I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the process of ‘getting over’ creative projects when they come to an end. I’ve been preoccupied by endings because my latest collection, Little Piece of Harm, has just been published. The work is a pamphlet of fourteen poems (about 6000 words) which took me five years to plan and write. I say this upfront to highlight how slowly I worked on the book. This kind of productivity – hitting on average 1200 words a year – also hints at how difficult I found the experience of creating an extended narrative piece. But when I eventually discovered the shape that I wanted my writing to take, beneath the surface of it all, I found drafting the work was an immersive experience too. I have never been so absorbed by a long-term creative venture.
But what happens when the work is finished? Completing Little Piece of Harm felt like being locked out of the house that I’d made my own for over half a decade. The key that once turned the lock was a redundant flake of metal. I often wonder whether writers ‘mourn’ for books they have finished. I’m sure lots of authors are happy to be rid of work they’ve been sweating over for years – finding a readership being the rightful cut-off point for their endeavours. But underneath this imperative, do writers miss the passing of the thing they’ve been preoccupied with for such a long time? Certainly, after I published my previous collection Skin in 2015, I struggled with the finality of it all (in what amounted to presenting ten years of my work). In one direction, I was really pleased that my poetry had been published (and so handsomely too), but facing another way, I struggled with the space that was left behind – the lines I had to fill. To adopt another simile, I felt like I was caught in the wake of an ocean-going liner. Nothing seemed settled: lots of ups and downs. There was this strong movement, but I wasn’t sure where I was heading, if in any direction at all.
I suppose a number of things occur in the aftermath of finishing a collection. There’s this recognition of giving over (or giving up), of drawing a thick red line under what has been produced, and there’s also looking ahead: what happens next? The practical answer would be to just write, don’t think about it, just get on with the next poem, the next undertaking. But I’ve never found writing that straightforward. Fair play to you if you do. I’m in agreement with the Scottish poet W S Graham, who said: ‘What a mysterious, unsubstantial business it is, writing poetry. After one finishes a poem which seems to work one says Ha Ha now I’ll write another because I know how to do it but it is not so.’ Perhaps more fundamentally, how should one address this aftermath of silence if – post-publication – you believe you have nothing much to say there and then? As someone who has been writing poetry for nearly forty years non-stop this notion of holding back, of hiatus, isn’t such any easy ask. But I do reflect on how much I want to speak, make public, how much I want to share.
Recently a friend told me he was thinking of giving up writing poems. This is from a man who has been awarded various national prizes for his efforts, whose three collections, over a period of eighteen years, have always been lauded by reviewers. I’ve never nurtured a desire to stop this crafting of words, even at the lowest points in my creative life: I think poetry will always find me in the end. But I’m also in no hurry to fire out work either. I think it is interesting that we live in a culture that’s preoccupied with outputs at its core. Whether that is being involved in a constant conversation with the world on Twitter or having to fulfil objectives to qualify for the REF (Research Excellence Framework) at the institute you work at, it feels like returns, of doing something are key determinants of success. I think the focus on awards (and awards culture) is also a manifestation of this tick-box mindset too. And yet, if you prodded me, I would admit to admiring the stamina of writers on social media who are constantly in the swim of things. And to give you a little more context on research outcomes, at least the REF is over a five-year cycle – which doesn’t seem that draconian, does it? But I come back to this idea of slow-making as an intrinsic quality too – that a toleration for deliberation, reticence, shutting up should be given room in the collective mindset of the citizens of a wider artistic community.
I’ve always shown some interest in poets who take their time composing their material. The aforementioned W S Graham left a fifteen-year gap between the publication of his book The Nightfishing (1955) and Malcolm Mooney’s Land (1970). One story goes that his editors at Faber and Faber thought that this lack of productivity signalled that Graham had died in the meantime. The Canadian poet Elizabeth Bishop was famously a steady crafter. Depending upon which account you read, she is said to have taken somewhere between seventeen and twenty-five years to finish her poem ‘The Moose’. I was fortunate to interview the iconic English poet Thom Gunn in the mid-1990s. One of the things that Gunn emphasised was how little he had written over the past couple of years since the publication of The Man with Night Sweats (1992), widely regarded as his finest book. He said it was harder and harder to conjure up inspiration after the arrival each new collection. He went on to produce just one further book in the final ten years of his life – Boss Cupid in 2000 (he died in 2004). Before I turn all misty-eyed at the thought of publishing some exquisitely polished thing every twenty years, I see an opposite argument to this kind of approach too. Nobody is going to hang around in anticipation for my next dispatch. In the end, people just want to read poems, irrespective of whether they took a day or a year to write. The time spent over drafting a work is never date-stamped on the pieces we read, after all.
I suppose what I am arguing for is the right to say nothing. As writers, we shouldn’t be too hard on ourselves if words are passing us by (or we feel we don’t want to share our exclamations or whispers with the peanut-crunching crowd). I always think this circumspect approach means we can then spend more time on reading. Reading poems is why I ended up being a writer of poems, not the other way round. The pleasure of poetry (all types of writing) is being moved, surprised, baffled by a voice speaking directly to us from someplace else. Even on a slow day I must read or listen to ten poems or more, on top of engaging with other types of literature. What better way to immerse yourself than to hear other writers describing their encounters with the world? This is where platforms like Northern Gravy come into their own. This is a site that has an ethos of care for writers’ hard work. We click on each page and can read all these voices that want to speak to us, bring us into their conversations. In the end, the thing that inspires me the most to write is reading other writers’ prose or poetry. This week I’ll read, scroll down, click a link then read on.