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Trusting the power of gravity

As a competitive fellrunner (and avid cyclist, mountaineer, swimmer etc. etc. you get the idea) I’m fascinated by the relationship between physical movement and poetry. My next poetry collection with Carcanet includes a lengthy sequence exploring the boundaries between concrete and abstract worlds through the experience of fellrunning, and recently I’ve extended these investigations through creative and pedagogic collaborations with OBRA (, an international physical theatre company based in the South of France. The 3-stage exercise below stems from this collaborative work-in-progress:

1. Learning to trust gravity: (trust me, you can do this at home) I like to think of poetry as a submission to gravity – a process of controlled falling, a bit like running downhill, and trusting your footwork (penwork) to get you to the bottom safely. Of course, both need practice, and neither are entirely predictable – but surely this is where the pleasure lies!! The first part of this exercise involves experiencing this sense of physically submitting to gravity / controlled falling. Either, very simply: stand up straight, and allow yourself to fall forward from the hips. Believe me, you won’t fall – one of your legs will instinctually stick itself out and stop you before you land on your face!  Or, for the more adventurous, try this same exercise at the top of a long hill (and don’t sue me nor Arvon if you trip up during your attempt to run / fall to the bottom!) Can you feel that moment when gravity begins to pull?
2. Training yourself in this sense of poetry as ‘controlled falling’: That instant of falling is the state I seek to replicate when I start writing a poem. Yes, it’s difficult, and needs practice, just as running downhill gets easier over time. Equally, just as our conscious minds guard against us trying to fall in the first place, it can get in the way of us letting go and seeing where a poem will take us, blocking the process of poetry as discovery. So how do you train to ‘fall’ in writing? For me, this is where chance processes of writing come in, for how they replicate the effect of improvisation, and circumvent the conscious mind (thus accustomising us to letting go of control). Take the OULIPO group’s N+7 method, for example, and apply it to a number of passages of text (preferably to which you are strongly attached), and see what happens when you replace every noun with the noun seven places further on in a dictionary.  I recently did this to a passage about climate change, and ended up with: ‘the clitoris chaplain must be limited to two deliberations if appeasement is to be avoided.’ That’s one way to circumvent polemic!

3. Giving it a go: Writing first thing in the morning is a good way to start, when your conscious mind is yet to kick in. But in my experience, the more you practice techniques which mimic the effect of improvisation (falling), the more you will be able to actually let go at any time of day. When you feel you are ready to just run with gravity, take a line (how about ‘I knew this would go wrong from the start’) and imagine falling downhill with it! How long did you keep writing until you tripped over a stone or came to an abrupt halt? And how far can you go next time?! (This time the opening line reads, ‘and the penguin dictator reported that…’ And next time it’s your turn to come up with something.)

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