Writing a toolbox

When I speak to people about the similarities I see in working with wood and writing poems I generally get two responses, or faces. There’s the ‘Head-tilted-to-one-side, small-lopsided-smile, trying-hard-to-not-furrow-a-brow-in-confusion-Face’, and there is the ‘Eyes-wide, smile-wide, mind-wide Face’. I understand both faces. My God, I pull both of them, and often when I’m writing.

But the fact is, there are similarities. In the same way that that are comparisons between other art forms, there are similarities between craft and art (and when I say art, I include literature). If I said to you there are clear analogies between painting a picture and drafting poems (sketching out, applying paint or words, scraping back or re-working), you’d likely agree. Both are the Arts. Both have a cerebral as well as physical connection with the material and the work being produced.

There are some connections that are easier to make than others

Renaissance humanism taught us to elevate artists over craftsmen and women, so when we think of lacemaking, embroidery, metalworking, woodworking (especially functional woodworking – furniture etc.), we might not imagine a method of thinking and engagement shared with visual artists, writers and poets. I’d like to point out at this juncture, by the way, that a masterpiece is what an apprentice produces at the end of their apprenticeship. It’s what they make to prepare to become a master – painter, craftsman, goldsmith. It’s a guild and academy term. A crafts term before an art term.

Drafting a Toolbox

Before I started my woodworking class in Pleasley, Mansfield, I believed deeply in the intelligence and art of craftwork. But I was so struck by how similar the process of working both wood and words is, that when I was making a toolbox out of pine, it felt like I was writing it. I drafted the box, using scraps to test my skills and markings out; I listened to the wood; felt it; tried to understand how and where it wanted to go. I roughed it out, cleaned it up. Smoothed it. Polished it. My teacher, John, absolutely got what I was saying when I talked to him about this. He’d spent 30 years making cabinets, furniture, boats, musical instruments out of wood. I’d argue he was making poems.

A couple of processes

Let me take you through a process: I have a piece of wood. It’s called a blank. At this moment, it could be anything. I put in on a bench, take a newly sharpened plane to it. The plane is called a Jack plane (this appeals to my vanity, being a Jacque myself). I’m trying to take off any roughness, any curves or warps in the wood. I’m trying to make it straight, flat and workable. Getting rid of the waste. This is the first draft. I lay down my materials, take my tools to strip it out. I have an idea of what I want to make, but the wood might have other ideas, so I look, feel, measure, cut. Tell me this isn’t a poem.

Leaning how to saw is hard. Your stance is not the stance you might expect; not head-on in front of the wood, it’s at a slant to it. You stand to one side and run the saw almost across your body. Let the weight of the tools and your arm do the work; your hand controls the pressure, the direction of the cut. You will lean into or away from the saw, you will try to look over the blade, which will skew the cut. What you won’t do straight away, because you don’t expect to, is to get your eye right down to the wood, to see how the cut is going. You should do this as you saw. With care, it’s not dangerous. At first you try to force the passes, saw too quickly and too rigorously. When you slow down, find what I call the Zen, then the sawing is easier. The lines straighter, perhaps, if you’re cutting a straight line.

Learning how to plane is hard. It takes strength. The direction of the cut is not what you expect it to be. It comes across the wood at a diagonal. This way you level better, tear less wood out. Sometimes it’s right to go against the grain. You’ll be tempted to run out too much of the blade, to take out more wood quicker. You’ll get track marks and gouge marks and have to do twice as much work, but actually that’s okay, you’re learning. I’m learning, too. I love planing. I love the peaceful state it brings(the Zen, again), the way you have to keep adjusting the blade to work with the grain. The wood smells heavenly (especially pine), and when you’ve taken a smoothing plane to it (and a cabinet scraper) it feels heavenly too.

I have taken a blank, sawn, planed, measured it, and I have perhaps the first piece of a bookcase, a shelf, a bench hook, a toolbox, a bookend. It might take me months to make something. If I mess it up, I can repair it. There are arcane techniques.

Let me take you through a process: I have a page on my computer screen. A blank page. At this moment it could be anything. I put some words down. I don’t know I’m doing with them, I don’t need to know yet. I have an idea of what they might turn into, but the words might have other ideas, so I write, write, write. Then I look. I listen: for patterns, shapes. I try to see where the poem might be. I don’t always get there, but I’m listening, looking, feeling. I start to strip out the waste, make cuts. I work and clean the poem, coming at it at an angle, running against the grain. It takes months. I get my eye right down to the detail. I hold my breath. I’m in that space, that Zen, where things seem to be working. Learning to edit is hard. Identifying the words to keep, the ones to change or delete a challenge. There is intuition there, but craft too; accepting that what you’ve written might not be working, might be over-written, might, however beautiful, not serve the poem at all. At first you try to force the editing, cutting too quickly and too rigorously. Sometimes it’s not just a matter of cutting something out, editing can also be about re-envisioning the line, the rhyme scheme, the form, or even sometimes the whole poem. With care, it’s not dangerous (but it can be). After the waste has been discarded, comes the polishing. And when it’s finished it reads beautifully.

I have taken a blank page, filled it with words, cut, measured, re-shaped, brought in research, cut, polished, and I have perhaps the first poem of a sequence. It might take me months to make something. If I mess it up, I can repair it. There are arcane techniques. Tools, too.


‘Writing a Toolbox’ is part of a mini-series of blogs for the Dovetail Sonnets project, looking at the writing process, woodworking, foresting in the UK & abroad, and climate change.

Dovetail sonnets: Time to Write is supported by Developing Your Creative Practice funding from Arts Council England.

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