Arvon Foundation

One of the pleasures of working for the Arvon Foundation is being visited regularly by the extraordinary and talented writers we book as tutors and guests.  Our guest reader last week was the poet Paul Farley.  As his latest collection The Dark Film attests, his work covers a breadth of cultural reference points – childhood memory, film, television; ways of seeing.  Fascinating stuff.

Just as fascinating was his description of the writing process.  ‘Being a writer can be a mundane thing,’ he says.  He lectures in creative writing, so he says that most of his days are spent on campus.  ‘It’s far from the smoking jacket and cocktail lifestyle that many people imagine.’ It can be hard graft. It can be boring.  But not all the time.  What of that excitement that comes with the onset of a poem, an idea shifting, coming into view, becoming something that can be shaped into something else more concrete?

Paul spoke compellingly about the genesis of a poem, that feeling of energy when something comes into view for the first time.  It’s like the glint from a pane of glass that you catch in the corner of the eye, he says.  I know that feeling.  It’s happened to me before.  Turn to get a better look, and it has vanished.  But for that millisecond, it’s real; it has been experienced.  It will become something bigger: it’s the start of something, not the end.

How does the poem take shape?  For Farley, it’s a question of feeling the way through the poem.  The next line is always there, within reach but invisible.  It can be felt, almost physically, as though it were a phantom limb.  I’m not a poet but I experience something similar when writing fiction or drama (I use the scene as the basis for prose too).  There’s a clear sense of the shape of how the scene should develop, how long it should be and the pattern of rising tension, climax and resolution.  The words might not always be apparent, but – following the intuition – the thing I’m writing begins to grow and develop.  Crucially, for Farley, often two things need to come into alignment – an idea and a memory, an image and a reality.  It’s awareness of that other intangible thing, which coincides with the idea, that ends up being the point of the poem.

What did I learn from Paul Farley, then?  That to write well we need to keep our eyes open to catch that glint.  That we need to follow our intuition and widen our point of reference beyond just a single image, looking for the layers of meaning in what we’re saying.   And, finally, not to be afraid of mundanity.  A writer’s life isn’t all glimmers of excitement, just as it isn’t filled with cocktails and smoking jackets.  It’s a question of catching the inspiration when it comes, then working and working at it – in an everyday, mundane kind of way –  until the thing is done.