Brook Emery has published five poetry collections, including and dug my fingers in the sand, which won the Queensland Premier’s Prize. We spoke to Brook about writing poetry, the process of gathering ideas and the value of re-drafting.
Tell us a bit about your process. What sparks an idea, and what follows?
I don’t really have a process or a writing routine. I probably should. Almost every writing handbook cautions that waiting for inspiration is waiting for nothing to happen – you have to sit at your desk and just write. I don’t. For me, an idea (and the writing process that follows) can come from an interest in a subject, from something I read or something I see or hear, from an image or a line. I might jot down a fragment, forget about it, return to it, forget it again, suddenly see a connection with something else, and then I might, just might, begin writing more or less coherently to see where it takes me. Asked about how he works, Henry Miller is reputed to have replied, ‘I stammer, I grope, I look for any and all means possible and imaginable.’
How do you think great poems are born? Is there something intrinsic to the original idea, or is it all about the drafting process?
I have no idea how great poems are born. There must be thousands of poems about autumn; why is Keats’ poem ‘To Autumn’ great and the others not? It can’t be the subject, so it must be a combination of the drafting process and the skill and intelligence of the poet. The poet must not only have something to say, he or she must have a way of saying it that distinguishes it from all the other poems on the same subject, that avoids the obvious, that reveals depths and nuances that are unexpected. T S Eliot wrote, ‘The poet’s task [is to] dislocate words into meaning.’
How can you tell when a poem is really finished, and no longer in need of further revision?
No poems is really ‘finished’. The remark that ‘a poem is never finished, only abandoned’ is usually attributed to the French poet Paul Valery. W H Auden is notorious for changing already published poems in subsequent editions of his work. All one can do is keep reading and re-reading, drafting and re-drafting a poem until one decides there is nothing more one can do. And then you need to put it away for a month and then come at it again with fresh eyes in case something new strikes you or you find a silly ‘mistake’ you overlooked earlier because you were too far ‘inside’ the poem to see it.