Includes book reviews and bits from writer's journal. For the professional stuff, see website link below left.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Free verse or chopped-up prose?

In my last post I skited that my free verse is not mere chopped-up prose. Almost immediately I had occasion to wonder if these were famous last words.

I've been doing the "30 poems in 30 days" project over at Writer's Resource Center. Luckily they don't have to be consecutive days! I got a bit fluey for a while and couldn't keep up the pace. Or is it that I'm getting poemed out? For whatever reason, the last couple have dealt with whatever's just happened in my life. Imagination not required!

One assignment was to start with a negative statement and finish with a positive. You can click on the link to see what I came up with. All absolutely factual, I promise you. A good read, some people think – but is it poetry?

I wasn't at all sure myself, so I decided to set it as prose and see if it made any difference. Answer: not a lot; but yes, some. I saw that if I'd been writing it as prose, I'd have been more expansive and I'd have punctuated it differently in some places. There were phrases that seemed to ask to be set as verse – but not so many as I'd have liked.

So then I tried the same thing with a piece of free verse that was clearly a poem, my Imagist piece from the 30 days. To my surprise and relief, it was the same with that one. Setting it as prose did make some difference, but actually not a lot. Some phrases demanded to be set as lines of verse, but by no means all.

I took these differently set out pieces to my writers' group to show them just how little difference there is ... and then again, how much. One thing they noticed is that when you see something set as verse, it sets up a particular expectation in your head. The setting does dictate the way the words are spoken – which I always put a lot of thought into – and you can't really get the full effect of any poem without reading it aloud.

In a strange way, the prose versions proved less interesting to me as a reader.

But it's a fine distinction indeed!

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.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Writer's Journal: My Writing Process

[11/8/10. Don't know where this came from nor what the actual questions were in detail. Haven't kept a record of those things. Suppose I thought I'd remember! I think it may have been in someone else's blog, perhaps as a meme.]


Where do I write? 
To your list of suggested locations, I'd say "all of the above". In other words, anywhere and everywhere. Mostly it's at my desk, often it's in bed first thing in the morning or last thing at night. Sometimes I go out on purpose, to a coffee shop or the beach or just my back yard, for a change of scene. I always have notebook and pen with me, so even when it's not a planned writing expedition, I can jot things down any old where, whether notes or whole poems.

•    Usually a pen that I like the feel of, preferably a roller-ball. But really anything will do – whatever's to hand.
•    Usually a notebook, which can be any size that fits in my handbag. I even have some tiny little ones I can tuck in my wallet if that's all I'm taking. I've pretty much given up calling them journals, because what works for me is to put everything in one notebook – shopping lists, new phone numbers … and bits of writing. Otherwise I have just too many to lug around, especially as I also like to have with me whatever I'm reading.
•    I used to use a typewriter but have embraced computers (hasn't everyone?). In the early days of personal computers I subscribed to the myth that you couldn't compose poetry on a computer. Then I began living with my present husband, Andrew, who had one. I discovered computers are WONDERFUL for writing poetry. Cut and paste is so much easier than the laborious typing and retyping - and wot-the-heck, the universities probably won't want my myriad drafts anyway. Until recently I always composed my first drafts with pen and paper, subscribing to the theory some writers postulate of a mystical connection between heart and hand. But nowadays if I happen to be sitting at my desk I'll compose straight on to a Word document. It doesn't seem to mess up any mystical connections that might be happening.  As with the place, it's really a matter of what's convenient. If a typewriter was all I had, I'd use that; if a paper serviette was all I had … and so on. What matters is to write.
•    I always like to have dictionary and thesaurus handy but I don't cart them around with me when I go out; some decisions can wait. When I'm working on the computer it's even easier to consult online versions than to drag out the actual books from the shelf by my desk. I should probably move the books now, to live beside my bed instead. (I have a desktop computer, not a laptop, so it doesn't move around the  house.) 
•    I don't like transcribing from tape recorders so I don't use them; my husband sometimes does, but that's for writing prose; he's not a poet. My second husband (Bill of the recent poems) always wrote to music, but he was a prose writer too. I think I'd find music distracting. 
•    Snacks? Depends. Not usually. I lose track of hunger and mealtimes. But if there are chocolates or something around, I might nibble as I work – in the sort of furious, impatient way I would once have smoked a cigarette in the same circumstances, as a sort of aid to concentration. Once upon a time I used to say that I wrote with a pen dipped in wine, but I seldom drink alcohol any more at any time. It was a bit tricky anyway – you had to imbibe enough to lift the lid off the subconscious, but not so much that next morning the poetry turned out to be incoherent drivel!

When do I write?
All of the above – though the work and kids options no longer apply. When they did, I trained myself to hold lines and if necessary whole verses in my head until I could get to write them down. I'm a night owl, so a lot of my writing has been "exercised in the still night / When only the moon rages", as Dylan Thomas put it. But "whenever the mood strikes and I'm not involved in something I can't interrupt" is more accurate now.

No set length. However long it takes and/or however long is available.

All of the above.

Mostly I just sit down and start. If I'm blocked I might use prompts; often I'll start playing with form and that does it – usually not traditional forms but "rules" I make up for myself on the spot. When I'm not blocked, I mostly write free verse, though I like to make some sort of pattern of the number of lines per verse.

Writing methods:
I never write outlines nor start in prose. Poems begin for me with a line or two in my mind, complete with their own mood, tone, rhythm, cadence, everything. Sometimes these lines turn out to be at the end of the poem or in the middle rather than the beginning, and sometimes they are the lines that get dropped from the finished piece. If I'm blocked, I'll sometimes use automatic writing or journal entries as a starting point.

Editing and revision:
•    All of the above, depending…. 
•    Some poems are "wholly given" and don't need revising; they are rare.
•    I'm good at grammar and gifted with the ability to spell – but I'm a rotten typist, so there are always errors to correct.
•    Sometimes an obvious improvement occurs to me as I'm writing, so I make the change then and there.
•    More often, I  look through it  afterwards to see what needs tweaking. If at all possible, I try and fix it on the spot.
•    Revision never stops. Come back to a piece after a few years, and ways to make it better will leap out and hit you in the eye. This applies to things that seemed to be working perfectly and also all those others that don't work in the first place. Put them away a while, and when you pull them out it'll be easy to see what they need. Sometimes, what they need is to be tossed in the nearest bin. At other times I "rework … extensively, often changing order, word choice and adding new parts".