Sunday, 14 December 2008

Bad week badder week. Wednesday 10 December 2008

How to write about this without sounding surly and malevolent? When I told my proper writer friend that what I am aiming for is candid she suggested choosing the most truthful or relevant details and leaving the rest of it out.

Last week of first semester, poetry week; we started with a workshop led by Jeremy Over on compiling poems with words and phases cut out from other pieces of text as in William Burroughs of the Beat Generation. This was fine.

Then on to discussing our poems from last week; I thought I’d heard an Oscar Wilde quotation to the effect that, ‘no friend is as good as a new friend’. The premise being that when you take up with someone at work or a class or wherever - initially you imagine you’ve lots in common. As you get to know each other better, and maybe in different contexts disparities become evident. I wrote a poem called New friends are the best friends, using four examples of this breakdown; it included the person you only meet at the pub so you think you’re both really witty and entertaining until you meet in the sober light of day and realise how dull you both are, and the friend you imagine you’ve everything in common with until you meet her partner (who she is devoted to) and find he’s a vile tyrant and a bit of a racist. In essence friends don’t always travel well; and I’m not even talking about going on holiday with people - that’d be a epic not a poem.

I joked to Jenn last week that I couldn’t comment on Skating to Antarctica having a novel's structure and tricks because I’ve only done life writing and poetry this far.

The way feedback works in the Poet’s class is you listen, everyone says what they like about your poem, and then they say what they might change and then you can respond. Frankie uses a similar system (nice things then a criticism) in her primary school and terms it 3 stars and a wish. I’ve genuinely never known what to expect in terms of feedback but I really didn’t see this one coming. We stood around the poem and stared at it like it’s a huge washed-up jellyfish, mostly dead but still capable of nipping. People poked it with their sticks, listlessly turning over the edges but not saying much. Two people mention they had first though it was about our group; it wasn’t but I understand why they might infer that. Then the itdoesn’tdoitforme person enumerated what didn’t do it for them – Oh, we skipping the 3 stars and capering straight to the wish then? This clears the way; the poem needs structure, imagery and inventive language and it raised issues around Is a poem a poem because the person says it is. I reel, eyes stinging, pride stinging. Really? All of that? Something I’ve thought about and messed with for days has less merit than an arrangement of cuttings compiled in an hour? Except I didn’t say anything because I’m craven. I was obdurate and sullen and as we discussed other peoples work I thought indecorous things, which I’ll not list because I’m only aiming at candid not at confirming how shifty and unpleasant I am. I am leaving the rest out.

I’ve done life writing and and I've done poetry. I’ve been back and poked at me poem with the stick a hundred times and still don’t understand why it wasn’t even worthy of one star. To borrow from Jenny Diski, now wish I hadn’t dicked around during poetry and deprived myself of answers to most of the questions.


Jenn said...

Hello Kim

I really like that image of people poking at an almost dead jelly fish with a stick. I think it captures what it feels like to give and get feedback in a group almost perfectly - you didn't come right out and say it, but that image also captures a lot of the contempt and disgust and fear floating around in the room when someone else's poetry is up for discussion.

I never heard of that 'three stars and a wish' before - I might steal that. What I use in in my class (although I only call it this in my head, never out loud) is the sandwich - a good thing, then a critical thing, then another good thing to finish off.

I think it's a lot easier to receieve other people's responses when your own work has become something strange and foreign - something you poke a stick at yourself. It's easier with old work than new work, I think - and it really should be the job of the teacher to guide discussions and make sure the conversation is useful for all the writers in the room.

Good luck for next time. Will it be your sea-creature on the table next week too?

Jenn said...


I think sometimes Surly is Candid. I like Surly. Surly is a great tone of voice to write in. ;)

kim mcgowan said...

Hi Jenn. Thanks for that - you are good, just the right level of sagacity. To be fair to the Poet - surly OFF fair ON, he is very good at giving constructive advice and at respectfully considering our most facile lines. Indeed, as I noted through my sullen haze, he pored over the wonky lines in the work of others with his customary care. That's why I was so shocked; my poem was beyond wonky.

No expiring sea creature to table next week. That was the last session in the poetry module. Now I have to compile a poetry portfolio containing at least 8 poems and commentary. I've got 2 so-so poems, a piss poor pantoum and an uber-wonker; which is why I should have concentrated more. If I were choosing something from the sea I might refer to you as I know you’ve conducted extensive research and your knowledge is encyclopaedic. At the moment I’m favouring a giant squid (9 metres) with an accusatory eye. The only reason I’m not plumping for an at death's door colossal squid is that, at 14 metres, I’d struggle to get even a dying one into the room without the aid of heavy plant.