Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Poetry revisited

What is poetry?

I was just asked what my favourite poems were and it was not quite as easy as I suspected.

My answer:
1: All of The Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson,
2: Lacandons by Eliot Weinberger
3: You're Beautiful by Simon Armitage
4: All of Stag's Leap by Sharon Olds read very fast
5: Daddy by Sylvia Plath (old favourite of mine)

But I wanted to include a short essay that feels like a poem but is not divided into lines as a poem would be. I wanted to include other Weinberger essays, similarly rhythmic and amazing but looking like prose.

What is a prose poem?
What are the rules?

I have so much to learn.

Where do I go to find this out?

On Writing too Quickly

I write quickly. I put all my available time into the work. I work with a breathlessness that makes the work flow more easily. I race into a project and cling to it until it is done.

One of the reasons for my speed is because I am afraid I will forget. My memory causes me terrible anxiety. I forget people. I forget conversations. I forget I have written something. Sometimes I come across an errant file on my computer and it is as if a stranger has written it. I have no memory of that particular short story. I don't remember putting those words down in the file. Maybe this is a story sent to me by someone else? Only I recognise a turn of phrase. It has my accent. Therefore it must be mine.

It is worse with a novel. A novel has so many disparate parts. By the end of a book I have no idea where I started. I will have forgotten almost everything about it.

And don't get me started on having to answer questions for an interview. Really? Did I write that? Of course I must have because the journalist has done her research even if I have forgotten what I actually wrote.

Sometimes I wonder if I have an actual medical condition. My memory is so bad that I will bet to the last scene in a movie and suddenly find it almost familiar. Yes, we have seen that before, my husband will say, don't you remember?

I don't remember.

So I hop on a book like a runaway horse and cling on till the ride is over. This is how I have always worked.

The problem now is that I am frightened the books will grow stale before they emerge into the world. I do understand why my publisher will only consider a book by me every two years. We don't want to wear readers out. If a short time has elapsed they may not be ready to read another book by me, particularly when each book seems to be so different from the last. Maybe readers don't want to be confused by my tendency to leap across genres with each new offering.

But in my panic to finish a book before it shakes me off I tend to do a draft in a matter of months. A second draft in half a year. Subsequent redrafts can be fast and furious. Sometimes I have two books written simultaneously done in under a year. This is what happened with Steeplechase and Triptych. Steeplechase was a longer, more fraught process. Between the beginning of the first draft and the final redraft I had interspersed my writing with two other books, A YA book that has never seen the light of day, and Triptych which ended up being published two years before Steeplechase came out.

I am working on two books at the moment. Holding Hands is still giving me grief. It is not yet done. I have a second draft and it is 8 months since I started. In that time I wrote a book of poetry, Eating My Grandmother, and two drafts of a horror novel called Half Light. I have been racing to get a perfect draft of Half Light completed but I realise that my next book, Holly's Incredible Adventures in the Sex Machine, will not be published till February next year, 2015. After this there will be a two year gap as there always has been. Half Light probably won't be out in the world till 2017. Then, of course I will have to wait till 2019 to put out Holding Hands.

I have three other ideas on the boil at the moment. I have Crawl Space - a surrealist novella, tapping at the back of my head, and then I have the sequel to Holly's Adventures mapped out in my brain.  I am also making notes for a book on writing sex and and a sexual adventure with other writers. Given the pace of the publications, Crawl Space will be out in 2021 and Holly's sequel in 2023. Who knows when the two sex projects will find their way into the world. In 2023 I will be 55 years old.  I don't know how many books I can fit in before I die but I know I can write way more than will be published at this rate.

Is it any wonder I write fast? How can I contain all those characters and all those plots unless I tackle them at a run?

I do know this is a good problem to have. Better too many ideas than no ideas at all, but perhaps one day it will dry up. One day I might sit down at the page and realise I am done.  Until that day I must continue to write in a fury. I must race myself. I am a ticking clock. I will die. There will be an end.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

On Poetry

I have never spent much time thinking about poetry.

I read novels, short stories and occasionally memoirs and non-fiction books about science. This keeps me going.

When my grandmother died a few months ago something strange happened in my head. Nothing in the world seemed important. It was like I had suddenly actually understood that we will all die.  Nothing we do in life will mean anything. Not now. Not in the long run.  Even the great writers will die with the human race. Art, literature, kindness, none of this matters in the wider scheme of things. One day everyone will die. Humans will become extinct. Nature really doesn't care about Shakespeare.

I couldn't write. Suddenly there was no urgency. Everything I create will be less than the best literature in the world and even that will be worth nothing at the end of our species. It seemed like a waste of energy to write. It seemed like a waste of energy to live at all.

This is when I started writing poetry.

There is an episode of the Australian television show Rake, where a trauma causes one of the characters to suddenly speak in a language she never knew she could speak. She could no longer speak in English. I felt like this had happened to me.

I started to write poetry. I didn't know anything about poetry so I couldn't judge if it was good poems or bad but there were poems. I wrote one after another. I woke up at 2am and wrote poems because I couldn't sleep. They were all about my grandmother. After a month of this I had one hundred pages of poetry. I had a book of poetry all about death and my grandmother and loss and pointlessness. I am still not really sure what to do with that document.

I needed to know if it was any good. I started to read other people's poetry to figure that out.  I already loved Simon Armitage's poems along with Adrienne Rich and  Sylvia Plath. Now I began to hunt, to see what kind of poems I actually like and to try to figure out why.

Anne Carson was one of the first people I uncovered. I read The Beauty of the Husband because other people had talked about how wonderful it was. It is wonderful. It seems to say something true about separation and love and human need. I moved on from that to The Autobiography of Red. Reading this verse novel changed me in some way.  There are poems in that book that reach inside a person and shake them . I discovered feelings I could not name. I began to have ideas again.

I have recovered from whatever demon broke my sentences up into short detonations. I can write novels again - I think. But my foray into the world of the poets has stayed with me.  I have gobbled up E. E. Cumming's erotic poems. Lewd, often funny, sometimes romantic. I am not yet sure what I feel about these poems but I keep going back to them and reading some of them over and over. And now I have discovered Sharon Olds. In particular I am reading Stag's Leap, a verse novel about the end of a marriage.  What I love about this book is that the poems have no subtext. They are honest admissions on the page. I feel like her words have given me permission to take the poem cycle about my Grandmother out of the draw. She has explained to me with her own work, that my work can be just that. An exploration of feelings, grief, life, written simply and eloquently on the page.

My exploration of poetry does not seem to be over. I wonder where it will go to from here.

Friday, May 16, 2014

A Messy Writer

Some writers are careful. Their prose forms with glacial precision. I have friends who labour for a week over a paragraph, replacing individual words, weighing the new form of the sentence changing the word back.

I am not one of those writers. I write furiously. When I have a sense of where I am going I sprint. Five words would be equally useful in one place and I reach for any one of them. I am happy, in an edit to replace a word with another, ripping it out and filling the gap without hesitation. I have been known to hack out twenty thousand of those words in a day, deleting whole chapters as if I were using a machete on an overgrown garden, ripping out the bushes with the weeds.

I am jealous of the careful writer. I am reading Favel Parrett's latest book and here is all the care in each breath. Here is a writer who hones a chapter down to a slight, resonant thing. It shows, this careful consideration. It makes a little gem, forged by time and concentration.

My books are wild places. They have forward motion, pace, flow. They dance erratically. I know there is beauty in a rubble and I suppose that is what I make, a beautiful disaster held together by hot glue and wire and spit. But when ever I read a book like this one I am reminded of the photographers I like the best, Tomatsu, Sugimoto, Paul Strand. I long for the kind of order that Favel can create, a line drawing sketched by the hand of a careful crafter.

Favel told me that she carefully read her last edited draft and even the first proof of her book. I am ashamed to admit that I am often too exhausted to give more than a cursory glance at my proof pages and if there is a bound proof, it goes in the drawer. I have never once read a manuscript I have written after that final struggle at an editorial level. A wrestle with a beast that I wish was already dead. I don't really care if I use one word or another. The thing has raced away from me and by that time my attention is already drawn and held by the next project. The current book is dead. I failed to achieve what I wanted, maybe next time, maybe with the next glimmer of an idea, maybe this will be the one. And so I go off chasing another whale, letting this one bleed out towards publication.

I wish I were a Sugimoto kind of writer, a Chris Somerville, a Favel Parrett.

The grass is always greener in another garden.

There is nothing to be done. I can read their books with delight and wonder but I will always, irrevocably, be myself.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Dreams and monsters

I dream of a tiny house in the cold and all the configurations of laying two mattresses. The compromises and the final disappointment of a squeeze for space. I step into another cabin and there the beds are stacked three high and there is room for a chair and I realise I will not be able to work in my own cramped version of a home.

I dream that my father is not home when I visit him. The door is open and the snow blows through onto the carpet. I dream of my own confusion and when finally I find a cafe where someone knows his name they tell me he has gone to a different valley to recover the body of his child. Not me then for I am alive, but my sister, who has taken her own life.

Awake I wonder about meanings. Not real things but imaginary beasts that stalk my sleeping mind. I have thought of my own death so much this year and my relationship to the idea of end has changed since our familial grave was dug. There is no longer the sharp relief of it for I can see now that the endless trudge goes on and that death changes so little. The tedium. I have stopped walking up to the bridge and gazing down because there seems to be no relief in death.

In two weeks I will go away, to speak about writing and then to write. First I will write alongside someone, the shared pain, the promise of a new perspective on our work. Then I will fly south. I will find that too-small cabin and I will face the bitter winter of our southernmost point.

This is what I need and want and yet I fear it. Every step towards Tasmania makes me more afraid. What if I have all the time and still cannot write it. What if my eyes are open now, post-death, to the true pointlessness of life and what if I cannot capture it in words on a page. What if I am not a better writer now but I have leaped forward in my own clear-sighted judgement. What if I can see into my own soul and know what I suspected, that I am withered, talentless and bitter, a dried up fruit, all potential leaked away in sticky years of nothing.

I wake from dreams of monsters knowing that they are dreams of myself.

Under the bed, there I am. In the scratch of branches against the wall there is my thin cold voice. To go away to write is to go away with my monstrous self and yes, I am afraid.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Anne Carson's branch and my breast

Anne Carson may have been using an analogy when she talked about the project. One branch on one particular tree and a new poem written every day, honing down to the specifics, seeing a thing anew each time. An exercise that may be an invention for a poem which is fictional although it resonates like truth.

I read it walking to work. An hour, with a book clutched in my hand, one eye on the path before me, and more than half of my attention stolen by a recent grief. I glanced a tree with my shoulder. I almost but didn't trip off the path. All other moments in the real world are erased or never came to my attention, just this one throbbing idea remains like a bruise, a fresh wound. A new poem every day about a small thing, something barely worth noticing, noticed, repeatedly and with such detail.

This thing I must do.

Not a branch then as my life here seems impermanent. The only thing I take with me is my body. This body. This one ever-changing part of my body. My breast.

I need a new place for this exercise. I need to quarantine my breast into a space of its own. I will examine it. One small observation, or long, or just a word. Each day, the differences detailed beginning now.

When I walk reading poetry the meaning of it is drummed into my body with each step. Like learning lines for the stage, I take a part of it into myself in step with my forward motion. I take her branch into me and I cup it into the palm of my hand and my nipple opens like a bud unseasonably at the beginning of a colder season.

What becomes of a breast over the days and years and decades I have left? Is it cut from me? irradiated? nuzzled? pricked with cold. Do I notice the sag of time, the skin that grows inelastic, the ineluctable dance of time? Come with me and gaze at it, touch it as you might in self-examination. Or don't. You may have your own branch or breast or sky to attend to. Or you may be content to read the changing of the seasons in a branch in The Beautiful Husband by Carson herself.

Either way, it is here. http://annecarsonsbranchandmybreast.blogspot.com.au

Friday, April 25, 2014

In verse / inverse

I seem to be writing a verse novel.

I can very clearly see a problem here.

Write an erotic memoir - translates into sales in the tens of thousands.
Write a pornographic series of novellas - sales well into the thousands
Write a literary fiction novel - sales of up to and sometimes including a thousand
Write a verse novel - ah well a dozen people may buy it if I can find a publisher for it.

Something is wrong here.

I started with a very clear idea that writing is a career and somehow I seem to be undermining my potential to make any kind of career out of it at all.

Lucky for all of us the book that is out early next year ticks some hefty boxes. Erotic? Tick. Novel? Tick. Comedy? Tick.

I suppose till I agree to play within the lines I will have to let the work itself sustain me.

Till then, this….

In Coles
In the picnic aisle
A packet falls
There are plastic knives

The pointless sound
Of nothing
Hitting ground

Is what breaks me