15 December 2010

On Writing 2

NOTE: I've taken this from my old website (which I'm in the process of taking down). I wrote it in 2005...

Translating words into poems – or, How to start a poem

What it comes down to – translating a poem is like writing a poem, just you’re stuck with someone else’s idea and form.

What it comes down to – writing a poem is like translating a poem, just with more freedom. It comes in stages, blurbs of words that fall out of your head, on random scraps of paper. Then feeds into an idea, develops and festers in the back of your mind until one day, you sit to write the poem and out come words you never knew you had. Then the crossword begins – the shaping, cutting away excess, checking and rechecking word usage to make sure that every word has been chosen for its perfect meaning in that context, so that it expresses not just the one thing you want it to say in that line, that poem, but hints at all the other possible meanings that one word can have when it’s lined up in another, different string of words. So that when you say ‘intrigues’, you mean secret love affairs, and it’s obvious that’s what you want to say, but the reader also has the other, not obviously relevant meanings in the back of their mind. To make somebody curious, to use underhanded methods. Echoes of meaning. Giving depth to the apparently simplest poem, if you choose to look deeper. But even if you simply let the poem/words wash over you, these different meanings from other contexts will resound in the subconscious, giving that one word power.

So choose your words carefully.

Then there are the decisions to make, beyond the words. How should the thing sound? Like conversation? Like speech? A nursery rhyme or a song? No, this is not a decision you can make; this is dictated by the seed idea itself. The poem will flow when it is let, even for the most formal meter. It’s as if the mind already holds the poem in its entirety. And all you have to do is not fuck it up.

Decisions in a poem are: what to take out and what to leave in. How to guide the flow of words, through line lengths and stanza breaks. Where to take a breath.

The blank page, this is the scariest part. Better to have a load of crap words, something to follow, then look at that blank page and fear your mind will let you down. That you won’t be able to find it. Your mind, let alone that poem that trickled down from your subconscious at eleven o’clock yesterday morning, when you were too busy trying not to spill your tea to get the damn words down. So you trick yourself. Sit down with scraps of paper or an unattractive notebook and say, I’ll just scribble a few words down, just so it looks like I’m doing something. And later, days or weeks, you look back over these scribbles. Sometimes they contain a poem, to be teased out, or cut down and reshaped. Or a single line will spark a new flow of words, slipping out easy, like they’d just been waiting there to be released. These are the fun times.

The time to wait before final draft depends on the poem. Leave the words alone, in a drawer, underneath your socks. With other things you need in pairs. Don’t take the poem out until you’re certain you are no longer in love with the particular words. Till the poem seems not exactly strange, but simply a casual acquaintance. When a quick read will make the misplaced words glow, any insincerities stand out in bold. And rewrite, fast, before you can fall back in love.

And the poem is almost done.