Hello poets and readers,
At the 2019 Poetry on the Move festival, hosted by the International Poetry Studies Institute at the University of Canberra, I hosted a panel titled ‘Poetry and Process’. Festival Director Shane Strange made available a podcast of the panel presentations by our guests, national and international poets Angela Gardner, Judith Beveridge, Alvin Pang (Singapore) and Katharine Coles (US).
I would like to summarise some of their ideas, to illustrate the way poetic processes can be both multi-faceted and shifting, with similarities across poets, relating to both the willingness to experiment and awareness of the fact that one is engaged in a process that perhaps cannot fully know its object, but also with necessarily individual elements.
Judith Beveridge tells us that she doesn’t begin a poem with a concept or an idea; in fact, she doesn’t know what she’s going to write about when she sits down to compose. The work is generated by the process itself. She makes use of small and concrete beginnings, for example, a bird call, something observed on a walk, a word or phrase, or a run of syllables. She reads poetry for about half an hour before writing – these are favourite poets that she knows will get her writing and remind her why she loves poetry. She needs to be calm and relaxed, and to know she has at least three hours set aside – that the time is dedicated for writing gives her a sense of joy, she says.
Before writing, Judith feels she is about to take a trip or journey. Poetry is her primary work. She has only ever worked part time outside her art so that she can devote herself to poetry. She has to work indoors. Each line is searching for the next line. Writing poetry is more about music than intellect; she may forget what she was trying to say. This attitude allows a sense of play and the opportunity to generate content.
Judith reflects on the Greek concept of the muses; the Christian idea of inspiration; the Romantics’ genius; duende, Lorca’s mysterious power of art; and Dylan Thomas’s force that through the green fuse drives the flower, all of which inform her writing. She reminds us that poetry’s ability to explore deep human questions may be associated with the breath. Judith finds the editing process particularly enjoyable. She notes that there is something inherently mysterious about creativity; part of this is contained in the fact that though poems evoke the world, they are not the world, but a thing created. Process is the most satisfying element of writing poetry.
Alvin Pang says that his writing has often been described as restless. Early in his career, he followed models, based on reading. He sees poetry in terms of conversations with texts; we make a response, and, hopefully, we fill a gap in discourse. For example, he says that the particulars of his Singaporean seaside were not visible in his early reading, so he tried to speak into that silence. Process, then, is an answering tool, answering back into a silence. Much of his energy as a new writer went into community building in Singapore.
The practical side of preparing to write includes taking a lot of walks, particularly when stuck. This helps, artistically, because the physical act of walking changes the way the mind works. Writing then becomes grounded in the movements of the body; the writing process is material, bound up in experience. Language is fluid; meanings and contexts shift – with temperature, with food. The body may be rebelling against the imperial imperative of the mind. Alvin’s writing is now less programmatic, he says, he lets it go where it might, and allows the process to tell him where he’s going; he is teaching himself by writing. The writing becomes the process, and he believes he has succeeded if he started one way and ends up somewhere else, somewhere he didn’t intend.
Angela Gardner begins her talk by reading a creative work about someone else’s process: Tishani Doshi’s ‘How to write a poem’, which is full of resonant ideas, such as, “Steal a first line if you must . . .” (Doshi 2017). For Angela, poetry is held in the body, at different times and with varying rhythms. There are lots of approaches. A quote about finding the view and then turning your back on it seems to hit home. Put another way, she recommends making the work and then sitting a long way back from it. She doesn’t know what she’s going to be writing about. The process she brings to the writing is its most vital element; this includes finding alternative ways to look at the work, finding distance from it. One begins with something solid: a piece of writing (perhaps prose), like Michelangelo’s block.
Angela says she also doesn’t know what she’s trying to write about. Her process can be quite experimental and pragmatic: she might chop prose into ten-syllable patterns and then think about line breaks, and how things fit together as a poem. She might move the last line to the first line. She allows changes where meaning breaks, looking at what’s trying to be said, creating an action, turning the inert line into something that answers back to you. Angela recommends exploring things that niggle you – they can be what make a poem work. The smooth doesn’t niggle; the bit than annoys is the important thing.
Katharine Coles says that when it comes to the writing process, nobody can help you. She talks about needing to write from an anxiety or pressure that builds in the body, to move the anxiety out there, where it can be worked on, and quotes A.R. Ammons in this context. Poetry is so mysterious that we tend to think magically about a spell for it that might work for us. For Katherine, it’s more about precise physical conditions, or at least it used to be. She describes the way she needed three hours in which to write; that she would begin by reading poetry, then science. She loved airplane seats, where drinks were provided. Being a stranger in a new place is a poem generating machine, she says; they’re better places than home (which is full of distractions).
More recently, Katherine’s experience has been of the membrane between ‘poetry mind’ and ‘everyday mind’ dissolving. Nowadays, she might write a poem whilst driving, or riding a bike; in the shower, out running, or doing dishes – turning inward, or looking outward with receptivity. This change came about partly through necessity, through lack of time, but also, she says, because she was now ‘just ready’ to write in a more fluid way. Switching to the opposite of her earlier obsession to make things just so ensured doing the work. She says it doesn’t matter how you do it, as long as you do it, and references Malcolm Bradbury talking about how we get the hours in. She encourages us to evolve a process and then dissolve it.
To sum up our panellists’ approaches, we can see some trends. There’s a strong feeling that, once embarked on a writing session, one doesn’t know what is going to happen. This place of unknowing can also be characterised by the need to play as well as to accept the mysterious and restless aspects of creativity. Writing poetry may come from a place of anxiety, of things that annoy us or make us want to speak back to something. There’s a physical, embodied element to writing poetry, and, ultimately, it seems as though, for this group of poets, the process itself is in control, and should be so, even though it might also change over time.
First published in Social Alternatives 40: 3, 59-61, as part of the article, ‘Poetry in process: A festival panel’.
Doshi, T. 2017 ‘How to write a poem’, Tishani Doshi,