Don't Write the X
Published on: 28 October 2009 Author: Nii Ayikwei Parkes
The award-winning poet and author Nii Ayikwei Parkes, writer of Tail of the Bluebird, became our second Writer in Residence back in 2009. In this blog Nii gave some advice on writing poetry.
One of the most common complaints I hear from poets is, 'I'm struggling to write an x'
Where x is a poetic form that might equal sonnet, villanelle or some similar abstraction - and I'm often tempted to say, you shouldn't be writing an x, you should be writing a poem. However, what my real response tends to be is something along the lines of: try writing what you want to say first and worry about the form later.
I believe that writing should be of no pre-determined form. Writing is expression; form is craft: conflating the two is a certain recipe for writer's blocks and other such ailments.
One of the joys of writing for children is the use of the full range of senses - sight, smell, hearing, taste and touch - which elevates the writing to a more interactive experience, an opportunity for exploration and learning, but this is also a kind of form. If you wrote poems for children with the senses as your only guide, a sort of 'I see, I smell, I hear, I taste, I feel' poem, then you would very quickly run out of poems or write very predictable, stilted poems; I believe that as in the example I gave earlier, it's better to write a poem and then craft it to fit the form it most resembles in its raw form, or, in the case of work for children, augment it with relevant connections to the senses.
Another approach when writing for children is collaborative work with other artists; because each artform has a focus on different senses (eg sight for painting/drawing, sound for music etc) they automatically trigger writing that draws on those senses. I once did a project with an artist called Gary Drostle for a mural to be placed on the streets of Lewisham and it was a great experience - I got to visit his studio as well as see him working with children from Lewisham Bridge School to create the images for the mural. I then worked with the pupils to write some poetry to be incorporated into the mural. Most of the work was very visual and the final, hybrid poem takes images and events from all the individual poems written by the group (I can't share their originals because I would need their permission, but the final poem is public work as it appeared on the mural):
A Day in Lewisham
In the morning
if I am very quiet
I can hear the birdssinging on roofs
as loud as the shouts of 'ten pears for a pound'
Today mum drags me
through the disgusting smell
of fish in the market
to the shopping centre.
I can hear the chugging of old red buses
struggling to get to the next stop...
men calling 'bananas get your bananas
all the way from the Caribbean...
'I see the rush of people in shops
spending until they drop.
Later in the park
the leaves in wet grass
are brown and all wrinkled.
Sometimes I wonder
if I can climb the trees
right to the top.
In the distance I can see my dog
barking playfully with another.
I let myself fall
onto the fresh soft grass.
As night falls
I go to the bottom of Hilly Fields,
cross the road
and wave goodbye to friends.
In the distance, the clock-tower turns 6
and I hear it go dong.
Lewisham is the best place in the world
for young boys and girls.
(the poem fuses excerpts from the work of Jade Thompson, Derek, Jason, Ashley Parker, Ben, Ayla, Farira, Rachel Hallam, and Alex of Lewisham Bridge School.)
The most striking thing for me, while reading the original poems from which A Day in Lewisham is derived, was how observant the entire group was to the time of day (which is reflected in the structuring of the hybrid poem). I never really understood it until many years later when a photographer, Diana Matar, was going to take a picture of me for the jacket of my novel. She said, 'I know a place with great light' - and then it hit me; they fact that the children had been asked to observe Lewisham specifically to write their poems had made them take mental snapshots of their lives in the town and their poems pulsed with the light and energy of the moments they chose. That, I think, is an idea that applies to my earlier comments on form, and sums this blog up nicely.
Regardless of form, your poem must pulse with the light and energy of whatever triggered your impulse to write.
Thus a pantoum would be a better form for a poem with repetitive energy than for a poem that leads to a single, condensed epiphany: the form must serve the poem, otherwise you've lost form.