Four talented emerging writers were offered professional guidance and support in developing their work for publication in Westerly, both in print and online. We are now delighted to be able to showcase their work here at the Editor’s Desk, while we celebrate the publication of their work in the new Westerly 65.1.
My family increasingly say ‘Uh-oh’ around me when I’m staring intently at something or muttering ‘Look at the light’ or similar. ‘He’s gunna write a POEM!’ they yell, like a bomb’s about to explode. It’s pretty hilarious, yes, and it makes us laugh and makes me feel a little bit silly. But it also makes me feel a little bit proud. Sure, getting distracted by the finer, often-overlooked details of the surrounding world can seem a little spacey at times, or maybe a bit pompous. But it also signals, to me, that I’m on track with two of the key aspects of writing poems, which have become more clarified throughout my time in Westerly’s Writers’ Development Program (WDP): reflection and presence. In this piece, I’d like to share some of my developing thoughts about the balance of reflection, inspiration and presence in the writing process.
It seems that the act of writing a poem is often thought of as a universal sort of process. First, inspiration comes, suddenly and startlingly. Then, either a poem can be written fully-formed, or reflection on this inspiration occurs in a deliberate mulling and steeping of ideas over time. In reality, though, I think that the process of writing poems is idiosyncratic: each poet writes in subtly or significantly different ways. The above model doesn’t capture several aspects of my process. While inspiration, that magnificent slice of subliminal clarity, is often the start of the best poems, reflection is the key; it is the mental pacing around the gift of inspirational clay in the workshop of the mind, taking in all angles of what you want to express and how exactly to go about the sculpting.
For me, reflection (I’ve just decided) isn’t really a mulling or steeping; it’s that consideration of edges and angles that happens in the moment of writing. In taking that inspiration-stimulus and finding in real-time the best way to express it. In selecting exactly the word that fits on that line, exactly where to caesure, to fit that phrase of inspiration, to end. For me, that’s usually how my poems are written, substantively. There’s often inspiration to begin, then I reflect-write. And then occasionally there is the mull-ponder-steep, the how to make a ‘finished’ poem (is it a thing?) better, but generally only when the inspiration-reflection-writing steps don’t produce quite what I wanted.
This explanation makes it sound as if all this is conscious, or something I’ve really thought out over time. If it seems like that, well… it isn’t. It’s something that I’ve only recently begun to understand. And that has been one of the biggest boons of this WDP process for me: I’ve learned that to be a better writer, it’s important not only to learn, to hone craft, but to know thyself. So much of the improved productivity that’s come from this process has arisen from dedicated efforts towards better self-awareness. That self-awareness is of how I write, of habits good and bad and where my greatest improvements may lie, but also of how I am positioned in the world: in relation to the places and people and events I draw most inspiration from in writing, to history and ‘nation’, to my own past and qualities and shortcomings and emotions, to other writing that I do and don’t encounter.
The guidance of my skilful, supportive and incisive mentor Lucy Dougan has been a big part of this. As for any young person, encouragement and praise from someone I admire has been hugely beneficial. Criticism has been even more useful, especially coming from someone so intelligent, wise and established in the field. And Lucy’s most influential guidance has been about pace and presence. About being open and observant, to and of sounds, sights, the environment and people. About not rushing.
Through the process, with Lucy’s guidance, and from reading and writing, I’ve realised that’s always been my focus: to become better, to hone craft and learn how to write with ‘Accuracy, Spontaneity, Mystery’—the three qualities Elizabeth Bishop named as most important to the poetry she loved, as Lucy told me (Bishop 703). Having work published is exciting and enticing; but for me, it’s actually improving that is often most satisfying. And being conscious of the process of writing is a useful tool to encourage improvement. So in the interests of considering my writing practices, I’ll try and demonstrate my ideas about reflection, as well as what I’ve learned from Lucy about presence and awareness of unique detail, with an example poem.
I was sitting studying one evening and my mind was wandering. I was considering Foucault for a lit theory unit, but also procrastinating by daydreaming and conjuring, eyes closed, the feeling of walking through thick bush. The lines ‘Walking through forest’ and ‘Backwards panopticon’ popped into my mind. I wrote them down.
Then I got back to study. A few days later, I read those lines again and, on this occasion, they held in them a feeling, a sensation, an idea that I knew would be worthwhile exploring further. These lines were the inspiration-clay, containing all that poetic potential within them, ready to be paced around and reflected on. I took those inspiration-lines and wrote from them, some lines ‘forming themselves’ and others producing moments of pause, of decision about which synonym was most accurate, most spontaneous, most mysterious for its role within the poem. Current reading always influences style and content consciously or subliminally; in this case, flipped Foucault worked perfectly, I thought, for the feeling I wanted to convey. But ‘backwards’ wasn’t quite right. I reflected, and settled on ‘inverted’. This decision was a conscious one, but many are instinctive. The second-person perspective, for example, wasn’t something I specifically decided on. But it works well, I think, to extend the idea of vulnerability in the environment, conveying a sense of the persona being watched and sensed. Line breaks can also be instinctive, but often have a particular effect; breaking between ‘you’ and ‘entirely’ seems to emphasise ‘entirely’, to again underscore the all-pervasive sense of vulnerability I’d like to communicate. With this mixture of deliberate and instinctive reflective decisions, informed and influenced by observation and a focus on presence, the poem began to take form. From the inspiration-lines ‘Walking through forest/ Backwards panopticon’ came this:
Walking through forest
you are entirely seen.
Inverted panopticon trails you,
sensations of sensing
tickling from every direction.
Every surface aware of you
entirely. No matter how you slide,
creep, run, the eyes and electrics
(plant animal organic)
will surround you.
Once you’ve felt this,
known it and marked it
it will be with you everywhere;
even (or especially)
Through reflection in the act of writing, I teased out that inspiration-feeling of being alien and vulnerable in a landscape, while being simultaneously entranced by and drawn to it. This poem could use some mulling-steeping to keep working at it and to extend and deepen some of those ideas. But, thanks to the process of reflection in the instant of writing, that exciting and generous gift of inspiration-clay is on its way to finding the form that I hope will genuinely convey the feeling and meaning I’d like it to.
The process of writing and revising this reflection has been a really interesting one for me. It could be argued that a conscious consideration of how you do anything (writing, thinking, conversing, driving, even breathing) could hamper the more organic and unconscious aspects of the process and make it feel laboured or contrived. But I don’t actually think that’s the case. Instead, awareness allows for conscious influence of a practice, in emphasising and prioritising the most productive parts of that practice, tackling the limitations of habit or comfort within it, and interrogating the ethical implications of how you go about it. For writing, I’ve found that this kind of opportunity to consider and critique often-unconscious approaches can be hugely stimulating and motivating, particularly when it’s associated with a desire to extend and improve. And what better way to do that than in an amazing program like this WDP, with supportive mentors and spectacular opportunities? First, to sit and dedicate a few days just to writing (a novel experience for me) at the Katharine Susannah Prichard Writers’ Centre. I wrote new poems and typed up old ones there to the tune of 3000 words and was inspired and motivated afresh. Then, to have a workshop with the other WDP participants and Kate and Jo, producing nice work and clarifying how this whole industry works. Also to live-Tweet from the Festival of Lit and Ideas, and hear from and meet exceptional writers and thinkers. And most of all, through all of this, to be challenged. By what I read, what I heard from Festival speakers and mentors. About writing (and my writing), as well as my place and the place of writing in the world.
And the greatest challenge is to be present, to notice and observe. Not that I’ve ever found that difficult per se, because it’s what I love, perhaps most in the world. But no matter how much you love it, it’s hard to maintain. And really immersing yourself in experience and observation within and against distraction and outside pressures is often exhausting. Occasionally, it can even be annoying or at least humorous for others; my family’s ‘Uh-oh, POEM!’ bomb-type comments are testament to that. And even though they’re teasing me, and even if my grandfather doesn’t like most of my poetry because it doesn’t rhyme or ‘paint a clear picture’ (OUCH), reading and writing, for me, really do have the impetus of an explosion. Simultaneously, they have the impetus of soft rain on the palm trees outside my window, and of the reflection of a tiny moth in a light bulb. Thanks, Lucy and Westerly, for helping me understand a little better how those fit together for me. Oh, and thanks Mum, for always helping that understanding too.
Bishop, Elizabeth. “Writing Poetry is an Unnatural Act.” Elizabeth Bishop: Collected Poems, Prose and Letters, edited by Robert Giroux and Lloyd Schwartz, Library of America, 2008, pp. 702–706.
Riley Faulds is a twenty-year-old student of Agricultural Science and English at the University of Western Australia. His poems have been published in Rabbit and many birthday cards of family and friends. Estuaries delight him.