Monday 25 October 2010

A Theory of Line-breaks

2 line stanzas7
3 line stanzas14
4 line stanzas4
5 line stanzas5
6 line stanzas2
7 line stanzas2
8 line stanzas1
Misc stanzas8
Deviations from norms will be noticed. In most prose, line-breaks are deviations. The norms for poetry seem to be changing. Here are the statistics of Jane Holland's "The Brief History of a Disreputable Woman" (Bloodaxe 1997). Note the high percentage of poems with regular 2 or 3 lined stanzas. For regularity, the "Brighton Pilgrimage" poem takes the prize - 18 7-lined stanzas where the longest line is about 1cm longer than the shortest.

In the last decade or so, line-breaks seem often used to produce equally shaped stanzas in this way. Like any pattern it offers the writer chances to thwart expectation - units can be end-stopped or enjambed, for example. The requirements of form also give the writer an answer to people asking why the poet broke a line. Stanza lengths can (indeed, should) be varied from poem to poem. The important thing is not to let any line stick out more than 2cm from a neighbour. Once the poem's been shaped, minor tweaks can be made to exploit a line- or stanza-break, but these shouldn't be too obvious - such effects are often pretty cheap, and they might draw attention to the other, form-driven line-breaks. For added variety regular indenting can be used too. The final stanza is allowed to be a line shorter or longer than all the rest. It can even be a single-line.

Why do poets use the form? After all, the line-break's potential in this context is limited. I guess the form's purpose is partly to please the eye and partly to get people in the poetry mood, to get them to "read into" the work. As Culler wrote in "Structuralist Poetics", this will make readers see extra meanings (the word "red" will burst with connotations), and affect their interpretation of style (reportage will become "restrained writing"). There'll also be a tendency to read a fragment as the tip-of-an-iceberg.

Note the key-role played by line-breaks. Not only do they indicate that the text is a poem (giving it a charge, an aura), but by encouraging minor closures they help readers to focus on (and magnify) particular phrases as well as generating extra interpretations - e.g. "I am good/for nothing".

Given the charitable status granted to poetry by readers, any text is likely to seem more significant when read as a poem, so I think that it's only fair to raise the bar for text with poetic pretensions. In "A Lope of Time" Ruth O'Callaghan writes "smoking at an open window, the man notes the abandoned boat. Come spring he will replace it". I misquote; actually she wrote

smoking at an open window
                      the man
                the abandoned boat

come spring 
        he will replace it

I don't think this earns the right to be read too generously.

Rather than use the shape of the text to indicate that the work should be read poetically, writers can use the context. It's common nowadays for poetry books to include at least one poem that has no line-breaks. Lachlan Mackinnon's "Small Hours" takes this approach further. On the flap it says that the book ends with "a long poem ... written mostly in prose". The piece in question ("The Book of Emma") takes up 63 pages. Here are some extracts

  • "The only television I watched as an undergraduate was the separate inaugural speech President Carter had recorded for Europe on the subject of nuclear weapons. We just didn't. Nowadays people have sets in their rooms. And mobiles. They stay in touch with home friends in a way impossible and unimaginable for us. They text and email. This may be an epistemic shift but they feel terror loneliness and grief no less than we did" (from section XL).
  • "Of course in making this thing about you or around you I am talking about my youth and homesick for it. But that is not the point. The point is that at one time in one place I met someone who became to me a living conscience" (from section XLVIII)

It's interesting to note the reception to this piece

  • Boyd Tonkin (The Independent) - It is a poet's prose: thrifty, rhythmic, specific, given to darting shifts in pace and focus.
  • Carrie Etter (The Guardian) - "The Book of Emma" creates much of its poetry through command of sentence rhythms, repetitions of sound, and epic movement between individual experience and historical perspective.
  • David Morley (blog) - "The Book of Emma", which is neither prose poetry nor poetic prose but a vivid series of elliptical, connected flash-backs that have the quality of flash fiction - except we are clearly hearing a poem... - it is a highly successful experiment in form.

I'd call it prose written in prose. Yes, it has shifts of time and subject, but thankfully so does prose. It has a consistent voice. Its imagery and analogies are developed at a leisurely pace. There are leit-motifs and unspoken interconnections. It doesn't exploit sound effects. But if it doesn't need line-breaks why does an earlier poem, "Midlands", need so many? It has these passages:

  • "TB and rickets/ are back in cities, but these towns/ are too small to support/ such destitution"
  • "Canals hidden/ like avenues by trees// until the bank-holiday/holiday-makers come/ in narrow-boats dolled up/ like gypsy caravans/ with new gloss/ blue, orange, red"

It's commonly said that some poems are "just prose chopped up", but even if a text is "poetry chopped up" it's faulty. In Ruth O'Callaghan's piece what are line-breaks for? I'm not the only person puzzled by latterday line-breaks

  • "the free verse, now dominant not only in the US but around the world, has become, with notable exceptions, little more than linear prose, arbitrarily divided into line-lengths", Marjorie Perloff, "The Oulipo Factor", Jacket 23
  • "The poetic line seems highly problematic nowadays and it sometimes seems better to avoid it altogether", Frances Presley, "Poetry Review", V98.4, 2008
  • "Not only hapless adolescents, but many gifted and justly esteemed poets writing in contemporary nonmetrical forms, have only the vaguest concept, and the most haphazard use, of the line", Denise Levertov", On the Function of the Line", 1979

2 line stanzas4
3 line stanzas3
14 line stanzas1
Nathan Hamilton's selection of recent poetry in Rialto 70 (2010) has these statistics. It's unfair to compare this multi-author sample with single-author books, but maybe it's a sign that line-breaks are regaining their power. In Mackinnon's "Midlands" the line-breaks are for making each stanza 9 lines long, which is currently considered a worthwhile aim, but perhaps "The Book of Emma" signals a further drift of norms. There's no need to add line-breaks to a text if Faber label it as poetry. If Faber accept this piece as poetry, what prose would they turn down? Anything with sections longer than 2 pages?

Friday 8 October 2010

Giving up the day job

lift You've reached a mid-life crisis - you've been dabbling with writing (perhaps with some success) for years and want to go to the next level. Maybe your kids have grown and left, you've come into some money, you've a long-term illness, or you've unexpectedly become unemployed. What are the options?

It's a question that prose writers more so than poets ask. Prose needs more of a full time commitment than poetry does, and some people who already earn money writing prose (journalists, technical writers, translators, etc) can carry on doing part-time work. Also I think women more so than men follow this delayed career path, their lives disrupted more by parenthood.

You could take early retirement, buy a cottage in the South of France, Walden, or even move to Tahiti, but most of us have to compromise a little.

A Masters Degree (MFA, MLit, MA)

Creative Writing's a competitive hobby nowadays, verging on a profession. Young budding writers who want to work within academia have to be prepared to move often, and go on short-term contracts. You probably don't want to compete on that level. Look upon your age as an advantage. There's more to writing success than merely writing - you'll have to fill in forms, jump through hoops, meet deadlines, balance competing needs, thoroughly research the market, have the money to buy the right books, be self-critical, etc. Perhaps you won't have as much spare time as some of your class-mates, but you'll have more life-experiences and perhaps you'll be better able to exploit your opportunities.

If you missed the chance to do a full time Masters the first time round, don't worry - it's never too late. In "The Guardian" (8 May 2009) Professor Russell Celyn Jones said that "The MA programme I run at Birkbeck, University of London, attracts people of all ages from around the world and with a wide range of life experience. These doctors, journalists, police, actors and lawyers are clear-eyed about their expectations: they want to pursue a private passion communally for a year."

It's not so much the academic surroundings that attract late-comers -

  • You may appreciate the discipline, the lack of distraction, the easy availability of help.
  • Unless you show you're serious about writing, your family won't take you seriously and won't give you space.
  • A Masters is a way to validate your skills - even if it doesn't help you write better, the certificate at the end will open doors.
  • It will show the grandchildren that you're not over the hill yet.

You might be able to take a year off work (a BBC TV reporter did this so that he could do a Masters in creative writing) but of course, you needn't go full time - nowadays many Masters courses welcome mature students, waiving qualification requirements, and offering low-residency, 2 year part-time options with distance learning components, variable speeds, and a choice of terms when you can start. Courses nowadays include sessions on market awareness and the Publishing trade, and assessed material is likely to include a dissertation folio (aka "creative thesis") which may be in poetry or prose, so you needn't take a break from your usual writing and submitting. But do these courses work?

  • Venessa Gebbie was accepted to do an MPhil in Writing, but changed her mind after finding out more about the course (having already paid a deposit).
  • Tania Hershman spent ten years working as a science and technology journalist before enrolling on the MA at Bath Spa, UK. Her project went on to be published.

So yes, it can work, but it's risky. See the Poets & Writers page for more US information. The UK is catching up fast with the USA. Suddenly it's become normal for 30% of the bios in a magazine like Rialto to mention Creative Writing degrees. England's UEA isn't quite the Iowa workshop, but it's been around since 1970 - see their Autumn syllabus. It's produced several "mature" writers.

One-off Help

Rather than commit to a long course which may include lots of material you're not interested in, you can pay for specific help
  • Literary Consultants - Publishers' in-house editors rarely have time nowadays to discover and nurture talent. Meanwhile, thanks to Creative Writing courses, more and more authors are producing near-publishable books. How can they be helped? Agents are more publisher-orientated, and in any case won't deal with stories and poems, which is why "literary consultants" (aka "manuscript assessment services") are on the increase. Depending on the quality of the work they may recommend it to an agent or publisher, suggest a few tweaks, or splatter the first page or 2 with comments and have a long, frank discussion with the author. Even if you find a reputable company, you won't know beforehand how useful their comments will be, but even their help with the all-important first few paragraphs may make all the difference.
  • Mentoring - The UK's Faber and Faber is the latest organisation to nurture individual talent. It's a growth area. The New Writing Partnership's Escalator scheme also works that way. Writers value such attention albeit briefly at residential courses and on Masters courses. Being under someone's wing for several months is what most budding writers want, especially if there's guaranteed publication at the end.

The common factor here is the 1-on-1 contact, something lost during the rise of big business and workshops. Another is the expense. Consultancy and mentoring don't come cheap - mentoring is about $40/hour, and 1,000 words cost at least $10 to be evaluated. Regional Arts Boards can sometimes help with funding or at least offer recommendations.

Roll your own

If you have the self-discipline you could plan a year-long programme tailored to your own needs. Creative writing syllabuses are online to give you ideas. Festivals, readings, short residential workshops, private study, and competition deadlines can be time-tabled into a year of activity. Holidays can be integrated into the scheme too.

In the UK, Arvon weeks are frequently mentioned as a life-changing experience. Immersion for a week in a writing environment helps people to start thinking of themselves as "writers".

Poets & Writers have a Literary Events Calendar (a nationwide calendar of readings, workshops, and other literary events) and a page about Writers Conferences, Colonies, and Workshops page showing some US options.

Online groups can help. Venessa Gebbie is one of many writers who had a post-50 surge. She said "I spent eighteen months on and off working in an online writing group ... That was akin to an apprenticeship." But you need your wits about you if you're going to benefit from such locations. Older people might have an advantage in this respect.

Alternative Approaches

  • At the age of 92 Toyo Shibatashe gave up dancing because of a bad back, and started writing poetry. Now 98, her latest poetry book has sold 40,000 copies in Japan.
  • Become a celeb first, then publish later - see Viggo Mortenson
  • Become a writer of any kind first - see Prue Leith (first novel at 55)
  • Make explicit use of your profession - either for content or as a PR opportunity
  • Some competitions have a lower-age limit of 50 or so. Make the most of them. Grey Hen is one of a number of organisations for older writers.
  • See Career in poetry (from TextEtc)