Facing up to what you really don’t want to try
Do you ever find yourself mentally shrieking, no, no anything but that? I often find myself trying to persuade dyed-in-the-wool poets that they’ll gain a lot by writing short stories and learning about narrative and structure. I tell short story writers that their dialogue will benefit enormously from writing a script. And I tell scriptwriters that having a crack at poetry will hone their language skills. I also tell students that the form should fit the idea – some ideas are too long and complicated for anything except a novel, others too short for anything other than flash fiction. Some are too visual for anything other than a stage play, others too sound-based for anything but a radio play. But it wasn’t until I read Manifold Manor, by Philip Gross, that the point of poetry sank in. At the end he says, “Really, the difference between poetry and prose isn’t to do with lines and rhymes. Ordinary prose can tell you what has happened, but poetry can make it happen to you now.”
For decades I was terrified of poetry. It all seemed so incredibly technical and difficult. I didn’t see the point; I wanted to tell a story. So when I did my MA I made myself face up to this and do the poetry module, even though the scriptwriting one beckoned as I’d already had five radio plays broadcast. What’s the point of doing a course if you don’t learn something new? I struggled. It hurt. I came to realise that this was something I had to actively learn; with prose and playwriting I’d been able to just launch in and have a go, and it seemed to come naturally. I hated maths at school – learning about different verse forms and scansion and feet seemed remarkably similar. However, the more I tried things out the more interesting it became, and I realised that the point of all these verse forms was that each one taught you something different. You found out what you didn’t want to use, as well as what you did.
Eventually I did manage to come up with something that was worthwhile, and I won the Cardiff International Poetry Competition with a sestina in 1999. One of the things I learned through writing this very structured form was that a lot of poems need to be started at the end, rather than the beginning. In a sestina, the six words at the ends of the lines are repeated throughout in a strictly determined order. If you want to make it more difficult for yourself you make them rhyme. But because you have to fit all six into the final three lines, it’s best to write the end first. The other thing that stops those six words hitting you like a sledgehammer is to find ways of incorporating them into well-known phrases or sayings, or multi-syllabic words that can be cut in half.
Of course, it may be genres rather than forms that you find yourself avoiding. I’ve had a go at science fiction, fantasy, historical, erotica, and humour… but I still can’t write a detective novel or a thriller, despite attending a number of forensic science courses. Yes, I know all about blood splattering and cyber-crime and poisons. And I haven’t given up yet. One day I’ll manage it. Why don’t you have a go at something you hate? You may find you learn a lot more than you expected.