Writing place – some thoughts on process. (And a poem!)

As I’ve not written for a while about the project, I thought I’d write a little bit about the “process” of making and of responding to a place creatively.  (This is something that will eventually feature in my main thesis on the process and practice of “making”.)  Many writers are asked “how do you do it?” or “what’s your method?” or “where do you get your inspiration from?”  So, I thought that I’d share – as best as I can – some of my methods and the sort of things that I’m inspired by.

Simply put: I’m a magpie.  I collect words and images on till receipts, train tickets, napkins, and sometimes, if I get the aim right, record thoughts in notebooks (so many notebooks that it’s leading to entropy ). I take pictures with my phone of things that catch my eye. The next part of the process involves chucking those words and images into a large pile, burrowing in, sifting through and pulling words out, playing with phrases, weighing each little part, and, mostly, trying to make sense out of nonsense (and sometimes vice versa). Sometimes it involves tears of frustration and self doubt!  This is normal if annoying.

The poem below is called ‘Once upon a Time in Manchester’, I wrote this between the end of 2014 and the spring of 2015. The poem is in three sequences and is accompanied by film offering a sense of a dérive – an unplanned ramble – around the city. This experimental film, shot using a HTC One Mini Smartphone, seeks to capture a woozy aesthetic; images layer over each other, like the way thoughts can drift, settle, or float away. The poem is written as a cento: a montage of words and phrases from other sources – football chants and songs about the city – and these words act as a palette to create something new.  There are a few “rules” in the composition – I only used the found words and didn’t insert any new ones (no matter how much I wanted to!). I also play with form within the poem; the second sequence uses terza rima and the final sequence mirrors itself.  Essentially, these are words that are that are unpicked then restitched, woven into a new piece of art.

In some ways, this “restitching” is how I think of Manchester which itself is a montage of buildings: the neo-classical, the Victorian Gothic, Brutalist concrete, 1990s red brick weirdness, steel and perspex, and the great glass Gormenghast that is the Beetham Tower. Manchester is a city undergoing perpetual facelifts, concrete collagen creating a sloppy lipstick – a veneer on flaking sediments, lines are smoothed out while new lines are tattooed into the city’s dermis. It’s a city heavy with the layers of time: of bits of preserved heritage and singular narratives, of high shine and cocktail dresses, of rust and homelessness, of rot and stuttering stories. Unpicked and restitched – sometimes with the threads left fraying.

Once Upon a Time in Manchester

The Beautiful Game
In the city of rain miles away
there was football on Maine Road.
Loyal fans come down see you play.

Your troops are playing for liberty
– no mercy for the boys in red –
you all pull together for glory.

You are a soldier, all swagger and sway,
your lads will follow you,
you get your pleasure on a Saturday
leading your boys in blue.

Hard Moorland

We keep the faith in this strange city,
pacing the road in the same old way.
We keep the faith in this strange city.

Cemented moorland in the early day –
I swagger in the same old suit
pacing the road in the same old way

and you are not a wage slave yet;
a dark shade has not come down on you.
I swagger in the same old suit.

You see, the Ship Canal is never blue
and you, my angel, have pretty ways,
a dark shade has not come down on you.

You are the sun and I am in a daze.
(A black rain falls on Manchester.)
And you, my angel, have pretty ways.

I could live with you forever;
we keep the faith in this strange city.
A black rain falls on Manchester.
We keep the faith in this strange city.

Rain City
The canal will be the city.
You’ll never see your home again
as the Mancunian rain comes down.
There will be no sun
and we’ll never be dry again ever.
The rain is simmering on the canal
a floating place in a heave of rain.

A floating place in a heave of rain –
the rain is simmering on the canal.
We’ll never be dry again, ever.
There will be no sun
as the Mancunian rain comes down.
You’ll never see your home again;
the canal will be the city.

The idea for this sequence cento came about in November 2014 and was a bit of an extra “brain fart” to accompany the abstract I wrote for the 2015 Association for the Study of Literature And Environment (ASLE-US) biennial conference.  This abstract was written while in the full throes of ‘flu – fuelled by hope, naivety (I’d never written an academic abstract before), Lemsip Max, and the weird, moderately hallucinogenic state of mind that being ill can put one in.  I decided to accompany an imagined underground tour of  Manchester with a poem made up of snippets of other writing about the city.  Reader, I presented this at 8.30am in the rather magnificent University of Idaho, Moscow campus, situated in one of the most beautiful cities I’ve ever had the fortune to spend a bit of time in.  (Thank you once again to my University for the travel grant – this conference and the discussions during the week has influenced my work as a writer and thinker.)  Next to the campus is The Palouse, miles and miles of undulating grasses across Washington and Idaho, it is astonishing, I still dream of those sloping greens and golds stretching to a bluing horizon.

2015-06-26 15.03.51
The Palouse – a bee’s eye view

As for the question on where the writing inspiration comes from – well, as mentioned, I’m a magpie; I’m interested in oh so many things: astrophysics to Jane EyreRed Dwarf to Greek mythology, concerns about climate change, the gaps and moss in pavement cracks, dancing, the dissonance in cities, music, art, The Eurovision Song Contest, and rambles in different environments.  All of the low, middle, high, backwards, and inside-out art!  And, of course, I’m inspired by wildlife in all its urban, suburban, edgeland, nature reserve, fields, woods, forests and other wilderness guises.  (I include humans in that wildlife mass!)  And, most importantly for this project, I’m fascinated by the borough of Rochdale as I’m still not completely acquainted – I’m a tourist in a borough that’s merely miles from where I currently live.

So, the final question that sometimes gets asked of writers: “why do you write”?.  Well, I write partly because of that old writer’s cliché where I’m compelled to, however, I also write to try to understand different aspects of the world: to comprehend and try to capture unusual quirks and geographies.  I won’t find the meaning of life, nor do I purport to have all the answers, but it’s interesting, and by heck it’s fun, to go exploring.

If you’d like to write but don’t know where to start, I suggest start from where you are: make things weird, play with words, mash up clichés. Type, write, and doodle.  Go exploring your local area without a map or idea of where you’re going – write how it feels (smell, emotion, temperature, colours etc.), write what you see. If you’d like to share it do – blogs, like this WordPress one, are free or perhaps copy and distribute to your friends and family.  But if you just want to keep the writing to yourself then do that (hey, there are parts of my journals that I definitely want burning after death!).

As for the main project, just a few miles down the road from the former City of Cotton, I’ve been doing a similar thing with Rochdale – reading the literature of and from the borough, collecting words and phrases, however, there will be a little bit of flexibility as I’ll be incorporating some of the words and observations from the field journal that I’ve been keeping over the last couple of years. I’ll probably start this in the summer with a view to getting something up perhaps by next year – partly because poetry takes time but mostly because I’m in full PhD writing swing: thinking and writing about mapping, critical and creative cartographies, creative interventions in place, and, of course, Rochdale.


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