With just four weeks to go, our Poetry judge Patience Agbabi offers some timely advice on making time to write.

Time to Write 

Imagine you have a week to write in an idyllic setting. Would you perfect two existing poems or write lots of fresh first drafts? I recently faced that glorious dilemma at Arvon Clockhouse; and chose the latter. My yellow file is bursting with new, raw poems in need of editing. I could have chosen both options, had the satisfaction of at least one polished piece plus the thrill of the new. But pre-retreat, I wasn’t writing spontaneously, stuck so acutely in editing mode I was in wordcount deficit at the end of a writing day.  In that seven days I turned off my editing head and wrote in ‘spontaneous flow’. It felt urgent. And it has struck me since that having a finite amount of time is a very good thing indeed. Nothing focuses the mind more than a fixed date. And many poets use competitions as motivation to finish a poem.

This competition deadline is invaluable. It’s non-negotiable. It makes you prioritise time to write. The website homepage tells you exactly how many days, hours and minutes remaining to enter your submission. But how do you make it work for you? You might already have a poem you ‘produced earlier’, ripe for the editing process; you might be hoping to write a new poem. Fundamentally, there are two stages of writing, the creative splurge and the hard-nosed editing. 

Which do you prefer, first draft or final edit?

I’m a great believer in the first draft, the transition from the blank page or blank screen to something tangible—material. But I also see it for what it is: a rough artefact that must be wrought, sculpted, polished, adorned, fired in order to become itself. Good poems rarely come out perfect: most take time to mature. That means several drafts, often many rewrites before the final edit. The perennial advice to put your poem away in a drawer for a week/month/year before you return to it is wise. You revisit the poem through fresh eyes as though it were written by someone else. Suddenly that flat image, that clichéd metaphor, that obvious rhyme glow in neon: you know what isn’t working and you know how to fix it; that problem with stanza two can be solved immediately by substituting a word, deleting a line or even making it the opening stanza. 

Even if you only have a few days, you still have time to redraft.

I’m looking for poems that yield on more than one level, that continue to echo long after they’re read. To achieve this multi-layered effect, a poem needs multiple drafts. Only by stepping back from your poem and revisiting it can you make the most of what your subconscious has invented. Over time, ideas, themes, technical possibilities present themselves and the poem is enhanced. A poem needs a balanced input from your creative and critical selves. 

Whether you have a poem you consider polished, a poem that isn’t quite working, or the idea for a poem, visit the Poetry Archive website. Revisit the poems that inspire your work. Read and listen to the marvellous recordings of living and dead poets and enjoy that hairs-on-the-back-of-the-neck sensation that great poems can deliver. Let these be your inspiration. Now return to your own poem. If you haven’t written it, write that first draft quickly, leave it for a few days then start editing. You may find it helpful to begin each writing session with a trip to the Poetry Archive. 

When you think your poem is ready for submission, see if it passes the VISUAL-VISCERAL test. You’ve probably read it several times by now; try viewing it as a work of art i.e. scrutinise the shape of the words, lines, stanzas on the page. If you’re working in a fixed form there will already be a regular pattern; if free verse, pay attention to the shape you might want to create. It’s amazing how many poets neglect the visual impact of their work. 

Now read it aloud. This is not primarily to test the sound of the poem, though  I firmly believe in work that yields on the page and stage: read it aloud to test its poetic truth. What’s your gut reaction? Suddenly, that line that flowed in your head, was visually attractive on paper, feels wrong. Your instinct will tell you what your intellect can defend to the hilt. Trust your instinct.

And finally, when you think you’re on the home straight, ask yourself whether the title is doing the poem justice. Could the title work harder? Remember, the title is the gateway to the work. A good title can add a whole new layer of meaning, set the tone, or even be in dialogue with the stanzas. A working title must be worked into a final title. 

When you find the best words in the best order it will be very satisfying. I hope you enjoy the creative process. You know how many weeks, days, hours you have left. Time to write!


Patience Agbabi 2016

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