Hello! Continuing on our "Living Spaces" series, we have Katherine Stansfield's first set of notes as she worked on a poem that you, lucky reader, will eventually get to read. Not many people get to see a poem in progress!
Notes on some notes that might become a poem
12th December, 2012
I’m quite particular about notebooks. I use an A5, unlined black Moleskine, take it everywhere, and write hurried notes in it. I find that the quicker I write in the notebook, the more useful the notes are. If I slow down, I start to self-edit. These notes are sometimes single words (recent examples are ‘beckon’, ‘hoopla’ and ‘shilly’) or phrases that appeal because of the sound (e.g. ‘I post coats home’); these may well go into poems later. Also rushed onto the page (perhaps a bit more leisurely in this category) are ideas that I think have ‘got legs’, i.e. good subject matter for a poem (e.g. ‘Calista wants to eat firelighters’). Sometimes I’ll make a lot of notes at once which cluster around the same subject, and these will form the body of a poem quite quickly, retaining the order and form, even whole lines when they migrate from the notebook to an A4 page. Very rarely do I find that a poem ‘writes itself’, which many poets speak of, although recently I had great success with a poem which due to the speedy clustering of note-making made use of some interesting internal movement or narrative, by which I mean I felt like the note-making, free from editing, allowed me to break out of narrative structuring patterns I suddenly (through writing this poem) realised I used. Someone who reads my work regularly, on seeing this poem, commented that it felt very different to most other poems I’d written. I sent it off to Magma, and the editor said that when he came to it in the submissions pile it was distinct, and he promptly accepted it. Huffington Post in the UK filmed me reading it for their website: you can view the video here:
But this is rare. I go through a great deal of re-writing, crossings out, re-ordering, cutting back, to get the final poem. Sometimes that takes place in the ‘safe’ space of the notebook, the site of the original notes. I will ‘work up’ a notebook page quite heavily, so it’s almost illegible, before moving out to A4, which, for me, represents a commitment to the poem. If I’m on A4, it could fail, whereas in the notebook it’s just notes, just ideas. Running out of space in the notebook sometimes forces me onto A4 before I’m really ready. I’ll often leave a long gap between making the original note and going back to it to develop it. Sometimes weeks, sometimes years. This usually means that there aren’t any pages next to the original notes to spread out onto as part of working up a poem. I like to cram things in and keep the same notebook going for as long as possible. Plus, blank space in a notebook, even around good words, fills me with dread. I’m compelled to fill it in. I work by hand on A4 through several drafts (usually a minimum of three or four), over the course of a few days (I try not to leave too long a gap between drafts once I get to this stage of writing) before moving on to a computer document.
Here are some notes I made in the notebook about two months ago:
There’s no such thing as pandas – all men in suits. End on – they’re having you on. [crossed out here is ‘It was Newsround that’] I cut my teeth watching Newsround. Epiphany – and then I saw/knew. [this last sentence is in a different coloured pen so I’ve added it later]
The initial motivation for writing these notes came from seeing the popular video of a panda jumping in shock when her offspring sneezed very loudly:
The panda’s reaction made it look unreal to me, suddenly, like a person in a panda suit, and then I thought that all pandas look a bit like that: overly large and somehow pretend as an animal. And that made me think of Newsround which I watched avidly as a child. The ‘and finally’ sections of the program, in which light-hearted news stories countered whatever horrors had just been presented in the main news section, seem, in my memory, to consist almost entirely of panda stories. Pandas arriving at zoos, pandas not mating, pandas pandas pandas.
I really like the original image and the ‘I cut my teeth on Newround’ line. Sometimes I go off things once they’re written down and they never make it out of the notebook. Notes will often include instructions to myself, like here: ‘end on’ and ‘epiphany’. As a writer I’m not hugely interested in poems which announce their own construction as texts (though I enjoy reading them), so these ‘notes to self’ within the notes always get removed once the poem reaches the A4 stage.
I don’t often have a conscious sense of form for a poem at note stage, though line breaks can appear here in a quite definite sense, through awareness of sound, which then shape the rest of the poem. With this poem, I really wanted to have something to enter the current Magma poetry competition which has a special category for poems under ten lines. None of my poems are ever that short and I wanted to force myself to do it (plus, rather cynically, I was hoping less poets would enter that one). I had this panda poem in mind for the competition so I’ve been thinking of it in terms of being ten lines or less. As I type this the deadline is four days away and I’m not sure I’ll have it finished it time as deadlines don’t help me write poems (although, as I write this, I know that what I really mean is that if I haven’t written for a while – the current situation, due to teaching – it’s painful to start and I don’t really have the courage at the moment). Maybe writing this for Contempo will help?