Excerpts from a reading journal, 2008
I found an interview with Zadie Smith where she said it’s imperative for her to read top quality writing while she’s in work mode: ‘I’ll take a look at your teenage brother’s poems when I’ve finished the novel.’
JB said that poems set up the rules of how they’re going to behave very early on, poems instruct us on how they want to be read. He advised that it’s easier to write from one tone or voice than attempt shifts and juxtapositions. Also, poems can often be improved by chopping off the ending. Is it possible that my coveted endings are already in there, just a stanza before that great drum roll and the silence that follows, waiting for applause?
DW proposed that writer’s block can actually come from having too many things to write about and not knowing how to narrow it down and make the first mark on the page.
JB talked about how narrative drives a poem on with plot, especially if you don’t have great language. He said that sometimes he doesn’t feel like a real poet because he’s not baffling enough. He tends to choose words that are flatter and more common, out of a fear of being too ‘poemy’. James also talked about liking ‘cheap tricks’, such as mentioning something at the beginning of a poem, having lots going on so that the reader forgets about it and then bringing back the original detail like a trump card at the end. You can see this at work in his poem ‘The Truth About Love’. Another favourite trick of his is to shift tenses so that suddenly the reader is in the present and it’s 50 years on. DW proposed that the baffling aspect of JB’s work is the question of who is speaking. James said this is the number one critical question in all poetry.
Sharon Olds! I’ve found her! So far, everything I’ve read of hers I love. I started with Satan Says. What a title. The cover. This shiny yearbook red with black calligraphic script and small, leaping Lucifer figure. The book is divided into four sections, Daughter, Woman, Mother and Journey. The writing inhabits. I literally feel it as a living entity working away inside my body viscerally, psychologically, subconsciously. I feel haunted by her poetry, just as she seems to be variously haunted by the events of her life. That’s another thing, I just assume that most of the poems are autobiographical. Recurring characters and themes, an interwoven emotional authenticity. This is part of the thrill. She’s not just naked in front of us, she’s spreading her legs, holding a hand mirror and candidly pointing out every nuance. I spoke to Hinemoana about this and she recalled hearing an interviewer segue into talking about Sharon’s book The Fatherby saying, “So, you’ve written this book about your father,’ and Sharon replied, ‘It’s about a father,’ as if to say, ‘I’ve written the book, what more could you possibly want from me?’ That’s something I can relate to. It doesn’t surprise me that as a reader my curiosity hankers for the author to tantalisingly feed me details from their life. Yet, when it’s my writing in question, I’m finding I don’t want to say anything other than what I’ve put on the page. It’s unavoidable though, the parallels people will draw between your writing and you. Take Christian Bök – he’s supposedly sparing us all from his un-illuminating personal life and yet all we really seem to hear about him is how obnoxious he is, or whether or not he’s some sort of high-end autistic. But. Sharon. The endings. Always packing the coveted punch that somehow seems to bring everything that swam loosely in the liquid of the poem into a tight fist. Leaves me reeling every time. This morning I startled the bus, reading the sixth perfectly ended poem in a row and exclaiming, ‘for fucksake!’
A great reading at Lembas from Geoff Cochrane. Made me go up afterwards and buy the book. 84-484. I sat there delightedly jotting down phrases: the way he described a pair of $2 shop sunglasses as ‘slittishly repulsive’, walking beside the ‘ginger-gravelled’ railway line and on the state of his digestive system, ‘I shit two rotting, mucous covered rats.’ ‘Life is an old grey movie screened on the granite wall of an asylum,’ really suckered the punch home after the pantoum-like effects of the rest of the poem, ‘The Death of Socrates’. He arranged that one by drawing it out of a hat, line by line. At one point he drank from his second small glass bottle of fizz and said, ‘I don’t know if this is the right thing or the wrong thing – this Coke.’
At the beginning of After the Dance by Michele Amas, there is this quote from Erik Olssen:
‘We are as we find ourselves because that world once existed.’
That’s right on the money with the impulses I’m writing towards. A wanting to know, or at least to explore and question, those lines that led to me. The other day in class Bill said:
‘Find the way to something that you didn’t know about, that matters to you.’
Perfect. It makes me think about the need for a process to revive history. To re-imagine and relive what is known into what is unknown. I bore myself when I write about what I already know. Surely, this would bore a reader too.
Write towards the difficulty.
I admitted to James that I’ve never loved anything I’ve written enough to want to read it out loud. We noted that because our class is having a reading at the National Library in a month, this is a problem. James seemed somewhat alarmed by my revelation and tried to help me identify why I feel this way. We hummed over it for a bit and eventually I held up The Unswept Room by Sharon Olds and said that it was hard knowing that my own work is not as good as the poetry that I love. By this time, James had his head in his hands; he was rocking back and forth slightly and howling, ‘I know! I know!’
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Samiha Radcliffe has just completed the MA in Creative Writing at the IIML for which she wrote a collection of poetry. She currently resides on the Kapiti Coast.