Are these the best ways to create new work? When you are starting out and you have none and all the work you’ve ever done has been written because you wanted to write it you imagine that commissions are somehow the pot at the end of the rainbow, the holy grail. Get one and the future will be secure. Real work. Stuff you get asked to do and with recompense somewhere down the line at the end of it. You fervently hope.
The Poets Laureate who are on a sort of full time permanent commission, at least for the period of their holding of the office, are a particular case. How well do they fare? Ted Hughes, heart not in it, clearly hopeless. Andrew Motion, considerate and acceptable enough but nothing really to make the heart soar. Duffy, early days, so far so good, but where next?
Commissions are drivers but they are also constraints. They remove the need, as it were, for the hunt for initial inspiration. They mark out territory. The commissioned bard simply has to fill in. It’s a game full of joy, strain and endless teeth-gnashing stress. Can I do it, will I do it and, having done it, will it be any good?
The playwright Roger Stennett told me years ago that his method was to do absolutely nothing until the deadline for the commissioned work was virtually on him. Then he’d lock himself in his room for a day or however long the work would take and go like fury. This was the up against the wire solution. The terminator arriving and the work coming out of you like sweat. Start too early, he argued, and the adrenalin wouldn’t be there to help.
One’s attitude depends, I suppose, on where you see the poet sitting in society. Is twenty-first century verse still a self-indulgent activity with the poet right at its heart? Should poetry’s ultimate audience be considered at all? Or is poetry still essentially a personal art? Indeed, who do poets write for? Do they act like late capitalists looking for a gap in the market and then moving in to fill? From the evidence of the blogs and the anthologies and the mags most certainly don’t.
Commissions do away with this dichotomy. They walk right round it. But they can still induce copious fear. I am usually scared to death when one arrives. Can I really do this? Will what I come up with be as good as my last creation? Do I still cut it as a poet? Hasn’t everything I’ve done so far just been some sort of fluke? Will the future be an Alzheimer’s’ plateau of inability and dark?
My technique is to go at it immediately and not to let up until I’ve enough down on paper to stop the sweat from worrying my brow. That happened with the recent piece I’ve written for the Penarth poet Harry Guest. Guest will be 80 this year. A famous Penguin Modern Poet with a Shearsman festschrift due for publication soon. I opened the commissioning letter, thought about it for a moment or two, then turned on my computer and didn’t turn it off again until I had the bones of what I was going to do written down.
The same sort of thing happened with the poem outside the James Street South Wales Police HQ in Cardiff. On that occasion I had to make a presentation of my idea to a lay panel and worried myself stupid about it all week. The poem was the only thing in my brain, 24/7. In the event the art work architect talked, the panel smiled, and I then performed. Someone cheered. The rest of the panel applauded. I knew then that we were in.
What you end up with here is completed work. Material that broadens your range. Up ahead money usually changes hands and to make that happen you need to deliver the goods. Otherwise you fail. Poets don’t fail. They never do. I haven’t done so. Not that I know of. Not yet.