Anna Reckin: The field and the turf: thinking about length and breadth
Working as I do with organic, open forms, length is always a consideration: an intrinsic part of how the poem works. For shorter poems – and some of my short ones are very short – I often have in mind an ideal length: not a number of lines, but rather a sense of the length of time within which all the poem’s sounds and their movements need to perform and, in interaction, produce some kind of satisfying whole. The drafting process is, in effect, a series of practice runs for what will cohere and come together in performance (on the page and /or out loud).
For longer ones, where thematics are a much stronger driver, it’s a question of giving myself breadth, too: enough room to move around between different registers and different kinds of collaged material, so they are in dialogue with each other, across, up and down the page. For example, in ‘Two or more colours,’ a piece completed this spring based on the paintings of Norwich School artist John Crome, I needed space not only for short passages of descriptive detail that would recall a small selection of his paintings, but also quotations about colour theory and a couple of compositions I imagined for the 20th-century artist Charles Biederman, which I wanted to lay out in a typical shape for his abstract reliefs. As I was drafting the poem, I found myself noticing particular sets of related colour combinations in my immediate environment, which, added in with dates, gave it a chronological structure. Put in very basic terms, writing long simply lets me put much more stuff (of all kinds, but especially material objects) into my poems.
It also lets me exploit different possibilities for mise-en-page, as can be seen in the sections from ‘Jade album’ published in Long Poem Magazine eleven. Here I found I wanted to use plenty of white space to give the appearance of a suspended pendant in the ‘Bi’ section, and then, continuing the theme of precarity a couple of sections later, to use a widely spaced dialogue form, rather like a play script, for ‘Hanging down’. See http://longpoemmagazine.org.uk/issues/issue-eleven/from-jade/
My process tends to be expansive, working on many different parts of a project at the same time. So, for example, in the early stages of the jade sequence, written during a residency, I had separate documents for separate sections and worked on each just as long as it held my attention, closing it and moving on to another one as soon as it started to feel stale. I would return to the computer the next morning curious to open the documents on the desktop and see what had happened in my work the previous day. The surprise – quite often I had forgotten what I had written, or what new direction a piece had taken – gave me energy for more drafting. Having various pieces under way, all on different aspects of the same subject, makes for a much more relaxed and open way of working, continually generative. Jane Duran puts it well in her contribution to this series when she talks about the way ‘words and images naturally surface from a continuous immersion, receptiveness and freedom when you are working on a sequence.’ See http://longpoemmagazine.org.uk/jane-duran-slow-crossings/ This approach also gives me courage to work very short, too. If my exploration of a particular aspect of the overall theme seems to insist on being brief – fragmentary, even – I don’t feel disappointed, secure in the knowledge that it will find a place in a larger whole.
Working long stops me shutting down a poem too soon, or tying myself to a particular form, technique or rhythm. It gives me permission to be as visual and playful as I like, while also allowing serious, detailed, in-depth exploration. The field is wide open, and there’s no reason why I can’t map its overall shape and contours and also examine, like Dürer, the dandelions and grasses in one piece of turf.
I take a break from writing this to check my email, and see news about Philip Rowland’s new collection, An Open Parenthesis (Isobar Press, 2022). A couplet from his poem ‘Poetics’ catches my eye: ‘a place to gather / or lose oneself in.’ Rowland’s speciality is the short poem, but open-form long poems and sequences offer these possibilities too, convergent, immersive, diffuse. To continue with the field metaphor, there’s room for growth and cross-pollination – and for seeds to float in from further away.