The poetry process

Jan Owen talks to Angela Rockel about writing


AR How does a poem begin

JO It mostly begins with something that happens - often to do with a person - it would rarely be a landscape or a building on its own. I'm interested in people - something I overhear - two people talking, or someone I meet briefly - the stranger. Very interesting how strangers will tell you so much about their lives. Perhaps it's that they're distilling; they're just telling you the main points and you can fill the rest in with your imagination. Even when I write poems about things, some human feeling seems to get in. The writing certainly comes more from the 'real' world than the world of ideas. Although I do throw strange ideas around in my mind and maybe then the time comes when something out there - the old objective correlative - fits with the idea. For example, I've got a batch of poems on stones. My son wanted a fossil, so I bought him a fossil fish, and that just captured my imagination. Then I thought, well - amethyst crystals, agates. I started to think of other things that we had around the house and I wrote a poem about tektites: I had the little stone. Ideas that I'd had at various stages - interest that I'd had in the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence for example - came into that. For the first few years what I wrote was fairly ethereal. The poems were levitating. They were not flesh and blood, because I started off with ideas: I really need a metaphor, an image to weld thoughts together. When I began to use some ordinary perception I'd had about the world as a starting point, it worked. For instance, 'Level Crossing' - a poem about an old man crossing the road. But I didn't just want him to get to the other side and go. I disagree with Robert Gray's idea that the surface is all. Just redefine surface for me. I think we have made the surface with our wonderful but limited sensory apparatus - it's our sense of how things hold together, which may well be different from the underlying reality. I think you can only know someone if you don't just look at them and think, right, well there they are - blue jumper, red bucket or whatever. And with that poem, an idea, an intellectual connection came through at the end. Years before, I might have started with the idea, and failed to get the poem moving. I was working the wrong way round. Now I start with what's out there and don't try to get a message in, or to come to any conclusion. At some stage a connection will simply happen. You can be excited or captured by a happening and it's the writing of the poem that will clarify for you exactly what was exciting you. I'm very much interested in 'reality' - how different things are, in essence, from the way they appear to us. We're much more easily and immediately aware of surfaces, whether they're visual ones, or the surfaces of social or emotional interactions. But often there can be something more there, which the unconscious mind has already taken in. To bring it again to the 'surface' and make it into a poem that the conscious mind has helped to fashion requires time and exploration - trial and error.

AR Would you say that working out of your own direct experience is a growing concern for you?

JO Yes, that's true of my next book Night Rainbows. There's a certain anxiety connected with writing - how much you should say of yourself. I found it easier at first to write about other people - to make myself marginal. I certainly don't write personal poems in the way many people do, but I'm feeling more confident now about how I write, what I write and also who I am. Certainly I would not want to push my own problems, probably unresolved, in any sort of confessional way onto the reader, or for that matter rejoice in everything that was going wonderfully for me and put that onto the reader too. The 'I' in the poems is a persona. It's one part of me I can speak from.

AR The practicalities of the writing process: drafting - how many drafts would a poem characteristically go through? How long do you work on a poem?

JO Four or five drafts would be a minimum, and I have done up to twenty relatively recently. I work over a close space of time - a couple of days - and then when I'm starting to get really fed up and bored I'm much more likely to cross out what I thought was a good line originally, which is botching up the whole plot. Or I'm more likely to cut the poem in half and use one half, or let it become two poems. After I've done, say, six drafts over a couple of days, I then look at it over the next week a few times. A week later and sometimes three weeks after that I might make a couple of changes. And sometimes other small changes just before it's going to print somewhere.

AR Do you read aloud to get a sense of whether it's working or not?

JO Early on I do. And I've become fairly aware of what a poem sounds like in the mind's ear. I think the sound is very important, quite apart from whether the poem's in rhyme or metre. If it sounds clumsy, it's often an index to a problem in the reasoning, or a connection that's botched, or something that doesn't quite follow. It's very strange how often the wrong sound indicates the wrong meaning.

AR The structured poems that you write - is the structure already there in early drafts?

JO Fairly early. I put down a few lines as notes, and a few more words, and quite often there'll be a couple of easy rhymes - they've just happened that way. I don't know at what level of the mind it's decided - I think quite deep down - whether or not it's going to be, say, a sonnet, or something else in a rhyming form. I usually get half of a poem in rhyme fairly easily, without too much struggle, and then I'm locked into the pattern. Also I'm homing in more sharply on what the poem has yet to achieve before I can afford to finish it, and so the last few lines that have got to click are often the hardest to get. Because of that I sometimes have to go back and change the earlier ones. There's much more of a self-referring process in some rhyming poems than in free verse.

AR How do you mean?

JO Well, take a sonnet - it has to refer back to itself in terms of sound, and therefore meaning. It simply has more form, and sometimes that can help you get to the essence of what you're trying to say, because you can't just let go of this process and move on and think of something else. You're bound up with getting the rhymes right. If the rhymes won't come right, you try another image. You go off on a tangent. Serendipity comes in beautifully sometimes. The pattern itself will push you in a direction you had no intention of going. It's a very creative thing to do, I think. Sound operates at a deep level of the mind, and if you're trying to get some sort of pattern it will affect what you're likely to think too. You find yourself saying something you don't know that you even agree with, but all of a sudden it's there and it's brought energy into the poem. A rhyming poem you've really worked on can end up with a lot of energy, I think. Or it can fail, of course. Then you put it away or throw it out or get rid of the rhymes. Recently I've gone a little away from rhyme-scenes. It's the 'I' persona that I'm using much more often and the poems are more abrupt, more staccato; so I'm tending to have more silences in them, and that creates a strong enough structure.

AR The idea that you can say something in a poem that you didn't know you knew, or don't agree with is interesting.

JO Yes. Another side of you comes out. I think we do have very many different personalities within us and sometimes a less-heard one gets a chance to have a voice. The sides of your personality that you deal with most of the time can't work the poem out so a voice will come from somewhere which seems as if it will sabotage the poem, but if you listen to it, incorporate it, it can add a strange sort of energy.

AR What is a characteristic writing day like?

JO I don't know that there is a characteristic one. I could describe several. Mostly I get up late and put off by as many means as possible actually writing or thinking about what I might write. I might do a bit of housework - that's what will drive me to it. And then I will get to my study late morning maybe and look at all the boring dutiful things I have to do in connection with writing. Deadlines. Answering letters. So I could very easily manage to do not much at all till late in the day. Sometimes I think I do that deliberately because I'm worried about some project I've got - whether I can get on with it or start it. I think it's difficult being a poet because you don't have many things that are happily underway for a long time. You just get a poem going right and it's finished. Then you have to approach this thing of beginning again. Sometimes I'm not up to a beginning, but I could easily carry something on or do a bit of reasonably well-crafted writing that would get me from the fourth chapter of the book to the fifth or whatever - something that could be revised later. The business of psyching oneself up from nowhere too many days of the week - it's hard. One spin-off from the way I work is that I often start thinking quite late at night, and often until about two o'clock I can be starting something new, or revising a poem. You do get some strange ideas at that hour - the brain-chemistry is different. And that helps me because I don't censor myself so much. I don't worry about whether it's logical. Odd things come through. I look at it late the next day and think: 'Oh! I don't know, but alright, I'll go with it.' So being out of sync can pay off.

AR How do you perceive the amount of writing that you do? Do you see yourself as prolific? Sometimes prolific and sometimes not?

JO I think my output is too low, but then if you asked other poets they'd say the same thing. It is better to turn out fewer poems that are higher in quality. I know people who make sure that they write several poems a week. They don't use them all and they know they're not going to; they just make sure they get something down. There's often not enough condensed energy in such poems, although they can be pleasant. I would not aim to be writing poetry all the time but I feel I should be writing in other ways more. My writing output varies a great deal. I can go for weeks without writing a poem. In that time I will have been doing other things like reviews and letters and phone-calls, errands and visiting the sick - noble alibis. And then I might write several poems in a week. That doesn't happen very often. Between poems I do a lot of revision, reading over to change sometimes just two or three words: it can be a good day's work if it salvages the whole poem. I'm sure that the more you write in a given time, the more time you've got to have off. It's an energy flow or wave. I don't know how you'd measure it because it must vary with each person. There may be a very deep thought pattern - I don't mean the day-to-day or moment-to-moment way of connecting and perceiving, but a deeper underlying creativity wave or pattern of flow that simply does run out of energy and needs to rest. It needs to go down into the unconscious and won't come up again sometimes for weeks, sometimes for months, depending on how much of its store was exhausted on the last crest of the wave. So ideally you might write intensively and then have maybe a few months off reading up and restocking. The person who has geared life to expressing creativity is relatively rare and I don't think anybody has bothered to measure this in a systematic way.

AR How do you manage the juggling-act of something like a residency - your own writing-time, the time taken by interviews, workshops?

JO This is the third residency I've done; the fourth if you count a month I spent in Venice. They are wonderful and welcome and enriching distractions. That's the way I look at them. Distractions in the best sense of the word. They let me catch up with things like revision and proofreading. I get ideas and raw material for poems too. I write them up after the event. Every residency I've done has given me energy in the sense that it's sparked new ideas. I don't get many poems - three or four from each six or eight weeks - but in every case I've been pleased with all of them, whereas I might only have been pleased with one or two in the normal course of things. The other nice thing about residencies is they're a change, and it's so good to meet people who are interested in writing. I don't get tired or exhausted - the very opposite - I feel as if energy is fed into me.

AR How did you begin writing poetry?

JO I was running out of alibis for why I was not writing. The first day I had completely free of my then young children I got in the car, went down to a beach nearby and wrote a poem when I came back. There'd been two old men nearby, just chatting and looking at the sea. It was mangroves and muddy and the tide was out, a depressing sort of scene. So, I had old age and companionship and the landscape. It was a fairly bad poem, largely because I rhymed and scanned it, and it became doggerel, but I did see that I could get a structure and a pattern, and some of the images were okay. I can't salvage it because I don't think I kept the draft. More time did eventually come to me. The big thing that pushed me finally to get on with writing was my brother's death in an accident late in 1977. I had been writing on and off for two years, just getting the odd poem down, but it was then that I changed direction, and realised that I wanted to write about our childhood. There was a real anxiety about everything that had been unrecorded in my life. And that work has finally become the collection, Blackberry Season, after all those years. I didn't write the poems till about nine or ten years after John's death, and then they were written over several years. I didn't want to send them to Angus and Robertson, my usual publisher then. But out of the blue Ian Templeman asked me if I had a manuscript for his new Molonglo Press, to be finely printed, and I realised that that was what I had been waiting for: I wanted there to be something different and special about the book. If there was any one event that got me going it was the realisation of mortality - John's death, and the fact that I wanted to keep something of him that would last, and that I'd better not waste too much time myself. It can take something quite strong to push you into it. It's a risk, I think, to write poetry. You've got to face yourself. It's not the risk of being vulnerable and letting other people see. It's the risk of seeing yourself. Which you can't do all at once, fortunately. It's been said that we write from the wound. I think that's often true of poets. The wound may not be obvious; it may be something that goes a long way back - a sadness or deprivation. It doesn't have to be a dramatic loss as it was in my case. Something has been wrong, and it's a process of trying to set it right.

AR Who are the people in your family who have influenced you as a writer?

JO You take on so much of the family colouring, the voice too. There's a thread through my father and grandfather who were both journalists. My maternal grandfather was a great storyteller, and he made me very aware of how things should sound. He had a wonderful rhythmic way of telling stories, with repetition and elaboration - the Welsh version of the gift of the gab. Those voices came through on both sides. My mother's side has a very down-to-earth style. But also with an interest in the supernatural - the occult. The dark, deep sort of stories as well as the lighter funnier ones. That folk-voice came through from my grandfather. My mother, being her father's daughter, had humour and imagination which she didn't apply to writing, although she had written early on - some short stories. She just was verbally fluent. She had a spontaneity of everyday utterance that a lot of people don't have. The literary voice came from my father and his father. My father would have liked to be a novelist. Theirs was the more intellectual voice - the more latinate, constructed sentences, and a fine feeling for syntax and grammar. Rhetorical flair too, but in a cooler way. So it came from both sides and also from what I read. I was captured by poetry from early on.

AR During the writing of that first poem at the beach, were you aware of any of the influences you're describing? Where did the impulse to write something that rhymed and scanned come from?

JO I think that came from my early reading. I've always loved poetry, and early on what I read were nineteenth century poems and bush ballads, which were all rhyming. That's how I'd defined poetry. I write a lot of rhyming verse before I really discovered free verse. It was difficult then to change, when I started at last in my thirties reading more contemporary stuff.

AR When were you first aware of either repeating to yourself or being captured by something you'd heard?

JO As early as I can remember - the nursery rhymes that were told to me, and variations of nursery rhymes, and little stories that were so lulling they were almost like rhymes themselves, the way my grandfather told them. We lived with him when my father was at the war, till I was about four or five. And then at about five and a half or six I was reading already, and I was given a book of poems. They were a bit beyond my years but I think I loved them all the more for that. They were not difficult poems - it was a collection meant for children - Walter De La Mare and Tennyson and some of the Edwardians, Coventry Patmore - a little bit stodgy to look at now, but I knew they were magic. It was to do with the rhythm, and the images that I knew meant more than they seemed to, and just this different deployment of language. It resonated at a different level. It was like a magic spell to me to say them. I think your future self understands, and the present self knows this. The mind operates on all sorts of levels. It could be that we have to learn how to understand, but deeper under that is an already-understanding self. At least, things are remembered and held as significant and you know they will come to mean something. So I was captured as early as that. When I was eight and a half I learned a long poem by Will H. Ogilvie, called 'The Outlaw' about a wild horse that was captured but then escaped, and was always caught between the two worlds. I never forgot it - this feeling of recognising the loner. Between two worlds, the twilight - reality and unreality. Sparkling and a little bit sinister. There's this other axis in poetry that's against the usual way we understand time and place, changing, moving on. It says: 'Hold, this is still; this can last.' I think poetry, even more than prose, says: 'Things aren't what they seem.'

(Interview appeared in Famous Reporter 8, November 1993).