I have undertaken several poetry writing courses and from experience this question is highly controversial. Some will say that one can learn how to write poetry, whilst others will tell you that a poet is born.
I was practically born with the pen in my hand. At 8 in Primary School, I started writing compositions that were highly imaginative, to the point one day my teacher sent a note to my parents asking them not to do the homework for me. From there on, I never looked back. My writing capabilities became evident but my parents were more concerned I would have problems finding a job if I chose the arts. In secondary school, I was basically forced to choose sciences and until the very last year, it still looked as if I would pursue my studies in marine biology.
Then one day, the inevitable happened. I was 13 and my English teacher, Kay called me aside after the lesson. A couple of days before, I had submitted my homework, which consisted of an essay called, Snowstorm. Basically, what she had to say was that perhaps I should reconsider taking up sciences when I seemed so talented in writing. It took me a night and a day to decide, but 24 hours after speaking with my teacher, I faced my parents and announced I intended to skip a year of college in order to be able to catch up with my art subjects, as this was my true vocation.
But this was not an easy decision because there was something else between my choice to become a writer. At 14 my sister took me with her to her singing lessons. She was a mezzo soprano. Jokingly she asked her teacher, a very famous opera singer to test my voice. I will never forget the embarrassment. It took them a long time to persuade me make a voice audition. At first, I was shy but at one point, I actually managed to follow the music teacher’s precise instructions and started to sing as she played on her piano. When she heard my voice, she was stunned. She said I was a naturally gifted baritone and having such a voice at such a young age was very promising. But I did not really want to become a professional opera singer. The determination to become a writer was so strong that to this day I can never figure out how I managed to choose writing instead of singing. When probably I could have easily done both.
This decision was probably the most important of my budding career as a writer. From that moment on, I was about to learn the first lesson: what it takes to be a writer and a poet. My parents threw everything they had at me, saying that I was going to fail in my mission and that choosing writing as a career was as possible as wishing to travel to the moon and back. But my mind was set and even at 14, I was determined not to let anyone, or anything deter me from my dream, a dream I was the only person believed could come true.
It was a difficult dream at that time because not only careers, or openings for writers in my country were non-existent, but the country was under the Mintoffian regime. Malta was a police-run state. The Prime Minister of that time, Mr Mintoff was all out to discourage people from pursuing professional careers, especially in journalism. He was all out to suffocate freedom of thought and freedom of speech, as well as freedom of press.
When I went to the University of Malta, to enquire about the only journalism course, which I was told was offered every year to aspiring journalists, I thought it was the closest and only thing I could enrol for to practice my writing. Little did I know that it had been abolished by Government as it was considered, as not required.
There were no options really, but to seek some other profession, or study journalism through correspondence. The journalism course I chose was conducted by a UK based professional body. I was bombarded by my family but by hook or by crook, my mind was set to finish what I had started.
When I came back from the UK, I started to freelance for three major political newspapers and after a year, was called for an interview with Malta’s leading English newspapers, The Times and Sunday Times of Malta. The event was a determining move in my career. The offices of the newspaper I was joining had just been attacked and gutted by Socialist thugs, part of the Mintoffian regime. It was a frightening move and many people raised eyebrows when I told them that I had taken the job. From that moment on, despite great difficulties and gruelling times ahead that saw me safely through some dangerous situations, I never looked back.
In the meantime, I had never stopped writing poetry. Some of it was amateurish, because I had never really received any guidance or training. There were no poetry writing courses at that time and no internet. The important thing is that I never gave up. I read all the poetry books I could get my hand on and learnt how to write the hard way – by trial and error. However, I still managed to publish a poem here and there and won the odd poetry prize as well, albeit the competitions were not major ones, but mostly organised by small press publications. Still, these small successes kept me going and hoping.
This was another important phase, because I learnt that determination was as important as inspiration and perspiration. Now, I realised why other budding poets in my time failed and gave up hope of ever becoming published poets. I never aspired to become famous, kept my feet solidly on the ground and just kept reading, writing and sending out poems. There were editors who gave me good advice, others said things which were discouraging and some never even bothered to answer my submissions, no not even with a standard rejection slip. After all, who was this alien from nowhere who was expecting his work to be reviewed, never mind published. But even all this negative thinking and discouragement taught me the most important thing - to distinguish between constructive and destructive criticism. This helped me to move on. Writing poetry is like playing football – you have to keep the ball moving, otherwise you lose tempo and the ball to the opposition.
I spent a small fortune on several leading poetry publishing directories and spent hours studying the market, always trying to find journals, or magazines that suited my style of poetry. I spent a fortune on postal stamps, envelopes, International Reply Coupons, as I often made multiple submissions to increase the chances of acceptance. Well the acceptances started to come instead of the rejection slips I had become so accustomed to.
However, I was still not happy and by now, poetry writing courses were sprouting everywhere. I undertook several writing courses with The Writing School, the Open College of the Arts and Thames Valley University, The Institute of Copywriting and Stonebridge Associated Colleges. I think I must have been one of the first people to have a computer and internet service in Malta. Of course, internet facilitated my work and I was soon adding more publishing credits to my list.
I believe that writing is a vocation. I don’t think it is ideal for the faint hearted, or for people who would rather undertake a profession that brings money and success very quickly. Lawyers, doctors and businessmen surely are much better off when it comes to their annual salaries than writers. Poetry writing, more than writing fiction can be a very slow and painful road to the top. And few are talented enough to reach the top. From the experiences I’ve been through, I have also noted that unfortunately we live in a world where what you know does not really matter – sometimes it’s who you know that really counts. I have read poetry that is not worth the paper it’s been printed on and yet because the writer’s name is well known, it is given prominence in leading literary magazines, or anthologies.
To become a better writer I utilize Nathalie Goldberg’s, Rules of Writing in her book, Wild Mind – Living the Writer’s Life. There are seven rules and I consider them as if they were the seven commandments for all budding poets.
Ms Goldberg’s advice to writers in her Rule 1 is described by Peter Sansom in his book, Writing Poems, (Bloodaxe Poetry Handbook: 2) as Free Writing, often also referred to as Hot-penning. This exercise is excellent, especially as a warm-up session. In order to obtain the best results from this exercise, one must start writing without stopping and most important of all, without thinking. The writer must let the writing take its own route, and as far away as possible from what Ms Goldberg describes as, The Editor.
I often use this method when I need to loosen up my mind and to break away from conventional thinking. It helps a great deal to solve the common problem of Writer’s Block. Personally, I think that some of my best poems came about thanks to this method.
Having designed creative writing courses for both adults and children, I have found it most suitable to give the class a sentence, or a single line, example: In the distance …, from which students are then invited to continue writing. I have found it helpful to clear one’s mind before embarking on this exercise and to avoid rhyming the words - that is unless this happens naturally in the process.
Rule no 2 recommended by Goldberg is of utmost importance because it is truly difficult for any writer, especially a beginner to write openly. What Ms Goldberg advises is for the writer to lose control. Usually, when a writer writes he tends to think about what he is writing. This often reduces the impact of an original piece and can kill creativity and the genius that it can give to a piece of good writing. This also increases the danger, which Goldberg warns against, The Editor. The editor in the writer creates another danger, which comes in the form of too much editing and re-writing. Authenticity, as Goldberg describes it, is often based on the courage to write and to say whatever one really feels. Which reminds me about my favourite poet, John Keats’ most brilliant dictum: Poetry must work out its own salvation in a man, it cannot be matured by law and precept, but by sensation and watchfulness in itself. That which is creative must create itself.
Losing control is one of the ingredients required in the recipe to produce some of the finest artistic creations, be it poetry, painting or music. Eliot once said: The bad poet is usually unconscious where he ought to be conscious, and conscious where he ought to be unconscious. There is nothing like losing control for one to be creative and truthful in what one writes.
When I resort to this rule, I force myself to be honest and sum up enough courage to say things the way I feel and see them, without any kind of censorship. I am very much aware that this procedure has its drawbacks and that it has hurt the career of many writers, for the simple reason that characters and situations are often easily recognised, or identified by the persons they are referring to. However, the advantages supersede the disadvantages and most of the writers that suffered, in the long run found that the sacrifice paid off.
Goldberg’s Rule 3 actually sent me back a few decades and reminded me when I embarked on my journalistic career. Actually, I consider this the rule of rules because paying attention to detail could make the difference between a great news story worthy of the front page, or a mediocre article that would appear as a filler in some remote corner of the newspaper. When writing, whether it is a journalistic article, a poem or a short story, detail could make all the difference. I have found this out through personal experience, because readers often tell me that they often associate themselves with a situation, an experience, or character in an article. This fact compels them to read on, contrary to when an inexperienced writer bores them to death and proves that he has no idea about what he is talking about. Most often, these articles lack detail and when detail is lacking, so is the realistic feeling.
Rule 4, Don’t Think is easier said than done. The mind does follow a process of first and second thoughts and it’s difficult to disengage oneself from this basic procedure. I cannot but agree with Goldberg when she insists that a writer should stay with the first flash. Having worked as a journalist, proof reader and editor for so many years, using this process for me proved much more difficult. However, after constant practice, the procedure became much easier to handle, even if I have to confess the editor in me at times takes over momentarily before I realise and cast him away.
When I sit down to do some hot-penning, I try to clear my mind of any pending thoughts, except for the flash that appears like a light bulb at the end of the mind’s dark tunnel. The light intensifies and I find my hand being guided by the ghost in the ink pot. It’s a marvellous feeling of relaxation that gives the mind the opportunity to be free from the daily routine thoughts and gives vent to creativity.
Rule 5 is very important because it subtends rules 1, 2 and 4. If the writer stops to edit punctuation, the magic of free writing will be lost. I apply this rule in the same manner as I apply rule 4. The hand must be left free to follow the light of the flash that appears in the dark tunnel of the mind. Rule 5 also brings to my mind a statement made by Adrienne Rich: Poems are like dreams, in them you put what you don’t know you know.
French poet Apollinaire was often criticised because he wrote poems without using any punctuation. So I figure if he can do it and go on to become famous, why shouldn’t other poets follow his example? Should punctuation be required in any given piece of work? A poet always has ample time to edit and re-write whatever would have come out of the mysterious tunnel of the brain.
After experimenting in a 20-minute free writing exercise, I often find myself doubting if the writer of that piece of writing was actually me. If I had any doubts about people having dual personalities, now I don’t. This is precisely the purpose that Goldberg recommends this rule. It gives vent not only to creativity, but to the sub-conscious mind, allowing its genius to come to the fore. This is how most of the greatest works of art have come about.
Rule 6 is an added ingredient to the idea of free writing. Following the flash, often brings up unpredictable subjects, or themes that are not always a priority in our stereo-typed minds. Too often we brush these ideas aside, thinking that they are junk, as Goldberg describes them. However, writers often prefer to describe that which they are afraid to write about as rubbish, when in truth, that rubbish could prove to be the basis to a best selling piece.
For example, how many writers would be willing to write about their own sexual fantasies or tendencies? Their first worry would be, what others will think of them – their boss, their parents, their wife or fiancée, friends and even the green grocer from whom they do their weekly shopping. How many writers would actually put pen to paper and write about their family problems, the abuse they suffered from their parents when they were children, the alcoholic problem which their father managed to hide from the rest of the world for so long, the rape of one of their close relatives, which remained a secret, even though it resulted in an illegitimate child being put away in an orphanage, or being aborted to keep the family name and reputation intact?
Goldberg advises writers to write about anything that is under the sky, and if this is junk they should feel free to write about it. But they can also write about the forbidden secrets of their family, their inner most secrets, sexual trends, or their hate for religion and conventionalism, which was forced down their throats since they were still children.
When I write, I try to write about everything that is under the sun without mincing words. I try not to be conventional and keep away from the influence of the Church, religion and politics, as well as the parochialism that hems in and hampers the community I live in. I take flight on invisible wings and go beyond the cage which harnesses my intelligence and the thirst for transparency and knowledge. It has taken me a long time to break free from these chains, that have weighed me down for so long. Now, I can safely say, I have outgrown the arrogance and ignorance which both political and religious institutions indulge in and propagate among the population in order to be able to keep overall control.
Rule 7, Go for the jugular is a massive commitment and probably the toughest test for any writer. I can recount an incident, which I remember when I did just that some years ago. I was invited to a very rare poetry reading. I had just published a small book of poems. The reading took place at a local theatre and I was very excited about it all. The organisers decided to choose one of my poems called, Broken Innocence. The poem speaks about the first love and sexual experience shared by two thirteen-year old kids who were cousins. The poem is very vivid and the crowd did not applaud at the end of the reading. The reaction was silence and softly spoken remarks, which from what I could discern definitely showed disapproval. The poem had worked because it had done exactly what it was intended to do, stun the public with a reality few would have had the courage to speak about never mind write about. I was pleased, but writing about real events, people and oneself comes at a very costly price. However, if this brings so much satisfaction, then it’s all worthwhile.
Writing about what really hurts is more likely to produce the best ingredients for a good poem. A credible piece of writing has to bleed in order to move readers to tears or laughter and to do this, one has to write in blood. Ingredients for this type of writing can only come from personal experience. For example, I find it most painful to write about cancer. I fear to thread on the subject because it brings back horrid memories of acute pain, suffering and even death. Almost three years passed without my touching on the subject, yet I knew that one day I was going to have to face that fear and write about it. The time has come because I have just started writing a novel called, The Vampire of Peaceville. The story is based on personal experience and recounts the story of a young executive who is diagnosed with terminal cancer at the peak of his career. He lives in constant fear of his frail health and this puts him in touch with the paranormal. He suddenly becomes obsessed with the cravings for immortality and starts to see the world around him from a complete different perspective. One day, he meets with a real vampire who not only befriends him, but offers him a complete recovery from his cancer. Although his illness becomes a thing of the past, so does his mortal body. A metamorphosis has taken place and he must now embark into a new world as a creature of the night, a vampire. The description of my chemo sessions have come into extremely good use, but the pain is greater now than it was during the actual administration of the medicine.
Earlier, I mentioned reading, as one of the most important ingredients a poet needs to do, in order to become a good one. I have come across budding poets that tell me they are not interested in reading poetry. If they don’t read other poets’ works, how can they expect their poems to interest other writers? It’s a vicious circle. What goes around comes around.
The first skill of any writer is the skill to read, says poet, critic and managing director of Carcanet Press, Michael Schmidt. Peter Sansom writes in his chapter on Reading in his book, Writing Poems, that reading poetry is a skill that many, even published writers never acquire of all the variables that come into play here, and that the quality of one’s writing reflects the quality of one’s reading (Bloodaxe Poetry Handbooks: 2).
Since I was a child, I have always been taught reading books helped to improve one’s writing skills and imagination. My parents were adamant to see to it that I would become an avid reader. My father and my elder sister read whole books in a single day. My father used to insist reading was the only way to learn, not only grammar but also the spoken language. He insisted that books gave one an education and knowledge no academic institution could possibly match. We did not have a television then and that was a good thing, because the only way of entertainment, especially during the wintry seasons, or the long summer holidays was reading good books. The classics were the best to start off with, such as Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea, Robinson Crusoe, Treasure Island, Ivanhoe, Gulliver’s Travels, The Portrait of Dorian Grey and many more. So, most of the gifts I received for my birthday and Christmas, were books.
At school, I studied three languages besides Maltese and reading books really gave me an advantage over other students, especially when it came to both writing impeccably and enhancing my vocabulary knowledge. Reading for writers is a must. No writer can become a professional, unless he is prepared to invest hours in reading. I remember when I was still at primary school, I was an avid reader of The Famous Five and The Secret Seven books by Eynid Blyton.
One day I wrote a composition, which my English teacher had given me as homework. After she read it, she wrote to my parents and asked them not to help me with my homework. The truth was, I had done my homework alone, but the influence and knowledge obtained from the books I read made my composition seem too good to have been written by an eight year old. My parents spoke to my teacher, and after that, she never doubted my writing capability again.
However, I strongly believe from there on, the writer in me was born, and since then I have never looked back. Reading inevitably gives writers fresh knowledge and ideas. Often, after reading a poem, I would write one myself. If it’s not a complete poem, I pick words, or a phrase that attracts my attention and use it for a free writing session. The results are very surprising and sometimes even mind boggling.
Reading other writers helps to develop a strong sense of constructive criticism. I always think the worse criticism I get for my own work is from myself. So, it helps when other fellow writers or editors read my work and give me a positive reaction. It’s encouraging. It would be extremely boring to read only one’s own work. I read mine many times, only when I create it, edit and proofread it. Then it’s the readers who have to judge, because after, I hardly ever touch it again, unless one of my editors recommends changes.
Professional writers and poets can teach readers, or fellow writers several techniques of the trade. When it comes to poetry, these ‘secret formulas’ are even more obvious and one can emulate the writer by adapting the same technique using it in his own work. The importance of detail in descriptions, whether poetic or prose was something I learnt from reading. In fact, a lot of the tricks of the trade I learnt came from sheer observation when reading great writers such as, Ernest Hemingway, Franz Kafka, Scott Fitzgerald, Somerset Maugham and my two favourite poets, John Keats and Pablo Neruda. I learnt how to write visual poetry after I read Apollinaire. So yes, reading other writers is as important as writing itself.
Last but not least, poets must remember, buying books generates business in the publishing industry, thus encouraging publishers to publish more. It is no use complaining about the lack of interest from readers, because these aren’t buying enough books when we, who should be setting the example do the same.
Write your piece, leave it for a couple of days then go back to it. Don’t try to edit and complete it as soon as you have made the first draft. If you do, you risk losing diminishing its quality which I’d rather call, polishing. Return to edit as many times as you deem necessary, but one thing is for certain, NEVER submit a new work as soon as you finish writing it. You will regret it, because you will be bound to read it again at some point and discover you could have produced a finer piece had you left it for a while before editing.
Earlier I wrote about losing control and to appeal to the unconscious in order to produce the magic in one’s poetry or prose. When writing, one must let his fancy flow and follow his instinct. The attitude and the emotion here must be free to roam the debts of the unconscious mind, so it can give vent to creativity.
Editing is a very important support service to one’s creativity, but it must be done at the appropriate time, sparingly and with great diligence. Over editing can actually harm a very good piece of work, because some writers have a tendency to do this, until the edited article is only a shadow of the original. It happened to me very often in the past. Writers must learn to be God and the devil at the same time.
Writing poetry has to consist of the process of letting out one’s wrath, going berserk and stripping naked in front of an audience, showing both one’s ugly inner and outer parts and the truth, no matter how painful or scandalous.
Editing is the part when the writer is back to his normal self, in his senses, fully aware and ready to correct grammatical, orthographical mistakes and apply punctuation. Editing has to be undertaken with great scruples and as Goldberg recommends trying not to be too hard on oneself. I have often ruined poems because the editor in me takes complete control and goes on a merciless rampage, often massacring poetic lines which would have made the work very special. For this reason, it is best to always keep the original scripts. It’s a sort of counter action against the carnage which the editor in the writer can cause.
To become a better poet, I have also often resorted to my own life experiences to provide material for my writing. This inevitably brings to mind a quotation by Jean Rostand, which I read in a book called, The Courage to Write, by Ralph Keyes. Rostand defines literature as, proclaiming in front of everyone what one is careful to conceal from one’s immediate circle. The best ever written literature has come directly from stories based mostly on the authors’ personal life experiences. Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales were based on true characters and experiences, as were the characters depicted by the Marquis de Sade. Ernest Hemingway wrote most of his stories, basing them on true life characters he met during his extraordinary travels, as did Somerset Maugham, John Steinbeck, and John Fitzgerald. Poets like Baudelaire, Apollinaire, Alessandro Manzoni, Giacomo Leopardi, Foscolo, Patricia Beer and the master of spy books, creator of 007, Ian Fleming, all wrote basing their master pieces on their own true life experiences. For example, Fleming formed part of the British Secret Service for many years.
I remember that at the very beginning of my career, a certain editor of a magazine had asked me to write an article. When I asked him what I should write about, he simply answered me saying: The best is to write about a subject you know about and have had hands on experience. In fact most of my poems, articles, short stories and research are based on personal experience. Most have remained indelible in my memory because they have caused me pain, discomfort, embarrassment, anger or fear.
After having survived cancer, I am finding out that it is equally difficult for a cancer survivor to maintain certain privileges within his community, which he had before succumbing to this illness. For example, ask any cancer survivor what the chances are of finding a job? Cancer is like a death sentence, which kills you even if you survive through it. Opportunities, career-wise are hard to come by. Even if cancer patients survive, the constant fear that their illness could return at some stage in their lives, will force them to discover at their own expense, that a more difficult hurdle to surmount is right in their own back yard, in their own imminent surroundings.
For example, I have learnt that bank loans are a difficult thing to obtain after one falls victim to cancer, as is a health insurance cover. Most of my clients left me during my illness, not because I had become inefficient, but for fear that I would succumb to the illness and they would be left with incomplete printing or advertising orders. Surely this experience will serve me well and one day, I might write a poem or an article about it, who knows? Never mind finding a job – every employer is scared stiff even at the mere mention of the word cancer. It’s like you have mentioned Lucifer and that you are one of his servants!
I have never had doubts, even before I embarked on my writing career, that most successful writers based their stories on true accounts and personal experiences. For a reader, it is easy to note this because when reading a book he will find many instances when he would be assimilating his own experiences to those of one of the characters created by the authors.
As a poet and a writer, I have also enjoyed moments of discovering myself.
When I started writing I never realised that not only I was embarking on one of the most exhilarating experiences of my life, but that I would discover myself, my true nature and all my capabilities, creative and otherwise. The first thing I discovered was whether I was a courageous person or not, and to what extent I was determined to succeed as a writer.
One day, when at 13, I returned home from school and announced to my perplexed parents that I wanted to change from sciences to arts my parents were shocked. I remember I was called several names, including a failure, dreamer, bull headed, loser, irresponsible and quite a few other adejectives, but still I was adamant to pursue my dream. My determination to become a writer was such that no amount of arguing, threatening, or cajoling could derail me from my new found vocation. I had set my mind to start off as a journalist and I was prepared to do anything to achieve my goal.
I endured a lot of flack from my family in the months that followed but this made me even more resolute. The first opportunity for me came from a local political English newspaper, The Democrat. I was offered a post as a junior correspondent apprenticed to the newspaper’s editor. It wasn’t much, but I was still 17 and raring to go and on top of that determined to prove to my parents that I was right all along to choose this career and that I could succeed. At that age, I had no experience of Parliamentary reporting, but I just couldn’t turn down my very first opportunity.
Trying to be a poet was another relentless challenge that was not easy to overcome. In fact, I spent most of my time struggling to surmount the most difficult hurdle – to manage to get a book of my poetry published by a recognised publisher. I was warned at the start of my career that many have attempted to publish their poetry, but only few succeeded.
Since there were no creative writing classes in my country, I had to teach myself the trade. Poetry also helped me discover a lot of likes and dislikes. I identified the subjects I liked to write about, the style of writing I preferred and the kind of publications I enjoyed reading and eventually submitting work to. I also learnt how to tolerate and handle, arrogant and unhelpful editors, who had serious attitude problems. Writing also helped me discover that I was a hypersensitive person and realised that what I had always thought as being a weakness to be one of the greatest assets for inspiration. It was a very important part of the recipe, which helped me become a published writer.
Writing has even improved my sense of choice, judgement and brought out an aggressiveness and courage I never thought I possessed. I am sure that there is still a lot more to discover about myself in future, given the time. But the strangest of things was how inspiration descends quickly upon me and that unless I catch it on the spot, no matter where I am, I lose the poem that I believe is being channelled to me.
Channelling to paranormal investigators means receiving information from the beyond. I realized this because whenever I was struck by one of these transcendent states, I wrote fast without even knowing the meaning of what I was writing. The words came, fitted in between each line like a glove in perfect synchronization, without my even having to make any effort whatsoever. To say that the end result of each of these poems was a miracle would be an understatement. And all the poems that came to me in this manner, at the oddest hours, when sometimes I was already half asleep, even in a sort of daze, were the best I ever wrote. Then, the most peculiar thing would be reading the poem back and discovering that this came out of nowhere, was a perfectly finished article, written in few seconds, compared to other poems which took months and sometimes years to complete.
Becoming a poet can be a true wonderful journey as one recognizes the very essence of life. Unfortunately, it can also prove to be a gruelling experience, but the long term achievements are ever so rewarding that if I were to be reborn, I would do exactly the same things all over again, except perhaps give up singing. I think I could have coped with both writing and becoming a professional opera singer.