For most writers I know, the time to sit down and put pen to paper, without interruption, is a luxury. I work full-time and am very busy as husband and father. When I have time, I'm often tired or can't concentrate and want to go to the gym or for a run. This limitation of time is also a gift as it helps to focus the mind and value the solitary act of creation. Much of what I write is completed in stages and fragments rather than in long sessions. Perhaps this is why I enjoy writing micropoems and the short form.
I don’t have a standard writing day or any particular routines. However, I find time, even if it just for a few minutes, to record images or phrases that surface on a daily basis. Is that a routine? Perhaps. I also edit, looking over existing pieces and have a drawn-out process of revision. A poem will go through several drafts and edits in pads, on scraps of paper, or on my phone, until it gets to the first 'proper' test – typing it up and printing off to see what it looks like in print. On a computer screen or printed sheet, it becomes much easier to see the shape and character of a poem - how it looks and how precise it is in regard to phrasing and layering. Most pieces will undergo a dozen drafts and then get tinkered around with until I am reasonably happy.
There is a myth about poetry that is should pour forth and be uncorrupted by the rational mind. When you read about the lives of established, canonical poets, you quickly realise they were crafters and grafters, with poets, such as Robert Graves, Dylan Thomas and Vernon Watkins revising drafts of poems hundreds of times and altering their work over decades.
My first collection 'Origin: 21 Poems' was worked on over the space of a year in time for my 40th birthday. I got myself into a routine of work each night on paper and on the computer. This was in the attic, which is always one of the most poetic locations. I wrote pieces, such as 'Origin', 'Green Man', 'Footprints' and 'Hesperides' at the top of the house, in company with bookshelves, my children's neglected toys and boxes of Christmas decorations, with windows ajar through all the seasons; blisteringly hot weather, lashing rain and the chilly days we know so well in South Wales. My mind reached for words to describe conjured, sequential images around poetic themes.
I’ve written more recent work at my writing desk in the lounge - a brown bureau, packed with pens, cartridges, books and little objects to fidget with. I have a mini Yoda, part of a deer antler, mini-cases of fossils and gems, poetry by Wallace Stevens and R.S. Thomas and assorted bric-a-brac. I also write at the dining table, on the sofa, in bed or on the back-door step overlooking my garden, with a sea view.
Getting out is a must. I find the inspiration to write anywhere - car parks on a work break, shops and cafes, long walks or trips on holidays. I spent a day walking through Gower last year – over twenty miles - and wrote pages and pages of notes that resulted in prose-poetry about neolithic ruins and ancient remains. Another hike to caves in Gower led to a number of deep time-themed poems. I recently visited the Mendip hills and wrote notes on my phone and took pictures to prompt writing. Oddly, I remember where most of my poems were written, whereas other memories quickly disappear. Research goes hand-in-hand with the writing process and I'm always reading to ensure accuracy of ideas and looking for better words to use.
I leave poems for days, weeks, sometimes months, and this is always a healthy process as I feel I can become more objective about my work. I’m pretty ruthless and a lot gets culled. I send almost-final proofs to a small group of writer friends, who are constructive and honest. My work also gets road-tested at open mic nights in Neath and Swansea and the process of reading out work publicly aids the process of critical reflection.
I'm heading towards writing more poetic prose and this requires a more focused approach with time dedicated to longer pieces. I hope that I can find time to focus on this as I have a hybrid collection of prose, poetry and photos that I desperately want to develop having published part of this with Icefloe Press for their Geographies project.
I've edited Black Bough poetry for a year. This micropoetry project was started online to create another platform for poets and to focus on the short poetry, inspired by imagism. This provides a break from my own writing and allows me to develop greater sharpness in my own work.
I would encourage all poets who are really serious about the craft to experience being an editor and also to be open to feedback and edits on their own work. A stubborn attitude to feedback prevents growth. Wide reading is essential as various poets I know stick to the same authors or types of poetry. The smallest changes can really heighten the potency and impact of work.
The Soft Fall of Midnight
I know the soft fall of midnight:
the film of dew on dark buds’ lips
a scent of lavender pressed underfoot
the celestial stream in the shallow brook
the pulsing throb of turning carp
in slick pool below willow’s dark
the fox’s tread and backward stare
the owl’s descent in the thicket’s air
hear the hush of shrouded hills
a quickening wind in star-filled fields
a curve of dawn in eastern light
drink the bitter wine of night
First published in Other Terrain, Dec 2019.
Matthew M. C. Smith is a Welsh poet from Swansea. He studied a PhD in Robert Graves and Celticism and is published in Anti-Heroin Chic, Fly on the Wall Press, Icefloe Press, Other Terrain, Back Story and Wellington Street Review. He is the editor of Twitter: @MatthewMCSmith FB: @MattMCSmith