After too many years living in damp, dark flats and other people’s houses, we managed to buy a house; a place free from inspections and full of personal responsibility.

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I knew that there would be things that wouldn’t make it to the new house- paperwork from five years ago, store cupboard essentials that were best before 2013, university notes, souvenirs- hoodies, guide books, pencils.  But I balked at just how much of this… stuff… I had managed to accumulate.  What looked harmless enough in drawers and wardrobes seemed to expand exponentially when emptied onto the kitchen table or across the sitting room floor.  Every weekend for the best part of three months involved at least one trip to the charity shop or the recycling centre.

Even after all the effort to recycle, upcycle, donate, and throw out, I was still finding self-imposed contraband in the new house: out-of-date medicines; clothes in mint condition that I’m going to wear any day now; shoes with worn-out soles and broken heels that I have no intention of repairing but am keeping just in case I have a shoe-related emergency.  It was only when I had tried to reorganise the kitchen surfaces for the third time, and re-stack the unopened boxes in the spare room for the second that I realised:

  1. We simply had too much stuff- indiscriminate objects that had either long outlived their usefulness or had served no real purpose to begin with.
  2. A lot of what we brought with us didn’t suit the new house.  It was bought seven years ago when good quality was a distant luxury, and function trumped fashion: nothing we bought was going to complement the mould around the tiles or the cracked paintwork around the windows.
  3. Just how much dust and dirt had accumulated- splotches and stains that had seemed inconsequential in our rented house became painfully obvious and shame worthy as my mother helped me to unpack the greasy baking trays, scruffy tea towels and neglected storage jars.

And so, when confronted by a teetering mountain of notebooks, loose-leaf drafts, and folders full of early poems and half-hearted revisions, the relationship between how I was living and how I was writing became all too clear:

  1. When we first moved into our flat, our priority was to fill the space, to make it look homey- cheap throws and cushions, flimsy DVD cases and bookshelves.  Sure, none of it was very good, but it looked right.  So when I started writing, the excitement of simply having ideas meant that I would only work on something until a new idea came along, joyfully filling up folders with sentimental half-drafts, feeling overly satisfied with myself.  It was enough to have produced a piece of work, then many pieces of work.  My confidence came from the quantity, not quality of the work; none of it was very good, but it looked right.
  2. These poems filled my folders, and my shelves, like old instruction manuals and cables stuffed into drawers.  Why?  Because I believed that, with time, each one had the capacity to become a piece of art. Or that I would throw something away, only to suddenly experience the epiphany that would utterly transform it from a mediocre piece of work into something that would be painted on the exposed beams of independent cafes.  Or that a competition would be announced that specifically catered to the exact theme of that one poem I wrote four years ago.  The inevitable result of all this second-guessing?  The poems worth hanging onto became the bill in a pile of junk mail, or a twenty in a purse bursting with receipts: hard to find and easy to throw away.
  3. Even the poems worth hanging onto need to be cleaned up, having accumulated entire sections that don’t say anything; lines, metaphors, and word plays that have survived only because they looked great in a first draft; and punctuation that may once have been poignant but has long since lost its edge.

A new house, a first home, gives you a chance to reflect on what you have and to decide what you want, one room at a time.  When I apply this understanding to my first collection, which I began in the rented house, the message is clear: throw away what doesn’t work; polish what’s worth keeping; and add to it one carefully crafted, quality poem at a time, until it becomes the collection I want, not just a collection I have.

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