Here is part III of my ongoing conversation with Max Ryan.
I am always interested in the thought processes and practices of writers. Would it be possible for you to share with us your process, in other words, what does Max Ryan do in preparation for writing?
I’d have to say there’s little I do in actual preparation. Reading good poetry can often be the trigger for a poem of my own but finally, each poem feels like a gift. It doesn’t mean that for me a scandalous amount of time doesn’t go into writing a poem but the way into that place is a fairly mysterious, witchy transaction that can probably never be repeated. By the way, I love what Auden said when he was asked about his sources of inspiration:
I never write when I’m drunk. Why should one need aids? The Muse is a high-spirited girl who doesn’t like to be brutally or coarsely wooed. And she doesn’t like slavish devotion — then she lies.
Writing a poem can feel like a tightrope act: just focus, stay cool but remember you haven’t got all night, the jugglers are on next. Oh and don’t think about it too much or you’ll fall off! I can certainly recognise the initial stirrings of the potential, unrealised poem, it’s undeniable, like some kind of virus. It may just be a strong image or a melodic line but it’s usually more a series of words than any actual clear theme …for a while, I won’t be able to focus on anything else and I’ll be obsessing about it and even snatches of songs, other things I’m reading or stray conversation will somehow all find their way in there. This can be a fairly intense time and I might cackle to myself, even cry, when I’m in pursuit of the poem (occasionally and marvellously, there’s that sense like God is in the next room). This kind of intensity doesn’t usually last too long and most of it ends up as endless mulling over the poem, revising, reading it out to yourself, the usual stuff. Like in any relationship though, there’s the danger of it soon getting dull and if the poem and I haven’t established some undeniable attraction after a while we’ll start the slow drift away from each other.
Basically all good poems are too good for the poets who write them. At some level I think most poets recognise this and can feel like they’ve come across some hidden treasure and better take what they can carry before the forty thieves come back to count it up again. I guess I believe that a poem has some kind of life of its own apart from the poet and tend to agree with Keats: A poet is the most unpoetical of any thing in existence; because he has no Identity—he is continually in for—and filling some other body—The Sun, the Moon, the Sea and Men and Women who are creatures of impulse are poetical and have about them an unchangeable attribute—the poet has none…It is a wretched thing to confess; but it is a very fact that not one word I ever utter can be taken for granted as an opinion growing out of my identical nature…
For me, ideas for poems are usually just that…ideas. An idea’s main use is to lead you into the wilderness where the real poems lie…usually by then you’ve managed to shake the dude off or he’s got scared and hired a helicopter back to town.
The Hexham Flood kicked off as a play on the Noah story; instead of the dove who flies off from the ark and doesn’t return (indicating the presence of land), I had the notion of a dog surviving a flood and being let out onto a farm and just bolting off over the horizon… a semi-humorous play on the Biblical story. Somewhere into the poem though, the images of the river and the floodwaters had taken on a sinister, psychic quality and were starting to turn back on the child-narrator. I realised then I was writing about the time I contacted bronchial pneumonia after the massive flood I went through as a child and the poem was really about the primordial struggle between the child and the great river, really death itself:
The Hexham Flood
The sky got washed away.
My sister took me down to the river.
Through the reeds I saw it moving –
bloated and brown, foam on its lips.
I asked my sister was this Old Man River.
She said she thought that was in America.
That night the river slid through my dreams,
its cold leaked into my bones.
I woke to find it over our steps.
Across the road a cat crouched
into the grooves of a tin roof.
I watched the river climb the houses.
It wanted everything.
I saw the piebald horse go down,
its nostrils seethed for hard dry land
then its eyes turned to water.
We came ashore at Nana’s place,
the sky had come back.
Nana said God wouldn’t flood the world,
not again; He’d promised.
By then the water had got on my chest.
It lay in small black puddles on the X-ray
but it gurgled all night over cold grey stones
and my breath got caught in its bubbles.
Pale green slime came out of my throat
when I walked around the yard.
As long as I stayed out there in the sun,
I knew I wouldn’t drown.
Nana said I’d get better soon.
But the river was older than anything,
I knew it wanted me back.
At night a bubble grew inside,
I felt the water rise.
The act of writing for me is quite visceral and the energy of the developing poem can create some kind of vortex that sucks everything into it. Often stray images that have lodged themselves in my head will be drawn into the ‘poem’ and find a home, though maybe only a temporary one. For example, the phrase ‘blurred, broken on the rainswayed night’ had been there for ages and was just drawn into the larger poem when its time was ready. Similarly, ‘heatfaint plains that stretched towards the world’ ended up as the last line of Eagle. I guess I’m like some kind of bowerbird collecting images and then just waiting for the impulse of the poem to arise out of the Great Whatever. That’s about all I can say on that…
Some very ordinary words can give me a strong sense of the uncanny, I’m not sure why. Some I can think of: fence, door, mirror, boat, ocean, window, field, fall, hold, float. Maybe some of them represent the idea of a portal, the movement from one dimension to another also the sense of things breaking down, losing their solid, apparent nature. Maybe I just like the sound of them… ash is another great word.
The poet Fay Zwicky told me a while back that she never tries to write poetry, just waits for them to come. I feel pretty well the same…it helps if I’m feeling pretty healthy and a walk on the beach can sometimes bring a poem together. Being around other poets, especially at festivals, can often trigger my own poems. After hearing Claire Gaskin at the 2008 QPF read a pantoum and explain its intricacies, I started writing my own as soon as I got back home.
Another thing: for me, the computer is largely a distraction, great for ordering a poem, moving lines around, deleting etc but the initial burst and the building of some rhythm and musicality usually come from me writing in an exercise book in some café (I can deal with crowd noise, quite like a bit of clatter but music’s too distracting). The act of buying an exercise book (I like the 32 page ones) and a blue Artline 0.4 pen is my way of announcing to the Muse: ‘you can come in now, I’m as ready as I’ll ever be!’