When I visit schools to read and talk about poetry there is often some sort of Q and A following the reading that I give.
I increasingly feel that this is the most important part of the visit because it gives me a chance to say what writing is like for me and how I go about doing it. This is the only time I permit myself to talk about it. To anyone. So the answers are as much a surprise to myself as I hope they are to my audience.
I can usually guarantee that one person will ask ‘Where I get my ideas from?’ I say I have no idea, and they aren’t ideas but phrases which are more like impulses made of words.
Even more likely these days is the question about how much money I earn and am I famous (not much, and no). Which is lucky, I say, because I am not in it for the money.
Depending on the size of the group, their age and experience of writing, these answers, while true, can come as a bit of a surprise.
I then try to turn it around to the much more exciting business of what goes on when I am alone in the room with a bit of paper in front of me.
These are some of the things I have heard myself say over the years:
• Writing poems is, above all, a process which we embark on without knowing where we will end up or what may come out of it.
• That the results of this process are sometimes pleasing to us and sometimes not, and that even when they are not we go on doing it anyway.
• That many of us have drawers full of half-finished poems, scribbled notes on backs of envelopes and workbooks crammed with interesting words and phrases which never made it into a completed poem; and that this is normal and fine.
• That we sometimes do not know how good or bad our writing is for a long time after finishing it. Sometimes our recognition of its worth depends on someone else liking it, sometimes on the passage of time, and sometimes we just know we are pleased with it, even if we don’t know why and even if no one else likes it. This is also normal.
• That our drafting process does not always progress in an organized, linear manner. Sometimes we give up on poems and come back to them months later when we see them in a new light. Very very rarely we are lucky and write something at one sitting. Sometimes we write forty drafts over six months and still give up on it.
• That some of us have tricks we rely on to get us going like always getting up at 6 a.m., or having jazz on, or using a LAMY fountain pen, or French notepaper, or sitting at the kitchen table; but that we don’t have so many trick as to stop us from writing when we need to in a hurry, like on a train.
• That sometimes we sit down to write and we write nothing. We play around on the internet for a bit. We make a cup of coffee. We scratch. We find it impossible. Sometimes the words come back to us immediately and sometimes they don’t. This is normal as well.
• That we love poetry for the way it can break rules, for the way it can appropriate almost any other kind of writing and still be poetry, and for the manner of its telling being as important to us as what we are saying.
• That we love reading poetry. That without these voices validating our own experience first we would not have started writing.
• That part of what we are doing as writers is opening up a conversation between ourselves and the reader about the things we think are important. Poetry is one of these important things.