Wednesday, 3 August 2016

Pivots and Pips

PhDs skew your sense of time. I have alluded to the oddness of the academic year – as opposed to the calendar or financial year – before, and perhaps, as Jay Griffiths notes in her marvellous book, Pip, Pip: A Sideways Look at Time, all of these constructs of time are wedded ineffectually to modernity’s idea of a grand, linear narrative, wherein we progress in one direction through space-time. In any case, I have completed the first ‘year’ of my PhD, but in reality, despite having (successfully!) passed my Stage One APR (for those not in the know, this is basically the same as a probationary APR in a job: a semi-formal meeting in which you show evidence of how well you think you’re doing, and a panel either corroborates that or tears you to shreds) I have actually been working on it for just over ten months.

Great book, highly recommended

Ten months, twelve. Meh, this feels like a good time to reflect on where I’m at and where I might be this time next year, at the end of Stage Two (Oh, God). I started work on this project with a suite of poems based around the Stringing Bedes walks I co-led last year. Those poems’ early drafts were aired in the – largely – run-down church halls of South Tyneside, often to one man and his dog, and later reworked in meetings with Bill, Alex and Paul, and after (largely positive) scrutiny in my APR by Jake Polley and Margaret Wilkinson, so they feel like the most ‘complete’ of the thirty or so poems I have written so far.

A number of the poems I have written in the first year have gone on to be what I would term ‘linchpins’: poems that will hopefully be key, thematic concerns of the collection. One of these was ‘Each Pebble its Part’, which I wrote in collaboration for the Northern Landscapes exhibition which aired during the Newcastle Poetry Festival in May. Ostensibly a response to Bunting, the reason I think the poem was so important is that it allowed me the freedom to say, ‘Look, Basil, while I bloody love Briggflatts, your idea of what the North is is very different to mine.’ That poem was published fifty years ago. Half a century might not mean a lot, hundreds of years later, when critics are surveying a particular poetic tradition or movement, and I certainly wouldn’t be egotistical enough to suggest that anybody will be reading my poems in 2216, but writing Each Pebble... felt pivotal in that I became at ease putting enough distance between myself and Bunting to say that, while my work is indebted to yours in many ways, it is also very different.

Of course, the problem with saying a poem is a linchpin is by association it suggests that the others aren’t as strong. While it’s true that there are poems I have written that won’t make it into my final submission, never mind the manuscript for the collection, these poems are perhaps as important linchpins in their own right, for on reflection, they reveal where the writing shouldn’t be going, or where it’s failing, as much as where it is succeeding and making important and fresh statements.

Come to this, please.

I opened this post referring to time, and that is certainly something that is threading through the work already. In a supervisory meeting a while back, I was advised to look into the history of South Tyneside more; that perhaps in honing down from a fairly large geographical area (the North-East) to a smaller one, I might be able to say more succinctly what I want to say about being from this place. All of this was working, until the 23rd June, when you-know-what happened.

Like many poets and writers I know, I wrote a few things in the immediate aftermath of Brexit, one or two might still have legs in six month’s time. But it’s very difficult to write about such a pressing issue when it’s so fresh and so much is being pumped out about it. The annoying thing is that not writing about it feels just as bad, but I do wonder whether biding time might prove to be a more useful strategy.

Two other poems set outside of the region (Bell-end alert: one of them took second place in a prize...) also now feel like important moments not only in the collection, but I suppose in my thinking overall about my wankily-titled thesis and its claims to belonging and palimpsests and whatever else it claims (I do actually know what I’m doing. Honest). I don’t know if there’s a yardstick of time after which it’s OK to write about a place, but in my case it has certainly taken a full ten years to write poems about Chester and the surrounding area. Actually, both of the poems I refer to, along with at least one more currently in draft, are set in North Wales, and are predominantly concerned with the ‘elsewhere’. These are poems that attempt to counter the collection’s central impetus (that the North-East is the be-all-and-end-all); to unearth its anchor and perhaps show that maybe, just maybe, the sand it was wedged into wasn’t so secure to begin with. They are poems about the place-that-is-not-a-home-but-could-become-one-if-only-it-wasn’t-so-weird-and-oh-yeah-I-forgot-about-the-economics-of-home-and-in-truth-the-original-home-is-weird-and-oh-Christ-curveball!

All of that is pretty cryptic, isn’t it? Back to time: in the poetry world, things tick along at a glacial pace (or not, as terrifying recent news about the rapidly-warmingclimate shows), with poems often not appearing in journals for at least a year after they’re finished, and many more years in pamphlets or collections after that. So, yeah, maybe check back in 2020?

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