The Evasive Verse

This week, I’ve been trying to write a piece for my poetry circle. Specifically, it had to be in some way related to the author Robert Duncan Milne, a forgotten contemporary of H G Wells.

As the reading for this has taken up so much of my time, I don’t have a full-length entry for this site.

However, I’ve often advised that going for a walk is a great way to sort out the ideas in your head, and that’s exactly what happened here. After days of reading, and trying to tie together a few of Milne’s concepts into a single verse, it was a lunchtime trip outside that gave me the final verse.

I’m about to read it over just now, maybe tweak it, and send them my work.

Hesitation

A few weeks ago, as part of the inaugural Dundee Fringe, I hosted the premiere of an experimental game show called The Literal Flow Test. It borrows elements of the Radio 4 show Just a Minute, asking five players to speak for up to two minutes without stopping, and pairing that with the knockout stages of a poetry slam.

I was pleased to find that we had attracted nearly a full house; the official paperwork shows 27 out of 30 seats sold. Most of the topics were picked at random from a pool, but part of the fun was asking the audience for topic suggestions in the last round, and they joined in with enthusiasm, with subjects ranging from ‘Stonehenge’ to ‘Cybernetic enhancement’.

I’m aware that despite this show being all about avoiding hesitation, it’s taken a few weeks to write about it. However, I wanted to bring you pictures as well. You can find them all on the PPG Photography Facebook page, but below is one of the poet Fin Hall.

The poet Fin Hall standing up taking his turn as part of The Literal Flow Test.
The poet Fin Hall taking the Literal Flow Test. Credit: https://www.ppgphotography.com/.

The playwright Jen McGregor emerged as victor after a tense five minutes of tiebreaking. With a few minor tweaks to the rules, it would be grand to run it again at some point, possibly for charity.

All the players, and the judge, were members of the Hotchpotch open-mike night. But unlike Hotchpotch, which is run entirely on a voluntary basis, each act at the Fringe received a share of ticket sales. This meant each participant could receive a little cash towards their travel or drinks on the night.

Of course, I nearly forgot to give Jen her envelope, and had to chase her up the street at the end, but we’ll move on from that.

Not Raining, Just Pouring

It sometimes happens that a number of writing projects need to be completed at the same time, and that’s exactly what’s happened over the last week.

Some of these are self-imposed, like two job applications and writing a private blog entry for a closed group. But the others have been opportunities like supporting a funding application for an Edinburgh poetry organisation, and an invitation to write a public blog post for Creative Dundee.

This deluge has been a prime lesson in prioritising, some pieces due on sequential dates. I’m making headway, with only the Creative Dundee post still outstanding, but at the time of writing, I haven’t been given a definite submission date.

It does, however, pay to hit a deadline. Just yesterday, I heard I’ve had a piece selected to appear in Poetry Scotland and I can’t wait to see it in print.

Indefinite Ephemera

This week, I received a direct message on Twitter. It’s unusual for me to have one of these, so I wondered what was going on. It turned out to be from someone called Hayley.

Some background here: I’d met her six years ago at a feminist poetry evening in Dundee, and I’d performed a new poem that directly referenced my bisexuality for the first time. She’d enjoyed it and asked for a copy. However, the piece was so new that I had only one handwritten version in my notebook, so I copied out the piece and gave it to her, adding the date and place.

In the message, Hayley told me she had been 19 at the time, and had kept that paper for the last six years, adding that she found it just as validating and comforting at the age of 25.

The poem in question was then included in an anthology by the first publisher I sent it to, but it means more to me that someone has kept it for such a long time, and I hope it continues to bring such validation.

It’s not the first time someone has kept a piece of mine. A few years ago, I owed £1 to my pal Jen Robson, so I placed a coin in an envelope with a silly four-line verse on the front, expecting it to be discarded. To my knowledge, she still has it.

What to Tell; What to Leave Out

Last week, you should have seen an entry about memoir writing, but just as I was about to type it, my Internet speed inexplicably slowed to a crawl. By the time I was able to access WordPress, there were only five minutes left to hammer out a basic explanation.

It’s doubly frustrating because the planned entry was in reference to the terrorist attacks of 11 Sep 2001 and would have been more relevant last week. Rather than a straight retelling of my experience that day, I was exploring what details might be included in such an account.

I was at school in sixth-form at the time, and I heard the news just as I was about to head home.

One possible emphasis is how I heard the news: first by word of mouth from classmates, plus the librarians had set up a TV showing the news footage. One pal was also able to find out details online with the first Internet-enabled mobile phone I’d ever seen.

Anotdher possible aspect is the political one. My Economics and Modern Studies teachers were both well-informed about global security and were able to lead discussions about what might happen next. The Modern Studies course also felt as though it was being rewritten as we were trying to learn it.

In my experience, memoir is better when it comes from a certain angle, although in a lengthier account, it might be appropriate to include both versions. Ultimately there is no right or wrong emphasis. It’s up to the writer to decide what type of story to tell, and aim it in that direction.

Not The Entry You Want, But The Entry You’re Getting

This week’s entry has been drafted out in pencil, and all I had to do was to type it up, maybe change a few pieces, and press Publish.

Unfortunately, I’ve been struck down with inexplicable Internet connection problems. What’s more, I’m in the same pub with the same equipment I’ve used many times before.

So now, with just a minute to 6pm, here’s your entry.

Here’s What You Could Have Been Reading

Every so often, I’ll start to write an entry, then abandon it. Sometimes I don’t know how to finish it; sometimes a more urgent topic arises before I can finish it.

As such, I have five draft entries in my WordPress account, listed in order of when they were last edited. The original unedited words are in italics, with further explanation below each one.

18 Mar 2018: The Importance of Outside Influences

While it is necessary for an author to read within their own genre, one of the first pieces of advice given to beginner writers is to read widely.  and collect influences from different sources.

This is fairly self-explanatory and probably would have segued into a couple of examples of where the author has successfully put together two disparate ideas to create something new.

Oddly enough, I was at a workshop run by Kirsty Logan a couple of weeks ago where she explored this very idea, so this topic might make a resurgence.

15 Oct 2019: But Who Would Want to Hear About That?

At the weekend, I took part in two different tours: on Saturday, a road train around Arbroath; on Sunday, a walking tour around the mostly-disused basement of Glasgow Central Station.

In both cases, it was clear that the guide had a vast knowledge of his subject, including a recognition that there were still mysteries to be solved

There is no shortage of fiction written by people with an exhaustive knowledge of their subject: Herman Melville in Moby-Dick, Dan Brown in Angels & Demons, &c. Often it makes for compelling reading, but an author needs to be careful not to overload the reader.

21 Jul 2019: Respeaking

Respoken.

This was the entirety of my note. It was a reference to how TV subtitles are created, at least on the BBC.

Rather than using a stenography keyboard, the operators listen to the output and use voice recognition software to produce the words on the screen. This means the computer only has to understand one person rather than a variety of volumes and accents.

This draft also came with its own image:

Sample of closed captioning on a news programme
Sample of closed captioning on a news programme

13 Jul 2020: Different Place, Similar History

Post-industrial place with distinctive dialect.

I wrote this fragment while listening to a poetry event from Wolverhampton and surrounding areas. Someone talked about living in a post-industrial place and the language that grew out of that, and I could draw a comparison with where I live, hundreds of miles away.

I’m not sure how much I could expand much on this idea, but it’s still there for the taking.

10 Aug 2020: The Fallback Formula

While taking my Masters degree, our class was asked to perform a piece for public reading. We could do anything we wanted, but the tutor suggested the prompt ‘piece of my mind’. As I wasn’t finding any ideas, I did what I often do in that situation, and go for a walk. I recall it was a freezing February night.

The walk resulted in my first list poem, called Textbook. Each of its 23 lines begins with the words ‘I’ve learnt’, in which the narrator is worried about a third party. The original plan was to begin each line with a different verb, but I found the repetitive structure worked rather well.

Those two paragraphs were the original entry, while the one below was copied directly from notes I made at the time.

Kirsty, voice suited the piece, dichotomy, you’re never the subject until last line. Corrin, liked the repetition, person depression, created flickering image. Graeme, think you can tell it’s someone close to narrator, didn’t get gender. Jackie, speaker was male, person was female. Eddie, took it as daughter who was self-harmer.

I’ve discussed my writing process many times, including the devices I rely upon, so there’s no specific reason to finish this piece.

OneBigWallOfText

I’m going to write this entry in a markedly different style to demonstrate a point. I’m normally pernickety about starting a new paragraph every two to three sentences, or perhaps only one sentence to emphasise particularly pertinent information. A surprising number of people don’t leave enough paragraph breaks, or don’t leave any, which makes the text harder to read. If you analyse a newspaper or a novel, you’ll invariably find the first sentence of each paragraph indented by a few millimetres. This tiny gap indicates that the narrative is moving on and allows the eye to rest briefly. There are occasional exceptions, like the Will Self novel Shark, deliberately shunning paragraphs in favour of a single sentence that spans the whole narrative. The Look Inside feature on Amazon shows how the publisher prudently compensates for this by using wider line spacing. In the early days of the CD-ROM and the Web, it was quickly discovered that longer articles aren’t so easy to read on a PC, and not just because of screen brightness. The main difference is that it’s possible to turn your head or eyes quickly to see a whole double newspaper spread, giving a solid frame of reference, but a computer screen can typically only show part of the text at any given time without some input by the user. As such, additional eye rests are necessary, and professional websites will generally leave at least one line between paragraphs, often with additional negative space at the sides. A big shout-out must go to WordPress for its readability. Composing an entry is done in blocks, typically containing one paragraph or illustration, and as such, it encourages spacing. The publishing layout is also widely customisable – something that social media sites could learn from – so you can fill as much or as little of the screen as you need. If you’re a writer of any sort, one action that makes your work look instantly more professional is to leave paragraph spaces. It doesn’t have to be every two or three sentences like me; indeed, Virginia Woolf was known to use page-long paragraphs. Your reader’s eyes, however, will thank you for the occasional rest.

Cleaning Up This Town

Regular readers will know that I run Hotchpotch, an open-mike night for writers rather than musicians. Over the last 18 months, we’ve been holding it online and experimenting with different formats.

Last week, it was confirmed that we were able to go back to our previous venue. For the foreseeable future, however, it won’t be as simple as just turning up with a microphone and some poetry.

The main health hotspot is the microphone itself, which can be shared by between ten and 20 people of an evening, and can therefore pick up a lot of bacteria.

As such, I’ve bought 400 disposable covers for the top. After every reader, the surface will be wiped down and a new cover applied. Because I address the audience for a few seconds after each speaker, I’ve also cut down on cleaning by buying a headset microphone for my own use. There will also be the option for readers not to use the sound system at all.

This is what 400 disposable microphone covers look like.

That, however, only caters for the people who come along to the pub. We’ve seen a thirst over the last 18 months to participate from outside our home city. For many, it was inconvenient or impossible to travel into Dundee, while others weren’t able to navigate the stairs in the venue, or are not ready to mix until the public health threat passes.

In response, we’re trialling an online edition called Hotchpotch Beyond. This works the same way, with the sole exception that priority will be given to those who weren’t at the in-person version. The trial will last for three months to gauge interest.

To join in either of these events, Hotchpotch is on Wednesday 15 September at 7pm in the Hunter S Thompson pub, while Hotchpotch Beyond is on Sunday 19 September at 7pm on Zoom.

The Poetry, the Play and the Party

On Friday, I attended the Burryman festival in South Queensferry, a short train trip from Edinburgh. This is a tradition where a man from the town is dressed head to toe in burrs and marched around the streets, and it’s considered good luck to offer him whisky. The origin is unknown, but is believed to be around 400 years old.

Much as I’d like to devote the whole entry to this amazing day, I mention it only in the context of live events. This time last year, there was doubt over to whether it could go ahead because of crowd control regulations. It did happen, with the police making sure folks kept their distance.

This year was a different story, largely because early August marked the return of many live events in Scotland. As I knew I wouldn’t be too far away, my first event was Loud Poets at the Scottish Storytelling Centre in Edinburgh. I was particularly excited for this, as I knew a few folks taking part, either on stage or front-of-house.

Three poets and a host played in front of an auditorium at perhaps two-thirds capacity, and they seemed relieved to be back in person. One in particular, Paul Case, relied more on memory than written work, and it reminded me that this is a habit I need to relearn because I haven’t had a need to remember my work over the last 18 months.

Then on Saturday, I was invited to a dress rehearsal of a play at Dundee Rep Theatre: Hindu Times by Jaimini Jethwa. The rehearsal took place in a studio rather than the main stage, with no sets and minimum special effects. I enjoyed being part of this select preview group, and I’ll definitely recommend the play once it launches to the wider public.

The Storytelling Centre and the Rep both enforced distancing and face coverings, but Generator Projects took a more laissez-faire approach. To celebrate 25 years of workshops and exhibitions, they laid on an outdoor show of poetry, dance and music. I also had plenty of opportunities to catch up with others from the literary community before complaints from residents closed it down at 9pm.

I have a few more live shows lined up in the near future, and I hope they’re just as enjoyable.