Jenni Fagan: “If a Poem Wants Written at 3 am I Get Up.”

On the Urgency and Necessity of Writing Poetry

By  Jenni Fagan

I’m in bed in Shakespeare and Company in Paris. I’ve written many poems here—in the Museum of the Lost Generation. In the last four or five months I have been writing a poem every morning. Sometimes I do the school run first. By the time I get home I have to go write before I can have breakfast or coffee. I don’t have much choice in it. If the feelings do not coalesce into poetry then I would be much less able to function.

The more difficult life is the more poetry I write. Too much has gone on this last year. I had a major bereavement. There was a horribly confusing heartbreak. I got my social work files after 24 years of trying to get access to them. The Freedom of Information Act came in and I rang that morning to get them released. I was in care 18 years and moved over 30 times by the time I was 16. I thought I’d be able to read the files by myself and sat down to it with a beer in a graffitied house by the ocean. I still haven’t totally recovered from the first ten pages.

The files are now sat in my therapists office until I can deal with them again. I’ve moved four times in the last year, which was not intentional. I lived in renovations for most of that, ceilings ripped out, walls knocked down, things being taken out and put back endlessly. My health has been terrible with trips in and out of hospital. I have had moments standing on the shore staring at the sea working out what it might mean to heal. My response is no different now to how it was when I was a child.

Poems are paintings of people or places that I would never recall otherwise. I am documenting my life in poetry. They are deeper than the other things that function around me.

Putting words down in a certain way allowed me to breathe a little better for a while. It is not to be underestimated. I find breathing difficult. It is as if my sense of entitlement really was so far out that I didn’t always know how to do it as a wee kid. Having such an extreme upbringing means it’s a physical legacy that has stayed with me. I will inflate my lungs like a puffer fish. I’ll do it like I’m reading a manual that tells you how to do so. I’ll often be reduced to breathing through my mouth. It is my least favorite way to obtain oxygen. Whilst I rarely hyperventilate anymore—my relationship with breath and the asphyxiating, claustrophobic sensation that arises when I cannot breathe—can be temporarily cured by poetry. It has a very particular way of filtering out the toxic. It turns moments into little films. Snapshots are taken in words. Poems are paintings of people or places that I would never recall otherwise. I am documenting my life in poetry. They are deeper than the other things that function around me. Without the descent I do not know how I would have risen back to the surface sometimes.

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I don’t write poetry unless it comes to me. I won’t hassle it. It turns up when it wants and then I write it. Since I was seven years old this process has traveled with me. I wrote a poetry collection at that age for absolutely no reason at all. I was living in a caravan and growing up in the care system. Have I mentioned I moved over 30 times by the age of 16? The only constant to travel with me was this terrible relationship with breathing and of course—my poetry. It has always been there. It has never left me. Poetry is my first principle. It has no fear. It’s the cleverest part of my brain. It is beyond me and so far ingrained in who I am that I have no desire to examine it too clearly. It is a way of being. I see the world like a poet all the time. Everything I write comes from that core. To me a novel is no different to a poem. It is longer. I approach it with more coherence at times. If I make a film then its foundations shall be built from poetry.

Leonora Carrington wrote about seeing via the microscope in one hand, the macroscope in the other. Poetry does this better than any other form.

In Wallace Stevens’ poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” in one stanza he says, Among twenty snowy mountains, / the only moving thing / was the eye of the blackbird. We think we are looking at this vast landscape and within three lines we realize we are only seeing its reflection in the tiny eye of a bird.

I see poetry everywhere. In people. Places. Landscapes. Situations no matter how harsh or beautiful. I am exceptionally grateful that it has settled in me so long. I will never turn it from the door. If a poem wants written at 3 am I get up. If it turns up every morning then I delay breakfast. When I travel I am always ready, scanning the world for the next moment that will have me reaching for my pen. I have a deep respect for the process and I won’t shine too bright a light on it.

I haven’t been reading much this last year since a very old friend died. But I read from my new poetry collection There’s a Witch in the Word Machine at Shakespeare and Co, a few nights ago. The place was absolutely full and as each poem took its moment, we journeyed collectively through love, lust, loss, fear, anger, betrayal, humor and hope. For a short time in our day we could all. . .  just breathe.

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The preceding is from the Freeman’s channel at Literary Hub, which features excerpts from the print editions of Freeman’s, along with supplementary writing from contributors past, present and future. The latest issue of Freeman’s, a special edition gathered around the theme of power, featuring work by Margaret Atwood, Elif Shafak, Eula Biss, Aleksandar Hemon and Aminatta Forna, among others, is available now.

Jenni Fagan
Jenni Fagan
Jenni Fagan is an award-winning poet, novelist and screenwriter. She has adapted her debut novel The Panopticon for Sixteen Films, which will be released next year. Fagan also wrote the theatre adaptation for National Theatre Scotland which will debut in November. She is the author of one other novel, and several collections including Urchin Belle, The Dead Queen of Bohemia, and There's a Witch in the Word Machine. A collection called Truth will be out in Autumn 2019, a single book-length poem written on a three week road trip across America. Fagan was previously Writer in Residence at The University of Edinburgh, she has also worked widely with those in prison, in the care system or from under privileged backgrounds. Her third novel The Luckenbooth is due out in June 2020.





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