Sunday, 12 February 2012

Putting a new collection together: shaping

Anselm Kiefer Naqlfar, 1998

This is the last of a series of three posts in which I think about making a book of poems rather than writing this or that poem.

The first time I put the collection together - several months ago, maybe even a year ago, so lacking a number of poems I eventually did include - I handed it to C who felt it was not right, the divisions too fixed, too much a series of blocks. It was one type of poem followed by another type of poem. She was quite right. The sestinas were together, the poem-collaborations were together and so on.

So I started again and got to version A which was fairly quickly succeeded by version B using much the same material with minor adjustments. What they had in common was the breaking up of the blocks into a kind of cyclical pattern, the collection beginning with a poem of delight about life, then the Bad Machine title poem, then a series of postcard poems, then poems with animal themes, then themes out of art, love and sex, with a poem about Alfred Hitchcock and the idea of the McGuffin at the end. In between came the various Minimenta after Anselm Kiefer. There was the question of what to do with 'lighter' verse and poems close to song. It has always been hard accommodating those.

Version C - the book as it is now - is considerably different. The book begins with poems about language, some very experimental, one practically off the wall. That is a risk as it might deter some readers but the case for establishing language itself as a subject became ever more compelling to me; language, not as an intellectual but existential problem. How do we stay true to what we experience when language is constantly turning into ashes. It is the growing awareness of our very selves turning into ashes that drives the fascination. So language and apprehension come at the beginning.

I was looking, not for a sharp jolt, but a transformation, a shifting across to a field where I could still hear the echoes raised in the first part. I could have moved to poems about my father's illness and death but it would have been hard to shift from that, so the next stage was political apprehension, the sense that we are moving towards less tolerant, more absolutist conditions. This isn't an argument but a feeling. The first of the Minimenta could kick this off, then a few poems directly addressing the inward threat could follow. This led relatively easily to questions of immigration and the notion of belonging. Belonging to what and whom. Belonging, assimilation and discontent. The end of this sequence looks at poems about England and the recent riots.

These exit via dream. The Budapest Zoo dream begins with an urban fox in London but ends with a vision of animals burning behind bars. That image could then take me to a group of creature poems that were essentially products of the art collaboration but emerged out of the dream world of the urban fox combined with metaphor and fantasy. At the end there is a poem based on reading excerpts from someone's diary where the mind runs amok in the empty rooms of a holiday house, the mind delighting and panicking at the same time.

The poems that follow are again a risk. They are from a series of acrostics based on other writers or artists, which are homages to some I admire. The poems are quite dense as poems in that they move fast in a short space but, as I was assured by another poet who admired them, they were proper poems. And why shouldnt they be? I could - and still can - foresee accusations of frivolity, but that is only because of the associations of the acrostic. An acrostic is just a form like any other, a set of constraints informing a process of feeling and writing. That's my defence and I firmly believe in it. I have been arguing the case for years. The poems are quite old in that they could have worked their way into Reel but didn't fit there. They fit better here in a collection where language and decay are so much more at the heart of things.

From the homages, objects of conditional love, the book moves - fairly naturally, I hope - to love, desire, sex and back to love before finally getting to the Bad Machine of the title. It is at this point the book works towards sickness and death, dealing with the dyings and vanishings that seemed so close to home this time.

But the book doesn't end there. It passes on to consider life and its hazards. Children die and are born. Music and musicality become subjects and, finally, we return to language again, the language falling apart, the last poem asking what, if anything, language in these poems has mastered? Never enough, is the suggested answer.


That is how things stand. That feels like a structure to me. Start with questions about language. Feel the provisionality and danger of it, then move on through the various stages in which those feelings are approached, before ending with language again. Technically the canzones, the prose poems, the acrostics, the mirror poems and the rest drift through the sections without seeming too much like a big deal. Playing is deadly serious business but it doesn't need drum rolls or ceremonial dress.

This all sounds like a grand plan, but it never was that. The act of making a book is not unlike the act of constructing a memory. It begins from where we are seeking the narrative shape on which we might hang what we know, remember, half-remember, imagine and desire. That is how we make ourselves.

Still sorting out a cover.

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