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Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Meme: 5 of my strengths as a writer

This blog has a reader, a real live reader, one I actually know about!

My reader is The Cerebral Mum and she has tagged me for the meme: Name 5 of your strengths as a writer / artist.

The most accurate way to find that out might be to ask other people! How I show up "out there" could be very different from what the inside of my own mind tells me. However, the meme asks the writer / artist to self-evaluate, and that has me looking not at the qualities readers perceive in my writing but at the strengths I bring to it, which enable me to write well (when I do).

When I say "writer", I of course mean poet. I do also write articles, had a couple of short stories published long ago, and last year completed the first draft of a rather lame NaNoWriMo novel – but poetry is my passion and my calling.

1. I know my craft.

I was brought up on poetry. My parents loved it, and my Dad often used to read poetry to my little brother and me for bedtime stories. We had the whole of The Song of Hiawatha as a serial, and loved it. I think I imbibed poetics by a sort of osmosis.

As I got older, whenever Dad brought home the latest issue of Meanjin – still Australia's foremost literary journal – I could hardly wait for my turn to devour all the new poetry. (How magical it seemed, decades later, when contributors whose work I'd loved – Philip Martin, Judith Rodriguez, Gwen Harwood – became my colleagues and friends.)

I've scribbled all my life but it was only in my thirties that I decided to try for publication. I felt that demanded more serious attention to craft than when I was doing it as a private self-indulgence. In those days there weren't all the workshops and writing courses there are now. I trained myself by reading a critical history of poetry in English and composing in all the different styles in turn. I discovered that the years of self-indulgent scribbling had actually given me a fairly good grounding already, because I had always played around with form, often making up my own.

I actually like free verse best, though I don't always write that way. I think there's much truth in the saying that you have to know the rules before you can break them successfully. I fondly believe that I don't write chopped-up prose, as many free verse "poets" do, and I'm sure that's because I spent so much time when young exploring the formalities. That being said, I do know excellent poets who have seldom if ever strayed into form. Which leads me to my next strength, which perhaps they share:

2. I have a good "ear" for poetry.

It's like an ear for music – in which I am sadly deficient, unfortunately. But I can hear instinctively, as if naturally, what distinguishes poetry from both prose and bad verse. (And btw some prose is poetry.)

I'm not sure that I could always analyse the distinction, but I know I can hear it. I don't know whether this faculty was inborn or learned. All that early exposure to poetry might have done it. On the other hand, I come from a long line of versifiers on my father's side, and my Mum also wrote very good poetry when she tried her hand at it late in life, so perhaps there is some genetic predisposition too.

And how do I know my ear is so good? Well, for one thing, I have been an independent publisher of other people's poetry and some of those books have won or been placed in important literary prizes.

3. I say my poems out loud before deciding they're finished.

It's the only way to be sure the "sound effects" are working as well as the content. If I'm undecided about different word arrangements, speaking them aloud will be the deciding factor.

4. I work hard to make my poems clear and accessible.

I hate obscurity and obfuscation. Though some people might find some of my poems hard to understand, I maintain that they are understandable. This doesn't mean everything is spelt out; there can be mystery. And I love both paradox and ambiguity – if I use a word or phrase that could be meant in various ways, be assured I mean them all! But I don't make things difficult just for the sake of it.

5. My best writing comes from the heart.

Stating the obvious, you think? But there are poets who try to be clever, and/or write in an intellectual way at the expense of feeling. When I do that, it doesn't work; I need my heart to be engaged too. If I write from the head only, the poetry is hollow. I have always cherished the recollection of an outburst from the late jenny boult (aka MM Bliss) at a poetry conference in Melbourne back in the eighties. There was a panel session about what was essential for the creation of poetry. It went on and on with no resolution. People got more and more pompous and abstract, until finally jenny (who had a cold at the time) boomed hoarsely from the floor, "Deeply felt, for God's sake, deeply felt!" As I remember it, she halted the whole discussion. Talk about cutting through the crap, lol!


A second opinion

I thought I would ask someone else too, to try and see myself as others see me, and chose my friend Helen Patrice. Because we have a mutual mentorship scheme, she has been very familiar with my work for a long time. She replied:

"Five of your strengths as a writer: honesty; sense of the right word; true appreciation of others; breadth of consideration of topic; ability to bring humanity and the personal to any subject."

(I did ask some others as well, but no-one else has responded yet. How ominous is this?)


I spoke too soon. Here is a response from Leah Kaminsky:

"Lush femininity, depth of soul, simplicity of language which is all the more powerful because of that, accessibility of meaning rather than obscurity, playfulness of language, dedication and devotion as a writer, generosity to other writers - me especially!!!!, child-like eye for detail and magic of ordinary things."

Leah and I are two-thirds of a writers' support group which has existed since 1991, even when we all lived in different countries for a while. The other person is Jennie Fraine, whose own response to my question is:

"Sensuality, you have the reader walk flat-footed with you through a picture to a bitey ending, ability to write on an endless array of topics."

I am tagging satyapriya, Savvyology, Muse du Jour and pearl.


  1. These are good, Rosemary. They could almost be a guideline to becoming a good poet, too!

  2. hm, lovely attributes and interesting story, Hope you blog some more. (saw you at poewar)

  3. Thanks, pearl! I knew you must be the pearl from poewar. I have found your blogs - and your poetry! - interesting too, and would like to tag you as well for this meme, if you're willing.

    Yes, thus encouraged, I'll blog here some more. You might also find my MySpace blogs interesting; see profile links top right.

  4. I really like this post, too. I grew up with poetry in the home, as you did, and I think it instills that love early. And the music. That's the way I ultimately judge the final draft of any of my poems...does it have its own song? I can barely carry a tune, too, but I can 'sing' in my poems. Setting this all down in one place was really helpful. And I hate obscurity for the sake of it, too. Mystery? That's fine, but obscurity, not for me.