Liam Guilar: I want to tell you a story.
Shortly after I’d agreed to Linda and Claire’s invitation to write about my process, I realised how difficult it was going to be. When I read other poets’ accounts, I feel like a house painter who has stumbled into a convention for Michelangelo, or the speaker of Roger McGough’s ‘First day at school’.
Process is driven by purpose? I want to tell a story. I want to make something that will stand on its own two feet without any conceptual crutch and snag the wedding guest’s sleeve. Process then is the art of balancing the story I want to tell and the way I’d like to tell it, against the problems created by its need for an audience.
I grew up in a peculiarly oral culture, dominated by the radio, the verbal rhythms of the weekly mass, and adults who could talk the hind legs off a donkey. Masters of digression and verbal improvisation they could spin the mundane into entertainment. Fold in what turned into a lifelong infatuation with the traditional story songs and writing ‘poems’ was never as interesting as trying to imitate a voice telling a story.
‘Ruins’, and ‘Myself as Witness’, are part of a project that will eventually produce three books. They are from the second, A Man of Heart (Shearsman 2023). The project is an attempt to understand the process of a 12th century English writer. Laȝamon’s Brut is neither history nor fiction as we understand them, and it might not be ‘poetry’ either.
I’d written a consciously ‘experimental’ narrative (Anhaga) and I thought if I rewrote three of Laȝamon’s stories, I might learn about medieval storytelling, storytellers, and his way of understanding the past, in ways I couldn’t using a formal academic approach. I would treat his work the way he treated his source.
Which is background, but process has roots as well as purpose.
Over the years my process has evolved so that it has two distinct stages, both are equally enjoyable and frustrating. The first is irrational. The second involves the application of whatever critical intelligence I possess.
The first task is to produce a draft. I write a lot, quickly, not worrying about quality, logic, taste or coherence. I think of this as a sketching a pencil line drawing for a huge fresco on a large blank wall.
This draft is a work of non-communication. I’m entertaining myself. It’s intoxicating watching magic happen. Put words together and they suggest other words, sentences, images. Immersed in this imagined world, characters appear who are not in the source, their dialogue is over heard music, they generate new incidents. Very little of this first draft will survive, but I’ve learnt the importance of switching the critic off.
If I let them, words gather ideas to themselves which seem unrelated. ‘Ruins’, which became the epilogue to A Man of Heart, began as a short passage early in the story. I was trying to describe what a ruined villa might look like in the fifth century as someone stumbled onto it. A line triggered a memory of ‘Sleeping Beauty’. There is archaeological evidence for squatters lighting their fires on the floors of abandoned villas, but instead of sleeping beauty there was an old man at the edge of the firelight.
My grandmother told a fine story about the first car she saw. Her life time encompassed the first manned flight and the first moon landing. Roman Britain lasted four centuries and changed dramatically (collapsed?) within a life time like hers. Your grandparents’ stories about their childhood, relayed to your grandchildren, will sound like fairy tales. What would that do to ‘truth’ in a world where fact checking was impossible?
I don’t know why that old man on the tiles became Keredic, the unnamed narrator of ‘Myself as Witness’, or why the men entering the villa are on the run from the defeat at Camlann. But they created a context that dramatised the conflict between the eye witness’ memory, which may not be accurate, and the approved narrative accepted by later generations.
As the lines appear, I discover what I need to know. In ‘Myself as Witness’ the narrator enters a hut where he meets Rowena. What would a fifth century Germanic girl be wearing? What would the inside of her hut look like? I’m not sure if I’m doing research to write a poem or writing a poem to generate research topics. I enjoy both too much to worry about the distinction.
The draft sprawls. Months go by.
Then it all stops. Abruptly. The edge of this imagined world drops into silence.
Time to start editing. Organised into ‘chapters’, their sequence sorted, each chapter can be treated, initially, as a single piece. The educated literary critic who has been drinking coffee in the shadows is now invited in to do its work.
Although similar to what I did when I wrote short poems: moving the text towards models of excellence by paying attention to word choice, line, ‘stanza’, the difference is that changing a word or removing a line in chapter five can necessitate rewriting in chapters three and eight which may lead to the removal of parts of chapter one or the creation of chapter ten.
Bunting’s ‘I suggest’ is on my Desktop. ‘Cut out every word you dare. Do it again, a week later, and again’ drives the process but it’s balanced against the need to keep the story coherent. Passages I’d like to cut may have to stay so the narrative can work.
A bibliography for A Man of Heart would be longer than my PhD’s. But I’d have failed if the research was obvious. I need to know what a loom looked like. Do I need to describe it?
Of all the literary theory I’ve taught, the one piece that’s useful is Eco’s idea of the Model Reader. Who is the Model Reader of this original text?
Initially it’s an expert on medieval literature, fascinated by the minutia of fifth and twelfth century history, fluent in several medieval languages, immersed in ‘modernist poetics’, superhumanly patient, willing to read like the most forensic of Close Readers, a fan of the Goon show and willing to make an unembarrassed emotional investment in the characters.
Bunting’s ‘Never explain, your reader is as smart as you are’ cannot work here. This Model Reader has no human counterpart. If I want to tell a story, I have to adjust the text so that it becomes a possibility.
Eventually I arrive at a conflict in the editing which I suspect is specific to narrative poetry.
I want to tell you a story. I’ve loved the traditional story songs for decades. They remain my idea of perfected narrative poetry. I also know from years of performing them that they are dead on the page and modern audiences find them difficult to follow. My other automatic model is Alan Garner’s prose; particularly his romans in Redshift, the ruthless minimalism of Strandloper and the quarried feel of The Stone Book Quartet. There’s a lot of readers out there who don’t like them either.
So I like minimalist storytelling, but I want to tell you this story. I’ve read far too many long works where the reader’s presence feels unnecessary. Finding a balance between the story I’d like to write and the story that hooks that wedding guest is the hardest and least predictable part of the process.
With ‘Ruins’ I had a Wasteland like effect of overlapping voices using untagged dialogue. Readers of the draft complained that they didn’t know who was speaking. I thought it was obvious. Refusing to tag the speakers, I had to find a way to solve the problem.
Finally, there will be chapters that still don’t work. I record a reading of them and listen. Then I push the words around some more until they sound right.
For such a long project, discovering Long Poem Magazine has been a godsend. There are so few publications willing to print ten pages of poem. Cutting a chapter back to ten pages or less so I can submit it is a fine time limited way of focussing attention. Realising there are chapters I can’t submit is a genial way of discovering which ones need more work. Seeing the work surrounded by other writing is a necessary shock to the system.
There are times I wonder why I ever started. Times when nothing works and the words are dead squiggles on the screen. They pass. I know that whatever the final quality, and it’s never good enough, there is nothing I’d rather do.