It’s taken me ages to find my way with writing, to feel that I was allowed, internally, to get on with it. From there, it’s been a brilliant and slightly terrifying experience to put a first pamphlet together, and I’ve maybe not yet quite caught up with the idea of it actually existing. It therefore feels quite strange to write about writing here – like this calls for jumping off another, slightly spookier crag. But I’m also into trying my best to be as honest and reflective as I can, so I guess this sort of challenge is also a good chance to think all this through properly. Here goes.
I think the nub of writing poetry is, for me, facing up to a demand for this weirdly taut balance between an extreme freedom of impulse and an extreme sense of control. I have a bit of an issue with both those things in everyday life, but when I’m writing a poem I feel I’m free to let rip — that somehow these two forces find their fit, one against the other. There’s something about the juggling that is needed to find this balance, line by line, that seems to hit the spot in a near-physical way for me. I now try to write in a way that gives space to both these elements. I spend quite a lot of time writing swathes of completely senseless, very pacy splurges by hand, in a near automatic-writing style, which results in a lot of jabber but gives some space for the strange to appear (and is also an unexpectedly relaxing and enjoyable activity in itself). I then place these splurges alongside other more thought-through notes and ideas, and from here get stuck into shaping and fiddling with an actual poem, which is where the other end of me – who really enjoys anything that calls for detailed and finicky and exacting work – sets in. I think the physical scale of most poems has always been something I love about them too, both as reader and writer: that here there is nothing unreasonable about spending an enormous amount of time completely focused on this one very small thing.
Not unconnected to all this, the particular quality of mental privacy that writing can allow is perhaps what I value most about it. When I’m really absorbed in something there is this sense of unlimited space and quiet in which to decipher/wrangle/play with your own instincts. And in the middle of that space, in the course of writing a line, I like how such a jumble of disjunct approaches and ideas tends to fly about: that there may well be combat and escalation and explosion and consonance all going on inside you at any given moment, and it is you and only you that can find a way through. That sense of private, playful struggle is a weird kind of catnip for me. I spent what was perhaps a strange amount of time travelling about on my own when I was a bit younger, and the pleasure and charge of lone navigation has never quite left me.
Then there are the words. There is something about the mix of sound and sense that every word is supplied with which still strikes me as such an uncanny boon. It feels like there is something unendingly interesting about that relationship: how a word’s sound and its sense might interact, whether to mingle or to resist one other. It’s funny, as I have quite an intensely ambivalent relationship with sound and music, which perhaps links to my being so happily agitated by what I feel words are up to. I grew up in a pretty musical household — there was always a lot of it being played or listened to or talked about — and I learnt the flute in quite an intense and serious way, then studied music at university, and did a PhD researching Balinese music — it all went on for years and years! But all the while I knew I sort of wanted to do something a bit different and away from music. I always found words more enticing somehow, but was on this route of studying music that I couldn’t seem to extract myself from. I then found my way into music writing. I wrote programme notes for concerts and started working with an orchestra on storytelling concerts for children, and through this work I found some confidence in my writing that eventually saw me daring to write things that weren’t so linked to music (although it often crops up). It was as if I needed to be granted a sort of legitimacy in getting on with writing via music, before I could dare strike out on my own.
I find it interesting that there seem to be certain demands on poets to represent themselves in other ways beyond their poems, in order to be understood ‘as poets’. I’m not sure if this is particular to the here-and-now or something that’s always been the case. I think it’s brilliant if poets have an inclination to do that anyway – it’s excellent that there are so many lively and welcoming social scenes on the go – but if you do find yourself feeling reluctant or challenged in putting yourself out there, I suspect there are certain disadvantages to being on the hesitant side. But then, whenever I feel anxious at struggling to exist in a very concrete and/or minutely-public way as a writer of poems, I think about how the thing that gives me the most pleasure and confidence in writing is the feeling of being truthful: no matter how playful or oblique my poems might be, they have to be sparked by something that feels absolutely real to me. So accepting what I can and can’t be like in the world of the poets feels very straightforward. In the end, for me, poetry is about you and the pen and the foggy notion that somewhere out there could be another pair of eyes and ears who might be up for responding to what you’ve written, so the only thing to be done is just to get on with it.