Emerging possibilities: Making poetry with Sally Ann Murray (Part 2)    
Thu, 17 March 2022

In January, we published part one of a valuable and playful article by poetry teacher, Prof Sally Ann Murray, aimed specifically at students in tertiary education and those wanting a deep dive to develop their poetry skills. The second part follows... Enjoy!

Prompt yourself to try a different form
Take an old poetic form, for instance, and use it to tackle surprising contemporary subjects. This can be hard going – no one said the villanelle or the ghazal was a breeze. The conventions ask a lot of you as a writer. But do it anyway. You will emerge with a fresh respect for yourself as a working poet and an improved idea of how and when you are willing to abide by boundaries, and when you’d rather swerve. Overall, hope for the moment a poem breathes its own life, beyond your strategic control.

Welcome imperfection
Allow – welcome as a gift – the space and energy of not fully knowing and mastering. Poetry as a mixed-use area can be more engaging than a defensively managed private reserve. Also, think of how, due to the pandemic, there are signs everywhere that urge us to “Practise Social Distancing”. Do the same in respect of poetry: practise, over and over, yet without aiming to make perfect. Welcome imperfection as a necessary edge to over-sweetness and 20/20 vision.

Books on writing
Acknowledge the value of books such as Richard Hugo’s The Triggering Town and In the Palm of your Hand by Steve Kowita “portable workshop” volume. Hugo, for instance, cautions poets against the constant adage to write what you know. Instead, using the metaphor of a “town”, he says rather than always going back to the places and experiences of memory, why not invent your own town through the eyes of an avatar? 
Sure, this will be overlaid with some element of indirect remembrance, but it will also be a startlingly new “place”, in which strange, unknown events occur among a population of unfamiliars whose lives you, as the poet, are just beginning to know. I suppose his ideas offer me the relief of understanding that I am not burdened, as a poet, to write from the depths of my soul or to expose the confessional intimacies of my life; both of which can be variously trite or dull or too painful. There are definitely ways, in poetry writing, to move beyond the claustrophobia and even banality of the self.

Using the books’ advice
When it comes to books like Hugo’s and Kowit’s, granted, you won’t automatically produce a great poem or even a good poem by consulting these manuals. But the writers’ ingenious advice is likely to nudge you away from tired writing habits, inspire you to take more risks with your poetry writing, and try something you hadn’t considered before. In this vein, also allow yourself to consider poetry as exploratory, procedural writing rather than an intense, emotionally expressive utterance. Write in response to various prompts set or constraints delimited: a simple example – write five unrhymed lines on each of these subjects… a photograph, a stranger, a sound, a view, an opinion, a building. Never use the pronoun “I” or complete sentences. 
See what you arrive at, then rearrange, recombine, cut and develop. And then, as with all poems you write, leave it alone for a while, perhaps quite a long time, until the piece has become foreign to you, and – if you’re fortunate – found its own living.

Beyond your own narrows
Read poems aloud. Think about what is gained, beyond even the amazing spoken word phenomenon, when a page poem is breathed: an alertness to muted sound similarities, to line lengths in relation to breath, to the characteristics of speaking voice, to the demands of carrying an extended idea, or the compactness of a brief, imaged-based description. 
What are you reading? Don’t think only the greats and masters can teach you something. (Of course they can, but it’s 2022; there’s no point writing in the style and register of PB Shelley while ignoring the current writing and publishing scene...) Search on the web for poetry sites, and general literary sites, for example LitHubLos Angeles Review of BooksJohannesburg Review of Books and Poetry Foundation. While these are never neutrally curated and show preferred emphases and omissions, the literary journalism offers a regular shot of something other than yourself, taking you beyond your own narrows and out into the wider world of writing.

Who is writing new work?
Be alert to new poetry collections. Who are the new voices, from where do they come, what are the styles and subjects that engage them? How do you respond? It’s not a question of love it/hate it. There is an important matter beyond the emotional extremes: look for a poet’s strategies. Test them yourself. See what works for you and what doesn’t. (I recently read a poem arranged in two columns, as an interrupted/failed conversation. Yes, I thought, that is something for me to try. But: how do I pull this off without it being too tricksy or annoying or strained?)

What about form?
While we are, each of us, stuck in the bodies in which we live, few of us wear the same clothing each and every day. Why ought a poem to be always dressed in black? Or pink? Or mom jeans? Or drag? Or whatever? The only constant, really, is the writer’s desire to find the form that the subject matter requires. This may entail some disruptive steps and some leaps of faith that this rather than that might just work out. Consciously working a poem can really pay off. Don’t always opt for narrative voicing or descriptive realism. Sometimes, ok, but time and again? Predictable. Test your mettle. Risk trying your range and exploring its boundaries and the flexibility of its limits.

Think about syntax and grammar
To what degree is it necessary for a particular poem? Can you – should you – mess with conventional expectations, and if so, what’s the gain (and the loss)? Loosen up. Tighten. Be slippery. Be constrained. Understand that as a poet you have a toolbox at hand. Develop your technical skills and find the subjects in which you’re interested. You. Yourself. Yes, poets often engage the personal, writing their lives. But that’s only one part of the equation. 
The other involves questions of relation: with other people, places, histories, historical figures, stories and myths. The materiality of a poem might be a weird and layered space, one that only indirectly draws on “your life” and instead offers a palimpsest of selving inflected by a wide creative ambit that draws as much on invention and projection as on some “authentic” memory or “lived” experience. (I often find myself thinking when I read through a character in a book or follow a line in verse: this is as much my life as it is the world of imagination. Why must there be some neat division between the two?)
How will you shape your poem? This particular poem. And that one? Give this more thought. Consider how the form works with and against the subject matter. Aim for productive tensions, rather than mere ease of reading. (Or alternatively: rather than gnomically obscure poetic realities that work only in terms of your private mythology. A reader needs a point of access. And then, after entry, a reason to keep reading. Otherwise: who cares?)

How do you think of yourself?
Maybe, in the end (wait... from the beginning): don’t even think of yourself as a “poet”. Why limit yourself, why pigeonhole? Think of yourself as a writer or, more broadly, a person who sometimes writes. In other words, free yourself from the rigidity of old-style underpinning terms, among them the deadweight of genre: that this is a poem, that a novel, this one a script. Instead: play. Find the kind of writing that the expression calls for. Mix it up to create the writing that is your living need.