Evolution of a poem

Evolution usually isn’t very far away in my thinking.

FOW-Love-words_web2Almost anything can remind me of it, or in some cases is it – I’ve been working for the last seven months on the Nottingham Festival of Words and I’ve seen it evolve from a weekend of word fun around the Lace Market (complete with storytelling tents, edible words, a speakeasy and a storytelling portaloo!) and more serious events at both universities (whose star readers are Ali Smith & Will Self) to an exciting international festival at venues across the city including Nottingham Contemporary, Galleries of Justice, New Art Exchange, the Writers’ Studio, a coffee shop, Waterstones, the Council House (I love that Nottingham’s old City Hall is called the council house – this is a civic sense of humour who knows irony when it hears it!) and two tents in the Old Market Square – edinburgh-book-festival-tentwhich remind me a little of Edinburgh Book Fest’s Charlotte Square (now there’s a festival that’s evolved good and proper!).

West HamThis is one example of evolution but, as I say, examples come at me right, left and centre – like Small Grass which evolved from a small idea about raising a few funds for Stonewood’s new writers list to an Indiegogo and fundraising campaign which has raised about £1300 and is still taking sales.

What-will-happen-FlierBut the evolution that interests me most at the moment is the evolution of poems.

I’ve been reading a lot of natural world poetry for a course I’m teaching for The Writing School Nottingham in November, and so I’m looking in detail at the way poems are made, trying out different lenses to see them through, and time and again I’m fascinated by how a poet gets from here to there – and it’s sometimes not even how do they do it in the poem, but how do they get to a point where they even know to start the poem! (but this is starting to get too abstract even for me).

A living thing?

draft of Welcoming the BurrsSo what gives a thing life and how does something evolve? Well in simple terms life needs a food source, heat and a seed – I like to think about the small grasses or weeds that grow inside caves, whose seeds have been brought in on visitors’ clothes and whose heat source is sometimes the breath or body heat of the visitors themselves. A poem has a seed. It could be an ohrwurm, an image, a metre, a music, a taste, an accident – it’s anything, this seed, anything at all. But’s it’s the writers’. They own it for a while (that ownership doesn’t last long but that’s a different story – and one where evolution comes to its own). The writer, then, has the seed and might think she or he is writing about one thing but then mutation happens – the poem (and the making of the poem is also the poem) sprouts other ideas, other shoots – maybe this poem isn’t free verse at all but heroic couplets, or a haiku, or a long, discursive ramble in heptameters – maybe it’s not about sunflowers but about the way human bones lose calcium as they age or why people poison birds of prey or vice versa.

197838Mutation is evolution, but evolution is a sustained process so how can this apply to poetry? If a poet’s work gets better with experience, then the poems themselves do too – if, like me, you believe poems have a life and you have a relationship with them (how many times do they surprise you, or nag you to write them and then, when you get stuck, force you to do the dishes or tidy the wheelie bins? – you’re practically married to them!). A single poem evolves, a collection evolves, a way of writing and being written evolves. bison-720I still don’t know how Galway Kinnell gets from an idea that we all eat some shit throughout our lives to a long narrative poem about writing (The Bear) (and actually I don’t even want to know!) or how I got from listening to a recording of European Bison singing to a poem about selective extinction and the loss of voice, but he did, and I did too. I’ve evolved to listen. To listen to the poem, ask it questions, listen some more and sit back and let it get on with it. I feel like a scientist sometimes (not a mad I-have-an-Igor kind of scientist, the other kind) just nudging the poem along, feeding it, giving it what it needs to develop, not cutting it off too soon, and this is fine – evolution is a response to things and the poem will respond to what you do, and it will change, mutate, evolve. It’s what they do, it’s how they live. They’re not much different from people really.

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