Currently, my mind seems as empty of poetry as the teasel head is of flowers. But I am used to the emptiness, and the idea of “writer’s block” is not something that particularly bothers me.
Recently, a friend said she would sometimes take “as long as eleven hours” to write a poem. She is a skilled writer, with many small prizes and multiple publications to her credit, so this clearly works for her. But her writing seems to be more methodical than mine, and I gather that she works on each piece diligently until it is complete before starting the next one.
This is not at all the way I work.
When I have an idea, I tend to keep it in my mind and worry at it for a few days, playing with sounds and connections, and working on metrical phrases as I go about my daily life. I don’t think I’ve ever lost a poem at this stage: even if it isn’t quite a constant companion, it drifts in and out of consciousness, it merges with the rhythm of my walking, and the places I go, the things I see and the words I hear feed into it.
Eventually, I reach the stage where I feel I need to write something down in a notebook, and some kind of draft gets jotted down, often among work plans, accounts and to-do lists.
I may continue working on the poem immediately after writing it down, or abandon it while I get on with other things. Sometimes these fragments can be left for weeks or months, either in the very early stages or as half-drafted poems, at which stage they may have been typed on the computer in documents with provisional titles.
Unlike my friend’s poetry writing, my word-worrying isn’t always a serial process: there may be several ideas all vying for attention at more or less the same time.
The advantage of this method is that the current lack of poetry in my mind is not a reason to fret, as I know I have scores of notes and unfinished scraps. When I have finished some of the other work I should be doing, even if I haven’t had any new ideas, I can leaf through an old notebook and choose a piece to work on.
I’ll make more notes on paper and probably type it up and print out the latest version or two to see how it works on the page (each document preserves a string of older drafts). The piece will become active in my mind again and I’ll find it’s there with me in the supermarket and at the bus stop; I’ll work on it again for a few days, or maybe a week, then perhaps I’ll file it away again when other work demands my undivided attention.
Maybe, just maybe, I’ll get to a stage where I think it’s finished. But the time I’ve spent working on it before that happens is far more likely to be eleven months than eleven hours.
And now, for those who’ve made it to the end of a rather prosy post about non-serial poetry writing, here’s a brief cereal poem:
after the harvester
the fields’ neat autumn fashion: