Little Challenges

James Brown convenes the IIML’s poetry workshop and is a contributor to The Exercise Book. Here he is in a Turbine interview:

“I usually don’t set out to write poems in particular ways. I generally start with a line, which may or may not be the first line, that has a particular voice or tone to it that appeals, and go from there. And because poems set up their own rules, the nature of the initial line will impose restraints on the other lines. Once the poem starts to evolve I’ll start to play round with the form. I like a poem’s form to suit its content in some way, even if it’s just a matter of having regular stanzas to make it more inviting to read.

Sometimes I do set myself little challenges, which are often based on a form or voice that’s appealed in a poem I’ve read somewhere. The main one I’ve tried this year is writing poems with endings that just seem to ‘drift’ away. I’m not exactly sure that ‘drift’ is the right word, but the effect I’ve been after is based on some of the endings I’ve encountered in Louis Simpson, which struck a chord. I’ve also completed a poem (‘The Wicked’) that came from a conscious attempt to write an angry poem, not because I was particularly angry (though it wasn’t hard to find things to be angry about), but because I think anger is a difficult thing to do well in poetry.

In the past I’ve had a go at a list poem based on the form of ‘The Holy Pail’ by Mark Levine, and I’ve used an AABBCC rhyme-scheme with irregular rhythm because I’ve been impressed by how Simon Armitage uses it. In Favourite Monsters I deliberately wrote some rhyming poems with almost regular rhythms because it’s a challenge to write like that and still sound conversational and contemporary.

This year I’ve mostly been writing accessible, conversational poems. It’s funny, I don’t mind reading more ‘obscure’ poetry, but I’m happy for it to be others pushing the boundaries. Sometimes I worry that my current poems are too ‘easy’, but I guess at some deep level I’d rather write like Philip Larkin than Michael Palmer, even though I really like Michael Palmer.

I do worry about repeating the same trick over and over; isn’t everyone naturally drawn to what’s worked for them before? Writing in the same voice is the thing I find most tedious – I don’t know how some poets don’t get sick of the sound of their own voices. I certainly get sick of mine, which is why I enjoy taking on other voices now and then.”

Read the full interview here.

One thought on “Little Challenges

  1. It’s funny that James should say he gets so sick of the sound of his own voice. I remember that when Go Round Power Please came out, a lot of readers talked about The Voice – it was the first thing that made his poems compelling. I don’t know how to describe it, other than to say that the James Brown voice is quite addictive. Maybe also it’s something to do with how, once you’ve heard him read, his voice is forever lodged in your brain. For me that’s a good thing.
    I am almost always sick of the sound of my own voice, to the point where I’m often paralysed by voice-loathing and find it very difficult to write anything. Taking on a different voice is a nice way to trick yourself back into it.

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