07 May 2020

The one where I go on about poetry...

This week, I've been busy learning lots about poetry, having signed up for the How To Make A Poem online course run by the Manchester Writing School at Man Met. Headed up by Michael Symmons Roberts, Helen Mort and Martin Kratz, the programme is an inspiring and well-put-together mix of presentations and exercises set by the team, with some interesting suggestions and discussions on the part of the participants. 

As a rule, I write flash fiction and dabble with structuralist stuff and sometimes experimental prose, but while I've read a lot of poetry over the years (I did a literature-based French degree and have a Masters in Creative Writing) and listen to a lot at live lit events, I'm not really all that up on the specifics - stanzas, metre, that kind of thing - and was keen to find out more about elements of poetry and also explore whether I can try my hand at writing some myself.

So far, I've created a two-line cut-and-shut job cento and a found poem, and contributed to a group poem by picking "one good word" from a poem I'd already mentioned as being a favourite. I chose "shipshape" from Dylan Thomas's Under Milk Wood - as well as it being a very "vocal" word, with the repetition of the "sh" and "p" sounds, it appeals to my interest in the sea and boats, literally and metaphorically. I explained that I enjoy Thomas for his quite specific Welsh "postcards" (not unlike the snapshots of the past provided by Philip Larkin in The Whitsun Weddings, probably one of the first poetry collections I read and liked) and a vivid language that you can allow to roll around on your tongue. I'm interested in languages and dialect and accents, and introduced a few new readers to Liz Berry and her Birmingham Roller.

For the first time myself, I looked at work by the recently passed Irish poet Eavan Boland, reading her piece Cityscape - I was drawn to the title, and the poem resonated with me for its connection to the Irish Sea and a seawater pool, a subject I explored in my sort-of-creative nonfiction story The General Synopsis At Midday for the Port anthology, and when wearing my Victoria Baths writer-in-residence hat. 

I've always been interested in words and language - my mum's side of the family are Welsh, so maybe that had something to do with it. As part of my degree, and since, I've read a lot of French writers both in the original and in translation and, as is the case in English writing, the choice of words is hugely important for their sound as well as things like semantics, making translating for sense while retaining all levels of meaning and nuance an art form in itself. It was at university (the first time) that I got interested in OuLiPo (still a huge influence on me), and I ended up doing my thesis on Georges Perec (my tutor - David Bellos - was, still is, I think, his main translator). 

As mentioned here before All This, one of my New Year's Resolutions for 2020 was to read La Vie Mode d'emploi - although in translation as Life A User's Manual as it's quite the lengthy tome. I embarked upon this reading journey just last week, so imagine my excitement beyond belief when the main assignment for Week 1 of How To Make A Poem was to read Perec's essay The Street from Species of Spaces and Other Pieces, or - as I know it - Espèces d'espaces, and create a found poem by following his instructions: "Force yourself to write down what is of no interest."

Just like Perec (pictured with his cat, Duchat), I'm curious about how we interact with and are influenced by the spaces around us. I frequently go on a dérive to source material for my stories, and even in a time of coronavirus this continues (I've participated in both lockdown First Sundays with, but not with, the Loiterers Resistance Movement so far - see my Instagram and Twitter for photographic evidence). So instead of sitting still at my desk making a note of l'infraordinaire, as I'd already pretty much just done and had published by the Mid Life Crisis Zine Series, I went for a wander. I had to go out and meet a visual artist to pick up a painting of Victoria Baths I'd bought off her, so I combined this and my daily permitted exercise with trying to track down the location of some Paulownia trees I'd seen in order to tell my psychogeography friend who'd mentioned missing the ones in St Peter’s Square. Some of the text in my found poem is from my Wikipedia research about the trees, some from Facebook and Instagram messages with the two women (I hope they don't mind; as fellow artists themselves, I'm sure they won't), and some was found en route to my rendezvous. I've been super excited to have created a brand-new piece of work, and it seemed to have been well received, so yay! 

My poem (oh my goodness, I said it) is COVID-19 related and I've also been checking out the series Postcards From Malthusia - "work in response to the Coronavirus crisis" - in particular Sophie Herxheimer's "covid related cut ups", created using an interesting process and at some point to be published by ZimZalla but for now available to read online here

As I've been reading around the subject, I also suddenly remembered that, at some point during my first degree, I took a module relating to French Surrealist poetry and read work by the likes of Rimbaud, Ponge and Eluard, and I remember reading Apollinaire's Il Pleut, which is written on the page to look like rain running down a window. By chance, I spotted in a photographer friend's Twitter stream about the archive of Concrete poet Dom Sylvester Houédard, aka dsh (pictured in 1964 at the Signals Gallery in London), which is being meticulously recorded and stored at the John Rylands Library on Deansgate - more here

The cento, I hear you ask?

the tailor scissors razoring open
left only a hand and some blue

(From Vahni Capildeo To London from Measures of Expatriation, 2016, Carcanet & Philip Larkin Sunny Prestatyn from The Whitsun Weddings, 1964, Faber & Faber)

As I observed: "No one said poetry had to play nice all the time."      

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