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.

Advertisements