Looking through my MA reading journal (titled 'The Incredible Shrinking Novel') I realise how often Anna gave me small gifts about the art of writing that I stored away and have fallen back on many times since. The one I remember most clearly was an epiphany about the use of precise description to reveal a sudden startling insight into character. What someone once referred to as describing the coffin not the grief. Here's what I wrote back then:
I've just read Anna's description of her father cutting her nails. She has an ambivalent relationship with him but Anna doesn’t say that, she talks about how he cut the nails – pure and simple.
She’s 19, he holds the nails tightly but still there’s a 'doddery imprecision', he has high quality Swedish nail scissors. He seems controlling, perfectionist, cold, detached. She never uses those words. It is a triumph this paragraph.
I have learnt a lot from Anna’s strange, prickly, clever essays especially her character studies. I enjoyed too an apposite quote she included from Ingmar Bergman regarding how art lost its way when it became separate from worship.
Approaching the poem, I was determined to be more honest in my writing – this came fresh off the back of Anna’s startling honesty last week in her False Starts assignment. The statement that resonated for all of us was: I want to be above reproach. This referred to how her work was viewed by the class.
It struck me then how engaging honesty is in writing, just as it is in people we meet. It has a nice way of making the reader complicit with the author: ‘look here’s a secret.’ I realise I was far more open when I was first writing years ago, but have learnt over the years to make more use of, what Bill Manhire calls, a ‘foliage of words.’ Maybe there’s more to protect as one gets older.
Regarding poetry being ‘complicated’, Anna pointed out sometimes we are sated with indirectness and implication and need something more concrete, and to explore bigger issues head on. [Later note: there is some irony in this as in a matter of days Anna will have her baby.]
Dad would stand on my right-hand side with his quality Swedish nail scissors, and hold each finger quite tightly as he cut it. He had a slightly doddery imprecision. He would purse his lips in concentration, and then run his thumb over the newly cut edge as if to feel for burrs or rough spots after each nail had been cut. The nails would drop down two storeys to the concrete below.
Anna Sanderson, Brainpark [VUP 2006]