I’ll usually tell my audience that I write poetry to make sense of the things that happen to me in my life, and then proceed to read poems about terrible art exhibitions and shows I’ve attended, but it’s really not that far from the actual truth. My poems are often inspired by real events, people, places and feelings; mostly feelings. I tend not to fictionalise in my poems, as I already have short stories for that, though I have dabbled in narrative poetry from time to time.
A poem comes to me as a big slab of clay. As in, I write the whole thing as it comes, or as much of it as I can remember, and then mould it and chisel it from there. Some poems need minimal effort, as they’ve struck me like lightning. All I need to do in those cases is write as much as I can. Poems like F&*^ Today (which I’ve mentioned before last month) and Waiting at A London Train Station, were written in a few hours, if that.
The rest stay in a weird state of limbo, either slightly blemished or in bad need of reconstruction. There aren’t many that I’ve went back over and changed after I’ve initially been satisfied with them, though there have been a couple. They wait there until I can think of something to do with them.
Some poems are left until I decide to rework them from the ground up. Like a poem I’ve submitted to an anthology. The anthology’s theme is Wishes, as it’s to raise money for the Make A Wish foundation. The day before the submission deadline closed, I looked through the poems that were more polished and didn’t feel they matched up enough. So I looked through the poems I had that weren’t so polished, and I found one titled ‘The Well’. Because wishing well? I saw it and thought:
“This is it, but it needs work”.
I wrote ‘The Well’ as a young teenager. This was a point in my life I aimed for a rhyming scheme, instead of what I do now where I just spill words that rhyme or (more often) half-rhyme and hope it sounds good. However, this rhyming scheme didn’t work. It was littered with half-rhymes and it sounded incredibly melodramatic. A lot of my earlier poems are a touch melodramatic, and I haven’t put them out for just that reason, but underneath it’s flawed exterior lay a very good idea.
So I made it more about the wishful aspect. I renamed the poem from ‘The Well’ to ‘Well’ as it fitted better with the themes of mental health throughout the poem. I got rid of the failing rhyming scheme in favour of something more minimalist. I played around with the placement of words on a line. I’d seen poets like Melissa Jennings use word placement really cleverly, in a way that I wouldn’t have thought of doing before. I tried putting some rhymes together in couplets. And I looked at it, and I liked it that bit better. I don’t hold out much hope for it being published in the anthology. I still feel it needs a little bit more work, at least as far as I can see.
For my poetry, I prefer to edit myself. I don’t ask for proofreading for my poems, as I tend to feel my way through the work. It feels more authentically mine. One time when I was young, I showed my mother (who also writes) a poem I’d written. She suggested an entire rewrite, and showed me what she thought I should do.
She said, “It’s your poem, all I’ve done is rearrange it.”
But when I looked at it, it wasn’t my poem. Yes the idea was mine, and some of the lines were mine, but the arrangement was hers. She’d written it so it would flow better and make more sense, which I’d appreciated. But I couldn’t accept it and pass it off as mine. It was her arrangement, and it looked totally different from how I had done it. I left that poem and haven’t returned to it yet.
This is totally different from my prose, where part of my process is sending things to get proofread. With my poems, I prefer to feel my way through. If I need a second opinion on how a poem is, I’d read it aloud, and change it according to how I feel. I did this with my poem Artistic Melodrama in A Minor. I read it out as it was a few times, and the jokes just weren’t landing. So I went back and changed it, and read it aloud again. The new version got a much better reception, so the new version is now the final draft.
So for me poetry just happens, and can’t really be forced. Poems that I’ve tried to rush or elbow into existence have often turned out poorly or malformed. I generally keep writing, or keep shaping it until it works. I’m in a place where I’ve got choice on what I can edit, and that choice gets more extensive the more poems I write down. It’s an experimental and very messy thing more than anything else. For the poems that I have published or read out at events which work well, there are many, many more sitting on my laptop waiting to be pruned into a half decent form.
It’s a process that works well for me personally, but it has been slow. It’s taken me many years to be at a place where my poems are presentable or publishable. If after all this, you still want to take inspiration from my process and try it yourself, I have some advice: be patient. Trust your gut or your heart to take your poetry where it naturally goes. If your natural direction is meditative, funny, philosophical, observational, emotional… regardless, go where the inspiration takes you.
You can find Jen’s original poetry portfolio at jenhugheswriter.com/poetry.
Jen Hughes is a writer from Ayrshire, Scotland who contributes monthly to Diary of a Young Writer. She has been furiously scribbling ideas and writing elaborate stories from as early as age seven. In her fiction and poetry, she has been published in a wide variety of online journals and magazines such as Pulp Metal Magazine, Idle Ink, McStorytellers and Ogilvie Press; as well as having read out at various open mike and spoken word events in her area. Her up-to-date portfolio of short stories, flash fictions and poems can be found on her website. Jen is currently studying English Literature and Film & TV Studies in Glasgow.
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