How I Write… Gallery poems in Southampton

During my May visit to Southampton, my writing residency mentor Matt West, with his clear-sightedness, suggested an idea for this project blog that hadn’t occurred to me but which made perfect sense. He suggested I write an explanation of the process I’m using to make the poems that are the writing outcomes of my residency.

I’ve spent time arriving at the process I’m using to make these poems. It’s become ingrained, having already structured a set of poems (Art Talk Notes) which I began two years ago. I hope that laying out my method might, as Matt mused it would, offer a helpful way in to the poems for readers/listeners.

The series I’m writing for John Hansard Gallery is provisionally called Gallery Notes. The reason ‘notes’ is in the title of this and my earlier series, is because my first step for each poem is to choose an event at the gallery and write notes during it. When I’m making the notes I mostly write continuously, allowing whatever I’m thinking about – whether it’s things people are saying, or things occurring by association in my head ­– to stream onto the page, at the speed I can write at. My objective while doing this is to not worry about the appropriateness or relevance of what I write down. I try to get material down on paper, and there’s a hope that I can use my embodied presence – a thinking body in the space – to make myself into a recorder, one that acknowledges its subjectiveness, of the event. So this stage of writing can be a splurge. It usually is. I will edit these notes at the next part of the process.

Here’s an example of one of the pages of initial notes, shown exactly as I took them during Sampler Week at the Gallery in February 2018:

Next, I type the notes up. I use the text contained on one written notebook page as the basis for one stanza in the resultant poem. This might seem arbitrary, but actually, I notice that there is a sense in which the page of a notebook works for me like a frame of an image: I squeeze thoughts within its boundaries. But when breaks happen because the limitations of page size means a subject runs over to the next, I find it formally enjoyable to play with how much I break or distort the original sense around those breaks – a bit like when you have add one bit of clay to another, and the new whole retains a sense of possible fracture around the join.

Here’s the previously shown page of notes as it appears in the final poem version:

Generally, as here, the stanzas shorten down from the amount of text available on that initial notebook page. I smooth down the wilder of my associations and leaps as I go, threading a line of thought through the original text that’s now more concerned with how I might examine the underlying interest/pertinence in what I was getting down. At this stage I think about the overall scope of the Gallery Notes poems I’m writing for John Hansard Gallery and I find it exciting how the text can shift and shudder into place during these edits, joining up to make a sense that I wasn’t conscious of when I was doing the initial flow of note-taking.

Finally, I title the individual poems with the name of the origin occasion, its location and date, so that the final poem signals back to the place and time from which it was taken.

 

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