‘…the values of creative work…’

‘Often when my friends pronounce responsibility about the values of creative work I experience a loss of contact. I want at such times to voice what may appear to be an antagonism, maybe even a wilful stupidity, about “culture.” To “learn the tools of writing,” to “understand the essentials of the craft,” to “base my practice on models that have proved to be fundamentally sound” – these apparently winsome and admirable phrases put me in a bleak mood. When I  write, grammar is my enemy; the materials of my craft come at me in a succession of emergencies in which my feelings are ambivalent; I do not have any commitments, just opportunities. Not the learning of methods, not the broadening of culture, not even the preserving of civilization (there may be greater things than civilizations), but a kind of dizzying struggle with the Now-ness of experience, that is my involvement in writing. And I believe it is this interaction between imagination and its embodiment as it develops which sustains the speaker and the writer – and sustains the artist in other materials.’

– William Stafford, Writing the Australian Crawl

Poetry Pick #1: Jennifer Copley, ‘Beans in Snow’

‘In fairy tales, only the good fairy wears wings.’

But in Jennifer Copley’s darkly enchanting collection, Beans in Snow, good fairies are few and far between.

Far from the Disney fairies we have grown all too used to (fairies of good magic and household spells, who ensure that true love triumphs in the end), Copley’s collection returns us to the original and unsettling nature of fairy stories: told to disquiet, and even at times to scare. This is a world where beans in snow ‘won’t grow’, where ‘brothers and sisters get separated’, and where ‘children, smelling of gingerbread, cry out to them from cages’.

Copley’s poems whisper dark suggestions to their reader. They display such a control over the stories they reference that, much of the time, we are unsure whether the unsettling occurrence has taken place in the poem itself or in the unexplored caverns of our own imagination. The poems are filled with unanswered questions; we are the ones who must provide the answers, and they are not pleasant ones.

However, Copley is not tied to the realm of the fairy tale. Perhaps the most disturbing, and at the same time most beautiful, aspect of the book is the way it blurs fiction with biography. In the second and third sections of Beans in Snow, Copley writes about the loss of her own brother, who died in his late forties. We see Copley’s own pain in the context of the darkness of the stories. Snow (standing in for death, blankness, and eventually a new start) is a recurring theme. As the collection’s titular poem states: ‘Beans in snow won’t grow’.

But the collection ends on a hopeful note. The third section begins with a poem entitled ‘First Night in Heaven’. This section follows Copley’s brother after death. Here, we witness Copley’s creation of a fairy tale of her own. Building on the first two sections, this final one shows how stories (as well as being dark warnings against wandering alone in the forest) can be a way of healing. In the stories we create ourselves, Copley seems to be telling us, there can always be hope.

Beans in Snow is a beautiful, dark, funny and emotive collection. It draws on traditional fairy stories, but in a way that targets a modern reader. What emerges is the potential to create our own stories and our own potential endings. In the same way that Copley works so skilfully on our imaginations in the first part of the book, she also shows us the power of our own creativity in understanding our own misfortunes.

Giants and Snow Queens there may be, but there is also hope, and the good fairy of our own imagination.

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This Poetry Pick was chosen by Katie Hale, founder of [insert text here].

Born in Cumbria, Katie’s first story (written aged four and entitled It’s Not Fair) received much critical acclaim from indulgent parents and well-wishing neighbours. Since then she has been published in Velour, anthologies 11 Poets and Above Water, and university magazine The Jam, and has twice won the Anne Pierson Award. She spent a year living in Melbourme, and is about to move to St Andrews to begin a Masters in Creative Writing.

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Related sites:

http://www.jennifercopley.co.uk/

http://www.smokestack-books.co.uk/book.php?book=21

Poem: ‘Fairy Tales’

Poem: ‘Coma’

Poem: ‘Princess’

What Are Poets For?

‘What are poets for in our brave new millennium? Could it be to remind the next few generations that it is we who have the power to determine whether the earth will sing or be silent? As earth’s own poetry, symbolized for Keats in the grasshopper and the cricket, is drowned ever deeper – not merely by bulldozers in the forest, but more insidiously by the uniquitous susurrus of cyberspace – so there will be an ever greater need to retain a place in culture, in the work of human imagining, for the song that names the earth.’

– Jonathan Bate, The Song of the Earth

‘It is the poet who goes further than any human scientist…’

‘It is the poet who goes further than any human scientist. The poet who with her dredging net must haul up difficult things and return them to the present. As she does this, the reader will begin to recognise parts of herself so nearly buried that they seem to have been buried from birth. She will be able to hear clearly the voices that have whispered at her for so many years. Some of those voices will prove false, she will perhaps learn to fear her own fears. The attendant personalities that are clinically labelled as schizophrenia, can be brought into a harmonious balance. It is not necessart to be shut up in one self, to grind through life like an ox at a mill, always treading the same ground. Human beings are capable of powered flight; we can travel across ourselves and find that self multiple and vast. The artist knows this: at the same time that art is prising away old dead structures that have rusted almost unnoticed into our flesh, art is pushing at the boundaries we thought were fixed. The convenient lies fall; the only boundaries are the boundaries of our imagination.’

– Jeanette Winterson, ‘The Semiotics of Sex’, in Art Objects