Sunday, January 29, 2006


I’ve been reading Rob’s Mackenzie’s ‘How (not) to Write a Poem’ instalments on his blog, which has got me thinking about my own writing process and looking at revisions of my own poems.

Looking at the number of revisions various pieces have had (although, for me, this is misleading because I only make a new version when I’m making substantial changes – tinkering doesn’t count!), it seems that the longer I write, the more I revise. I’m sure this must be a very good thing. ‘The gypsy’s devoted son’ is now on version number 10 and, reading it this morning after not looking at it for a few months, I confess that I’m still quite happy with it. However, that may well change a few months down the line – that is one of the most unsettling things about poetry writing to me – the frequency of feeling dissatisfaction with work that I have been previously pleased with. The effect of this (for me) is that although I’m always writing new things, my ‘collection’ is constantly decreasing rather than expanding!

I’m now on version 7 of ‘After Carl. Sunday in Dad’s Car’ and it feels to me like its in its teenage gawky phase – all awkward angles and unsteady plodding:

After Carl. Sunday in Dad’s Car

Deleted for revision

Tuesday, January 24, 2006


I first came across Pattiann Rogers on PFFA when Howard posted her poem ‘The Hummingbird: A Seduction’ and, after reading some more of her work online, I followed up his reading recommendations and bought her latest collection of poetry, Firekeeper, along with The Dream of the Marsh Wren in which she talks about her experience of writing. Throughout the discussion, she uses her poems to illustrate her points, which is very effective. This is the book I decided to begin with and it is one of those books that, as I read, I want to show it to people, to tell everyone about it, because what she says resonates with me so strongly. She verbalises so many ideas I have about poetry writing that I haven’t yet managed to articulate, as well as others that are (so far) outside of my experience. Although I’m enjoying every page, I’m looking forward to getting to the poetry collection too!

Sunday, January 22, 2006


The American by Henry James, that is. The second novel in my ‘chronological reading of Henry James’ project, and so different to the first novel, Roderick Hudson.

Roderick Hudson read to me like a real beginner’s novel (although there were several flashes of the sparkling prose he would write so much more of in the future) with mistakes such as naming the two main male characters Roderick and Rowland – everyone knows that using the same first letter for two major characters is a huge mistake! Again and again whilst reading, I stumbled over this small but significant irritation. The story itself is quite simple – Rowland Mallet is a wealthy and cultured young American man who decides to sponsor the brilliant (younger American) sculptor Roderick Hudson, who ends up losing his head over a beautiful and cruel young woman in the pleasure grounds of Europe. To be completely honest, I found the novel clumsy in many ways, as if it was constantly looking for its purpose but never quite finding it. The other major irritation was the dialogue which didn’t flow naturally to my ear, and that James used in a rather ham-fisted way in places to push forward the narrative. However, it was fascinating at the same time, given that it was James’ first novel.

The American is a different book entirely. Although I detected a slight lack of purpose as with Roderick Hudson (though not so pronounced), it was much more engaging and structured. I found The American to be a real page turner and read the last 100 pages at one sitting – something I rarely do these days. If I have one complaint, it is the light nature of James’ characters – they never feel entirely drawn and the ‘hero’, Christopher Newman, is rather unconvincing. Perhaps this was the first hint of James evolving his style of writing from a central character’s consciousness as he does in The Portrait of a Lady? Although, for my money, he certainly didn’t achieve that with Christopher Newman. The dialogue in The American is a bit hit and miss, but a huge improvement on its use in Roderick Hudson.

I’m thoroughly enjoying this project so far. Next it’s on to The Europeans but first I’m going to have a bash at Virginia Woolf’s Orlando.

Sunday, January 15, 2006


I am frequently amazed by how much stuff I don’t know. My thanks to fellow OU student, Dermot O’Rourke, who has this week introduced me to a writer I had previously never heard of – Ivy Compton-Burnett. Her biography certainly makes very sad reading, but I love the sound of her writing.

Dermot is writing his MA dissertation this year and Ivy is his subject. He speaks passionately about her and his enthusiasm having infected me, I’ve added Ivy to my ever growing ‘to read’ list. So many authors, so little time.

As a result of chatter about Ivy and Henry James, I also got into conversation with Dermot about the academic versus the creative mind. Dermot said that:

“If all the literature departments, in every university in the world, were shut down tomorrow it would be no great loss. The creative, not the academic, mind is what is important.”

And my immediate reaction was:

“You're so wrong though. Why do you think creative people create? They simply want to communicate and 'thinking' people are absolutely essential to that dialogue - they bring the words on the page to life by engaging with them.”

Dermot still holds to his original argument and I’m thinking over the whole question of what academe gives us of value before responding again. Is it enough for the student of literature to have intelligence, curiosity, awareness and enthusiasm (supported and informed by the opinions of other like minded and non-academic people who have ‘gone before’) to enable them to take what is of value from literature, or does the literature student need the academic world as well if they are to succeed? Mmm, I suspect I still disagree with Dermot…

Monday, January 09, 2006


I love watching TV programmes about makeovers, plastic surgery and the like. If you were to ask me why I like watching them, I’d struggle a bit to answer – they just fascinate me in much the same way as I’d be fascinated to watch some strange and foreign religious ceremony that I hadn’t seen before and didn’t understand. I was watching one this afternoon (a makeover programme – not a strange and foreign religious ceremony) about a 44 year old woman who put herself through a number of plastic surgery procedures, fillers, botox and extensive dentistry work because she had a low self image. Why? Just get the poor bloody woman a psychiatrist, a life coach, a change of diet, a new hobby, a few yoga sessions, or maybe an OU course – put down the scalpel, canula and Botulinum Toxin and move away from the patient!

Are we really so shallow today that our self-worth is measured solely according to what we look like? Okay, I know that not all of us think that way, but I guess many people do, or there wouldn’t be so many TV hours devoted to it. Don’t get me wrong, at the end of the procedures, I have a smile of happiness for the poor downtrodden victim who finally thinks they are worth something, as ridiculously large as the next person but, at the same time, I feel a bit sick – it’s totally twisted. At least on the programme I watched today they had a psychotherapist working with the victim as well as a stylist (one of those weird looking creatures who are so perfectly styled that they look like a cartoon), and one of the things the psychotherapist did was to ask the woman to position people according to their careers on a ‘social ladder’. A ship’s captain made it to the top, followed by a doctor, then a model and then the woman herself on the bottom ring, alongside a shop assistant and a tramp. Jesus. Of course the helpful psychotherapist made sure that she corrected the woman’s ideas by simply swinging the ladder on its side and telling her that all those people were “just the same as you, dear”. Please.

After the makeover was completed, her hair was done (by Trinny and Susannah’s stylist, no less), she was made up by a professional make-up artist, dressed by cardboard cut out stylist man and presented back to her husband and two daughters who managed to look both thrilled, and as if they’d just seen a horrific car crash at the same time. Totally twisted.

Friday, January 06, 2006


One of the things that Santa brought me this year was the double CD ‘The Ultimate Collection’ by Electric Light Orchestra. Totally retro, totally fab. Driving to work this week has been a complete retro singing party for one. Even at the time they were popular, it wasn’t hip to like them, but I didn’t care then and I don’t care now – it is really enjoyable, melodious, sing-a-long pop music.

So, if you’re old enough to remember them first time round, give yourself a treat and pick up a copy. Although, be warned, if you listen to it on the way to work, you will arrive at the office with a ridiculous grin plastered on your face and may even have to resist the urge to skip…

Wednesday, January 04, 2006


This isn’t a form I mess with much but driving to work this morning I was thinking about an old piece I wrote that had one key image. As I’ve recently been looking at very short poetry for the OU course I’m doing, I thought I’d do a rewrite of the old piece in a very short form.

Rare hedgerow blossom
of fast 'Rosso' red - signals
bent metal drama.

Monday, January 02, 2006


Having recently read an article from the New Yorker about Wordsworth that talked about the poet’s role in shedding light on ‘the human condition’, I found the conclusion in this article from Contemporary Poetry Review particularly interesting. After looking at three new releases, Joan Houlihan concludes that “the lack of an authentic attempt to reach for, and connect to, an emotional center, a universal and human matter … is what’s so dreadfully absent in all these collections”. Personally, I find that a very depressing thought – both reading and writing poetry has always been an exploration of the human state for me – I’m really not interested in writing that exists for little other reason than to be ‘clever’. Of course, the price of thinking that way is that I run the risk of not being open minded enough to recognise something really worthy when I rush over it waving a dismissive hand.

To be honest, I don’t feel sufficiently literate in contemporary poetry to truly engage with this article as much as I would like to but, I understand what Joan is saying in essentials. On the one hand, she seems to be wondering if we’re about to cross a new boundary in writing poetry and, on the other, she seems to be afraid of what that new poetry might look like – rather soulless. From her opening comments, she is also, perhaps, a little afraid that she might be occupying the seat of the fool who fails to see the clear brilliance of the new ‘thing’ when everyone else around her has already been indoctrinated and are worshipping at its temple. I think I know how she feels.

Sunday, January 01, 2006


Aren’t birds cool? If I were a bird, I’d like to be a goldcrest like this one because it has to eat continuously in winter to survive. Sounds like a plan. It also has a very cute outfit and a lovely song. The RSPB site is a great resource if you want to find out about birds – as I discovered today when I wanted to do some research for a poem I was drafting that included a merlin and a lapwing.

The poem is the second in a series I’m playing with about a serial killer, and because I’ve been feeling a teeny weeny bit homesick for Yorkshire this week (added to by watching Wuthering Heights the other day and somewhat influenced by having mentioned Rob Mackenzie’s poem, ‘Sketching the Moors’ recently), I decided to set it there. I settled on a first draft after fidgeting for a couple of days but I’ve already started messing with it – writing a poem seems to have quite a bit in common with birds sitting on a clutch of eggs, only the poem takes significantly longer. Having said that, I wonder which kind of bird holds the record for the longest time taken to hatch out its young?