Thursday, 14 January 2021

Prompts and exercises

First things first, I do understand and respect that prompts and exercises help certain poets unblock ideas at specific difficult points in their writing lives.

However, as a poet, I personally find that my own poetry is best served when I get on with my daily business, making sure I read, read, read in the gaps between the stuff I’m doing, thus allowing poems to ripen in my mind before putting pen to paper. As mentioned previously on Rogue Strands, sometimes it's better to wait rather than forcing work to come out.

As a reader, meanwhile, I get the impression that certain collections seem to use prompts and exercises as a systematic method of writing. I'm afraid I have to admit these are books I don't tend to enjoy because I find it extremely hard to connect with the poems in question...

Sunday, 10 January 2021

Prose that's packed with poetry, Liz Lefroy's I Buy a New Washer (and Other Moderate Acts of Independence)

I seldom review prose on Rogue Strands, but I’m making an exception today for Liz Lefroy’s book, I Buy a New Washer (and Other Moderate Acts of Independence) (Mark Time Books, 2020), simply because it contains far more poetry than the vast majority of collections that are brought out by major publishers.

I Buy a New Washer (and Other Moderate Acts of Independence) takes Lefroy’s long-running blog as a point of departure and shapes it into 52 pieces, most about a page long, one for every week of the year. It offers snippets of a life, a family, a job, sometimes portrayed head-on, sometimes aslant, but always accompanied by a feeling that (like the best radio presenters) Lefroy is engaged in a one-to-one chat with the person who’s reading her book.

This effect is achieved via the presence of a fluidity and a supple cadence in each sentence, Lefroy’s excellent poetic ear underpinning every entry to such an extent that I’m tempted to label them implicit prose poems. What’s more, the easy-growing language then lends additional impact to her invocation of arresting images at crucial points, which is another extremely effective poetic technique. Here are some examples of what I mean…

…The space in the spanner which fits onto the nut of the tap is called the jaw. The satisfaction of finding the right-sized jaw for a nut is comparable to diving into water with barely a splash.

…My mother died before my son was born, but her material substance somehow shines through him every time his fingers (long as hers were) play piano keys, and every time he smiles his smile, which is sunlight illuminating thousands of days.

…There was nothing to learn, but that the moment I kick off my shoes, the moment I turn down the lights, the moment I dance for myself, is the moment I feel free.

… I went back to the car to get my camera, and returning, saw my sons silhouetted against the grey winter sky, standing together between rows of white gravestones. I stopped for a moment, watched them as they talked, so alive, so full of hope and energy, coming home for Christmas.

As these extracts demonstrate, I Buy a Washer (and Other Moderate Acts of Independence) is a chronicle of how Lefroy’s creativity fits around and interplays with her everyday life. As such, it’s terrific, thought-provoking reading for anyone who’s juggling their writing with other commitments. However, as mentioned in the introduction to this review, it’s also shot through with poetry in abundance.

Liz Lefroy has previously published two excellent pamphlets, both of which are well worth seeking out if you get the chance. She’s won the Café Writers Competition. She’s been widely published in magazines and read at festivals. Her voice is unusual yet possesses universal appeal. The question now is simply when her poetry itself will be granted the platform of a full collection that it so richly deserves…

Monday, 4 January 2021

The silences between poems

It’s my firm belief that poems benefit from silences between them, from so-called fallow periods that actually don’t tend to be fallow at all. Very few poets benefit from writing eight hours a day, as thoughts and ideas need to ferment and macerate. Moreover, poems improve when blended with experiences, both everyday and extraordinary ones, which is a key reason why I believe most people’s poetry deteriorates once they begin teaching Creative Writing in an academic environment without sufficient non-poetic stimuli and points of reference.

Of course, the same goes for drafts. They too require space to breathe. In their case, the space is necessary to allow me to fall out of love with them, to disentangle myself from the heady fumes of their creation and take a surgical step back before working at them again. And then leaving them in a folder for months. Maybe cannibalising them for a different piece. Maybe realising how to turn them from a failure to a success in a sudden spark, sometimes years after their initial creation. That spark, inevitably, comes from an unexpected facet of a new experience that takes me back to the afore-mentioned old piece and also reciprocally enables me to cast a different light on what’s just happened to me. Without life, poetry starves.

Sunday, 20 December 2020

An exceptional object poem by Christopher James

I have to admit I’m a fan of object poems, especially those that take a seemingly insignificant item and invest it with personal meaning. This process often involves a so-called “poetic leap” from the object to the experience.

In this respect, Christopher James’ recent object poem on And Other Poems (see here) is exceptional for several reasons. First of all, it doesn’t make one but several leaps, all of which are successful. And then the object in question convincingly comes to life. And then it gradually gives up further mysteries and details as the poem progresses.

Such a layering of elements is extremely difficult to achieve in an object poem, but the result is terrific depth and a delicious degree of nuance. Recommended reading that will lift you out of this grim, grim set of current circumstances...!

Thursday, 17 December 2020

My poetry books of the year

My poetry books of the year will lodge in my head. Every now and then, I’ll experience something that reminds me of one of their lines or poems, and I’ll reach for them, and then I’ll linger, and the book in question will lead a second life beyond the shelves in my study, being tasted every few days for a couple of months before returning to those shelves. And then the cycle will begin again.

What’s more, I won’t yet have read several of my poetry books of the year, as they’ll be slow-burners that a trusted friend will recommend or I’ll encounter on the shelves of a second hand bookshop, flick through a few pages and reach for my wallet.

And then there are my other poetry books of the year, the ones I thought weren’t much cop when I read them in 2020, but which will reach out and hit me/hug me/renew me if I’m lucky enough to be around in 2030.

These are my poetry books of the year. Sorry if yours isn't on the list.

Sunday, 13 December 2020

A lost year...?

Is 2020 a lost year? I’ve seen this mournful term on several occasions recently in the media and even being invoked by poets. However, I’m convinced it’s a misnomer and can only lead us down a dead end.

Of course, my above comment isn’t intended to trivialise the fact that countless people have lost everything in 2020, while it’s also clear we’ve all missed out on experiences this year. Nevertheless, one of the things that poetry teaches us is that time is never lost or wasted. 

Fallow periods in our poetry lives are necessary. Through our writing, we soon learn that the genre doesn’t require or even benefit from our spending eight hours a day sitting at a desk. In fact, it encourages us to live and let ideas percolate through our subconscious in the meantime.

Beyond our writing, it’s worth adopting a similar approach to our days, using the patience that poetry given us. As a consequence of having pressed the pause button these past few months, certain projects will have lost significance. Others, on the other hand, will have unexpectedly become crucial. Our priorities will have shifted and we’ll be in a better position to face the rest of our lives. In other words, however we view it, 2020 is in no shape or form a lost year.

Monday, 7 December 2020

Submission

I loathe the act of translating from one language to another. Where many find creativity, I only encounter the frustration of insurmountable challenges, especially when a word possesses two connotations in the original text and one or three (or two different ones) in the new one. What’s more, I know I’m not alone in this respect. One of the most popular posts on this blog, for instance, from 2009, is titled Traduttore, Tradittore or Translator, Traitor.

However, today’s thoughts aren’t concentrated on translation per se. Instead, the afore-mentioned problem is a point of departure for a questioning of our use of the word submission in poetry. If we look up any major dictionary, this term has two main meanings in English, as in the following example:

1.

the action of accepting or yielding to a superior force or to the will or authority of another person.

2.

the action of presenting a proposal, application, or other document for consideration or judgement.

As a consequence, in English at least, I’m unable to imagine the second definition without a small part of my mind recalling the first one. The two are inextricably linked and cannot be separated because they co-exist.

Going back to my initial explanation of the nightmare of translation: this word cannot be considered if we don’t accept the sociolinguistic ramifications of both its potential meanings. These, by coincidence, don’t exist in Spanish in the same way (in which language there are actually other, subtly different connotations), so a translator either way could never transmit the full load of the word in question.

But let's cut to the chase: I’m always uncomfortable with the mention of a submission when referring to poetry journals and publishers. I’m personally incapable of shaking off the implication of being subjugated, of submitting myself to judgement, of yielding to a superior force or will, especially if it’s being invoked in the context of artistic creation.

Why can’t we just use contribution?