After her guest slot on BBC Radio Bristol last Saturday (two days left to catch up here), Shirley is fast becoming a local celebrity, but she has found time to tell us some of her writing secrets in today’s post.
What are you working on now?
Poetry, almost exclusively. I’ve become fascinated with form, and I’m enjoying exploring its restrictions and its challenges. My current obsession is with the sonnet. I suspect that’s the most well known of all the poetic forms and probably the most used, both by modern and not so modern writers. Surely everyone had to learn one of Wordsworth’s or Shakespeare’s at school? And today’s kids have examples like the fabulous “Prayer” by Carol Ann Duffy.
How does your work differ from others in the same genre?
Well, there’s a limit to how different you can actually be when you’re writing in strict form! But what I like about today’s poets is the way they push the boundaries and bend the rules in an attempt to move things on. Like a modern take on an old classic – paying homage while at the same time acknowledging that things change (and have to, or else they’ll ossify and die). Some people are very resistant to this! I was at a poetry workshop recently where I read a few of my sonnets and explained what I was trying to do and why, and met with violent opposition: a sonnet is fourteen lines, with strict metre and rhyming patterns, and that’s that. No argument. Now, Don Paterson (Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, university lecturer, published poet and author of many tomes specifically about the sonnet, and therefore someone who probably knows his onions) reckons the only thing you can definitely say nowadays about a sonnet is that it usually has fourteen lines, but often doesn’t! When I quoted this at the said workshop, there were gasps of horror.
Why do you write what you do?
I write poetry because I love words. Frankly, I’m obsessed with them. Their meanings, sound, feel, taste, ambiguities, etymology, grammatical interplay … I’m one of those geeky people who can spend all day worrying about a semi-colon or choosing between two words that basically mean exactly the same thing! I like writing in form because, in a weird way, its restrictions are somehow liberating. When you’re searching for a particular rhyme, it makes your imagination go to places you wouldn’t otherwise have considered. It makes you more inventive.
What is your writing process?
I try to write every day. But it’s different from the discipline of bashing out a thousand words of prose before lunch. I can’t be that regular or that methodical. Sometimes a poem starts to take shape while I’m shopping or ironing or cooking. I scribble odd words down, then carry on with what I’m doing and wait till a bit more comes along. Eventually the poem demands attention and then I go straight to the computer. I know lots of poets still swear by pencil and paper, but seeing lines clearly on the screen, and being able to move them about so easily, helps me envisage the future poem, even before it exists. My handwriting’s illegible, anyway. But there are also days when nothing new happens and I spend my time fiddling and editing and reworking old poems, often just playing with the odd word. Poets are inveterate fiddlers. We never know when to leave a poem alone and say “It’s finished”. Because it never is. If I’m really stuck, I read someone else’s poetry and this can help a lot.
Thank you Shirley. You can view The Last Green Field and Shirley’s other publications on our bookshop page.
Meanwhile – as you can guess from this picture we’re in tea-party mode. Catch us if you can at one of our meetings tonight from 7 to 9 on Twitter @eteaparty