Julia Webb nominated me for this. Do have a look at her site and follow the tour backwards (as well as forwards, of course); it makes for really interesting reading. Or at least, I have found it interesting, but maybe that’s because I am desperate for anything that reassures me I’m not the only person sitting alone and trying to get something out of my head and onto a page and feeling like a failure half the time and a lazy git the rest of the time and veering between thinking ‘I’m a freakin genius’ and ‘I’m a fraud’ and … well, you can see how it goes. To the questions, then.
What am I working on?
I laughed rather bitterly when I saw this question, because for a while I wasn’t working on anything. I should have been: I’m in the last year or so of a PhD in Creative and Critical Writing at UEA, and I’ll need to submit my thesis if I want something to show for it. But one of my closest friends died suddenly in August 2013, and it has, frankly, stopped me in my tracks.
For a long time, I couldn’t see my way back to the short, lyric poems I’d been writing before. They explore the notion of a ‘self’ and the difficulty of relating to the ‘things of the world’ (a phrase I might have nicked from Heidegger, whose work I’ve been reading for the critical element of the PhD with extremely imperfect understanding). And I couldn’t look at their companion piece without crying all over it. It’s a long poem for voices and sound, set on the public transport system in London, where a narrator is constantly looking for a lost loved one.
But quite recently, I found myself turning the pages of my poem drafts again, making annotations here, getting the thesaurus down from the shelf, trying out consonances….. It looks as though I might be able to keep writing poems after all, though I can’t go back to writing the way I did before Tara died. If these drafts are to become finished poems, they will have to be cracked open, remade.
Strange, too: into that poem-silent gap – after the immediate shock of her death, after the first few weeks of hollow dislocation – prose stepped. I started writing about Tara in this blog. Then a short story started in my writing notebook one morning (coffee, pyjamas, stinky breath).
More recently, I took down the ‘novel folder’ from my shelf. I started work on a novel for Young Adults last year: having drafted one about ten years ago and not done anything with it, I was really inspired by an Arvon course I went on and – although I’m having to set it aside until the poems and the PhD get finished – I really, really want to finish this second book and try and get it published.
So, not working on nothing, Meryl. Just – somewhat interrupted, needing to be remade.
How does my work differ from others in its genre?
I’m tempted to say that it doesn’t. How do I answer that question? I don’t think about it in those terms; that’s for the publication end of the process, and I’m not there yet, with my current work.
I could tell you what what its preoccupations are: sound, silence, form, relationship, climate change and ecological disaster, cities, loss…. I don’t think it’s unique in that.
I could tell you whose work I’m reading and enjoying at the moment: Jorie Graham, Denise Riley, Alice Oswald, Kathleen Jamie, Marie Howe, W.S.Graham, Bill Manhire, Michael Haslam, John Wilkinson, Zoe Skoulding, Lorine Niedecker (poets in no particular order); Lucy Christopher, Margo Lanagan, David Mitchell, Alice Munro (prose fiction).
Perhaps I should just move on…
Why do I write what I do?
Because there is nothing as satisfying as trying and trying again to use this thing we all share, this language, to make something individual to me. Because I love trying to write with concision, precision, beauty (whatever that means), emotion – and I love trying to capture something as vague as mood or atmosphere, or pinning down a detail I didn’t know I’d observed.
Because when something provokes me into a response, that response has always involved picking up a pen. When Tara died, all I had for a while was shock and hollowness, and I was terrified by the thought that this might be all there was to accompany the grief; a nothing saying nothing. But it wasn’t all there was: I picked up a pen again eventually, set it to work remembering my remarkable friend, recording the effrontery of the world as it got on with its business around her grieving loved ones, leading me back towards the things of the world, the living, my life – all still here though altered.
How does my writing process work?
Ideas chafe at me when I’m washing up, or walking, or sitting on a train or a tube, or when I’m trying and failing to get to sleep. Then I try to give them a run at the page (a notebook, usually; I’m on number 67 at the moment): Alone, in silence or with ambient soundtracks playing on my headphones, or in the quiet of the morning or the night (I usually work in a back room overlooking a meeting of back gardens), with coffee or tea. Later, I’ll work at a screen and then write and draw all over the print-outs, with a pen, coloured pencils; editing, adding, and often cutting-up, collaging. Back to the screen, then back to printing out, reading aloud, adding, subtracting, rewriting….
Often I put things away because they just won’t shift, sometimes for years. I get feedback from writers I trust, try out their suggestions. Some of the poems make it to the finished stage, others just stay in the box file, to be cannibalised as ‘material’. At some point, I can’t shift anything in the piece and I realise I’ve accepted it in its current state. That’s about as close to finished as I can get.
Next week, three excellent writers of my acquaintance will be continuing the tour:
Rachel Watson will be answering the four questions, on her blog, A Variety of Hats. Rachel grew up in Bolton, Lancashire and now lives in Cambridge with her family, where she works as a freelance television producer when she’s not writing, or parenting, or staring into space wondering when it will all kick off. She has an MA in Creative and Life Writing from Goldsmiths, University of London and is represented by Sarah Nundy at Andrew Nurnberg Associates. Rachel’s non-fiction work has appeared in the Guardian, the Telegraph and in the Goldfish anthology, and her short story ‘Counting’ was published by Ether books. She is currently working on a novel set in a television newsroom in the late 1980s.
Katrina Naomi will be answering the questions here, on my blog. Katrina is completing a PhD in creative writing at Goldsmiths, with a focus on violence in poetry. She has a pamphlet, ‘Hooligans’, inspired by the Suffragettes, forthcoming from Rack Press in 2015. Her poetry has appeared in ‘The TLS’, ‘The Poetry Review’ and ‘The Spectator’. She is originally from Margate and lives in Penzance.
Anna Robinson will continue the tour from her website. Anna is a poet, tutor and editor from London. Her first full collection The Finders of London was published by Enitharmon in 2010 and shortlisted for the Seamus Heaney Poetry Centre Prize for Poetry in 2011. Her pamphlet, Songs from the flats (Hearing Eye 2006), was a Poetry Book Society Pamphlet Choice. In 2001, she became the first recipient of The Poetry School Scholarship and her poetry was featured in the School’s second anthology, Entering the Tapestry, (Enitharmon 2003). Her work has appeared in several journals and anthologies, including Poetry London, Magma,Brittle Star, the reater, In The Company of Poets (Hearing Eye 2003) and Oxford Poets 2007 (Oxford/Carcanet.