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"How I write"

by Gordon Jarvie


1. First of all, get into the zone, as we say nowadays. It may not work for you, but certainly if I’m trying to work on a poem I must first and foremost clear my head of all extraneous matter, trivia, worries, obsessions, unrelated hang-ups. Switch off the radio. Only then will I be able to get my mind into gear, and give myself over properly to the creative process. I become a zombie then, to all other intents and purposes. (As my wife will confirm.) No background distractions are feasible. Creative writing is single-minded concentration: my attempt at zen.


2. Always let the poem come to you. You may wait years for it, especially if you are rich in years (I speak as a septuagenarian), or you may wait just a day or two. Endgame (Greenwich Exchange, 2016) has examples of both timescales. ‘Cemetery by the sea’ (#10) was a simple two-day elegy, written after contemplation and a few scribbled notes. I didn’t want a standard eulogy. Likewise ‘Beyond Kilrenny (#11) was almost spontaneous, again written after a few scribbled notes when out for a walk with the dog. On that occasion I was fortunate enough to have paper and pencil in my pocket: rare for me.

Alternatively, I occasionally find nuggets from my memory-bank that have lain dormant and forgotten for decades. The second part of ‘A house called Kaduna’ (#5) waited 40+ years to emerge. And various snatches for ‘Scotland’s placenames’ (#35) knocked about in the worry bag for several years before that poem began to coalesce by a slow accretion into its current published form.


Writing to order doesn’t on the whole work well for me. I’ve done a few commissions, mainly for ex-colleagues moving on to new jobs or retirement. But too many duds have appeared following that route-cum-cul-de-sac. So I could never make a successful Poet Laureate. And if I have been required to write a poem about/for a person, I need first to like and approve of that person. I have always declined commissions to write about people I dislike.


3. Always let a new poem marinate. That is to say, don’t try to rush poems into print. Let them wait for a few weeks if possible. Give yourself time to forget about them. It will then be possible for you to look at them again con ojos limpios (with new and clean eyes) and consider your texts more objectively. How well do they work? That is the question. At this point one decides either (a) to live with a poem, maybe after a few tweaks, rearrangements or occasional big revisions, but mainly in my case by paring away extraneous bits. Or (b) one concludes that – for whatever reason – the poem hasn’t worked, and consigns it to oblivion. For me, the latter process is not painful, perhaps surprisingly.


4. Once out in the big bad world, forget about these poems. Publishing a poem is for me a sort of letting-go. It allows me to move on to new stuff. If I hadn’t published my first collection, there wouldn’t have been a second. And so on. There would have been too much detritus in the worry bag, and no brain-space for any new poems. I find that, until poems are consigned to print, I’m footering about with them endlessly, adding a comma here and taking one out there. It’s pathetic, a sort of creative paralysis. So publishing a collection is a vast catharsis for my subconscious, which thereby becomes liberated and de-cluttered. Now – summer 2016 – seems to be no different; Endgame is about to be published, and I’m pleased to report that a few new texts are already beginning to knock tentatively at my door. It’s as if nature abhors a vacuum. On a larger scale, it was the same after the major clear-out of my selected poems, A Man Passing Through (Greenwich Exchange, 2014). Out of that liberated brain-space has emerged Endgame. And so it goes.


5. A much earlier attempt at describing how I write a poem was in fact a poetic version of the topic. This 1997 poem’s title is ‘How do I write a poem?’ (#1, in A Man Passing Through) and it is perhaps rather obviously out of the same stable as this piece. No apologies for that; the earlier version is still valid. Before appearing in my Selected Poems, the poem had its initial appearance in Ayrshire Recessional (1998), my very first poetry collection. The text is in five parts, or acts. Here it is:




Often like this.


Act I – Genesis

I take a long evening walk.
After a time it gets dark
and my body picks up a rhythm
as words and snatches of phrases,
idioms and puns and wordgames
start shooting star-like in my head. 

Sometimes I start to get lucky
and pick up coagulations –
patterns, sentences, sequences,
and I play around with these
like any astronomer. Words
find each other , bombard
one another like atoms
in a lab experiment. Shards
and odd fragments come together
and coalesce. I’d grow crystals
if I were a chemist, or cultures
if I were discovering penicillin.

It is then that I sometimes think:
‘Was that the makings
of a poem or three? Is this
to be one of those evenings?’

More often than not, it’s not.
So I think no more about it.


Act II – Notes and scribbles

Sometimes, later on at night
after a bath, or some other work,
I sit down with pencil and paper
to revisit the mental sequences
that accompanied my walk.

Semi-legibly, often in no kind of order,
I slam them down on the page.
Then I leave them and go to bed,
and sleep the sleep of the just.


Act III – First drafts

Later, maybe next morning,
or after some weeks or months,
I may return to my scribbles,
recalling the rhythms and feelings
that accompanied my walk
of last night or weeks ago.

If they still give a positive charge
(i.e. if I’ve not forgotten them),
I will then type out my scribbles,
turn the odd cliché through ninety degrees,
filleting as I go. Then begins
to emerge the skeleton of a poem.


Act IV – First readings

Act IV is to read the draft
to a group of critical listeners.
They tell me if I’m saying anything
to them. If they start to go on
about the form of the poem,
I know I’m on a hiding to nothing –
the medium has fogged the expression.

Best advice if this happens: bin it.


Act V – Into print, or not

Last phase of all: sometimes
I try and get the poem printed
in book or magazine. Occasionally
I am successful. Usually
I forget who I’ve sent the damn thing to,
although nowadays I try
to be a little more methodical
with my poetical efforts.


Coda: A Non-Government Health Warning

The time and motion folk
will be horrified to know
that for every poem of mine
to complete this curious course
twenty fall at the first hurdle.
Two or three progress as far
as the back of a misplaced envelope
or fall down behind a drawer,
or get shoved in some forgotten place.
One in ten makes it as far as Act IV.

A wriggling sperm has more chance
of being the lucky one
that gets to transform
the waiting ovum
than one of my poems has
to see the light of print
and publication.

So what? That doesn’t seem
to bother me too much
or stop me doing it.


Poem © Gordon Jarvie, 1998, 2016