All entries for August 2007

August 29, 2007

How to be Bad and How to Be Good

Part of all of us does not like writing, or rather does not like effort. We displace that dislike on to our circumstances or on to other people in an effort to throw responsibility elsewhere. Some writers make this a lifestyle, but it is hell for those around them, and their teachers. There are other choices, and effort becomes a lot easier and routine with practice. It ceases to feel like effort, and this allows you to go beyond yourself as a writer. You escape the banal traps of personality, and write beyond your intelligence.


How to be Good

Being good simply comes down to having routine and little rituals, and getting on with believing in your work. Begin by finding the place that best suits your writing, and make this your territory: ‘a room of your own’. It could be a garage, café, library, outhouse or the traditional study if you can afford such luxury. Work in that space, and reward yourself in doing so, in small ways. After a while, the mere act of going to that place will begin to trigger the routine of writing.

Find the times of day that best suit your writing process, but bear in mind that you will find this time changes as you get older: young night owls end up as middle-aged nine-to-fivers. Stick to this time, though, while it works. Again, find some small way of rewarding yourself for beginning work, and for putting in the time at the end. Practise this daily, until it becomes ingrained, and you miss it when you do not follow it.

Having worked in your space for a fixed amount of time it will be tempting to start taking breaks—ten-minute vacations from concentration (smokers are especially culpable)—but such breaks disturb and corrupt creative momentum. The novelist Ron Carlson puts it strikingly, ‘If you want to be a writer, stay in the room!’ I take it that you want a life, as well as a life as a writer. If you are not a Stay-in-the-Room-Writer, then your work will take very much longer, and you then have less time for life. One old trick of politicians and businesspeople is to snap the working day into two sections, separated by lunch and a catnap, allowing one to continue the second session with as heightened a concentration as the first. It yields two days from one. The enforced discipline (rather than a self-enforced one) is a strong attraction of creative writing courses in universities. They offer you a strict timetable for reading, writing and re-writing; weekly support and criticism; and they force you to stay in the metaphorical “room” of the course. You then take these enforcements into your own life.

Being good can mean simply reaching a word-count chosen beforehand. It is not the amount of time, but the kind of time and how you use it. Journalists pick up this habit as part of their job. Both Joseph Conrad and Graham Greene allowed themselves a relatively low daily word limit of writing. It is a pattern to imitate; it frees the rest of the day for experience and incubation. Many novelists and nonfiction writers set themselves targets. Writing The Origin of Species, Charles Darwin suffered a lack of discipline, so he set up stones in a small cairn on the sandwalk outside his study. Each stone represented a point Darwin wanted to make within a daily quota of writing. Each time he made a point, he knocked a stone from the cairn. Some writers find easy composition unnatural, but still force themselves forward. For the Irish poet W.B. Yeats, two lines of poetry a day represented a good effort. Gustave Flaubert often wrote thirty-five words. Given this constant daily accretion, you will find that books make themselves slowly and surely, like cairns, before your eyes.

Being good also means completing your task for the day, which you set the day before. Within your working day, try to complete a section of a novel or a piece of creative nonfiction, or take a poem through to its pre-final draft. Do not ask too much of yourself, but make practical targets and stick with them, and quit while you are ahead. Do not leave something uncompleted; it will call for you psychologically, goading you to finish. It is a good tip to complete some aspect of work, then think about what you aim to achieve the following day, even beginning the first lines or sentences of that new work. Go no further into it than as if you were unlocking the cage around it, but leaving the door still closed. You may now leave the next day’s work to escape by itself; and it will do so unconsciously. You will find it waiting at the end of your fingertips the next morning, having nudged the cage-door open. Writers often find it useful to warm up their minds at the beginning of a writing session by revising and rewriting the work they have completed the day previously. This form of self-reading reminds you of what you were doing, and where you might want to get to next.

Your regime need not be puritanical and punishing for this would have the opposite effect in the end. As you get more experienced, you should increase your word-count, and include a substantial amount of re-writing time to begin your working day. You should build in time for reading, for daydreaming, and for creating moments of receptive idleness. Dorothea Brande believed that reading immediately before writing was a bad idea, and that you should build in time for what she called ‘wordless recreation’. She does not mean that you stop reading as a writer. She means you should stop prevaricating, and leave yourself open for your own language to emerge.

How to be Bad

Being good requires a certain degree of ruthlessness, but the ruthlessness is directed at your own character, not at others. The error made by some writers is to exact silence and servility from those around them in order to affect routine and order. What they create may prove in the end to be good writing, but no writing is good enough to require other people to suffer for its creation. Also, any conniving of circumstances to bring about your downfall is your own creation, a kind of anti-creation and self-destructiveness.

Do not whine about self-inflicted wounds in your time and work. Write about them, if you must. The corollaries of any inertia on your part are that no writing will get finished, and what writing there is will suffer in quality because it has received insufficient time and attention. Without a routine, the times when writing seems “given” will decrease or become erratic as your fluency stutters from lack of practice, and submerged guilt.

As any such creative moment arrives, should your discipline have been lax, anxiety can lead to panic. Literary panic is an estranging emotion. Like literary envy, it has physiological effects on the body and mind, leading sometimes to immediate action or, more often, to a disabled sense of skill, hopelessness and helplessness. The self-made wound becomes septic. Leave it and it will fester, and bring disappointment down on you, as you grow older, blaming everybody else except yourself for your lack of progress (or even success).

This is what psychologists term a kind of “learned helplessness”, and it needs to be confronted and understood as an insidious self-enemy, as you would if it were an addiction (for in some ways, for some writers, failure, like acclaim, is addictive). You must fight yourself by staying in practice, and knowing that you have only yourself to blame if you do not succeed. At least you and those around you will know how hard you tried. At least you might write from that experience.

August 03, 2007

Poetry Chronicle 11: Geoffrey Holloway

Siobhan and Gabriel

Double Vision: Spring

The cat among the grasses nodding as it sniffs —
like a new-bathed infant shaping for a kiss.
The swans opulent, their bulrush-furry throats
ringed, rippling, with filamented light.
Shadows that are swallow-blue, yet brittle-clear,
that match the trespass of chrysanthemums released
by lancing heels of divers whanged from trees —
and all along the towpath the spun rod,
the dainty float cavorting in the sun.
To have eyes. To see.

The stagnant salmon like a crippled submarine
leprous in the shallows by the dripping arch —
a bone-white mouth insensitively working,
a quiet stammer, hung with sentences of death.
What was colour, kick and phallic exultation,
that shook the stream with the torpedoes of a myth,
laid-up like David for a chit of useless warmth,
like sunken David (that prodigious king)
for a stone tribute, a buck’s delinquent sling.
To have eyes. To see.

Geoffrey Holloway was born in Birmingham in 1918. His early years were spent between Liverpool and Shrewsbury. Before the war he worked in the Shropshire County Library, then in 1939 he went into the Royal Army Medical Corps, serving in a field ambulance, a general hospital and, later, in 225 Para Field Ambulance, dropping on D Day and over the Rhine. After the war he went to Southampton University, emerging with a qualification in Social Science. He then worked in a mental hospital, as a Prisoner’s Aid Society agent, and from 1953 to his retirement in 1983 as a mental health worker for Westmoreland then Cumbria County Council, where he lived in the same village, Staveley, for over forty years. He was one of the leading spirits of the group called the New Lakes Poets that included – among others – Norman Nicholson, Dorothy Nimmo, Jacob Polley, Peter Rafferty, David Scott, Christopher Pilling, Neil Curry, Patricia Pogson, William Scammell, M.R. Peacocke and, for three years, myself.

However, Holloway was not some local poetic hero. He began to publish poems nationally as early as 1946, contributing to the Times Literary Supplement, The Listener, Encounter, London Magazine, Yorkshire Post, PN Review, Poetry Review and countless other small magazines and anthologies. He was also an intensely active and visible figure in the small press scene for many decades. In some ways you could say that he embodied that scene – moving between the mainstream and avant-garde with dexterity; developing a mastery of formal and free verse, of demotic as well as a classical syntax; and oscillating between the sublime and realism in subject and theme.

What was always consistently right in his work was tone. This was all his own, and his integrity of feeling and response was the heart of it. His many subjects included the memory of war, the consolation and difficulty of love, and his alert responses to the natural world. With W.S. Graham, his exact contemporary, he was one of the most distinctive voices in twentieth century British poetry, with a genuinely gifted ear for the music and the movement of language.

Readers recognised and responded to his gifts. Between 1972 and 1997 Holloway published twelve collections of poetry, including the book that established his reputation, Rhine Jump, a Poetry Book Society Choice in 1974. Rhine Jump is an astonishing book which still yields a huge energy and alertness in its language. Subject-wise, it feels like a massive gamble made by a poet who did not wish to speak much about his war experience, but could no longer resist the ghosts trying to speak through him. The honesty and humility in its tone makes the book very distinctive and necessary within our own time. It is still one of the best places to start reading him.

Geoffrey Holloway died in October 1997. He was mourned by his many friends and admirers, by fellow poets and dedicated readers – his books were cherished by those who possessed them. Holloway’s reputation as a poet quietly increased as more and more readers and writers began to realise not only how much they missed his presence, but how much they missed the poems that made a small magazine worth reading because it had Geoff’s poems in it. After his death, Holloway’s poetry also became important to some poet-critics. He occupied a similar critical position to W.S. Graham. That is, his excellence was in danger of oblivion through simple neglect. Like Graham, Holloway needed critical champions. Not only that, but many readers also voiced the necessity for a Collected Poems, for Holloway’s work to be offered to generations of new readers.

Therefore, when Geoffrey Holloway’s widow, the poet Patricia Pogson, contacted me with a view to editing his work, I could not have been more honoured. Geoff had been exceptionally kind to me when I was making my way as a young poet and scientist, looking at my early poems and suggesting reading. To my mind, he was, and remains, a poetic exemplar. What I then set myself to do is read, digitise, and then check every poem from every volume published by the poet during his lifetime. These included more easily available volumes such as All I Can Say from Anvil Press (1978), but also cyclostyled and stapled pamphlets with short print-runs such as Percepts Without Deference – Holloway’s bold attempt to write contemporary English-language poetry within strict Welsh verse forms – from the fugitive press Aquila (1987). Patricia also photocopied poems that had appeared in magazines but were unpublished in volume form, and sent these along to me for consideration and scanning. She forwarded other poems she considered substantial – including the delightful ‘Migrant’ dedicated to his friend the poet Gerda Meyer which features as the final poem in this book (see my main blog for this poem).

In some ways, the easiest part of the project was over once the book was edited – for publishing a Collected Poems is itself a greater feat these days than putting the poems together. Before his death, Holloway had complained to me about the problems and pitfalls of poetry publishing in the United Kingdom. The haphazard nature of the enterprise had caused him to migrate from press to press. He knew also that, although that poetry publishing had its difficulties, when you made that leap into publication, getting the British poetry world to give notice to the output of any small, independent press was nigh-impossible. Faber, Chatto, Secker and Oxford University Press were the sleekly visible part of a small but skewed market in the 1970s and 1980s, and there was worse to come.

By the mid to late 1990s, if poetry were a species, it would have entered the red list. Bigger publishers dropped their poetry lists or shrank them to a trickle of slim, overpriced volumes. Prominent poets, once published by the big houses, were forced to seek out new habitats within powerful specialist presses such as Carcanet and Bloodaxe. However, one of the unpredicted and unpredictable results of this cultural shockwave was the subsequent rise of independent small publishers, and an increasing sophistication in their publishing and marketing methods – not least through the use of websites and print-on-demand technology. New presses such as Arrowhead Press, Salt and Heaventree began to occupy some of the ground left by mainstream operators, and show them not only how to do the job better but how to keep their stable of poets in print. I suspect that Geoffrey Holloway would have been wryly amused to know that his Collected Poems is now published entirely within a renewed – if still penniless – independent sector, and again by a specialist press in the North of England.

When I was scanning his poems into my computer, a letter to me from Geoff fell out of one of the books. In that letter he voiced his desire for more pleasure and challenge in contemporary poetry. As he put it he wanted ‘to hear poems by folk who speak personally, directly, lyrically if you like. One to one.’ We no longer have the pleasure of Geoff’s company, or the delight of any new poems, but we do now have the pleasure of this book which contains all of the pieces he published. Personally, directly and lyrically, this book returns him to us, one to one.

_The Collected Poems of Geoffrey Holloway _edited and introduced by David Morley are published by Arrowhead this Autumn.


That month the weather launched into brilliance,
a sun-blitz, ridiculous.
Our Field Ambulance was stood by
when they started to leak down the road,
a bizarre May Day Procession:
kids on scooters, tethered goats,
carts so jerrybuilt with chattels they lurched.
I remember girls in furs gnawing lumps of spud
and a woman with a white handkerchief
whose eye was red jelly.
Two cloaked poilus sat a Renault roof.
And nuns passed (maybe paratroops disguised).

Stukas had been their closest neighbours:
a machine-gunning yowling sound-track
sealing off the impossible past.
Now all they could do was move;
anywhere, so it was further off.
But quite a few spoke, some good English,
some pidgin — like the whores we’d known in Lille.
And more than one wished us luck.

Later, in an empty house,
we found a blackbird, caged.
Left as a talisman perhaps, to say
this wasn’t really happening?
Or, with the backhanded cruelty of the victimized,
lust left?

And we, did we let it go,
to fly with shrapnel, sing for worms?

Dead questions. Soon buried.
Like Belgium, France.

Words of Thanks

Patricia Pogson – now writing as Patricia Holloway – was central to the making of this book. Neil Curry prompted the project, read the pre-final manuscript and made helpful comments. Roger Collett and Joanna Boulter at Arrowhead Press bravely took on this book for Arrowhead Press. My thanks are also due to all the individuals and organisations who have helped, especially colleagues in the Warwick Writing Programme and the Department of English and Comparative Literary Studies at the University of Warwick; to my wife Dr Siobhan Keenan with whom I discussed the poems and the various drafts of the book; and to Michael Schmidt for his encouragement with the project at a time when I thought it might not succeed. Finally, I acknowledge all Geoff’s publishers for their generosity in allowing us to print these poems. Their names make for a roll call of great independent publishing. Anvil Press. Aquila Pamphlet Poetry. Arc Publications (on behalf of Littlewood Press). Crabflower Pamphlets. Enitharmon Press (on behalf of London Magazine Editions). Flambard Press. Free Man’s Press. Grand Piano Editions. National Poetry Foundation. Redbeck Press. To those saints of the small press, thank you.

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