Poetry Shelf Autumn Season: Poets pick a word – James Brown unpicks



Not Writing

The longer the week drags on, the more I realise I’m not going to be able to write anything creative for Paula. I feel flat and dull. I’d finally handed a poetry manuscript to VUP the previous week and am in a post-hand-in slump.

Paula had provided a long list of words as sparks, but now I couldn’t face the decision I would have to make if I returned to them. The tyranny of choice. I recall there were a lot of poetic words – ‘lilt’ was one – and of course ‘cycling’ had caught my eye. But I don’t want to write about cycling. I’m also not even sure what I’m supposed to produce. Should I be writing a poem?

It’s like I’m struggling with one of the creative writing exercises I set my students at the IIML, and I begin to think about creative sparks – when something takes off and when it doesn’t. And, let’s be honest, mostly things don’t. If I could sit down and write a book of poems like I’m typing this, it would take about a week. My last poetry book took seven years. Not full-time, of course, but I suddenly realise how much of my writing takes place off the page. Gazing around, thinking, reading, listening to music, people, nothing … actually writing is only part of it. I recently read (some of) The Writer’s Room by Charlotte Wood – a book of interviews with writers. I didn’t recognise any poets; certainly the interviewees I read were prose writers and they presented themselves as impressively diligent, rising early to pound out word counts, often leaving off mid-flight or sentence so they could jump straight back into the action the next morning without wasteful floundering.

I wonder how different the process is for poets. The poetry writer’s room, if there’s a room at all, would, I imagine, witness much less keyboard action. For me, poetry writing is beset with guilty spaces. But like the prose writers, I too have to leave off poems and return to them – they’re rarely completed in one sitting – though it may be several days before I can get back to them. Time and space are good for those poems I kid myself are finished, but not for a poem still trying to ignite. The initial spark may go out. Poetry is a bit like lighting a fire: you often have to wander away to gather fuel, but you need to return and keep blowing on it for it to really take hold and raze everything in your suburb – or however far it’s going to travel.

Okay, most poems are more candle than bushfire, but what makes some reach ignition temperature and some not? I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s no special formula for mine (though I can think of things that don’t help), but they generally begin with an idea, phrase or word that interests me. I got a couple of poems out of the word ‘hibiscus’. And this very week, flat and dull as I feel, I tried to get a poem going using a particular kind of word. The result so far has been amusing, but pointless. I also created a small found poem using a couple of sentences from a friend’s email. I wonder if my interest in found poetry stems from being averse to poetry’s emotive and moralistic excesses.

At this point I remember Paula saying something about ‘a couple of paragraphs’. Eek. I was just getting going. Maybe there is something in triggers and deadlines.


©James Brown 2017

James Brown’s new poetry collection, probably called /Floods Another Chamber/, will be published by VUP later in 2017.

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