Shifting views – juggling a desire to write with the reality of life

I didn’t make it to the page last week. Well, not on this side of my world. Not this page.

I missed it.

There were plenty of times when I thought I might be just about be ready and then…the moment passed.

Evaporated.

I thought about so many things that I could write. Somewhere in the chaos (I also didn’t make it to the housework, as it happens) there are a few sticky notes that sketch content and images.

I considered a mid-week post. I played with the idea of a late-week post. I realised I just needed to accept that some weeks I might not make it.

Of course, there is always the possibility of having a stash of posts ready and waiting. A patient queue of ideas all bright and shiny, ready and waiting.

It’s a simple dream.

I expect they’re the one’s you’ve got to have.

Bird in profile
Enough with the excuses

Spaces

When I was wandering around looking for somewhere to write last week (trying to multitask…it’s a long story ) I came across a new structure at Bathers Beach in Freo.

It is an open-framed shelter on a fair sized deck.

From the looks of things, it is a social space. Somewhere to kick back on a summer’s day. A place to party.

I think it would be a lovely place to write.

Frame of shelter at Bathers Beach
Open to the elements

I sat in the shade for a while. I made some notes. I took some photos that I think will be useful for a poem, perhaps even a story.

Mostly I sat.

I was waiting for someone and settling into writing just didn’t happen.

While I didn’t get much ‘done’ I did make progress.

I had popped into Dawn Meader’s exhibition at Kidogo Arthouse. It was an unexpected treat and I found a painting that I loved.

It is a view through a doorway into a garden in Tuscany in the late afternoon. (I wish I could remember the title. I’m sure ‘afternoon’ features.)

I have a thing for doorways that I can’t really explain. (Also, Tuscany – I must go one day – afternoon light and gardens.)

I’m looking forward to bringing to bringing the painting home. It is going to go near a reading chair. Or my writing desk. I think.

The painting got me thinking.

Wandering into the framed shelter – a space that is really all doorways and views – I got to thinking about how our world can shift.

Well, our view of it.

Depending on how we frame it.

Echoes

In the last couple of weeks there have been lines from poems that keep coming back to me. Especially T. S. Eliot’s ‘Journey of the Magi’.

I have mixed feelings about Eliot’s poem. I had to learn it as a recital piece for a Literature class when I was 15. It was a choral speech exercise and I really wasn’t fan. Not of the poem. Not of choral speech.

Looking back, I know that my ambivalence at the time came from how the poem was presented to us.

Perhaps the lines come back to me so often because they were gouged so deeply into my memory by rote learning. I don’t think that is it, though.

At the same time we learnt Edwin Muir’s ‘The Horses’. I remember that poem but it doesn’t come back to me in what I’d describe as meaningful ways.

I think – hope – it is more because I’ve come to an understanding and appreciation of the poem.

There are lines that catch at me and I think about them. Probably when I should be thinking about other things.

Lately I’ve been musing about two moments in the poem. The first is lines 8-10:

 There were times we regretted

The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,

And the silken girls bringing sherbet.

The other is lines 33-35:

And I would do it again, but set down

This set down

This…

It is the word ‘regretted’ and the need to ‘set down’ that resonate most immediately.

Now, with the benefit of a lot of decades, I can see the cadences Eliot builds into the poem are exquisite. My frame has shifted.

I’m sure it will shift again.

The emotional range of the poem is striking. There is so much to think about.

Journeys

A lot of the time I think about the effectiveness of Eliot’s language. Recently, I’ve thinking about people making difficult journeys – literal and metaphorical – and what those journeys mean.

I live in Australia, a place where it’s hard not to think about people making difficult journeys.

We’re brought up on them as a national mythology. These days we impose them as a political …

I’m stumped, there are so many words that I could use that I shy away from. Most of them are unpleasant.

I’ll settle on expedience.

Departures, arrivals and returns are fraught. We’ve made them that way. We advertise them that way.

Eliot was writing about something that I know is unrelated to contemporary Australia and yet how I engage with the poem has shifted because of our current climate.

I realise this may seem oblique. I’m still working with it and I’m not quite sure where it’s going to take me.

The way I’ve been thinking about it means there are now different connections between my memory and my reading(s) of the poem.

Journeys, what we see, experience and share change us.

Eliot’s magi find themselves ‘no longer at ease’ (l. 41).

Likewise, my frame has shifted and I’m not as comfortable as I once thought I was.

Hot summer day at Cottesloe
Big blue sky

* I do, of course, have a list of ideas – and a schedule for some ‘key’ dates waiting patiently. I just haven’t done anything with it. I’m planning a writing weekend. I ‘just need’ to clear other commitments…

Building slowly – trying to balance writing with all the other things

I’m sure the dogs I’ve had over the years have enjoyed chasing their tail. They’ve all seemed able to turn the activity into a game. One of them – Gillespie, a bull terrier/labrador cross – could spend hours trying to pin down his own tail. Then again, he also like to try to thump his paw down on the cat’s tail as she flicked it in front of his eyes. He rarely ‘caught’ it. At the end of the day, he was actually her – Jemima’s – plaything.

Working, playing

I finally made it to this post at the end of a busy but good weekend at the end of a long and busy week. There hasn’t been a lot of reading. There’s been a bit of writing – on a project I’m not ready to discuss, but its deadline is looming. Mostly there’s been playing. (Over the weekend, that is.)

After a week of mostly chasing my own tail – and NEVER catching it – a weekend of play can’t be a bad thing.

The highlights have been catching up with an old friend at an exhibition, taking one of my nieces on a belated birthday adventure and wrapping up the weekend with a family dinner.

I’m finishing off the weekend knowing precisely what I need to do over the coming week. I’ve scheduled my time and set my goals. Having this level of clarity is always helpful. Feeling refreshed enough to feel excited about the to-do list is great.

One of the few things I remember from Early Childhood Studies in high school is ‘play is a child’s work’ . (The other thing is that responding to an essay question that asks ‘what are the three stages of labour?’ with ‘first, second and third’ will not cut any mustard…none at all…).

I think play should also be a big part of a grown up’s work.

Would I be happy with work that is child’s play? Perhaps not so much.

I have to admit that I get to play with ideas a fair bit. I love it.

Even driving along today, the chatter from the back seat (I had such a chatsy-patsy as a passenger) was a litany of ideas and images that I think will work as a poem. Something of a further belated* birthday gift I guess.

Finding time to pull it together enough to have it a as a polished product might be a tad tricky. I need to stop thinking about this idea that time is something that can be found.

Time is there. So are opportunities for the type of play that lifts and sustains ‘work’.

Empty swing at playground
Waiting patiently

Levels and layers

Scheduling a specific time for creative writing is something that I have settled on, though. That’s a decision that has come from my extensive, and perhaps over documented, review of the collection of notebooks that I refer to as the scrawl. 

The big thing reviewing the scrawl has done is confirm what I already knew. Although I’ve written thousands of words over the past few years, there was a period between 2011 and 2013 where the only poetry I was able to produce was one sonnet.

Just the one. Single. Solitary. 140 syllables. Flip those syllables into single characters and I’d have a tweet.

I’ve sighed at length over that paucity.

There are all sorts of notes and sketches that are coming together – and will continue to do so – but the actual output of the those couple of years is a lone poem. Anything that eventuates from the notes and sketches counts for the year that they come together.

The dozens of essays and reports don’t seem to count in my work-tally.

There were thousands of words.

There were reasons (some of them pretty good) for choosing not to persist with a number of poems.

Still, I find myself sighing. Despite it being pointless and not making any real sense to do so.

No matter how I try to spin it, I keep coming back to ‘how many poems did I write?’

It’s about as useful and as useless as that.

Not that I really see it as useless.

For now I’m reflecting on how it is just a matter of how everything sits together. How it ties in.

I’ve written most of this post at a cafe in South Freo – Ootong and Lincoln – sitting beside a feature wall of exposed brick.

Thinking about the rough work that lies under painted and papered render hasn’t been a big leap. That said, it has been helpful in providing a visual – as much for me to reflect on as to pop in here.

Working back through the scrawl exposed a lot of rough working that didn’t seem to lend itself to a great deal of substance. Despite what seems to be just rough is, however, a good beginning. Now that I’ve pulled it together, it is a solid beginning.

Exposed brickwork
Brick by brick

The process of rebalancing the different parts of my life may be moving slowly but it is going well.

On that note, I must post and run. Here’s a lesson in the peril of departing from a schedule. Monday morning’s aren’t for rounding off a post. My day-job is calling and then there’s a lecture at Uni and Voicebox in Freo. I’d better get out into the day.

 

* It probably doesn’t count as belated in my family because we tend to run with the idea of birthday festivals. Celebrations can last for up to four weeks. They’re reasonably low key but extensive affairs.

A week of bookshops, mooching and poetry – my readerly-writerly idea of bliss

It’s been a busy week. There has been oodles to do with family, work and study. I may not have been productive as far as outside-of-work writing goes, but I’ve been busy. It’s been good.

I’ve taken a break from the scrawl. Also, I’m nearly done with the jottings I can find in notebooks. This is not to say more notebooks aren’t lurking. My study is chaotic and I suspect that not all the notebooks were in there in the first place. That said, there’s only so much backwards looking I can do in one hit.

Note to self: it might be good to read some of the books on dealing with clutter that are taking up space on the book shelf.

Despite not much to show for it, I’ve been showing up at the page a bit. When I’ve done so, I’ve made a conscious effort to keep the writing on loose leaves. That way I can avoid adding to the scrawl I’ve been working so hard on clearing.

While there’s nothing substantially ‘useful’ in these latest pages, a few lines here and there look as though they might be worth mining for later. I’m happy with that.

Late in the week I found myself writing in cafe. I got so caught up I lost track of the time and was nearly late for a conference/seminar.

I have to admit it’s been a while since I was immersed to that degree.

Photo of poured tea on a metal tray in a city coffee shop
I managed to find time for some cafe writing

Mooching around bookshops

Saturday was a cracker. I made it to not one but two bookshops: New Edition Bookshop (Freo) and Bookcaffe (Swanbourne). I was tempted to make it three when I went to go to the library –  the Coop (UWA) – but I figured I had some work to do.* I kept myself to just the two.

I’m excited that NEB is back. There’s been a bit of an hiatus while they’ve been moving premises. I don’t know what the full story is but I’ve missed them while they’ve been away. I know ‘they’ are a different ‘them’ but I’m sure you get my point.

I like mooching about Freo. I love mooching about Freo going from bookshop to bookshop. That’s been a tad tricky in recent times. The Freo bookshop count is generally in decline, NEB hasn’t been around and my mooching opportunities are decidedly outside working hours.

Swanbourne isn’t too far from Freo. I zipped up the coast to catch up with a friend on my way to uni. Books, chatting, hot chocolate, sitting by the window. It was lovely.

One of the books that made its way home with me is My Brother’s Book by Maurice Sendak. It is a beautiful, meditative riddle. I don’t feel as though I’ve managed to nut-it-out and I need to spend more time with it. I’m not sure when that will be.

Poetry night

Monday was great because it was, as we say in my family, ‘poetry night’. Yes, I made it to Voicebox again. This is starting to be a habit.

There are worse habits.

Again, I enjoyed all three guest poets. I’m afraid the titles have escaped me but Dick Alderson’s poem about almonds, Dennis Haskell’s about oranges and Kylie Stevenson’s about Deep Water Point all stuck me at the time as beautiful explorations of imagery and emotion and they’ve stayed with me for the week. Rose van Son’s ‘Meatworks, Caversham’ is one of the poems from the open mic readers that keeps coming back to me.

I’ve been thinking not just about the poems that were read, but the usefulness of poetry for narrative . The distillation of words and ideas carries an emotive power for telling story that I find visceral. A bit further along from these thoughts is how much I enjoy the poetic within prose.

That’s led me on to reflecting on novels that I read as poetic. Yesterday I picked up a spare copy of David Malouf’s Fly Away Peter so I could dip into it on the train ride home for precisely that reason.

In the end the train station was a shade too hectic for the way I wanted to read the novel. Instead, I started the copy of Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist that I picked up from the same sale shelf.

A stack of books
The outcome of bookshop mooching

I now find myself with two copies of Fly Away Peter. Possibly not the best outcome for book-case space crisis of 2014 (which is very much like the book-case space crises of 2013, 2012, 2001…1975 – when I was given my first bookcase for my birthday…) but that particular thread of thinking – the poetic in prose – is always tantalising. I hope I can hold onto it in the face of a week which, I already know, is going to allow very little time for musing as such.

*I didn’t go into the library either to be honest. I sat in the sunshine while I looked for useful articles online. Being able to work remotely is such a bonus.

On the fly – what happens when ideas slip away

I find myself at a loss. There is no excuse, really. I’m at Public and Co, in South Freo. It’s comfortable. The music is fun. As a found-space for writing, it is perfect.*

Yesterday, I knew precisely what I was going to write for today. It was a glorious day on campus. The sky was that blue you get on a warm, clear day in winter. The air was crisp. I remember the weather and where I was as I thought ‘yes, that’s it’ (I was passing the Oak Lawn on my way back to Arts before heading for the Club). The idea has evaporated.

The story of my life. Ideas come and go. If I’m lucky – i.e. sensible – I make a note. Often, I just get caught up. As I move on to the next thing I let go of an idea to take in something new.

So, here I am. My Saturday posting is a self-imposed and arbitrary deadline. It only matters because I’ve decided it does. There’s no other reason. Still, I need to meet it.

I remember the air was crisp.

Chaucer to Manson by way of Coleridge

Earlier this week, I found myself in front of a (thankfully small) group of strangers. I needed to give a presentation and I hadn’t prepared. There had been some confusion and I wasn’t sure I needed to … I should have. Being prepared is always helpful. I had said to my colleague that I would probably talk about poetry. When the moment came, poetry was what I latched onto.

I was lucky that I have been thinking so much about poetry of late. The other topics in my sights at the moment are women’s agency in late medieval and early modern English writing, impoverished knights and the experience and expression of shame – again late medieval, style guides and project plans. Looking at it, poetry was the friendly option.

I had tried a couple of times to make some notes. Nothing I came up with seemed to be at all promising. I had rehearsed some ideas – in a vague way, unable to settle on any form or content. I hadn’t written anything down.

In the flurry of the introduction and no knowing what I was going to talk about I launched into storytelling. I took my audience on a whirlwind ride. I remember I began with a joke – which I worried may have been inappropriate but couldn’t stop to check or apologise for – and I headed to Coleridge, his mariner and a funeral for a pen in a Literature class when I was in Year 11. I zipped backwards to Chaucer and I ended with Marilyn Manson.

 

Pelican on jetty pylon
A standing pelican (in the absence of an airborne albatross)

I’m not entirely sure what I said – or how I got from one poet to the next – the whole thing  is a blur. I know I mentioned haiku and Ezra Pound couplets. I think I spoke for 5 minutes. I’m not sure what my time limit was.

I’ve told the funeral-for-a-pen story before, I’m pretty sure I know how that bit went.

Luckily, they laughed with me

I dread speaking in public. I used to speak quite a bit but I don’t do it that much these days. The further away I got from regular presentations, the scarier they became. It makes sense to me – more or less.

Apparently the talk this week went ok, though. While I can’t remember precisely what I said, I do remember that the audience laughed. I like it when that happens. Well, when an audience laughs with me. That’s quite nice.

The timer had flicked the panel of lights from green to amber. I knew the switch to red had to be on its way. I realised I wasn’t sure of the rules. Did I need to finish before the red? Was it ok to finish on the red? That’s the moment when I really began to panic. I was trying to find a way to finish off. That’s how Marilyn Manson got pulled into the whirlwind. It was a straw I happily grabbed at. It pulled everything together. I think. I trust.

It would be nice to remember what I actually said. It would be helpful to remember what the evaluator said. The words, like so many ideas, have evaporated.

I do remember that it felt good when the next person stood to speak.

The habit of over-thinking

So, where do these musings fit?

It’s not just that I’ve forgotten my initial idea. Nor that I mourn that it has escaped my grasp. I’m sure it will come back to me. At an inconvenient time. Probably the dead of night.

In the meantime, I have been thinking about the role over-thinking plays in my writing. There are areas where I think I just need to let some of go. While I don’t think unprepared talks are necessarily advisable, my Coleridge-Chaucer-Manson talk from this week probably worked because I just launched into it.

The imperative of getting to my feet and getting the words out meant that I got the talk done. Could it have been better? Probably. Would it have been better with drafting and rehearsal? Possibly.

Where it was tempting to over-think, not thinking (as such) seems to have had its merits. That’s something to think about.

 

*I have no intention of writing about food on this blog. It isn’t really my ‘thing.’ BUT … as I wrote this I indulged in an early lunch that took the form of a very late brunch … wild mushrooms done in sherry butter with really crispy bacon and toasted ciabatta. Wow.

 

 

 

A familiar dance – processing time is not always procrastination

My desk is tidy. Well, when I say ‘tidy’ I mean the half of the L-shape that is devoted to ‘technology’ is organised. I’ve washed and dried my hair. I’ve made my fingernails look a little less ragged. I’m about to finish my third mug of tea for the morning.

This is a dance I do. It would be quicker if, like the dog, I could just turn three circles, sit myself down and settle into the business of the day. For the dog that business is dozing. For me it is a to-do list.

This weekend’s general list includes emails, start week one of a mooc – before week two arrives, read articles for a research project, draft some notes for a talk I said I would give, complete essential chores, ignore non-essential chores, spend some time with family and friends, go for a walk  – preferably by the river where I’m confident there will be pelicans and I’m hopeful there will be dolphins.

Striking through

I do like crossing off items as they are done. It works for chores, projects, ideas that are acted on. I’ve been able to pull a couple of cards from my projects list in the past few weeks. They were among the smaller projects but it still feels good to have moved them to the ‘done pile’.

I also like to cross through titles in lists, verses in stanzas and paragraphs in prose. I can end up making a fair mess of any given page. For the most part, I’m comfortable with some untidiness on the page. There comes a point, though when too much mess becomes too fraught.

Making space

My mini-project of revising old notebooks – the scrawl I mentioned a couple of weeks ago – is in full swing. Putting sentiment to one side, some of the scrawl must give way. Space is at a premium.

The focus of today’s attention was made of recycled paper bound with string in a corrugated card cover. I liked the book when it came to me, but it has its quirks. The threading on the spine makes it hard to keep open. The texture of the leaves entices. It promises more than struck-through notes and drafts. I’ve always been aware that I didn’t choose as wisely as I may have liked when I started out with it as a place for early workings.

One draft is dated ’98, so this book has been hanging about for a while. All but one of the notes in this particular notebook have been acted on. Most of the worked on pages have been folded to show they are finished. On balance, I have to admit not that many pages have been used. I’d like to start over with it. I think the remaining leaves can be repurposed.

Old notebook made of recycled paper with corrugated cover
Step 1: Initiate
struck through pages
Step 2: Check
ready for reuse
Step 3: Repurpose

Repurposing and renewing

My habit of making lists and roughing out brainstorms of ideas is a useful strategy. It makes for wonderfully productive days. This was especially the case when I worked as a teacher. I had a holiday routine that involved reviewing the lists and notes I’d made during term. If pieces of writing weren’t finished I’d work on drafts and commit to finishing things off. Not all holidays allowed for the routine to be evenly productive but there was certainly a rhythm to the process that helped it along.

I’ve had to modify the way I approach lists. Sometimes there is too much time between the note of the idea and the point of writing. Well, too much time in being up to pick up with the reason for making the note. Sometimes they just have to be repurposed. At at other times, the note is as vivid as when first written.

Looking through a poetry file today, I saw a poem I finished in 2001. It’s ok but not for sharing here. The point about the poem (‘Faithless’) is I first noted the opening line in my first year teaching. That was 1992. In the years between the note and the poem there was little shift in the intent of the idea I hoped to explore.

Other ideas and images need to sit for a while – steeping like tea – before they are ready for use. There’s nothing worse than tea left for so long it becomes bitter and unpalatable. That said, even stewed tea is good for the roses.*

A rueful acknowledgement

I can be quite precious about notebooks. I let them kick around for decades, long enough to end up looking tatty and disreputable. I don’t often attack them with scissors. This poor stablemate was doomed from day one. Happily, I think it has a promising future now it is free of its binding.

I’m sure the next notebook taken from the scrawl for review will fare better. In fact, I doubt many of the notebooks in the scrawl would do as well if I attempted to repurpose them.

*Ooh. There’s a poem there. What luck!

Poetry, memory and readiness – daily life and poetry

As I walked back to my car after last week’s symposium there was a kookaburra scrabbling for its dinner in the dirt under a tree. I stood for a while to watch. It was getting on for dusk and the campus was quiet. I was tired but happy. My head buzzed with ideas.

That brief moment watching the bird was calming. I took some time. I breathed.

I’m sure the memory of that moment will find its way into a poem at some point. I tend not to keep a journal as such but some (not all) of my writing contains snippets that are memories I want to keep. They are incidental – loading that word in a way I’ve not considered before.

It would be lovely if I had a photo to share of the kookaburra. Unfortunately, I don’t. (My phone – and therefore my camera – was in a bag of rice at the time.)

A week of poetry

Reading, writing and listening to poetry gives me joy. I think it is the play of words on the page and in the air.

Words were certainly in the air at Voicebox Fremantle on Monday night. Voicebox is a poetry performance event that comes around on the last Monday of the month. The format is generally three guest poets who read for about 20 minutes each.  Then there are about ten five-minute open mic spots that are slotted in around breaks. It’s a format that works well.

I don’t get to go as often as I would like. This time around I was feeling pretty tired with plenty to be working on after the symposium but I dragged myself to Freo. I’m so glad I did.

It turned out it was Voicebox’s birthday – and a year since the Voicebox performances moved to The Fly Trap, the side-bar at the Fly by Night .

The three guest poets for June were Allan Padget, Anne Elvey and Murray Jennings. I enjoyed each of their readings. I would happily listen to their poems again, and read them on the page. Elvey’s poems stood out for me, I think because of the way she was using some complex vocab in interesting ways. She’s reading again this afternoon – at the Perth Poetry Club – but I need to crack into some research and can’t make it.

Some of the open mic spots were particularly good. Anna Minska’s a capella performance of a new poem that ‘insists’ on being sung was outstanding. It mesmerised the audience. I was in awe of the poem and her performance.

After effects

The thing about going to events like Voicebox – even if I am just quietly sitting in the corner – is how they energise and connect.  I had felt so tired after work (and the busyness of the weekend) that I had considered not driving the half hour to get to Freo. At the end of the evening, I walked back to my car – this time well into the night – feeling calm and just that little less fatigued.

I’m back to filling the well really.

In the days that followed I reflected on the performances. I talked about them, and about writing. I also followed up on some poems from the symposium: Byron, Coleridge, Marvell. I thought about Keats for a bit.

Papers, notebooks and text
Bits of poetry taking shape

One of those conversations I had led to a request that I share some poems. I was reluctant but I found myself looking through my ‘finished’ poems. That, in turn, led to something of a mini-stocktake.

On taking stock

My heart sank a little when I saw the hard evidence that I haven’t had a lot of poems make it into a ‘finished’ pile in the last few years. I’ve done plenty of writing (thousands of words for uni, for example) but I’ve steered clear of the personal and the poetic.

That’s ok – it’s too bad if it’s not, to be honest. I’ve made choices and I’ve been aware of doing so as I’ve gone along and not committed to finishing poems. (I also haven’t finished other bits of writing. The poems are not alone in this.)

It strikes me, though, that this week’s stocktake went deeper than just flicking through. I wasn’t simply looking at what was there. I was looking for what I considered to be ready for sharing. It was material that I’ve shared before, why would it no longer be ready for sharing? The question seemed silly even as I thought about it.

I know that there has to come a point where I draw a line under a piece of writing (again, it’s not just the poems) and say ‘enough, it’s done’.

Drawing a line

So, in the spirit of sharing and drawing a line, here’s a poem (from 2009) that I consciously wrote as a memory piece. When I was writing it I really enjoyed the idea I was playing with. I was at the window of a room at the back of the Art Gallery of WA, at the Á propos poetry conference. It might not be ‘ready’, but here it is…

Falling

At the window
a tree lets loose
its blooms

To rain soft white
in overcast
morning

Autumn coming
a touch ahead
of time.

This brief prelude
heralding the
season.