Photo courtesy of Graham Warman
Every year when I’m applying for funding, apart from supplying screeds as to why PitWR needs money, I need to provide letters of support or recommendation. Last year I called on Emma hoping she’d be happy to provide a convincing sentence or two. But she wrote so much more – her letter was a stunning tribute to the benefits of PitWR. I’m certain our positive funding outcome was swayed greatly by Emma’s comments. PitWR’s ongoing viability owes a huge amount to all the poets who support PitWR by donating their poems and encouraging words.
And now over to Emma
Emma Neale is the author of four collections of poetry and five novels, the most recent of which, Fosterling (Random House, 2010) was shortlisted for the Sir Julius Vogel Award for Science Fiction and Fantasy. Her latest book of poems, The Truth Garden (Otago University Press, 2012) won the Kathleen Grattan Award for 2011. She was the 2012 Robert Burns Fellow at the University of Otago; usually she works as a freelance editor, proofreader, and this year she is again coordinating the creative writing paper in poetry at the University of Otago.
I have a story about an early poem of mine called ‘Jane Coleridge’. The poem mixes up, thoroughly anachronistically, Jane Eyre and the story of Coleridge’s famous distraction from writing ‘Kubla Khan’. It imagines a woman character in the position of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who claimed his poem was interrupted by a visit from a person on business from Porlock (a village near Exmoor in the south west of England). Coleridge claimed the vision of the full poem had come to him in a dream; he woke, began writing it down excitedly, but was interrupted by a knock at the door. (One version of who Porlock was is that he was a man wanting a horse so he could help at a local emergency.) After dealing with the visitor for an hour or so, Coleridge was left with just a scattering of lines out of the 200-300 in which “all the images rose up before him as things […] without any sensation or consciousness of effort”. Some scholars and later poets (such as the darkly comic poet Stevie Smith) suggest that Porlock is a convenient fiction for loss of inspiration: nevertheless, all the textual matter surrounding the poem has intriguing, still relevant, things to say about creative flow and managing distraction. (Such as – and I hope my poem embodies this – using these very distractions as material!)
So. Anyway. At this stage in my own writing career, I was trying to learn the self-discipline a writer needs; writing at night after work, or in the weekends. I was also learning how to live in an intimate relationship, and how to manage long separations (caused by professional and other commitments): so I was often tipping on a fulcrum between necessary solitude and imposed solitude; necessary companionship and unsought intrusions.
The first time I ever read the poem in public, at a conference on New Zealand literature and culture in London, I found myself involuntarily ‘acting out’ the ellipsis in the final stanza – dramatising the surprise of noticing the speaker’s husband arrive at the back of the audience. It was unexpectedly convincing: a large portion of the audience swivelled around in their seats to look over their shoulders and see who this bloke was. Which was good and bad. It obviously meant I’d put plenty of persuasion in my tone; but it also meant I kind of acted as my own unwanted interruption. I was a little unseated by them all turning around; and of course, while the audience was craning their necks to see who the Person from Porlock was, they potentially missed the final beats in the poem. Afterwards, a colleague asked me to introduce them to my husband; he wasn’t actually there. Which was kind of appropriate, because of course both the speaker of the poem, and the husband in the poem, are, and are not, me and my partner. Another acquaintance who was at the reading, whom I met again at a party several weeks later, said I was so often at social functions alone — because my husband was either working or on ski expeditions —that they thought ‘this mystery guy’ was in fact a convenient fiction I’d invented as a self-defence against unwanted suitors.
My husband still often interrupts me when I’m at my desk by announcing, “Porlock!” So far he has never asked for a fresh horse.
Dear Reader, I married him,
that Person from Porlock.
The fact was, it seemed practical.
He would break into my study
like a line from a melody
bringing in sudden air
that disrupted my papers —
everything stayed in drafts.
The comings and goings were what got to me —
not knowing when he’d enter next,
unscrolling his elaborate maps
to take my hand and make it trace
the surface of all his journeys —
a cartographer’s apprentice
caressing the complexities
of contours, couloirs, main arteries —
such touch led to other eventualities.
Marriage is never an answer.
Yet … here he is — salt on his kiss,
stepping in from the dusk outside,
its black lights flooding each iris.
And the whistle of wind he lets in —
listen — there’s a kind of lyric in it.
Sleeve-notes, Godwit, 1999