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.

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


Saturday, April 19, 2014

Poem for my grandmother.

Lotty Kneen

I remember your skin
Rough and weathered
On my childish forehead
Wiping fever dreams
Worn away by work then time
Till it is tissue, soft as memory
So slight a wrapping for sharp regrets.

In grief
A queen forbade them to remove her king
And sat him up at table.
Ate with him, slept with him,
Waved from the royal carriage at his mouldering side.
The temptation to touch what was once warm,
Cold on a pillow damp with death
Folding now into itself, going to ground

I dig
A hole
For what remains of your burned blood
A hollow in the earth
To place the grit that might be bone or rock or salt
I pick a grain of you, stolen from the urn.
And place it on my tongue.
Your body.
My blood.

You lodge inside me.

In dream
In breath
In all the painful trudge of days ahead
I grow more like my final taste of you
In grit.
In earth
In death.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Next step - career issues for a working writer.

This is the shake up. I have been wondering what the 'next step' is for me. I have been lucky enough to take my writing up a notch every few years. Slow and steady with the intention of winning the marathon rather than the sprint.

I remember a moment when I was almost over the line with publishers, getting my books read by the editors but not quite accepted. Lovely personal rejection letters. Then for some reason I suddenly realised it was fine to write a book that people actually wanted to read. Till then I had been working towards an idea of perfection in craft. I was working on character and flow and sentences. I loved so many difficult but beautiful books. I was working towards making the perfect difficult book.  But it is just as hard to write a good novel that no one wants to read as it is to write a good novel that people want to read.

So I changed.  I focussed on the memoir. I focussed on sex. I broke through that wall.  I feel now like I have hit another wall.  Not with my writing, because I still keep steadily learning new things and moving from project to project. My books are well reviewed but not very financially successful. A few hundred copies is not going to delight my publisher and to appeal to a wider audience I don't have to dumb it down, I just have to find a subject that resonates on a universal level, something that is going to be easier to hook people with.  I need to treat this game like fly fishing. I have all the right technique, I have even learned how to craft a well-structured book (although this was hard at first). Now I need to change my bait. I need to find topics that are going to hit a cultural nerve. I can still write my difficult beautiful things - or try to, but now I need to step up. I need to write about subjects that people are going to want to read. I need to find those universal themes of interest and take my characters to those subjects and rest them there.

I am not the kind of person who was ever destined for a meteoric rise. I am not going to wow people with a big award winning book or become famous because of my personality. I am a work horse. I am a plain sturdy hard-working writer. Each rung of the ladder is hard won and I don't leap over any. I grab the next rung and haul myself up and it is exhausting but that is how you run a marathon.

The book I am struggling with at the moment is difficult but I can see how it is about something that people are interested in. It has wider implications. If I get it right it could net a new audience for my work. I feel sad for Steeplechase which I am fond of. It is a book that people like and a book I am proud of but it is a difficult sell with no razzle dazzle to wow a crowd with. It will quietly sit in my backlist, work horse that it is.

I just can't lose heart. I can't let myself slide backwards or fall off the track. I can feel sorry for the books that will fade despite all their careful work. I can mourn them but I have to keep running slowly even when my physical resources are stretched.

Next book then. This hard step up to the next rung on the ladder. Throw everything into the next step forward. Look back as the others are standing on the podium glinting with medals. Be happy for them. Allow for the inevitable day of sadness. Wipe tears. Move on. Remember this is the long game and that is not nearing an end yet.