In The Dark Trilogy, Trystan Lewis the poet, my fictional alter ego, has his work and his life examined through the critical lens of his scholarly friend and editor. Trystan’s scholarly childhood – lifelong – friend knows him so well! So well that in explaining the poem at the heart of the story he puts Trystan’s life and his writing under a microscope! As only he could! And he finds that there is so much to tell… as you will discover in the partly fictional autobiography that makes up the first book of the Trilogy. And in analysing the poem and setting it amongst other poems by the poet – many of which, including some unpublished works, are quoted in the book – the scholar also finds a hidden story, one that the poet did not realise he had told. So the book holds two life stories displaced by several hundred years, histories which interweave and come together in the Welsh mountains in the present day.
he met a force
it held him
… and wonder drained the world of substance
re-arranged the pages of his book to give more radiant
It is about a life: the poet’s life, my life… and as The Dark Trilogy would have it, my lives.
This is such a difficult question! There is no definitive answer.
All that I can say is that both of my books, all of my (as yet unpublished) short stories and all of my poems would never have come into being without some hook to hang them on. Some germ of an idea. That may sound obvious, but I mean to say that I cannot manufacture an idea and work it up, it has to slip into my mind unasked!
I find it impossible to start with the idea that today I will write a poem. Or a short story. Instead, something will trigger a thought and I will know that I need to be at my desk. The Dark Trilogy came into being because, I began to feel after rereading it post publication that one of my poems – an obliquely autobiographical poem – Retrospective, published in Mostly Welsh – needed some explanation; and my current work began after I read a sentence that resonated with me in an article about James Joyce!
I rarely plan a story line or a plot – or indeed a poem – I allow them to grow symbiotically, naturally. Lots of revisions and editing, of course, but the story or poem writes itself – almost without any conscious thought. I once wrote a piece, Kamel Daoud, Black Dogs and Writing…
It’s so right and yet so wrong! Kamel Daoud, the French-Algerian writer and journalist – describes perfectly the experience, his experience of writing and I instantly relate to it but at the same time his imagery upsets me because somehow for me it just doesn’t work – the idea of a dog inside my head pushing my thoughts – my unthought, subliminal, subconscious thoughts – out through my pen or keyboard onto the page is a little disturbing; I think, because of the association of dogs running wild, running amok, with madness. Is there such an association or is that just me? I don’t know. I’m not going to look it up. It is what is there for me.
So how would I put it. I think it is one of the more difficult things to describe. I rarely plan a piece of writing – even this piece of writing – beyond the initial idea, the hook on which the piece – or the poem – hangs. And beyond that I have to treat prose and poetry separately – although the same lack of consciously planned structure or planned plot is true of both. Perhaps it is just more true of prose. Often the hook is no more than the title and then a first sentence or line, and we’re off. I type as fast as the words come to my mind and somehow know when I have mistyped and return to make the correction before plunging on. Of course there are pauses for thought, but they are rarely for planning or story construction. And of course when I come to the end of a section or the end of a poem, I re-read it, go back over it and make changes – a better word, a reversal of syntax for better emphasis or for a smoother run of words as it is read. But the body of the work just ran onto the page through my fingers at the keyboard.
I do not know what is in my head throwing words at my fingers as fast as they can leap over the keyboard. Like Daoud’s dog, something leaps across the world collecting ideas and facts – and let’s not pretend there is no Internet, sometimes I check on facts or the correct usage of a word that the dog – let’s call him that for the moment – has sent me. But so far in this piece I have paused at each paragraph and once mid way through the second paragraph for my dog to catch his breath, otherwise – without pause for conscious thought – I have just typed. I do not understand the process, I suppose, any more than Daoud does – inspiration from a divine animal, he says, and I can live with that idea although suggestions of the divine are perhaps a bit heady for me! I think I prefer his image of being a translator, an instrument, of my head being someone else’s fingertip. There are of course more pauses with poems, particularly if they are to rhyme – a perfect rhyme doesn’t always come easily – and there are far more changes – for balance, for sense, even just to make a rhyme work. As I approach[ed] the end of a long work of quasi-fiction, a Trilogy, which I began without any real idea of how the story line would mature, I have to confess that the third book is taking more thought, more conscious thought, and there have been moments of editorial correction to the earlier volumes to ensure continuance. But my uber-dog, ubermensch maybe, still has control! The fingertip is still pressing down gently. (I just went back and changed the word ‘arrogant’ to ‘heady’.)
Anyone who has read my poems will have come across nautical imagery, so perhaps I can suggest that the idea – the hook – the anchor – gets dropped into the waves and the disturbance immediately causes a splash – the first sentence, line or verse – and then an endless flow of ripples back towards me to splash onto my empty beach. Each ripple another set of words – I use that phrase to avoid the word, ‘thought’ – that flow out onto the page. Other ripples reach the other bank and come back to me at an angle slicing across my wake to disturb the flow.
So there we are: I have a pond in my head. Is that better than a black dog. I think so!
Actor, Emily Blunt – interviewed by Robin Parker in the Radio Times (5-11 November 2022) – said: “It’s interesting how Hugo [Blick] writes. He doesn’t start out with a clear roadmap – the story sort of reveals itself to him as he writes.” (Speaking of the writer-director of the new BBC2 Western, ‘The English’).
So perhaps it is not such as unusual way to write!
When I told this story to a friend, he responded with the unexplained and, I thought, unhelpful comment that a lot had been written about coincidences, and I suppose he may well have been surprised when – immediately – I did not understand his thinking or recognise the link… or he may have realised that I had simply not got that far on in the volume he had recently given me – Paul Auster’s Collected Prose. Some days later – I could see why he had spoken as he did.
There is a whole section of short essays in which Auster recounts a number of strange, linked events – maybe two or three meetings, letters or telephone calls – that were all completely independent but at the same time were linked by a place, a person or, in one case, a song – his daughter singing and moments later a slip of paper fluttering from a new book with the first line of that same song, and nothing else, written on it. Having read these, I cannot pretend that my own single coincidence of timing is so remarkable, but nevertheless no other single word describes the almost magical juxtaposition of timing and relevance.
I was sitting at my desk – this desk – composing and typing a new poem. I always compose at the keyboard, although somewhere at the back of mind I am conscious that it is not the romantic image of a poet scribbling in notebooks replete with crossings out and corrections that people imagine… but having written this way professionally for so long, I find that I compose as easily, type faster than I could write and can make corrections or changes of order so easily on the fly that anything else would be simply too pedestrian. On this day, I was writing a short poem that reflected a mood caused, I suppose, by the fact that I had been confined to my cottage for about five weeks due to Covid-19 that was sweeping through country after country and with, in my mind, echoes of a podcast about the Beat Poets – Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Gregory Corso.
The poem, my poem, was called Corona Sutra, and to anyone who knows Ginsberg, the title and the last line, a direct quotation from him – ‘The gray Sunflower poised against the sunset’ – will be familiar. I had reached a couple of lines from where I expected to end and was just beginning to search my mind for a word or phrase that would perfectly describe new – fresh – life emerging from oceans when my iPad, which was also on my desk, pinged. I have on it an online dictionary that I use from time to time to check meanings or to find an alternative – a better alternative – word and the software is set to display a word of the day, most of which are entirely unremarkable – I think I have only followed up to discover a new word on half a dozen occasions over the years. But this time, as if it had been following my typing, with all its pauses for thought and correction, with the greatest attention, it presented me – precisely in the second I paused – with the word I needed… a word I probably would not have considered although I was sure that I had heard it used before. Not immediately able to remember but feeling that I should know its meaning, maybe I even had some premonition, I gave in and followed the link. The word was ‘ylem’ which means the initial substance from which all matter is said to be derived. Reader, I used it! How could I not have done so? Here is the poem.
And when in that world dusk
The last Adam has
His Eve despaired
And weeps to lie beside her
In civilisation’s arid dust –
Will he still hear each ragged breath
Yield to time’s dull pressure
Will promises of redemption
Still echo empty above the void
And will his fading mind despair:
Those mighty kingdoms of the world
Laid low by national pride
Those peoples who might
Destiny have thrust aside
And as the dry winds barren blow
Or some ylem sea-splashes to a desert shore
Will there be yet a God
Watching over the wasted land
Or did he only on Adam’s passing in memory leave
The gray Sunflower poised against the sunset