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Embracing trial and error | Simon van Schalkwyk    
8 days ago



We all know that serious writing requires discipline. If only, we tell ourselves, we could keep to the same practice, day after day, perhaps we might manage to produce something beautiful and memorable.
 
Sometimes it is liberating to hear from poets who are less systematic. Simon van Schalkwyk is an award-winning poet whose debut collection, Transcontinental Delay, was published to critical acclaim by Dryad Press (www.dryadpress.co.za) in 2021. He is also a senior lecturer of English Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand and the academic editor for the Johannesburg Review of Books.
 
“I always feel slightly uncomfortable,” van Schalkwyk says, “about offering advice for aspiring writers because I suspect that most writers work towards or have already arrived at a process that works for them and which may be very different from my own. I am also suspicious of step-by-step how-to guides to writing because, while they may well be helpful, I feel that they are narrowly linked to a market attuned to the conventions of the best-seller rather than to any genuinely creative purpose.”
 
Rather than advice, Van Schalkwyk prefers to describe his own disciplined but freewheeling practice.
 
“The most interesting thing I’ve recently come across regarding the nature of poems and poetic writing arrived via the platform formerly known as Twitter, where Caroline Bird praised Carrie Etter’s anthology, Grief’s Alphabet, as a collection that gives voice to ‘soundless keening,’ the grief that cannot speak. I think that this is right. But, of course, this understanding of poetic writing makes it very difficult to offer advice to aspiring writers.
 
“As for my own so-called ‘process’, I’m happy to confess that it proceeds by trial and error. I’ve never been particularly organised or methodical when it comes to creative writing. My current process consists of jotting down or revising idle thoughts saved on a Google Drive document and accessed via my Android phone. Sometimes, I take snapshots of these efforts and post them to Instagram where they seem more impersonal and therefore easier to look at with a critical eye. I usually delete them, returning to them when I have time to tinker with them until they look and feel ‘right’ to me.
 
“This part of the process is largely technical, and difficult to pin down, but it has something to do with my general sense of how a particular poem or poetic sequence fits into some prefabricated and very general idea. When I write, I write what comes to mind; but when I revise, I try to shape the poem around or toward this general idea. At the moment, the idea informing my writing is actually two ideas: the first has something to do with what I imagine the world of business and finance sounds like, and the second has to do with unseasonal, even apocalyptic weather systems. And so you have the language of finance on the one hand and the language of ecology on the other.
 
“Given this tension, my interests are with disturbing the linguistic conventions associated with these discourses. I’m as frequently after the wrong or estranging word as the right one. In the end, perhaps I write to firstly test my ear for who says what and how and, secondly, to keep my writing at a remove from those more familiar patterns of speech. And, of course, none of this is possible without a willingness to read widely, generously and attentively.”
 
In the next few days, write a poem in which you describe your approach to your own creative process. Is it systematic or haphazard, chaotic or orderly?
 
The AVBOB Poetry Competition will reopen its doors on 1 August 2024. Since the project’s inception, it has been committed to promoting poetry in all of South Africa’s official languages. Visit our extensive archive at www.avbobpoetry.co.za and share in our amazement at the range of experience represented there. Follow us on social media for news, announcements and opportunities.
 



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