This is the second part of a guest post by Fleur Adcock for Ruth Chalkley’s project “A Dialogic Exploration of Gluten Ataxia“. For part one, ‘Poetry Across a Lifetime’, click here.
I’m afraid the answer to most of the other questions beginning with why is “I don’t know”. Courage and tenacity? Ancestral genes, perhaps. Or feeling insecure every time I went to a new school (there were 13 altogether) and therefore having to prove myself over and over again? Possibly. I really do not know.
Thumbs up to be a poet? The teacher who gave me a gold star for my poem about the Pilgrim Fathers when I was nine, perhaps. But one isolated mark of approval wouldn’t have been enough; these things need constant reinforcement. The person who chose my poems for the school magazine when I was 14? The editor of the university student newspaper who published my first adult poem when I was 18? But by then I was thoroughly established in the habit of writing poetry, and it would have taken a lot to put me off. My first collection of poetry is in a little notebook given to me for Christmas when I was nearly seven, into which I copied out all the poems I’d written so far and added more as I sat cowering in a corner of the school playground at Outwood (school number 6) hoping not to be teased by the marauding boys.
I cannot tell you what made the obsession so strong unless it is something innate. Naturally the particular forms our obsessions take are picked up from the culture around us – in another life I might have been a politician, a doctor, or a scientist – but I think the urge to focus on whatever has grabbed us is genetic. Throughout my life consciously or unconsciously I have found myself making decisions that fostered this need to write. Some of them are extremely selfish decisions. For much of my life I have managed to live alone, apart from the period when I was bringing up children or providing a home for them as students. I enjoy having visits from the family, but can’t write when they are living here. However, in the days when I did have family living at home I contrived time here and there to write, as I’ve already explained, and there’s always the option of staying up late at night after everyone else is asleep.
I made one definite decision, in my 20s, after my divorce. I had applied for a job in the Classics Department at the University of Otago, classics being the subject of my degree and the only field in which I seem to be qualified to earn a living. The following year, by chance, I heard of a job in the University library. Academics take work home in the evenings; librarians don’t; therefore I transferred to the library (although with a slight drop of salary) and trained as a librarian, by correspondence, so that after three years my evenings would be my own.
There has never been just one mentor or just one role model, just as in poetry there is never just one influence but a whole host of influences, as long as you are prepared to be open to them. Like all my contemporaries, I’ve learnt how to write from reading – there were never any creative writing classes in my day, and the mere thought of such a thing made me and my friends in New Zealand roar with laughter. I still tell students to read, read, read. My entire life has consisted of two steps forward, one step back, another step forward, a little bit of encouragement here and there, a little setback somewhere else. To be banal, that’s what life is. In 1961, just at the end of my last library exams, I entered a poem for a poetry competition, the first one I’d ever heard of in New Zealand. It was a long poem, and when I’d finished it I wrote it in my private notebook “Let’s face it, I can’t write; but I’ll be a bloody good librarian”. Of course (you’ll have seen this coming) I won the competition. That was a turning point.
Another turning point was in London when a young editor who used to come to Edward Lucie Smith’s poetry group in Chelsea in the 1960s asked me to submit a manuscript to his company. I got quite excited, and sent it off. No luck: it turned out that Kevin was really very junior, and the senior poetry editor was not impressed. However, having made the effort to select the contents, put them into order and type it all out, I did a bit more thinking and sent the manuscript to Oxford University Press. This time I was in luck. But if Oxford hadn’t taken it I’d have tried somewhere else.
All these people, poetry editors, fellow poets, friends and colleagues, have influenced me one way or another, but the main driver has been inside me. The second notebook I mentioned, which I kept from 1959 up to some time in the 60s, was full of notes on books I’d been reading, poetry I was struggling to write, dreams and insights into my imagination, memorable quotations, and other such literary bits and pieces. I was particularly interested in the lives of writers; André Gide, for example, as a small child ran up to his mother crying “I’m not like other people”. Well, no, writers are not like other people, but it was comforting to see it confirmed. On the other hand, I am perfectly ordinary in most discernible ways (bad tempered about the weather, bored with house work, etc). Nowadays I’ve moved beyond that kind of youthful introspection. What I’m conscious of now is the shortness of time remaining to me: how long will I have sufficient health and, most importantly, sufficiently active brain cells to carry on writing? My latest collection of poetry is due to appear in the month of my 81st birthday. Whether or not it’s the last, we shall see.
Perhaps the happiest moment of a particularly good day would be to wake up in the morning with a line or phrase twitching in my mind and reach for the piece of paper on which the half-written poem is awaiting me beside my bed. That’s what it’s all about: getting up and continuing the poem.