I remember reading an interview with Carol Ann Duffy in school last year where she said, “Sometimes when you write a poem, you don’t know if you’re ever going to write one again.” And I thought, “That’s ridiculous. I write poems practically every day.”
My friends, I am a fool.
I don’t believe in writer’s block. Okay, so some days it feels like pulling teeth, but I can still write. It might be rubbish, but if it’s a first draft, what does it matter? And if it’s not a first draft, then it shouldn’t be a problem, because editing doesn’t require inspiration, right?
Poems aren’t like that, though. Poems I have to be in the mood for. Poems I have to be inspired. It’s one of the reasons, I think, that it’s infinitely harder to make a living as a poet than as a novelist. (And also because nobody buys poetry collections which makes yours truly incredibly sad.)
So sometimes weeks go by and I don’t write poems. Maybe I’ll write one or two, every couple of weeks, and they’ll be pretty bad and incredibly short and for the most part they won’t go further than the pages of my notebook, unless I can be bothered to type them up into the document where I keep every poem I write no matter how little I like it.
August doesn’t seem to be a good month for me — I didn’t write many poems this time last year, and so far this month I’ve only written two. Both of them were last night, because staying awake until 1am having a breakdown triggered by sheer existential dread/terror tends to be conducive to literary achievements, and I’m not sure I even like them. I am, for the most part, a fairly uninspired, poem-free zone right now.
If there’s such a thing, I have poetry block. I know exactly what Carol Ann Duffy means about not knowing if you’ll ever write a poem again — some days I can stare at my notebook and nothing, nothing at all, comes to mind. It’s empty. Sometimes I’ll have phrases in my head and I think, “That could be a poem,” but by the time I can pin it down to write it in real words, it’s gone, and it’s never more than a single line. It’s never a whole poem, never what I’m looking for.
I get it. Rome wasn’t built in a day, poems aren’t meant to be scrawled out in five minutes, Dylan Thomas used to work for an entire afternoon and produce a single line, blah blah blah. It’s okay to only write two poems in eleven days even though neither of them are much good. Doesn’t mean I like it.
I’m an all-or-nothing kind of person, but the problem is that I hate ‘nothing’, so I try to force myself to be an all-of-everything-all-of-the-time kind of person, which doesn’t work. That’s how you get burned out, injure your wrists, and end up forced to do nothing for six months, remember? You’d think I’d have learned my lesson by now, but I still keep making plans as though a few months of productivity are going to last for the rest of the year too.
I said, “Well, I released a poetry collection in January, and another one three months later, so I should release one in July. Or at the very latest August.” I said that.
But I forgot that in those first two collections, I was drawing on poems I’d written the previous year, poems that happened to suit the themes. So when I came to bring together ideas for a third collection, I didn’t have enough. “Never mind,” I said, “I’ll write more soon.”
Only I didn’t.
I considered this idea for a while and decided that I was going to try and make myself feel better about my complete failure to make any money from poetry (I haven’t sold a book since 20th June) by removing my existing collections from KDP Select and publishing them on other platforms, because at least that way I might sell a couple more copies, perhaps to people who had a different sort of e-reader. I didn’t realise you had to wait for an enrollment period to run out — mine doesn’t finish until October, because it renewed in July when I wasn’t looking — and therefore that’s not even an option.*
“Never mind,” I told myself, “you entered those three poems into a competition, didn’t you?” I did. That was a thing I did. Pleased with myself for branching out, I went to look up the closing date for the competition, in case I missed it. Nope. Not until the end of August, so it’ll be practically October before I even know if anything came of that.
“Face it,” said the much more sensible version of me. “Poetry is not working for you right now. It never does in the summer, remember?”
“But poetry is my thing,” the flighty, Romantic-with-a-capital-R version of me told the sensible one. “And anyway, I’m completely skint again.”
“That’s because you bought a video camera. You’ve only got yourself to blame.” Sensible me regarded me with what could be called a death stare, although it was probably more of a serious-illness stare. “You were meant to be querying The Quiet Ones. That would’ve distracted you from your failures in the world of poetry, wouldn’t it?”
“A novel that doesn’t fit in any logical genre and is going to be a nightmare to market or query, depending on what you choose to do with it.” Sensible Miriam raised her eyebrows. “You’re in the wrong business and writing the wrong genres if you want money from this, Miriam. Get a real job.”
“Well” — it was hard to tell if it was Novelist Miriam or Romantic Miriam here — “the parentals are paying me to sort out all those ancient theatre programmes that belonged to Grandad and catalogue them, but it’s incredibly hard work and it gives me a headache and it’s no fun at all. And I haven’t actually got any money out of it yet.”
Sensible Miriam looked, for the first time, satisfied. “That’s the world of work, M. Get used to it.” Then she seemed to relent: “You know, your third collection wasn’t that far off finished. Are you sure you haven’t got anything else that could go in there?”
Romantic Miriam began to look hopeful, but then returned to her downcast state. “I couldn’t,” she said. “It would mean compromising on the theme of the collection, and that would spoil the unity. Plus, I haven’t got a cover.”
“I’m sure I can talk her round,” said Novelist Miriam.
“You do that.” Sensible Miriam added one last piece of advice: “Don’t put this one in KDP Select.”
My notebook is in front of me, looking shockingly empty compared to last years’ notebooks. My third collection looks painfully unfinished. The theatre programmes — sheets of paper from the 50s with tiny print and no logical layout, most of which don’t even have the dates on them — look unappealing.
There’s only thing for it: I’ll have to find it in myself to write some poems before the voices in my head start having another argument. It probably won’t do any good, but at least I might feel slightly more like a poet and less like a minimum-wage programme-cataloguer.
*Just found out you can contact Amazon and solve that one so, you know, I might do that. Wahey.