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The Process of Poetry, from first draft to final poem: ed. Rosanna McGlone, Fly on the Wall Press

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Far too often you come across volumes of poets talking about their craft, and you are left none the wiser. Rather than dispelling the mystique, they merely add to it. Now here comes a book that miraculously does the opposite.

“From my own experience as a poetry tutor for many years, it is clear that most writers have little awareness of the skill and stamina involved in crafting a poem.” That judgment certainly does not include the thoughtful, award-winning poets interviewed by Rosanna McGlone for her remarkable book The Process of Poetry, who proved willing to divulge the tricks of their trade with refreshing and valuable frankness.

The result, published by Manchester’s Fly on the Wall Press, is a fascinating and informative collection of interviews, in which each poet in turn discusses an early draft of a poem, and its finished version, as well as their general thoughts about the process of poetry. 

The poets are Don Paterson, John McCullough, Victoria Kennefick, Pascale Petit, Sean O’Brien, Hannah Lowe, Regi Claire, Gillian Clarke, Kim Moore, Caroline Bird, George Szirtes, Liz Lochhead, Mona Arshi, Jacob Sam-La Rose, and Joelle Taylor.

The questions covered in the book include, as McGlone lists in her preface: “Where does a poem originate? How do you decide on a title? When do you choose the form for your poem? What are the best approaches to editing your work? When would additional input help? How do you know when a poem is finally finished?”

How many times should you expect to revise a poem? Discussing one titled ‘The Sicilian Advantage’, which he eventually condensed into a sonnet, a favoured form of his, Don Paterson commented: “I write loads of drafts, though way less than I used to. Perhaps thirty for this particular poem.”

Each poet, of course, has their own method of revising. In Pascale Petit’s case: “One step that was important to me was the discovery that when I’d written my first draft, it was better not to edit it, but rather to rewrite it from scratch, or maybe with a couple of lines from the original which are most alive.”  

John McCullough stressed the importance of titles: “It’s very important to arrest a reader, to make them want to read the poem, so it’s good to think of the title as a vehicle for doing that, rather than as a purely functional thing. An original, striking title can really excite someone, and put them into a receptive mood straight away.”

McCullough is also interesting on how and why he became a poet: “As a teenager I was very isolated, partly because I grew up in a working-class area of Watford. I was bookish and I didn’t have any friends. I was gay, but I couldn’t tell anyone, so when I began writing poetry, it was probably more for cathartic reasons and a desire for emotional connection.”

Should a poem be easy to understand at first glance? Not according to Sean O’Brien, who maintains that “you can’t expect a poem to explain itself. Its job is to be what it is and do what it does, which means that some poems are necessarily difficult.”

And what about the vexed question of form, or free verse? Hannah Lowe believes: “To me, free verse is like diving into an ocean, whereas form is like diving into a swimming pool with lanes and lifeguards and safe boundaries. I really enjoy playing around with rhyme and meter to find the rhythm.”

Caroline Bird, on the other hand, says: “People think that free verse is free, but it isn’t. When I’m reading a final draft out loud, I might notice that there are too many syllables on a line. I’m not counting them as such, it’s more a case of learning the music of a poem as you’re writing it and then adhering to it.”

And this feels really important – Gillian Clarke on truth in poetry: “The truth is crucial. I never tell lies in poems, never. I don’t use false description to get a line. It won’t convince me if it isn’t real and what’s the point of not making it authentic? Any poem must come out of your own experience.”  

These insights only scratch the surface of the revelations, perceptions, and observations contained in The Process of Poetry, which has enjoyed impressive sales since its publication in December 2023, and which recently featured on the BBC radio arts programme Front Row. It will undoubtedly also feature on many universities’ set books list, if it isn’t on them already, and is highly recommended to any students and writers of poetry.

These are poets at the top of their game generously sharing their creative tips and thoughts. Many congratulations to journalist, writer and poetry tutor Rosanna McGlone for having the vision for this book, and for pinning down an impressive array of poets to deliver such insights about their craft.

 

The Process of Poetry: edited by Rosanna McGlone, Fly on the Wall Press, £10.99

 

 

 

 

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Comments

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Graham Sherwood

Wed 14th Feb 2024 13:45

I fully concur RAP and am on my second run through the book. In another life it would be the Haynes Manual of poetry (as if there could ever be such a thing). Nothing in the book is prescriptive but one finds oneself regularly saying 'I do that' or 'that a great idea I'll try it'.

Seeing rough drafts honed into finished pieces is fascinating!

Buy it!

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R A Porter

Sun 4th Feb 2024 22:59

This is a wonderful book, full of practical insights from fifteen leading contemporary poets on their process and how they develop a poem from a tangle of ideas into a finished piece. Being poets they understand the importance of precision and capturing big ideas in a small package. So, the book may only be 150 pages, but the content is far from small scale. Each chapter is a masterclass and, as many of the poets are also teachers, they communicate their ideas beautifully and memorably. Hats off to Rosanna McGlone, who has worked sensitively and thoroughly with each contributor to draw out their wisdom in a warm, engaging and intimate way. I am on my second read, this time making notes, and I know I will revisit this book many times - it is the best I have read for anyone who writes, or aspires to write poetry. Brilliant stuff - thank you, Write Out Loud & Greg, for nudging me to buy it.

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