This April, once again, I attempted ‘NaPoWriMo’ (or ‘National Poetry Writing Month’), a poem-a-day project which, in theory, makes you write thirty new poems in the month of April. As ever, I failed. I wrote a few uninteresting fragments. As ever, some unteachable part of my ego was frankly astonished and gradually demotivated by the fact that I hadn’t sat down and produced a masterpiece.
I don’t really know why. Being slow and rather unfit doesn’t stop me enjoying a run in the park. Things you’ve never had a hope of being good at are easy to do just for the lolz: ‘Why Not?’ seems like enough of a Reason, as it was for Milo and Tock to get into Dictionopolis.
But when you’d like to do something well, the feebleness of your occasional attempts becomes staggering. You know something requires practice, therefore the practice doesn’t materialize. Or is that just me?
A year ago, at a networking event in Foyle’s Bookshop for Creative Writing students and literary agents, a CW tutor asked me whether I’d been submitting poems to magazines. No, I said, I hadn’t been writing much new stuff. I was probably angling for encouragement to write more. What I got was encouragement to keep submitting the old stuff, and when I unwisely tried to explain that it felt sometimes like a fight to get my mediocre droplets accepted into a vast mediocre sea, I got an understandably passionate harangue on—to give a rough paraphrase, because I’ve forgotten the exact words—the dangers of elitism, the proper democratic spirit in the arts, the value of a great deal and great variety of local enjoyment of poetry, and the general goodness of as many people being published as possible.
I concluded that I wasn’t very good at networking (indeed, for most of the evening I was one of the ‘poets’ skulking in the music aisle and embracing the notion that being ‘poets’ and unprofitable exempted us from having to talk to anyone).
Our tutor’s commitment to the proper democratic spirit seemed to me to be slightly at odds with the busy networking taking place at the time in the same room. A problem arises when the stated aim of a course is to help make students’ writing ‘publishable’. You can build an inclusive, supportive and lively student-writers’ community, you can encourage and value everyone equally, you can say that they’re all producing ‘publishable’ work—but inevitably, having achieved ‘publishable’, some at least will try for ‘published’, and at least some of those will fall victim to nerves, envy, frenetic irritation with editors who reply slowly, and pointless adrenalin rushes when those terrifying SAEs finally pop through the letterbox. Which might, but might not, be consistent with and helpful to a steady, thoughtful and thorough training in the craft of writing.
I’m very much in favour of people writing who like writing, and of supporting and encouraging and building community among them—mainly because it can be fun and therefore should be a freely available option, like that of riding a bike or kicking a football around.
But I suspect that ‘publishable’ is both too high and too low a standard. Not all writers will get published, no matter how hard they try, so the attempt might just be dispiriting or divisive. At the same time, not all published writers are the next Dante, so maybe in the grand scheme of things, of all that has been and is still possible in poetry, this year’s definition of ‘publishable’ and this years catalogue of things published don’t matter very much.
The Total Perspective Vortex was supposed to be horrible, but I think a more complete literary and historical perspective would make Creative Writing pleasanter and more interesting for students than the present focus on contemporary success. It’s nice to be told, for example, that your poem is ‘tight’ or ‘compressed’ (words which quite possibly mean, in practice, ‘accurately punctuated’ and ‘short’). But it’s a lot nicer, in a way, to be reminded that it’s foolish of you to borrow all your ideas from late T.S. Eliot when your writing is patently so much worse than his (or words more or less to that effect). My own poem might be terrible, but the space occupied by poetry in general is satisfyingly large. I might just jog slowly around in the park, but the thought that Joss Naylor ran seventy summits at the age of seventy inspires me, and helps me feel less jealous of the sporty types jogging around in the park more quickly than I can.
There is a definite risk here of sounding like Daniel Deronda…
People who do anything finely always inspirit me to try. I don’t mean that they make me believe I can do it as well. But they make the thing, whatever it may be, seem worthy to be done. I can bear to think my own music not good for much, but the world would be more dismal if I thought music itself not good for much.
… when sometimes one would prefer to rant and storm like Herr Klesmer, the Real Musical Genius of the same novel:
An honourable life? Yes. But the honour comes from the inward vocation and hard-won achievement: there is no honour in donning the life as a livery.
Here the blogger flings down her Wordsworth Classics Daniel Deronda, grasps her coat-collar in a statuesque attitude and so remains with a look generally tremendous, throughout the following soliloquy, ‘O night, O blackness, &c. &c.’ Meanwhile the impression may have been given that all this rambling comes from sour grapes. There’s probably something in that: frustration with oneself combined with an attempt to pin the blame on contemporary poetry at large in universities.
Why not write? or play, or sing, or run, or draw, or whatever else.—Usually because we are too busy, I suppose, and if Milo’s Phantom Tollbooth arrived in our room we would have all sorts of important things that would have to be done first. Even so, after April there’s May, and after May there’s June. Let’s do whatever it is sometime, just because—even if it’s just a little bit.