6 things I’ve learned writing poetry and songs

1. When nonsense make sense

When I’m finding it hard to write, I allow myself to get a little silly. It always helps. There’s a sparkle to nonsense that I love, the stretching of a word or notion that elevates the ordinary to the extraordinary.  Whether it’s the quasi-guilt that comes from discriminating against my clock on account of its tickiness, or the torturous tribulations of an agoraphobic psychopath and his inability to leave home to ply his desired trade, it’s the blend of familiarity and unfamiliarity that I treasure.

Sometimes, as in “Emailing Rachel” or “The Sasquatch Symposium,” the nonsense lands on my front step. My life is frequently bizarre, misshapen, and nonsensical. I love it when reality becomes somewhat less credible than fiction.

Sometimes, as in “Frankenstein’s Monster,” it’s just an excuse to milk a bad pun dry.

At other times, being silly can be as serious as anything. I wrote “Chance would be a fine thing” on the occasion of my wedding to Emma McNeil. Yes, it’s a silly and unabashed anthem of geek love, but it remains my favourite and most real love song. It captures exactly what I wanted to express on the day.

2. Don’t know what you think about something? Write!

Songs or poems can frequently be an opportunity to work something out. During the writing of “Once Alien Here,” for example, I was trying to work out whether I wanted to return home to Northern Ireland, having spent a period in the United States. The writing of the song helped me work out that it was time for me to go home. The title is taken from a poem by well-known Northern Irish poet John Hewitt, another meditation on home, place, and identity.

Similarly, “Between the Lightning and the Thunder (Apologia Pro Vita Sua),” was an opportunity for me to think through how I felt about my Catholic upbringing. My father was a Catholic theologian and my mother also a fervent believer. For all of my childhood I had expected that I would probably grow up to become a priest, and while that didn’t happen, religion and spirituality have always remained important to me. This song was a chance for me to acknowledge my debt to my parents while also staking a claim to independence.

3. Don’t be put off by creative writing groups

When I was in my first year of university I attended a creative writing group. I was a shy young lad, bookish and a little uptight, but I had been writing poems for a few years. I particularly loved rhyme. I loved the playfulness of it, the echoes and resonances awoken by parallel sounds, and the serendipities of possibility and opportunity as the words moved towards each other, doubling, sometimes even dancing.

Led by a published poet, there was an earnestness to writers in the group. I was hopeful that there might be support to be found in the gatherings around the table, that I might learn more about the craft of writing. I only went once or twice – I stopped going when the entire group tore someone apart for writing rhyming poetry. This gutted me, and I never then offered any of my own work. Nevertheless, I submitted my work to our poet-guru for a more personal response, proudly but tentatively offering a portfolio of my earliest poems. It’s a difficult moment for most, the moment you first offer your poetry to a recognised poet.

The response I got wasn’t what I had hoped for. He recommended that I might be best contacting Hallmark or another greeting card company. Not exactly the best advice for a young lad aspiring to be a poet.

As a direct consequence, I decided, for a time, that I’d rather write songs, as there was more joy in them thar hills. People were more likely to listen to a song, and less likely to make an issue of the rhyming. Despite the writing group, in time I renewed my love of poems and poetry.

Writing groups can be fun, and supportive. However, if they’re not, have confidence in your desire to write and learn your craft.

4. Truth can be a fluid companion

I sometimes think that I love creative writing because it allows us to explore what it might mean to be human without necessarily misrepresenting the life of an actual person in the process of exploration. I love that in creative writing it is possible to tell the truth without recounting the truth – what I mean is I believe it is possible to glimpse the truth of a moment, to take an emotional snapshot, to activate an impression of an experience, without ever claiming to accurately capture that experience in its entirety. As Van Gogh said, one seeks a deeper resemblance than the photograph. Real people may often provoke the work, but in the course of writing they can become explorations with a life of their own.

5. Let people nudge you into action!

Yes, some things I’ve worked on for years (I have plenty of unfinished work in the cupboard), but sometimes it’s best to just go for it and see what comes out. It helps to have external influence: my poem “Too Long on the Island” was written as an egg-timed three-minute response to a child’s picture at a conference. “Border” was written as a two-minute free-writing exercise at a workshop. The “poltergeist rap” was written and recorded in thirty minutes in response to a Facebook friend who was writing a parapsychology paper analysing the rapping of poltergeists.

6. Finding the world

I come back to the words of others particularly at times when I feel a little bit astray or lost, when I sense a subtle detachment from the world around me.

Among poets, I love the work of William Stafford for his wisdom and accessibility. I love Ogden Nash and Pat Ingoldsby for their sparkling irreverence. I love Naomi Shihab Nye for her insight and humanity. I love Seamus Heaney for his locality and the familiar cadence of his speech. I draw some poems close – “Daedalus, the Maker” by Thomas McCarthy; Pearse Hutchinson’s “Into Their True Gentleness”; William Blake’s “What is the price of Experience”.

Songwriters I treasure include Andrew Calhoun, Kat Eggleston, and Jim Page (all of whom I’ve been lucky to know personally), as well as Dar Williams, Randy Newman, and many, many others.

For me, there are certain key issues that stand out in life – the challenges of love, loving, longing and loss; the ever-presence of mortality; dealing with people you live with or beside; morality and spirituality; inequities and injustices in the world.

For the work I admire, what I think stands out for me is the deep personal investment of the poet or songwriter in their work. Whether raw and immediate, such as much of the work of Andrew Calhoun, or playing out the voices of various roles, such as the work of Randy Newman, all of the songwriters and poets I love manage to remind me of possibilities in the art of being human.

I value domestic detail, recognisable moments of the everyday. I trust that sometimes these can be bridges from the pathologically particular to the particularly universal. The details might not align, but I hope that for readers or listeners the impression may well be familiar.

As a writer, I find it important to keep that old cliché in mind – write what you know. As my wife reminds me, that doesn’t mean I’m an agoraphobic psychopath. But it does mean that I try to offer something of my own exploration of humanity in everything I write. W.H. Auden has written, “The primary function of poetry, as of all the arts, is to make us more aware of ourselves and the world around us.” Something like that.