Sarah James

the possibilities of poetry…

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Smile!
Sisters Together 72dpi 1024pixels-005

Once upon a time there was a little girl, a little girl of about six or seven, a little girl of eleven or twelve, a little girl of 39, going on 40. Poetry pulsed through her but her heart was lined with spikes, arteries thick with icicles.

Every day, the little girl said, “When I grow up, I want to be happy.”

Every day, a wise man whispered back in the wind’s howl, the sea’s leap and crash, the sand’s sift and shift, the river’s rush and ebb, the leaves’ crackle and settle, petals’ blow and drift, loose feathers’ lift and sigh. Sometimes this whisper was so hushed that it was impossible to hear clearly. But, when she listened carefully, there was a sense of meaning.

What the wise man said, sometimes softly, sometimes sharply, was:

“First, you must learn what happiness is.

“If you cannot laugh, start by practising a smile.

“Slowly

     “– day by day –

          “curve your life to this.”

Writing Prompt

Write a poem/story inspired by the picture above/on the previous page. Smile as you do this!

plentyfish cover (1)At poetry readings, I often enjoy hearing about the background to a particular poem. ‘Wednesday Reflections/Sometimes I smile’ is my attempt to share the inspiration, frustrations, pain, philosophies and thoughts that lie behind my poetry collection ‘plenty-fish’. Each Wednesday, this blog will contain one of these ‘poem biographies’, as well as points for potential reader discussion and also writers’ prompts. My collection ‘plenty-fish’ may be bought from Nine Arches Press, here, or my website, here. More Wednesday Reflections on other poems in the collection can also be found here.

1-The Emptiness of Uncut Diamond-001 panormaicsometimes I smile

A PDF VERSION OF THE WHOLE OF WEDNESDAY REFLECTIONS/SOMETIMES I SMILE IS AVAILABLE HERE: Sometimes I smile for website 08-07-17

Reflections/poem biography for Oil and Water

oil & water

“the black spot is on our hands.”

Initial inspiration for this poem came not from the news, politics or environmental concerns but sheer appreciation of Earth’s beauty when viewed from above.

The opening details come from observations that I jotted down while on a plane back from Cork after I was chosen for the Coventry-Cork twin cities poets exchange. This trip to Ireland had made me think a great deal about history embedded in the land and, from the plane windows, I could imagine the world below set out in archaeological layers.

But it’s hard for me to write about landscape and nature without considering what is happening in terms of wars, pollution and environmental damage. The T.S. Eliot framework from The Waste Land, drawing on older Fisher King legend, seemed inevitable.

Around this time, I read a newspaper article on the effects of fracking in Texas. Fracking has always concerned me. Scientific figures about its safety may be cited, but statistics in politician’s hands often seem to be wielded like dangerous weapons. My common sense and instinct say that submitting the land to such immense pressure and not expecting it to have potentially drastic effects is folly. (I have seen documentaries on the possibilities of supervolcano eruptions in the Yellowstone Park and how far away the impacts of this might be felt. In a way, fracking feels like the physical, geographical equivalent of a panic attack – but on a worldwide tectonic-plate scale!)

Within these considerations, I chose to play with a shifting ‘they’ to explore the way modern western society seems to pass blame and avoid taking responsibility wherever possible. But ignoring the reality has to end somewhere, we cannot wash our hands of everything. Ultimately, it’s our world and we all have to play our part in it and the state we leave it in for future generations.

I’m also very grateful to James Byrne for his editorial suggestions when he accepted this poem for The Wolf magazine.

“The black spot is on our hands.”

“The black spot is on our hands.”

Electric Questions - lit version smallerDiscussion Points

1) What contrasts are used in this poem and to what effect (history/current news, line lengths, punctuation/not…)?

2) Consider the different possibilities and restrictions offered by poetry as protest and poetry as a witnessing.

Inspiration/Writing Prompt

Take a recent news story or current political situation that you’re not happy about. Are there any historical or literary precedents that brought to mind by the current state? In what way? What might happen if such a historic/literary character met his modern counterpart?

plentyfish cover (1)At poetry readings, I often enjoy hearing about the background to a particular poem. ‘Wednesday Reflections/Sometimes I smile’ is my attempt to share the inspiration, frustrations, pain, philosophies and thoughts that lie behind my poetry collection ‘plenty-fish’. Each Wednesday, this blog will contain one of these ‘poem biographies’, as well as points for potential reader discussion and also writers’ prompts. My collection ‘plenty-fish’ may be bought from Nine Arches Press, here, or my website, here. More Wednesday Reflections on other poems in the collection can also be found here.

Reflections/poem biography for Endurance

“Stubborn roots draw up strength
from the land’s glacial inheritance.”

A matter of perspective Endurance smaller

As an adult, my gardens have never been landscaped lawns, weeded flowerbeds and neat paths. Mostly, they have been patches of land and grass where nature is allowed to do nature’s thing so long as it doesn’t impinge on foundations or safety.

When we lived in Lichfield, fox cubs used to visit. In our current Droitwich home, birds sing, grey squirrels play and blackberries thrive. We also had a one-metre tall dandelion.

I suspect this dandelion was forced to grow so high in order to get enough light for growth. As such, it became the inspiration for this poem about family heritage and nature set alongside man, both enduring.
The dandelion is now gone. The poem survived, but only after drastic pruning. I’m particularly indebted on this front to my masters portfolio tutor, Jean Sprackland, and to her suggestion that I take Ted Hughes’ ‘Thistles’ as an exemplar in expanding my initial inspiration.

Electric Questions - lit version smallerDiscussion Point

If you hadn’t just read about ‘Thistles’ as inspiration, could you have guessed this from the poem? How/why?

Inspiration/Writing Prompt

Choose a plant from your garden/a nearby natural area. Start by simply observing and noting down what you see. Then research about it. How does the world look from the plant’s height/perspective? If it were a person, what kind of person? What human qualities might it embody/evoke? Imagine this plant now in an unexpected setting. How did it get there and why? What would a passer-by do or think if they suddenly stumbled upon it?

plentyfish cover (1)At poetry readings, I often enjoy hearing about the background to a particular poem. ‘Wednesday Reflections/Sometimes I smile’ is my attempt to share the inspiration, frustrations, pain, philosophies and thoughts that lie behind my poetry collection ‘plenty-fish’. Each Wednesday, this blog will contain one of these ‘poem biographies’, as well as points for potential reader discussion and also writers’ prompts. My collection ‘plenty-fish’ may be bought from Nine Arches Press, here, or my website, here. More Wednesday Reflections on other poems in the collection can also be found here.

Reflections/poem biography for Snatches of the Rivers and Moors

A Glance

“In stubbled grass, stags arch.
Sparked clouds held high, patches
of sky hang from their antlers.”

The Hope Bourne Poetry Competition, run by the Exmoor Society, was an annual prize for poems featuring Exmoor. Although my parents have a place in Somerset, my visits to Exmoor as an adult were mainly around the Minehead area. When I decide to enter the 2012 competition, I had no personal memories to draw upon, so I started by researching on the Exmoor Society website.

This is the resulting poem. The three-line stanzas are all based on photos I found on the Exmoor Society website. The right-aligned two-line stanzas are an emotional response to them, with the aim of creating a poem that carries myth, landscape, and the peace and wonder of stepping back to admire nature in the area.

I love reading this poem aloud, and was delighted when it won second prize in that year’s competition.

Electric Questions - lit version smallerDiscussion Point

1) Do you recognise this form as similar to the structure used in ‘From Grasmere’? Do you hear the alternate stanzas as two different voices?

2) What sense of time do you have in this poem, and why?

Inspiration/Writing Prompt

Pick a landscape that you know well. Think about the people you associate with it. Take two of them, or imagine two fictional characters, and use a conversation between them to evoke the landscape. If writing a poem, try left aligning one voice and right aligning the other. If writing a story, use the conversation to imply a narrative as well as evoking the setting. 

plentyfish cover (1)At poetry readings, I often enjoy hearing about the background to a particular poem. ‘Wednesday Reflections/Sometimes I smile’ is my attempt to share the inspiration, frustrations, pain, philosophies and thoughts that lie behind my poetry collection ‘plenty-fish’. Each Wednesday, this blog will contain one of these ‘poem biographies’, as well as points for potential reader discussion and also writers’ prompts. My collection ‘plenty-fish’ may be bought from Nine Arches Press, here, or my website, here. More Wednesday Reflections on other poems in the collection can also be found here.

Reflections/poem biography for Against Candlelight
Against 1 version 2

“As marbled wax melts, flickers
of unknown lives beckon
from fire’s hypnotic chaining.”

‘Against Candlelight’ is a poem that has several particular significances for me. It is typical of my use of the first person and it is the plenty-fish poem that went through the most changes post-submission of the collection to Jane Commane at Nine Arches Press.

In poetry, there seems to be a greater tendency for readers to link the ‘I’ of a poem to the writer, where they wouldn’t make that connection between a novelist and their first-person narrator. Perhaps because I wrote short fiction before I wrote poetry, I tend to use first person in a poem as I would in a short story. That is to say, I choose first, second or third person as a technique, because of the different relationships they can build with the reader, rather than as a choice of, for example, writing in a confessional style.

Over the years, I have written first-person poems in the voices of shells, seed-fern fossils, a barmaid mermaid and a grief-stricken father, amongst others. There is something of me in all of my poetry (in first, second and third-person narration) but few of my poems are fully autobiographical or confessional.
‘Against Candlelight’ is quite typical of my first-person poems in taking something from my life and then playing with it in a fictional way. The poem, then entitled Wicks, started life as observations of a candle on my desk. The wick had burnt down to nothing, so I had to use a piece of string as my makeshift wick in order to use it. Early versions of the poem had descriptions of the candle as magma and the wick as like roots threading down through cracked rock. Alongside these, I had various abstractions drawn from my brain’s metaphorical connections.

The poem being fairly newly written when I had to submit my full manuscript to Nine Arches, it was sent in this still unfinished state. I cringe about that slightly now. But it was a poem which I knew meant something to me, even as another part of my brain knew that I hadn’t yet quite worked out what that ‘something’ was. I don’t recall exactly what Jane said, but I know it was one of the poems that most needed work, and that her feedback really focussed my mind.

Against 1 version 1

The poem already contained the hypnotic nature of flames linking to past generations that have fire-gazed before us. The root connotations led naturally to similar thoughts, but were themselves too obvious. The poem also needed to lose some abstractions, then find some specifics that would help it connect and hopefully carry more emotional resonance.

The June 2014 version of ‘Against Candlelight’, then entitled Wicks.

The June 2014 version of ‘Against Candlelight’, then entitled Wicks.

Family trees seemed to be the answer. But this is where fiction mixes with reality. I’ve never researched my family tree. My mother has, and through her I know a little of our likely Welsh, German, Belgian…roots. For me though, it’s enough to feel that general sense of ancestry behind me. I’m more interested in how history lives on through the present, and general changes in society and attitudes over the centuries than my own specific family background. But this poem was a chance to explore some of the things that might be discovered in my or anyone’s family tree. And to think of the black sheep or family skeletons which could be revealed.

The poem ‘Against Candlelight’ that I sent back to Jane Commane in my revised manuscript was very different from the original ‘Wicks’. Later, in the final proofing stages of plenty-fish, the last amendment. The poem had finished with the line: “then pinch out its heat.” But I was aware that I had used a similar phrase in a poem in The Magnetic Diaries (Knives, Forks and Spoons Press). As I was writing about an unwed mother in ‘Against Candlelight’, the fact that “burn” is very similar to “bairn” seemed to provide the sadly appropriate final word: “then pinch out its burn.” 

(‘Against Candlelight’ in its final printed form is also a poem that usually shape-shifts when I read aloud to an audience. Its ellipsis, which is hard to signal clearly off the page, is replaced by ‘perhaps’ and extra emphasis added with an ‘All’ before ‘Bones’ at the start of the sixth stanza.)

against candle light smaller

Discussion Point

Compare the two versions of this poem. What has been done to improve it? Is there anything you would have changed differently?

Inspiration/Writing Prompt

Use either fire or stone as your theme. Draft a poem that is either all in very short lines (to create a wick shape) or in very long dense lines (creating a boulder shape). If you’d like more guiding structure, try to include the following words/ideas in your poem (perhaps one per stanza): crater, chaining, exist, makeshift, thief, feed.

plentyfish cover (1)At poetry readings, I often enjoy hearing about the background to a particular poem. ‘Wednesday Reflections/Sometimes I smile’ is my attempt to share the inspiration, frustrations, pain, philosophies and thoughts that lie behind my poetry collection ‘plenty-fish’. Each Wednesday, this blog will contain one of these ‘poem biographies’, as well as points for potential reader discussion and also writers’ prompts. My collection ‘plenty-fish’ may be bought from Nine Arches Press, here, or my website, here. More Wednesday Reflections on other poems in the collection can also be found here.

Reflections/poem biography for From Grasmere
 
Grasmere acorn in air“fisticuff birdsong
cold creeps through cracks, rattles doors
ice hardens edges”

I’m not a Wordsworth scholar. What interests me about William and Dorothy Wordsworth is as much the siblingship as the literary. But, given that they both wrote – albeit in different ways – this necessarily spills into the nature of their siblingship.

I’ve read, but not scrutinised, The Grasmere and Alfoxden Journals by Dorothy Wordsworth. That she may have been behind or involved in the formation of some of William Wordsworth’s most celebrated lines haunts me.

The renga* – or my adapted version of this – seemed perfect for the poem because it is a collaborative form. The words in italics may be viewed as Dorothy’s voice and the unitalicised lines part William’s viewpoint, part outside narrator considering the relationship between them, its impact on William Wordsworth’s writing and a more generalised glance at women’s perceived roles at the time.

I deliberately chose not to incorporate actual lines from Dorothy Wordsworth’s journals into the poem because I wanted to capture the idea that there might have been passing words, conversations or jottings from Dorothy Wordsworth that fed into her brother’s work but weren’t preserved or haven’t yet been found.

* Simplifying greatly, a renga is a Japanese collaborative poem which takes the form of a haiku (traditionally explained as a stanza with lines of 5, 7, 5 syllables/sound units) followed by a stanza of two lines with 7-syllables/sound units.

grasmere autumn acorn smaller

Electric Questions - lit version smallerDiscussion Points

1) Although it might seem ironic to use a Japanese form when looking at an English poet and his sister, does the chosen form help the poem achieve what it sets out to do?

2) Does this poem’s adaptations of the tradition renga enhance the poem/form in this context? How much adaptation of an existing form do you feel is acceptable and why? When is a form changed so much that it becomes a new form? How can forms developed in one language retain their whole essence when put to work in an entirely different language? (In such circumstances, is some compromise/adaptation inevitably required?)

Inspiration/Writing Prompt

Take nature/daily life as your inspiration. Record your observations of an outdoors scene or your own activities in a series of condensed images, using just five or seven syllables (or words if you prefer) in each line or sentence. Either continue using this 5/7-word structure as you turn these into a poem/story, or try alternating these short lines/sentences with some that are much longer. Notice how this alters rhythm and pace. Try to use these different effects carefully to enhance the overall story/poem.

plentyfish cover (1)At poetry readings, I often enjoy hearing about the background to a particular poem. ‘Wednesday Reflections/Sometimes I smile’ is my attempt to share the inspiration, frustrations, pain, philosophies and thoughts that lie behind my poetry collection ‘plenty-fish’. Each Wednesday, this blog will contain one of these ‘poem biographies’, as well as points for potential reader discussion and also writers’ prompts. My collection ‘plenty-fish’ may be bought from Nine Arches Press, here, or my website, here. More Wednesday Reflections on other poems in the collection can also be found here.

Reflections/poem biography for Too Modest

“A rhythm river trimmed
                        with reeds,
             silver fish & light slivers”

Essential symbiosis 1024pixels
 
Lorine Niedecker
                     was a great
             American poet

Paring back
                     language
to its skeleton

                    This spare frame
graced with
                    natural music

Please read her
                    & feel yourself
reeled in

by each line

Electric Questions - lit version smallerDiscussion Point

How spare can a poem get before it is too spare? Why? What functions might the white space around the words fulfil – in this poem and in general?

Inspiration/ Writing Prompt

Choose a writer that you really admire. Can you create a poem or story that reflects this admiration – either by directly drawing on their life and work, or by using a technique, theme or style that is characteristic of their writing? Alternatively, imagine you’re in a room with them. What would you talk about? You could present this piece in a faux-interview style or using conversation only.

plentyfish cover (1)At poetry readings, I often enjoy hearing about the background to a particular poem. ‘Wednesday Reflections/Sometimes I smile’ is my attempt to share the inspiration, frustrations, pain, philosophies and thoughts that lie behind my poetry collection ‘plenty-fish’. Each Wednesday, this blog will contain one of these ‘poem biographies’, as well as points for potential reader discussion and also writers’ prompts. My collection ‘plenty-fish’ may be bought from Nine Arches Press, here, or my website, here. More Wednesday Reflections on other poems in the collection can also be found here.

Reflections/poem biography for Raindrop on a Red Leaf

P1050378 raindrop on red leaf smaller“His hand cupping a spider, wrist trembling;
a thin branch in the wind,”

The main story behind my plenty-fish poem ‘Raindrop on a Red Leaf’ starts with a photo of such a raindrop on a leaf. I took this picture on a walk across a local park in September 2011.

But this 10-line poem has an unwritten epilogue that starts much further back in time. This pre-poem story has two angles. The first is the literary influence of Jacques Prévert, whose work first got me hooked on poetry. (This influence also features more explicitly in my plenty-fish poem ‘The je ne sais quoi of it’.) That Prévert was a screenwriter as well as a poet can be seen in his poems’ imagery.

The second influence is part-literary – the “What is this life if, full of care, |We have no time to stand and stare?” of William Henry Davies’ ‘Leisure’, and William Blake’s “To see a World in a Grain of Sand…” (‘Auguries of Innocence’). But it is also part-mindfulness and the notion of living in the moment as a way of dealing with, or reacting against, the otherwise generally fast pace of modern society. Writing the poem, I set out to capture snapshots of some of those moments in life that cause an inner gasp and leave a lasting mark in the memory.

The resulting poem was one of three chosen, along with corresponding spectrogram (sound wave-forms) art that I created from their lines, to be displayed on Worcestershire buses as a Worcestershire Arts Partnership/CBS Outdoors/First Capital Connect commission in June-Aug 2013.

The poem, based on emotionally moving moments, and physically moving when on the buses, also has another element of movement. It is one of a few poems in plenty-fish where lines move, or shape-shift, according to their medium.

‘Raindrop on a Red Leaf’ concludes with a couplet circling back to the title image metaphorically. On the page, in the collection, the final line is: “on the wet leaves of two tongues.” But, read aloud without the words on the page visible, “tongues” is easily misheard as “tongs” or “tonnes”. Fortunately, the poem is free verse and not welded to a fixed metre. So, in readings, I often add an extra two-syllable word right at the end, to help clarify on the sound front and also make explicit what lies between the lines of the page version: “on the wet leaves of two tongues, kissing.”


Electric Questions - lit version smallerDiscussion Points

1) How closely does the central image in each couplet link to the other couplet’s images/moments? Does the poem leave enough space for the reader to make their own connections?

2) What relationship does the title ‘Raindrop on a Red Leaf’ have with the poem’s contents? Is a connection between the two clear when you first start reading? If not, when does some linking/interpretation become possible? And does it take on new meaning(s) by the end of the poem?

Inspiration/Writing Prompt

Imagine a photo album of five important snapshots from your/a fictional character’s life. Can you use these to create a narrative, or a bigger snapshot of your/their personality? Try to use either the final image or the title alone to hint at the most important snapshot or a way of reading all these snapshots.

plentyfish cover (1)At poetry readings, I often enjoy hearing about the background to a particular poem. ‘Wednesday Reflections/Sometimes I smile’ is my attempt to share the inspiration, frustrations, pain, philosophies and thoughts that lie behind my poetry collection ‘plenty-fish’. Each Wednesday, this blog will contain one of these ‘poem biographies’, as well as points for potential reader discussion and also writers’ prompts. My collection ‘plenty-fish’ may be bought from Nine Arches Press, here, or my website, here. More Wednesday Reflections on other poems in the collection can also be found here.

Reflections/poem biography for The Philosopher’s Magnum Opus
Magnum opus smaller
“Strangely, no real effort is required,
only time, and the sea’s tidal wisdom.”

Alchemy is a mysterious, ancient philosophical and protoscientific tradition to draw upon. It was also the prompt for this poem, written specifically for the art and poetry anthology Drifting Down the Lane.

In alchemy, the magnum opus is a term for the transformational process of changing raw materials into the philosopher’s stone or the efforts to discover this stone. The philosopher’s stone itself is a legendary alchemical substance capable of turning base metals into gold.

Translated as ‘the great work’, magnum opus has also been applied metaphorically to artists’ greatest achievements. The philosopher’s stone too has many other metaphorical meanings and values, including symbolising perfection and enlightenment.

But perhaps true pearls of wisdom don’t require so much effort. Maybe awareness of our effects on others and using words with care is the real philosopher’s stone.

Electric Questions - lit version smallerDiscussion Point

How well do the conversational snippets fit into this poem? Do you think this is helped or made harder by the poem’s rhythm and couplet structure?

Inspiration/Writing Prompt

Where might you/a fictional character find a modern-day philosopher’s stone? What would you/they use it to transform and why? What unexpected effects might this have?

plentyfish cover (1)At poetry readings, I often enjoy hearing about the background to a particular poem. ‘Wednesday Reflections/Sometimes I smile’ is my attempt to share the inspiration, frustrations, pain, philosophies and thoughts that lie behind my poetry collection ‘plenty-fish’. Each Wednesday, this blog will contain one of these ‘poem biographies’, as well as points for potential reader discussion and also writers’ prompts. My collection ‘plenty-fish’ may be bought from Nine Arches Press, here, or my website, here. More Wednesday Reflections on other poems in the collection can also be found here.

Reflections/poem biography for Looking Back In Fragments

line 48 pic 48
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

“The echo of his whispers       fills your mind with snow;
a blizzard of thoughts                        swirled
to red-edged numbness.”

Now one of the most experimental pieces in the collection, this was once just a straightforward, mainstream, free-verse poem combining landscape and lost love, based in part on the photos on the photos below. As such, there were many lines and images that I was attached to, but nothing to lift it above this.

Breaking the poem into different fragments made it far more interesting for me. By combining it with the footnote poem, ‘not(e) a poetics of glass/water’, both pieces took on more layers, and became a fragmented narrative with plenty of space, I hope, for the reader’s imagination to wonder and play.

Reflections/poem biography for not(e) a poetics of glass/water

looking back

“6. As water trickles through rock.”

Form-wise, this was influenced by reading the footnote poems in Kristina Marie Darling’s Petrarchan. Originally, my main page was blank above the footnote lines, until I realised that I could add more depth and layers by attaching it to a relevant different poem.

Word play, myth and slights of thought loosely based around water and glass came together to create the somewhat disjointed contents. The resultant piece is close to being an ars poetica or treatise of a poet’s practice and intentions. The observations and ideas contained in the footnotes are meant to have some relevance of their own, to reflect and refract the linked poem and to shed some slanted light on other poems in the collection.

The thoughts are not just about art or living life as an artist though, they are also about human nature more generally. We all have habits, for example. When these work well, they can be a thing of ease, efficiency and speed. But sometimes they can be a short-cut to cliché, damaging thoughts/behaviour and a rut that’s hard to escape.

Some things in life are clear and easy to understand logically, others less so. But where there is no clear semantic or scientific meaning, there may still be understanding through the senses and emotions. Or vice versa, when things have a logical clarity that is at odds with emotional or instinctive responses.

flashes2
Electric Questions - lit version smaller
Discussion Point

What are your underlying beliefs as reader and/or writer about what a good poem should be or do?

Inspiration/Writing Prompt

Choose a theme that appeals to you. Try writing a poem/story for this theme that deliberately omits great chunks of narrative/detail that you would normally include. Consider using a numbered list or bullet points to do this. (Rather than starting from scratch, another way to approach this might be to apply the technique to a draft version of an unfinished poem/story.)

plentyfish cover (1)At poetry readings, I often enjoy hearing about the background to a particular poem. ‘Wednesday Reflections/Sometimes I smile’ is my attempt to share the inspiration, frustrations, pain, philosophies and thoughts that lie behind my poetry collection ‘plenty-fish’. Each Wednesday, this blog will contain one of these ‘poem biographies’, as well as points for potential reader discussion and also writers’ prompts. My collection ‘plenty-fish’ may be bought from Nine Arches Press, here, or my website, here. More Wednesday Reflections on other poems in the collection can also be found here.

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