Deadlines can be a powerful motivation.- whether they have been set by journals, magazines and competitions, or have been self-imposed; they have a way of making you prioritise or, at least juggle, your time better, and often force you to capitalise on small pockets of time that would otherwise be dismissed as inconsequential.
With a competition deadline looming, and my picnic basket short a few sandwiches, I have been hyper-observant, -attentive and -thoughtful lately, and by the start of this week I felt entitled (dreadful word) to a deluge of inspiration. Except it doesn’t really work that that way: once you expect to be inspired- at an important life event, or a beautiful location- you inevitably shut yourself down to the nuances of actually experiencing the moment. As such, you deny yourself the opportunity of making honest, meaningful memories which you can later draw on to create honest, meaningful narratives, whatever your creative form. Like watching an event through a camera, you capture what is deemed the most significant as the time, and the minutiae of the event- the sights, the smells, the crowds, the atmosphere- are irrevocably diminished, if not lost altogether.
So I stopped writing, stopped observing, stopped trying. Instead I nursed a cold, read a novel, played the PlayStation, and dithered about on the Internet.
By the end of the first day, I felt horribly lazy. Two days in I was annoyed with myself for wasting time with a big deadline looming. On day three, while reorganising some shelves, I discovered Michael Longley’s Collected Poems- which I must have ordered sometime in the last year, and shelved without so much as cracking the spine. So I put it beside my bed to read when I felt like it.
Which happened the next morning. And the result was electric.
The first poem ‘Epithalamion’ beautifully invokes a wedding night. Given my current expectant state, and a recent parenting class about labour, my brain yoked together the image of the wedding bed and birthing bed. I wrote quickly and left the poem to one side.
At this point, I remembered a slap-dash list of symptoms I recorded during the height of my sickness. Having struggled for weeks to mould them into a singular, coherent, and worthwhile, piece of work, I realised that what I actually needed was a series of poems, each of which focused on a different symptom.
But how to do it? I returned to ‘Epithalamion’ and this time espoused the ideas of weddings and nature from the point of view of a guest. Draft complete.
Flicking through my diary for a set of dates, I came across a note I wrote to myself in the hospital waiting room: ‘Until you have hyperemesis you cannot possibly understand how wonderful a hospital smells because it smells of nothing’.
Something in the sound of ‘it smells of nothing’ made me think about a poetry collection I’m waiting to be delivered called ‘The Art of Losing: Poems of Grief & Healing’. Stick with me on this one.
1) Several weeks ago, after searching for Billy Collins’ clips, I watched a YouTube video of a ‘Creative Conversation’ between Kevin Young and Billy Collins. Kevin Young is the editor of the collection in question.
2) ‘The art of losing’ is the opening line of Elizabeth Bishop’s poem ‘One art’, which I first encountered in secondary school.
3) After re-reading the poem, the line ‘the smell of nothing’ popped back into my head and, sure enough, from start to finish, I had written another new poem. So after a solid month of nothing, and three days of self-imposed literary exile, I was able to produce three new pieces of writing.
In an earlier version of this post I made a big point of saying that all of these poems were drafts, because they were written and revised in fairly quick succession. It is true that each poem will be further revised in the coming weeks, just like any other but, by tracing the genesis of the third poem, for example, I can see that it’s been years in the making- from my first encounter with ‘One art’ at least a decade ago, through to buying Longley’s ‘Collected Poems’ this year, taking notes while I was sick, watching the video of Kevin Young last month, ordering ‘The Art of Losing’ last week, and- perhaps most importantly- not trying to force it to fruition.
So next time I’m trying to write a poem, do you know what I’m going to do? Something else entirely.