Poetry: A Dirty Job But Somebody's Gotta Do It
Gail Radley is the author of 24 books for young people. On her website Radley considers herself primarily a children's writer. Until recently she was Sullivan Visiting Lecturer in English at Stetson University in Florida.
In an article in the Writing Essentials section in The Writer Magazine (July 2017) she focuses on trimming the fat, spotting those unnecessary prepositional phrases, like ‘from which’ and ‘there are’, and words like of and the, which often get inserted into a piece on automatic pilot. I've become better at spotting those since doing Kevin Higgins' Over The Edge online course, because he has a very sharp eye for those and always pulls me up on them — in that sentence alone, I had written ‘will always’ until I re-read it and realised that the word ‘will’ was totally unnecessary!
There were many examples of redundant use of adverbs (which are an acknowledged no-no) but less obviously in adjective use too. ‘We've become so accustomed to hearing redundancies that it's hard to identify them in our own work,’ she says, and I know I, for one, struggle with that.
I love her observation that ‘Having to adhere to a strict word count is helpful, as it forces you to question each word and phrase. So, by the way, does writing poetry.’ ... which I wholeheartedly agree with :)
Hidden in the Words
Also in the July 2017 issue of The Writer is an article by novelist Susan Perabo, titled ‘This Week on Extreme Hoarders, creating fully developed fictional characters that are not secretly you.’ In addition to being a novelist and short story writer, she is also Writer in Residence and professor of English at Dickinson College, Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and on the faculty of the low-residency MFA Program at Queens University.
Susan looks at how writers begin by writing very autobiographical pieces.
‘When we're teenagers and we start writing, we normally do so because we have one really, really important story to tell, and that is the story of ourselves. There is no other story in the whole wide world as interesting and important as the story of ourselves.’
By the time we're grownups, we've mostly accepted the fact that there are other interesting people in the world. And yet, somehow, many of the characters who inhabit our stories, still wind up thinking and acting remarkably like us.
I wonder how much of this also has to do with so many writing classes advising students to write what you know. I always tried to do the opposite of that! I write to throw myself into the lives of people who live far more exciting or intolerably mundane lives than mine. In an unsettling turn up for the books, a story I began writing about 15 years ago, in the opening chapter the protagonist's wife leaves him in a manner disturbingly similar to how my partner would leave me ten years later. I'm always on the lookout in case I'm getting too close to the characters that turn up in my poetry!
The Day Job
Do writers retire? I'd be surprised if many do. Even if you don't put down your pen and intentionally stop writing, I bet the brain waves are still moving in writerish patterns. I don't think I'll ever observe a person behaving unusually without my mind wandering and a story beginning to take shape unbeckoned. I'm always interested in the day jobs that writers of any genre do and how they fit their writing in around those roles. In the two articles mentioned above, both authors have day jobs in the teaching arena, passing on their expertise to other writers. I probably know more poets who have day jobs related to educational or publishing organisations than anything. I myself am aiming to return to my alma mater to study for an MA in Creative Writing, which will help me tighten up my poetry as well as throwing me in at the deep end of writing either long fiction or plays for the theatre and the radio. In my sighted days, my day job used to be as a Chartered transportation planner, writing long range (5 and 10-year) strategies for city and county councils. The work world never seeped into my poems from that time, but most of the poems I wrote began their lives scribbled down in notebooks at lunch, or on post-it notes at my desk. Blindness can be a difficult barrier for somebody who lacks the confidence to travel anywhere outside the house by themselves. The last time I tried that I walked 50m down to the bus stop in my village, turned around to retrace my steps back to my front door, and managed to get lost just doing that! For me, living in the relatively secure complex of a university campus, especially one that I used to know well, feels like the right combination at the right time :)
Doing the Sums
Poets, perhaps more than any other writer, know there ain't no money in poetry, but even longer form writers rarely live off the royalties of their books. Day jobs are de rigueur
Philip Larkin famously worked for 30 years as a librarian at the University of Hull, whilst writing 4 collections of poetry, The North Ship, The Less Deceived, The Whitsun Weddings, and High Windows. He was also jazz critic for The Daily Telegraph from 1961 to 1968.
'It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.” It’s been a long time since that sentiment was true of jazz. But for Philip Larkin it captured something essential about the musical form he loved more than any other.
Jazz was his companion from his teens until his death in 1985, the thing that buoyed him up when he was down in the dumps, the pastime that soothed his lonely hours in “digs” and oiled the wheels of many of his friendships.
In The Independent, Sunday 16 August 2015,John Henry Walsh talks about his attempt to follow in Larkin's footsteps.
Life as a librarian: How a young man's attempt to follow in the footsteps of Philip Larkin and Casanova ended in ignominy
My career wasn’t going well. I was 21. I’d just left Oxford with an English degree and no immediate prospects. I’d applied to about 20 London publishers, languidly explaining that I was available, given the right salary, to accept a job with them, commissioning and editing books with my unique blend of insouciance and rigour; inexplicably, I’d heard nothing back.
Then my father told me that one of his patients worked for Wandsworth borough libraries, where a junior position had fallen vacant. “You’ll be surrounded by books, it’ll get you out of the house and you’ll have earned some money by Christmas, even if you give it up by then,” he said.
I thought about it. It wasn’t a cool profession, but Philip Larkin worked all his life as a librarian in Hull, and Casanova ended his life as librarian to Count Joseph Karl von Waldstein of Bavaria. Borges wound up as director of the national library of Argentina. Even Mao-Tse Tung had been a university librarian for a while. There was no disgrace in being the chap who lent out books to people, and pointed out a sign saying “Silence” to rowdy patrons.
Being a librarian would be nice, spending your working days dusting shelves of books, but I'd have loved to have trained as an archivist. I've always loved cataloguing things! Before I made the switch to electronic music files, I had over 2,000 cassette tapes, CDs and vinyl albums in my collection. Every one had a unique number, and, for the classical recordings, I had a lever arch file filled with sheets of A4 paper, on which every piece was listed, alongside the number of the tape, CD or vinyl album it was on, plus shorthand for the orchestras or the surname of the soloist. I'd love to train as a literary archivist, though without being able to read historic manuscripts that might be an unrealisable ambition. I always used to say “I'm coming back as a cat” but these days I think I'll come back as a database :)
Reading Poetry by Starlight
One of my fellow winners in the 2016 Cinnamon Press Poetry Pamphlet competition, Sarah Watkinson, combines a less literary life with her writing one, uniting them both in her winning pamphlet Dung Beetles Navigate By Starlight
I spent most of my working life as lecturer and researcher in fungal biology in the Plant Sciences department at Oxford university and am still associated as emeritus (i.e. retired). My latest fungal publication was the jointly authored textbook The Fungi, for Elsevier, 2016, and I am rather proud that Dung Beetles followed only a year later. While I was a fungal biologist, specialising in the dry rot fungus — much more interesting than you'd think, because of its fantastic destructive chemistry— I was also tutor in charge of undergraduates studying across biology, and hugely enjoyed their progress, especially the ones who shared some of my own research interests and did their own research projects within my area. I love the synergy between teaching and research, the combination of synthesis and new questions.
On retiring I took the Oxford Diploma in Creative Writing where I met the wonderful poetry tutor Jenny Lewis. Not only did she teach me to write publishable poetry, she also suggested she and I run a science poetry event, SciPo, which has now run for two years and will I hope happen again on 9th June 2018.
All Work and No Play
I think my internet provider, BT, must actively recruit technology that refuses to work. I think I can honestly say, with no exceptions, that there has not been a single Sunday, the day for my blog posts, where I've not had to fiddle around in the network settings or rebooting the router, to possess a connected internet. Wouldn't it be great if, across the world, internet hardware stopped working on a Sunday morning so it could write poetry :)
#TheWriterMagazine #Larkin #Librarians #Fungus #GailRadley #SusanPerabo #SarahWatkinson @SusanPerabo @sjwatkinson @CinnamonJan