I’m currently trying to put together that difficult second collection. Whether I can interest a press in it is at present an irrelevant question, as it’s something of a struggle to compile the collection itself.

I’ve published in magazines, anthologies and so on around 250 poems. Many of them went into the first collection, and some into the pamphlet, but there’s still a goodly resource to work from. How to whittle it down to around 60 that would make a decent publication?

Then there’s the hitherto unpublished pile, many of whom are languishing somewhere on various editors’ untidy desks, amongst hundreds of similar hopefuls. I literally can’t count these, as my sense of which of them are “worthy” and which are not changes every time I review them, so the numbers also change. But there’s a substantial number – roughly speaking, a collection’s worth is currently under consideration. Should I pick the best of these for the new volume, or do I keep these circulating until they hit a publication, and only collect those already published?

Should the new collection be simply the best poems I have available, irrespective of tone, subject, form etc, or should I be looking for some sorts of unity or relationship between sets of poems, and work out from them? Or are there sets of poems which should be kept separate and published with their own identities? For example, I’ve quite a few humorous poems, quite a few intense war poems, quite a few poems about my family – and so on. Perhaps these should be discrete sections of the larger book.

Then, how should the book be structured? If there are separate sections, with their own coherence, what should the relationships between them? And their order? And the order of poems within them?

In the first collection it was relatively easy. I identified all the poems I felt were most successful, excluding those which were essentially glib or amusing. I chose the poem to be encountered first as setting the “flavour” of the book, then the second which logically followed from that, and, in this way, gradually building a “flow” of successive poems, until the end, where a small section of war poems was to sit (these forming a set, and being the most “testing” of the poems), and then the final poem, the title poem, which acted as a kind of “closing bracket” (if none of this makes any sense, maybe read the book and see if that makes sense).

Then, of course, there’s the business of what might persuade a press to be interested. Thematic coherence sells pamphlets, but will it work for a collection, and don’t different presses tend to favour certain kinds of poem (e.g. nature poems or politically motivated poems)?

So what are my working decisions? Most of the poems will be already published, but supported by those unpublished poems which fit best around them. There will be three sections, two of which are quite clear in my head, and one of which has a pretty clear sequence. I think those poems intended merely as humorous will be left out, but I’ll keep some of the slighter ones to provide a counter-balance to the darker poems, of which (it seems) there’ll be a fair number in this collection. But I don’t know how to label these sections, and I don’t yet have a concept for the book. What I have is three sets of poems I want to publish together, but no clear sense of what, if anything, I can use to unify them.

Answers on a postcard, please.

Well, a post, anyway.

 

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This blog is sporadic because I am. The days when I used to write, endlessly, remorselessly, as if it was what I was created for, seem to have passed. And the consequence? Shelf after shelf of notebooks half-filled with half-baked ideas.

I’m currently working through them – again, sporadically – trying to weed out the notes, drafts, ideas, fragments that might be worth preserving in some sense. The rest will go to recycling. Thinking about the maths of it, I’ve been writing since I was six and, whilst I’ve come up for air now and then, it’s been a pretty constant addiction. So I’ve probably produced not thousands, but millions of words , if I include every student note, every class design, every piece of course content, every draft novel, every poem, every play, every outline, every plan for a treasure hunt, every fantasy world, every letter, every email and, of course, very blog post.

Just as an example, I’d claim to have drafted (drafted, that is) at least ten novels: Spiders in the Bath, Snake, Coloquintida,  Bone Dreams, Mordred’s Tooth, Only Night, Exspelling the Dragon, Touch, Drift, How to Kill Francesca Twice. These are those that come to mind. There are probably others. If each of those is around 70,000 words, that’s 700,000 to start with. Add something around – what shall I say? – 1200 poems at maybe 50 words a poem and 20 or so stories at around 1500 words. Add a PhD dissertation, which I wrote twice, at about 80-90,000 words each time. That brings us close to the first million without any trouble. And they’re just the obvious tip of the iceberg. What about all my academic papers and books (I think there’s about 100 of the former and 10 of the latter)?

What I’m sitting here wondering is: what is all this worth? Is it all merely the outpouring of ego? Or is there something worthwhile within this heap of dogeared scribble? If you scan the CV, it looks like a life of success. But if you consider what has happened to those words and, more importantly, what has happened because of those words, that document seems to fade away.

My plan, with the time that remains to me, is to use my retirement to prune this mound of half-finished projects down to the few pieces which might have value. That is: publish all the poems which seem to work, finish any (or all?) the novels which seem to have something going for them. I think there are at least three which might please a few (not very discerning?) readers, if I can find the energy to bring them to the place they need to be.

Whether this is merely that same ego finding a way to gratify itself sideways, as it were, or whether there are things I might still be able to put out in the world that are, considered a little dispassionately, worth the world browsing, I’m not in a position to judge, of course.

A very pleasant review of Point me at the stars from Jenny Hockey in WriteOut Loud. It’s good to hear that a reader finds pleasure in this book, because I wrote it essentially to pursue a few imperatives of my own, without much thought of readers or, indeed, publication. That’s unusual for me, as I’m almost always looking for an outlet once I’ve a complete poem on my hands. I say “What’s the point of writing something if no-one is ever going to read it?” But, of course, that really hides a self-indulgent viewpoint – why should anything I (or anyone else, for that matter) expect people to spend time and energy on my words merely because I happen to have committed them to paper?

My first collection, Out of Breath, was most definitely the culmination of a long-held desire to have published a book of poems. It’s a common ambition and perhaps not a very worthy one, in itself. It implies the primacy of the author over the value of the words or, to put it less pompously, it’s the desire to “be a writer” (validated by being able to wave an actual perfect bound book in the air) rather than the desire to say anything worthwhile.

Following the elation of that publication, I began to wonder why I’d written it, why I’d been so keen to publish such a book, beyond the desire to be admired as a poet. (After all, I’d written quite a few books before, so I was well established as an academic author). I also began to wonder if any of those words were really of much value, except to me. It’s perhaps impossible to be objective about one’s own work, but to the extent that I’m able to, I can see some good things in the first book. Many of the poems strike me as very competently executed, the sort of poem that’s been refined by workshopping and careful editing, the sort of thing that little magazines frequently publish, well crafted, well formed. However, very few of them seem to be seriously felt. Few seem to have a strong emotional core. They stand in place of real emotion, rather than expressing it.

This is characteristic, I think, of an intellectual approach to writing, albeit a sensitive one. Many of my poems originate in a felt moment, an emotional experience, but that then seems to be lost by the time the poem is completed on the page. Arguably, the urge to write “publishable poems” limits the emotional credibility of what I write. That’s not to say that the poem in Out of Breath are untrue, or lack emotional moments. If anything, several of the poems are founded on moments that have been core emotional experiences for me. But I think I’ve a strong tendency to take such moments and turn them into something else, something which works as a poem but which wanders a long way from the emotional core of its origins.

Point me at the stars, despite wandering in a knot of cliches (or perhaps because of it), is different. Because I wanted to write a particular sequence, a particular set of poems, with a particular orientation which is close to how I truly feel about my own life, I was able to present semi-autobiographical moments not as “subjects for poems” but in terms of their emotional impact on the “I” in the poem (me and not-me). It’s a different kind of egotism, if you like, in that the poet assumes that his emotions are something others might feel empathy with, or even recognise within themselves. If so, then maybe the poem stands as an expression of what other people feel, articulating, perhaps, what they find they can’t.

Kim Moore (who kindly wrote a little blurb for the book) told me she thought this collection was the most honest work she’d read of mine. That’s hugely flattering, because she’s a poet who strives always for emotional honesty, and avoids the whole business of writing to a recipe. In workshop situations she often avoids the task, if it does not touch an emotional element she can respond to honestly. This means she takes risks  in her work – risks which generally come off, but sometimes don’t. I generally lack that courage, because I’ve one eye looking at the reader, at how the poem will be as an artefact, rather than what it actually expresses. I tend to see the poem as a construct (which I’m pretty able to craft, up to a certain point) rather than an expression, because, I guess, I’m unwilling to be honest about who I actually am.

I fear that person, I think. Or rather, I’m rather shamed by what I know about him, and if I present him honestly, truly honestly, I feel that people will at best be uninterested and at worst, will despise that tiny little soul.

A very encouraging review of Point me at the stars from Davina Prince for HappenStance’s Sphinx at: https://www.sphinxreview.co.uk/index.php/682-noel-williams-point-me-at-the-stars

This is a (small) book I wrote for its own sake, not because I thought it would be particularly publishable, nor likely to find a ready audience. But, so far, the response has been positive and pleasant. I gave a reading on Tuesday at Writers in The Bath, and was pleased by the feedback I received. It’s a problem at readings, because the tone of the poems remains pretty constant throughout, and, being a narrative sequence threaded with repeated imagery, it’s hard for an audience to attend to more than a couple of the poems at a time. I think in future I’ll not aim to represent the sequence as such, and instead mix these poems with others, in the name of being a little more entertaining.

…is the title of my pamphlet, now published by Indigo Dreams. Details here:

http://www.indigodreams.co.uk/noel-williams/4594148627

It looks like this:

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my design, but executed by Ronnie at ID. I’m really pleased with that look.

I’m launching the book on Wednesday, Valentine’s Day, which seems appropriate as the book’s a sequence of loneliness, love and loss. So if you happen to be in Sheffield, come along to Waterstones, Orchard Square, at 6.15 for what I hope will be a lyric treat.

I’m sharing the bill with my friend, Al McClimens, who is also launching his new pamphlet, ‘Keats on the Moon’. (Cue opportunity for various planetary promotional phrases). His poems are a little more contemporary than mine, and have a little more bite, as well as some humour, so between us there should be something to entertain you.

 

Here we are, testing the waters of a New Year, wondering whether there’s any point in making resolutions, given so many previous years marred by lack of resolve. I’ve always seen plans as statements of optimistic desire rather than intent, and a New Year’s Resolution is essentially a plan for future behaviour made in the expectation of failure to stick to it.

Yet the power of the word is such that saying something gives it a shape within  the world it would lack if merely thought. At the very least, we might stumble against that shape in the darkness of the coming months, and recognise its outline as we fumble around. Our behaviour may not conform to that shape, but at the very least, we’ll know when we feeling our way around it.

So I’m making no resolutions. What’s the point of a promise you know you’re going to break? But I do have some weak-willed good intentions, two of which I’m outlining here, like the chalk shapes of murder victims on the carpet, so when I next walk into this room, there’ll be inescapable evidence.

I’ve a new poetry pamphlet due out later this month. Intention number one is to use this to get out to read and perform a bit more. I’ve been a lazy old poet, and I should do a bit more than I have been.

Alongside this, I intend a third book to be ready some time during the year. With luck, I’ll have it in shape before the summer. Whether there’ll be any takers is, of course, another matter.

Third and lastly, I intend to have completely revised one of my draft novels. I’ve plenty to choose from – about fifteen, I think, written over many, many years – and none really brought to fruition, which is a searing indictment of creative dilettantism.

There – now I’ve said it. There’s no going back now, is there?

Everyone’s got one, most are largely unread, and people like me only post to their blogs when they’ve something new to promote or to sound off about.

The long gap between posts happens because I’ve lost confidence in myself as a poet. Well, not quite, because I’m always going to retain a core of arrogant self-belief in my own abilities – but, in general, I’ve been trying to accustom myself to the notion that my work is never going to rise above the mediocre, other than in the occasional line, and that I’ve probably little to offer that will really excite or interest people. I can’t quite accept this, of course, but increasingly it seems to be the closest I’ll ever get to an objective assessment of my own work.

Which is hard to take, as I’ve been encouraged my entire life – and that’s not really an exaggeration – to think of myself as having special ability, as being “meant” for a high level of achievement. In truth, I’ve had a decent career, and certainly no cause for complaint in practical terms. Many people would be hugely pleased to have some parts of my CV, both as academic and writer. But, in my own eyes, I’m simply not good enough and, it would seem, am never likely to be.

I’ve had two recent successes – a pamphlet, Point Me at the Stars, accepted by Indigo Dreams (due early next year) and, just yesterday, winning the Sentineal Literary Quarterly poetry competition. Both these, of course, make me feel good about my work, but neither are the mighty accolades I once thought I might be worthy of. It seems to me I can continue to carry on at this competent, careful, middle of the road poets’ level, and almost certainly will, because, like most writers, I simply can’t resist the addiction of the pen. But I’m saddened to be approaching the last few laps of the running track, with no more than a bronze medal in sight. (I chose that metaphor deliberately, as my only success on the running track, as a schoolboy, was to breast the tape as winner in the final lap of an inter-school relay – I just managed to hold off the other boys, having, in my lap squandered roughly 200 yards that’d been built up by the rest of my team.

There’s an alternative to self-pity, of course, and that is to do something about it. In this case, the appropriate action would be to take some risks. After all, what do I have to lose now? Do something different. Shrug off the comfort of the easy achievement, and strive to make something which is radically original – yet still me. In a way, that’s the whole struggle, isn’t it? Trying to discover what it is that you’re trying to discover.