Think writing poetry is the preserve of the privileged intellectual? Cobblers, says Laura Dockrill. Everyone can – and should – give it a go.
You can’t catch the way a human speaks. You can’t collect the words with your hands in the air like those wonderful stars of dandelion fluff that roam about to make a wish on. We speak in spirits. Intangible unformed shadows that are impossible to tame. You can’t box them up and hope they don’t float away. That’s the wonderful thing about conversation and speaking. It happens. And then it dissolves. It’s theatre, speaking, that’s why it is called an ‘art’ because that’s exactly what it is. An art.
Those of us that are lucky enough to speak freely, to talk to the moon and to the end of the rolling hills with lolling tongues and open mouths, we are special. We get to make shapes before our brain has even worked out what our next thought is. We can speak and do it a lot. But few of us, sadly, believe we can write.
I have always known I was in love with words and language but always felt intimidated by the nature of them. For some reason, I felt the English language was a palette or set of tools that I was not entitled to, even from a young age. My spelling and grammar was poor, I made up words, I didn’t concentrate in school, my parents swore like pirates. Why would anybody care what I had to say? Why did I deserve a platform? Why was I interesting? Well, of course, I wasn’t. I was unconfident. I didn’t know my tenses, I didn’t know about plot or introducing characters or paragraphs properly. I didn’t know how to demonstrate dialogue.
But I was desperate for it. I’d spent hours and hours writing stories and poems and plays in my bedroom. But it was just for fun. I was just an amateur.
I’d never be a real writer.
Until one day, when waiting for my dad in the bookshop, I came across a book called Meeting Midnight. The cover was a splodgy brushstroke paint of blue and it had an illustration of a wobbly tree on the front and inside the branches, nestled in amongst the leaves was an oversized, out of proportion, content looking woman; eyes closed, with big boobies and big long dangly tanned bulky legs. She was also painted in free hand wobbly brush strokes. What on earth was this book? What was this big confident happy looking woman doing just chilling in this tree? Why would you make this the cover of your book? This book looked like none of the other books in the children’s section. I was nine. I had never seen such a grown up looking book. I had to have it.
These poems didn’t rhyme. Not all the time. Sometimes they did. Sometimes they didn’t. These poems were about everything and about nothing. They were simple but complicated, their complexities not bewildering me, but stretching my head, if I fancied it. They weren’t bossy poems that shouted ‘WHY DON’T YOU UNDERSTAND ME, CHILD?’; they let me find my way in my own time. Encouraged curiosity and thought. You could never predict what word would be plucked next. These poems were magical. Surreal. Playful. Funny. But tender. Sophisticated.
I’d never really been exposed to such serious business in writing before then. My parents were both music lovers and I always grasped the melancholy matrimony between a “happy” and “sad” song. Songwriting was like life, ‘I love you I just don’t like you.’ I got that. But literature, at this time never seemed to offer me the same freedom. And then in came Carol Ann Duffy, barging in with her big old saw, cracking open a tiny door in my head that bought with it a tidal wave of brave new expression and work. Writers that could bend and stretch words completely and librally, that juxtaposed and contrasted, that worked in light and shade. Writers that used repetition, that were anarchic and chaotic with form and vocabulary. Rebellious writers that split words up. Evolved characters that came and went in between lines like popping round for a cup of tea. Just like life. Capturing the way a person speaks, truly speaks, like a fingerprint or a moment of touch.
I instantly began writing like this myself and it was that simple. Once I’d seen it done, successfully, it gave my writing a definitive pulse and identity. An attitude. I’d been so deluded…of course I was interesting because everybody is interesting. If I didn’t know a word, I’d make it up, if I didn’t know a discipline, I’d just create a new one. Every page was a canvas, a stage, a space. I have Carol Ann Duffy to thank for that revelation. I got my publishing deal from poetry. They called it ‘poetry’ but to me it was just my writing. Nobody could judge whether or not I was doing it correctly because there is no correct. And I was just doing it anyway and nobody could stop me. That is the wonderful thing about a poem, it’s the leftovers of everything else that becomes the construction of it. All the valuable gold dust that no one wants to leave behind. Anything can become a poem.
Poetry is precious because everybody can DO poetry. Poetry is writing. Poetry is just your tongue. Served carpaccio. Without all the fancies and frills. A beautiful form where you can never get it wrong. And that is why I love it so.
Award Winning Laura Dockrill (best known for the Darcy Burdock series) writes, draws and talks.