“Poetry & Art” – An Essay on Creative Production (2008)

During 2008 I was slap bang in the middle of a masters in 20th and 21st Century Literature in the University of Southampton. At the time, one of the course options was a poetry writing module, which was part of a larger creative writing MA but suitable candidates could take part if they had proof of having written before, and I had.

I don’t go on much here about writing poetry, and sometimes I think I should, but perhaps I feel that writing is something I struggle enough at without having to pretend to know what I’m talking about. The poetry class I took made it a requirement to actually write an essay proving to a certain extent that I did have a clue what I was talking about.

Looking back at it now, I can recognise some strong elements of theory and understanding of what I was doing in my own writing, in a time when I knew less of my actual poetic direction than I do now, and I maintain I know nothing to this day. That’s not to say that I write bad poetry, just don’t ask me to give you a notion on what my actual goals are, other than to write and get published more (you can read some of my published poems here and here – but be sure to read some of the other great poetry on both these sites).

This essay though was written five years ago, so in advance allow me to offer my defence. I don’t think I’ve ever written as much as I have in the five years that immediately preceeded this essay, so I think my writing is better. I’ve also got my bullshit detector a bit more finely tuned, although still far from perfect. I haven’t edited this, except for a few typos, so please feel free to pick through it and raise any points in the comments section. There are large tracts where I related to my own poetry, and in terms of that you can refer to this document which includes all the poems which the actual essay was referring to (again, I have not edited these poems and consider them to be in their so-called original state).

So without further adieu, allow me to present my essay full of self criticism, self appraisal, but hopefully not self destructive.

“Poetry and Art”

Southampton, December 2008

Why and what am I writing for? What is the significance of my own ability as a poet or writer and what good can come of it? I have tried to confront as many themes and different styles for varying poetic effect. I have amalgamated my writing into a project which presents to the reader a journey. The ‘journey’ is an artistic journey from the position of questioning my ability, to understanding, and to the eventual acceptance and use of poetry as a means of conveying a message.

I have experimented with the use of language and its effect on the poem. Of course, there are various definitions of language and each affect us differently. A simple search on the internet for ‘language’ will reveal a primary concern with translation and learning new languages; this directs us towards the function of ‘language’ in poetry. Poetic language is a means of translating the world into art, the same as painting or sculpture, but in this case, with language and words. By learning to be ‘poetic’ we understand a new way of speaking and looking. This all sounds very simple, but that is its beauty; that it is simple and easy to understand.

With this in mind, I have used my own experiences and ideas to help my writing. I have used a mix of reality and imagination to create a blend of language which represents truth. At the same time, I have remained conscious of the fact that simple language portraiture has little function other than aesthetic. For me, poetry must contain more than just a picture.

I have added into my work emotion, nature, and the subconscious self that cannot be transmitted in conventional terms. Of course I am conscious of the disadvantage of individual interpretation. Human interpretation is, as Susan Sontag termed it ‘the revenge of the intellect upon art’[1]. And it is not only Sontag who holds this opinion. Nietzsche said:

“The feeling that one is obliged to describe on thing as red, another as cold, and a third as dumb, prompts a moral impulse which pertains to truth; from its opposite, the liar whom no one trusts and all exclude, human beings demonstrate to themselves just how honorable, confidence-inspiring truth is”[2]

 With that in mind, how do we know what poetry is? How can I tell that what I am writing is ‘true’?

Wittgenstein said that ‘mutual understanding, and hence language, depends on nothing more or nothing less than shared forms of life, call it our mutual attunement or agreement in our criteria’[3]. As a poet one is not left in the world with only feelings to decipher but left in the world with meaning to respond to[4]. Art is created for a response to be created from it, not dictated from it. Poetry must insist on running its own course, finding its own measures, and charting its own course in hidden or denied places as a means of unlocking its true feeling and expression.

When I write, one of the things that I want to address the world and the problems and realities which, I believe, the twenty-first century has forced. Consumer culture and the loss of the individual’s sense of individuality is one of these pressing forces. I have tried to explain that through the desire for all things material we have allowed ourselves to be consumed by the society we live in, leaving our lifestyles to be decided on by ‘decrees of state’. My own attempt of finding poetic truth has been hindered by what Nietzsche has drawn attention to:

 “humankind, where deception, flattery, lying and cheating, speaking behind the backs of others, keeping up appearances, living in borrowed finery, wearing masks, the drapery of convention, play-acting for the benefit of others and oneself — in short the constant fluttering of human beings around one flame of vanity is so much as the fact that an honest and pure drive towards truth should ever have emerged in them”[5]

 With this in mind, there is a fashion of living in large expansive housing estates where all the homes are the same design and shape and colour. In Ireland, near my home town, this is particularly the case, where huge stretches of field have been turned over to construction companies who have built thousands of houses which, to me, have little or no character, with even less public amenities; except for a small green patch in front for the children to play on when it is not raining. Lives and the deep, deep reality of life have been clouded over by the competition between neighbours’ own vanities. Art holds a responsibility to present realities at face value and to present to open the eyes and minds of those that are clouded over.

In saying this, art can have its own personality and avoid the politics of society. Poetry is a voice, art is a vision, what is heard and seen depends on where one looks.

Poetry as an art is concerned with the moment, one which deals specifically with the present, asking questions and presenting answers about moments which are not distinguishable from the repetitive nature of human life. Both situations may in their own right be unique, but the solutions are not. Sentimentality has little function in matters of the heart. Understanding the very motions of existence from start to finish, realizing their significance, and reacting to them, are more important than waking and running to work. Waking up in the morning brings with it a total change in the way we have perceived the world, from dream state to conscious state. The emotions brought about by change and then the sickening feeling of reality can do more damage to the subconscious, yet at the same time it can have little benefit to the individual as it will not return and it will not change. Poetry is a means of expressing the reality as it is, and diminishing the effects of trauma which comes from realization of the conformity which humanity subsists itself to.

I have presented poetry which has been inspired by the situation, the moment, and the occurrence which can only be true for the moment which it is speaking of; be it feeling, a true story, or an imaginary creation. My intention has been to prove that it does not matter what words are used, but what they say, how they are used and what they present to the reader. I want my poetry to be understandable for what it says, and for the words to interpret the poems for the reader[6], and not the other way around.

Language and literature are inseparable. It is only through this connection that we can use language as a way to express and commit our thoughts into expression.


[1] Susan Sontag, ‘Against Interpretation’ pp.7

[2] Friedrich Nietzsche, ‘On Truth and Lying in a Non-Moral Sense’ pp.878

[3] Charles Bernstein, ‘The Objects of Meaning’ pp.60

[4] Ibid. pp. 61

[5] Nietzsche, pp. 875

[6] David Antin ‘Some Questions About Modernism’ http://writing.upenn.edu/library/Antin-David_Some-Q-Modernism.html



How to Write a Blog – Korea Version

I’ve been writing a blog for about three years now, maybe a little less, so for some I am an expert, but also far from a know-it-all and certainly still a newcomer to some of the older hands at this, but at the same time I’ve been moderately consistent and have had, for want of a better word, success blogging.

Of course, if you keep in some circles you may be forgiven for thinking that everyone is writing a blog these days. And this may very well be the case, I suppose. If you go looking for one of the increasingly updated definitive lists of English speaking bloggers in Korea you will find that this list is getting longer and longer.

I personally think that this is fantastic; the more people out there writing and sharing their experiences, good or bad, the better understanding newcomers and old-goers will have of Korea, and perhaps these stories will give people outside and unfamiliar with Korea a truer understanding of the country. Korea is a great place to experience, and while a little testing at times, I don’t think that I could say I’ve had an incredibly negative experience. That being said there is still enough that drives me up the wall. What bloggers do for Korea is they advertise the real Korea, one which is backed by the likes Korea.net or some other sunshine press.

But, you know, there are plenty of good blogs and then there are plenty of… eh… well I don’t know how to categorise them but they exist in some manner or form. With that in mind, when you start to blog do you really know what you’re doing? I mean, really? I know I didn’t.

When I started I just wanted to practice writing (over 240 posts and 30,000 hits later I think I’ve achieved that goal). I wrote long form essays on semi-academic obscure topics based on things that kind of had no relevance or connection, other than me trying to show off. I didn’t necessarily want to write about Korea, and I certainly didn’t want to make myself known aside from some ambiguous nickname. Don’t ask me why. But regardless of these intentions it didn’t take me long to start relating to stories and experiences in Korea, and I don’t think it took me long after that to start using my real name. Anonymity didn’t really suit someone who was trying to show off how fantastic a wordsmith they were.

So anyway, before I start to give another history my blogging experiences, I should stop immediately before I start to commit many a bloggers favourite past-time, which is waffling on for three or four thousand words without every really getting to the point. Let me try and stick to point here.

As I said, I’m keen on the whole blogosphere kind of thing, and I’m an eager reader of all kinds, but at the same time I want to help, I want to pass on my lessons learned and hope that someone else can fill another gap in the big wide prairie of the internet. So here are, I suppose, five relatively important tips you should follow when writing a blog in Korea.

1. Write about yourself!
Surely a no-brainer but you’d be surprised how many feel obliged to go off and talk about things they have no authority on, other than something they just came across on Facebook or Twitter, be it a random tweet or some disgruntled residents status update! There are a lot of pissed off people living in Korea who jump to conclusions on whatever it is that sets them off. There are an equal number of perfectly happy and satisfied people here too, so you’ve got to decide which area you fall into and then write about it from your own perspective. You can try the whole sitting-on-the-fence kind of social or pseudo political commentary, but take it from me, don’t bother. People read blogs for scathing opinions or amazing life changing revelations. So look inside yourself and think, what do I have to say, and then say it. If someone dislikes this, so be it, let them chew away on the wasp that is their own equally disorientated opinion of the world.

Another quick point – I see very little point in critiquing Korea, its politics, its society, and other parts of the culture, mainly because whether you think it may influence someone, believe me it’s not going to influence the right people. So sit back, enjoy (or hate) life and let Korea get on with its self without your pontificating. You may actually be surprised by your revelations.

2. Keep it focused!
Are you new in Korea and do you want to talk about your kindergarten kids and shopping trips to Myeongdong? Sweet do it. Are you particularly privileged to have insight into the inner workings over the Korean political establishment? Fan-feckin-tastic. Carry on. Are you a food obsessed adventurer who can tell what sea his san-nac-chi came from? Deadliness. Continue your scribbling. Do you just talk about being in Korea and everything that radiates around it? …ok you’re getting the idea.

My main point here is, if you are looking for readers outside of your immediate circle you’re going to have to approach a particular topic and keep at it. The more you concentrate on something the more of a name you’ll get for your particular subject that there’s a good chance that you’ll be called on to actually give an expert opinion. Yes. I said Expert! You can be an expert! But only if you stick to it – don’t believe me look at some of the biggest blogs in Korea and you will see guys who are actually making money of blogging in some manner or form.

3. Know why you’re writing!
I can’t tell you the amount of times where I’ve turned around to myself and asked, “ah sure what’s the fucking point of it?”, then not written anything for days before I turn around and belt out a few good solid posts. I don’t consider these the usual “what is life all about” kind of doubts, they are genuine doubts and concerns based on the futility of blogging in a foreign country in a foreign language to the large majority of the population, while at the same never seeing the kind of goals I have envisaged for myself when I first set out on this blogging journey a few years ago. But I still have the same goals. I still stick to the point. I have fellow bloggers to thank for that, fellow bloggers who, regardless of the time and effort taken to blog, continue to blog away taking up time from the work life and schedule to churn out informative posts for their readers. Sometimes when we get these notions of grandeur we forget what the whole purpose of writing actually is; It’s to be read. In the beginning you will have few readers but the more you strive to be read the more you will be read. Blogging teaches you this somehow. I find it to be a fun process.

4. Take your time!
Remember the ents. There is never any rush for something to be said. Blogs are a little slower than Twitter so use that expected difference to allow you the time to take your time and think about what it is you are going to say. Blogs are more permanent than twitter or Facebook posts, and the comments you make will always be searchable and found quicker than some status update or tweet you spent five minutes craftily scripting. Use that permanency to your advantage. Remember, it’s your blog and you are in control of what is said on it, so use it to control your thoughts.

Don’t post until you’re ready. Don’t post unless you really feel you have to (even if you have the whole “oh I haven’t posted for months and I’m sorry” blues). Ask yourself if you really need to write a 3000 word post on a kimchi making experience or what colour pants little Jimmy pissed in today, or whatever it is you feel to be so incredibly important to write about. Search around on the internet and see if it has been said already, and ask yourself how can I tell this story differently. This goes for every post you write. Respect your message and thoughts and your readers will respect you as someone who takes the time and care to create a worthwhile read. If you don’t have the time to say everything, divide it into bite-size posts, or actually think about what you have to say because maybe you don’t have to say everything.

Believe me, I’ve done all of these and had the expected results.

5. Don’t be an arse!
Yeah, kind of goes without saying and I believe most people have this covered. But just in case you don’t know, Korea is an incredibly different country which has only gradually begun to accept western conventions seriously over the past ten years, so give it a break when it does something different. Take it as part of the experience of living here. Korea is a place inhabited by people who have invested their lives and families in the social structures which account for it. Sure Korea isn’t perfect and it has its problems, and sure sometimes it may feel that there is a higher number of assholes wandering the streets that most places you’ve ever visited. However, if you look at it demographically, the country is densely populated so you’re bound to encounter more assholes per square kilometre that anywhere else. Anyway, like dealing with any asshole or shit situation you may encounter in your own country, roll up your sleeves and deal with it.

And if anything else, if you really want your blog to respected have a bit of self-respect and write what you would like to be read for – if that’s being an arse, well so be it, as long as you’re happy.

So with all that said and done, happy blogging!


Demons, Distractions, and Demands

I am my own worst enemy, and when it comes to giving advice I don’t think I stand a chance when put in front of the judges. Why would anyone care to listen to anyone who cannot claim to have achieved as much as they’d like to? I’ve an answer, and it is because I know what I’m doing wrong and I know that if you’re looking for a way to get over something perhaps, and I really mean perhaps, what I’m about to say might help.

I was born as a procrastinator. I’m lazy. I’m easily distracted. I tend to blinker myself from the reality of life’s requirements. Much of this doesn’t really effect me until that awful last minute arrives and I suddenly have to get everything done in a fluster. I don’t know if I was born like this. I don’t think I’ve inherited this gene from my parents. I do wish that I could be just a little bit committed to one of the many causes I assign myself to.

Take today for example. Up until about fifteen minutes ago, my plan for the day was going perfectly. I had woken up, had a light breakfast, read a little, then walked to the shops and bought some mushrooms and bread, then I cooked lunch for myself and Herself. I have since returned to the bedroom where I’m sitting under the fan writing a blog post, when I had initially set out to do more reading. I think I read about five hundred words (incidentally it was a book review for a book about helping writers to focus on their writing), and then I thought it would be a great idea to write a blog post. About what? Being distracted. I am not sure whether you could say I was inspired.

To add insult to injury, I’ve been out to the kitchen twice to boil the kettle for coffee and to find a particular blue pen, checked my email, twitter, instagram, the weather, and started reading an article about Ireland’s hopes for a second gold medal in the boxing at the Olympics.

It’s a curse, and I know it’s not something I suffer from alone. Fortunately, my income does not rely on me to be an overly productive writer, but one day I would like it to be so. I worry though that because of my reliance on being incessantly distracted, no one will give me a job because I’ll never get any work done, or I’ll be driven mad by stress because it took me until the last minute (again) to get something handed in on time.

Allow me to bore you for a moment with the things I’ve seriously (kind of) committed myself to (psychologically at least) over the past year or so, but which have made little to no progress.

– A distance feature writing journalism course (only one of ten assignments done)
– An application to do a Phd in contemporary poetry.
– A first collection of poems (many started, many submitted to magazines, many unfinished, and many rejected).
– A chap book of poems on things which people do all the time but which they never talk about.
– A collection of essays and short comments based around the posts in this blog and sold as an ebook.
– A memoir of my life in Korea to date.
– Various articles for magazines in Korea and Ireland, but most of which have no research carried out.
– Even more literary magazines with with submission deadlines and guidelines duly noted, but that’s about all the work I’ve done on them.

There could be more…

Oh yes, don’t forget all the magazines, novels, books, and links to articles online which I have stockpiled but never seem to get around to reading.

Did I mention I also have to work and that Herself is six months pregnant?

So, you see, by expecting myself to unrealistically see these goals through I think I’m causing myself undue stress. I know from my co-workers that none of them are stressed about that much, but by building up my own demands I have created this little red demon who sits on my shoulder and whispers into my ear, “why aren’t you doing this?”, constantly. Nagging, like my mother who used to ask me to paint the fences in the summer, and still I kind of metaphorically roll over in the bed and check whatever poxy internet site my finger is nearest to again.

The thing is, it is not as if all this comes down on top of me unexpectedly. What bothers me the most about this is that these are all things that I want to do. If you look at the the to-do list above, there is not one thing which I have been made to do. I have asked for all of this, and I want to do it all too. Perhaps it’s just a case of my eyes being bigger than my belly.

Right now you’re probably right in thinking that I’m an idiot, and I could have at least warned you before you started reading that this post would be mostly me complaining about my inability to start, let alone finish, things. I apologise for that, but if I had warned you I would never have kept your attention, and that would have meant that this piece of writing would have been a complete waste of my time and your time. However, allow me to remedy that.

The solution to all of this is very simple. It has to do with attitude, of course, and trust. This can be applied across the board to anything. While I consider myself a writer, I don’t doubt that this post can be applied to all areas of life, work, family, and personal development.

Firstly, you have to look at yourself, whatever it is you are doing, and know what it is that is stopping you from doing it. In my case, what is stopping me from getting things done is my laziness. If it’s something else, then what can you do to change it? Can you afford to take the steps to make a difference to allow you to do what it is you want to do, and if you can, then is there any other reason that would stop you from doing it?

I won’t suggest that you should stop doing everything you have been doing and start trying to achieve what it is you have always wanted. The world does not work like that, and no person, regardless of their ability, can be expected to start something new and instantly be a success. Yes, there are success stories of people who have done things like this, but this is why we call them stories and not realities. You need to work hard to realise your goals step by step. Slowly and assuredly is the best way to realise what it is you have always wanted to do. But remember, you have to start.

More importantly, trust has more significance than attitude. Trust is something which has varying levels of applicability and needs to be applied differently to different situations, and of course people. Trust should always be applied relatively to whatever it is you are trusting. That being said, you need to trust yourself that you can do whatever it is you are doing, to the point that you know the limits of your own ability. Set yourself small goals and gradually as you overcome each one, the next one will appear less of an obstacle, because you can gradually trust yourself to reach them.

Let me give you an example from my own experience. About two years ago I set myself the writing goals of getting a poem published and also getting some magazine work published. I overcame both of these goals after a fair amount of effort, but I did it. With the magazine writing, I have moved on to larger and more ambitious projects but which I believe to be realisable because I can trust myself to work within my limits. With my poetry, for some reason I decided to rest and think about my options. I didn’t write much or submit much for quite a while, and now I’m right back to where I started again, trying to find somewhere that will accept some of my poetry submissions. I wouldn’t be far from the truth if I told you I had zero confidence in my work at the moment, but am I going to let that stop me?

Trust also applies to the system you work with. To trust something, much like people, you have to know it and how it works. Whatever it is you do, learn what it is you are dealing with and understand it so that when you recognise openings or situations that you might be able to take advantage of, you will be prepared to do so.

For example, think of the amount of times you’ve gone hunting for a job only to turn up with nothing because you didn’t really understand what it was you were letting yourself into, leaving you all washed up with negative results. Even if something is apparently corrupt, if you know how it works then you can trust it to operate in a particular way so that there are no major surprises whenever you approach it to deal with whatever it is you’re trying to do.

Attitude and trust are, in my mind, two of the most important aspects of helping you to realise beyond your current situation. Both of these boil down to knowing about yourself and your broader situation. The more you know about yourself, the more you can get on with achieving your goals and crossing off items on your ever expanding to-do list.