i like open mics, they encourage me to write something new, or be the one reading the same poem everyone's heard twice already. I'd rather be reading a flawed draft that something everyone had heard before.

Matt Merritt said...

I've not really done much in the way of creative writing or poetry classes, but I don't mind the idea of writing to some sort of prompt - it's just that, as I said, I tend to end up just writing notes, and not even approaching the poem itself until the time feels right.

I do like deadlines – it's probably conditioning after working as a journalist for so long. NaPoWriMo is good for that, or as you say, a regular open mic night that you can write for.