Gradually I’ve been getting back into writing again, producing more poems, thanks to the April Poem a Day online group set up by Simon Williams, and working on a new rewrite of my much-worked novel. I’m altering the time sequence, changing the voice slightly and replacing the protagonist’s husband (Gerald, short, stocky and ginger-haired) with a new one (Patrick, tall, rangy, with tousled dark hair). I don’t know whether it will work but I’m certainly enjoying it. I’ve kept the previous draft, of course, so I can always revert to bits of it that seem to work better.
I seem to alternate between thinking I can’t write fiction and had better stick to poetry and thinking I can’t write poetry and had better stick to prose. Prose comes easily to me in a way that it doesn’t to all poets, but that doesn’t mean I’ve stopped wanting to write poems too. At the moment I’m trying to do a bit of both and not sure how switching heads will work. When I posted on Facebook that I wanted to write both poetry and fiction, a number of poet friends immediately put their hands up and said they wrote fiction too. Fewer novelist friends have said they write poetry, which is interesting, especially as some of them write beautiful poetic prose. One poet and novelist said she definitely couldn’t do both at once, and I can understand why. Once you start writing a novel, its world extends around you; it’s then hard to break off and work on something as brief and intense, and possibly personal, as a poem. Or is it? At the moment I seem to have a couple of poems on the go as well as the next chapter of the novel – and of course I’m writing here on the blog – but I may be spreading myself too thin. That remains to be seen.
Recently I’ve reviewed the work of three poet friends on this blog to tie in with their joint launch, which was a lovely occasion. All three had beautiful poems to read and read them beautifully, and the audience – many of them not poets or literary people – listened with an attentiveness that said much about the quality of the work. One person I spoke to said she hadn’t thought about poetry at all since her schooldays but had now realised there was much more to it than the compulsory Wordsworth we were all served up then. Not that there’s anything wrong with Wordsworth, I hasten to add, but for thirteen-year-olds perhaps he’s not the best choice.
After the launch, and having read my friends’ poems in considerable detail, I couldn’t help doing some soul-searching. Is my poetry as good as that? Can it ever be? How can I begin to make it better? The answer to the first question is fairly clear, the answers to the other two much less so. I do want to write better poems – something in me is burning to do so – but I can’t do it by saying, ‘Right, now I’m going to write a poem that’s as good as X’s’, and certainly not by saying, ‘I’m going to write a poem that’s like X’s’. I can learn a lot from other poets, including my wonderfully skilled friends, and can study their poems to see what makes them work so well. But, having learnt from my friends and listened to their feedback, I can only write poems that are mine and not theirs. I can extend my range, experiment with form – or perhaps less form – use different voices and registers of language, but it seems to me that my strengths and limitations as a poet are intimately linked with my strengths and limitations as a person.
It’s the same with trying to improve my novel. I can take notice of my novelist friends’ comments and try to eliminate – or at least sidestep – some of the faults. I can read more novels and try to see (as I constantly do) what works and what doesn’t work about them. I can follow some of my gut feelings about what the novel needs. But at the end of the day it’s still my novel and everything about it, from the characters and setting to the prose style and choice of vocabulary, is inescapably mine. That’s not an excuse for not working on it – I wouldn’t be rewriting it if I didn’t think I could do a better job – but it is an acknowledgement that in the end I can only do what I can do. I might wish I could write like Y or construct a novel like Z, but unless I can find a way of making their techniques my own they won’t stick – they’ll just stick out. That may all sound rather negative. The upside is that writing the novel afresh, with all that I’ve been through in the intervening time and all that’s been happening in the world, I’ve got a chance to make it something more than it was before – something different, at least.
So here I am, wanting to do it better for its own sake and wishing I could be as good as X and Y and Z. And, somewhere inside me, trusting that this whole process that I call ‘my writing’ is growing and developing, in ways that I can certainly help along but can’t totally control.