I’ve not posted here for months. I expect any followers I may have had will long ago have sloped off to richer pastures.
My silence has had no clear cause, merely that poetry for me more or less dried up following the release of Out of Breath in the spring, and I’ve not been enthused by much that I have written, or, indeed, read, and most of my poetry activities have also been somewhat unrewarding. I’ve been wondering whether to stop being Reviews Editor for Orbis, as it’s not that exciting; and even Antiphon has assumed the position of something I need continually to get to grips with, rather than something I’m excited by. Workshops and readings seemed to me generally rather superficial, more social gatherings than engaging with the words, and being no longer a student of writing, as I finished both the MA and the Poetry Business Writing School some while ago, with their many stimuli and wonderful poet-friends. Worst of all, though, was that my older poems seem rather vapid, yet I’ve not been able to find a way to new things that are better. In fact, I seem to be going over the same ground again and again, with very limited imagination, and little creativity.
Strangely, much of this feels as if it’s due to the book. I didn’t expect it to be world-shattering or prize-winning. In fact, I pretty much expected what has happened: one or two pleasant reviews, a couple of small readings on the back of it, a few personal compliments, and a small number of sales. I was overjoyed by the launch, and the book itself, and it was a lifelong ambition realised. But now I find it mediocre and, apart from a few poems, very limited.
So, on the one hand, I feel that I’ve acheived something I always wanted to, and, whilst it’s a perfectly decent book, it doesn’t seem to be as good as I feel capable of. But on the other hand, having achieved that, and so being “released” to do almost any kind of writing I feel like, I find I’ve no idea where to go or what to do to create a better book.
In fact, over the summer, I did find the writerly excitement again, in drafting a complete novel which, I think, has some strengths. The thrill of the first draft, the way it all came together, was wonderful, but since then life has got in the way of pursuing a second draft.
However, where I have found some satisfaction has been in mentoring. This has surprised me a little, in that it has happened more or less by accident. Cinnamon Press asked for writers to help support their enterprise, as funding was getting tight, so I volunteered, and found myself mentoring a poet who is just starting out and keen to figure out how to make a success of his work. Then a friend, who has been quite successful in one field of writing, but not published much as a serious poet, asked if I’d take up a similar role in relation to his work. Three other poets have asked me for feedback on their draft collections – and each time seem to have been quite pleased with what I’ve been able to offer them. And now someone else, whom I only know as an ex-colleague is asking for advice on how to achieve her writerly ambitions.
All of this is sort of flattering, because it means people value what I have to say (and, to be fair, if I take on such jobs I am to be as thorough and as detailed as I possibly can, so I give a great deal of my energy and attention to the work) but it’s rewarding, too, because it means I get to grapple with kinds of work and issues in writing that might not occur to me within my own work. So there’s learning for me, too – things I could try, things I should avoid, approaches I’ve not thought about, and so on.
They also give me a sort of benchmark. The draft collection of one of my friends, Kim Moore, is nothing short of brilliant, for example. Examining that for her suggested to me several key weaknesses in my own approach – a lack of risk, for example.
And they help me formulate a sort of poetics. There are many ways of looking at poetry. Some of them seem to me to lead to good poems. Some do not. If I’m going to advise other people on what might make their poems work better, I need to know what I think works but also, more importantly, why. This amounts to a “theory” of poetry, rightly or wrongly, which other poets can take or leave, according to their own proclivities and preferences. Of course, it’s not really a closely worked out “theory”, and there are certainly contradictions and tensions in what I think makes good work, but at least I can explain where I’m coming from in a way that others can react to.
There’s a big risk here, though. To the extent that others trust what I have to say, and move their work in that direction, they are likely to move towards “my sort of work.” This might not suit them. It might not please them. They need to be their own poets, doing their own thing, and that means they have to feel able to reject what I say, so the “theory”, the poetics, has to be something they can argue with, and come to their own conclusions.
For example, I’m fond of saying that writing good poetry is a balancing act, in which different considerations are matched against each other: word choice, sound patterns, line length and so on. But another poet may feel that the “best” poetry comes by driving to extremes, pushing certain aspects of poems as far as they can go. (And, indeed, I could cite a couple of examples that would illustrate this).
So mentoring feels of benefit to both mentor and mentee, as long as they share the process. I recommend it.