Facing up to what you really don’t want to try, by Elizabeth Kay

When I’m wearing my tutor hat, I blithely tell poets that they’ll gain a lot by writing short stories and learning about narrative and structure. I tell short story writers that their dialogue will benefit enormously from writing a script. And I tell scriptwriters that having a crack at poetry will hone their language skills. I also tell students that the form should fit the idea – some ideas are too long and complicated for anything except a novel, others too short for anything other than flash fiction. Some are too visual for anything other than a stage play, others too sound-based for anything but a radio play. But it wasn’t until I read Manifold Manor, by Philip Gross, that the point of poetry sank in. At the end he says, “Really, the difference between poetry and prose isn’t to do with lines and rhymes. Ordinary prose can tell you what has happened, but poetry can make it happen to you now.”
            For decades I was terrified of poetry. It all seemed so incredibly technical and difficult. I didn’t see the point; I wanted to tell a story. So when I did my MA I made myself face up to this and do the poetry module, even though the scriptwriting one beckoned as I’d already had five radio plays broadcast. What’s the point of doing a course if you don’t learn something new? I struggled. It hurt. I came to realise that this was something I had to actively learn; with prose and playwriting I’d been able to just launch in and have a go, and it seemed to come naturally. I hated maths at school – learning about different verse forms and scansion and feet seemed remarkably similar. However, the more I tried things out the more interesting it became, and I realised that the point of all these verse forms was that each one taught you something different. You found out what you didn’t want to use, as well as what you did. Eventually I had a chapbook of poems published, called The Spirit Collection.I discovered different ways of doing things - for example, tiny little ideas could be encapsulated in a Triolet:


The quetzal - resplendent,
But oh, it’s elusive -
Jurassic descendant,
The quetzal; resplendent.
On luck you’re dependent
To see it.  Reclusive,
The quetzal resplendent,
But oh, it’s elusive.

A feathered seduction,
Virescent, exotic -
No words of reduction,
A feathered seduction.
My final deduction?
A symbol quixotic,
A feathered seduction,
Virescent, exotic.

The quetzal - national bird of Guatemala, revered by the
Aztecs and Mayas as the god of the air.
Manifold Magazine, summer 1999

Bigger ones in something as superficially tricky as a sestina:


It comes in June, this stirring of the blood.
Beneath the surface tension, root-laced mud
Has hatched a clutch of creatures keen to learn
Some elementary facts.  What makes them turn
From water to the whine of wingbeats?  Die,
Asphyxiated, drowned?  No way!  They fly.

From crusty nymph emerges - dragon-fly.
Its abdomen shines crimson, fresh young blood
For mating on the wing.  I watch it turn

From overcooked to rare; how did it learn
To leave the cold security of mud?
To really live, its old self had to die.

To hit the heights, old habits have to die.
I’ve pondered long on this - I’m full of fly-
Weight theories; yet, it seems, my blood
Runs cold as ice at each and every turn
With fishy facts; there’ll be new tricks to learn.
And so I, dreaming, stick here in the mud.

Leeches have a strategy for quitting mud.
They have to find a host or else they die -
For on their own they cannot jump or fly.
But I’m not after someone else’s blood -
The concept sucks; and so I, sanguine, turn
To further study.  It’s the way I learn.

The tadpoles bide their time, they have to learn
To leg it to the lilies from the mud;
Before they make it, many of them die.
I know that frogs are not equipped to fly -
But leaping through the air is in their blood,
True flight denied me, that would serve my turn.

A bottom feeder now, but when I turn
Into my final version, scared I’ll learn
The lingering viscosity of mud
I’ll cast my skin, I’ll let fate throw that die
Selecting sink or swim or crawl or fly -
But will I be the same old flesh and blood?

It chills my blood, this carping in the mud;
If only I could learn to morph, my turn
Would come - and do or die, this fish might fly.

1st prize, Cardiff International Poetry competition, 1999.

As you can see, eventually I did manage to come up with something that was worthwhile. But one of the things I learned through writing it was that a lot of poems need to be started at the end, rather than the beginning. In a sestina, which is what the poem above is, the six words at the ends of the lines are repeated throughout in a strictly determined order. If you want to make it more difficult for yourself you make them rhyme. But because you have to fit all six into the final three lines, it’s best to write the end first. The other thing that stops those six words hitting you like a sledgehammer is to find ways of incorporating them into well-known phrases or sayings, or multi-syllabic words that can be cut in half. There’s a really good website here that gives examples of all the different verse forms and the rules that govern them, and some of them are available for the Kindle.

            Of course, it may be genres rather than forms that you find yourself avoiding. I’ve had a go at science fiction, fantasy, historical, erotica, and humour… but I still can’t write a detective novel or a thriller, despite attending a number of forensic science courses. Yes, I know all about blood splattering and cyber-crime and poisons. I think I’ll just go and write another fantasy…


Enid Richemont said…
I love this post. Discipline, working to a brief or a word count, produces such amazing work, and I love/hate/resent/am exhilarated by it when it's imposed on me.
Elizabeth Kay said…
Me too! Thanks, Enid. I like deadlines, and feel lost without them.

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