Saturday, 11 September 2010

Writing and Corruption

The question of 'sincerity' or 'authenticity' in writing, and whether it exists or is even desirable, is something that has been concerning me more and more. I am being forced to mull over it again after reading Michael Kindellan's essay "'The Labor of Revision': George Oppen's Sincerity" published in the current issue of The Wolf. Kindellan writes: "It is the nature of Oppen's 'test' to reject as insincere anything which is already known at the time of writing; which is to say anything unlearned during the process of writing itself is corrupt."

I am also halfway through Melissa Lee-Houghton's book Patterns of Mourning (Chipmunka Publishing, 2009). A book-length 'poetic diary' comprised of a series of 'songs' or epistles to various persons, it is a difficult read in terms of the circumstances of its composition and subject matter ("I wrote this book while undergoing what was later termed a Mixed Affective Episode, as a diagnosed Manic Depressive since the age of 15" writes Lee-Houghton in her foreword) but mostly because it disregards the rules of narrative or even syntax - threads break off and come back in snatches, tenses and subjects change unexpectedly, the identity of the addressee shifts constantly - as well as the conventions of what's termed 'confessional writing'. It is also an exhilarating read, and it contains some astonishing poetry that lights up masses of material which often looks and sounds like the unsorted outpourings of a stretched mind, a mind which nevertheless remains alert to its position and use of language. In her foreword, Lee-Houghton also writes that much of the book was composed "on the underside of letters, the backs of my hands and arms and all over my clothes, on train tickets, in public computer terminals, on walls..." and argues against "the idea that as individuals a loss of control or emotional stability is something which should bring about shame and humiliation".

Melissa Lee-Houghton and I are two of around 30 writers participating in the 'Genius or Not' online project, which invites its contributors to compose short pieces of off-the-cuff prose or poetry (nothing already considered or worked on) written on particular days of our choosing, and to publish them shortly afterwards and with minimal revising. The project is curated by Succour's managing editor Anthony Banks and is an offshoot of the responses to the 'theme' proposed by Anthony for Succour's abandoned issue 11 (6 February 2010). 'Genius or Not' is currently under way, with work pouring in almost daily, though the website that will be carrying it has not yet gone live.

'Genius or Not' is an exercise that forces me to resist the intensive (and sometimes self-conscious) re-drafting of my original notes towards a poem. Paradoxically, being aware of the imposed constraints at the point of composition, these notes becomes contaminated by an urge to find their raison d’être. So they become less 'sincere' or 'authentic' than the notes I would usually begin poems from. I have tried to circumvent this by introducing additional constraints on the act of writing itself, such as performing it in conspicuous circumstances, under difficult physical conditions or while being occupied with something else.

But during the short 'tidying-up' phase the anxiety of publication kicks in: I often attempt to put a polish on what has found itself on paper, and thus introduce secondary elements which I have no further chance to work through. Which leaves some of the pieces hanging uncomfortably between the note and the poem. This is the intention of the exercise; it also serves to reinforce the axiomatic claim that the pith of the writing happens in the re-writing.

To discover what we write and why we write it we must perform the act of writing in the first place. I find that the 'Genius or Not' exercise offers a gateway to themes and forms or levels of language that may not be accessible under unforced circumstances. I suspect its influence will turn out to be in the detection of corruptions at the time of the initial composition: that is, it will help sharpen my skill for collecting raw material. This is where poets who have worked for years honing their crafting and re-drafting and self-editing skills sometimes find they have gone limp.

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