The Rooms of the House | Chris Jones

blackbirds-nikki-claytonAs a teacher, from time to time I hand out one of my own poems to students with all notes and drafts included alongside the final version. My intention has always been to show how much work and time I have put into finding the right words to put on the page. I’ve never found the process easy – I can’t say I’ve ever been that fluent as a writer – so the drafts attempt in some way to address and illuminate the issues of style, language, form, voice, the choices bound up in telling a story, that I’ve been wrangling with for the past thirty years or so.

On one occasion when I handed out a poem and workings-out to the assembled writers on a residential weekend, I was encouraged to hear a student say that reading the drafts, the multiple versions of the lines I was testing out, was like being shown around the rooms of someone’s house. I say encouraged because I’m never quite sure how students will react to being offered a trail of words. Such an offering might be considered rather inward-looking, possibly self-aggrandising on my part, a superfluous gift: a student might ask what these jottings have got to do with him or her? I was also cheered by such a creative response because the house-viewing analogy resonated with me at a fundamental level. It still does. I like the notion that we present the front of the house for everybody to view (and judge), but then there are also those more intimate spaces we inhabit, dwell in, dream through. The private areas, where we cultivate our own tastes, work through our obsessions, where we experiment, make ‘mistakes’, play: these places are viewed by invitation only, and our guests have to step over the threshold to enter. And even if a reader happens to encounter the Muse on a Sunday afternoon dressed in shorts, an old t-shirt, feet up on the sofa, swigging a can of lager – it’s a chance worth taking.

I once accidentally sent a poem with all the drafts attached to my friend Mark Goodwin. I meant to just send him the finished piece, but I forgot to edit the document and he got all the stuff I had slowly been working through. This is the work as I presented it to him:

Up at five, blackbirds
chirr, shrill, quaver; tuning in
through all that crackle.

Up at five, blackbirds
chirr, shrill, chatter; tuning in
through all that crackle.

Up at five, blackbirds
whistle, chirr, chatter; tune in
through all that crackle.

Up at five, blackbirds
whistle, chirr, chatter; tuning
in through that crackle.

Up at six, blackbirds
chirr, shrill, whistle; tuning in
through all that crackle.

Up at six, blackbirds
whistle, chirr, chatter; tune in
through all that crackle.

Up at six to catch
blackbirds chatter, tuning in
through all that crackle.

Up at five, blackbirds
whistle, shrill, chatter; tune in
through all that crackle.

Up at six, blackbirds
whistle, chirr, chatter; tune in
through all that crackle.

A blackbird broadcasts

A blackbird tunes in
and out,

A blackbird whistles
low frequencies, tuning out
through all that crackle.

A blackbird whistles
out its frequencies, tuning
in garden crackle.

A blackbird whistles
out its frequencies, tunes in
through hiss and crackle.

This blackbird whistles
out its frequencies, tuning
in hiss and crackle.

A blackbird’s whistle
through its frequencies,

A blackbird tuning
through garden crackle,

A blackbird whistles,

A blackbird tunes

tunes through
garden crackle,

its bands of ,
radio [ ]

static
finds its frequency
turning through its frequencies.
Tunes / an old radio
Through garden static crackle hum

A blackbird whistling
through its frequencies,
A blackbird [whistles],
[   ][  ], tuning its dial/broadcasting/broadcasts
Through garden crackle.

A blackbird tunes through
garden crackle, broadcasts [ ]
[  ] [ ].

A blackbird tuning
through garden crackle,

A blackbird tunes through
garden crackle, its bands of ,

radio
finds its frequency
turning through its frequencies.

Tunes / an old radio
Through garden static crackle hum

I’ll supply a few explanatory notes on the composition of the text. The published (final) version of the haiku is: ‘Up at five, blackbirds / chirr, shrill, chatter; tuning in / through all that crackle’. This is not the first poem you actually read at the top of the page, but the second haiku in the sequence. I don’t why I sent the document like this. All I can tell you is that my curiosity to work through the multitude of options available to me led me to try out one further variation (‘blackbirds / chirr, shrill, quaver’) before I went back to the word-order I was happiest with in that second poem.

With regards to chronology: if you want to follow the archeology of my work from starting line to finished piece you should read this poem from the bottom upwards (the first line I committed to the screen was ‘Through garden static crackle hum’).   The words I type out, mull over for a while, then discard are placed in an ascending pile from the foot of the document. Think stalagmite rather than stalactite when it comes to the process of accretion. As a pointer toward general strategies of composition, I write one, possibly two lines at a time. I work through all the combinations that interest me – changing words and phrases as I see fit, then settle on one or two versions that have potential before I move on to the next line. Working on a three-line poem is the same as working on, say, a thirty-line poem in that each line has to chime or be ‘in conversation’ with the lines around it: aural correspondences (for instance: birds/chirr, shrill/all, black/crack) are key to the health of the piece. So why choose ‘five’ instead of ‘six’? This is mostly to do with the fact that blackbirds are the first to sing in the morning: ‘five’ is a more dreamy, more liminal time than ‘six’.

So I inadvertently let Mark into my house. And because Mark is a creative poet who is deeply committed to the play of language, to the plasticity of words, to experiments in form, he saw my drafts as an integral part of the poem. And, to an extent, Mark made the house his own by fashioning an audio poem from the text, picking up on the blackbird’s song, the interference and ‘crackle’. My creative ‘mistake’ of handing him all the unused material led to an act of collaboration, a new work in itself. I came back to my own work as a reader, surprised by the new architecture occupying the ‘footprint’ of the finished piece. You can listen to the poem below. Headphones are recommended for the full ambient effect.

Chris Jones’s second full-length collection Skin is out now from Longbarrow Press. Visit the Skin microsite for more details about the book, or click on the relevant PayPal option below to order:

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7 Comments on “The Rooms of the House | Chris Jones”

  1. Matthew Clegg says:

    Thanks Chris, really interesting. Finding material to illustrate writing process can be very hard. I wish there were more examples in the public domain. Often, I resort to using examples from my own process with my students, simply because I can’t find any from elsewhere. I have all the same worries and reservations you list. It can also leave me feeling like I’ve exposed my soft underbelly, too. Still, who’s process can you know better than your own? And why shouldn’t we extrapolate lessons from that and try to pass them on?

  2. Chris Jones says:

    We ask our students to do something that there’s little of out there, Matt. I hope my own messy process provides some illumination. I hope also its not a look at me moment – but instead they see how much I struggle with the job of writing. I came to my poem fresh after Mark transformed it with his own take on the phrasing and language. Which poems do you show your students as works in progress and finished drafts?

  3. Hi Chris, nice to see someone else who works this way – except that I stalactite usually. Although I do work from the back of a notebook towards the front rather than the conventional way. I often wonder about the drafting process of others, so thanks very much for sharing this. And it’s wonderful to know that you got such a good response from students. I might bring this into my own teaching at some point.

    • Chris Jones says:

      Thanks for your comments, Chris. I’m always interested to see how other people work. By being open, conversations can start – we can demystify many of the issues around craft that I feel some writers like to perpetuate at times.


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