30 November -0001
How Returns Turned Up
I've just 'signed off' on the proof of my collection, Returns, the majority of which was scribbled, written and edited over this last year. In fact, all of it was written and edited this year, but a few of the poems were scribbled before; seeds that were waiting to sprout.
'Signing off' feels strange. There's an old saying, which goes, poems are never finished -- only abandoned. I wasn't abandoning these poems, but there was a time scale to delivering the collection, and there are a couple of pieces in Returns (Twig! and the Drought sequence) which part of me wanted to keep for a little while. They were finished and I was happy for them to go, but I wasn't ready to say goodbye. I weigh this feeling against the focus that a deadline gave me. There's a healthy pressure, much needed here, as I can tinker endlessly with poems. One day a line requires a comma, the next a dash, then a comma again.
I never really let go. I lied, in the first paragraph - not intentionally. It was true in my head when I wrote it, but there are three previously published poems in this collection. All three were 'finished' when published, and all three were edited slightly, a line change here, a better word there, before joining this collection. They are better poems now. Again, that's not entirely true - But the Moon Must Be Found remains exactly the same as in its first publication with Ink, Sweat & Tears (http://www.inksweatandtears.co.uk/pages/?p=12354). That said, the original version was published under the name Simon McCormack, whereas Returns is being published by Headlight Press under the name Si Mack.
The reason for pointing out the above 'little lies' is that (for me at least) my writing is littered with them in all their wiliness, or should that be wiles, and the whole process of writing a poem can be seen as reducing the sense of it to some notion of 'true'... and 'true' here can mean true to themselves, true to their rhythm or music, true to an event, real or imagined, and this can be coupled to the 'true' on Monday, but not on Wednesday, or even 'true' when I started reading the poem, but not by the time I finished it.
My favourite poems knock my block off because in some way they are true, and in some way the truth of the poem strikes me. It's nebulous, the truth, that kind of truth, but that's what I want when I read, and what I try for when I write. Granted, this is subjective, a poem that hits me hard may well swing wildly and miss for another reader. Discussion is good.
One of the most interesting challenges when putting this collection of poems together was, are they true to each other? Kind of like putting bass, melody and rhythm together as a tune, or drawing individual instruments into an orchestra, or channeling Simon Cowell when he has a moment of genius and turns five solo artists into a boy band (maybe not that last one, last analogy that is, not boy band).
I digress, in order to ask the question, I had to work out where they (the poems) were coming from, and where they were going, or rather I had to consider along those lines across a number of poems simultaneously. Or maybe even, how did each poem listen to, or understand, the others? It felt a little like sitting on the beach, looking out to sea, and trying to guess which distant swell would produce what type of wave. Luckily, despite moments of thinking I'd cracked it, and moments of feeling I was cracked, I enjoy this type of thing.
This was very much in contrast to my first pamphlet A History of Scraps. Those poems were biographical, and centred in a more concrete landscape of alcoholism and violence. It was relatively easy to see the poems connect as a whole.
In Returns, I hope, identity is a more fluid animal, and the poems explore transformation through loss, or look to transform loss in some way. Identity exists in the movement. Two of the central images/engines of the collection are 'echoes' and 'bodies of water' and consequently the poems also look at containment, be that a bucket, a bowl of soup, a body being buried, or the body of a poem.
For months, while compiling Returns, potential poems were blu-tacked to a wall, to two walls actually, and then eventually three. This became my sea. I stared at them lots, sometimes talked to them, moved them about, and scribbled notes in the margins. If I'm honest, haha, I had no idea how a 'poet' was supposed to go about their business (in terms of producing a collection). My previous pamphlet was written over the course of an MA at Bath Spa University, and by necessity was grown in a folder and tended to with weekly workshops. Without the need to stay organised and drive poems 'up the road' I was free to store them in a way that suited my writing now. I discovered I loved looking out to sea.
The 'wall' became a big part of my creative process, and is definitely something to keep. I'm looking at it now. It's empty, but I've written a poem earlier tonight that will go up tomorrow, and I have a promising scribble in my note pad that may well graduate to the wall in the near future. Which is how Returns began: daily scribbles and free-writes, some of which became poems, which I hammered on for a while before printing off and sticking to the wall.
I enjoyed the sense of building that came as poems were added, and as more poems came along I found myself organising them. There were three groups, the 'nearly there' group, the 'need some work' group, and the 'something here I like, but really you're just taking up space' group. As new poems arrived, and older poems were rewritten, they would move about from group to group, being promoted or demoted depending. I felt I had the beginning of a collection when I had to start taking poems off the wall in order to put new and better ones up, and of course the first to come down were the 'something here I like, but…' poems, which reminded me of the 'kill your darlings' dictum.
Here as well, the collection began to take on a shape. What I had written began to affect what I was writing. I was considering the wall every day, getting comfortable with it, on occasions walking in from the bathroom while brushing my teeth just to check a word. I guess I began to form a relationship with it as a whole. It's quite strange to talk about this, but for example, at one time I thought there were three or four 'voices' up there, so for a while I wondered whether they were in conversation or if they were separate from one another, and further were they really different voices or instead different aspects of the same voice? What even constitutes a voice? As well as these considerations of style and tone, diction and syntax, musicality and rhythm, I began to see the ideas of repetition and echo emerge, as well as various bodies of water. Soup seemed to feature quite often, an image from one poem would reappear in another, or images from two or three poems would recombine in a fourth.
I'm very grateful to Artfulscribe and Do:Write for funding my work as the Writer in Residence for West Howe, and on the back of that I was offered a term teaching as a Visiting Writer at Arts University Bournemouth. Both roles kept me honest in terms of what I read, and why I read, throughout the year. By 'honest' I mean both jobs demanded a clarity around the basics of Creative Writing which I could communicate to a workshop group. I tried to find good poems that highlighted techniques, and produce fun exercises to engage students in their practise. One of my private maxims is 'teach to learn' - it reminds me to stay open-minded. An example of this being my approach to form. I try to write a few examples (for myself) of a form in the week or two before I teach it, to feel out the practical difficulties and subtleties, in the hope that I'll be better able to give feedback or instruction. The group though is always capable of surprise, exercises can be turned on their head, new paths found.
Form wise the collection contains quite a few sonnets, not classical, but more experiments with the fourteen line, single stanza unit. There are also pantoums and a villanelle, which lend themselves to the experience of echoes. Along with these there are more organically formed poems, prose poems, flash fictions, and a three-part, short story/prose poem.
It took me about ten months to go from an empty wall to a wall full of poems I was happy with. Then came the process of typing them to a 'finished poems' folder. I could have simply renamed the folder they were already in on my laptop, but this was a good opportunity to edit, and with a deadline on the horizon there was more attention and focus brought to the task.
I took all my poems down from the wall and began. This step reacquainted me with work from earlier in the year. I was surprised when poems I'd considered dead certs for the collection collapsed in this part of the process. I think that these poems were revealed as darlings, almost hidden darlings. They looked good, they sounded good, they meant something to me at the time they were written, but as I set about them they became more and more insubstantial. Thankfully this didn't happen to many poems, three or four I think.
Following this I had to sequence the poems, so I printed off the 'finished' folder, and put the poems back up on the wall. With History of Scraps I'd found sequencing incredibly difficult. I grew up with the raving generation and sequencing has always reminded me of a DJ choosing how to mix a set, and my 'go to' poetry collections always have a flavour of this. I think with Scraps I simply did not know my 'vinyl' well enough. When it came time to sequence Returns I knew what to play and when, and if you'll excuse my mixed metaphor, I think it was down to the hours spent staring out to sea.
One of the last things I did was give the collection a name. Again, this came reasonably quickly. I can't remember any of the names that suggested themselves before I settled on Returns.
There are three main reasons I chose to call the collection Returns: I always return to the top of a poem after I've read it, and I played with that idea with a number of the poems, trying to give a circularity to the reading experience. I wanted these poems to continuously transform as they were read and re-read, to somehow hypnotise through continuous movement, to transform towards the last line with the first reading and at the first line with the second. In my head I pictured these poems as water cycles. Another reason for Returns is that an echo returns to the ear, always changed by its journey, and that idea had played its part throughout, both in individual poems and in the way they echoed each other. I hoped that an image from an early poem in the collection would echo again in in the reader's ear in a later poem, connecting the poems, creating tension to the journey, highlighting the space travelled. And lastly, though you can pick any starting point for a body of water be it a spring, a river, or a raindrop, it will always at some point, return.
I'd like to thank Artfulscribe and Do:Write for the opportunity they gave me this year. There has been structure and kindness, feedback and encouragement, and the opportunity to develop through work I love. I feel I've grown as a writer because of it.