Sunday, 19 August 2012


On the first night of a tutored retreat with David Morley and Deryn Rees-Jones, they announced they wanted us to surprise ourselves during the week. I did not react well to this. It felt akin to paying to laugh (I don't go to many stand-ups). How was I going to surprise myself on command? I (metaphorically) searched for the surprise, then decided I probably wasn't going to find any surprises. I was there to read mainly rather than write, anyway...

Of course it did. On day three, after a casual question about the animals I'd seen while sailing, all these tiny poems tumbled out about the sea creatures I'd sighted over the years: basking sharks, minke whales, arctic skua, dolphins, grey seals, puffins... Writing about them was wonderful.

They were quite unlike what I usually wrote, small, short lined, straight observations. Reaching back into memory (some were 15 odd years ago) gave surprisingly vivid images. The required forms were apparent from the start. I felt very fond of them, tender, rather than thrilled as I usually am at finishing first drafts. And overwhelmed at how they just kept coming. By the end of the retreat I had a small coastline of creatures.

Then the doubt set in. Who did I think I was, writing about these sea creatures when so many great poets already had done? Marianne Moore, Mark Doty and Kathleen Jamie have all previously written about one or more of the creatures I'd seen. I was just setting myself up for [pale] comparison.

Besides, how relevant is it to write about sea creatures? Who cares?

Whenever I start to doubt what I write I compare myself to this fantasy poet I want to be. This fantasy poet writes clever urban poems, that illuminate the economic situation (not unlike Sam Riviere). Or cool satirical poems (aka Luke Kennard). Or carefully crafted philosophical poems (Deryn Rees-Jones). Or passionately political poems (Adrienne Rich)...

But this latest batch weren't written by my fantasy poet. They were written by me. Who cares passionately that the sea mustn't continued to be ignored (except for the fear of it invading our homes/holiday homes and romantic views). Me who wants to celebrate its diversity, its creatures, to consider our relationship with them. Me who is as interested in music and rhythm as protest. Trusting these poems have something to add to the others already written is hard at times. It means they need thorough stress tests before they see the light of day: what am I saying? How necessary is it? How does it fit with (or not) what other people have said?

I want to call them eco poems rather than nature poems. The former genre feels more edgy, conjures up the warrier. As if that makes me a bit more edgy. Although...  Ecology. From Greek, house. "The branch of biology that deals with organisms relations to one another and to the physical environment in which they live. All poems are ecological by this definition."

It's like being at school again. Learning the same lessons. I'm not a cool kid. I can only be who I am. Standing by what comes out of that uncool loner means understanding authenticity. I never was, and never will be, Debbie Harry.