Back in 2017 I wrote a piece called Speaking Beings, about the film, Paterson, in which I talked about the social, conversational nature of poetry. Since lockdown, this has been hard to achieve, except on-line, and I have clearly missed it. No readings, little writing, even less conversation, and very few submissions – most of which did not go well. I dug myself into a typical poetic ivory tower, and reflected on the inwardness of poetic existence.
Well, sometimes! Clearly, there were external things going on in my life as much as anyone else’s, but as a poet, I might just as well have been at the bottom of a well. Until last week, when two things happened.
The first was reading a couple of poems at a Zoom writers’ group event. It was lovely to be doing it again, but it showed me how big a part of the writing process reading aloud and getting the feedback is. I will never be a performance poet, but the sound and flow of what I write is really important to me, and you don’t get how it works until you have read it aloud and someone has listened. You also don’t realise, until you introduce a poem, how much is implied, rather than stated, or how much context it needs, and that’s a really important part of my reviewing process.
The second was sending my nearly-finished manuscript to two friends to read it for me. Both are working hard at their own projects just now, so this was fairly cheeky, but they are people whose judgement I value enormously, and it was the best thing I could have done. The level of engagement was beyond the missed commas (many of those) and clumsy expressions (also more than I would have liked), but criticism that made me ask myself why I had written these poems, what I was trying to achieve, and connect technique with meaning, as well as effect. It was a wonderful experience, I can’t recommend it too highly!
Poetry as dialogue has always seemed to me important as a way of being in the world, but it is also an important part of the composition process. If you are the sort of poet who doesn’t read other poets for fear of being influenced, or if you go from amassing a heap of poems to trying to get a book out (especially if you want to self-publish), your work is almost inevitably half-finished, and you are selling yourself short.
So this blog post goes out as a special thankyou to Rothbury Writers Group, Helen Boden, and John Bolland, for getting me out of the well, and beyond them, to all the writers groups, events organisers, festivals, competitions and magazine editors who have been part of my life as a writer. You make my work what it is.