What is your tutor up to? Garry MacKenzie
Last year I wrote a blog introducing myself and outlining what I was writing at the time: a long poem about a mountain and its herd of red deer, which is partly a translation from an old Gaelic poem, and partly an original piece bringing together contemporary ecological science, environmental issues and the politics of land use in Scotland. I’ve since completed the poem – you can read some of it in the online magazine The Clearing, and there’s a long article reflecting on my practice here.
I’m now working on a new collection of poems provisionally titled ring-net. In this blog I want to share some of the ideas behind this collection – I hope these inspire you to think about how you might explore a single subject or theme through an extended group of poems, stories or flash fictions.
As the title suggests, ring-net is a book about nets. I’m interested in the rise and fall of the fishing industry near where I live – the decline was caused by overfishing brought about by improvements to trawling nets. I’m writing a sequence of poems that tells the story of this industry, the men and women who worked in it, and their lore, traditions and superstitions. The sequence is both a tribute to a culture which changed rapidly over the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and an environmental parable about the intentional and unintentional effects we have on other species. Telling this story through a sequence of poems allows me to shuttle forwards and backwards in time, focusing on key moments, ideas and images.
But I’m also haunted by something which the American poet Jorie Graham said in an interview for the Guardian: in poems, ‘things can be adjacent and the adjacency creates a glow of meaning’. I love this idea that readers find meanings in the relationships between all the different things which are brought together in a poem or a group of poems. So in ring-net the fishing sequence is interwoven with poems exploring other kinds of nets, from nets in nature (like cobwebs) to net-based technologies (such as knitting and the internet). The challenge is stimulate that glow of meaning, to find ways of bringing such discrete subject-matter together in a meaningful way. In order to do this I’m experimenting with ‘net sonnets’, brief poems which weave together words or phrases taken from longer poems in the collection.
I like working on a long poem or group of poems unified by a theme. It means I don’t need to reboot every time I sit down to write: instead I can return again and again to the same subject, coming at it from different directions and in different forms. I find that working structure helpful, as it means my subconscious is relating everything I come across in daily life to the theme.
I’m interested in how working on a group of poems over a long period of time – at least a few months – affects their content. I tend to find that when I’m working on any writing project that takes more than a few weeks to complete, the original, clear idea for the piece gets swept up into everything I’m reading, doing and thinking about. If, while I’m writing about nets, I find myself reading about wakeboarding, or space travel, or the rhythmic pattern of an Elvis Presley song, I’ll try to bring ideas and words from those subjects into contact with the original project. I love the possibility of going in unexpected directions.
Finally, I’m really interested in what nets mean to you. Do you come from a fishing background? Can you wax lyrical about the moment when a football hits the back of the net? Are you a knitter, weaver, or maker of some other kind of net-like object? Does your neighbour watch you through net curtains? Do you have a spiderweb tattoo? If you’ve any thoughts about nets, I’d love it if you shared them below…
mesh image © Garry MacKenzie