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Saturday, 16 March 2013

Talking to a specialist about my poetry

"Water works beautifully to provide a
cohesive setting throughout," said Elspeth. 
Writing is a highly contemplative thing. You sit alone with your computer running and the word processing program open, a document open on the screen, in the quiet hours that lie to either side of the dawn, and you do a lot of thinking, gazing off out the open window across the green sward. Because I write formalist poetry I spend the hours encompassing words within the confines of a sonnet, where 140 syllables are used to draw out meaning alongside the rhymed line endings, the sensual punctuation of the draft I am working on as I sit, alone, in my room surrounded by images, memories, aspirations, voices, desires, and confusion. All these things and more work on my consciousness as my brain produces, one by one or two by two, or even in complete sentences, complete pentameters, the words I need to do what I am doing: reconstructing the past.

But you have to be alone so that you are free to concentrate deeply on the stream of words that arise, seemingly unbidden - though at times you may rack your brain for the right one - from the place inside you that you temporarily inhabit where can be found the traces of the past. Even though you are alone you might ask the reader a question from time to time. The person who is going to read your book of poems is also important to you because you are not just writing for yourself, you are also writing for an imagined reader who sits on a couch holding your book in his or her hands consuming your memories like a cat drinking milk from a saucer.

About three weeks ago I spoke with my first reader. Of course, I know that the book is not published yet. In fact parts of the book are still sitting in my stomach like an ache, or a joy. So how did I find this first reader? I paid her to read the manuscript; it was organised through some people who work with writers. These people are located to the south of where I live. What they do is help writers in a variety of ways. One of these ways is through setting up meetings online with specialists in your chosen medium, and so I spoke with someone for about two hours in late February about what I had written.

It was a liberating experience. I felt like crying once or twice. I bubbled inwardly with happiness at other times. Afterward I hopped out the door to my car and drove away to a party in a far location, the recent conversation running around in my head like a breathless hamster on a wheel. I'll call her Elspeth. Elspeth writes poetry and also teaches. There was something technically wrong and her voice wouldn't come through on Skype so she telephoned me; I set my mobile on speaker so that I could use two hands to make notes with the keyboard.

The notes run to just over a page. Elspeth said that in my manuscript the writer's imagination comes through strongly. There are no distancing devices, she said, there is no irony, and the interior life of the speaker is strong. And the sequence of sonnets I had put into a PDF is about what it means to love which, she said, was purpose enough by itself. But the other person is not so visible, and is something of a ghostly presence. This is typical of Shakespeare but is different from Neruda, Elspeth told me. So I had made a portrait of the mind of the speaker. And the lover, it appeared to her, had inspired instant infatuation that is expansive and immersive. The lover in my sonnets is the muse for the speaker's emotional world.

The speaker, Elspeth said, is infused with desire but also a sense of love, and then vows a friendship that will last forever, so the love is more than physical. The lover seems not as engaged as the speaker, in the beginning, and then she ends the relationship. So the love is unrequited to some degree, Elspeth said.

The relationship seemed one-sided to Elspeth, especially towards the end. And what about this promise of eternal friendship? Is sometimes the largeness of love not true? Elspeth also said that by the end of the sequence of sonnets it is not clear where the speaker has arrived emotionally. Is there acceptance? And what about this matter of the lover leaving the speaker for another woman? Is there something interesting in this that could be more fully developed? Elspeth said that the silence around this aspect of the sonnet sequence is curious, and could be interrogated more. Where has the speaker landed?

Elspeth said other things to do with the form of the sonnet, and with the use of language and metaphor, but these are technical things. What is most interesting to me is the notion of a 'work', a complete whole that can be delivered to a reader who can then extract a certain meaning from it. I was asked by Elspeth to consider writing more about where I - the speaker - had arrived emotionally and existentially in terms of the relationship portrayed in the poems, but I told her that this was difficult because I was still friends with the person who is addressed by the poems, and I didn't want to damage that friendship. The truth is to the poem, Elspeth advised me; the poems turn from the expression of the poet into an object of art, and they have a life of their own that is separate from the lives of the poet or his lover. In other words, take the risk.

When I sent the PDF to Elspeth there were 29 sonnets in the sequence but there are 35 now, so obviously I took some of her advice. I did write that poem about where I had landed up. I also tried to inject more of the lover's physical presence into the sequence by writing about things that she said and did. There's also a new, erotic poem. There will be more changes down the track. I haven't done any writing of poetry since that first flurry after we talked because Elspeth said she had made some annotations on a print-out of the PDF and that she would send these to me. I haven't received them yet, so my blog is getting a lot of attention. No doubt my blog is grateful for this. As for myself, I find it salutory to step away from the word processor and its demanding 140-syllable, 14-line, rhyming quatrains and couplets. I am enjoying waiting for that moment when I return to the process, the dreaming, the resuscitation of the past, the dialogue with my imagined reader. But while I wait I cannot stop writing.

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