So. Here I am in a field (fortunately in a tent as well), reflecting on today’s writing workshop at Catalyst Festival. I wanted to do something on the necessary disciplines of editing and revising: we are still too tied to the romantic and spiritual ideal of inspiration. We spend a lot of time thinking about how the initial process of creation happens, when we push back against the void, whether white page or blank screen, to make something, but we spend less time thinking about what happens next, when that formless, unshaped thing needs to be licked into shape. (And licking into shape is a very appropriate image: remember that a bear cub, newborn, has no form until its mother, by repeated application of her tongue, creates limbs, torso and head.)
I wanted to give experience of critiquing, to start to build those editorial instincts that can be used to turn the ‘all right’ into the extra-ordinary. What better way to begin than by offering one of my own poems for study?
I chose a recent piece which is still in its early stages, here it is:
or Under it all a seed
Disorder is reduced
To a more rational register
Shift to silence
The marks and symptoms of disease
are disinfected as they run
Tongues of satisfaction
offer the warmed sky simplified matter
then subside to harder contènt
After bitter resistance
settles down to grey
What would they make of it?
First, the basic question of ‘what is it about?’ A surprise for me there: turns out I must have had my obscurity dial set to high when I gave this a title, as only one out of the nine people round the table said ‘fire’. Acacia Baileyana is an Australian tree, the seed of which only germinates after it has been heated by a forest fire. It turns out not many people know that.
Once I gave the hints they started to make sense of it a little more, and I received useful comments: the first two lines might fit better at the end, the marks and symptoms of disease need to be clarified, the pairing of long and short lines could be tightened. All good stuff, which I will ponder.
But the best thing is that those nine people have spent time analysing someone else’s work, and are beginning to develop some of the skills needed to analyse their own.