Book Review: The Process of Poetry // Rosanna McGlone

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To many (including myself) the way good poetry is constructed feels like a total mystery. It so easily goes wrong and becomes the latest spoken-word parody on Instagram. Most of us imagine well-read, worldly writers who were born to be poets with no technique, strategy, or pragmatism. Luckily, Rosanna McGlone’s The Process of Poetry demystifies the work of the poets at the forefront of Britain’s literary landscape.

McGlone interviewed 17 of the UK’s most esteemed poets about their writing process. The questions range from their writing routine to the impact poetry had on the writers as children. McGlone prefaces each interview with two versions of a poem that the writer feels best exemplifies their process. The first is an early draft and the other is a final version. Every interview starts off with discussing the journey from first to final draft.

This was a refreshing read. As enjoyable it is to indulge in the crypticness of poetry, I appreciated having the likes of Don Paterson and Jacob Sam-La Rose reveal how and why their poems turn out the way they do. The clear diversity of thought was also comforting. While Pascale Petit consistently writes into the night, the mothers of the mix such as Kim Moore sporadically cram poems into motherhood’s brief respites.

Any aspiring poets will be disappointed to find that there are no magic answers to suddenly creating your magnum opus. However, it is reassuring to know that poetry is not one-size-fits-all and rarely linear, making it open to anyone with an ear for it. Paterson did not start reading poetry until he was in his twenties while it played a crucial role in Victoria Kennefick’s life from an early age. Yet both have found success and satisfaction from their literary inspirations.

Unfortunately, just as this book can only be what a budding writer makes of it, so too were the questions to the writers. Repetitive questions about poetry from childhood and routines are helpful. However, this makes it harder to let the personality of McGlone’s poets flourish. This is important in a book that showcases the variety that contemporary poetry has to offer, especially given British poetry’s slowly waning reputation as pale, male, and stale. It is worth emphasising this diversity of process, which includes honing in on what makes the individual writers tick.

For example, Liz Lochhead thrives in brief open question to which her responses are delightfully chatty and endearing. It feels like talking to an old friend who just so happens to be the Makar. Her discussion of ‘Chimneysweepers’ was intimate and I learned a lot from her chapter. However, this does not work for every poet.

I often felt that follow-up questions were passed up in the name of brevity or thematic consistency. In conversations with Szirtes and Mona Arshi about reading and writing in their second language, why is everything feeling “new and strange” a useful tool for poetry? Why would it make a poet “hypervigilant” about using words correctly? In this collection, these are illuminating questions that only they could answer, except nobody asked!

Many of the poets spoke about stepping back and allowing the poem to say what it wants to. Perhaps this would have a been a useful approach on a journalistic level. Yes, McGlone answers the practical questions of writing poetry, but it would have been even more inspiring to uncover the person behind these editorial decisions. McGlone has found the various answers to ‘how do you write poetry?’, but ‘why do you write poetry like that?’ would have added an extra depth that would have brought some colour to this collection.

This does not discredit the insightful work that McGlone has done here. The Process of Poetry is a tool that should be in any young artist’s arsenal. It showcases not only the fantastic work that is out there, but the arduous process that makes poetry seem effortless.

Words by Elizabeth Sorrell

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