Where Do Poems Come From?

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Here’s a little story…..

In 2008, when I was promoting my first novel, Tangled Roots, I was interviewed by a BBC affiliate radio station. It was one of my first ever radio interviews and I was both excited and nervous. It was going well. I was hitting all the important information I needed to be saying in order to explain the book and any possible intriguing aspect of its writing, when the interviewer suddenly changed tacks and wanted to talk about the fact that I also wrote poetry. Okay, I thought. This will be good for my ‘profile’ as a writer. But then her voice took on a very conspiratorial tone and she asked, ‘Isn’t it true that most poetry comes from a place of intense emotion and often depression? Much more so than prose?’ I began to stumble and stutter. I knew what my answer was, but I didn’t know if I should say it. As a new writer, did I want to give away such a secret, either about the craft of writing, or the craft of being myself? I hemmed and hawed at first talking about how we should aim to have all our writing to be poetry, etc etc. But she pushed me hard and so I finally  said, “Yes. I write poetry when I am at my most emotional, depressed or otherwise.’ I could almost see the interviewer rubbing her hands together with a sinister glee as she said, “Yes. That’s what I thought.’

I have thought about that interview very often over the years. I wish I had then had the presence of mind to talk about the creative impulse vs the creative practice. I wish I had discussed emotion in general, good and bad, and not let her push me towards some popularised notion of the connection between art and mental illness. I wish I had understood better and was able to explain more about the nuance of that connection between emotion and creativity and how necessary it is to take the raw emotion and combine it with practice, technique, skill and patience.

Why am I thinking about this now, especially, early in the morning of my last day resident in London? Well, being now swept up in this very tangled and murky weediness of emotions that I am feeling about leaving London and moving on to a new chapter of my life —  a chapter I am excited about but which also brings with it grief and loss and obsessions about time — I am wondering, am I writing poetry now? Am I working on the next novel, or am I adding to the next poetry collection, or am I too paralysed and overwhelmed to write anything?

If we look at this episode of my life as an experiment, here are my findings to date. In many ways, I am finding this move to be one of the hardest times of my life. I am not depressed in a way that keeps me lying in bed in the dark, paralysed and non-functioning. I am quite lucky that my body and brain don’t react in that way. But I have been walking around for weeks on the verge of tears, with those tears spilling out at unpredictable times. I have been angry and frightened and frustrated and excited and thankful and lost. And I’ve found that although I have not written any more of my novel in the midst of all this emotion, I have written poetry. Poetry is being born from all this, not prose, but not in the way that BBC interviewer might have thought.

Imagine a roller coaster. When you are climbing to the top of the arc, you’re filled with excitement, expectation and adrenaline. You can’t think clearly. You don’t know where you’re going or how you’ll feel about it once you get there. And besides, you’re having too much fun. But when you’re hurtling down the slope at a million miles an hour, you’re feeling too much to do anything but hang on for dear life. And then when you land and your ride comes to an abrupt, muscle-jerking halt, all you can do is sit there and try to recover your balance. And so it is, for me at least, with writing poetry. The impetus to write a poem, any poem, about anything, may come as I’m climbing onto the ride. ‘Hey, I bet I can get a poem out of this, if nothing else.’ But in the midst of all that adrenaline and hysteria, I can’t do anything but hold on and try to live through it. And then, when one particular part of the ride plateaus out or jerks to a stop, it takes all my energy just to catch my breath. I can’t write poetry then. I can’t do anything but live and wait for time to pass. The poetry can only come during those moments, brief as they may be, when I have caught my breath, can look around, and think.

So where does poetry come from? For me, although it might start with extreme emotion, it really comes from that sweet spot, that place where emotion meets reflection, where heart meets brain, where you can still feel the rumbling of the falling roller coaster, but you are no longer strapped onto the ride. The poems which then arise from that sweet spot go on to be the milestones of my life. I read them and remember not only what I was feeling, but that I had lived through the intensity of those feelings, and was able to move on to the next.

So, daring to run the risk of beating these old metaphors over the head, I’ll leave you today with this is image of me, typing this post just out of sight, but surrounding by all my baggage, and moving on.

See you on the other side….IMG_1334

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Tracey said:

You really weren’t kidding about the 13 bags!!!

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