Friday, 10 February 2012

Putting a new collection together: material

Wesley Freese, “Practicing” from..

In the end it was neither version A nor version B of the book, but version C that was the final text. Version A and version B were, in effect, place-holders. They were assurances that there was a book there and that by the time it got to editing and production it would have been modified into something possibly better.

What is a book of poems? To me it has never been simply a miscellaneous collection written over a period, but a shape, a trajectory, in which one can follow the development from first page through to last page. Looked at in this way the book constitutes a 'place' that the reader can explore, that makes best sense through a routed exploration, one poem leading to another, one section to another. I have tried to achieve this with all the books and it is no different with the new one.

But how to do this? Unless you are working on a single long poem you are unlikely to be composing poems in chronological thematic order. Most of the time one does seem to be writing miscellaneous poems. Even so, individual poems are related to each other in different ways. So there may be a series that develops out of an engagement. Or there is a group that moves in the orbit of a central event. There may be a technical discovery that propels you this way or that. Sometimes these poems appear in clusters, sometimes more sporadically, returning, nevertheless, to whatever range of stimuli produced them.

You may not even see these emerging motifs at the time of writing: you may be reading back into them with an eye to seeing connections. But generally you'll find them. If nothing else there is an image that carries from one poem to another, and another image that connects the second poem to the third. These chains have a poetics of their own: they are, I suspect, the poetics of that point in your life.

In Reel it was recollections and inventions of early childhood: what memory felt like when it met imagination only to rediscover itself as a a complex and convincing reality.

In The Burning of the Books it was fear and the sense of instability in history and society that produced the title sequence and animated much of the rest.

It wasn't the case that there was a single narrative arc in either book, but where there were poems that seemed to be set off-centre their very off-centre position might serve as appropriate interlude within an overall condition. The book was, in essence, a working through of that condition.

The period since The Burning of the Books has been filled with deaths and births: the death of my father, the death of a friend, and the birth of two grandchildren. Politically it was a time of dangerous tensions that occasionally seemed like harbingers of even greater insecurity.I was passing into my sixties with an increased sense of provisionality and danger but enjoying life all the more for that. The feeling of provisionality - a feeling I have always had but not quite so intimately - extended into language too. Was language more than the forms of language? This question mattered more than before. Working with three visual artists for over a year raised questions about form itself. How far could it stretch, how far could it caper without being a fool and what did that capering - or being a fool - amount to?

I recount these preoccupations as if they were fully conscious, and in some respects they were - in others they appeared out of the fabric only in retrospect, and only once I began to put poems into various possible orders.

A book is more than its poems. It should reveal something - a condition, a hunch about life - something you did not quite know but could only guess in the shadows. The poems, when in their ideal order, articulate the shadows into a world.

I know full well that people tend not to read poems from cover to cover but eventually, I think, the shape of the book emerges in the reader's mind as a poetic presence, or rather a presence composed of a specific poetics. It's the way I think I know Ariel, Crow, North, Nights in the Iron Hotel, Tenebrae, Woods, etc and the rest. I know them as books even more than I know them as poems.

One more post on Bad Machine itself after this.



beautifully said - thanks so much for the sharing of it all -

Barton Young said...

Totally agree. We could add many fine books to your list.

angelatopping said...

That's how it is for me as well George.

Anonymous said...

Thankyou for sharing, George...

Sheenagh Pugh said...

I agree too. All the collections I recall best and re-read most have a distinct shape and personality.

havantaclu said...

Thanks for sharing. I very much look forward to reading the published book.