by Simon Berry
It was barely five years ago that I started writing poetry, that is if you ignore my student days when I was really into it and edited a poetry magazine. But that was almost half a century ago! So what happened in between?
I suppose the short and simple answer is that I became a journalist, mainly freelancing and writing on any topic where there was a ready market. Nothing very glamorous in that, and quite stressful as inevitable deadlines loomed. A more resourceful writer would no doubt have been able to switch off and write poetry as relaxation (I spent 20 years researching and writing a biography…) But I did have frequent discussions with Colleen, my wife, who introduced me to more contemporary poetry.
Then, six years ago, she died suddenly on her 60th birthday and all retirement plans were in disarray. It was in the midst of grief and psychological turmoil (a potent mixture of loss, rage and guilt) that I began to rediscover myself as a creative writer. There is no totally satisfactory explanation: maybe the grief was a kind of can opener, but where did all this urgent creativity come from? Was the prime cause disturbance of mind or was I (after years of increasingly unsatisfying journalism) already heading in that direction? I would be interested to know how often (for others) increased creativity has featured as a response to bereavement.
All I know is that a year or so later, sitting one sunny morning in the house of an elderly lady who was in my care at the time, I picked up the tiniest of notebooks and started writing in pencil. That was the genesis of my first poem for 50 years. We all have habits which can become endearing or irritating to a partner. One of Colleen’s was to set her plate almost teetering on the table edge when she was eating; it never tipped over, but it was a feat designed to inject tension into the meals we ate together, especially if a guest was present. From this came ‘The Situation of the Plate’ which ends
But you were happy there
You said there was no real issue
Of a sudden spill
It would just happen if it was meant to…
So maybe you could see
Out there on the edge of things
Being drawn away
Beyond further beyond….
The passion and the life
Are nowhere near the centre
In locations of unlikely equilibrium
You were seeking them out
In the process of understanding the unlikely equilibrium that I had not appreciated fully while she lived I began making my way towards my own new and very necessary personal equilibrium. Some poems were modelled on poets that I knew she loved (the Rossettis, Heaney, Hopkins, Plath, Marvell) whilst others were more to my taste. Quite often phrases would pop into my head as I was scribbling away in the squared pages of the notebooks, I realised this was material bubbling up from my subconscious both remembered and misremembered. I call these parts of the poem my ‘burrowings’, as a way of making the point that they had infiltrated my memory and were only brought to the surface as part of my personal creativity (think of worms coming up through the grass when it rains). I therefore claim them as mine: creativity is after all a process not a product and I’m far from convinced that originality is a necessary part of the process.
So I would advise anyone who is feeling apprehensive about embarking on a late career move (!) into writing creatively, whether prose, poetry or something in between, don’t get hung up on being original. The best storylines have all been used and there are only so many verbal variables that remain available to make a memorable line of poetry. But do use of all your past reading and bear in mind the writers you really admire. If possible try to work out how they do it, probably by re-reading passages several times. Try substituting one word or phrase in a sentence and sense the difference in meaning.
That’s the analytical bit. You then have to learn to hear what you want to say. Possibly having raw emotions is a good start. But remember Wordsworth’s “Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity”. The finding of tranquillity can be the problem, of course.
Finally, most towns have a writers group nearby. If you are having problems getting it down on paper the feedback and encouragement you receive might work for you. It doesn’t for everyone. At the very least it gives you the opportunity to read your stuff out loud. That’s a good preparation for subsequent readings.
Born in the Midlands, educated in Yorkshire, worked in Glasgow as a publisher and journalist, Simon has also lived in Sicily and Cyprus. Now spends most of his time in the Highlands wandering around knocking on doors as an interviewer. Had a collection of poems published in 2014 (A Mask for Grieving & other poems FTRR Press). Simon has also written a biography of Alexander Smith, a forgotten Victorian poet in Glasgow who was among the first to address both sides of the newly-industrialised city.
“I was for a time part of the literary establishment, I suppose. In the late 1980s I edited the book pages on The Scotsman, making them more wide-ranging and accessible. In the early 2000s I was President of Scottish PEN, attempting to strengthen our ties with the emerging ‘new’ Europe, principally the Baltic states, as well as welcoming refugee writers. After that I qualified as an ESOL teacher and taught English to migrant workers.”