Confessions of a Metrophobe

3rd Mar 2011

Confessions of a Metrophobe

For those of you who can’t quite believe that metrophobia exists, it does: it’s a fear of poetry, and I consider myself a metrophobe. I participated in For Books’ Sake’s recent visit to the Poetry Library, and it got me thinking that with all literary eyes on poetry (Carol Ann Duffy’s appointment as Poet Laureate; poetry collections winning recent literary prizes; Jackie Kay’s recent piece about poetry in the Guardian), now might be the time for me to overcome my fear.

Sophie Mayer is a published poet (amongst other things) and she graciously agreed to let me in to her processes. I wrote a draft of something I could call a poem (which you can see above) and Sophie gave me a lesson. We met in her office in King’s College and started by talking about poetry.

What we talk about when we talk about poetry:

SM: When did your terror of poetry begin?

JD: Once I stopped studying it, when I no longer had an academic context in which to make sense of it. Once I felt I no longer had the tools to ‘read’ it. Do you think poetry is inherently terrifying?

SM: There’s a tradition of poetry that’s identified with the decorative and frivolous, something for the wealthy and well-educated to engage in. But that’s bollocks. When we’re children, poetry is probably the first thing we made when we made art.

But it isn’t easy: like anything worth doing, it’s difficult. But the way I talk to students is to tell them: ‘You learned how to speak and that was difficult. You didn’t stop and think “I don’t have the tools”. You made mistakes, played around.’ And the best poetry reminds me of that process of learning to speak, learning new words and ways of putting them together.

So much experience, so close to home:

SM: You write short stories, where you know that y has to follow x, but as a poetry writer you can take away that prop.

JD: I question why I’m so comfortable writing short stories and it’s exactly that: I know where I am, I know what needs to happen. I’m used to doing what human beings naturally do to make sense of experience – we narrativise it, so it comes more naturally, it’s more instinctive for me.

So now I’m interested in going the other way, taking that prop away, not giving myself or the reader what they think they should have, giving a more primal response to something.

We were working together when my mum died (on Sophie’s book, The Cinema of Sally Potter, which I edited). Whilst I always knew I would write about it I presumed it would be as fiction, but actually a poem seemed more appropriate as I still try to make sense of the events. I had an idea – my mum’s death – and I narrowed it down to something more specific. Is that what you do when you choose a subject?

SM: I work in both ways. Generality and peculiarity are not that different – they’re just different ways of looking. What interests me about poetry is that you can shift the scale more than in fiction, go from – to use a film term– the extreme close-up to the establishing shot. It’s an intimate way of speaking.

JD: The intimacy is more frightening. I’m getting more scared of showing you my poem because it’s revealing something of myself that I could pass off as not me if it were short fiction.

The most profound part of her death was the time I spent sitting with her body in the funeral home, and the things I put in her coffin. That’s where I decided to start.

SM: At significant times we turn to poetry because it allows a clarity, lets us say things that can’t be said in other ways, we’re open to the power of words in a way we’re not when we read fiction.

JD: You’re still processing an incredibly difficult event and poetry provides a refuge because it’s instant and alive and you don’t have to worry about what happens next.

SM: When someone dies, nothing happens next. You can’t make sense of death and language loses its meaning. Poetry can help replicate that loss of narrative: you think about ‘my mum’ and that phrase used to mean a living being that you had a connection with, and when that changes, that’s when you hit the scary territory of poetry.

A small, good thing:

I read my poem aloud to Sophie – she encourages this as it allows the writer to hear something in the language. Her initial approach was to ask me what bits I liked: I identified the opening and the piece about my own birth.

Sophie then started to identify patterns in these sections: the use of colour (the cerise of the box, the red of the birth) and images of weight (the coffin, the objects, the newborn child).

She suggested I decide how to build on these patterns by linking colour to certain images, or developing the notion of weight in other ways. For her, the process of editing is how we find the meaning.

As I had picked the final lines as my favourite bit, she suggested I think about turning the poem on its head, and starting with this:

SM: Rather than relate it as it happened, which is the way you would tell it in a short story, plunge us in.

JD: I’ve just written a short story, really, haven’t I?

SM: The poem’s between two poles – the death and the birth – and it’s giving the tension of speaking to someone as though they are there, and they’re not; and you could begin by giving us that privileged moment of you speaking to your mother.

And because that last bit is more like fiction, long lines on the page, you could think about line length and number of words and syllables and look at grouping words together.

We picked on another favourite phrase: ‘No breath/No teeth’:

JD: It says what I felt; after weaving in and out of different line lengths I think the shortness here has a resonance. Plus I was very pleased with the ‘th’ sound, like I’d written something in a proper poem!

SM: The phrase has clearly identifiable things: rhyme, rhythm and repetition. There’s this list of objects and then the final truth: no breath, no teeth.

This is death, an echo of something that’s not there. The repetition of ‘no’ reminds us that death is a negation. One temptation is to veer off into the abstract and symbolic, like something from the Victorian era, which has influenced our ways of thinking and talking about death.

But ‘No breath/No teeth’ is amazing because teeth are the motor of the Freudian life impulse: we need them to eat, to speak. You bring us back to the body, in this strange exchange of gifts.

Will you please be quiet please?

JD: I’m in it so much it seems to be more a poem about me. I gave you this. I did this. I said this.

SM: It is a poem about you.

JD: But really it was supposed to be about my mum and a specific experience of her; a way of coming to terms with her absence by putting her back in her chair, even though – with no breath, no teeth – she’s in a box.

SM: Then you could look for ways to give more of a space to her, more of an address to her. What would it be like if you began with the word ‘you’? What if you used the objects more to tell her story?

In poems you can make counter-factual statements, change tense, use objects to set her up as a ‘lived’ person, suggest them obliquely or in a more concrete way. That’s easier to do in poetry than in fiction, because poetry readers are more prepared to go with different levels of reality, guided by your language.

After some final tips on observation exercises (writing down specific observations of things you see or hear; creating vivid memories), coming back to focus on alliteration, word patterning, assonance and poem arcs, Sophie said:

SM: This poem is not in any way terrible. Apart from the last line.

JD: Yeah, it’s shit isn’t it?

Mercifully, that last line didn’t make it onto the page you see here. And so we ended:

SM: Are you still terrified of poetry?

JD: Less so, because now I have something to work with. As we said, it’s now a job of work; it’s in the editing.

SM: You’ve done the scream; now you have to clear your throat and decide what to do with it.

Jacqueline Downs