I write poetry. Mercifully, not for public consumption. The reason I like writing poetry (different from the reason I like writing prose) is probably one of the reasons I’m currently such a bad poet – I use it to disguise myself. Mistakenly, I still like or try to like believing that you can hide in poetry. I have never explicitly set out to be autobiographical in prose, but make some sort of return to autobiography repeatedly because the only experience on which I can guiltlessly draw is my own, i.e. somewhat limited. Naturally I break that rule a lot, racking up my days in Purgatory (which of course I don’t believe in).
I do know I’m wrong about poetry, whenever I see the clarity (economy, elegance) with which my friends who are real poets write.
Last time I was at home, I found some poems I wrote when I was fifteen. In a shock twist of fate and searing display of originality, they’re about being in unrequited love. There’s a piece of prose which goes alongside them, which is a) moving and b) alarming as its now-unaccustomed intensity suggests that some time between the ages of fifteen and twenty-two I lost the CAPACITY TO FEEL. Although people couldn’t walk around in adulthood feeling what I was feeling, we’d all be tiny emotional suicide bombers, and the streets would be full of wailing and pestilence and bad analogies about dappled sunlight. Anyway, I had hidden these poems not only inside a roll of drawings, but in an envelope, in a box, underneath my bed, and when I eventually found and re-read them, for some time I had no clue what they were about. Also, my god, did I like things to rhyme, back then Too often when I write poetry, I rely on dabs of colour, images os encoded as to be impenetrable, because (and here’s the clincher), if I’m writing poetry I’m writing something I don’t want to talk about..
All this makes poetry sound disgustingly therapeutic. Not that I’d object, per se, to the idea of art as therapy (oh my god, anyone who’s ever seen one of my plays could probably formulate a disturbing psychotheory or two), but I don’t want to be the sort of person whose work talks about the same things all the time. Everybody has their preoccupations, and some make good use of them. I know whatever’s interesting my boy academically, or has befallen him personally, will be recycled into jokes, riffs, or venomous ammunition for a personal diatribe. Or maybe he’ll just take off his top, smear blood-red soap from his chin to his nipples, and perform as a lactating horror-figure from a land without touching. Which is to say, yes, thankyou, the Oriel 24 Hour Play went exceptionally well.
I ought to tell the truth in what I write. I do, unstintingly, when it’s journalism, but with poetry I struggle. Not least because I find poetry difficult (it’s not writing how you talk, after all) and so much of what’s considered ‘good’ I also find dreadful. But last night, I had the idea for a novel – an idea of how to tell a story about some of the things which most interest me. It’s not quite a case of ‘write what you know’, but it will have to come with all sorts of disclaimers…
Dr Sophie Duncan is Fellow in English at Christ Church, University of Oxford. She works regularly as a historical advisor and as a dramaturg for theatre, TV, radio and film. She likes theatre, detective fiction and cocktails.