How to write a poem ought to be, as I get older, a question to which I know the answer. I have published three essays about the inspiration for and the process of writing poems. However with every poem I write, I seem to have to go back to the beginning and discover how to do it all over again. Recently, preparing a talk for A-level students and their teachers on my poem, ‘The Gun’, I gained more insight into my process. Talking about the form of the poem, I explained that there are two ways to write a poem. One is to fill a jar – that is to write in an existing shape like a sonnet, or villanelle. The other is for a poem to grow organically like a tree. This is mostly how I write: the shape of the poem emerging gradually from the sound and rhythm and meaning of the words and vice versa. It’s about finding a voice for something inside me. I can’t write at all unless the emotion behind the poem is strong enough to carry me through the process of trial and error, of growing and pruning and growing and pruning again, that it involves. Quite often at the end of this process the poem is dead. Reading Sylvia Plath’s poem ‘Stillborn’, I immediately identified with her despair over poems that she’s laboured over and almost brought to life, but that in the end, as she put it, ‘are dead, and their mother near dead with distraction’.
Though I was thrilled to be one of the three writers invited to contribute poems about ageing to the Saltire pamphlet, I almost turned down the commission for fear of failing to write anything. The impetus to say “yes” was provided by the words of the ninety-year-old Scottish artist Wilhelmina Barns-Graham: “Do it now. Say it now. Don’t be afraid”. I found the quote while preparing for a workshop in her house as part of the Stanza Poetry Festival. I wrote it on a post-it note that I stuck over my desk. Fear, I think, especially fear of failure, is the chief thing that stops people who want to create something from getting on with it. It is certainly what inhibits me.
VICKI FEAVER (Age 73)
Award winning poet, Vicki Feaver, lives in South Lanarkshire with her husband, and also has a flat in Leith.