It was announced earlier today that Deryn Rees-Jones’ new collection Erato has been shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot Prize 2019. It therefore felt only fitting that this week’s poetry advice blog came from her.
Named after the Greek muse of lyric poetry, Erato combines documentary-style prose narratives with the passionate lyric poetry for which Rees-Jones is renowned. Here, however, as she experiments with form, particularly the sonnet, Rees-Jones asks questions about the value of the poet and poetry itself. What is the difference, she asks in one poem, between a sigh and a song? Erato’s themes are manifold but particularly focus on personal loss, desire and recovery, in the context of a world in which wars and displacement of people has become a terrifying norm.
What first drew you to poetry?
As a child in primary school we were expected to write at least a poem a week. Each poem then had to be illustrated. I took these tasks very seriously and wonder if my interest in the relationship between text and image stems from there.
Where do you look to for inspiration?
The origins of that word inspiration are interesting, aren’t they, that idea of inhalation, but one that originated in the idea of bringing something divine into the human body. I have recently been working on an exhibition with the artist Charlotte Hodes. She has made a sequence of four images, now engraved on glass, with my captions – heat, heart, in-breath, unfurls. Glass is one of those transformative materials, which I have become fascinated by. I’m thinking about it a great deal, and in my mind it also connects with something that has also preoccupied me in the past — snow. I’m interested more generally in heat, in the idea of fire as a metaphor for the creative process. Those captions on glass, which evolved from our shared working and thinking, are a shorthand for ideas I have explored a little more relentlessy in Erato. I continue this thinking about creativity in a book length lyric essay – Fires — that will be published in November with Shoestring.
What poets or writers inspire you?
My work as an editor at Pavilion is a huge privilege, seeing books as they develop, working with closely with poets. I learn a lot from seeing that process, and from the close reading that demands. Current poetry books I am reading – Bhanu Kapil’s The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers, Mei-mei Berssenbruge’s Hello, the Roses. I read a lot of books about psychoanalysis as a theory but also as a practice, and I have also just started reading two quite different but enjoyable and wise books, Mary Midgley’s autobiography The Owl of Minvera, and Rosi Braidotti’s new book, Posthuman Knowledge.
What does poetry mean to you?
I have a bit of a bee in my bonnet at the moment about the way poetry sometimes gets claimed as this universal panacea or in some way becomes fetishized. Poetry is a very important and particular process, but it’s deeply connected to other things that its processes allows – thinking in deep ways, feeling, paying attention, engaging with a community of thinkers and readers, being in the world. I honour the process and the pleasures and excitement poetry brings. But I am impatient when poetry somehow becomes separated from those other processes of which it is a part, and then gets reduced to a commodity.
How do you balance writing poetry with working? If you write full time, what made you decide to do so?
I have a full and busy life, and I’m starting to trust a bit more that the method I seem to have developed over the years, of setting other critical writing alongside my creative work, is a useful synergy. I don’t feel the need to separate that process.
Do you have a writing routine? What is it?
I have lots of routines, most of which include the balance of full-time work in the university and childcare. School drop-off and pick up times, walking the dog are all structures built in to the day. I was recently on an extended period of study leave and I tried to work for three intense hours writing every morning in the local café. That time was ringfenced for critical writing and research, but poems inevitably creep in. If you parent small children on your own, life can feel very closed down in terms of the freedom to simply leave the house, take a walk, run out for groceries, have some time alone with friends. That has changed a great deal now and I am valuing the new freedoms but also, as I look back, valuing that enforced quietness and what it asked of me. I don’t have a specific writing routine when it comes to poetry, but the other routines mean there might be space when I need it.
How do you prepare yourself before sitting down to write?
I don’t. It’s more organic than that. You could say that even though I’m not writing, in notebooks, of which I have many, or on screen, that I am writing all the time, because writing is much more than sitting down and putting marks on the page.
What advice would you give to poets looking to get their work published?
Concentrate on the poems, read – what is being published now, but also engage with poems that have come before. Read internationally. Having a sense of what poetry means in cultures that are not your own is really important; understanding a poetic history as well as a context is really important.
Is it important to build a reputation by submitting to competitions, magazines and journals?
For some poets it might be, it’s one route. I’m more interested in that process as a testing ground for readership and the poem than I am in the idea of reputation.
Do you have any tips for submitting poems to publishers or magazines?
Write your best poem in the best way you can. It’s going back to the idea of seeing publication as a testing ground. Not all the poems in a book work on their own, but can be vital when assembling a book. Keep a humble and critical judgement. Leave poems alone for a while. Trust that editors, who are usually poets, have a good sense of what is working or not in a poem.
What methods do you use to overcome feeling disheartened or to keep positive?
We live in an age of soundbites, some of which are directed at least in a superficial way, at improving our mental health. Of course we all have feelings when work is returned or doesn’t appear to have been read after publication. Poets need readers, and it can be painful not to feel heard or relevant or understood, but processing that part of your professional life is also part of life. I’m more interested in the life part — how to live ethically, and joyfully, than some sense that we can guard against difficulty or pain without seeing that as part of a bigger process.
Do you have any other advice for fellow poets?
I wouldn’t presume!
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