The Writing Process Blog Tour

Me by Ruth Radcliffe, drawn at The Drawing Factory, Barber Institute

Me by Ruth Radcliffe, drawn at The Drawing Factory, Barber Institute

Thanks to Sarah James for inviting me to take part in the blog tour. Her post on her writing process is on http://sarah-james.co.uk
I was asked four questions and here are my answers:

1. WHAT AM I WORKING ON AT THE MOMENT?
I’m researching the Sculpture Trail on Birminghan University campus. I’ll be doing a workshop about it in June http://barber.org.uk and I’ve become interested in writing about it myself so I’m looking at archive material in the university’s Collections department. My idea is to write a double sequence, one of poems about the specific sculptures and the other about me walking around the campus. The poems about the works will be more formal, probably with each having a specific constraint, because the works are constructed, while the personal ones will be less structured. I’ve just reviewed TalkingVrouzby the French poet Valerie Rouzeau and I’m quite taken by what she does with sonnets, which is pushing me in the direction of writing it, loosely, in sonnets. I like writing sequences, partly because publishing pamphlets makes me regard them as a significant and rewarding form for poets to engage with, partly because a lot of my poems are short, and they benefit from the cumulative effect of a sequence, and partly because I like the opportunity to write about a topic from many angles.

2 HOW DOES MY WORK DIFFER FROM OTHERS OF ITS GENRE?
I can’t say that my work does differ except in the sense that everyone’s is unique. What characterises my poetry is that I like to write in response to stimuli that are external to myself and over time, taking advantage of opportunities that have arisen, that has led me to specialise in writing about art and heritage; I think the term ‘documentary lyricism’, which I’ve seen applied to some other poets’ work, describes quite well what I do. I’m keen on putting poetry into public art and on display through poetry trails and the like because I want it to reach a wider audience than regular poetry readers – one of my proudest moments was when Laura Yates, then Co-ordinator of Northfield Arts Forum, got poems from a trail I’d curated on display in Argos. Being Writer in Residence at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts has been brilliant for me in that it has offered so much to write about. Because so much of the poetry I write is ekphrastic, I’m interested in the challenge of writing about art. Ekphrastic poems shouldn’t just describe the artworks because it’s easy enough nowadays to find out what just about any piece looks like from the internet; they should aim to offer another dimension to the artworks and make a connection with even readers who haven’t seen them. For me, the highest ideal of ekphrasis is to make poems that stand as works of art in themselves, which is what I’m always striving for.
Though I hope all my poetry is authentic to me, I don’t think it has a distinctive voice, because I’m open to writing in whatever style or form suits the subject from traditional fixed forms to modernist and experimental.

3. WHY DO I WRITE WHAT I DO?
I’m on the run from the ‘I’. When I have difficulty writing poetry it’s often because I’m reluctant to use the first person singular, except in a character voice, and ultimately find it hard to believe that anything I write about myself is likely to be interesting to readers, though this is odd because I don’t find good, personal poetry by other poets uninteresting to me as a reader. As I write this, I’m beginning to think that maybe my sequence about walking on the campus should address my relationship with ‘I’. That’s why I like to write in response to things external to me, though of course there’s always an element of the personal in any poetry, even if it’s not overt, based on the choices you make.
When I first wanted to write, which is as long ago as I can remember, I didn’t see myself necessarily focusing on poetry, but it has come to be at the heart of what I do. I like the linguistic challenge of writing poetry as well as the emotional distillation. Poetry is my work; I consider teaching, mentoring, publishing,putting on events and helping people with dementia to have a voice all to be part of my artistic practice and I don’t feel I would be able to do them successfully if I weren’t in practice as a poet myself. I have written other things though – for example I’ve had short fiction published and written an unproduced screenplay – and I am currently quite keen to work in other genres, in particular radio drama, creative non-fiction and writing about writing poetry, so I’m pleased to have a place on this year’s Room 204 writer development programme with Writing West Midlands http://www.writingwestmidlands.org

4. HOW DOES YOUR WRITING PROCESS WORK?
The best writing for me is required writing, as commissions or part of a project or something I’ve set myself to do, because it’s usually clear to me what I have to do and when I have to do it by, without too much dithering about what I’m going to write about. I have techniques for getting myself started which arise out of my conviction that constraint stimulates creativity, so I’ll often start by writing my notes in a short syllabic form (I also think that if you’re writing poetry you should start by writing poetry; beginning in prose adds a layer of work). Or I’ll use a process from Oulipo, such as a lipogram. I love Oulipo, but more for generating text that I can develop than as an end in itself, though some of my finished poems have hidden constraints. I never depend on inspiration just coming, though it’s wonderful when that happens, and I don’t spend too much time thinking before I write. In all genres, I find that ideas come in the writing; I’m a kinaesthetic thinker and learner so the physical act of writing is important to me. I mostly write either on my iPad or my phone now. I have problems with writing by hand because my handwriting is awful, though not wilfully so. All my life, at school and at work, people have criticised my handwriting as if it was a choice and I could write well if I wanted to when they have no idea the anguish it causes me. It’s often even physically uncomfortable to write by hand but still I sometimes prefer to do it that way. Like most writers I know, I love stationery and I want to write with lovely new pens in beautiful notebooks, even if it’s a struggle to read it afterwards (though that can lead to happy accidents when misreading leads to a better word). I prefer to write poetry in short bursts than long stretches, which is good because though I do a lot of writing, the creative part still doesn’t get as much time as I’d like.

I’m now passing the baton on to Julie Maclean, and Heide Goody and Iain Grant. Julie is a poet who was shortlisted for the Crashaw Prize. Her debut collection When I Saw Jimi was published in 2013 and an e-chapbook You Love to Leave in 2014. She blogs on http://www.juliemacleanwriter.com. Heide and Iain write humorous novels together. They are currently writing novels three and four in a comedy fantasy series. They are both members of Birmingham Writers Group and they are both married but not to each other. Their blog is http://mrclovenhoof.blogspot.co.uk/

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Flarestack Poets Competition Event at the Ikon Gallery

Flarestack Poets Competition Event at the Ikon Gallery

With the support of Writing West Midlands, award-winning Birmingham poetry press Flarestack Poets launched 3 new pamphlets at the Ikon Gallery, with readings from the winners of their 2012 Pamphlet Competition, David Clarke (Gaud) and Nichola Deane (My Moriarty), as well as from some of the poets represented in the competition anthology, Sylvia Is Missing, including Oliver Comins, Michael Conley, Claire Dyer, Jacci Garside, Roy Marshall, Janet Smith, Michael W. Thomas, Charles Wilkinson and Madeleine Wurzburger.

This Blog Receives No Public Funding

Everyone’s aware, and fearful, of the drastic reductions to come in Arts Council funding, starting with the requirement for Regularly Funded Organisations to reapply over the next few months.  It’s obviously likely that many important forces in literature will be hit and may well disappear altogether. The purpose of this post is not to suggest that the government demands the banks pay back what they  owe us, with interest,  out of the revived profits taxpayers have funded.  No, leave that for another time.

Most poetry in the UK – small presses, magazines, workshops, readings, performances and the rest – receives no public funding and depends on people who run all these for nothing except the price of a glass of wine at the end of the evening.  Or not even that.  Perhaps it’s wrong to give your labour for nothing but the thrill of offering  readers and audiences access to poetry you consider to be important, but we can’t deny that there’s very little money in poetry, except for a select few, and that if the voluntary publishers, producers, entrpreneurs and of course, writers, the ‘poetry activists’ decided to turn mercenary, there wouldn’t be much poetry.  I’ve rarely heard anyone in this position complain how hard it is to work for no financial reward, except to bemoan the limited amount of spare time their day job allows them, though it’s unlikely that they would turn down an income for what they do voluntarily, particularly if it enabled them to do more for poetry. Poetry Bites at the Kitchen Garden Cafe receives no ACE funding – I’ve never applied – and just about breaks even. The Making Poetry workshops received a small grant this year and are also supported by Birmingham Libraries who give the venue for free.  Flarestack Poets raised its own start-up  funding by launching with a pamphlet competion which obliged the two editors to read in their spare time, for two months, as many poems as the editor of  Poetry Review reads in a year. By giving so much of their time for nothing, ‘poetry activists’ keep their prices low  and poetry accessible. In an ideal world,  ACE would hunt out and force money on the small presses, the popular readings and local workshops rather than dishing it out to  unwieldy national organisations which charge twice as much for their products in spite of constant transfusion of public money.  But they won’t because economies of scale make it more efficient for ACE staff to tick the boxes of a few large institutions – which tend to be in London – than hundreds of small ones. 

This is not to say that bodies which do receive funding are necessarily unworthy of it. Far from it, when public support ensures the continuance of so many festivals, publishers and the rest and also demonstrates that the state values the arts, if not quite as much as street lights. Certainly there’s nothing wrong with anyone making a good living out of the arts.  But the problem, which  is exacerbated by the current widely publicised apprehension about funding cuts, is that consumers of poetry  tend to assume that all presses and organisations receive funding. Maybe it’s hard to believe that anyone would give so much for so little material reward.  But as a result, many potential audiences and buyers don’t realise that the £5 they spend on a reading or £4.50 on a pamphlet is crucial to the survival of the event or the press. There’s a danger that they’ll spend that small sum on a cappuccino and a cupcake instead, cushioned by the belief that ACE will keep the presses and the events afloat.   It’s time to expel  this misconception and to make poetry lovers aware of the crucial need for their support. When you receive a grant from ACE, you also get instructions on publicising their generosity – printing the ACE logo, thanking ACE in acknowledgements, mentioning their benificence in interviews.  I propose that those bodies who receive no funding (and there will be many more in the future), publicise this   assiduously.  From now on, I intend to put the strapline THIS EVENT/ORGANISATION/PUBLICATION RECEIVES NO STATE FUNDING at the end of  any publicity I send out about my activities, and mention the fact, frequently and loudly whenever I talk about then.  If anyone cares to design a NO FUNDING logo (distinctively different from ACE’s) I’m sure many of us would display it with pride.  When I was at school, every day I heard the line from the prayer of Ignatius Loyola – ‘to give and not to count the cost’ – which seems to have become the motto of those of us who do so much for so little to keep poetry going.  So  let’s stop being self-effacing and diffident and remind the beneficiaries of the true costs, which are not just financial.

And now for the advert. The good thing about all this is that it doesn’t cost much to support small, unfunded poetry organisations and it isn’t charity. For your money you get a book, a reading or a workshop and the satisfaction of knowing you’ve made an important contribution to literature.  Flarestack Poets depends entirely on sales to continue producing beautiful volumes by leading and emerging poets such as Selima Hill, Cliff Forshaw, Mario Petrucci and Laura Seymour. We even published the Michael Marks Pamphlet of the Year.  Check out our new subscription offer £20 for five books and the satisfaction of knowing you’re making a contribution to literature.