Sunday, 3 February 2013

Writing poetry: Coming at it slant

I've got off to rather a slow start this year. After ending 2012 full of enthusiasm and ideas for working on my poetry in 2013, during the Christmas break I became ill and exhausted and I've been recovering by centimetres, a little at a time. I think I am almost back to normal - I can at least see blue sky now.

My plan for the first half of this year was to do Roselle Angwin's Poetry Correspondence Course which I thought would suit me very well. Roselle says about it: "While it’s an approach that favours the holistic, I’d like to think however that authenticity of voice, knowledge of the requirements of poetry & of the poetry world, & mastery of technique are given equal attention. I’m keen that literary quality is not sacrificed to the demand that poetry be also a means of connection, & a vibrant & essential aspect of inner work."

However, Roselle has decided not to run the course until July and since I'm always busier in the second half of the year and need something now to give shape to my work, I looked at other courses. The Open College of the Arts, the Poetry School... Nothing seemed quite right and so I decided to fashion my own Gelli Fach Poetry Course for myself. I'm structuring it loosely around two books: Jay Ramsay's The Poet in You and Stephen Fry's The Ode Less Travelled. They cover what for me are the twin aspects of poetry - inspiration and craft. I had started to work with Stephen Fry's book last year (which is an absolute delight to read, erudite, quirky and surprisingly soothing and encouraging). I have to say that, although I did the exercises and felt I was learning an enormous amount, when I tried to apply it to my poetry it was a dismal failure; trying to channel my inspiration into a strict form had the effect of making it dry up. Nevertheless, I'm going to persevere - to a point anyway.

Jay's book is working with imagination and inspiration and gives a series of 9 exercises to be done ideally over 9 months. I wasn't sure how it was going to be but I have done the first one and although I wasn't expecting to get very much out of it, it was very rich, interesting, inspiring and rewarding. So, a good start. I may write about it at some point but for the moment I am concerned that some of the potency will be lost if I share it here.

As well as giving time to these two aspects of poetry, I am also reading some books about poetry which have been stacked in a pile by my bed for... well, too long. I've dipped into them but have decided I need to take one at a time and make notes as I go along. I'm starting with Imagining the Earth: Poetry and the Vision of Nature by John Elder.

And of course I shall continue to attend the Poetry Reading Group once a month and the Poetry Workshop once a month - so that I am reading published poets, ancient and modern, and gaining from that, and offering my own poetry for feedback and constructive criticism from my peers, as well as offering feedback on theirs. Both of these groups I find invaluable as well as enjoyable.

I also have some readings and performances coming up. At the end of the month I'm launching my booklet, The Sea Road, at the Arts Centre Bookshop, alongside Ken Jones, a Buddhist and writer of haiku and haibun whose book, Bog Cotton, has recently been published. At the beginning of March I'm going to be reading at the Pen'rallt Bookshop in Machynlleth for International Women's Day and I'll also be giving a talk on self-publishing poetry. In May, the Word Distillery, the performance group I work with, will be presenting an evening dedicated to Coleridge at the Arts Centre - we'll be reading the whole of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, accompanied by slides of the Gustave Dore prints illustrating the poem, as well as some of Coleridge's other work. I'm very much looking forward to that.

Making up my own 'Poetry Course' means that I shall miss out on the discipline and the feedback which I wanted, but given the lack of energy so far this year perhaps it's no bad thing. I've discovered before that trying to impose a rigid structure on myself is a sure way to a collapse. I seem to be at my most creative or productive when I come at writing casually-  when I'm just having a look at a draft while the potatoes are boiling or jotting down notes which later I realise are nearly poems - or when I'm washing up and thinking about some image or potent experience that has occurred that day. I find I have to come at it slant.  "It's as if you have to sneak up on yourself", Eluned in the  poetry group said. But that doesn't mean that a more organised approach isn't useful for providing material and word music and improving skills. And practice, of course, makes perfect. I plan to write about this more here another time.

Wishing you- belatedly - a creative and fulfilling 2013!

PS - the submission deadline for Valleys has been changed to March 24th 2013. 


  1. Hilaire - thanks so much for flagging up my course! And - how funny - Jay and I worked together many years ago, facilitating courses, and also as performers.

    You're the nth person to mention Stephen Fry's book. OK, I really must get it. Do you know Ruth Padel's book - the title briefly escapes me - something like 52 ways of looking at a poem - which collected her columns exploring a poem each time in The Independent? It has an excellent prefatory essay.

    And - I have also taught on the OCA courses. The material (the poetry material is, or was, designed by Graham Mort) is very good, on the whole, if not as wide-ranging as it might be, although the feedback is limited to a page of A4.

    Finally, please do give my love to Ken (and Noragh) Jones! Hope the launch goes well.

    Thanks, as always, for the inspiration here.

  2. You're welcome! I've just noticed that Jay acknowledges you at the back of his book.

    No, I haven't read Ruth Padel's book but it is on my list, I've heard before it's very good. Stephen Fry says in his book that his poems come from 'another me' who didn't enter the 'loud public world' but went down another road where he would have become a teacher and a poet - hence the title I guess, The [R]Ode Less Travelled. Judging by the book he would have been a very good teacher. Perhaps in the Multiverse somewhere?

    The OCA course is too long for me - and the Poetry School is too short. Yours is definitely the Goldilocks course: just right! (In terms of content too).

    I'm off to have lunch with Noragh today - we're going to discuss the prosody of R. S. Thomas via a book she found on the subject (what larks eh!) Ken is off on a solitary retreat. I'll pass on your message.

    Thank you too for your kind words and 'back at you' as the Americans say.

    Wishing you health and happiness.

  3. I also have the Stephen Fry book. I love his humour. I was doing great until I reached the section on metre which I always struggle with but I keep meaning to go back to it. I borrowed Ruth Padel's book from the library and for the first time I began to really understand how poems work and it's on a list at the back of my head to buy it so I can delve into at my leisure.

    Good luck with the book launch. I'm really enjoying your poems.

  4. Hi Hilaire - just to say am offering the course again from July, but have also put in place an autumn one, from September, as several people have mentioned that they'd prefer to do such a course over the winter!