Magma’s third National Conversation Event: Peel & Portion organised by board members John Canfield and Ella Frears opened up a fascinating discussion about the poetic process and different attitudes to drafting, editing and when a poem is considered finished.
Poets Kathryn Marris, SJ Fowler and Rebecca Perry in conversation with Patrick Davidson Roberts revealed their individual approaches and showed examples of their poems that had gone through several drafting stages, sometimes spanning years.
Kathryn revealed that she writes her poetry straight to computer and believes that typing on a keyboard as much as using pen and paper develops neural pathways to the poem.
“I don’t like writing by hand anymore. You can’t tell how long a line is and can only hear it. Visually it is very helpful to type directly onto a laptop and see how the lines relate to each other.”
Titles are not a problem.
“I get the title immediately and it normally sticks. It’s an inspirational thing and not something I worry about.”
A poem may begin in its life in free verse but may suggest form during a redraft. As an American, Kathryn enjoys using form to look back at traditions of English poetry for the dynamic it gives her poetry.
“Forms can offer a power of directions for poems. They can be great for the imagination. Every form suggests some different intellectual impulse.”
The poem Will You Be My Friend, Kate Moss? is in blank verse and iambic pentameter.
“Some choices are made for the rhythm. It has a ditzy voice that’s not mine. The poem became more and more fictional as it goes along. None of the facts were true. A ditzy American thing in an American metre. I got the humour to where it wanted to be.”
Sometimes it is easier to see the direction a poem might take if it is not your own.
“As a teacher, I may say to a poet, ‘this poem wants to be a sonnet’, but it took ten years before the poem Demon became a sonnet. It shows you can write a poem after 13 years of failing with it.”
Sometimes a particular line or passage can be enough to make you persist with a poem.
The first line in Demon, ‘Good news, said the doctor. It’s a demon,’ had this effect on Kathryn, who started the poem in 2002, revisited it over the years and finished it in 2015.
“Something charmed me in the first line,” and sticking with a poem but leaving it alone for a while can help with editing by giving the poet fresh eyes.
“Enough time had passed to become my own reader.”
Steven said that people associate his work with the experimental or the avant-garde and his approach to drafting is thought-provoking.
He says there are seismic questions about drafting and it is important to establish why you are drafting, and to question assumed ideas about what drafting means.
Moving from a creative idea to creative choices to what ends up in print “is almost always instinct,” said Steven and that instinct is contingent on thousands of factors, many of which, including mood are beyond the poet’s control.
“The traditional notion of a poet is a theological notion to knock out golden words. My mode is a democratic process for people to pick up or not,” said Steven whose practice includes a range of ideas and his drafting process is not done with the aim of reader acceptance, which is not a radical idea in the art world.
His process also accounts for the reader because every poem is understood uniquely.
“All language is new when subjectively finished by the reader who brings new notions to what they read on the page.”
Steven’s impetus is not to create new insights but to create an experience.
“Everything we do and write is built through the experiences we have. A small change to a Shakespeare text would make it my own.”
The emphasis on the reader to engage and complete the poem.
Drafting and editing is not focused on a retrospective justification, where “we look back at a decision made in a moment and assign meanings”.
Steven doesn’t overly-focus on individual poem titles, but “goes really mad over collection titles as they are symbolic of whole periods in my life”.
Rebecca normally writes straight to her laptop but her poem Dear Stegosaurus began in a workshop so began its life on paper.
“I write very quickly and change around one word.”
If she is struggling with a title, Rebecca will open the Bible and put her finger on the page at random. If she is not happy with a title immediately, she said she will “probably never be happy with the title”.
Her poems make room for the reader.
“I care about presenting a piece of language that creates space for people to finish it off.”
The element of freshness and a sense of a poem being alien to its creator is important.
“Nothing pleases me more than coming back to a poem which feels like I didn’t write it.”
Clarity is not an overriding obsession for Rebecca.
“I enjoy things that are obtuse because life is obtuse and confusing. Gut reaction is more valid than an intellectual understanding.”
She said her reading affects her writing and she will turn to collections by favourite poets for inspiration.
When she is struggling with a poem she finds it is often the beginning or the ending.
Her views on workshops are they can work at certain times, but not always.
“80% of my poems were workshopped to death. I took them into the Poetry School class and it was really helpful in lots of ways, but for the last chunk of Beauty/Beauty I needed to be by myself completely. The last five poems no-one had anything to do with.”
She is not an obsessive re-drafter.
“I’m more of a lay it down and leave it person than a refining person, which is the opposite of the perception of what a poet should do. I work hard at the beginning but I don’t pick at it. It can just make it worse, like picking at makeup.”
Layout can change with re-drafting. Poem in which the girl has no door on her mouth “moved from a sprawl to a poem with more white space.”