Claire Dyer*

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PROJECT : The ‘opposite of striving’: to investigate the ratio of conscious craft v unconscious craft & the difference between intent & output when writing poetry.


How books tell their own stories

Thinking about the unconscious craft of writing, I am intrigued by what happens sometimes when I’m writing fiction.

This is probably breaking numerous rules of writing, but I don’t plot my books! Of course, I have a story arc, a cast of characters, a setting and a timeline but I don’t have an intricate plan of what will happen to whom in chapter 3. Rather I like to let the book dictate the details of what happens.

I know there are many types of plotter: the cartographer, the explorer and the pantser (see best-selling author Julie Cohen’s fab Novelicious blog about this: and I believe I have worked out my own way of doing it, but every time what emerges can take me by surprise and this, I’ve come to learn, is one of the many wonders of the writing life.

For example, in ‘The Perfect Affair’ published by Quercus in 2014, Rose – the landlady in the upstairs flat – was only supposed to have a minor part in the book, but her story and the story of her past pushed themselves forward until she became as important as Eve and her story. Moreover, what I found was that part of the journey of the book was the difference between the two women’s experiences, how society’s dictates meant that Rose’s choices were far more limited than Eve’s. However, what also happened was that both of their stories contained similar motifs. I probably only realised this after the fact but I am grateful to Rose, it was a pleasure writing about her. She is someone who will stay with me for a long, long time.

A similar thing happened in ‘The Last Day’. The book was originally to be woven around Honey’s story but as I wrote, like Rose before her, Vita pushed herself forward until I found myself having to swap Honey’s first-person narrative to third and Vita’s third-person narrative to first and that’s not an easy thing to do! Every pronoun. Every verb. A real labour of love! But I believe it paid off because with Vita centre stage, the rest of the book coalesced, became what it was destined all along to be about and again, like Rose before her, Vita will stay with me for a long, long time. I am so pleased to have met her.

It’s like real life I suppose. When you meet someone you never quite know how the relationship is going to develop, and so it is in fiction too!



Poetry or fiction: a conscious choice?

This year, in amongst my deliberations about the opposite of striving, I’ve also been thinking of the balance between unconscious and conscious poetic craft. However, in addition I’ve recently been grappling with the conflicting demands of my poetry and fiction life and I find that in this instance, because my head’s so full of both the novel I’m working on and the one due for publication in 2018, the poetry imp has withdrawn to a dark corner and is unwilling (or unable) to lift his head and make the poetry flow, either consciously or unconsciously!

This has come somewhat as a surprise as I normally manage to have headspace for poetry and prose and, more importantly, when people ask me which is my first love, I always answer that the question is as invidious as asking me which of my children I prefer – I love them both just the same of course!

But, with my work in progress at 40,000 words and publication of another novel imminent, I find myself knee-deep in edits and my life wholly absorbed by the intricacies of my characters’ stories. Moreover, as I battle with semicolons, plot, setting, dialogue, narrative arcs, making sure I’m always putting my reader first, etc., etc., there is no space in my heart for poetry.

This hasn’t been a conscious choice. It saddens and frustrates me but maybe when my current workload has reduced, the poetry imp will rise, let me love him and I can once again strive to understand whether my poems come from a conscious or unconscious place!


PROGRESS REPORT:  It’s very early days! I was introduced to this concept by Annie Freud’s article in The Guardian ( but am yet to embark on the project!


‘The ‘opposite of striving’: not writing’


I’ve often wondered if all writers believe they are only as good as the last thing they wrote.  Well, I for one do!

I live in constant fear that the next sentence of a novel or the next poem won’t come.

Evidence suggests that it will but that doesn’t stop the fear.

And so what do I do when the ideas or the words aren’t there? I try to relax into the space granted by this inactivity, this opposite of striving. I savour experiences without rushing to explain them in a poem, I spend time with the characters in the novel I’m writing and try to get to know them better, put them in different situations than the demands of the plot suggest and see how they fare; I listen to music and I read the work of others, and whilst I tell myself this is all fine, underneath it I am panicking that (borrowing Coleridge’s words) I’ve already written the best prose that is made up of the words in their best order that I can, the best poetry I can that is made up of the best words in the best order and that I will not strive for or achieve any better.

And then?  What happens after this? Well, one day there’ll be an unexpected moment when the back of my head fizzes, my eyes fill with tears and I know, I just know that it’s going to be OK, more words are on their way; they may not be brilliant or life-changing but they are there. And whereas we all love to see our work in print and to have others read it, maybe this moment when the words come again is what being a writer is really about?


The ‘opposite of striving’: what’s left unsaid

There is, I’ve discovered, another way to embrace ‘the opposite of striving’ when writing poetry and that is to use Aposiopesis which, according to trusty old Wikipedia is ‘a figure of speech wherein a sentence is deliberately broken off and left unfinished, the ending to be supplied by the imagination, giving an impression of unwillingness or inability to continue.’

So, imagine the scene. I’ve been set another piece of Poetry School homework and this time I have the luxury of breaking off, leaving lines unfinished, letting whoever is reading the poem to fill in the gaps.

Now, of course I’m not unwilling or unable to continue – I know exactly which words and which meanings are slotted into the ellipses that punctuate my poem, just as I know what I’m trying to say with the poem as a whole.

But, the pressure is OFF to direct the reader, to yearn that their understanding will match mine because it doesn’t matter if it does or if it doesn’t. This surely is one of the most generous forms of poetry around!

I’m allowed to speak into the spaces without expecting anyone to hear me, just as for those listening, it doesn’t matter if they ‘get’ what I’m trying to do or not. All we’re left with are clues and sketches and hints; the poem is not insisting on being anything other than what it is and what is being left unsaid. This surely is a marvellous way not to strive for form, for meaning or for order!

As an example, here’s an extract from Jorie Graham’s poem: ‘The Visible World’ (

                                 It is tender. It is a tender

maneuver, hands making and unmaking promises.

Diggers, forgetters. . . . A series of successive single instances . . .

Frames of reference moving . . .

The speed of light, down here, upthrown, in my hands:

bacteria, milky roots, pilgrimages of spores, deranged

                                                                 and rippling



 Ta Dah! How poems can surprise their poet, or ‘the opposite of striving’!

So I was set a piece of homework by my Poetry School tutor, Kathryn Maris, to write a poem that makes use of an anagram. Now anyone who knows me well knows I have an aversion to anything that asks me to apply logic in a patient and ordered manner; I am useless at Soduko, cannot read a financial spreadsheet to save my life and if anyone gave me a Rubik Cube, I’d run a mile!

Rubik’s Cube

However, because I didn’t want to disappoint myself or Kathryn I closed my eyes, took a deep breath and searched my mind for a word that I could make other words from and the word that arrived was ‘owls’; I don’t know why, it just did. And from this the words ‘slow’ and ‘lows’ came and so I had three words around which to write a poem.

Now here’s the interesting thing. I had no idea what the poem could be about, but I brought up a blank Word document on my laptop, let my fingers hover over my keyboard and waited. There was no striving, no conscious imperative, just three words.

I can’t remember exactly what happened but I think it went something like this: owls = night, night = sleeplessness/the time of worry and then I thought about the fact that whilst I worry, some of those I love are made of different stuff and although I’m a cup half empty sort of person, their cups are always half full.

The poem took a good few drafts; I changed the order of the ‘I say’/’You say’ motif, I’ve played around with the line breaks and its had many titles until I hit on the one that summed up what the poem seemed to be wanting to explore, ie. this difference between how I look at things and how others do.

I also wanted to play around with soundscapes, as if to hide the anagrams, and so I used ‘night/flight/light’, ‘lows/below/how/hollows/follows’, ‘calls/falls’, ‘sounds/owls’ and took the poem back to beginning by repeating ‘nights like this’ at the end.

I have no idea if the poem works; I will have to wait for the feedback of my fellow students at our next class! Nor do I know whether writing in this way is valid or, because the poem wasn’t born of some deep-seated need to say something in particular but came from an arbitrary external source and the one word that flashed through my mind and stuck, whether it can be part of my poetic life or a footprint in the sand that’ll get washed away. Whatever the case, I didn’t strive for it, its genesis and some of its execution have been a tussle between a hefty dose of my unconscious mind and less hefty conscious application of craft but it has come like a gift and for the moment anyway I quite like it!

The poem, in its current form, is below and I plan to bring it to the Project 2017 day in February as part of the discussion on my topic.

A Difference of Opinion

I say what

night is this –

this night of

the slow flight

of owls, of

the light-lows

below trees

and hill-

hollows; this

night of

the slow calls

of owls – the

sounds of high-

lows that tell

how day follows

and rain falls.

You say what

night is this

that we rise

slow from to

take the flight,

the sounds of

owls from to

banish the

dark-lows of

nights like this.


INTERFERENCE EFFECTS, Two Rivers Press. ‘Meaning turns in a flick of a word … the other side of the ordinary’, Gillian Clarke. To read Emma Lee’s review  in The High Window, click this link:

THE PERFECT AFFAIR, Quercus. ‘A beautifully told, absorbing romance’, Sunday Mirror

THE MOMENT, Quercus. ‘This year’s One Day’, Louise Candlish. ‘Emotional and brilliant’, The Sun on Sunday

ELEVEN ROOMS, Two Rivers Press. ‘There’s a clarity about Claire Dyer’s poems that makes them immediately attractive: their surfaces gleam and glitter …’, Andrew Motion

Bath Poetry Cafe Short Poem Competition 2015 : Judge’s Report

Claire Dyer’s poem, In Chinese, was one of the most extraordinary – and one of the most extraordinarily beautiful – poems we received.  Perhaps by ‘extraordinary’ I really mean ‘courageous’ because Claire’s poem challenged so many of the expectations I had of the poems in our submission pile.

claire dyer (b&w)

Claire offers the two halves of her poem, In Chinese, as two parallel experiences, neither one having incontrovertible priority. There might be a linear sequence (the second part begins with the word ‘later’) but at the same time the two column layout insists that there might not be, or at least not in the usual conventions of narrative. The layout of the poem is permitting us to move between the two parts as we please.  In the same way, we are not required to decide exactly what is literal, what is metaphor, what is imagined, what is actuality.  The part of the poem subtitled ‘Word’ might also belong under the other subtitle ‘Temple’ while the bureau, parchment and ink in ‘Temple’ might equally belong under the other subtitle ‘Word.’

This fluidity in the narrative is matched by a wonderful fluidity in the language and imagery of the poem, which move in and out of precise meaning in the way that light might glance from moving water. It would be reductive to say that the poem’s interweaving of different levels of awareness and register mirrors the idea of a Chinese character where ideas are intertwined rather than sequential. This delicate piece of writing with its reticence, its balance, its control has not been written to illustrate a point.  It is its own meaning.  It enacts itself on the page. What I liked most of all about In Chinese, I think, was that even after many readings, it remained so intriguing, so fresh and so full of mystery.

Claire Dyer will be coming from Reading to read In Chinese on the Competition Afternoon on Saturday 26th September 2015.

Claire introduces her poem in the programme notes like this‘In Chinese the character for poetry is made of two parts’ is a poem about love and the loss of it and, I hope, a discussion on how the notions of ‘word’ (name) and ‘temple’ (worship) can be interchangeable.’

originally published on Sue Boyle Poetry

Photograph of Claire Dyer by Dale Strickland-Clark

4 comments on “Claire Dyer*

  1. poetryspacepoet says:

    What a fascinating project Claire. My belief is that we do not always know what we want to say and so much gets in the way. Experiments like yours can get to the unconscious thoughts and end up quite surprising. I felt your warmth yesterday so thank you for that.


  2. I was really interested to read about ‘aposiopesis’. It chimed in with something I was thinking of which was to allow myself to cross out words in my poems – and leave them there in the final version, though there is a difference between what is unsaid and what is said and deleted. I thought the crossing out would make a strong visual image but perhaps the actual blanks ( as in the poem cited) do that too.


  3. clairedyer says:

    Thank you for both these comments; they’re both really interesting thoughts x


  4. Hi Claire. I love the poem. It’s so musical and moody (in a good way). I too am fascinated by the interplay of conscious/unconscious in writing. I once kept a daily journal made up of freewriting and many years later took phrases from it at random, playing around with them to make a poem. It’s interesting how somehow disparate elements coalesce or stand in resonant juxtaposition to each other. Chrissy


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