MEET UPS : February, April, May, July, August, September
PROJECT : A pamphlet of autobiographical / biographical material, to include two sequences: (1) documenting my father’s life and / or my relationship to him. This will mine a series of eight dictaphone conversations I conducted with him in 2015 / 2016 (to which he was a somewhat reluctant or guarded contributor), talking through his life and our family history. (2) Poems exploring Rickmansworth landscapes (the Hertfordshire town where I lived for ten years, until August 2016), potentially also Bath / Somerset landscapes, and the transition I’ve made with my partner between the two locations.
QUOTE: So often, below the word spoken, is the thing known and unspoken. (Harold Pinter)
5th PROGRESS REPORT (September 2017)
Little to add about the poetry sequences since my August update – I’m afraid I’ve not spent much time on them recently. But for good reasons as I’ve been finalising a prose manuscript called Three Men on the Edge – a novella composed of self-contained miniature stories – otherwise known as a flash fiction novella or “novella-in-flash”. I started this project 6 years ago and it’s been a VERY slow burn! – a complex manuscript to write as it involved three different narratives about three different protagonists (all connected by the landscape of Rickmansworth, in Hertfordshire, my former home). I call the individual pieces stories some days and other days think of many of them as prose poems, as sometimes they are highly descriptive and not “plot” or “action”-oriented. I tried to give the language in each one as much care and attention as I would a poem. I wrote over 200 pages during the 6 years, struggling to make it all thread together, cut it back drastically to 45 pages, and then finally it edged up to 80 pages during the last 18 months while I resurrected and revised abandoned pieces and added some new ones. It’s been the most challenging (and interesting!) thing I’ve ever tried to do. Anyway, after over 100 drafts, it’s finally done. I think. Famous last words. I’ve sent the manuscript out to three small press publishers recently after encouraging responses to the synopsis. I hope one day to be able to share good news about it.
If it sounds interesting, you can read some of it here:
After working so intensively on this manuscript, I’m feeling like I need a short fallow period to recuperate. I intend to pick up the poetry more towards the end of the year…
Overall I feel I’ve benefited so much from attending these Project 2017 workshops, and can look back on a year in which I have made significant in-roads into two poetry sequences, and most importantly have spent inspiring and enjoyable times with fellow writers in Bath. I feel really grateful to have arrived in a city where writing seems to flow through the life-blood of the community, and I’m looking forward to whatever 2018 will hold.
4th PROGRESS REPORT (August 2017)
My latest thinking is to put my Father sequence on hold, and focus on the Rickmansworth landscapes sequence, combining this with material about different emotional states exploring ideas of happiness, disturbance and unease, along with a sequence looking further out in the world (by writing about historical figures). The reason for this is two-fold (1) I don’t feel comfortable going further with publishing poems about a relative at the moment (2) I would now like the manuscript to go beyond the personal / autobiographical, and engage with aspects of community and history as well.
3rd PROGRESS REPORT (May 2017)
Have been doing some non-fiction research to explore themes of the pamphlet sequence. One book in particular I’ve been meaning to read for some time: ‘Edgelands: Journeys into England’s True Wilderness’ (Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts, 2011). A beautifully written book (unsurprising, perhaps, from these two) about landscapes where urban and rural elements combine and clash, most often located on the outskirts of our towns and cities. This is relevant for the landscape element of my pamphlet-in-progress, because my former home Rickmansworth is on the border of London and Hertfordshire – a strange in-between commuter territory in which to live, neither city nor countryside – and a location I feel very ambivalent about. After ten years of living there I’ve been very glad to move to Bath, but Rickmansworth is deeply imprinted on my mind and somewhere I love to write about. Landscapes that combine urban and rural features are all around us, once we start to pay attention to them, and I think they provide rich and fascinating backdrops for describing ambivalent feelings in poems, or transitional experiences. Once I’ve researched this field (sorry for the pun) a bit more I’d love to bring some material to a future workshop for discussion.
PS I’m very pleased to add that I found out yesterday afternoon that two of my Rickmansworth poems (‘Deflated’ & ‘The Gloom-Bird’s Hated Screech’) will be appearing in the Autumn issue of South Bank Poetry – a magazine that welcomes poems relating to urban landscapes.
2nd PROGRESS REPORT (April 2017)
During my February half-term I spent a few days down in Timberscombe, on the edge of Exmoor, holed up in a cottage with my partner and trying to put a bit of time into writing.
My aim was to trawl the older, discarded drafts I’d accumulated since I began writing in 2001, hunting for material that might have some magic in it. Although I realised in February that the vast majority of these old drafts had been abandoned for very good reason, it was heartening to discover that there were a number of abandoned poems – about 20 – that I’d written between 2005 and 2011 that might be usable if resurrected. (I still haven’t had time to go through material from 2001-2005 – I suspect slimmer pickings). Best of all, 6 of these discarded drafts might fit in my “Father” sequence, with a bit of editing. And 3 of them might fit in my Hertfordshire landscapes sequence. It was like a small lottery win.
In a way it’s disconcerting to think that my judgement was so poor as to completely abandon 20 poems that I look at now and think have potential. But I think at that time (2005-2011) I was falling into that familiar trap of WRITING TOO MANY POEMS and never finishing many that I’d started. So the sheer volume of material inhibited me from paying proper attention. These days I prefer to write fewer new drafts, and MAKE SURE I KEEP GOING with the better ones. Two lessons, for me – (1) a welcome reminder to ALWAYS KEEP YOUR DRAFTS – who knows what you might discover when trawling through, even if it’s only one good line, or an image, or a title (2) my initial judgement when I draft a poem is evidently off-kilter – I’m in no position to make a decision to abandon or persevere with a poem after I’ve just drafted it.
So, now – 20 poems for the Father sequence, and 10 for the Hertfordshire landscapes sequence. Quality very variable, but a decent quantity. (“Universe look after the quality, I’ll look after the quantity” – Julia Cameron)
Another thing I’ve been thinking about, when reading the developing sequence, is that the high-wire walk to completion has to balance “understatement” at one end of the pole and “substance” at the other, and it’s a devil of a job trying to get the balance right. Some times I’ve been over-writing, from an urge to say something significant in each poem, and other times I’ve been falling short and the poems are a little “So what?” (a question my old poetry tutor Todd Swift used to ask of poems in our workshops, and one which fellow Project 2017 poet Robin Thomas and I have referred to several times since as a kind of guiding criterion by which to measure a poem). The balancing of this takes time, I suppose.
By way of finishing on a different note, here are some blog posts by the poet, translator and critic Martyn Crucefix, in which he discusses “Ekphrastic Poetry”, which is a topic many Project 2017 poets are tackling, and I hope some of you would find interesting:
Martyn identifies 14 types of ekphrastic poem in these articles. It would be interesting to find out (from those of you who are writing ekphrastic poems) which of the 14 types you tend to write, and why; and also whether you feel there are types of ekphrastic poem that you feel he has ignored….
1st PROGRESS REPORT (February 2017):
I’ve now accumulated 14 poems / poem drafts about my father, many of them several years old, but others written in the last year. The process of writing and gathering them has raised doubts about the viability of the project. I don’t want to write a kind of hagiography, but anything negative or critical of my father (who is still alive) would be upsetting for him and my family. And yet – tension and conflict is the stuff of writing, and the writer in me does not have the same agenda as the son. Can I produce a rounded portrait without risking offence? How does one write interesting biography about living relatives? It’s an ongoing question but I wonder if this half of my two-part project isn’t fully workable at the moment.
The other half of my 2017 goal – to write about landscape (Rickmansworth, in Hertfordshire, and my new home in Bath) is slowly developing – I now have 8 poems / poem drafts. These poems all use Rickmansworth or my old flat as a setting. I haven’t really had enough time and space to explore and reflect upon my new life in Somerset yet. Perhaps it’s all too new.
I think I might be able to work up to about 12-15 poems about Rickmansworth. If I start to write about Bath / Somerset as well I might produce an integrated pamphlet sequence entirely relating to landscape; but that feels like a long road, and if I want to produce “a pamphlet’s worth” of material by the end of the year I may be better off combining the Rickmansworth poems with some miscellaneous ones accumulated over the last 10-15 years.
In summary, the project feels in flux while it develops, which is no surprise!