Remote Control

Regular readers will know I run Hotchpotch, an open-mike night for writers.

Earlier this month, we not only celebrated ten years as a group, but we managed to have our last gig before all the pubs were ordered to close on Monday 23 March. This attracted a sizeable crowd under the circumstances.

We’d planned to reconvene on Monday 13 April, but that’s almost definitely off the table. I’d always half-joked that if we ever had no venue, we’d meet up in the street. It’s not something we’ve ever needed to do, and – considering the nature of the threat – wouldn’t be appropriate.

So if we want this night to continue, we need to move temporarily online, as many poets and musicians have done. Our challenge is somewhat larger: we don’t just have one or two writers, but easily 30 or 40.

While mulling over the problem, I remembered we use a GMail account and that Google gives us a YouTube profile with that. So over the next two weeks, we’ll invite members to send in videos of themselves reading their work and post it to the channel.

It won’t be a patch on the vibe that happens when we all assemble, but it’ll keep us going until this lockdown is eased.

I also run a separate writing group every Tuesday evening as part of National Novel Writing Month; this also can’t meet because of the restrictions.

In this case, we’d already set up a Discord server where members can chat via text. Last week, we set up a voice channel alongside the text, and we were able to speak to each other, almost as if we were in the same room.

Playing it by Ear

About a month ago, I bought my partner an audiobook through Audible as she prefers them over paper or e-books. I also received a credit to use in exchange for an audiobook of my choice.

After some deliberation, I picked the J G Ballard novel Crash. With a running time of six hours, it was shorter than many other novels and a good introduction to the format, this one spoken in the calm and almost factual manner in which the author writes.

When hearing something on the radio or in a live setting, there’s no opportunity to recap what you’ve missed. Yet when listening to Crash, I found myself many times pressing the button to skip back 30 seconds.

It is true that if I were to let my mind wander, I would soon be able to grasp a sense of what had just happened. The novel is a heavily descriptive one, going into detail about the curve of the motorway embankment or the injuries sustained by the characters.

I’m already accustomed to listening to podcasts. I found it easier to listen to a single voice on an audiobook, as podcast hosts often talk over each other. That said, with the opportunity to repeat the previous half-minute, I wanted to dwell upon each word and to confirm my own understanding of what had just happened. I only made an exception if it were too inconvenient to reach the controls.

I am keen to listen to more audiobooks, as I enjoyed being free to work or to wash dishes at the same time. I reckon the more I do it, the less I’ll be inclined to rewind what I’ve just heard, so I’m still checking Audible every so often for other appealing titles.

Say It Like You Mean It

If you know anything about the town of Falkirk, you’ll probably have heard about one of its landmarks: giant statues of two horse heads known as the Kelpies. I visited the statues a couple of years ago, led by a tour guide.

Most guides would give a factual description of when the statues were built, how high they are, how many tons of metal were involved in the construction, and so forth. Instead, this one was a great storyteller, reeling us all in with a tale about the mythology of the Kelpies in Scottish culture, weaving in the facts and figures as he went along.

It’s this type of passion that makes for a good performer. Most writers and poets do infuse that into their stage presence – but I have seen a few who recite their words with little emotion. It’s particularly jarring when an event host flatly reads from a piece of paper that they are ‘very excited to welcome’ their guest.

I understand it can be difficult to stir up as much enthusiasm for a piece you’ve read a hundred times. Yet it might only be the first or second time the audience has heard it, so it needs to sound fresh. The best technique is to try to think about the meaning of the words as you read, and to make a conscious effort to pace and emphasise them.

Off the top of my head, I can’t think of another tour guide who was so memorable, but because he was so engaging, I’ll always remember the one who took me around the Kelpies.

Line Breaks

Last week, I was at the StAnza poetry festival in St Andrews, where I’ve been going for around five years. Most of the events are centred around the Byre Theatre, where you can immerse yourself in verse for five days.

This year, I saw shows featuring: Tim Turnbull, my pal Angie Strachan, foreign-language verse, and even meditation. I also entered an open-mike and the Slam contest where the winner will go on to compete with other poets from around Scotland, and spent time reading and listening to the ambient displays around the Byre.

But it’s difficult to listen to a lot of poetry in quick succession. Having gone to StAnza for so long, I’ve learnt to leave some slack in my schedule.

On the Thursday and the Friday, I took a walk by the harbour and the beach to grab some fresh air and to reflect upon what had been said. I also took the opportunity to decide what I would read at the slam. And of course I visited the Topping & Company bookshop, where I was even served with tea, unasked.

I’ve currently no other literary festivals lined up for 2020, but I’ll definitely be going back to next year’s StAnza and taking a similar approach to structuring the days I visit.

The Go-To Person

On this blog, I’ve previously discussed the theory that 10,000 hours of practice makes someone an expert in a given field. In particular, I raised the topic first in December, but held off from defining what an expert is in relation to writing.

As there is no objectively good way to write, it’s awkward to apply the word ‘expert’ to anyone. I think it more accurate to use a term such as ‘go-to person’.

Every so often, one friend or another will ask me for writing advice. I’ve recently been asked me to look over a poetry chapbook by one person, while another wanted help to create a workshop about how to perform on stage.

I always feel privileged to be the go-to person in any given matter, even if I make clear that my advice is made up of subjective suggestions and that the writer can implement or reject each one.

This also works the other way around. I have a roster of folks I can ask for help. One might be the go-to person for playwriting, for 19th-century poetry, or for academic writing.

I’m an expert by no means, even if I have a lot of experience in a given area, and neither are the people I rely on. Instead, we are mutual go-to people. None of us know all the answers; instead, we work together to find the answers.

Change of Scene

I started writing this entry in a Dundee pub called the George Orwell, a cosy neuk not far from the art college. I was waiting to meet my pal Lydia, whom I’d first met there in 2015.

Appropriately, the Orwell had been a gathering spot for a social event called the Literary Lock-In. Despite that title, it was held during regular pub hours and was an opportunity for writers and readers to mingle and drink without attending a formal reading or performance.

At another venue, which varied from time to time, there also was a silent reading party where participants would bring their own novels, read them in each others’ company, then chat afterwards.

These events, and many others, were run or supported by the University of Dundee under the banner of Literary Dundee. However, the department closed when its head Peggy Hughes moved to Norwich Writers’ Centre. We were left with something of a vacuum to fill.

Five years on, the literary scene has morphed into a different creature.

Last year, a couple of street poets began performing at locations around the city centre, an event that became monthly, then moved into a café for the winter. We also have a playwrighting evening that frequently ties in with the exhibitions at the aforementioned art college. There is also an arts collective set up by self-described queer writers and artists that runs a number of workshops.

While it’s lamentable that the lock-in and the silent reading no longer exist, I’m glad that the scene as a whole is still as strong as ever, and I look forward to what the next five years bring us.

Double Dutch

Every Sunday, I sing in a church choir. One of my favourite parts is listening to the minister’s sermon. That’s not because I’m religious, but because he shares my dry sense of humour.

Last week, he read the Parable of the Fisherman, but he felt it was too well-known to have the same impact. To freshen it up, he elected to read it in the Scots language.

I’ve previously discussed on this blog my relationship with Scots. The bottom line is that I can understand it, but it takes a lot of concentration to, especially when written rather than spoken. Even more effort is required to speak it myself.

I’ve been told that this experience is consistent with learners of other languages. When listening, you can often form a general sense of what is being said, whereas speaking it requires precise phrasing.

In the case of Scots, many words are mutually intelligible with English while others can be inferred from the context. A good introduction is to look at humorous Twitter updates from native speakers. These don’t usually require much explanation, thanks to their brevity, and they offer an insight into our somewhat nihilistic culture.

My pal Paul Malgrati is a poet from France who has learnt both English and Scots as foreign languages. He frequently weaves them together in his pieces, including one devoted to his Scottish partner that wasn’t shared publicly. French is already considered to be a romantic language, and peppering it with Scots sounds makes it distinctly his own.

This put me in mind of my own partner, who is Dutch. She speaks excellent English, and I love the peculiarities of her speech. For instance, I had to think for a moment when she described a car glovebox as a ‘dashboard cupboard’. She also speaks several other European languages.

One day, it would be great to learn Dutch to add an extra level to our communication. After all, I already know how to switch between English and Scots depending on the situation, and I reckon I’d be able to do it with an unfamiliar language, just as those around me have done.