Thursday, June 11, 2009

So, how did poetry get into my life..?

Beware the throw-away remark about poetry, because it will always pique someone's curiosity. Recently Rachel asked on the memish blogpost about blasts from the past, just how I did get into poetry, because I had remarked that at the time of first-born's birth I wasn't much of a writer, nor a poet.

Oookaaaay. So, where do I start? I'd love,of course, to be able to say that my parents were mad into poetry and instilled a great love of it in me. The truth, as they say, is stranger than fiction.

Do I start with the scribbles I used to leave behind on my blotting sheet in the Draughting course I took, circa 1989?

Do I start with the play I wrote about St. Augustine, after a story I heard in Primary 6, circa 1979?

Although I'm sure you'd love to hear those stories, sometime, the real one is about how I found my way into poetry and got really, really hooked.

It all began with a chap who became known to me as Dermo Pegleg (back in 1994). At the time, I had recently joined the Open University, completing a foundation year in IT. I was in the second year, studying Computer Programming and not enjoying it one bit. In fact, I hated it. The only thing I had done with any success was to write code for a programme to pick Lotto numbers. I was looking for excuses not to study. And so, one night I went out, to what would now be called an open mic session in a pub, hosted by DP.

There were acoustic guitar players, interspersed with short, quickfire bursts of poetry from various contributors. Most of it was, well, shite. But there was one poem that I reacted to: it was written and delivered as a sort of rebuff to a girl (and women in general) for refusing to be interested enough to continue beyond a first date. This poem annoyed me so much that I went home ranting about it, and encouraged by my then-boyfriend, I wrote a riposte, which led on into writing other poems.

I didn't write that much in those first tentative years: maybe about fifteen poems or so. I'm really grateful that most of them have disappeared or got lost, because they were utter rubbish. Really awful rubbish. As well as writing, I was getting involved my community arts scene: I got a part time job in 1997 as a Newsletter Editor for the local arts centre where I lived, which meant I got to meet those involved in writing locally and foster friendships that have endured.

I remember sending some of those early poems to The, then recently launched, Stinging Fly (circa 1997?), and receiving a rejection that said though they weren't good enough, to keep at it: keep on writing and try sending again. Alas, I wasn't confident or savvy enough to appreciate what encouragement this actually was.

In the meantime, I read things that were recommended to me. Books about poetry. Books of poetry. Books about anything but poetry. Books like novels and books of non-fiction. I was a starved garden of weeds: books were my fertiliser, pens and paper my digging tools, language my seedbed.

In time (after producing two more children) I met my current partner (and produced three more, bringing my troop to six), I thought I should start into learning more about some of these poets and writers I had read about. I re-joined the Open University (2003) and decided to do a BA in Literature. I wrote more poems, fed by all the newly-acquired knowledge and old knowledge I had. I But I grew, and I learned to see the faults in all the stuff I had written, as well as what was salvagable. I still wanted to write poems and write them well as well as I could.

So, now I wrote and honed poems for real. I tried out forms, like sonnets or quatrains. I played with rhythm and enjoyed playing with words, just for the sake of it. I started sending out some of these later efforts. I got lucky in a journal in the States, after sending a good many submissions. One strike led to a few more, which in turn led to applying for Poetry Ireland 'Introductions' series. I got in second time around, in 2005. A whole pile of credits accumulated and I thought about submitting to a publisher. I sent out query letters to the four corners of Ireland, and one replying positively. I sent them a MS and I can still remember getting a phone call six months later, saying 'Yes, we'd love to publish it next year.'

After completing a BA in Literature, in September 2007, I started straight into an MA in Creative Writing in Queen's University, Belfast. I literally posted the last End of Course Assessment for my OU degree on the Friday and began the MA course on the following Monday in Belfast. I remember meeting the poets and writers on the first day of term and feeling like a fraud - so many there with awards and publication credits under their belt. Surely they would see through me, despite the fact that my first collection had just been published.

Across that wonderful year (07-08) I learned to trust what I knew. I learned to trust myself and to trust my work. My first collection sold very well. I learned to trust the truth of the people at readings across Ireland, in Scotland and in the UK buying the book and enthusing about it. I learned that I was also a good teacher: people trusted what I had to say about writing and poetry and I learned the thrill of seeing talent walk into my creative writing classes and watching them develop their confidence and skills.

All of this happened, because I mitched off studying computer programming and got angry with a man who wrote something I disagreed with! So now you know part of the story.


Rachel Fox said...

What a great answer. I love your step-by-step tale.

Totalfeckineejit said...

Great story ,B, it's alaways fascinating to know how poets/writers/artists started. And do you see that behind every great female poet is a little bollix of a man. We have our uses :)

Dominic Rivron said...

Interesting story.

"The only thing I had done with any success was to write code for a programme to pick Lotto numbers..." What, winning ones? :)

I once managed a little programme which played tennis very slowly, like those old crude computer games you plugged into the TV. Took me hours.

Liz said...

Barbara, love this background info on how you got started in poetry...very interesting...sure shows how one thing can lead to another...(and a big 80))grin to TFE for the the little-bollix-of-a-man line...: ))

you've got me digging back now...!

dubois said...

so maybe there is hope for me yet.. !

Clare Dudman said...

Yes, great answer - really interesting. It's strange how our lives pan out isn't it - which path we take...and how much it all depends on chance.

Kay said...

So very, very interesting, how things link and zip and spark ... and there's more! I am sure of that. Watch this space where Barbara is concerned!

The Bookaholic said...

Nice post and blog...will definitely be here again!

Jon M said...

Fascinating stuff, it's funny the circuitous paths we take and the chance happening that spark off our writing!

Jo Hemmant said...

Good to read the background......hello!

BarbaraS said...

Rachel, thanks - it's probably over-simplified, but that's more or less fifteen to fourteen years compressed into a blog post!

TFE, yes ye do have yer uses - and thank goodness for 'em. ;)

Dominic, I only wish I had got the programme to pick winning ones. I actually experimented with a dowsing rod to see if that fared better - actually I'm sure there's a poem in that!

Liz, everything feels like it all links together. It's like dominoes sometimes.

Dubois, more than hope. If I can do it, so can anyone. It's 90% perseverance!

Clare, destiny or determination, I often think it's the latter. We make our opportunities.

Kay, you are far too kind and generous :)

Bookaholic - glad you dropped by, thanks for visting.

JonM, sitting and thinking about it, it does seem a bit mad that I've come this far down the path. Who knows what's in store? :)

Jo, thanks for dropping in, have followed your link and am delighted to see John Walsh coming up in ouroboros soon - it's such a small world!

Dick said...

There's a bit of meme material here, Barbara. So interesting is this account of your gradual slide into the poetry process, others might be tempted into writing up their narratives too. Not me this time. I started at 15 with pretty much the sole intention of impressing girls with how deep I was. Somewhere along the line I had to acknowledge that it hadn't worked, but I carried on anyway. And that's it. Now, surely others can do better than that.

Debi said...

There's another planet out there where you're a computer programmer. I prefer this one ...

BarbaraS said...

Debi, that's a thought - in a parallel universe... agh! Doesn't bear thinking about...

Dick, that's not the worst of reasons, you know... you're halfway there ;)