Wendy Klein is the new Featured Writer. Anything in Turquoise is her second collection and has just been published by Cinnamon Press. To me, this book is a treasure box – every poem a polished jewel, bright with memory, humour, grief and sheer poetic craft.
We first met on an Arvon course at Totleigh some years ago and so I took advantage of this to ask her some questions. I wasn’t expecting such a wonderful lot of answers and all with Wendy’s customary verve. Here is what she wrote:
Q:When you write your evocative narrative poems how do you find the balance between telling the reader too much and lightly sketching the bones of a story
A. This is very difficult, and I almost always start with way too much material: sometimes because the narrative is taken from an elaborate memory or a prose piece previously written. I have cannabilised my unsuccessful autobiographical novel ‘Listening for Nightingales’ shamelessly, finding poems hidden everywhere in a cluttered narrative. I start paring, removing as much descriptive material as possible, aiming to get down below one side of A4. I don’t write many poems that go ‘over the page’ because that fact alone usually means I’ve left in too much. Line lengths and line endings help me to create a tighter structure. With long lines I sometimes go into couplets which, by thinning out the poem on the page, enables me to see what belongs in and what needs to be cut out. You can’t hide anything in couplets. With line endings, you can shift the emphasis and the tone by changing a single word, creating a longer line and highlighting the importance of that thought. I tend not to use blocks of text unless lines are short because the cluttered look can make for a more cluttered text, a real risk, in my view, of narrative writing. The next stage, after reading a narrative piece out loud to myself or my long-suffering partner, is to take it to the workshop. Just reading it out loud to the faces around the table, begins to give a feel of what needs to go or stay and feedback, even when conflicting, goes into the revision and final version.
Q.You employ a range of different forms for your poems. How do you select which to use?
A. What an interesting question; I’m not sure I see myself as using form much at all, at least not in the ‘formal’ sense. I studied form for a year in Mimi Khalvati’s famous Versification course at the Poetry School, and after writing several dreadful villanelles, a couple of pretty uninteresting sestinas, and a lot of 14-line efforts that might qualify as sonnets, I tried to write syllabically for awhile because I knew I could make it work. In the end, I found the idea of creating artificial constraints for myself with forms and syllables did not work very well for me. I try to let my poems find their own form, often arranging them several different ways on the page to get a feel of what works best. I fell in love with tercets for awhile, and I do find that my poems slip into the three-line format really easily — maybe too easily. I enjoy using repeated lines, and I love writing in direct address and conversationally — often include dialogue.
Q. What inspires you?
A. No end of things inspire me, but I’m less good at opening some of them up in a poem. I still get really excited about the new sights and sounds that come with travel to strange and challenging places, but I’m starting to recognise what should stay on a postcard or in a journal, and what can work as a poem. I’ve jettisoned travel poems that came straight from my journals, but then some of them are my best poems, so I haven’t given up trying. Just looking out the window can be inspiring. And of course my totally eccentric, fragmented, tragi-comic family, with all its cast of Jewish characters is an endless source of material and quite a few poems in ‘Jewish Renaissance’. Oh yes, and anger against social injustice, but I have to be so careful not to preach — a lot of these get binned.
Q. How do you know when a poem is finished?
Does anyone really know when a poem is finished. Sometimes I get tired of a poem that doesn’t seem to be working, but I find it months or even years later and voila, or I take it to a workshop and someone puts their finger on exactly what will make it work, and I stop then, and call it finished. The nice thing about family narratives is that the episode offers an ending for the poet to accept, reject or change. I love ‘killer’ endings and openings, and sometimes poems are left alone until I come up with these, and when I do I am prepared to accept they are ‘finished’, although that doesn’t stop me fiddling around with them. I have tried to discipline myself not to keep too many drafts of poems because of the high risk of sending off unfinished versions, and oh how embarrassing that is.
Q. Could you sketch out your writing process?
A. Hmmm, well I kind of think that’s what I’ve been doing here…I can tell you what I don’t do: I don’t keep a journal regularly. Every time I’ve tried, I’ve got bogged down with trivia and failed to develop anything further. I will only journal if something really grabs me, and then I’ll jot it down in some detail in my awful handwriting, and with a pencil — I always draft with a pencil, I use a pencil if I go to writing workshops, which I don’t do much anymore — as I kind of mistrust workshop poems — find it hard to get them free of the workshop mould. I don’t do ‘flow’ or ‘free’ writing unless forced to do so as in a workshop — never do it for myself, though I will write a prose account of a specific event/scene/moment, if seems to hold promise. Once I have a first line I’m happy with, I can usually knock out a first draft. That doesn’t mean I’m married to that particularly first line, but it’s unusual for it not to remain somewhere in the poem, if not first. Killer endings are more difficult because of my tendency towards over-kill! I fight against the urge to be too tidy/too conclusive/too (wash my mouth out) — too telling, which goes back to the fact that most of the poetry I write is narrative, one way or another, and in story-telling, sometimes it is necessary to ‘tell’, and how to avoid telling without telling is a constant battle for me. I carry the bruises from many a critical workshop’s batterings, but I love to tell the stories, and I love to read the stories of other poets, even when it makes me gnash my teeth because they seem to do it so much more elegantly and without telling.