How I put The Art of Falling together
In May 2012 my first pamphlet If We Could Speak Like Wolves was published by Smith/Doorstop. Having the pamphlet published felt completely different to having my first full-length collection The Art of Falling published by Seren in April 2015. For a start, when the pamphlet was published, I didn’t stop writing. It felt like I was just getting started with working out what I wanted to say. From what I remember though, I didn’t carry on writing poems with the aim of getting a collection together. I just kept writing. When I had what I thought were enough poems, I started to make a list of the themes I was writing about:
I put these words into bubbles and then drew a line to link each poem up with a word, sometimes two words, sometimes three. For example, the title poem ‘The Art of Falling’ would link up with the theme of ‘Falling’ but also with the theme of ‘Relationships’. The poem ‘Chet Baker’ would link in with ‘Music’, ‘Falling’ and ‘Famous People’. Some of my theme words had less poems linked to them, and although I didn’t sit down and think ‘Right, I need to write more poems about music’ I’d argue that noticing it helped me write what I needed to write.
I sent the list out to friends who made suggestions, some of which I took notice of, and some of which I ignored. I took poems out and then put them back in. I spent afternoons spreading the poems out on the floor of my husband’s office, trying them in different orders. I read the whole thing aloud to my husband on car journeys and re-ordered it all again. I must have spent a year doing this, inserting and removing poems. I felt that I was getting somewhere, but that there was something missing. I couldn’t put my finger on what.
At this time I was taking part in The Poetry Business Writing School. This is a series of intensive workshops over a period of 18 months tutored by Peter and Ann Sansom. Each month the group would meet for a workshop and in between we were put into smaller groups to email poems to each other and comment on each other’s work.
One of our tasks on the Writing School was to write a sequence. I resented it and remember going home sulking, thinking I don’t want to write a sequence. I have no interest in sequences. In fact it irritates me when people say this is a sequence. The whole time I was writing poems for this task, I was telling myself it wasn’t a sequence, because I didn’t want to write a sequence. It was only when I got seven or eight poems in that I had to admit it was in fact, a sequence.
This sequence was harrowing. It was difficult to write, and even more difficult to show anybody, or read aloud, or admit to. But by this time, I knew this was the heart of the collection. This was what had been missing before.
Now, looking back, I can see that I’ve been trying to write these poems for years, ever since I started writing. The first version was a sequence called The Bionic Bride which was as weird as it sounds. Thankfully, only one poem was published from this – a monologue, published in an issue of Iota. The next version of the sequence was included in my MA portfolio. This version was very autobiographical, very confessional and much too raw to publish. The third attempt is the sequence ‘How I Abandon My Body To His Keeping’ as it now appears in the book.
Now I’ve written one, I love sequences. For me, a sequence is something you’re obsessed about that is so knotted together you can’t write just one poem about it. It is something large, so large that if it was a physical object, it would take days to walk around it to see it from every angle. Poems in a sequence are a way of seeing this object from different viewpoints. Sometimes I wrote from inside it, with just a tiny shaft of light coming through its walls. Sometimes I wrote from underneath it, the whole dead weight of it pressing down on me. Sometimes I wrote while pushing against it, to see how far it would flex and move. Sometimes I wrote with my ear pressed against its walls or with my eyes screwed up tight. Sometimes I wrote about it without even being near it, from another country, from only my memory of it.
Even though I’d been writing about it for years, I’d been avoiding really writing about it. Now was the time. The sequence dropped into the collection like a foot slipping into a shoe. The other poems shuffled around and rearranged themselves and settled down with a sigh.
Of course, it wasn’t that easy. For a long time I thought I would try and publish the sequence as a pamphlet. I’m relieved I didn’t now, as I think it would be unremittingly dark. While I was still thinking through all of this, I went to read in Cardiff at the XX Literature Festival, run by Amy Wack from Seren. Even though I turned up with a terrible cold (and by terrible I mean streaming bright-red nose from having to blow it every five minutes, constant coughing and generally feeling like I was going to fall over) Amy was really welcoming and kind. I stayed at her house and she asked if I had a manuscript yet for my collection – she’d expressed an interest back in 2012 when my pamphlet came out, but at that time, I didn’t have half a manuscript, let alone a finished one. Now, I was almost there – I had enough poems to fill a book and then this sequence that I wasn’t sure exactly what to do with.
I sent both to her and it was Amy who said the sequence needed to go into the collection. Working with Amy has been amazing and has really been a masterclass in what an editor should be able to do, which is to be able to step back and look at the whole book and help the writer make decisions about its shape. Amy did make suggestions on individual poems and after a bit of dramatic throwing myself on the bed in despair, I have to admit that 95% of the time she was right.
The title of the collection changed from ‘A Psalm for the Act of Falling’ to ‘The Act of Falling’ to ‘The Art of Falling’. Amy and I sent each other pictures and paintings of people falling for months and months until she found the fantastic painting by Nicholas Stedman which is the cover of the book. The other lovely thing about working with Amy has been her enthusiasm and support. I didn’t realise that having a collection out would make me feel quite so insecure and Amy has never swerved in her belief in the book.
During the year that I spent editing and re-editing the book, I stopped writing. It felt like carrying a dead weight around with me. The day the first copy of the book plopped through the letterbox I was off to run a residential course in Grange over Sands. I carried it with me on the train and read it cover to cover. Is reading your own book cover to cover a bit sad? I don’t know. Then I slept with it under my pillow. That is definitely sad.
The other thing that happened the day the book arrived was that I got my writing mojo back, although I worry that I’m writing what I call ‘hangover’ poems from the book. I’m currently writing a few poems about my dad’s life as a scaffolder and trying to convince him to ask his boss if I can be Poet in Residence at his company (so far he is holding out on asking but I have every confidence I can wear him down). I’m also writing a sequence called ‘All the Men I Never Married’ which is great fun to write but is not just about ex-boyfriends, although quite a few of them are. I also wrote ANOTHER wolf poem the other day. Ian Duhig gave me some very good advice when the book was published which was to get on with another project. I wouldn’t say the new poems are as organised as being another project but they are enough to get on with for now.
I thought having a book published would be a kind of ending. It was something to aim for that often felt like it wouldn’t happen at all. Now I have a book out, I’ve realised it’s not an ending at all, but another beginning. Two poets I’ve met who have had their first book published told me about reviews their books had received which were so bad that they were advised by their publisher or friends not to read them, and they didn’t. I don’t know if I have that level of self-control but it does highlight something that isn’t talked about very much, maybe because people are embarrassed about the feelings which come with it, which is the difficulties that can come with having a book published – the possibility of bad reviews, or no reviews at all, whether it is or isn’t on a shortlist, or being noticed, or selling well.
I really enjoyed Robin Houghton’s recent guest post on envy and my mantra is always if I feel envious, read. If I feel disappointed, read. If I feel ignored, read. By read, I mean other people’s poems of course, and remember those funny/terrible moments in the life of a poet which are sent to pop our fragile egos and remind us not to take ourselves so bloody seriously.
Last week I was halfway through reading a poem to a group of young people and was interrupted by a girl running in to ask for help as her friend had stabbed himself in the leg by mistake with a plastic knife by walking into a wall with it in his pocket. (I should hasten to add that I found out the following week that there were no life-threatening or even mildly interesting injuries). Then another girl who had clearly been dragged there by some well-meaning teacher asked if she could go and ring her mum in the confusion of the plastic knife episode. Whenever my ego gets too big for my own head, I think of that wonderful moment, the teacher running around looking for her phone to ring an ambulance, the girl using the opportunity to escape, and the thick and heavy silence after the rescuers and escapees had left and I looked at the six remaining teenagers and they looked back at me.
Kim Moore is a poet, musician and writing tutor. Her pamphlet If We Could Speak Like Wolves (Smith/Doorstop, 2012) was shortlisted for the Michael Marks Poetry Award. Her debut collection The Art of Falling has just been published by Seren Books. Her Sunday Poem series of blog posts is essential reading. She can be found on Twitter as @kimmoorepoet.