Sunday, March 09, 2014

A Head Twists on Both Ways

I've always been interested in the differences between poets and fiction writers, partly because I'm someone who writes both - yet historically, there are very few writers who were equally good at both. Hardy and Lawrence come to mind; yet other examples are quite few and far between. Yet many contemporary writers try both. Sometimes its clearly a sidetrack, such as novels by Sean O'Brien or Simon Armitage. Often, one is abandoned at some point, like Larkin's fiction, or Sarah Hall's poetry. In other cases, the success of one overwhelms the other - thinking of Margaret Atwood's fiction over her poetry, for instance. Some novelists have been "occasional" poets - think of Anthony Burgess's "Byrne" and his translation of "Cyrano De Bergerac."

Since the start of the year I've been mostly writing fiction, and the notebook that I carry around with me has been nearly empty as a result - for though its not always the case, I tend to write poetry longhand and fiction to computer. A lot of emerging writers on the contemporary scene seem to write poetry and short fiction - and there's a point where I was beginning to think that it is the novel that is the outlier, and that short fictions, flash fictions, prose poems, poems are all very closely related; yet I realise there's probably something else going on here.

A bit like a toy doll, being a writer gives you a head that twists on both ways: and sometimes that's prose and sometimes that's poetry, and it seems when it's the one, its not the other and vice versa. At least in my experience. For when I'm writing a story I'm concentrating on structure, often colouring in an idea that I've had so that the "boat" is watertight; yet with a poem, though I'm obsessing about line and form, its more like a colander or garden riddle, something which contains and holds, but which lets the detritus escape. I visualise the two forms in that way, as well - so I think of a poetry in abstract terms, as a visual or musical representation that is nice to look at, but ideally can't be paraphrased; whilst a story is more sculptural, or filmic, a physical thing with a particular corporeality to it.

And it seems that my head needs to be recalibrated for the different tasks, the different skills. There are moments of crossover of course; stories that are as mysterious and abstract as certain poems; and poems that tell a story. Recently I wrote a poem about a drunken writer in the bar who "used to be someone", but the poem didn't really work. I realised suddenly that this was the subject for a story - and the story, when completed, did the job perfectly well. I'm not sure it would work the other way round... yet looking at those writers who have written successfully in both formats, I think its often that their concerns are shared between the different medium.

For despite the apparent ease with which poets try their hand at fiction now and then, and the likelihood that most fiction writers have some poems somewhere, they generally do seem different breeds. The main difference is in their reading. I know lots of poets who hardly ever read long fiction - and this might be why the "short story" appeals to them, as something they can fit in with their poetry reading. Similarly, though for different reasons I think (poetry getting less publicity than novels for instance), most of the novelists I know might enjoy the odd poetry reading but they rarely read or buy it. Oddly, on Facebook, the poets are far more active than the novelists - finding an outlook for all those words they don't have room for in their poems perhaps, whilst the novelists are in a corner scribbling down any conversation for later re-use.

Yet given a clear wind I've written a novel in a year, rarely more, though its been a while since I've had that clear wind. Whilst a collection of poems would take me, I reckon, four or five years. The sustained poetry writing that some of my peers do, as its "what they do", is something that doesn't come into my work pattern.

So here I am, apparently writing fiction - short, and long - again; poetry hasn't so much taken a back seat, as is sitting their on the hob in a slow cooker, slowly gaining flavour as I try and put together a full collection. The calibration of my head is different and I've written two stories since Christmas, with three or four in various states of disrepair. There are poems as well, of course, but they feel accidental of late. 

As someone who writes both, and, I hope to think, with equal faith in the mediums, I wonder if "success" in a particular direction would send me into one camp or another. There are plenty of contemporary writers, like Sophie Hannah, Nick Laird and Helen Dunmore who manage to keep both plates spinning, so its maybe not that unnatural a balance - the irony is that "literary" kudos attaches more to poetry, whilst monetary success often attaches itself to long fiction. Beginning to read Eleanor Catton's massive "The Luminaries" I'm not exhausted as much by the length, but the longeurs. For though I've been writing fiction of late, its been of the compacted variety - the pace of a long novel is both more sedate and much baggier. The pleasures are shared equally between the mediums.

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