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08 September 2016 @ 10:33 am
Using writing models  
Back to plagiarism… sorry to the non-writers for whom this isn't necessarily a Big Thing in their lives, but it's a debate that doesn't go away in the poetry world, principally because it's become clear in recent years that it happens far more often than we have cared to admit. We're not talking of influences, parodies, hommages here, but of Poet B shamelessly nicking Poet A's actual lines and phrases and not crediting them.

You wouldn't think this would divide the poetry world much, or only along fairly obvious lines – all the honest folk on one side and all the thieves on the other, surely. But in fact there are a few writers and publishers who insist that there can be no ownership of words, no "originality", on the ground that we all use the same dictionary, and that if you, as Poet A, happen to have written a heartfelt lament for your father, you shouldn't make a fuss when Poet B appropriates it with some trifling changes and makes it about his mother; if anything you should take it for a compliment. (That example actually happened, and Poet B won a competition with it, until it was sussed.)

The interesting thing is that both sides of the debate sometimes cite the practice of creative writing courses and workshops in support. I've seen it so often asserted that in these forums, students are taught to "sample", imitate, cut and paste, "ghost" (a particularly pernicious practice, in my view, whereby someone uses another's ideas and structure as a template for a new poem). Those who approve point out that there are ways of crediting, like an epigraph that makes it clear the poem is "after" so-and-so. But what gets me is the notion that all such courses use these shortcuts – sorry, I mean techniques, of course. I can only say I didn't, nor did any of my colleagues on the CW degree where I taught. Of course I used the writing of others as models, just not that way. Just by way of illustration, this is an exercise I used.

Stage 1. Think of someone you know well, probably family or close friend, who is known in their circle for doing some particular physical activity. It could be sport, painting, music, housework, cooking, gardening: anything from setting a fire or putting clothes on a line to playing an accordion or fencing, as long as it involves some physical activity, not just sitting thinking with a pen in one's hand. (Though calligraphy would be fine.) Write a very full, detailed description, not a poem but a prose paragraph or two, or even notes, about this person doing this thing – how they do it, how they look when doing it, how they seem to others, what the result is. These notes in this form will not get shown to anyone.

Stage 2. We read several poems in which the way someone does something becomes emblematic for something about them, or a way into some other knowledge. These were some I used:
Michael Laskey: "Laying the Fire". A divorced woman finds herself having to relight the Parkray, which had always been her husband's job. He made a complicated mystery out of it; she does it more haphazardly but it works perfectly well and in the process she begins to see that she can manage without him.
River Wolton: "Running". River writes a lot about physical exercise and sport; this was an early piece that conveyed, to me, not just her feelings when running, but something about persistence, the mental need to persevere with something not because it was fun but to prove something to oneself.
A D Mackie: "The Mole-Catcher". We had to do a quick bit of byroning for this: in Mackie's poem the pitiless mole-killer is compared to the Angel of Death who sweeps down on the Assyrian host in Byron's poem "The Destruction of Sennacherib". In the Byron poem, the Assyrians are the baddies, threatening the Lord's people. But in Mackie's, by the end we are firmly on the side of the moles, the "sma' black tramorts [corpses] wi' gruntles grey", and having to reassess, in the light of the comparison, how we feel about the Lord and his angels.

I used other similar poems in which physical activity became emblematic of more than itself, just never Heaney's "Digging", which struck me as way too bleedin' obvious.

Stage 3: Go back to those notes from Stage I. Now try to work out what it was about this person doing this thing that stuck in your mind. What did it say about them, or their relationships with others, or how others saw them? What was special, for them, about this thing and how they did it? Whatever it was, that's where the poem is, so now write the first draft of it.

I got some fascinating poems this way, full of physicality as one might expect, and often quite insightful. One I especially recall was by a young widow; her husband had been a plasterer and the argot of his trade included a surprising number of bird-related words like hawk, swoop, hop up. He'd been a small, active, delicate man, and in the poem, busy at his job, he comes over so quick and birdlike, he could have been there in the room.

What I never got was straight imitation of the poems we had read. That wasn't possible, because they'd been sent back to their own experience, not that of the poets in front of them. All they had gleaned from those was how personal experience might be transmuted into something more than itself, and how they, using their own experience rather than piggybacking on someone else's, might do likewise.
(Anonymous) on September 9th, 2016 05:26 am (UTC)
Using models in writing
Sheenagh, I found this a most helpful piece. I no longer teach students; if I did I should take this model on board (carefully crediting you as its originator). What I particularly liked was the careful build-up - the initial note-making, then the reading and discussion, then the actual poem itself. I do enjoy your blog. Jennifer O'Neill
Sheenagh Pughsheenaghpugh on September 9th, 2016 06:33 am (UTC)
Re: Using models in writing
Thanks for the feedback!