I was invited to answer these four questions about writing poetry by David Briggs, whose new book Rain Rider I greatly admire. In turn, I have passed on the same four questions to Annie Freud, whose poetry, art and person I greatly admire. I am supposed to find a second poet but either the poets I’d care to invite have already been invited, or they just didn’t want to do it.
What am I working on?
Rebel Angels In The Mind Shop. Forty poems from the past four years. The Rapture was published in 2011, and I already had poems as central heating to warm up the next project, which I called Medium, then Aqua. The idea was a set of poems on the theme of different mediums – emotional, political, social, sexual – the feeling of finding yourself in the wrong medium. Time as a medium; if you’ve ever been in an accident, when time turns viscous and slow, you’ll know what I mean. I was interested in the digital medium, too, the touch screen as a medium, algorithms as alien life forms. An invasion scenario. That concept got consumed by Rebel Angels but it’s still there, with the lid off and steaming rising.
The title comes from finding Robertson Davies’s The Rebel Angels in the Mind charity shop at the bottom of Kensington Church Street. There’s a streak of esotericism in Davies’s work that runs through the visceral hard matter of his world, and I find that sympathetic to my own experience and preoccupations. I read a great deal on consciousness, neurology, archaeology, prehistory, myth and folklore and folk songs, as well as generous helpings of poetry and fiction. I paint a lot, too, so there’s a strong visual sensation in the writing, and a lot of this fed in to The Rapture and comes out of the mouth in Rebel Angels.
How does my work differ from others in its genre?
If I had to set my stall I guess I’d say that I like the idea of a poetry of simultaneous action – so that the lines and ideas and images and progression builds and expands around one point, a kind of big bang inflationary experience. But then again, I love story and portraiture – the idea of widescreen and close-up at the same time. I called it dirty romanticism. For some years I explored what I thought of as metaphorical narratives – poetry without a single image or metaphor, but with images and metaphors played out through narrative and character development. Short stories and life stories in twenty lines or so. The tell of seemingly insignificant detail. I’m also into sensationalism, which is the idea that the poem not only recreates but is the actual experience rather than simply describing it or commenting on it. The poem as a thing-in-itself, with a life of its own. Imaginative algorhythms?
Why do I write what I do?
Fitful compulsion, I suppose; infatuation; private entertainment. It’s serious play. It really is an amazing magic box. You’re also talking to yourself and others in an interesting way, and it can show you things you didn’t know or hadn’t articulated. It’s stimulating. When you’re hitting the word and it feels good, it’s hard to think of a better sensation. It’s like seduction. It’s better than any drug – you keep telling yourself, one more line, just one more line….
If I get to the end of working on a poem and feel I haven’t taken it to a place I didn’t know about when I started out, then the poem hasn’t worked. It’s died on me. It happens. You have to let them be. They’re like failed states – no centre, porous borders. I don’t write for a particular audience – sometimes I think the blank page is the audience, and sometimes it talks back. You are the second audience, and readers and listeners are the third. I write for the page and the stage. I like a live audience; I love to perform them and get them across. You can tell when people get it. It’s very good to share.
How does my writing process work?
I work full time and have an averagely complex social, cultural, family and sedentary life, so poetry has to find its way through that. I’m in the habit of working in the morning on buses, Tubes and trains. Public transport is a good place to write. There is a constant flow of movement and ambient sound and activity. I use plain A5 sketchbooks, and have around 100, I’d guess, full of writing and pictures. A poem can go from notebook to notebook for months before it gets to the keyboard. And then it may go through a pile of typed drafts. Thirty, sometimes. It depends where it’s taking me, where I’m pushing it, and I get a lot from chance operations – writing en route, you may see or hear someone that feels right for that part of the poem you’re bending your ear to. A pair of yellow marigolds in brilliant sunlight at just that angle, at just that hour of the day. I have poor handwriting, and creative misreadings have been good for me, too. Not that I wing it. There’s a lot of shaping involved. Usually, the pattern, the taste of an entire poem comes at once; the work is all in the getting there, and you get there anyhow you can – by means of improvisation and technique, like most arts and crafts.
I can leave a poem for months, if I can’t get any further in with it. Forget about it. Sit long and move fast when it comes back again. Good revising is about good reading. You’ve got to read it right. I find the good stuff comes quickly – faster than you can write it down – and the rest opens up from that fast stuff, the slow shimmering of pots on the stove. The shaping, the rhythm and rhyme, if I’m writing rhyme, which I am. But the conceptual line running through it is paramount, the whole poem you first saw, the smell of it; the secret that other people don’t know. you’ve got to have that; it’s about authority. If you haven’t got your ding, the hidden thread running through the underlay, then all you’ve got is technique, and that’s not enough. As Miles Davis once said, you got to have your ding.
To sign off, here’s a link to a working draft from the notebook, side by side with a pen portrait. The poem is still gong through its paces, and started with a flash of sunlight across windows from the top deck of the 65 bus towards Richmond. See how you get on with that handwriting.