#PoeTips are back! This time bigger and better, with more advice from your favourite poets. This blog post is one of a series in which we interview poets in order to uncover their golden nuggets of wisdom. In this post, we interviewed Ailbhe Darcy, English Language Roland Mathias Poetry Award winner, and author of Insistence and Imaginary Menagerie.
Q: What is your advice for a poet starting out? What is the best advice you’ve received?
A: The only way I can give advice is to recycle the advice that was most helpful to me as a poet starting out. (I say “was” helpful, but I should say “is”. I am only starting out.) I was told, of course, to read a lot of poetry; but somebody, I remember, impressed on me with great fervour that I should especially read a lot of new poetry, I should read all the small magazines, I should take the lie of the land. That was great advice. I did my best to read contemporary poetry – I spent hours in the Poetry Library in London – but I didn’t understand most of it. And that was what hooked me. I remember sitting on my bed with a pile of collections by poets I hadn’t encountered in classrooms or lecture theatres and feeling that I didn’t understand at all what they were up to. I hadn’t a clue. I was baffled. I was fascinated. I ended up doing a PhD in contemporary poetry, trying to get the measure of it. I’m still baffled. I am only starting out.
Q: How is form important to you? What is your process when you write using forms?
A: Writing a poem is, basically, a process of finding the right form. That might almost be the whole job. You have something you need to write about, and you go out looking for the form to hold it.
Recently I’ve been finding apt forms in the poems of other women. There’s a long poem in Insistence which takes its form from Inger Christensen’s “Alphabet”. I needed to write about how it felt to bring an infant into the world at this particular moment in history, with the climate crisis unfolding. Christensen’s exploding, rhapsodic, heart-breaking form seemed the only adequate one.
Now that my child is older, and beginning to ask questions about what we’re going to do, beginning to ask questions about our governments, about responsibility and protest, about Extinction Rebellion and Greta Thunberg, I find myself borrowing another way of writing, from Alice Notley’s shunting, juddering epic The Descent of Alette. Once you find the right form, the form becomes generative: it pushes you (frees you) to write things you might never have written otherwise.
Q: How do you find inspiration? How do you overcome writers block?
A: These are two versions of the same question, since my experience of ‘being a poet’, if I’m honest, is of lifelong writer’s block interspersed with only very brief (intense) periods of writing. I spend far more time agonising over not-writing than I do writing! I’m getting better at not worrying, though. I’m getting better at recognising that everything I do, when I’m not writing, is part of the process. I keep a notebook, and I follow hunches. If something – a book, a film, an art exhibition, a place – seems related to a constellation of ideas that is taking shape in my notebook, I’ll seek that thing out, spend time with it, and document it. It might be months or years before that thing emerges from my notebook and becomes part of a poem. So ‘inspiration’, for me, means sitting down with my notebook, reading through it and suddenly seeing how a constellation of ideas, words and images might combine to create something.
Q: Could you suggest a writing prompt which you have found useful?
A: Writing in repetitive forms can be generative. Anaphora is easiest. Start with a phrase you like; a phrase from your notebook, something you’ve been wanting to write about, or a half-line from someone else’s poem. Then simply write a series of sentences – say, three pages’ worth of sentences, using that phrase as the beginning of every sentence. Write the phrase out each time; it gives you just enough time to think of the second half of the sentence. Don’t stop to think. Let each sentence go wherever it wants to, however strange or daft. The repeated phrase will keep bringing you back to your subject. Chances are, you won’t use most of this material. But maybe it will generate something strange or interesting, something you can use.
The more difficult version of this exercise is to write a ghazal, a traditional Persian form in couplets, in which each couplet ends on the same repeated word. Choose your word according to the subject matter you’re chasing – a noun is probably best. (True ghazals are far more complicated than this, but it’s okay to ignore the other conventions for this generative exercise: reaching the repeated word each time is tricky enough for starters.) The end-point of this exercise mightn’t be a ghazal at all, but simply by attempting the form you’ll generate material – most of which you’ll cut, again, but some of which might surprise or intrigue you, enough to suggest the direction for a poem.
Q: What’s your advice on dealing with rejection?
A: My mum, who is a writer, taught me early on to welcome rejection. She told me that a good writer should receive so many letters of rejection that they can wallpaper their office with failure. One of my earliest ‘successes’ as a poet was a letter of rejection from The Stinging Fly magazine, in which the editor took the time to give me some critical feedback on the poems I’d submitted. I thought that the editor must have seen some promise in the poems, or she wouldn’t have bothered, and I felt very encouraged. I learned to take each rejection as an encouragement to revise the poem: a prompt to make it better and send it out again. That would be my advice.
When my first collection, Imaginary Menagerie, was published, Joey Connolly, who is a wonderful critic, wrote a mostly positive review with some serious criticism. The poems, he suggested, were often entertaining and tricksy, but without any substance. That review had a big impact on me. It worried me for ages and then it downright distressed me, and then eventually it made me mad and I worked like hell to write something wildly tricksy, tricksy as all get-out, and I’m grateful to Joey for where I ended up.
Have a look at the rest of our #PoeTips interviews for even more brilliant poetry advice from leading poets. Happy writing!
We're delighted to announce that submissions to the Women's Poetry Competition and Pamphlet Competition are now open!
This is the second year we have partnered with Mslexia to bring you two exciting competitions promoting women's poetry. The top prize for the Women's Poetry Competition will be £2,000, mentorship with PBS Selector Sandeep Parmar, and a residency kindly offered by Cove Park. The winner of the Women's Pamphlet Competition will receive £250 at publication of their pamphlet by Seren.
Entries are open from the 1st of June until the 16th of September, 5pm GMT. You can submit online by clicking the Submittable button below, or click here for more information about the prizes, including the terms and conditions, and alternative ways to submit.