writing poetry

Like a Tiger in the Lowlands: Advice for Writers (Part Three: Community)

Engineers spend their days around other engineers; lawyers pair off with other lawyers (birds of a feather, etc.); in the absence of being paid to practice their art, artists and writers are the only careers (vocations) that need to keep this in mind and consciously seek out others of their ilk. Of course, increasingly, writers can - if they are lucky - gain admittance to a creative writing program / programme, make friends with writers as good as themselves (or - importantly - better), make contact with teachers who might become mentors, and thus become part of a community.

Wordsworth and Coleridge; Seamus Heaney, Michael Longley and Derek Mahon as students at Queens, Belfast; Renaissance artists in the apprenticeship system - they all made contact with their peers at a relatively early age, and formed unofficial schools, exchanged drafts, helped each other in ways both tangible and intangible. Apart from reading like a writer (with a mind to learning from others and what you would “steal”, or be influenced by), and developing an as close to daily writing practice as possible, this is one of the key pillars to becoming a writer, and making the leap from amateur to professional (note: the writer who is professional is not necessarily making a living at it: see Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art on the importance of attitude to the writing life. It can make all the difference).

How can you find or develop a writing community?

(1) Pay for it or (increasingly more difficult) get a fellowship that pays for most or all of it (this is a rare beast): the MA or MFA in Creative Writing. Much has been written about it, and there’s no bones about it: spending a year or two around talented and motivated writers of your genre can be a big help. Is a writer born or made? Can writing be taught? To the first question, the answer is both. To the second, yes it can be taught, but there has to be some germ there in the first place, and perhaps interest and passion is what constitutes that original spark. (Working at your craft is more important than talent, btw). The America MFA, or the MA in Creative Writing in Ireland and England, is made up of the workshop, the craft class and the literature class, the private consultation with teachers who can be inspiring, or not; one of the most important aspects is the non-tangible: forming “writing friendships“ with your classmates. If upon graduation you have three writer friends to share work with and lean on in your darker moments, then you’ve done well. Hold onto them.

(2) Like many writers before (Thackeray wrote several thousand words a day before clocking on at the post office), keep your day job and attend workshops in “the community”. After all, until the mid 20th century in the USA, the MFA didn’t exist, and the MA in Creative Writing has only recently come into existence in the UK and Ireland. For centuries poets learnt by palling around with other poets, and the same for novelists. So, don’t go into debt for a creative writing degree: find writing groups in your local community, pay for one-off creative writing workshops - this is the “slowly does it” approach, and although it’s time tested, the weakness in it is that as most of the “best” (are they?) in the po-biz teach in universities, it may be hard to find fellow writers. That said, if you live in a bigger city, many graduates of creative writing programmes are eager to find other writers and continue to invest in their craft, and you can find them if you look for them. If you live in suburbia or in the rural hinterland, don’t despair: the internet is a great resource. You’ll find it if you look hard enough.

(3) Mentorship and Community (or “communion”) through Reading. If you can’t find a living writer of your own generation or older, don’t despair: reading the work of the august dead has always been a great way to learn, and one of the most important. You can improve your craft, and - by reading biographies - find inspiration in the lives of those who have gone before.

Gardening the Page

The further one is digested into a place, the less one can articulate it. Or, articulate it as a newcomer. Everything becomes more "complex", as an American would say. Let's avoid that stress on the last syllable for now, and just say "compli-fucking-cated, like, lad." That, at least, is my way of explaining my silence on the blogo-plane. I suppose if blogs are froth, then at least the substance of the pint of Brooklyn Lager was being gulleted in the drafting of poems - which is, after all, what I'm here to do, and am doing. I feel like a gardener whose garden of courgettes, rocket, spring onions, cabbage - no tomatoes, this being an Irish, north-facing garden, whose garden of poems is growly so rapidly, it's all I can do to clip, weed, pluck the ripest ones, leave them on windowsills facing Blasket Sound - that's where I am, imaginatively, in the Irish summer, where I was where I first grew vegetables in Antje, my landlady's, garden, who had great wheel barrows of horse and cow shit, donated by a neighbour, and she gave me two or three rows, where I grew the above-mentioned, with a view of, not Blasket Sound, but the Three Sisters - geographic beauties - Smerwick Harbour, and Béal Bán beach, our garden being on the side of a very congenial and maternal mountainside.

Now, the garden is my notebooks, and very fecund and crazy they are. They get great spraying of weeds that multiply across state lines of pages, intermingling with potential poem seedlings, and the seedlings themselves are weedlike. Hard to tell them apart, until you sit down, meditatively, with your spade, looking down towards Smerwick, on a calm late April day, looking down in sunlight, with the sweat chilling on your back and the sun warming it, and distant waves breaking on Baile Dhaith and where Tara lived, where you had good meals and good wine and good laughs with her, and where Iarfhlaith's self-sufficiency project is still growing strong, you stand in a break and your body feels good, good and worked upon, good calluses, the spring onions you've pulled are going to go great with that rocket, and the only things not from your garden are the eggs, and they're free range from Riasc, down the road from Bhric's pub.

Anyway, on my best days I do my equivalent of this, and listen to sirens coming off Eastern Parkway, and think deep, think earthworm and soil, and the reworking of soil, and feel, rather than think, about what's to grow. And slowly, a poem comes out of the seedling. What's weed will pursue its own course. What's a seedling you're going to cherish and work on, work with, well, that'll take its own course, too. Sounds ruthless, and maybe it is. When there's so many projects and so little time, you must remember we're just talking about poetry, and a small bedroom that is not on the side of a mountain in West Kerry. And that's a pity too, sometimes. But, the poem's the sunlight, and the inheritance of the sunlight, and that's the important thing.