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In Their Own Words is a celebration of the variousness of contemporary poets living and writing in the UK today. 56 poets talk about their own poetic voices and their work. Essential reading for anybody who cares about poetry.

In Their Own WordsIn Their Own Words: Contemporary Poets on Their Poetry,
Edited by Helen Ivory and George Szirtes

I can’t imagine someone who has no interest in poetry even picking this book up, so to say that if you enjoy contemporary poetry, then you will like this anthology, seems almost redundant.  To be honest, I would be even more specific than that – I would recommend this book to anyone who attempts to write their own poetry, however successfully.

It includes musings on ‘poetics’, by such a vast range of contemporary poets, that it includes something to interest everyone, whatever their taste in poetry.  Even if you think you know nothing about poetry – don’t worry, it is very accessible.

I’ve never studied poetry and so discussion of ‘metre’ and ‘fixed forms’ is all new to me, but it’s fascinating to hear how other people write.  Patience Agbabi approaches things in a very structured way, whereas Clare Pollard says throw away the rule book:

“Though there is an obligation to be original, we should not claim that poetry has any rules… True poetry is anarchic.”

I wrote my first poem in February 2014.  I borrowed the ‘form’ of my friend Ray’s poem about her father, a butcher, and used it to describe my own parents, the philanderer and the potato peeler.  And so, one poem multiplied; it became three poems – like a cell dividing.  Well, that’s how I see it.  I’m not sure what Ray thinks, but she was very gracious about me stealing from her.

Reading this collection, I was surprised to discover that many poets started off as visual artists.  This is also my background, and I often think of poems as pictures, collages or sculptures; it’s just that they’re constructed from words.  I found Pascale Petit’s account of her work very moving and interesting, as we seemed to share some similarities in our backgrounds; not only because she was an artist, but because she developed dissociative tendencies due to her upbringing.

The essays I enjoyed the most were by Moniza Alvi, Helen Mort, Martin Figura and Agnes Lehoczky, as they touched on the poetics of memory and place; subjects which are of particular interest to me with regards to my own writing.

I find that most of my own poems come from a feeling of emotional disturbance, whether positive or negative.  The poems which examine my past, arise from a sense of intangibility and my inability to fix something which has now gone.  My childhood home has been demolished, as has much of the area where I spent my late teens, and so the physical geography of my past has changed.  I don’t see any of my family and of my possession from childhood, the only things I have left, are a set of miniature pencil crayons, a pixie in a bottle and a couple of books; the most important things have passed on.  And so, I write to conjure a new world from my past and my present; one that only exists on the page.

“The process of writing makes me feel more myself.  I like the way that poetry can capture what’s at the edge of the mind, and that we can’t really say where a poem comes from.  It’s as if, with Pullman’s ‘subtle knife’, a window has been suddenly cut into a different, but related world.”  Moniza Ali

“poems for me should attempt to re-create hiatuses, to re-erect losses, to point at ‘nothings’ and thus to name what ‘isn’t’; to build invisible arches over the poles of what may seem irreconcilable, over unbridgeable chasms and distances, thus allowing oneself to be able to live at more than one place at once.”   Agnes Lehoczky

Another striking thing that I learned from this collection (which probably seems obvious to everyone but me) is that poetry is mostly intended to be read out loud.  I never read my poems aloud and would find it very embarrassing to do so – which is why I have so far squirmed out of any invitations I’ve received to ‘perform’ at poetry readings.  This point is actually really helpful, because I think a lot of my work wouldn’t be very easy to read out loud and needs changing.  Back to the drawing board.  Funnily enough, I did an online course with Helen Ivory, who edited this collection, and she is a really good pruner of poems.  She has an amazing ability to eliminate unnecessary words; which is often painful for the poet, but transforming in effect.

In this age of social media, blogs and the internet it seems that everyone has something to say.  This is a really wonderful thing.  If used well, the internet could result in a proliferation of poetry.  We can all be poets.  Poetry is just giving more thought than usual to the words you use; and reading the work of other poets, as well as learning how they do it, is essential to improving as a writer.

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