Poetry in the Community

On Monday of last week, I had the opportunity to teach my colleagues how to write a type of poem called a clerihew. This was part of a larger event called Learning at Work Week where people were teaching their skills to their workmates, such as Zumba, knitting and making mocktails.

A lot of people don’t think they’re very good at writing poetry, so the aim of my workshop was to encourage colleagues to write verses about each other using a simple format. I ended up with a number of good ones, and the clean ones might make it into the internal newsletter.

Colleagues and friends have also occasionally commented that they don’t understand poetry in general, with some asking how to appreciate it.

The best advice I can offer is to read and listen to a wide variety of different poets. There will probably come a point when you begin to differentiate between what you like and don’t like.

After all, most people are certain of their taste in music, and that’s because we’re surrounded by it every day and have built up a template in our heads of what is ‘good’ and ‘bad’. If you’re willing to take the time, it’s possible to do the same with poetry.

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A Last-Minute Change of Plans

In the first few minutes of the film Sliding Doors, starring Gwyneth Paltrow, the narrative branches off in two directions. This creates two separate realities.

In one of these, Helen Quilley catches her underground train and arrives home to find her partner cheating on her. In the other, she misses the train, giving enough time for the mistress to leave before she arrives. The rest of the film alternates between the two realities and explores how that starting point leads to two different outcomes.

The Sliding Doors screenplay is a great example of how a character’s last-minute change of plan – intentional or otherwise – can play a pivotal role in the plot. However, it’s unusual that the audience can compare and contrast both outcomes.

Another film that relies on chance is Titanic, starring Kate Winslet as Rose Calvert and Leonardo DiCaprio as Jack Dawson. In the story, Dawson wanted to return to America, and was only on board because he won tickets in a game of cards and managed to arrive in time.

As an audience, we’re left to assume that if he’d been unable to board, he would have tried to find another way to travel, and that Rose would be with her intended fiancé as the ship sank. Without them meeting, the plot would be substantially less exciting.

Almost Nearly Started and Just About Finished

There are times when it’s difficult to begin a new project or to add to an existing one. This entry is due to be published at 6pm on Tuesday 7 May, but I only wrote the first words at around 8:30pm the day before.

Rationally, I know I need to put something out by the deadline, but it was a struggle to think of a topic, plus I have another project I’m keen to start once this entry is written that doesn’t have a time pressure associated with it.

Fortunately, I have the luxury of addressing this procrastination within my final entry, thus creating a topic to discuss.

And it’s not only writing projects. I promised a friend I’d read her Star Wars fan fiction, but that’s been 13 months and I still haven’t touched a word of it.

As I write, I’ve looked up the link again and charged up my Kobo. At least if I transfer it to my device, I have a higher chance of looking at it before 2020. I can’t provide a link because I was sworn not to share it.

Another area where I’m trying to keep up to date is podcasts. There’s a local one called Creative Chit-Chat that I only began to listen to at episode 46 because I knew the interviewee. I’ve then made a concerted effort to go back and listen to them all in order; I currently have episode 35 queued up.

One aspect I love about catching up with a production is that it can compress a long period of time into a shorter period so you can see the changes that have occurred since then.

A prime example is The West Wing, where the fictional political landscape changed over its eight years on the air, influenced by what was happening in the news at the same time.

No doubt if I scrolled back through my entries on this blog, I would find a comparable pattern emerging. Heck, maybe one of my regular readers has already done this and can comment on what they found.

A Weekend of Shows

Regular readers will know that I run a monthly open-mike night called Hotchpotch; it’s for writers rather than musicians. This past weekend, we branched out and held two extra events that differ from our usual format.

On Friday, it was Hotchpotch Presents…, a 40-minute showcase of some of our regular members’ best work with no open-mike element. This was part of a festival called Stripped, organised by Dundee Rep Theatre. Our set finished off a cabaret-style evening that included the poet Imogen Stirling.

The staff there treated us well, even when we changed our technical requirements a couple of hours beforehand. I did feel the audience needed to be loosened up a little, but they had done by the halfway point. The best part was that we had a small budget, so the performers could be paid a fee.

This will certainly open the door for another members’ show in the future, possibly next March when Hotchpotch celebrates its 10th birthday.

On Sunday, we held Hotchpotch in Perth, around half an hour away by car. This was part of the Soutar Festival of Words, and we were given the use of the AK Bell library for 90 minutes. That event was modelled on the Dundee open-mike sessions, but performers were to be given five minutes rather than seven, and we allowed them to sign up in advance.

Although the audience was around half the size of what we would normally attract, it meant that everyone was allowed a second turn at the microphone if they wanted it. Among the crowd was Rana Marathon, who holds a regular spoken-word night in Perth called Blend In – Stand Out (BISO). Unfortunately, I didn’t manage to go to the BISO Slam the previous day because I was organising our event.

And there’s more to come. I’m currently in Wolverhampton on business where there’s an event tonight called PASTA, short for Poets and Storytellers Assemble. It seems to be similar to Hotchpotch, so I’m looking forward to taking part.

The Joy of Nonsense

Last week, I said I was organising three live events over the next month and that there would be more about those in this entry. On reflection, I think this is better done as a reactive post, as I can then talk about two of the final performances. So that will definitely appear next week.


A couple of weeks ago, I was in a pub in Stockton-on-Tees called the Thomas Sheraton. Behind the bar was a coffee machine with the label ‘Biscuits don’t live here’.

For some reason, I found this particularly amusing. By the time my meal was served, I’d written a good chunk of a piece that’s now sitting at around 350 words. It’s a surreal narrative about anthropomorphised biscuits are who are fed up with people and are leaving town.

Normally when I look back on work, I’m inclined to remove words from it. In this case, however, I’ve added words almost every time.

But where is the line between a nonsense piece and one that’s simply rubbish? Here’s my view on the matter.

The Bob Dylan track Subterranean Homesick Blues is a disjointed sequence of phrases and imagery. It’s lauded as summing up the counterculture movement of the day. However, even taking into account that many of the references are now outdated, I simply don’t find the lyrics cohesive enough to enjoy them.

By contrast, I thoroughly enjoy the Simon Armitage poem Thank You for Waiting, which is structured as an airport boarding announcement, but the categories of passengers he describes become increasingly more bizarre. Taken together, all the lines poke fun at the class system.

So for me, even a loose cohesiveness or some form of internal logic makes all the difference between the nonsense I enjoy and the nonsense I don’t. Remember this is only my definition, and it’s not wrong to like what everyone else hates, or vice versa.

The Project That Turns into Another

In April, the first of two Camp NaNoWriMo events takes place. This is a less involved version of the main National Novel Writing Month in November, where members can choose their own word count or even a different type of literary project.

My aim was to produce another draft of the novel I’d redrafted in November, spending a target average of one hour per day. However, I haven’t done any of this editing so far because my time has been taken up organising three live events over the next month. There will be more about those in the next entry.

In fact, the entry you’ll see next week has already been partially written, and that’s because I put aside that for a piece that came to me yesterday, prompted by a sign on a coffee machine that read ‘Biscuits don’t live here’.

It certainly isn’t the first occasion where I’ve felt inclined to put one project aside in favour of another. Depending on the time constraints, I usually choose the one that’s eating away at me the most.

In the case of the biscuits poem, I probably would never have completed this if I’d left it aside to write the original blog entry. By contrast, I know I’ll come back to that entry next week because this space needs to be filled.

A Nickname That Sticks

At my school, some of the boys acquired nicknames that stuck with them until they left.

Some were rather obvious: ‘Wilf’ was derived from the first name William, while ‘Gubby’ was shortened from the surname Gilbertson.

But some were a little stranger. One boy was dubbed ‘Beefy’, not for being fat, but after an incident that isn’t necessary to repeat. And I never did find out how Adam started to be called ‘Cuba’

A nickname in a story can be a powerful way of telling the reader about the personality of the character or the type of friends that surround them. The best nicknames work with mutual consent, but not necessarily consent with the nicknamed party.

In the William Golding novel Lord of the Flies, Piggy says early on that he doesn’t want to be called Piggy. Yet nobody had thought of calling him this until he mentioned it, then everyone started doing it.

When just one person has another name for a character, it tells us as much about the person who uses that name as the person it applies to.

Perhaps it’s a close bond between the two. In the crime series NCIS, Ducky nearly always calls Gibbs by his first name ‘Jethro’ because they’re old friends.

Conversely, I’ve witnessed the opposite relationship. In a previous job, one colleague accidentally referred to another as ‘Declan’ instead of Brendan. For the next three years, he continued to use ‘Declan’, seemingly oblivious that none of the rest of us found it funny, least of all Brendan.