There’s a special place in my heart for out-of-context edits. The title of this blog is one of the last I scribbled to myself before submitting the final manuscript of my poetry collection, Somewhere Something is Burning, to Out-Spoken Press back in May this year. It’s my first collection and, as I write this, it will be out in the world in just over one week’s time.
In a lot of ways, I feel I’ve been writing this collection for the last decade at least. I can trace the moment it began proper to a writing retreat in 2017, but I wouldn’t pitch it to Out-Spoken for another two-and-a-half years after that, and much of the book as it now exists materialised during an intensive eight-month period from October 2020, when I was fortunate to receive funding from Arts Council England.
I don’t know how usual this is in terms of a writing timeline. Is there even such a thing? I recently learnt to accept that I am a relatively slow writer. Sometimes I write a lot, at other times I write nothing. I faff about, make false starts, walk around frustrated for days/weeks/months with a half thought out image or feeling, then at some point, usually unplanned, usually when I should be doing something else, I sit down and begin. From there, it all happens quite furiously. Then back to the nothing and, thus, the endless cycle.
It took an age for me to accept that this dancing around is a legitimate part of how I write. I don’t have a strict routine for writing and have rarely found imposing one particularly fruitful, though I wish it were and I know for many people it’s the only way. This interests me because in almost all other areas of my life I thrive on structure, and yet when it comes to writing, enforced structure invariably results in little work followed closely by much guilt.
But accepting that I am a slow writer has also come with the need to remain aware of how easily I could, and, at times, do, use this as an excuse to put off the actual writing bit. And remain aware that this only has to do with fear – what if I can’t do the writing bit? What if it’s no “good”? What if I’m no good? What if what if? When one talks about fear of beginning, fear of the blank page, one is of course talking about fear of failure, whatever that word means, and an unwillingness to puncture the moment just before beginning when anything and everything might be possible.
As it turns out, there’s nothing quite like a whole book of poems being destined for publication to amplify this fear tenfold. Who knew?! But when Out-Spoken Press opened their inbox to pitch submissions back in 2019, something about the opportunity and the timing of it just felt right. By then, I had enough of a sense of the book to know it was the one that wanted to be written, and enough of a sense of myself to know that to write it to its conclusion, whatever that might look like, I needed to balance my haphazard creative process with actual deadlines and a sense of accountability.
After the book was accepted, however, I started to second guess myself. Instead of trusting in the process, I began to reach for a sense of safety in the form of rules and structure, that romanticised routine that had never worked for me before. Guess what? It wouldn’t work for me now either. The only way I was going to write those first drafts was if I felt free. And the only way I was going to feel free was by convincing myself that no one would ever read them, that I was writing for me only, in the privacy of my own imagination. I had to be able to shake off that overly conscious, analytical, critical part of my brain for long enough to delve into wherever the poems wanted to take me.
I feel incredibly grateful to have got to work with the book’s editor, Joelle Taylor, who began every meeting by exuding excitement and making me believe she had unwavering faith in my abilities. And Caroline Bird, who mentored me through the process and whose gems of wisdom gradually covered my wall as nudging reminders. To anyone embarking on a longer form project I would say, find your people! People who will dilute the solitude of the writing process, who will challenge you, lift you up, knock you down, take you out of your own head and force you deeper into it. I am not a parent but the saying ‘it takes a village…’ certainly resonates when I think about how this book came to be.
Early on, sensing my fear, Caroline gave me a get out: you don’t have to put it in the book, but you must write the poem. We talked about falling back in love with poetry, with the act of writing, not thinking of it as serious work, or trying to write towards a product, but letting the images and feelings lead the way to discovery. She refused to put another deadline in my diary and instead encouraged me to go and play, to write in different places, at different times, to embrace the unknown and risk not finding the poem.
The more I leaned into this mindset the more readily the drafts began to come together, and in more interesting and enjoyable ways. I stopped longing for a moment of epiphany and started to embrace the not knowing. First drafts jumped off from hangovers of dreams, a lasting image thrown semi-conscious onto the page, some from late night confessional ramblings written over a drink in the early hours, others from half-thoughts that presented themselves during daily walks I took through residential South East London. The more I invested in the process, the less I thought about the impending public eye. I had also made it a rather (un)timely personal mission to rewatch the entirety of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and, as such, became reacquainted with The Ghost of Teen Angst Past. Other than being a demolisher of hours, this wasn’t wholly unhelpful; teenagers feel things with a rawness yet untempered, and these poems needed to feel.
I’m in danger here of tipping into an idyllic movie-montage-moment whereby I conjure the whole book print-ready in circa thirty seconds. Reader, that is not how it happened. For every moment of creative conviction, enjoyable meanderings, and teeth sinking vampires, there were, of course, countless others still filled with self-doubt and frustration. Convincing myself I was writing just for me wasn’t a one-off quick fix, but a continual and evolving act of trickery right to the end. No matter how many degrees of separation there are between the writer and the writing, it still holds something of you, and that is a vulnerable thing. One has to constantly convince oneself to step off the ledge into mid-air, believing it to be solid ground; to get rid of the psychiatrist and bring back the ghost.
Writing in different places wasn’t so easy. By now it was autumn 2020 and the COVID-19 pandemic in England was already hitting its second wave. I couldn’t write in cafés or on long bus journeys, as I might otherwise have chosen to do. But an old habit from university returned to me; I’d set up camp on my bedroom floor, a pillow in front of the radiator, back freezing then burning as the central heating clicked stingily off and on. Working on the floor was oddly liberating. Gone was the expectation of the desk, this was just scribbled thoughts, nothing more, crossed out and written over; asterisks and arrows spidering from page-to-page until finally illegibility would threaten loss and I’d be forced to take to my laptop. That’s edit number one, by the way, the words that get cut and changed by the frantic jostle of handwriting that can’t keep up.
Editing is where my usual leaning towards rules and discipline kicks back in. There is a folder on my desktop, labelled in shouty capitals: DRAFTS – IN ACTIVE PROGRESS. This is where every newly typed-up poem lives until it’s ready to graduate to the somewhat calmer Poems – Complete, or else to being abandoned to die in the gently labelled Poems – Need Work.
An earlier version of the book’s opening poem, ‘Crustacean’, appeared in Issue 14 of Butcher’s Dog magazine. This not only brought me encouragement, but also invaluable experience of working with professional editors, the dedicated and kind Jo Clement and Aoife Lyall, and the opportunity to read some of the work from the book in front of an audience at the issue’s online launch.
There’s not a poem in the collection that hasn’t been read and critiqued by several people along the way, and some have been submitted to publications, rejected and reworked. Here, the idea of the reader must be welcomed back in. But the poem exists now, so what can you do about it? You must see if it’s doing its work, if all its elements are serving the poem, if the poem is serving the book. I remain wary, however. Yes, the reader must be welcomed but the edits must ultimately be made for the poem itself. In editorial meetings, Joelle would ask, why this, why that, getting me to interrogate my choices and ensuring that everything had its reason.
When editing the collection, it quickly became clear to me that working across multiple drafts of thirty-odd poems was a shortcut to pure chaos. And it won’t come as a surprised to anyone who knows me, that I soon got a spreadsheet involved. A spreadsheet featuring a seven-part colour code, no less, though the basic organising principle naturally took its lead from the well known traffic light system. The three key categories, should you wish to try it, went something (exactly) like this: red for major edits/rewrites, orange for minor edits, green for finished. I also employed a ‘Reserves Bench’ and a ‘Cut’ list, which were ultimately one in the same thing – not making it to publication – but the distinction made me feel better along the way.
When I began writing Somewhere Something is Burning, one of my biggest fears was that my hand-in date would come and I’d be forced to let it go before the work was ready, before I felt content. I was forced to let it go, of course; I think you must be. But that moment of contentment happened. About two weeks before my deadline I found a moment of calm when I suddenly thought, that’s the book. I don’t know what it was, but I am proud of each poem in
the collection, and I am proud that there is a book, and that it is this one. I don’t think I could have written it at any other time. At the outset, I knew it would be personal, that, among other things, it would explore, through a number of lenses, my relationship to loneliness, solitude, intimacy, loss. I didn’t, however, expect to be writing it as the whole world found itself confronted with these same things on an unprecedented scale through a global pandemic, or that my father’s health would suddenly deteriorate, moving him into his last months of life. As writers, we can pack for all weathers, assemble the troupes, and we must, but we can’t control the storm within which we write, or that little bit of what we write that has an unknowable life of its own.
Alice Frecknall is a poet, short fiction writer, and fine artist. Her debut poetry collection Somewhere Something is Burning is published by Out-Spoken Press (2021). Her writing was shortlisted for the Out-Spoken Prize for Poetry 2019 and the Lightship International Short Story Prize. Her work has been published online by Out-Spoken and has appeared in print in a number of anthologies, including Butcher’s Dog, The Stinging Fly, National Poetry Anthology, and Lightship Anthology. Alice has an MA in Creative Writing, is a Roundhouse Poetry Collective alumna, and member of the UniSlam Post-Emerging Cohort. Somewhere Something is Burning is available to order from Out-Spoken Press here.