poetry

The Food of Love

You’ll be eager to know how the Ilkley Literature Festival Fringe event went, no doubt, if you read last week’s post about the preparations. It was every bit as wonderful as I’d dared to hope, and then some.

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OneMonkey took loads of photos of us

The sun was warm, the breeze not too strong (though we did have a moment of concern with the pages of music at one point – mostly the clothes pegs and bulldog clips did their job). Past and present members of Ilkley Writers turned up to support us, and a couple of Wharfedale Poets for good measure. Add in the various other friends and family, festival-goers and passers-by and we had an impressively large audience – I did a rough headcount at some point and got to 60, the steward thinks there were 70 (plus 4 dogs) – sitting on benches, standing on the grass and generally having a pleasant Saturday lunchtime.

For those interested in glimpses behind the scenes, here’s a photo of a couple of pages of my script (it happens to be the end of the pop song tribute, Variations on the theme of young love):

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Stage directions are hand-written so I don’t accidentally read them out, and there’s a list of the pieces that come after that and before my next one.

Everyone seemed to enjoy it, several came up afterwards to tell us so. I was still excited hours later, but that might partly be relief that it didn’t rain, nothing blew away, and the audience could hear us OK. Emily and I spent the rest of the day with tunes from each other’s pieces stuck in our heads, and I’ve inspired Keely to dig out some cassettes from her youth. If you’ve been round here a while you’ll know how much music means to me (hence, I suppose, this entire event) so I’m feeling pretty pleased with myself.

The general cry was ‘When can we do it again?’ so plans are already afoot. If any of them involve a recording I’ll point you at it, but in the meantime I’ll leave you with another picture of us and you can either remember what a lovely time we all had, or imagine what it was like to be there.

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Roz York, Emily Devane, and JY Saville in her trusty old biker jacket (Black Sabbath hoodie hidden by music stand)

Musically accompanied at the fringe

Remember that homage to the 3-minute pop song I told you I was writing, back in July? Well, that and the other pieces by me, Emily Devane and Rosalind York are all ready for our event at the Ilkley Literature Festival fringe this Saturday lunchtime, The Food of Love. Did you spot the mention of live music? That’s the ultra-exciting bit, which meant we went to a rehearsal this week at Karen the violinist’s house, and were blown away by musical interpretation.

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Thanks to Karen’s husband for this photo of Emily, Roz and I hard at work (aka drinking tea, playing with the dog, and listening to the musicians)

When I floated the idea of this event (based on a throwaway remark from Emily, months before the fringe application deadline) I had no idea what kind of musical accompaniment we’d have, but between us we knew a few people who might agree to collaborate so we sent the application in and decided to worry about detail if we got selected.

When we heard we’d been given a slot in the programme, Roz suggested asking Keely Hodgson if she and her cello would like to be involved. We all know her from her Purple Room showcase of local musicians and writers (in fact we all read there in June) and I like the sound of a cello, though I still had no idea what form the musical end would take. Keely invited her violinist friend Karen Vaughan into the mix and I had even less clue what the final performance would sound like.

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Karen and Keely genuinely hard at work (thanks again to Karen’s husband for the photo)

We sent Keely our stories and poems, shuffled into some sort of order, and left her to mull it over and discuss it with Karen. What with holidays, work and other commitments we didn’t manage to get together until ten days before the performance! I was nervous as well as excited when I entered the room but as they played the first few bars for Roz to recite her first poem over, I knew this was going to be fantastic.

Keely has chosen just the right music for each piece, and arranged it for herself and Karen so that it works brilliantly. We spent several hours drinking Karen’s tea, reading and re-reading our pieces aloud, while the two musicians experimented with cutting, repeating, playing in different styles. They now have cues written on their scores, like ‘repeat until Poland’, and of course being a writer I made a note of fabulous questions like: Is Carol waking up in a sweat before or after I come in?

I wrote about the benefits of writing with a partner when Roz and I wrote a radio script together, back in March, and I can highly recommend collaborating with musicians as well. Seeing how someone else interprets your work, and hearing it acquire an extra dimension with a punctuating score is magical. If any of you are within striking distance of Ilkley at 1pm on the 29th of September, come along and share the magic at the bandstand on The Grove. It’s free, open air (fingers crossed for a dry day) and unticketed.

 

A blurring of poetry and prose

I read a few pieces of flash fiction in the pub last night and they seemed to go down well. I don’t mean I had one too many shandies and jumped on a table with a sheaf of paper in my hand, this was an event I’d jointly organised on behalf of Ilkley Writers, with the Wharfedale Poets. Between us we’ve got a clutch of published writers (of novels, short stories, poetry and non-fiction), and the talent on show reflected that. A reasonable audience turned out on a Sunday night for us, and I think everyone enjoyed themselves. We had poetry from Tony Barringer, Jenny Dixon, Yvette Huddleston, Colin Speakman, Mike Farren, Dave Hesmondhalgh and Fiona Williams, with prose from Mandy Sutter (a Wharfedale Poet with a short story collection out soon), Emily Devane, Fleur Speakman, Rachel Hagan, Andrea Hardaker, and me. I re-used the fab performance book I made a couple of years ago, which is ok as long as I don’t turn over two pages and start reading a story from some previous event.

Afterwards, I ended up talking to a couple of the poets about the blurred boundary between flash fiction and less structured poetry. I’m not keen on labels, as a rule – I just write stuff and see what happens. Admittedly I have trouble finding where to submit some of it…

I have, however, submitted a story inspired by John Mayall’s Blues Breakers album with Eric Clapton to The RS500, where they’re slowly releasing writing inspired by each of Rolling Stone’s top 500 albums, and it’s due out this week. I’ll put the link here when it’s available.

Bits that fell off the cat

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On the stairs to our flat there are 2 beech leaves and some mud.

In the hallway there is a small slug making a break for freedom.

On the pristine purple carpet in the living room, vacuumed only half an hour earlier, there are several pieces of spiky bush, some more mud, and some moss. There is now enough fur on the armchair to stuff a small cushion.

In the bedroom there is a piece of hawthorn twig. On the bed, damp leaves and fur. Underneath my pillow (how?) is a buttercup seed, all the better to give me golden dreams.

The cat likes to blur the boundaries between inside and out. He lets us enjoy the garden on a cold, wet day.

Either that or he’s on commission from a cleaning company.

Morrissey’s infamous novel List of the Lost

I wavered for a while but in the end I couldn’t resist List of the Lost, Morrissey’s 2015 novel, particularly after enjoying his autobiography so much. I’d heard a lot about it but not what it was about, everyone had been so busy writing about the author and his style, and there was no synopsis on the paperback cover. For the first 42 of its 118 pages (that being where I gave up on it) List of the Lost is ostensibly about four young men in a relay team in 1975, in America. What it might really be about is a love of words, a hymn to lost youth, a regret for inexpert fumblings both in the arena of lust (physical) and love (mental).

It’s not so much a novel as one long (no chapters), melancholy (naturally) Morrissey song, supply your own music. There are flashes of lyrical brilliance, there’s some good imagery but as a piece of prose it’s overblown and hard to read, you end up breathless. It kind of wants to be a poem, and it spreads its poetic wordage like weeds across the pages, becoming uncontrolled and a touch repetitive. The dialogue is far from realistic but I didn’t get the impression that it was meant to be.

I have a feeling that if it was written by some lauded writer it would be nodded sagely over and dissected by undergraduates, whereas from Morrissey (a mere pop singer) it’s dismissed (and I veer towards the latter as the correct response in both cases). Either way I couldn’t finish it, but that’s at least as much to do with my complete lack of interest in narcissistic young American athletes as the way it’s written.

Approach with caution (borrow it from your local library, as I did, rather than buying a copy) but it may hold interest both for the Morrissey fans and the melancholy poets.

Ilkley Literature Festival: parting notes

This year’s festival finished over a week ago and I’m still catching up with the things that were put aside because of it, the notes I wrote during it, and the thoughts I meant to write down but never did (which have been buzzing round my head with decreasing energy ever since). You can tell how much catching up I need to do by the fact that the first line said ‘finished on Sunday’ when I started to write this post…

I took part in the Open Mic on the final Sunday evening. An interesting experience and I’m glad I tried it, but I wouldn’t do it again with prose. 16 of the 19 performers were poets, the judges were poets, the compere was a poet, and even the email said ‘you have been chosen to read your poetry’ (which gave me a moment of panic when I got it). So reading a comic fantasy story that took all but 4 seconds of the allotted 3 minutes did make me feel a little out of place. One chap did a humorous monologue on changing his life, with the refrain ‘it’s not for me’ – which I found myself saying at appropriate junctures last week, with a laugh (when the person offering you a slice of cake hasn’t heard the monologue, you just come across as odd). There was also a fabulous poem about spades, bane of poets because you have to call a spade a spade.

Two weeks ago I went to see Mark Thomas, who sometimes seems to do things just to get a rise out of people, but more often than not there’s a point to it and he causes change. And he’s very funny. I confess I was a little uncomfortable when he seemed to be saying that it’s all one big art project, a sort of performance and participation art. How is a gruff northern ‘modern art? It’s just an empty room with faulty light fittings’ socialist supposed to reconcile that with Mark Thomas being an angry, funny, long-standing left-wing activist who makes a difference?

There were a few other events I either didn’t enjoy enough or didn’t understand enough to write about here, and I’ve probably forgotten deeply insightful things I thought in the gaps between events (festival time does involve a lot of waiting around). However, that’s all for this year. The festival blog is apparently spreading its event reviews over the next couple of months rather than putting them all up in an exciting flurry (don’t ask me why), so you can continue to discover new views on the events over there for a while yet.

Review round-up

There’s a new review from me at The Bookbag, of Margery Allingham’s Police at the Funeral (an Albert Campion novel). Probably worth a look if you like your crime semi-cosy and irreverent (Father Brown, Lord Peter Wimsey for instance). I’m taking a short break from The Bookbag to concentrate on the Ilkley Literature Festival for a bit – I’m still reading books I got interested in via last year’s festival, and this year’s is less than a week away.

Cover of The Good Children by Roopa Farooki

I recently read The Good Children by Roopa Farooki, which has been on my To Read list since I saw her at last year’s festival. The novel was long and engaging, essentially a family saga of four siblings (two brothers, two sisters) from Lahore. They’re born into an ‘old money’ Muslim family before Partition, and the novel follows them for sixty or seventy years as they spread out and develop their own lives and families, yet are still caught in their mother’s web back at the ancestral home. I found some of the siblings more fleshed-out as characters than others, but I like the way chapters are from one sibling’s point of view, and there may be another sibling’s view of the same event given in another chapter which doesn’t always match. Read it if you’re interested in Partition, culture clashes, the effects of separation on family ties, and the intrinsic similarities between apparently different siblings.

I also read some poetry (gasp!), as mentioned here recently. Specifically I read Glad to Wear Glasses a 1990 collection from John Hegley who I couldn’t get tickets to see at his last local event (probably Bradford Words in the City earlier this year). I’ve heard (and enjoyed) his quirky, gently funny poetry on BBC radio plenty of times so I thought reading this collection might be easy and fun. Sadly, much of it felt to me like reading the script for someone’s stand-up comedy show. Without his delivery (which for some poems I remembered hearing, and for others I could at least imagine) it fell a bit flat, and some poems were more like one-liners anyway. Disappointing, but I’ll just file this in ‘poetry that I don’t enjoy reading’, stick to listening to John Hegley on the radio, and move on to reading some other stuff.

Expect more reviews or mini-reviews of books related to the Ilkley Literature Festival over the next couple of weeks, and possibly reviews of the events themselves. Since The Pickled Egg festival review website is no more (felled by a virus, too expensive and complicated to cure) reviews will probably appear here rather than anywhere else. Phew, now to go rehearse my story for our Fringe event again.

Petrified by proper poetry

A good five years ago I thought I’d lost my affinity for poetry, though more recently I decided maybe I’d just been reading the wrong kind of stuff. In the meantime I started using haikus as writing exercises but that was as close to writing poetry as I got.

Recently we talked about poetry at an Ilkley Writers meeting. There were a couple of poets present, but a few of us were in the ‘frightened of poetry’ camp. Frightened of the rules, frightened of getting it wrong, of being found out by ‘real’ poets, sounding pretentious and making fools of ourselves. We’d all been put off poetry at school, with sonnets and rigid rhyming schemes, then looked at ‘grown up’ poetry with no rhyme or reason (sorry…) and felt completely adrift. I quite like rhyming poetry, I said, and someone else (who’s keen to start writing poetry) agreed. I suggested, if she wants to write poetry and is having trouble, why not try rhymes? Rhyming poetry’s for kids though, she replied. And there lies one of the problems.

If anyone’s familiar with the Hancock’s Half Hour episode The Poetry Society from 1959, they will know where I’m coming from. Proper poetry for grown ups must be deep and serious, must not contain any rhymes, and absolutely on pain of death must not be intelligible to the casual reader on the first run through. If performed, it should be intoned with plenty of pauses and a frown. The casual listener (of which there will be few) should be made to feel like the dunce at the back of the English class.

Thankfully, this is not universally true, as I’ve been discovering lately, but it’s been true often enough (or has seemed true, at least) that some of us have taken it on board and shied away. One of the group (not a poet, but not frightened of poetry, in fact he’d just written a humorous rhyming poem about Charles Darwin’s sojourn in Ilkley) pointed out that popular poetry, the stuff that engages audiences and sells festival tickets, is usually funny and may or may not rhyme, by the likes of John Hegley and Roger McGough (he didn’t mention Pam Ayres but I guess she’s a popular entertainer poet too. Personally, I’ve never got past her accent but I applaud her use of it – more people should keep their regional accents). A poet in our group told me lots of modern poetry rhymed: WH Auden and Tony Harrison to name two. Tony Harrison had come up in conversation elsewhere that week, to do with dialect (of which undoubtedly more later) so I ordered a book of his poetry at my local library and I’ll see how it goes. While I was there I picked up a slim volume by Helen Burke, whose poetry I’d enjoyed at a reading a few months earlier. I may be beginning to lose my poetry fear.

John Hegley and Helen Burke poetry books

August and the disruption of routines

This week it feels like pretty much everyone (except me) is on holiday. On a train where people are usually standing in the aisles, I’ve had an empty seat beside me every day. The building I work in is quiet, little footfall on the stairs, no banging of doors or ringing phones. The library at lunchtime is almost deserted.

Partly because I’m in a writing lull brought on by the lethargy of warm summer days and partly because I’ve got the opportunity, I’m shaking it up a bit, not sitting in my regular seat. Yesterday I was among distracting art books, today I walked past the tempting colours of an enormous book on stained glass and settled in an alcove of poetry and plays. A wall of Shakespeare to one side, and Milton, Donne and Marvell to the other.

Investigating my surroundings – which, after all, was the point of sitting somewhere new – I felt slightly guilty to notice several names on the Milton et al wall that I didn’t recognise. I don’t always remember the names of authors even when I’ve read a novel of theirs, but I find that particularly with poetry or short stories the name doesn’t have time to imprint in my mind so it’s not necessarily a sign that I’m unfamiliar with their work (though that’s probably the case as well, here). Having re-attempted poetry recently (reading it, not writing it) after a long period of apathy or confusion, I’ve come to the conclusion that I hadn’t flicked my poetry off-switch as I’d thought, I was just reading the wrong poetry.

A couple of months ago I picked up a book helpfully titled Modern Poetry (post-WW1 to the sixties, I think) and started reading one or two poems per evening. I spent enough time to reflect on subject and language but not so long that it started to feel like I was dissecting the poem. If, after that reflection, I still didn’t get it I moved on and accepted that one poet (or maybe even one poem) wasn’t for me. Along the way I’ve discovered that I like some poets I’d never heard of, I don’t like a few whose names were familiar, and interestingly I already knew a few poems by poets I would claim never to have come across (and whose names have already escaped me again, but now I know where to look them up, at least). Maybe tomorrow I should return to the poetry and plays alcove, pick an unknown and dive in.

Punk poets and free samples

You’d think the free fringe events at the Ilkley Literature Festival would draw big crowds. After all, they’re free and they let you sample authors and styles you might not otherwise encounter. Sadly the audience is often a bit thin on the ground, and sometimes that makes me feel sorry for the people on the stage, but last night I felt more sorry for the citizens of Ilkley who missed out on Henry Raby.

Henry Raby’s a punk poet and he’s from Yorkshire – none of you will be in the least surprised that I went to see him, or enjoyed the performance immensely. And performance is definitely the word for it – a veritable one-man theatre piece, sustained for almost an hour with heart and soul and angst and humour. Long narrative sections interspersed with fierce poetry and the occasional character monologue came together to tell the story of a teenager on his first protest march in London (complete with cagoule and packed lunch), and ended in a love poem.

This was easily the best fringe event I’ve been to at the Ilkley Literature Festival this year (ever?). When the teenage hero pulls out a sheaf of poems on the march and says they’re more dangerous than the bricks someone’s thinking of chucking, I’m almost prepared to believe it’s true. “When the revolution comes, there’ll be no more students because we’ll all be learning all the time”: if only, Mr Raby. If only.

Poetry on the wrong day

Today’s National Poetry Day, so I’m told, so it seems wholly inappropriate of me to decide against going to a poetry reading tonight. Nevertheless, I have: it’s been a busy week and it’s shaping up to be a busy weekend so I’m taking a break to get things done. Like writing a delayed blog post.

I did go see Benjamin Zephaniah on Sunday, however, at the Ilkley Literature Festival, and it was like no poetry reading I’ve been to before. More like a gig, in fact. And he didn’t read anything, he spoke it, often with his eyes closed (or so it seemed from my seat near the back of the hall). Anger, passion, love, humour and politics all bound up in driving rhythm. If all poetry was like that, I could see myself getting back into it.

Every month is writing month

Today, rather late in the month, I’ve come across the idea of National Poetry Writing Month. Write a poem a day throughout April. Superficially, that sounds much easier than my story a day challenge last month (I have another 3 or 4 of those finished off and polished now, so they’re not all hanging around in the half-written pile as long as I thought they might) but writing good poetry is hard. Nevertheless, as I said a while ago, you could do worse than a daily haiku as a writing exercise so it might be worth joining in for the last few days. I can’t say I come up with a haiku every morning, but I do fairly frequently and most of them are rubbish (it does seem to kickstart the brain though). I’ll share yesterday’s with you, the reader; it may inspire you to greater things:

Trees like standing stones
Rise from misty valley,
Cushioned in wet smoke.

Fun with haiku (haikus?)

I’ve said before that English wasn’t my strongest or most-loved subject at school, and I’ve also mentioned recently that my poetry button seems to be broken, or at best faulty. OneMonkey has tried several times to explain the delights of iambic pentameter, to which I have responded with a blank look that suggests I’m listening but not really taking anything on board.

However, I have now discovered the joy of the haiku. To my knowledge (though friend T may correct me) it’s not something I came across at school, and even now I’m not about to sit down and read a whole book of them. A haiku, though, is more than just a tiny poem with rules: it is a writing exercise.

Imagine trying to distil a description of a scene down to three lines. Now imagine you’re only allowed a certain number of syllables in each line. What do you keep? What’s just trimming, and what constitutes the essence? It’s like writing a text message (I don’t know about your phone, but mine allows me 120 characters), discarding unnecessary words, rifling the thesaurus in your head for something shorter that means the same thing.

In Writing Fiction by Linda Anderson and Derek Neale (which I think is a highly useful book) they suggest a daily haiku for a quick brain workout: 3 lines, 5-7-5 syllables, showing a natural object or scene. It’s short, it can be done during your teabreak, on the bus, sitting on the toilet if you like (plenty of people do the crossword) but it keeps that all-important writing muscle flexing. I’m not saying every (or any) haiku you or I write in this way will be good, or would pass muster with a poet (or even an English teacher), but it makes you think, it makes you look at things in a particular way, and it can be fun.

Steaming mug of tea –
Hand-warming, comforting weight.
Book poised and ready.

That’s me right now. Sayonara.