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 Fran Lock on her collection, Hyena!
The Hyena! Cycle
I’d describe my practice, such as it is, as feral: that is omnivorous, opportunistic, accretive and excessive. To unpack that a little: there’s this persuasive cultural myth – certainly in the global north – that poetry is an essentially middle-class pursuit, that it germinates in periods of quiet sustained reflection. I don’t agree with that. At least, that’s not how it is for me. I don’t believe that there’s this ideal contemplative position that is equally possible for everyone. I think that for many of us, poetry erupts in the midst of precarity and scarcity, in the jaws of unlovable labour. It is the perfect mode of production for those poor in time and in resources; it travels light, communicates in fragments and flashes, requires no specialist equipment or training. To talk about a ‘routine’ makes no sense to me because life does not allow for such a thing. The rhythms of my work are unpredictable. I’m writing every day, but the where, when, and how of that writing is wildly fluctuant, and my sense is that the unpredictable rhythms by which I live also inform the substance of my writing, colour and shape the way I write.
The Cobble and Borrow…
What exactly do I mean by that? I suppose it’s that I see my writing as a textual counterpart to the adaptability and pressured improvisation required of working-class people within our daily lives. Material necessity drives invention, and these acts of repurposing, jerry-rigging, cobbling and borrowing are the substantial features of my writing also. This manifests as a determination to use every available resource – the metaphor, the simile, the epigraph, the pictogram, the aphorism, the skit or joke; the pun, the curse, the slang expression, the advertising slogan; archaicism, psychobabble, cant – anything at all in any combination to get the job done. The result is probably not for everyone. It often entails knocking the square peg of uncomfortable experience or schlocky pop-cultural riff through the round hole of high lyric style. It’s a poverty of means, excess of expression kind of thing.
Hyena! very much emerges from this space and sensibility. I relate her ‘voice’ to the way I interacted with English growing up. English is the only language I have, and I love it, but it hasn’t always loved me back. I have this sense of not being very welcome or at home in English. Even now. As a kid, I spoke this crazy, improvised hybrid of dialects, none of which I perfectly possessed. As I moved around my version of English, it gathered clods and pebbles of slang and patois, drawing them into itself like a dirty snowball rolling downhill. I used to pinch things too – kleptomania as method – scraps of phrasing and idiom from all over the place. My use of English always felt like an act of misappropriation anyway, so I felt equally at home borrowing from noir detective fiction, Yiddish stand-up, backroom cussing, Keats – anywhere.
English isn’t ‘home’ to me.
I never had that sense of myself as the implied audience for art and literature. It’s a feeling that often assails the working class, I think, and poetry became for me a way of using English within which I felt dexterous and comfortable. I think of it as a kind of squatting: the occupation and repurposing of sanctioned structures in strange new ways. Just as a derelict office block might become a makeshift gallery or a community cafe, so hegemonic English might be invested with feral vigour. With most of my work, I feel like I’m wrestling with something inside of language itself, with something that seems always to be trying to resist or evict me. I write in order to inhabit English, to make space in it, to force the unhomely home to make room for me. Whatever else my poems are ostensibly ‘about’, they are always an engagement or experiment with language first. Or maybe that special interaction between language and material reality that takes place under capitalism, inside of neo-liberal culture. It’s both that language is political (duh) and that politics is made of language; language isn’t just a compromise or an imperfect sieve for lived experience, but frames and limits what can be thought, what it is possible to know. There’s a sense in which I am always tussling with that, interrogating it, trying to punch through it.
Everyone is coming to the creative act from a different place, with different baggage, and for different reasons.
Assume the Risks of Failure… Alienate!
I never like to offer advice to aspirant poets because everyone is coming to the creative act from a different place, with different baggage, and for different reasons; I don’t know that there’s anything I’ve gleaned or that I do that would be generically useful, but I can say that one of the most liberating and powerful things for me was learning to assume the risks of failure, to embrace my moments of humiliated over-reach; to be the head of my own experiment, continually pushing beyond my comfort zone and competence. I think the best writing – at least the writing I’m most interested in – happens when we move beyond the limits of ‘good’ prosody, when we court catachresis, hyperbolic excess, extrovert silliness. Some of the worst writing happens there as well, of course, but then it’s up to the individual to decide if they’d rather be competent or interesting.
I suppose I would also say that it’s necessary to bring yourself joy and interest first, then worry about your ‘audience’. There is no ideal reader out there, no mean average, and in any case, you can’t please all of the people all of the time. Don’t worry about alienating your readers. Poetry is for anybody, not all poems need to be for everybody. Besides, I take the view that some people deserve to be alienated; I’m not a branch of the service industry, and nobody said my relationship to the people encountering my work had to be gentle or friendly. Once I let go of that idea, I was happier for it. Opinion is divided on the subject, but I also think I became a better writer.
Stay Awake, Stay Curious, Stay Angry
I’ve never understood when people say they don’t know what to write about, or that they don’t feel ‘inspired’. There are definitely times I’m so overwhelmed that wrestling the inchoate mess of thoughts-feelings-impressions into a poem is an impossibility. In which case I take a time-out and do something else instead. I can also relate to feeling so burnt-out and anhedonic that the will to set something down simply isn’t there. But not being ‘inspired’? No. Perhaps I don’t believe that poems are ‘inspired’ at all, so much as they are provoked, by a ceaseless (sometimes unhappy) engagement with life. I often write because I am angry or sad, or to push back at a world that pushes me. Life isn’t always nice, but the least you can say about it is that it’s rich in incident. Stay awake, stay curious, stay angry. Live in sensitised awareness to others. If poems don’t suggest themselves then, they probably never will.
Editing the Ego
Editing my own work is a somewhat painful process for me. I have the feeling that if you’re doing it properly, it always is: it exposes all of your shortcomings – all those embarrassing 3:00 AM clunkers – to clear-eyed scrutiny. It’s a great process for taking the ego out of what you do. While I don’t know that it’s possible to take a completely dispassionate look at the pure mechanics of the thing, I do think a hard edit helps to detach the text from the self a little; that it provides you with a sense of the work as an external, separate thing, not some raw and smarting vestigial limb. Best of all, though, is working with an editor who really understands your text (which is not always the same as understanding you). Roddy Lumsden was the best editor I ever had. He had an intuitive understanding of the strengths of a work, its idiosyncrasies, the alchemy by which a line or formal tic succeeds, often despite itself. We didn’t agree about everything, but I learnt more from him about how to be a thoughtful and attentive reader of my own and others’ writing than from anyone or from anywhere else. I love to work closely with other poets on their drafts now. The biggest lesson for me as an editor was that it’s not about imposing yourself on someone else’s work, or course-correcting in matters of style, structure and tone. When it starts, it seems to be more akin to archaeology, uncovering what works, finding affinities and characteristic flourishes across the text; the preoccupations of image and phrase that keep resurfacing time and again. Then it’s more like choreography, organising these various features so that they speak to each other in intentional or arresting ways. It’s not necessarily harmonious, but it needs to feel purposeful. The aim, I guess, is to discover the message, then cut away that which impedes the message. It’s exploratory in the best sense, sometimes revelatory. But it’s weirdly vulnerable for both parties. I always try to remember that: you place a tremendous amount of trust in the person who handles your work, and to whom you expose your writerly frailties. It takes courage, I think, especially if you’re submitting to this process for the first time. A good editor will recognise this and hold you through the process, will be a comrade. I try to be a comrade.
You wrote it, only you get to decide what the definitive version of that work is. That thought has been a comfort to me.
You’re Not Tied to That Version of Your Text…
I don’t know that any piece is ever ‘ready’ any more than it’s ever ‘finished’. I found I had to let go of both ideas in order to write work which excited me and send it forth into the world. True confession: my problem has always been confusing whether the poem is ready with whether or not I’m ready, which is not the same thing at all. I now think about my very first book as being almost embarrassingly bad. There’s okay stuff in there, but I mistook my impatience to be done with those poems, and my desire to see myself as a Writer (capital ‘W’) for my poems being able to hold their own in the world. Conversely, I used sit on things for months – for years – or chuck them out altogether because of the way they made me feel. I’d get so precious about them, that I’d end up destroying them. I wish I hadn’t done that now. I don’t do that anymore. I’ve had to learn to trust my editorial gut, which is a real process of trial and error, and I’ve had to get over minding my mistakes. Even if you publish something that turns out not to be ‘there’ yet, so what? You’re not tied to that version of your text forever. Other versions of that work can co-exist. You can refine, embellish, cut. You wrote it, only you get to decide what the definitive version of that work is. That thought has been a comfort to me. I’d also say you’d better believe that other people will tell you whether or not your work’s ready! And while there’s something admirable in staying true to your own instincts and vision, if you’re hearing from multiple sources that something’s not quite right, you owe it to the work to entertain the notion that this might be true.
Which brings me neatly to… R E J E C T I O N! And let me tell you, this happens. To everyone. All the time. In terms of my own practice, the process of dealing with that has been about knowing the difference between a rejection of my work, and a rejection of me. I don’t necessarily mean setting aside the ego and ‘not taking things personally’ because – fun fact – sometimes it is personal. There are, sadly, systemic reasons and unconscious biases that influence why work is rejected, and that have absolutely nothing to do with the quality of your writing. Example – and I always tell this story – when I was first sending out the manuscript for my second collection, The Mystic and the Pig Thief, a small but well-regarded indie press rejected the book on the grounds that it was ‘inauthentic’. In the rejection letter, the editor accused me of ‘ventriloquising’ because – and I quote – ‘working-class people do not speak that way’. Wow. Imagine the breath-taking levels of arrogance and entitlement necessary to make a statement like that; imagine thinking that there is only one way for working-class people to write or to sound and that you – a middle-class man – know definitively what that is. Imagine not understanding that poetry is artifice, not a perfect facsimile of real speech! I was still pretty young then. It hurt. I felt like a fraud and a failure, and I wanted to give up. Finding my rage, telling that story, understanding that the problem was definitely with that dude and not with me, helped me keep going.
But – massive caveat – there are also times your work will be rejected for more neutral reasons: it’s not a good fit for the magazine, or for that particular issue of the magazine; it doesn’t light up the right receptors in the editor’s brain, it simply isn’t ‘there’ yet. All of these are just part of life. It doesn’t mean your work is ‘bad’ or lacking. Sometimes it means you haven’t found the right home for that poem, and sometimes it means that the poem isn’t looking like its best self yet. Being honest with yourself about the reasons for rejection helps, placing anger where anger belongs helps, venting and kicking the couch helps. It does hurt; clenching your cheeks together and pretending it doesn’t won’t serve you. I go for a walk, swear, hug my dog, I extemporise rants with friends, and I play this – laughter is always great medicine: https://youtu.be/oS1NOXWVWgo.
What I’ve come to realise is that the friendships I forged along the way, the risks I took, the experiences I had, the relentless doing of the thing… is actually the valuable bit.
Play As Part of Grieving
When I first started writing the Hyena! cycle – which now spans some three books and hundreds of poems – the work was being rejected all over the shop. I was fortunate to place one or two pieces, but in general I don’t think people really understood what I was trying to do, where I was going with this. In Hyena! Jackal! Dog! (Pamenar Press, 2021), which is the first Hyena! book to be published, I included a couple of essays by way of context, because my sense was that people didn’t really ‘get’ the character, the voice, what she was trying so desperately to convey. But the Hyena! poems were – are – unusual for me, because I had this weird, unshakable faith in them. I actually like them, which is different to believing they’re wonderful writing, it’s only that they say what I wanted to say how I wanted to say it. Knowing that has sustained me. Her short-listed incarnation with the wonderful Poetry Bus Press was my letting her rip, having the confidence in that voice to let it range free. While the poems in this collection are very much concerned with loss, they also assay a way of reckoning with the political and social worlds implicated in those losses. Hyena! has a mouth on her, her mode of address is often capacious scorn and punk f*ck you! Even at her most despairing, there’s a feral vigour to the way she uses words, a humour and an energy that Fran (IRL) doesn’t always feel capable of. What differentiates this Hyena! from her other incarnations are those moments of goofiness and crack-up, the nerdy riffs on sixties Batman, Hancock’s Half Hour, or Higher Education’s rightly detested Research Excellence Framework. I have come to understand that such play is also part of grieving, that both loss and language have a transformational capacity, that a weird alchemy happens if I let my Hyena! sing.
The War Pact: Go Down Swinging!
The only other thing I will say on the subject of rejection is don’t become complicit in your own defeat by not trying. This goes double if you are in any sense ‘other’ or non-normative, in which case there will already be a queue of people stretching halfway around the block, waiting to tear you down. Don’t let them win by giving up, which is just failure by default. Don’t do their work for them. I made a war-pact with myself when starting out that while I might not ‘succeed’, I would go down swinging. What I’ve come to realise is that the friendships I forged along the way, the risks I took, the experiences I had, the relentless doing of the thing, the swinging is actually the valuable bit. You stand up for yourself and your cohort, you stake your claim, you assert your right to take up space, you get in people’s faces, you keep saying I’m here! We’re here! That’s a good day’s work. Most days, that’s enough.
Fran Lock‘s Hyena! (Poetry Bus Press) is shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot Prize 2023. Order your copy here.
Fran Lock is the former Judith E, Wilson Poetry Fellow at Cambridge University (2022-2023), and the author of thirteen poetry collections, most recently ‘a disgusting lie’ (further adventures through the neo-liberal hell mouth), published by Pamenar Press in September 2023.