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New Poetry, Fiction, Essays

Michael Blackburn – 4 years of writing a poem a day

Where to start? Usually at the beginning. In other words, here.

 

Memories are not stored in the brain like files in a folder or cabinet. Scientists now believe that each time a memory is recovered it is in fact being re-remembered, or re-imagined, and the act of recalling it alters it permanently. A much recalled memory, then, is not the same as when first brought to mind.

 

There is also the fact that the amount of time spent recalling a memory is incredibly brief. Try it. You’ll find that if you are recalling a person or event what you are doing is stringing together a series of disparate sections, each very short. Further, the amount of time covered by the memory itself is just as brief. And again, a more sustained memory is likely to be a series of fragments. Usually what remains most important, however, is the effect of the emotion associated with that memory.

 

What impelled me to begin the project was the knowledge that every single day of our conscious life is filled with time of which nothing is remembered. All those hours driving the car or sitting in the office or talking to family or reading books or watching films and tv or preparing a meal. Every single thing vanished and irrecoverable. If we could gather up all our memories and compile them into a film, they would last only minutes, if that. No wonder they say that when you’re drowning your whole life flashes in front of you: you’re probably through the adverts, trailers and whole film of your life before the darkness finally descends. Grim thought.

 

So it occurred to me it might be interesting and productive each day trying to catch some of the ideas, thoughts, observations, emotions that I experienced and then – automatically – would forget. To rescue something from the constant flood of time, like the sticks and plastic bottles you see along a riverbank. And the best way to do that would be to use the form of the poem, or something vaguely approximating to it, rather than prose. Prose would require an element of discursiveness and narrative which went against the nature of both the material and the mode of its capture. A lot of it, for instance, would be illogical or without clear links between its parts, or just list-like:

 

redwings

river

& rosehips

 

(18/12/08 from Gunsmoke & Lavender)

 

which is simple in its picking up of observed objects in the natural world. But another:

 

bring back the blood

they shout in unison

 

(25/02/11 from Starry Messenger)

 

is a mystery even to me now. It obviously had significance when I wrote it, but both the circumstance that gave rise to it and its importance have evaporated. It’s now as obscure to me as it is to you, Dear Reader.

 

The poems naturally fell into a short, often imagistic, aphoristic or gnomic form. They would be composed mainly last thing at night in bed, on a small Asus notebook (remember notebooks, before tablets took over?). They were not all by any means three or four lines in length, some of them stretching to a respectable twenty lines or so. I deliberately allowed myself the ability to break whatever conventions and restraints I would normally have adhered to. I didn’t rhyme, of course, because I never have done, and I rarely counted syllables (though there are some poems where I play around with syllabics). I allowed myself the luxury of being as minimal or incomprehensible as I wished, as well as giving myself permission to break some of my own, time-honoured diktats, such as telling rather than showing, or indulging in some metaphysical (or perhaps cod-metaphysical) diversions.

 

I also gave myself permission to appropriate material from any source that came to hand that surprised my imagination. This included text from books and newspapers, even that from the articles of my grandfather, written just after the First World War and originally published in a column entitled Stories from the Park, in the sports newspaper he edited in Darlington.

 

Two other things: this was an exercise in not giving a damn about expectations; and I wasn’t bothered about striving for “deep” meanings or messages. Occasional superficiality has its charms.

 

I manged the exercise for four consecutive years before taking a sabbatical that now seems permanent. I arranged the poems in straightforward 365-day years, packaged them with titles and put them on my Scribd site. I knew publishing them though the usual channels would be difficult or impossible but luckily Alec Newman of The Knives Forks And Spoons Press (the small press world is full of generous lunatics), having published an earlier collection of my poems, accepted a whole year’s worth, much to my surprise. This came out as Spyglass Over The Lagoon and actually straddles two volumes. It’s a good, solid book and I’m sure nearly bankrupted Alec. Not long after that another small publisher, Red Ceilings Press, issued a selection as Pocket Venus in their limited edition print formats.

 

I was further surprised that Spyglass was reviewed (in Salzburg Poetry Review) and very kindly, too: “Often engimatic and richly suggestive, despite the banality – often – of their subjects, these short poems are cantles, slivers of a whole day, luminous, intrigants.” I’m long past the stage where I expect any attention from the poetry world (the death of ambition can be a merciful thing) so all this was a bonus. Would-be poets have some hard lessons to learn, one of which is that although  being reviewed is infinitely better than being received in silence, it usually makes no difference to sales.

 

As for the poems I have a number of favourites. Others have sealed themselves up into their own worlds that I c

Where to start? Usually at the beginning. In other words, here.

 

Memories are not stored in the brain like files in a folder or cabinet. Scientists now believe that each time a memory is recovered it is in fact being re-remembered, or re-imagined, and the act of recalling it alters it permanently. A much recalled memory, then, is not the same as when first brought to mind.

 

There is also the fact that the amount of time spent recalling a memory is incredibly brief. Try it. You’ll find that if you are recalling a person or event what you are doing is stringing together a series of disparate sections, each very short. Further, the amount of time covered by the memory itself is just as brief. And again, a more sustained memory is likely to be a series of fragments. Usually what remains most important, however, is the effect of the emotion associated with that memory.

 

What impelled me to begin the project was the knowledge that every single day of our conscious life is filled with time of which nothing is remembered. All those hours driving the car or sitting in the office or talking to family or reading books or watching films and tv or preparing a meal. Every single thing vanished and irrecoverable. If we could gather up all our memories and compile them into a film, they would last only minutes, if that. No wonder they say that when you’re drowning your whole life flashes in front of you: you’re probably through the adverts, trailers and whole film of your life before the darkness finally descends. Grim thought.

 

So it occurred to me it might be interesting and productive each day trying to catch some of the ideas, thoughts, observations, emotions that I experienced and then – automatically – would forget. To rescue something from the constant flood of time, like the sticks and plastic bottles you see along a riverbank. And the best way to do that would be to use the form of the poem, or something vaguely approximating to it, rather than prose. Prose would require an element of discursiveness and narrative which went against the nature of both the material and the mode of its capture. A lot of it, for instance, would be illogical or without clear links between its parts, or just list-like:

 

redwings

river

& rosehips

 

(18/12/08 from Gunsmoke & Lavender)

 

which is simple in its picking up of observed objects in the natural world. But another:

 

bring back the blood

they shout in unison

 

(25/02/11 from Starry Messenger)

 

is a mystery even to me now. It obviously had significance when I wrote it, but both the circumstance that gave rise to it and its importance have evaporated. It’s now as obscure to me as it is to you, Dear Reader.

 

The poems naturally fell into a short, often imagistic, aphoristic or gnomic form. They would be composed mainly last thing at night in bed, on a small Asus notebook (remember notebooks, before tablets took over?). They were not all by any means three or four lines in length, some of them stretching to a respectable twenty lines or so. I deliberately allowed myself the ability to break whatever conventions and restraints I would normally have adhered to. I didn’t rhyme, of course, because I never have done, and I rarely counted syllables (though there are some poems where I play around with syllabics). I allowed myself the luxury of being as minimal or incomprehensible as I wished, as well as giving myself permission to break some of my own, time-honoured diktats, such as telling rather than showing, or indulging in some metaphysical (or perhaps cod-metaphysical) diversions.

 

I also gave myself permission to appropriate material from any source that came to hand that surprised my imagination. This included text from books and newspapers, even that from the articles of my grandfather, written just after the First World War and originally published in a column entitled Stories from the Park, in the sports newspaper he edited in Darlington.

 

Two other things: this was an exercise in not giving a damn about expectations; and I wasn’t bothered about striving for “deep” meanings or messages. Occasional superficiality has its charms.

 

I manged the exercise for four consecutive years before taking a sabbatical that now seems permanent. I arranged the poems in straightforward 365-day years, packaged them with titles and put them on my Scribd site. I knew publishing them though the usual channels would be difficult or impossible but luckily Alec Newman of The Knives Forks And Spoons Press (the small press world is full of generous lunatics), having published an earlier collection of my poems, accepted a whole year’s worth, much to my surprise. This came out as Spyglass Over The Lagoon and actually straddles two volumes. It’s a good, solid book and I’m sure nearly bankrupted Alec. Not long after that another small publisher, Red Ceilings Press, issued a selection as Pocket Venus in their limited edition print formats.

 

I was further surprised that Spyglass was reviewed (in Salzburg Poetry Review) and very kindly, too: “Often engimatic and richly suggestive, despite the banality – often – of their subjects, these short poems are cantles, slivers of a whole day, luminous, intrigants.” I’m long past the stage where I expect any attention from the poetry world (the death of ambition can be a merciful thing) so all this was a bonus. Would-be poets have some hard lessons to learn, one of which is that although  being reviewed is infinitely better than being received in silence, it usually makes no difference to sales.

 

As for the poems I have a number of favourites. Others have sealed themselves up into their own worlds that I can no longer recollect, so that my original idea they should serve as little monuments of memory has failed. Some remain more clear as to time, place and reason for their writing.

 

Fragments shored against ruins, and all that.

 

 

 

 

Michael Blackburn (born 1954) is a British poet.
From 1976 to 1978 Blackburn was an editor on Poetry & Audience, the poetry magazine produced by The School of English at the University of Leeds. Together with the American poet, Michael Coffey, he edited a special translations issue.
During the early-to-mid-1980s he was an editor on Stand Magazine, Newcastle Upon Tyne.
In 1985 he founded the poetry press, Jackson’s Arm, and in 1986 co-organised the readings at the Morden Tower in Newcastle with the poet Brendan Cleary, including the first Poetry Marathon in the northeast.
In 1987 he set up a small literary magazine, Harry’s Hand, which ran for four issues from London.
In 1988 he became Lincolnshire’s first Literature Animateur (Literature Development Worker), a post he held until 1993. During that period he also established Sunk Island Publishing, which issued Sunk Island Review, an irregular paperback of new poetry, fiction, reviews and translations plus occasional novels and other titles (Radio Activity by John Murray, Hallowed Ground by Robert Edric, etc.).
In 1995 he was a Writer in Residence on the Internet, courtesy of Arts Council/Channel, based at Artimedia in Batley, Yorkshire, and produced the hypertext project, The Last of Harry.
In 1988 he became a Fellow of the RSA.
From 2005–2008 he was the Royal Literary Fund fellow at the University of Lincoln where he now teaches English Literature and Creative Writing.

 

 

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