When I started writing poetry seriously about eight years ago (the day my younger daughter started school full-time) I didn’t have a clue what I was doing – other than trying to mimic my favourite poets of the day namely Billy Collins, Roger McGough, Brian Patten and Adrian Henri – I just needed to write.
I’d been a journalist before the kids were born and while they were at pre-school.
The pen/paper and keyboard/screen were my natural habitats. Practice – and immersing myself in the massive, unchlorinated infinity pool that is contemporary poetry – gradually pulled my doggerel efforts out of the trough and into something that magazines began to nod at (rejection letters that were handwritten with comments down the side rather than unsigned generics) and, eventually, publish.
Many things have set my poetry in motion and let it blossom and I’d like to give you an idea of where some of my inspiration comes from and what encourages me to go on.
1. Where My Ideas For Poems Originate
Ideas for my poems come from everywhere. I pick them up like bits of litter that glint on the verge and then I recycle them. Some of them I manage to polish to a sheen, some never soften from the lumpen state I found them in.
My attention might be snagged by the line of a song, a snippet of conversation, a weird thing the cat is doing on the rug, the shape the poplars are making in the wind that day – and I’ll jot it down quickly so I don’t forget. Sometimes I go out without a notebook and my hand is covered in biro scribbles when I get home – or, once, in scratches from a stone I used as a nib.
2. Poetic Themes I’ve Favoured
My own childhood, being a parent, love and domestic life were strong themes in my earlier poems, some of which appear in “To Know Bedrock”(pub. Pindrop Press, 2011).
Also in the collection is a sequence of poems about breast cancer, written while I was undergoing treatment, that explore the tissue-delicacy of life, our relationship with our bodies, their undoing.
Other poems were sparked off by travels (across Scotland, the Peak district and Morocco), newspaper stories, visual art, anecdotes, stories overheard and flights of fancy.
Probably the weirdest subject that’s found its way into one of my poems appears in Mouche Volante – these retinal floaters that drift across our eyeballs usually only visible with our eyes shut under a bright light…
There was never a particular idea or theme behind my first collection; I just kept completing more and more poems and eventually thought it might be a good idea to try and gather them together in the same room. We chatted, we broke bread, we drank too much wine, you know how it is – and by the next morning Bedrock was hatched.
3. Why Handwriting is Great
I’m a great believer in messy writing. My handwriting is appalling and even I have trouble deciphering it later on, but this throws up the possibility for all kinds of new creative combinations (trees in a line like sentries = trees alive like sundaes, that kind of thing) which can result in more interesting images than those intended.
Same with contact lenses, I should add, though that’s more of a choice – going out without glasses or contacts fuzzes up the world, turning it into something far stranger than reality or fiction, putting a spin on the old edict ‘new ways of looking at the familiar’.
4. Walking Gets the Creative Juices Flowing
Walking, particularly in hills or in other untamed places, is another ideas-generator, I find. The intellect, the critical mind, switches off – or at least slips down a couple of gears – when the body gets active. The brain gets to idle. (Idling being a much underrated element of creativity. Staring out the window is never a waste of time, but a vital part of a writer’s work – ho, yes.)
When we’re striding purposefully – arms swinging, heart singing, even if it’s just to Tesco – energy moves through the system, things shift, blocks lift. A bunch of exhausted muscles can set you wobbling and tip you right into that cool, clear source that creativity springs from.
5. Writing Retreat Liberation
I left Scotland 12 years ago to live in the south of France but I return every year and I think this gives me a stronger relationship with my home country than if I lived there.
The west coast of Scotland in particular is very rugged and beautiful, and every April I spend a week on the tiny, windswept island of Iona where I do a writing retreat with the wonderful Roselle Angwin, a zen practitioner with a deeply eco-spiritual ethos.
These visits have triggered a swathe of poems about wildness, the Scottish landscape, what it means to live away from our roots and the meaning of ‘home’. The relationship between land and body seems to crop up a lot in my writing: the natural world has a visceral effect on me. I’m constantly drawn to raw, uncompromising places and I think this is a mirror to some extent of a need to explore these things within myself.
6. Writing Schedule – If Only…
I don’t have a regular writing schedule and I’m in awe of those who do. I’m nowhere near that disciplined. I write when I feel inspired. I edit and fuss over drafts when I don’t.
A week or even two can pass without me having written a new word, though usually by that time a gnawing has set in, I start to get scratchy, and I know it’s time to get out my notepad and get it out of my system.
On retreat I’m usually prolific – with silence, solitude and unfamiliar surroundings I get into a zone where my skin tingles, my monkey mind topples from its branch and I become ultra-focused.
7. Harmoniously Embracing the Environment
Many of the poems in my next collection – currently doing the publishing rounds – are inspired by the natural world (I’ve been going through a Mary Oliver phase) as I become more and more drawn to the wisdom of our environment – its pace, its patterns, its rhythms which mirror our (often neglected) own rhythms, the way it doesn’t ask questions.
I live in a valley and every weekday I walk across a mountain to the village to collect my daughters from school. I very rarely meet anyone else on this path. It crosses a stream which burbles in winter, twists crazily down sculpted flumes of schist in spring and all but dries up in summer.
Dragonflies and damselflies zigzag across the pool below the ramshackle wooden bridge that someone once hammered together from fallen timber, and there is always some form of life in the water, however stagnant, thanks to the underground waterways. The path and its inhabitants have become my meditation on the passing of time.
It’s like writing poetry – there’s always something new to say, some form of life hidden below a leaf or just beneath the surface, even if we can’t see it due to our day-to-day familiarity with ourselves. We just need to stop, wait and watch. The source runs constantly.
8. Peer Support
Spending time with other writers – in online forums or on retreat – is great for support, feedback and camaraderie, though not something I do often. Being part of a writing group would be wonderful and if I lived near a city, I’d be on them quicker than a proofreader on a misplaced apostrophe.
Living in the arse end of nowhere in the French mountains however makes this a tad tricky – so a few years ago I decided to turn the tables and invite writers I admire and want to work with, to come out here at Abri Creative Writing, to run courses which ta-da, handily gets around this problem.
Last year I also took myself off to StAnza poetry festival in St Andrews for four days of readings, talks, workshops, exhibitions, open mic and cross-media performances – bliss.
9. Bookcase Full of Poems
My bookcase groans with poetry collections and journals that I subscribe to or have done in the past (Iota, Orbis, Agenda, The North and The Interpreters House are favourites). Poets I keep coming back to include Billy Collins, Esther Morgan, Selima Hill, Roselle Angwin, Catherine Smith and Neil Rollinson, all for different reasons.
Jo Hemmant’s debut collection “The Light Knows Tricks” is a startling recent discovery – I’ve known Jo’s work for a while but was unprepared for the breadth of knowledge and wit and humanity that sings from every pore of this collection. A sequence about Houdini and his wife Bess is stunning. If this book doesn’t win a major award I’ll eat my black woolen beret.
At the moment I’m reading Smith/Doorstep pamphlets by David Grubb, Emma Danes and Kim Laskey which were all winners in last year’s Poetry Business Competition – a varied trio, all hugely enjoyable.
10. Poetic Clarity
I like poems that ask questions instead of answer them, that throw something up for me to catch, that treat me as a friend or as a confidant. I’m put off by obscurity and abstraction. I like to discover something new in a poem.
I’m not big on poems that sprawl or perform acrobatics across the page – it’s just a personal thing – and I’m not big on long poems: it may be shallow of me, but if they can’t say what they want to on a single page, well, why not?
I’ve been asked to judge Grace Dieu Writers’ poetry competition next year, and these are some of the things I’ll be looking for among the entries. These and that spine-tingling, indefinable quality that makes you sit back and think, damn I wish I’d written that.
Where do your poem-ideas come from? Do you have any tips for drumming up inspiration? What helps you on your poetic journey?