April, it seems, is the hardest month. I come out of the blocks in January committed to making the most of the year, augmenting myself around the academic timetable and the knowledge I’ll have a break over Easter. Last year I wrote 200,000 words between January and April on a number of projects—the novel, book chapters, journal articles, journalism, a report, peer feedback. This was not counting the blog posts, emails, morning pages, feedback to students and sundry other updates. Then when April 6th came, as I was staying with friends in Falmouth, I opened my laptop one last time almost as if it were some medieval drawbridge and I the only soldier pulling on the rope, and I sat there in Café Nero at around 730am in the morning and I just could not write a single other word. My calf muscles had just snapped the day earlier out on a coastal run, and now my mind had gone too.
I then had ten days with my friends where I couldn’t run or write anything out of my system, so I was grumpy, sleepless, coffee-tainted, unable to rest, unable to simply stop, but unable to give up on working. Each morning I kept trying and failing, even with the strongest decaf I’ve ever had (‘No way is that decaf,’ I told the barista at the excellent Falmouth Espressini. ‘We’re a coffee shop,’ he shrugged, smiling.) It was such a habit I didn’t recognise myself without plugging in to a laptop to write. (See ‘April, 7am’ below). My friends are incredibly patient, and I love them for that.
This year it has been similar, but nowhere near in comparison. After a month over Christmas of various illnesses (Norovirus over Christmas, half a pack of Rolos for Christmas dinner), running/drinking injuries (in that order), I again wanted to attack the year (what metaphors!) and get my novel finished. Which, at the end of March, I did. Just in time to rest up over Easter. I’d taken two weeks of work, I was visiting family and friends, I’d just finished (mostly finished the big stuff) on a book I’d committed to for five years. Rest would have been good. And yet most of that break was spent vacillating between vague anxieties about wanting to move on to a new project (ideas that had been bubbling around for twelve months or more, desperate to be written!) and frustration at still having to work on a PhD that I don’t really believe in any more (and perhaps never did) for being non-ecological, and not about animals.
Throw into the mix my missing father’s birthday (April 10th), a bug picked up from friends’ children, the constant ecological destruction and biodiversity loss that I’m attempting to fully face as a ‘reality-based adult’ (love that phrase of James Howard Kunstler’s) I went back to work worn out, unable to settle my mind on good things (you know: meditation, yoga, a glass of wine with friends, being present, love).
And yet something good did happen. I began writing poetry. After months if not years of jokingly misrepresenting poetry and the poets I know through the Creative Writing PhD at Newcastle, having written perhaps 10 poems in my life, I began—with a number of encouragements from friends—to read and think in verse.
The instigation was a friend suggesting it would do me good to read and write poetry as a way of finding a less rigid approach to opening myself up as a writer. To find a note of soul that had been fixed for too long by the arduous processes of prose, written to the restrictions of one project and a PhD. One project I had at times hated in the difficult lesson of learning one’s craft. Henry Miller says to write joyfully at all times. That is barely possible when one is stuck for nine months on the same ten thousand words. But having learnt a craft of novel writing (taking hard lessons on the way) a conversation with a colleague then reminded me of what was now possible. ‘You’ve learnt the craft, fine, put that away now,’ he said. ‘Now you can think about things you really want to think about.’
But what was that? Another friend, a poet, tells me about the terror of finishing one poem and then having to think of something else to write about. Put onto that the pressure of knowing whatever it is you choose—as a novelist—you are likely to be working on for not two weeks but (at least) two years, the terror is can be… well, this is only a writer’s misery, of course, and it’s best to keep it in perspective.
Before I had the opportunity to become too paralysed, however, I was off to Scotland for a writing weekend at Wiston Lodge run by Em Strang and Sue Richardson, under the auspices of the Dark Mountain Project. Its theme was ‘animals’ and I chose it based on that theme, rather than the fact it was a poetry writing weekend (in fact it was not: I could write what I liked, and I’d begun preparing by writing prose poems, getting some Francis Ponge out of the library, working on some ideas of my own; see ‘The Ontario Honker’ at the end). I’d paid up as a gift to myself for finishing the novel.
A gift feels the right word for it. It was here that I began writing poetry. Being part of a group of ten poets who would convene in the morning to do morning pages, who were talented poets, and who were likeminded, in a setting held open and made comfortable and creative by the facilitators and participants, allowed for something to be remade in me—something accessed. I remembered, suddenly, the poems I had written at school and college (particularly ‘Lemon’, an Australian term for a lesbian, a poem after Billy Holliday’s ‘Strange Fruit’ which we published in the college magazine and which my rugby playing mates ridiculed every time I walked into the library with hushed shouts of ‘Lemon!”) and in the summer of 2000 when my friend Annabel and I traded prompts over email while she was in Hungary for her PhD, and we wrote strange, effervescent and free poetry to each other, with no wish for the pieces except for them to help us maintain contact.
Thinking about it now, Annabel finding these poems ten years later (she had printed them off and pasted them up on the walls of her bathroom in Hungary) was one of the seeds that were sown that had led me to reconsider poetry as a form I could and wanted to write. What was wonderful about those poems were that I cared about the things I wrote about, but cared in a joyful way, they were things that I needed to articulate for themselves, or for fun, or for no reason other than to write, for my interpretation of the ideas, for my voice, and I didn’t think of their reception, except that Annabel would find them funny and feel loved, or what people would think of me, what recognition they would muster for me.
They were writing for writing’s sake. It was that, which, after five years on the novel, I wanted to get back.
The largest part of the struggle in finishing the novel has been the creeping realisation that it has not given me immediate gratification or recognition. I have not overnight become a recognised author. It is in recognising this now, fully (while doing heart-opening yoga), in the grief that I feel at the end of such a large piece of work (attached to which is an unmoored grief for my father, and the urgency of moving on to my next book about him) and in the frustration I feel that it has not given me what I hoped from it, that I realise how much of this novel was written for the wrong reasons. Not for itself, but for the things it could give me.
It is why its ‘creatureliness’ (from Ted Hughes’ ‘The Making of a Poem’) has become a little lost. Why much of the novel feels static. That is not to say it is rubbish (any agents out there…?) It may even be competently written, well structured, entertaining, a rich and hopefully successful, publishable novel… 😉 But I recognise, as readers do, what is alive in a book, and what fifteen rewrites, and three different narrators, and over 1.6m words cut (yes… and the novel is now just 100k) can do to the energy of first thoughts, first drafts. But… and I am in a process of acceptance about this, that is perhaps some of what I needed to go through to learn the craft. When I began writing this book, I did not know how to write a novel. Now, I do. How to write it, and also how not to write it.
And writing poetry is a step back towards how to write. This ‘how’ is critical. Practicing well as a writer means opening up onto things that are hard, difficult, suffering to say. It is about working on first thoughts not as first drafts, but as things that can lead to them. That writing with the hand and a pen on paper is, as Natalie Goldberg has always argued, a different experience from typing on a computer—writing is a physical thing, something I certainly learnt in last year’s April meltdown. Spending time with First Thoughts is the essential Writing Practice; it is the opening of a channel through which writing flows, and you need to keep widening, opening that channel. And that writing can be fun, joyful, have meaning in and of itself, that it is not done for recognition (or not done best), that – oh, and I have to stop, there are a pair of wonderful tits in the fir tree outside my front window – this does not happen often.
This morning, having synthesised a lot of this, things feel clearer, more joyful.
So, what about the poetry? The writing weekend was a profound experience. I went there with the aim of not answering any questions, of following thoughts towards writing about what I love, and all I wrote about all weekend were birds, and encounters with those animals. I also discovered you could make things up in poetry (who knew?!) and that you don’t need to know all the rules to begin writing poetry. I also found writing poetry was both deceptively simple (just sit down and write and listen to your voice) and also incredibly hard (reading Abi Curtis’s The Glass Delusion and Paul Muldoon’s Maggot as research into Chris Jordan’s work on the Laysan Albatrosses for his film Midway explained to me the incredible amount of research, and need of trust in one’s voice, that comes with writing poetry).
So here are a couple. The first poems I’ve put out into the world for perhaps ten years, first published for twenty. And the great thing is, I don’t expect my world to change because I’ve written them. And maybe because I don’t expect that, whatever does happen because of them (maybe something, maybe nothing) will be unexpected, spontaneous, what is.
How Sweet My Calling
The Ontario Honker lays it down thick for the newcomers at the corn site, even though it makes him edgy they’ll call out his novice heart. Hunting this spot makes him nervous. Geese falling in two directions, acres of tall corn so he can’t see both ways, front and behind. No way to mark out, and a busy highway less than two hundred yards from his deeks, his decoys, country commuters heading to work. His dogs would break at shot, and if a dying honker drifted over there… He won’t direct them to that field until Fred cuts his corn.
They’re rapt, awaiting his instruction on gunnery. He smiles as he tells them:
‘This is how you set the decoy. Stake it up in the spread two or two and one-half metres between. Three in a cosy, then two outliers. If you have time decide on a “J” or wedge formation. You don’t need to be too creative. Have your deeks face the same general direction, south is good, broadside to the rising sun. You may not get a chance to do anything specific. If time’s barely there, just get ‘em in the ground.
Go hide your bulk, your Herculean muscle, your hunting sights and your cross-hatched souls in the standing corn and when the honkers come in for a low pass overhead get your best bitch—Opal? A fine name—situated. Throw in the decoy bag and unpack your gun. Stay alert. Load up while they’re circling.
Say your first shot smokes two. By the time you figure out who’s coming down and who isn’t you won’t have time for a second shot. (Me? I got lucky. A mile that way is where they be yesterday, today here’s ornery. And forget about how sweet my calling was. It was still wrapped in my pocket.) Half an hour later you’ll have four more, I’ll attest, all pass shots at pairs and singles ready to land. They won’t understand what’s hit! Haul the decoys in when they’re landing around. Run down to the rig in the corn and wait for the big flocks as they come in. Maybe you’ll get a big shot in there tonight. It will be fun.
He sends them off. It works every time. ‘Really hard to screw it up,’ he says, with a slap on one’s green-cottoned back, broad and rounded from deskwork at an insurance firm in Lawrence. And today he will go and do some fine shooting of his own. Eight rounds and five birds. ‘The third honker was almost certainly coming down after one shot but I didn’t want it drifting into the huge field of standing corn behind me so I popped it again. At thirty-five yards I puffed it with the full pattern. Won’t be fun cleaning that one.’ All birds were ‘killed dead’ with multiple wounds. ‘I’m finally getting it together,’ he thinks. ‘And just in time. Pheasant season is about to open in Montana.’
You squatted proudly in the middle of Brandling Street,
breathing for splinters after a leap of first fledge.
Looking northwards – it’s how you landed.
Feeling this sticky black world a first time,
unruffled by the BMW impugning the air.
I bend down to cocoon you, expecting you to start flapping
but you have no memory of fear,
and sit there, still out of breath, out of your nest.
Satisfied with your bravery, how far you’ve flown!
You let me pick you up, stand your lightness
on my finger as I wave off the anger
of the impatient driver.
And carry you on this makeshift twig
back to the treehole where I have seen your parents
flit in and out over the spring weeks,
feathering this woody nest of mosses and mulch
that smells, I suddenly understand, like my old man smoking.
I offer you the edge, prod your soft blown-out belly
until you are off my finger, and standing
already proud of all you have been—
how you stopped the traffic, made me see—
and just a little bit wonderstruck, on the ledge of your world.
April, 7am, and the day is broken.
And you have tried to unstick yourself from the screens,
from the interruptions that make a recognised life,
still as raw as egg.
You climb Jacob’s Ladder
although the descent was only moments earlier,
and you wonder where the angels are.
How their wings are blackened by coffee grinds and tar
and the charcoal sticks you use to
open your eyes.
Hide, until she stirs. Until you smell coconut in her hair,
find some peace from the morning’s news behind the blow dryer,
scrape butter across blackened toast,
and she leaves,
you can stand again, in all your quivering
at the window,
to witness the progress of the three gull chicks
on the rooftop of the house one steppe closer to the harbour.
Where you have stood all these days
with your binoculars out of a cracker,
where the boats leave without you to Port Merion and Saint Mawes.
And you watch the three, two healthy and one runt,
with flowered wings that open wildly in the wind.
A misplaced leg and a deformed beak.
The runt fights its way under
the legs of its brother, its sister.
Is always running to keep fed, is always too late and stumbling.
But it has, this runt, the spirit that you have lost
somewhere in your marriage,
somewhere in the writing where your fingers turned
and needed moulding to keep working.
And you stand there all day
watching and not bearing to watch,
knowing that it will die—that you need it to die—
before you can reclaim your place.
Of finding yourself moored again,
of reaching out and touching the keys
your fingers her hair her.