Dark-tied and properly suited,
back at my in-laws’ place, I’m here
to make sure the flat is intact.
The same portraits are standing guard
and the same piano keys grin
with their yellowed teeth. Rosaries
lay coiled on a sunlit table
like dozing, sated rattlesnakes.
It’s time to rehearse my report.
Everything’s still where your mother
kept it. I lock up and head home,
humming fiercely to wrestle off
the creeping, ransacking silence.
In this series Ink Sweat & Tears talks to practicing writers about their process.
1. Where do you write? (do you have an office, room, bus journey that you find yourself and your writing?)
I write prose books in a converted garden shed. I like leaving the house for a designated space, and my wife, novelist Lesley Glaister, likes me out of the house when she is writing. Poetry tends to happen anywhere – bed, train journey – and goes longhand into a notebook – to be revisited in the garden shed.
2. How do you write? (into a notebook or straight onto a computer?)
See above. Prose I mostly write straight onto computer. I am slightly surprised this works for me. I now find my handwriting distractingly bad. I revise by printing out, hand editing, then entering changes.
3. Roughly how much time do you spend each week on creative writing related activities? (writing, editing, correspondence & submissions)
I would guess about 30 hours. But once you count in email and YouTube…
4. What time of day do you usually write?
Hard prose work from c. 9.30 to lunch. Admin and revise in afternoon. Poetry whenever it presents itself – often early morning in bed.
5. What does it feel like to write?
Lit up, turned on, tuned in, properly alive. When it works, it’s the only time I feel intelligent and interesting to myself. Life moves from problem to topic.
6. Are there any stimuli that will usually trigger you into writing?
Nothing reliable, but walking or reading someone else I’m into, often does it. It’s a palpably different way of attending to the inner and outer world. It’s a shift out of yourself.
7. What are you working on now?
Poetry. After At the Loch of the Green Corrie I have nothing much left to say in prose (I hope that changes). Revising poems for autumn 2011 Bloodaxe collection As Though We Were Flying. Also a book-length sequence of poems that came very quickly last autumn, Found At Sea will need looking at after a break. But other new poems still coming – the latest ones out of illness-induced insomnia. Multiple drafts of three of them are on my table here.
*Andrew Greig has published eight collections of poetry, most of these with Bloodaxe, including The Order of the Day (Poetry Book Society Choice), This Life, This Life: New & Selected Poems 1970-2006 and now As Though We Were Flying (2011). His six novels include In Another Light (Weidenfeld
& Nicolson, 2004), which was Saltire Scottish Book of the Year. He
lives in Edinburgh and Orkney with his wife, novelist Lesley Glaister. His most recent publication is Getting Higher: The Complete Mountain Poems
You angle the plastic stick. You check the instruction sheet. Pee gets on your fingers
Outside dopplered music heralds the approach of an ice cream van. Children shout, a dog yelps in time to Mendelsshon blasting calliope style from loudspeakers.
Children come running.
You think of the tent at the garden féte: wind walloping the roof, notes flying against it. Your new Alice band tightening, your fingers light on ivory keys. Spring Song from Songs Without Words. Careful to stroke the arpeggios gently, notes quiet and tranquil like a harp. Your timing immaculate. Your first prize.
The stick waits on the bedroom sill. A neighbour’s child cries. A burst of April sunshine spotlights your talcy footprints, new lines at your mouth, your music trophies’ marble sheen: ‘I would like to take this opportunity…’ You were careful never to leave out important names. Careful not to slip on the steps from the stage. You wore killer heels. Cameras flashed. You were blinded.
Outside a drainpipe drips like a fast metronome. Your fingers tap absent keys, trying to catch up.
*Valerie Sirr holds an M. Phil in Creative Writing from Trinity College, Dublin, and her fiction has been widely published. She is the recipient of several literature awards, including the Hennessy New Irish Writer Award. She teaches creative writing and literature appreciation.
(after Palm Sunday, Anselm Keifer)
Deep in the root ball of the ship
the plant collector is making a nest.
He counts his catch, tucks each seed
in its own hand-labeled box, ebony
cabinet ticking with paused hearts.
He dreams one day of growing
a fresh desert, of dried moments
in the old land coming back to life.
And as he waters the dust, sailors
sleep and no-one sees the woodern
mast dancing in tune to the wind’s
song until, reaching for water, it leans
too far, loses balance. White sails,
like baby gowns, christen the sea.
*Sarah Salway is a novelist, blogger and journalist, and currently works as the RLF Fellow at the London School of Economics. Find out more here: www.sarahsalway.net
The Lion Tamer
Beyond the bars, the circus crowd sits pale
to watch the beasts perform the tricks they loathe –
They hope that I, their tamer, may just fail.
But with my whip I will control them both.
I have outfaced the adulating crowd
and I have learned to ride the lions' rage –
My early quest for freedom had its shroud
in fame found here within the circus cage.
For freedom, I pursued the painted lights
(while others dreamed of flight in tame unrest)
in tearful longing past a thousand sights –
Within my trade, today I am the best
and watch the crowd behind its fearful mask
and watch the painted lights that will seduce –
The lions' foolish master, thus I ask
if there's still time to put my life to use.
*Thomas Orszag-Land is a poet and award-winning foreign correspondent writing on Eastern Europe and the Middle East. His poetry has been published by The Spectator and The New York Times, his reviews and polemics by The Times Literary Supplement and Poetry Review. His most recent major work is Deathmarch: Holocaust Poems translated from the Hungarian of Miklós Radnóti (Snakeskin, England, 2009).Read More
Anne Stewart The Janus Hour, Oversteps Books 2010, ISBN 978-1-906856-16-8 £9
Many of the poems in this collection challenge the moral standpoint of the reader. We are invited to understand the motivations of a series of violent men from murderers to wife beaters; the women we encounter are no less provocative, including a serial one night- stander, and girls who have turned being 'saved by a man' into a temporary expedient.
One of the most challenging explorations of men and violence comes in Oh, Careless Love a poem that daringly offers a male perspective on an abusive relationship. Stewart's image of the man dragging “the girl off the bus into skew-braked van.” is a powerful vignette that effectively represents the history of the man's violence towards this woman.
The “girl” is deliberately marginalised to divert our attention onto the motivations of the man. However she is allowed two lines of direct speech that brilliantly sum up not only her situation but the rational behind the man’s obsessive behaviour “you can make me afraid but you can't make me love you”
In the poem Grandfather both reader and protagonist are caught up in a quandary. How can the narrator square her version of the man she loved as a child: “To me he was a smiling giant”, with the man the rest of the family knew “their man, his list of cruelties.” There are no specific examples of his crimes instead Stewart plays to our imagination with the dark hint about a man “at ease it seemed, as long as he wasn't displeased”.
The poem tackles well the turmoil such a contradictory character can leave behind. The adult narrator clearly feels guilt for being the granddaughter who “did not displease.” This is effectively shown in the repetition of “I was the only one” which suggests a sense of isolation within the family created by her special treatment.
One of the most memorable female characters is the eponymous female in Young Girl Waking. Stewart does well to explain the complex motivations that drive the girl to seek one night stands over a monogamous relationship. Her loneliness is evoked in the single stark line “the careless threat of a man-less night”. The poem's poignancy lies in the truth that just as the girl feels ready to take a chance on a relationship, “He was the sort of man she might have loved” it is clear that she chose the wrong man: “he listened, and was never seen again.”
I get a sense in these poems of young women confused about their standing in a post-feminist world. The freedom to enjoy one night stands is at odds certainly in this poem with an underlying fear of commitment, which in turn conflicts with a fundamental need to be loved.
Stylistically Stewart employs an excellent device here. The poems begin with concrete scenarios then disintegrate into abstract thought as the personae grapple with the dilemmas they face. Consequently, the reader strives to follow the train of thought thereby tasting the confusion the characters are suffering.
One of Stewart's most interesting ideas is an inversion of a woman needing to be 'save'’ by a man. In Guitar Picking Love Song the female is not a powerless victim unable to help herself; rather she uses the man and his help as a temporary solution to her problems. The power in this relationship lies with the woman since she is able to capitalise on the man's love that is clearly not reciprocated by her.
These poems are counterbalanced by works dealing with long term relationships. Yet these are by no means conventional love poems. Heart of a Dog is shockingly honest in its evocation of a middle aged woman's feelings for her husband. The women's attitude towards the man is set in the first stanza “and wish I didn't wish my man was you.”
Stewart makes it clear that the husband is not an intrinsically bad man, the woman is simply listing the differences that over time have become polarising until “In some dreams, I almost leave.” I can think of no poems this candid about the realities of living with one person for many years.
However our faith is restored in monogamy as the narrator comes to the conclusion that “With you, I find my right place… With you, I am able to maintain it. Leave? Leave who?”.
Love & Unemployment
I want to be so
that our limbs wrap about one another
all those perfectly practical
that keep you⎯ separate⎯
the atlantic ocean, your boyfriend, my unemployment⎯yours, our drinking, the way my teeth scrape the spoon, suicide..
Ah, fuck it.
Just⎯all of them.
*Heath Corlew says “I have an MFA in creative writing from Queens University of Charlotte. I live in Asheville, North Carolina where I work all sorts of part-time jobs to support my writing problem.”