Tuesday, 3 January 2012

where stories comes from

This morning I gave a talk at the RNIB about poetry, read some of my own work and talked about writing processes and all that jazz. It was really interesting, and I thoroughly enjoyed the discussion with everyone who came along. One thing in particular that we discussed was where the ideas for our writing come from. One of the participants said that she'd been looking through some of her old school exercise books from the late 1940s, early 50s, when she'd written poetry. A lot of it, she said, was about aliens invading the earth from Mars. At the time she swears that that's what she intended to write about, but now, when she looks back on it, she can clearly see that the aftermath of the second world war was nudging its way into her work. Albeit in a different form - but her subconscious was concerned about invasion, war and the unknown.

With my poetry at the moment I find my ideas [broadly speaking] fall into two separate categories. There's the poetry that is tangled up in the North East and my childhood, and there's the poetry concerned with 'otherness' - 'freaks', odd heroines, mythology and taking control. The full-length collection I'm working on at the moment deals with the latter of these - for instance a poem 'Memories of His Sister in a Full Body Wetsuit' [which will be published in the next issue of Agenda], is about a girl born with her legs joined together - a 'real life mermaid,' or selkie:


She never used to talk much. You said you always used 
                                                                    to come here
before your mum found amber bottles on a top shelf.
Before the operation where your sister’s legs were split 

                                                    - because she’d arrived
in this world swimming. Your dad looking for a receipt.

I've always been fascinated by the origins of fairy tales and mythological creatures, which influenced a lot of these poems in this collection [at the moment called 'How to Weigh Nothing']. Red Riding Hood and Goldilocks make an appearance, along with saints that never existed, Eve leaving Adam for another woman, and many other strange things [a few of those are available over here, on page nine]. Also the deformity element is obviously in some form related to my own - and something which really freaked me out, finding out about The Lobster Boy - people with EEC living in freak shows with people paying to come and stare at them. I think I'll stick to the day job, thanks ;)

In with my North East related poetry is one called Kitchen, a poem which placed in last year's Kent and Sussex poetry competition and will be published in the next issue of The Rialto. It's a narrative: two girls, naked, in the narrator's kitchen talking about love, life and death, scared that one of their mothers is going to come home and catch them. Now, I've never hung out with someone naked in my mum's kitchen [I'm sure she'll be pleased to hear that if she's reading this], but clearly [to me, obviously to anyone else reading it they can make up their own mind], a lot of that poem comes from the anxiety I had about my parents finding out I am also attracted to girls.


...feet tapping on the floor. Your mother would be home soon.
To her yellow and white check tea towels and her hand-painted 

                                                                                   bread bin

and her naked daughter standing like Jesus in front of the
refrigerator. I grabbed your foot.

Some stories are things I've half remembered, or mis-remembered or half-heard things about other people. I suppose writing is our way of making sense of the world, and what's great about that is the poem or story we have written can mean something completely different to someone else [even the inital ideas]. So from memories, old folk tales, and personal stories grow other stories and other perceptions of those stories until they're something else entirely to many different people. I think that's what I love most about literature as a whole.


  1. Hi Jen,

    your last paragraph rang true with me - when I write poetry I love the thought that I have a meaning behind it but someone else might take something completely different from the words I write. I've been to a Paul Muldoon reading and you can see the difficulty he has "explaining" what a particular poem or line "means". For me, it can mean anything, anything that you take from it. As long as something IS taken from a writing I feel that is good enough for me. I wrote a poem about it -I've just posted it on my blog if you'd like to take a look http://bit.ly/ueeUo2. Great post Jen - Steve :)

  2. Hi Steve, thanks for the link - I'll definitely take a look :) glad you liked the post. x

  3. I've been reading your blog for some time now but haven't left a comment before. It's true about how stories evolve and grow from places we've never consciously rembered or considered. More of an avid reader than a writer myself I think it's a small reward, reading a story and taking away something different and individual each time.

  4. acts of randomness - A first comment! Thank you :) I love thinking of an individual's interpretation of a story as their personal reward for reading. x

  5. I've probably mentioned Marina Warner's 2 volume study of fairy tales masculine and feminine before but they merit a replacement of monotony: From the Beast to the Blonde and No Go the Bogeyman.

    There are stories in literature that exist upon the page and there are underlying, hidden, inner stories within them and inside the page (between the lines, so to say). If the reader can get to the heart of a book or the play within the play they've got to the truth. The story (external) on page or stage of Dancing at Lughnasa by Brian Friel for example is the depiction of a month in the life of 5 impoverished women but the pretext or the underlying narrative dances a Pagan wheel-dance around the festival of Lughnasa. The radio-with-a-mind-of-its-own acts as a chink that links the inner narrative with the outer. The skeleton key to the play lies in its closing monologue:

    And so, when I cast my mind back to that summer of 1936, different kinds of memories offer themselves to me.

    But there is one memory of that Lughnasa time that visits me most often; and what fascinates me about that memory is that it owes nothing to fact. In that memory atmosphere is more real than incident and everything is simultaneously actual and illusory. In that memory, too, the air is nostalgic with the music of the thirtees. It drifts in from somewhere far away - a mirage of sound - a dream music that is both heard and imagined; that seems to be both itself and its own echo; a sound so alluring and so mesmeric that the afternoon is bewitched, maybe haunted, by it. And what is so strange about that memory is that everybody seems to be floating on those sweet sounds, moving rhythmically, languorously, in complete isolation; responding more to the mood of the music than it its beat. When I remember it, I think of it as dancing. Dancing with eyes half closed because to open them would break the spell. Dancing as if language had surrendered to the movement - as if this ritual, this wordless ceremony, was now the way to speak, to whisper private and sacred things, to be in touch with some otherness. Dancing as if the very heart of life and all its hopes might be found in those assuaging notes and those hushed rhythms and in those silent and hypnotic movements. Dancing as if language no longer existed because words were no longer necessary.

    (Brian Friel. Dancing at Lughansa. Faber & Faber, 1990. 71).