There’s nothing like a high-five from a published poet, especially if it’s the gifted Clare Shaw, to help you get over yourself.
Yes? Clare says.
I’m not sure if it’s any good…I trail off to look at the moon, tugging my scarf a little tighter around my neck.
We’d been talking earlier about the value of feedback – how validating it can be; even the negative stuff. On a recent Arvon course, my tutor Jonathan Lee told me three things about my novel: he didn’t like it when the writing became over-earnest, or when I strayed from the specific into making general observations, but he loved the wry voice.
It was hard for me to judge, with this poem (because I’ve hardly written anything that resembles poetry), which side of wry, earnest and general I had fallen. But when Clare asked me what I was worried about I couldn’t articulate a response.
I think I used the word ‘dickwad’, which is what I thought people would think about me when they read it.
Get over it, she told me, before adding that she would read it.
I looked around at everyone sitting out, some of them smoking, some of them just here to join the conversation, and suggested I read it to them all.
When they nodded I hurried across the driveway into the darkness towards my house so that I could fetch my notebook. Behind me someone said: she’s skipping.
I was. I knew I was about to pass from that point of not knowing anything about my work to knowing something.
As I read, I felt which two words could become one, which sentence didn’t belong and where I could say more. And when I was brave enough to glimpse up at my unexpected audience I met with the radiance of Clare Shaw. She was listening. No, more than that – she was with me.
Afterwards she leant over and we high-fived.
Wait, Jim Friel said – Jim Friel genius novelist – let me take a photo.
You’re a wry poet, Clare told me.
Very specific, Jim added.
And not over-earnest, I asked.
No matter how much of a role discipline plays in my work, settling at my desk each day and making sure I write something, it’s always important to have some validation along the way: even if it’s just to remind me to get over myself. Friends can tell you that what you have written is really good. But when you are encouraged from the mouths of experts in their field, there’s nothing better.
Clare’s poems in Head On are superbly specific, so that even though the experiences within them may not be yours, they become yours. Her titles draw you in, so that you are immersed in the poem before you have a chance to feel nervous that ‘this is poetry’ ‘it might be over my head’. And the reading experience is interactive. She will draw an image, but leave a part of it out of sight so that your imagination does the rest. Clever. Powerful.
And Jim – although he has written a handful of novels – is a poet in his writing. His novel A Posthumous Affair is a world of his own making, where language is formed about under new rules, his rules. Often, if I read a work where the words are profuse I get a sense of a writer, trying to be a writer. But Jim doesn’t have to try. He has created a world where words are everything, so each sentence is part of that lush creation: abundant, necessary. Every sense is pulled in. I found myself giggling at times at the brilliance.
If you haven’t read either of them, you must. Order their books, go down to the bookshop tomorrow, but in the meantime you can read my poem!
Whenever I come to do yoga I never want to
There’s always an excuse.
I feel too stiff.
Like a car wreck,
But like I don’t want to do much,
Other than lie around.
I’m doing yoga in bed today.
I’ll follow my breath.
I’ll see I’m taut.
Like a muscle in an arm-wrestle,
But like a contraction of the lungs
When you suck out of surprise,
And hold for what comes next.
I see I need to relax,
Which is tricky:
An achiever telling an achiever to relax.
‘Relax!’ I say.
Excuses are mud patties in the hand, behind my back.
But who, or what, are they for?