Starting from the Bottom

I attended my first writing class in 2011. On a Saturday morning, we would meet in a craft shop.

For two hours, with a cup of tea in the middle, the leader would give us exercises to complete. She might provide a sentence, or five randomly-chosen words, or even a photograph. Our challenge was to write a passage inspired by that prompt and share it with the group. It’s understood that this is a draft, not a finished product.

Over the next few years, our class moved from the craft shop to different cafes in town. At one point, we were even able to use a private dining room in a four-star hotel.

The type of exercises, however, remained similar: here’s a prompt, go and pen something. It’s a format I enjoy because it encourages the writer to make decisions and solve problems quickly. I think this has made me a better writer, just as actors take part in improv classes to help their skills along.

I’ve recently taken the opportunity to revisit this type of practice. Under the banner Poetry in Turbulent Times, Imogen Stirling is running a weekly class via Zoom.

One particular area of focus is a concept I knew little about: the kenning, using two words where only one would normally appear. The run is currently scheduled for four weeks, but if it’s extended, I’m interested in still taking part.

Even though I’ve now had nearly a decade of experience since 2011, I find I’m still being challenged almost as much as when I was a beginner.

A Big Hand for the Bland Brand

A casual look at my archive suggests I’ve made a reference to the supermarket Asda in at least three different pieces. I’ve been figuring out why I love mentioning this supermarket so much.

If a brand is worth talking about, it’s usually because it’s either iconic or notorious. You’re likely to hear a stand-up comic talking about Lidl for its unthemed selection of goods, or Tesco for its dominance. But Asda fits between the two on the spectrum. It is, in a word: bland.

There are several brands that fit in the bracket of blandness. BBC One might be iconic and Channel 4 notorious, but ITV fits squarely in the middle. Microsoft is iconic, Apple is notorious, but who cares about Linux?

I care about it, at least for the purposes of my writing. I find that a bland reference deployed in the right place allows me to illustrate a point without having the brand overshadow it.

One poem talks about a narrator’s hypothetical plan for euthenasia if their health deteriorates too much. It sounds like a serious subject, and it is, but it’s treated in a light tone by the narrator.

There’s a reference to an Asda bag in the text that fits nicely into that tone. The same reference might work with Lidl or Tesco, but Asda adds a little drop of the absurdity into the piece that might be missing with an iconic or notorious supermarket.

Ephemera

When I first started performing my work in public, I used to make sure my performances were caught on camera. I could then review the footage and discover how I appeared to the audience. I still have many of these videos, the earliest dating from 2014, although I’ve now undergone enough stage experience to gauge for myself.

With extreme movement restrictions worldwide at the moment, many writers and poets are turning to video to deliver performances and workshops. I’ve signed up for a workshop with Imogen Stirling via Zoom starting on Thursday, while Luke Wright is performing poetry on Twitter every evening at 8pm.

However, there’s one important difference between my camcorder videos and live-streaming, and that difference is that streams are not necessarily recorded for posterity.

In 2015, the vice president of Google warned of a ‘digital dark age’ where data saved in the present day might not survive the upgrade from one piece of handware to the next. I found this – and still find it – a little odd, considering we’re also told that whatever is posted to the Internet stays there indefinitely.

I’ve found that the video retention policy varies from platform to platform. On Zoom, a participant can record the feed by pressing a button, while Facebook Live allows viewers to access a recording of the content long after the event.

Then I came into Wright’s performances at episode 22, and I thought I could catch up with the rest by simply scrolling back. Unfortunately, their live streams are available only for a matter of hours after broadcast then permanently deleted.

On Saturday, I took part in a fundraiser with local artists using yet another platform: Instagram Live. I delivered an hour of prose and poetry via the host’s account; like Twitter, my set disappeared from Stories after a certain length of time.

Thinking about it now, I could have filmed myself with my own camcorder or used third party software to capture the screen and audio output. On the other hand, I also rather enjoy that my set was done only for the people who were there to witness it at the time.

Here Comes the Impostor

I’ve always been upfront that I not a lifelong writer. I began to pen fiction in 2010 when I was around 27, and I was 30 before I would call myself a poet.

I have pals who’ve been writing since primary school and high school, and who perhaps went on to study a related subject at college. By contrast, I was interested more in technology and broadcasting, so I ended up gaining a BSc Music Technology degree.

I’d learnt to cope with my relatively late start to writing by packing in as much as I can: I run two literary groups, I’ve had my work published, and I’ve gained a Masters degree in Writing Practice & Study. I was even interviewed by Kai Durkin for a podcast last month, and I enjoyed answering all the questions.

For a long time, it’s felt like I’ve always been a writer.

But despite all the positive external validation, I’m back to where I was maybe five years ago. I once again feel like there’s a massive 15- to 20-year gap when I could have been practising prose and poetry instead of fiddling with computers.

Because you can’t buy or recover the past; you can only cram what you would have done into the time you have left.

I don’t know how to reverse this thinking righht now, but at the very least, I can take from it that I’m in a field where age is barely a barrier to entry. Richard Adams was 52 before his debut Watership Down was published, while PD James was in her 70s before she tackled the science fiction genre in Children of Men.