On a geographer becoming a poet

I recently decided to become a poet. Not just someone who writes poems (I have done that for as long as I can remember) but someone who works hard at writing poems and gets them published in places where it an achievement to be published. A peer reviewed poet. It is hard to say exactly when this happened but it might have been at the Annual Meeting of the Association of American Geographers in Boston several years ago when I was chatting to a fellow geographer outside the Museum of Contemporary Art while looking out across the river. This fellow geographer admitted to being a creative writer. My response, I think, was to say “aren’t we all?”  And there is something odd about the expression “creative writing” as though it were possible to write without being creative. I had written poetry for many years before that afternoon in Boston. I recall, for instance, in 1985 being asked to pick a piece of paper out of a hat during a lecture at UCL. On the piece of paper was the name of a place in London. Out task, as students in a course called “humanistic geography” taught by Jacquie Burgess and Peter Jackson was to keep this place secret, go to it , write about it creatively and read our efforts back to the class. I wrote a poem as did several others in the group. Creative writing was very much on the curriculum at UCL. In a third year class we focused on travel writing as a form of environmental expression. And I remember reading Donald Meinig’s essay ‘Geography as an Art’, an essay I returned to recently (Donald Meinig “Geography as an art”. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 8/3 (1983) 314-328)

It seems that there is a creative turn in cultural geography at the moment that might be finally fulfilling some of the expectations that Meinig and others were developing then (see for instance writing by John Wylie, Caitlin DeSilvey or Hayden Lorimer). “Could geographers actually create literature as well as borrow from it?” he wrote,  “I see nothing in the logic, needs, or possibilities of our field to prohibit it” (p318). At the end of his essay he asserted that his paper was “a call … for greater openness, a clearing away of pedantic barriers, for a toleration of geographical creativity wherever it may lead….We shall not have a humanistic geography worthy of the claim” he continued “until we have some of our most talented and sensitive scholars deeply engaged in the creation of the literature of the humanities. Geography will deserve to be called an art only when a substantial number of geographers become artists” (p)325

While working on my PhD in Madison I has been a part of two guerilla poetry groups – the cultural workers alliance and then the cheap at any price poets collective – a group that exists to this day. I wrote very bad poetry and sprung it on unsuspecting audiences at coffee shops and in Laundromats. Then, of course, I graduated, got a job and turned my attention to writing serious geography but accumulated a few poems a year for precisely fifteen years leading up to Boston.

I admired my colleague’s willingness to admit to creative writing in the context of a geography conference. I am not sure why, but there is potentially something a little embarrassing about it. Perhaps it is that advertising of creativity – making writing seem special and noteworthy in the face of all that other writing in the social sciences. It seems like an easy claim to make and a hard one to substantiate. By the time I got off the plane at Heathrow I had decided to write a bit more seriously.

In the spring of 2009 I applied for a place on a course run by the publisher Faber and Faber. It was called “Becoming a Poet” and was the first of its kind for the brand new Faber Academy. I had to submit a portfolio of poems and a rationale for why I wanted to do it. In this rationale I wrote that I was a cultural geographer and wished to bring something of my experience to creative writing – to write about place, landscape, betweeness, belonging and not belonging, travel. I also claimed that I believed that focusing on poetry would make me a better writer in general by paying attention to writing word by word. By being precise.

I did not expect to get on this course and then I did. I immediately assumed that they must have been short of applicants. Eleven of us met every tuesday and some Saturdays form October 2009  until March 2010 mentored by the wonderful poet Daljit Nagra. It was very intense with frequent workshops in which we were expected to carefully and closely critique our colleagues’ poems word by word, beat by beat. Some of us still meet twice a month in London.

During the course we were visited by some of the great and the good of British poetry including Jo Shapcott (on a day I was away doing geography somewhere ironically), who happens to be one of my colleagues at Royal Holloway, which is home to one of the best creative writing programmes in the UK. We met for coffee after the course was over and she talked me into starting a PhD, part time, supervised by her. It is a practice led PhD which involved creating a body of 60 strong poems as well as 40,000 words of criticism. For this I get to meet Jo Shapcott once a month and talk about poetry. I am approaching the end of year one. There are six more to go.

She is as interested in geography as I am in poetry. This was also true in the Faber course. My colleagues frequently asked me about place, landscape and mobility. They are surprised and impressed by what a cultural geographer gets up to. The conversations I have been having with Jo have taken a new turn. We are planning a new Masters course on creative writing and the environment to begin in 2012. The course will also involve Andrew Motion, another wonderful poet and ex poet-laureate. It will introduce creative writers to the geographies of place, landscape, mobility, the wild, the rural, the urban and the global at the same time as it will ask geographers to think of the possibilities of being creative writers. All of this in a context where environmental writing is experiencing a surge in popular interest in the United Kingdom where the so-called psycho-geographies of Ian Sinclair and others have received slots on the evening news and in the popular press.

I am still slightly embarrassed about declaring myself a poet but I have slightly more reason to now. A good, long established poetry magazine gets in excess of 10000 poems a year to consider for publication. They are not blind reviewed so naturally well known poets find it easier to get published. Typically they will publish about 150 poems a year. The chances are slim. I now have five poems placed in good magazines as well as (hopefully) three coming out in an issue of the Geographical Review. I am no longer embarrassed to call myself a poet in front of strangers. Or, indeed, here.

Space/Ground?

It is instructive to read an introductory theory book in a discipline other than one you are used to. I have been reading about cognitive poetics in an introduction by Peter Stockwell. I am familiar with some ideas in linguistic theory surrounding metaphor that areclearly linked to this, but not familiar with the idea of cognitive linguistics in the study of poetry.

A key idea is the notion of figure/ground – the notion that somethings appear to be more important, more fluid, more foregrounded while others remain as background and setting. The first is figure and the second is ground. The figure is prominent and the ground is not. This occurs most obviously in the way characters are more important than the places they are in. Description is often about ground and action involves figures. Figures often move across a ground that appears relatively static. This movement, in a poem, is expressed with direction words such as “over” or “in” or “towards”.

Another key term is “image schema” which refers to “locative expressions of place” (Peter Stockwell Cognitive Poetics: An Introduction 2002, p16). Stockwell gives the examples of “JOURNEY, CONTAINER, CONDUIT, UP/DOWN, FRONT/BACK, OVER/UNDER, INTO/OUT OF”.

Terms of mobility catch attention and urge us to continue reading -static elements are frankly boring and we quickly forget them. The difference between the moving elements and static elements produces literary and cognitive effects.

Well this is turning into a lecture. Rather than focus on the ways figure and ground are activated in the use of words my attention is drawn to the actual space of the poem – the topic at hand (so far – we will return to the moving bits later). Before any particular word is written or read we have the poem – the lines that form a shape in space. As we read left to right against the white space a figure forms over ground. A passage is enacted. Stuff happens. Poems are made out of arrangements of type and blank space – figure and ground in a physical, pre-verbal sense. Not sure what the cognitive content of this patterning is but it seems important to poetry – even before the specifics of actual words and their meanings. This is the start of the geography of the poem.