Daybook: 19 January 2019

It was the first week of September 1976, I had just started in the Sixth Form at my London comprehensive. I still remember my keen anticipation as I walked down Wembley High Road to  equip myself for this new adventure. The chunky mug i bought in Bargain Basement,  a light pearly brown, softly metallic, with – I think – a sketch of Abraham Lincoln on one side, and some of his most quotable quotes on the other. Then to Marks &  Spencer for a packet of Dark Chocolate Ginger Biscuits, to add to my writerly survival kit.

I could see myself already inhabiting the Sixth Form ‘cafe’, half-curled in an armchair there, drainpipe jeans and a loose shirt, deeply absorbed in my work, sipping occasionally from my mug, nibbling a ginger biscuit without looking up.

I was 16 going on 17 and I wanted, everything. I took the stairs at Alperton Tube station three at a time, released from a dark and fearful family life, galloping into my bright future.  Me the Writer, the Poet, the Actress, the PR Person. My ignorance and arrogance were not even measured against anything, I lived in my own world and every door was open to me.

Many years later, I glimpse this avid girl as I sit in a sunny corner of my living room far in time and space from England, laptop balanced on my knees, poetry coursework and books strewn on the little table in front of me. I am fighting a strong sense of futility, a sneering voice that says you again, poetry this time? Too little, too late. Pointless and purposeless. Down the years there have been many handsome mugs, fresh notebooks, new pens and cunning bags to put them in – yet I did not break through, I did not create a growing sense of my voice,  a body of work, win any awards, make any waves.

Yes, I have written for money, for business, since 1993. I studied for my degree and got first class honours in Literature and creative writing. But except for short periods, I never really got the discipline of keeping a notebook, of shaping and sharing my thoughts. Now I come to writing half-ashamed, self-conscious and full of derision at trying again, unsure why I am doing this poetry course. Perhaps to prove once for all that talent is not enough, even discipline is not enough – you have to feel compelled to write every day, even if no-one will see it.  And I don’t feel that.

Just that I believe there is treasure there if I can find it. Reading, writing and thinking about poetry – enough lifetime left to love it if I can break through and let it speak to me, speak for me.

 

 

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Making my meter

In my poetry course, we’re looking this week at ‘How Meter’s Made’, the beat in the music of poetry.  And Tamar Yoseloff tells us “there are no rules, only established verse forms, the names of different meters, the way different poets through time have used meter, and ideas on best practice.”

I like the idea of established forms, setting me free to create within a set of rules. And though the whole Wordsworth, Browning, da-de-da-de-da thing holds no charms for me (that’s what comes of studying Victorian poets for months of my degree), I am partial to a delicious sonnet, to blank verse, or a clever villanelle.

This morning, I’ve read Robert Frost’s poem, ‘Mending Wall’. It’s blank verse and he uses iambic pentamenter, (5 beats to a line, emphasis on second beat) but of course he varies it, makes then breaks that rule so subtly that the whole poem sounds like an old New England farmer in front of the fire, nursing a whisky, reflecting, meandering, thinking over his day. He captures a moment, really it’s nothing more than a passing thought, so clearly and honestly, that it comes down to me, through great distance, time and lifestyle, intact and true.

‘Something there is that doesn’t love a wall’ he begins. And later, in the last third of the poem, he repeats it:

Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.

 

And of course that sets me thinking about the Great Wall of Trump Jong-Un, the malevolent clown whom a playful god has set to reign over the Western world. And another line in the poem, when Frost muses on his neighbour’s insistence on mending the unnecessary wall between them:

He moves in darkness as it seems to me,
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
Move in darkness. Put up your wall. Frost’s imagined ‘elves’ will bring it down.

 

 

 

Daybook – 5th to 12th March 2017

wisconsin-interstate-park-woodland-trail

DAYBOOK – 4th to 12th March 2017

Saturday

When I fell off the hamster wheel of Washington DC work/life imbalance way back in 2003, I vowed that wherever life took me next, there would always be time for coffee. Coffee with a book, a notebook, a girlfriend, a happy husband. Today I managed to find time twice, with two friends I really like. Down-to-earth, rational women who I don’t have to handle, manage, mollify. Is that the test of a good girlfriend, that when you leave you feel better for seeing them, not relieved to be alone again?

I think us Baby Boomers will cultivate girlfriends more eagerly than previous generations. If we’re lucky, we’ll have longer to live than our parents, and more often, unpartnered or childfree lives. We might start writing more about strong female friendships, novels and plays and music, rather than lyrics about yearning for a new man.  Increasingly, I feel more excited about meeting a great girlfriend.

Took Eddie for our favourite weekend woodland walk in the hills around the city’s old castle. March winds, May warmth. The wind roared in the pines and eucalyptus, trees swaying in every direction, lit up copper gold by the setting sun, the whole hillside alive and glowing. Eddie met small dogs and big dogs, and was polite and friendly to all. And I nearly didn’t go.

 

Sunday

Started working on a new poem, about a meeting we had with an acquaintance from years ago, now returned from Mexico and living near the city.

I’m working through a nifty and inexpensive course, ‘Routes into Poetry’ by Tamar Yoseloff for The Poetry School, based in London.  I want to stock a basic toolkit for crafting strong, sound poems. This week I’m experimenting with stanza structure. Using couplets to unfold a feeling that grew stronger as he spoke.

Question: Where do I go when I feel a poem is ‘done’? Sometimes by second draft I think I’ve captured the moment. Should I keep working at it, tinkering with it, or are there poems that don’t have to evolve over many drafts?

American poet Wesley McNair, in his excellent ‘Advice for Beginning Poets’, urges us to revise diligently. “Suspect the finished poem. Your evil twin wants your poem to be finished,” he says. So that’s a question.

Another question: Do I have to experience something personally before I can write about it? Did Yeats see a falcon soaring (or a slouching beast) in order to write ‘The Second Coming’? Or Coleridge spend much time in Xanadu hanging out with the man to write ‘Kubla Khan’? So I guess the answer is: no, you can also be inspired by something you read or in our day, see on screen or hear on radio.  The Bröntes touched the heights and depths of human experience from lives far more circumscribed than their imaginations.

I’d put my poetry away last summer, unfinished knitting. It felt too self-indulgent when so many girls and women are suffering and in danger. But this month I held it up to the light again, imagined the patterns I could make, and it made me happy.

So I ‘ve promised myself a reward for a month of writing practice: a subscription to Mslexia, the excellent UK-based magazine for women who write, which includes access to their online forum.  Not that I have to force myself, but I am so twitchy, so averse to entering that quiet place in my head, that I have to bribe myself into the habit. Do you ever feel like that, resisting what you love?  Hope to hear from you but writing anyway.