Part of our festival themed Summer School this July, Nichola Deane’s workshop Epiphanies and Other Movable Feasts will look at the ‘architecture of moments’ that make up our lives. We caught up with Nichola to find out more about what she has planned…
Hi Nichola, tell us more about your workshop…what’s it all about?
ND: In short, our relationship with time: becoming more sensitive to what we notice, what we fear, what we remember. My feeling is: the deeper the sensitivity, the better the poem. I can’t promise to deepen your sensitivity, but I can offer you analysis of poems I think demonstrate that sensitivity, and writing exercises that will get you thinking about how you ‘meet the moments’ of your own life.
What are the challenges that face us when we try to write a poem about a very particular moment or memory?
ND: The nature of memory itself: we all know how unreliable memory is. And within the domain ‘memory’ you can also consider the problems of and opportunities afforded by the various layers of memory (if ‘layers’ an appropriate metaphor here—it may not be): the rehearsed memory –the stories we repeatedly tell about ourselves; the jolted memory – i.e. new experiences triggering very vivid re-experiencing of a moment from our past; the buried memory; the eroded memory; dream memory—and so on.
How can we ‘deepen our power of attention’ to these kind of moments? Is there a trick to experiencing something and thinking ‘that’s going to make a great poem, and this is how …’?
ND: Sometimes you know when a moment is already a poem. Sometimes you sense a moment could be a poem. Sometimes a moment becomes the wrong poem- and then becomes the right poem later. Sometimes a moment shines so quickly and brightly it turns its back on all words, leaving behind nothing more than its sigh. And sometimes a poem starts from a right moment yet stays a wrong poem: usually when that moment has exhausted itself in us, when we have been violent towards our own experience.
As for the deepening of attention, we’ll discuss that during the workshop. It’s really a meditative process.
Are there tricks we can use? I wish. No, actually, I don’t. ‘Tricks’ implies the need for a shortcut, the need for more, for guarantees, etc. It’s an idea rooted in late capitalism’s obsession with productivity. We must generate lots and lots of poems for the many (wonderful) magazines, the competitions, the blogs etc etc. We must write at least a poem a week… I don’t quite buy that. Yes, writing a lot is important—you build experience that way. And projects such as Jo Bell’s ‘52’ on Facebook have helped a lot of people in a very democratic and friendly way. But our writing needn’t be and shouldn’t be done mechanically. We shouldn’t make ourselves into machines or units of poetic production when we write.
Poetry is, in truth —thank Orpheus— an entirely unproductive and therefore potentially liberating process, in that every poem is a movement, more verby than nouny, sometimes drift, sometimes torrent, from unseen (memory, thought, dream) to seen (notebook entry, drafts, ‘final’ draft, publication) to unseen (reading, memory, re-reading, dream, perhaps other new poems). And a poem is never a product, even when it’s in book form. A true poem always escapes the book to go to the heart, the mind, the thingness of things. It’s the world on the tongue; the world weighing light, the world weighing heavy.
Your poem ‘Elizabeth Bishop and the Card Table’ is based on a dream you had where the two of your were playing cards. I read a great article on your blog where you talk about the power of dreams. Do you think that vivid dreams are a way of our subconscious alerting us to these powerful, epiphanic moments in our lives?
ND: Epiphanic dreams can be (and such dreams are rare) moments where your mind dramatizes an inner struggle so it can be better understood and perhaps let go. In them, you go beyond what you think you are, what you think you know; thinking by feeling, to paraphrase Roethke.
But dreams do many things, beyond being epiphanies in themselves. Their chaos is deeply instructive; their logic is freed up, and not straightjacketed as our day-thinking so often is; they play serious games with our memories. ‘The poet and the dreamer are distinct,’ says Keats, but I’m not so sure. Virtually every poet I admire is on intimate terms with their dreaming mind: Plath, Frost, Keats, Wordsworth, Bishop, C.K. Williams, Donaghy—to give only a few examples.
If you could sit down to dinner with one poet, dead or living, who would you pick?
ND: Well, if you’re giving me that amount of historical choice, it would have to be Shakespeare or Homer or Dante. One of those epic minds that seem to hold all of human existence within them. Sorry, I realise I’ve just named three poets—but with any one of these three, just to sit in the presence of that mind would be enough— a way of cutting away all of the crap, of getting nearer to the real, clear, radiant thinking.
You mention Michael Donaghy, but is there another poet whose work you particularly admire for pinpointing the moments of ‘moveable feasts’?
ND: C.K.Williams, Donald Justice and Sharon Olds have particularly wonderful relationships with the moment. But they’re by no means the only ones I admire for doing this.
What are you reading at the moment?
ND: Lorca’s Letters; Robert Hass; re-reading Robert Lowell; Li-Young Lee (again); Olivia Laing’s The Trip to Echo Spring.
As well as writing, you also teach at secondary school level – has your writing changed since you started teaching? Has it influenced the way you view literature and poetry?
ND: Teaching Secondary English is very hard work, very demanding, in ways that people outside the profession (politicians especially, sometimes parents) don’t get. Doing it has forced me to fight extremely hard to keep writing: even part time, as I am now, the school workload is very heavy. So I feel victorious, feral, fugitive, rebellious, when I sit down to write. And deeply at peace. Writing feels like a blessing—I’m away from bells and targets and levels of progress and with what Li-Young Lee calls the ‘prime’ self.
But, aside from the struggle, teaching poems I love often helps me understand those poems better—I’m grateful for that. For instance, teaching C.K. Williams’s ‘The Gas Station’ to my sixth formers has shown me just how rich that poem is—politically, technically, emotionally. And teaching Shakespeare (I’m currently doing Romeo and Juliet with year 10) is wonderful. It gives me an ever- deeper connection to the skill and wit of the writing. Act 1 Scene 1 of Romeo and Juliet for instance: the way the brawl begins with the servants, and, like a cyclone, sucks in the young rich men, then the patriarchs, and finally the Prince—the whole social hierarchy of Verona in about 100 lines; the way Shakespeare evokes Lady Capulet’s entire personality and married life (her contempt for her old fart of a husband) in a single line; the way we’re shown the links between male identity, sex and violence…
Finally, do you have any projects lined up at the moment? What are you working on?
ND: I’m just reading the proofs of Trieste, my Laureate’s Choice pamphlet (the launch is on June 21st at the Bridlington Poetry Festival). I’m excited about seeing the printed version and meeting and reading with my fellow Laureate’s Choice poets: Rachel McCarthy, David Borrott and Wayne Price! Other than that, I’m beginning to think about my first collection.