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Greetings from the back room: writing a collection round a central character

By 07/06/2020June 13th, 2020No Comments

Writing a collection round a central character – SWC Member’s Webpost By A C Clarke #2

(Previous Webpost from A C Clarke: Putting a poetry collection together)

Having said I wouldn’t write about the virus I thought I would share this thought which occurred to me today on my daily walk: the virus’s only aim is to make more of itself. We as writers are much the same – we want to spread our work as widely as possible, though we hope with only benign effects! And, as the novelist Sarah Perry was saying on the radio last night, the virus is as much part of nature as we are – as birds of prey are, as earthquakes are, as our own mutant cells are. Nature is not a comfort zone though so many of its lovelinesses are a real comfort to many of us just now.

Now to today’s theme. Although I would say that the preponderance of poetry collections are organised round poems reflecting personal experience, there is a growing trend for collections organised round characters, historical or imagined, a hark back perhaps to the narrative and dramatic poems so popular in the nineteenth century and indeed a tradition going back at least to Homer in western culture, and a feature of many other cultures (Gilgamesh, the Mahabharata, The Epic of King Gesar to name three).

These collections may be a single narrative like Alice Oswald’s wonderful Nobody, a flowing poem about a character from Homer abandoned on a stony island; it may be a collection of separate poems dominated by a single character like Jacob Polley’s Jackself where the central character is both a persona for the author himself and an expression of the subversive essence of English folklore. It may be in the voice of the central character or as in Alice Oswald’s Dart, whose central character is a river, in the voice of several characters. There are also many collections organised round a series of characters like Michael Imlah’s The Lost Leader or Gerda Stevenson’s highly successful Quines.

In my two collections to date organised around central characters Fr Meslier’s Confession and A Troubling Woman I have used several voices, including the character’s own, to illustrate different viewpoints. This was something of a presumption because both the eighteenth century atheist priest, Jean Meslier, and the fifteenth century English visionary, Margery Kempe, had very strong voices of their own, Margery in particular! The advantage of developing a voice for the character (as many novelists have testified too) is that once you can hear it in your head it is relatively easy to get it down on paper. But if you are voicing a person who actually existed you need to be clear that your voice for them is an invention!

A different option is using third person narrative, which inevitably conveys authorial judgement just by the words and images chosen. The invented voice does too but doesn’t seem to. Either way the key is to think yourself into the character (as you see that character). Aim to bring them alive.

Following on from writing a collection round a central character, A C Clarke’s next blogpost will look at collaborative work.

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