Welcome to our T.S. Eliot Prize 2023 Writers’ Notes. This year, alongside the usual Readers’ Notes, the T.S. Eliot Prize and the Poetry School are collaborating on a set of Writers’ Notes for the shortlisted collections. These are educational resources for poets looking to develop their practice and learn from some of contemporary poetry’s most exciting and accomplished voices. Here’s Abigail Parry on her collection, I Think We’re Alone Now.
How do you write (when, where, how often) and how did your practice inform this book?
I find this question tricky to answer, because whenever I am asked how, when, where I write, I think the person asking is imagining me sitting at a desk in front of a computer. Perhaps it is mid-morning and I am in some sort of shed, perhaps it is after midnight and I’m surrounded by ashtrays, but desk and computer are the common themes. I imagine the same scene when I think of other writers writing; in fact, I imagine this very scene when I think of myself writing. And this is odd, because I’m not at all certain I think of this bit (desk, computer) as the writing bit.1 That person tapping away at the keys – I think of her more like an amanuensis taking dictation. Writing – gathering and ordering the stuff that this poor beleaguered clerk is going to have to take down – happens elsewhere. I find a blank page as tyrannical as the next person, so I try to avoid sitting down in front of one if I can possibly help it.
Writing happens any time I’m able to cloister away a little bit of mental privacy to roll ideas and sounds and rhythms around. This might happen sitting in front of a computer, but it might equally happen an hour into a boring meeting, or while I’m staring at my hands under the hand dryer, or sitting on a train, or walking home. So I suppose the answer to where and when is in my head and whenever I can get away with it.2 Time to write, for me, is really more like space to write: just a little bit of mental hush. But it’s tough, finding this little bit of shh – not least because a lot of very well-financed ingenuity is trying its insidious best to take it away from us, all the time, via many and devious means.
That Bit of Hush
I’m told the purpose of these notes is to provide insights that might be of use to other writers. Perhaps the most useful thing I can offer is some tips and tricks for securing that bit of hush, and then making the most of it when and while you have it. Because a room of one’s own need not, in my experience, be a physical room.3
Hefty disclaimer: I’m wary of offering advice, and particularly on writing, because our circumstances and wiring will be very different. Disclaimer in place, here are five things that work for me:
1. Modest Demands
My best writing time is when my hands are occupied by something repetitive and not too taxing. I play cards, and fish, and sometimes draw – these are all activities that fit the bill. Night driving. Washing up. Anything that makes modest demands on the motor skills while freeing up the higher functions to do what they do best. In my case, this may well be a learned response: I spent much of my life working jobs which required the use of my hands and left my mind to its own devices (toymaking, barmaiding, gardening, farm work). Plenty of opportunities for cortical mischief.
NB. If you say this often enough, at some point someone will enthusiastically point out how good that minimum-wage bar job was for you, how salutary for your writing. This person has never cleaned out an ullage tray and has no idea what they’re talking about.
2. Magical Thinking
I think it helps to remain conversant with the sort of magical thinking in which you were fluent as a child. When your categories for things were unstable and shifting. I’m writing this on bonfire night: bonfire night is a good example. For a child in the 1980s, bonfire night was fraught with obscure danger, and I could never really sense the limit of that danger. There were these very frightening broadcasts on television warning you of the dangers of picking up sparklers, which somehow suggested you would be instantly incinerated if you picked up a defunct sparkler. In my six-year-old mind, this was related to all the other circling threats the TV regularly relayed (the Bomb, nuclear winter, the photographs from Nagasaki, the world ending in fire). With the result that I think I believed, in some sense, that I would initiate the Apocalypse if I picked up a defunct sparkler. My Apocalypse was a hodgepodge of Cold War paranoia and convent-school eschatology, i.e. trumpets, flame, mushroom clouds, vaporisation, horsemen, tinned peaches, the works. I did not pick up any sparklers as a child.
At any rate – my point is that there’s something to be said for this kind of category error. It opens up avenues of thought that are not especially soothing to traverse, but which are nonetheless emotionally significant and handy for the making of poems. I’m a very neurotic person, prone to embroidering detailed worst-case-scenarios, so I get a lot of practice.
NB. I don’t mean to suggest that there is anything childish about magical thinking, only that we were good at it as children.
It helps to have or to cultivate an obsessive cast of mind. Or so I tell myself, because I do have an obsessive cast of mind. I mean that obsessing over an idea or image or sound makes the thing behave like a little planetoid, drawing all sorts of unlikely stuff into its gravitational field. If you’ve ever been in love, or suffered a debilitating phobia, you will be familiar with the phenomenon. But you can lean into this, too – if you’re not sure what I’m on about, try thinking about foxes (or feather boas, or frogspawn, or frangipani flowers) for a full week. Just see how many things begin to orbit your notion of fox (or whatever it may be).4
4. Love Letters
Reading. But also films, music, games. So many of my own poems are just love letters to things I’ve found thrilling.
It helps, I think, that I try not to have too intimate a relationship with my phone. In fact I would class the relationship as actively hostile (as anyone who has tried to maintain a text-message conversation with me will know). I’m less bothered by using it, more bothered by the continual frustrated impulse to use it: I can’t think a clear thought if I’m also wondering how to spell amanuensis, or what time B&M closes, or whether Tina thinks love is a second-hand emotion or a second hand in motion. That impulse to want to know, right this instant, is something I try very hard to resist. So I keep my phone in a different location to me whenever I can, and I never sleep in the same room as one.
Now I think about it, it isn’t just the white noise of frustrated impulse – it’s also the fact that having every query or speculation solved on the instant is very boring. By way of counterexample: the house I grew up in had lots of people in it, but only one dictionary; if you wanted to know the meaning of a word, you had to wait, sometimes for quite a long time (if, say, the dictionary was in someone else’s room, and that person had a girlfriend round, and the two of them had disappeared in there with a bottle of tequila three hours ago, and you could hear squealing and giggling and Speaking in Tongues coming from behind the door). This meant you had to sit with your word for a while, rolling it around, making guesses at its meaning. Which, now I think about it, is a useful creative space: effectively a kind of enforced daydreaming. I sound like a dinosaur, but it’s a loss I feel very keenly – those sustained periods of ambiguity, where many answers were possible to a question, and you had to put them through their paces yourself.
So, yes – ditching the phone is good.5
I’ve just realised that – as advice – these five points might be summarised as indulge your neuroses, exercise your obsessions, ignore your phone, read and go fishing. Which sounds suspiciously like a retrospective attempt to justify all my habits and natural inclinations.
As to how these practices informed this book – hum. I’m a thoroughly anxious person, so in one sense this book was an opportunity to worry some of those anxieties and fears and frustrations into something more vaudevillian. In another sense I’d already done a lot of the work towards the poems, because many deal in fears and frustrations I’ve been worrying away at all my life. The book itself caused me no small degree of anxiety – it was so different from my first, and the poems felt prosy and propositional by comparison. The thought of writing prose, or anything resembling prose, has always filled me with horror: its patterns and rhythms and logics are just too close to those of ordinary speech. In prose, I might be mistaken for me.
Which techniques help you to overcome a stagnant piece of writing / get writing again?
I’m a little suspicious of the phrase get writing again, because I’m a big fan of fallow periods (having them, needing them, recognising them). There are whole weeks and months where I just don’t feel like writing: would prefer to be reading, and reading in that guiltless and wholehearted way whereby what I’m reading isn’t making me wince at my own writerly inertia. I’ve come to understand that if I try writing during these periods, I’ll only write dross. Might as well sit them out and enjoy a little guilt-free reading. Sort out the toolbox. Plant some window boxes. Draw someone a picture.
Social media does not want this for you.6 There’s nothing like a quick skim of your preferred feed for planting the fear that you’re not doing this properly, not taking it seriously, not keeping up with your absurdly talented and prolific friends: not even really a proper writer. This takes some effort to resist, but I find that leaning on writer-heroes helps. Michael Donaghy once claimed to write three poems a year. Elizabeth Garrett wrote two superb books in the 90s and has been on long hiatus ever since. Nicholas Laughlin has published two near-as-damnit perfect collections, and may well publish another, and so what if he does it in his own sweet time. Shivanee Ramlochan has published one, to date, and it’s blazing and brilliant and my copy is very high up the list of things I’d save from a burning house.
You Just Have To Wait
Oh, but. But but but. I’m being a bit obtuse, because I do know that horrible feeling of going at a poem that’s stagnating on you. As if you’ve somehow ruined it by writing it at the wrong time. Like – if you’d just waited for a better moment, you wouldn’t have written it into stagnation. And now you have to try and salvage the thing, get it back to the point when it was unwritten and exciting and full of naked potential. I know that feeling very well indeed.
Honestly, I don’t know a better strategy than putting the thing away for a while and coming back to it. Sometimes for a very long while indeed. There’s a poem in the recent book I first drafted almost fifteen years ago. The first draft wasn’t very good, but it had something – I just couldn’t figure out what it was. It ended up in a backwater of my hard drive, where it sat for over a decade. In that time, the original idea – long an obsession – accreted a bunch of novel associations. I learned some things. I unlearned some things. I picked up some new regrets, and jettisoned some old ones. I came back to the poem when an offhand comment from a friend reminded me of its ideas and ran some oxygen through them. When I fished out the old draft, I found I could see very clearly what the thing should look like, sound like, feel like. So the work of writing that – the work that wasn’t moving words around to make the stanzas stable and the rhymes effective – had been running in the background all that time. But it took time. Sometimes it just takes time.
This answer comes with a (very short) playlist. It’s the Supremes singing You just have to wait, and the Smiths singing You just haven’t earned it yet, baby.
Editing, and the Unsung Heroes
How important is the editorial process for you? What does this look like?
Heh – it looks like the most absurd form of obsessiveness and preciosity. That thing about Wilde inserting a comma, and then removing it? That is me. There is no end to the anxiety I can whip up over a terminal comma. That’s what I’m doing sat at a desk in front of a computer.7 Fiddling, I guess – with word choices, with lineation. Fiddling.
I would be lying if I said I did not take pleasure in this. Mainly because I am precious and obsessive and self-conscious. We talk a lot about imagery and metaphor and form when we talk about poetics – all of which is of course very vital and sexy and exciting – so I want to put in a word for two undersung heroes.
– which feels a lot sexier if you treat it as a series of rhythmic cues. I tend to think of punctuation marks more like musical notation, and get very excited on those rare occasions when I get to use something a bit outré like a colon. In a poem you get to use all the white space to rhythmic ends too, so it’s a playground for a geek like me.
To be clear: I don’t mean grammar that is ‘correct’ in the Fowler’s-modern sense. I mean a curiosity about possibilities and a willingness to mess around a bit, because fun with grammar is fun with nuance. The difference between the perfect and preterite tenses is the difference between the estrangement being final and there being a possibility for reconciliation. The difference between the second-person singular and the first-person plural is the ideational gulf between Larkin and Rankine. So I’m a big fan of the possibilities and implications and responsibilities wrapped up in grammatical decisions.
When Is It Ready?
Hum. I think of this as relativity easy to recognise, and almost impossible to describe. Let me try.
I guess I think of poems as developing a kind of internal logic as you write them. At some point, everything feels finished on its own terms. Nothing else is going to happen to it: all its flaws and inclusions are part of its design. Finished in a technical sense. Not necessarily any good. As for when something is ready and good enough – that’s much harder. (I find it’s easy to be mistaken on this point: see rejection, below.) It helps to internalise a band of readers you trust – or, even better, to be able to run poems by those actual readers. If you can think of your poem as an event in the mind of a trusted reader, you get some sense of what would excite them. Also what they wouldn’t let you get away with. Essentially I’m saying I write with a parliament of friends at my ear, and I don’t want any of them to accuse me of phoning it in. If I have a shoddy first stanza, I can hear my friend Maura telling me I’m throat-clearing. If I’m having a go at a novel form, I can hear my friend Ailbhe saying Oh, fun! So I (mentally) pass poems round the group as part of the getting-ready-to-go-out routine.
The flip side of this is shame: I find shame pretty useful. I am filled with hot shame at the thought of someone coming across my early drafts – even thinking about this makes me shudder. So if I feel I can show something to someone else, that’s a good start. It means it’s started to feel less like a draft and more like part of a conversation.
How do you deal with rejection? How often does it happen? Did this particular work, or aspects of it, face rejection along the way?
This one I find much easier, because when I look back at some of the poems I’ve submitted over the years, I am filled with gratitude and relief and fellow-feeling for the editors who rejected them. Because the poems weren’t ready, or weren’t good enough.8 Because they sat around for a few years more and I wrote them better. There’s this movie from the early 90s called Jacob’s Ladder, in which the main character is tormented by horrible tormenting demons, and is in actual fact in purgatory throughout the movie. At one point his physiotherapist sort of lets him in on this, by recycling some stuff from Eckhart about tormenting demons being angels in disguise. Which is what I sometimes think of, when I think of firm and right-thinking editors rejecting my poems for my own good and to my intense mortification. Which is almost certainly an overshare and probably not remotely useful.
This is fine in retrospect; it’s a little harder to treat more recent rejections with equanimity. (Yes: I received plenty of rejections for the poems in this book.) I defy anyone not to be a little stung by them – especially as the whole submission process is mixed up, for me at least, with some really exquisite refinements of shame and embarrassment and awkwardness.9 I’ve never really got over what still seems to me the outrageous presumption of sending someone your poems. So there is a part of me – scanning my column of DECLINEDs on Submittable – that says Well, of course. What an earth did you expect? But there is another part which pipes up and says You expected to get somewhere with this, didn’t you, you presuming prick, because you sent the fricking poems in the first place. The only way I can navigate this is by a sort of dissociation of these various selves. You need the imp with enough ginger to send the (fricking) poems, but you also need the goon who knew all along you were chancing it. The trick, I guess, is to try and maintain some sort of equilibrium.10
Another form of dissociation that helps is that between you (the writer) and the thing (the poem). Once something is finished, I tend to think of it fairly dispassionately (see finished, good enough, above). I sometimes use some pretty dicey stuff to make poems – stuff which, unmediated, has the power to hurt me. But once I start writing with it – once it becomes abstract and tactile and tractable – it becomes something else. I always picture one of those hermetically sealed plastic boxes that scientists use when they’re working with hazardous materials, which have gloved concavities into which you place your hands (what are they called?). As soon as I start writing with something, it goes in the box, and I can play around with it in a detached way, as an event in language. In fact – if I find the thing still has the power to hurt, then I tend to stop what I’m doing. This is a sure sign the box has a leak, that I lack the critical distance to write with it, that I will probably not write it very well. That I’ll be needy where I want to be generous, and self-regarding where I want to be empathetic. But that’s just me: I am full of admiration for writers who can write well while exposing themselves to things that wound them in the writing. I have no idea how anyone does this.
No, Go On…
One final thought on rejections of all kinds (the formal rejection from the editor, but also all those times your trusted readers looked perplexed, or the reviewer just didn’t get what you were going for, or that guy in your workshop group said that line seventeen was so attention-seeking and probably had a point): one of the really fun things about language is that no matter how personal your relationship to it, you have to share it. For someone like me – a ticcer, someone with a highly idiosyncratic relationship to language as a sensational experience – this is a lesson I have to learn again and again. Rejection is part of this: part of the business of finding out if I’m having a conversation or just talking to myself. Because ultimately, I want to be speaking a shared language, but this sharing lark is messy, collaborative: a matter of continual testing and retesting, chancing and failing, faltering and trying again. The opposite of rejection ought to be something like acceptance, but this too is messy and imperfect. I always think of the final lines of Maura Dooley’s poem ‘No, Go On’:
no, go on, finish what
you were about to… I’m with you. I’m following so far.
Those plastic boxes. I’ve just looked it up, and they’re called glove boxes. Disappointing. To me a glove box is where you keep a handful of CDs, a defunct A-Z and an antique tin of travel sweets.
Abigail Parry’s I Think We’re Alone Now (Bloodaxe Books, 2023) is shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot Prize 2023. Order your copy here.
- Also, I don’t have a shed. ↩︎
- Don Paterson says that the poem is the only artform that can be carried around in the head intact. I like this, but I’ve never really been convinced by it, because the poem carried around in-head, surely, is qualitatively different from the poem printed on the page, the poem uttered, the poem uttered by someone else. And by qualitatively different, I’m pretty sure I mean qualitatively different in non-trivial ways, as anyone who has had a poem ruined by hearing the poet read it will know. ↩︎
- I guess I should make a distinction between mental hush and ambient hush. Before I worked in a University, I worked for a travelling circus; I remember, some time around 2008, walking in on myself writing my Master’s dissertation. I was sitting in the back of a Ford Transit, balanced on a shifting pile of rubber diabolos, annotating Hermione Lee’s Body Parts by the light of a headtorch. We were at a trance festival, pitched right next to the sound system, and I could feel the bass up every one of my vertebrae. At one point I’d reached for my notebook and put my hand on a shoe, and found the shoe attached to a leg, and followed the leg to find a member of our crew, Gavin, who’d fallen asleep sort of in and under the diabolos. I suppose I think of mental hush less like the silence of a library and more as a kind of willed retreat from immediate circumstance. ↩︎
- It drives me nuts when people say to me – as they often do – You’re overthinking this. Whenever people say this, I want to say Perhaps you’re underthinking this. ↩︎
- Perhaps you are someone who can nip fluently between the hypertextual world of your phone and the public world of other people and the private world of your mind and your memories. I am not like this. ↩︎
- The creepy language of institutional outputs and productivity has a lot to answer for too, of course. But that’s a whole nother can of worms. ↩︎
- It’s funny – I notice, now the book’s published, just how many poems in it are filled with onomatopoeic clicks and clunks. I feel certain this is because I worked at a laptop, the keys of which were quite shallow, and which made a very particular snickersnack sound whenever I got going. This sound is different to the equally distinctive scurry-thunk that my mother – a touch typist with beautiful fingernails – makes at a keyboard with deep keys. It’s different again to the whispery scuffing sound of a pencil in a notebook. I wonder if anyone has ever made a study of this. ↩︎
- Then of course there are all the reasons perfectly serviceable poems might be rejected: most boil down to not being right for this particular journal / issue / season. Or just not as right as other poems submitted. Whimsy on the editor’s part. Sometimes: bias / antipathy / poor judgement on the editor’s part. None of which should pose a threat to the ego, except that ten to one a particularly stinging rejection will come in on the same day the electric goes up, or the iguana dies, or you lose that much-loved hoodie. You know how it is. ↩︎
- Perhaps you are someone who feels no shame or awkwardness or embarrassment when submitting your work. I am not like this. ↩︎
- I’m a big fan of Galen Strawson’s take on episodic experience of the self: ‘Against Narrativity’ is pretty much me in a nutshell. This, I guess, is one way to account to for competition winners expressing absolute perplexity at having won the competition they themselves entered. I don’t mean to be sardonic here – I’ve done this myself. ↩︎