Wednesday, 5 September 2012

'I Don't Call Myself a Poet'

This fascinating site was brought to my attention by Wayne Burrows the other day. A project run by Sophie Mayer. It's a simple idea, students are assigned a contemporary poet, they have to familiarise themselves with that person's work and then interview them. The interviews are fascinating and many of the poets interviewed are refreshingly frank and honest about the way they view themselves as a writer of poetry. This includes an impressive list of 68 writers with more to come. It's the honesty which really appealed to me, especially on the subject of publication, rejection and how writers keep writing. Jane Holland made me laugh out loud when she put it down to 'stupidity and egotism,' however, what becomes clear is that poets become poets because they can't actually stop themselves, not simply because of the kudos of awards and publication. They lap up other poets' work, they see value in a variety of different voices; poets writing at different times, in different languages, different styles and concerns. It becomes a labour of love, I once read Rilke's 'Advice to a Young Poet,' which I think would be relevant to an older poet, a middle-aged poet, someone starting out and someone carrying on. You might be getting my hint. Thanks to the wonders of the Internet I am at liberty to copy and paste this:

You ask whether your verses are good. You ask me. You have already asked others. You send them to journals. You compare them with other poems, and are upset when certain editorial offices reject your efforts. Now (since you’ve permitted me to give you advice) I ask you to abandon all this. You look outside yourself, and that above all else is something you should not do just now. Nobody can advise you and help you, nobody. There’s only one way to proceed. Go inside yourself. Explore the reason that compels you to write; test whether it stretches its roots into the deepest part of your heart, admit to yourself whether you would have to die if the opportunity to write were withheld from you. Above all else, ask yourself at your most silent hour of night: must I write? Dig inside yourself for a deep answer. And if the answer is yes, if it is possible for you to respond to this serious question with a strong and simple I must, then build your life on the basis of this necessity; your life, even at its most indifferent and attenuated, must become a sign and a witness for this compulsion.

On being asked 'What made you become a poet?' Carrie Etter replies in her interview:  'I never felt as though there were a decision or a choice.' Which sums up what Rilke says above. You do it because you have to. I regret having my 'nearly decade off' writing poetry in my 20s, because I decided to let other people get on with, I was going to get on with other things. It didn't work forever, I went back to it because I couldn't stop myself.

Many of the poets discuss the issue of 'truth' in poetry and I liked Maitreyabandhu's response. Incidentally, Maitreyabandhu is the writer of one of my favourite poetry essays, 'The Provenance of Pleasure,' which appeared in the Spring 2011 edition of Poetry Review. We forget that writing itself is a pleasure when we are bogged down with rejections, there is a higher pleasure, perhaps even a spiritual pleasure in the act of writing, but that's another blog post. Anyway, here's the quote:

The way to avoid sentimentality in poetry is to work hard at telling the truth. At the same time, we shouldn’t be so afraid of sentimentality that it stops us expressing any emotion in poetry at all!

My friend Roy Marshall, whom as you know is an exceptional poet, is very good at this. I sometimes wonder that there is an danger in being too clinical with a poem, as well as over-sentimental. Is good poetry more like a paper-cut? In terms of getting 'jolted' into understanding, even if you will never, ever go through the same experience as the person who wrote the poem you are reading.

I could go on, I really could. But I will stop here for the morning as my twins are doing half-days at school and I have not hung out any washing yet. At least I will have something to think about when I am pegging things on the line.

The site of course is here.