Ever had a bad day at the poetry workshop coalface? I think I had one yesterday. Here’s what happened and what came from it.
Firstly, I made some mistakes. I haven’t been reading or writing much poetry the last few weeks, as I’ve been consumed with work, research and a very different kind of writing. Tired from a late night, without having decided on a poem to take, I selected something in haste. It was an early draft of a poem in which I was trying something a bit different. For me, tired can mean ridiculously irritable. I also find reading and commenting meaningfully on other people’s work when seen ‘cold’ one of the hardest things there is, so going at it when tired isn’t a great idea.
Next, my poem came in for much criticism, harsher than usual, or so it seemed. I listened, I made notes. I was surprised to find myself feeling overly sad and disappointed. I could see it had been a bad move to bring something so unfinished, or rather something I was so tentative about. I understood most of the points being made, but I confess not all of them. Maybe I shouldn’t have come at all.
When I had the chance, I couldn’t explain my thinking other than that I’d been ‘trying something new’, which came across as a bit flippant and just fanned the flames even further. Yes, that’s the problem, this poem feels like you’re trying too hard to make it something it’s not. Well, I was taking on board previous comments about my poems being written in ‘neat boxes’ (couplets, tercets, all lines the same length etc) and I wanted to let myself go a bit and be less logical. Logical? What has the correct use of syntax and punctuation got to do with logic?
Dear reader, if you are tempted to say things like ‘I was trying to’ or use the work LOGICAL in a poetry workshop, I urge you to think again. I don’t normally get into ‘discussions’ as I prefer to write down all the comments, say thank you, then weigh it up later in quiet on my own. I’m usually also delighted (yes really) by the frequently insightful and valuable feedback. But yesterday I conspired against myself. Tetchy, frustrated at my inability to express myself and the pathetic draft of a ‘trying to be’ poem, annoyed that I couldn’t sit quietly and take the criticism gracefully.
And then I disgraced myself even further by not being able to offer useful criticism to another poet, instead just reacting and being picky in a way I hate.
I came home and tried to be grown up about it. At least I didn’t actually cry, even in private. I have so many things to be pleased about, and grateful for, that I shouldn’t let the the odd bad workshop get me down – I know everyone has them. All I can think to do is to read, and remind myself of what good writing is, reassure myself that I can do better, before trying to (sic!) write any poetry.
This morning I picked up and read a little of Sam Willetts’ New Light for the Old Dark – what a wonderful collection that is! And then, as if by some crazy sense of serendipity, I read a conversation between Troy Jollimore and Allan Fox in the Spring edition of Rattle, in which they discuss poetic process, anxiety and insecurity, getting at truth and philosophy. It’s a gem of a piece – here’s a short extract:
[Poetry] …. makes almost everybody nervous. [ … ] If you’re trying to write it’s even harder because you’re afraid of writing a bad poem, and if you do you’ll feel bad about yourself. That’s one of the first things I say to students: give yourself permission to write bad poems. Everybody does. You think that the poets you love don’t, because you never see them, because they’re smart enough, they put it in a drawer. They keep it for a while, then they look at it and say, “Is this any good?” I mean, they might know it’s bad right away, that happens too. But if they don’t know if it’s bad right away, they hold onto it for a while to see if it’s bad, they check back again in the few months, and if it’s bad you never see it. And so we walk around thinking, “Oh James Richardson never writes a bad poem.” I’m sure he’s written bad poems, but he hasn’t shown them to anybody. He’s smart that way. And that’s what we need to do.
I’ve subscribed to Rattle for a year or so now and I have to say I’ve really warmed to its content. These extended interviews/conversations are a regular feature and have a marvellously unedited feel, it’s like you’re listening in to an entire interview verbatim, rather than being fed an editor’s cut, and I really like that.