Being There

In early March, the StAnza poetry festival takes place in St Andrews. I’ve been going for at least five years now. It’s an easy half-hour bus trip, although I’ve previously stayed over so I can go to late shows without worrying about missing the last ride home.

While it would be inaccurate to say there is a ‘house style’ of poetry, it does tend towards the contemplative and wistful, more Carol-Ann Duffy than Brian Bilston. In this relatively quiet town, save for the transient student population, it’s a mood that fits well.

In 2020, the in-person festival narrowly escaped cancellation, so the events were held in venues across town as normal, predominantly the Byre Theatre or the town hall. The challenge this year is to convey its essence through a screen for the first time.

The ones I’ve been to so far this year certainly fit what I expect to see from StAnza: these include the two-hour launch event, a meditation session, and a poets’ feedback group.

But what I enjoy most are the breakfast panel discussions where the audience is served with a pie and a cup of tea. On Sunday, I tried to recreate this at home, and it was somewhat successful:

A Twitter update showing a pie and other food on a plate, and an online event on a projector.

It’s not too late to grab many of the tickets. The festival is on all this week, and there are plenty available free of charge.

Debunking the Basics

I’m now in my tenth year of writing, and I was thinking back today about the advice I’ve heard given to beginner writers, and how it can be misleading. Here are three of them that I feel could do with some clarification.

‘You have to write every day’

The classic example cited here is Stephen King, as his process is widely known through On Writing. When you’re starting out, it can be helpful to write daily, but there are other schools of thought. In 2016, Amy Mason won the Dundee International Book Prize for The Other Ida, and she sees writing as seasonal, with fallow periods in the year.

‘Write what you know’

This advice is often misinterpreted to mean: ‘write what you already know’. Instead, think of it as a reminder to research anything outside of your experience. So whether you need to find out how to write a character with dementia, what happens in a restaurant kitchen, or how a train crash is investigated, it’ll have a little authenticity.

‘Kill your darlings’

William Faulkner is credited with saying, ‘In writing, you must kill all your darlings.’ A ‘darling’ in this instance is what you feel to be a particularly good phrase or sentence.

But don’t take that as a sign to strike out words you like. I’m conjecturing here, but I suspect Faulkner meant to take out any good phrase or sentence if it doesn’t fit or work in the text at hand. Remember you can always save your favourite turns of phrase for another piece.

Must Dash

This week, I wanted to pick up on a small point from last week’s entry about how my use of punctuation differs from what Grammarly considers correct. I’m focussing not on commas, but hyphens and dashes.

There are three main lengths of horizontal line used as punctuation in English. The shortest of these is the hyphen (-), the mid-length is called an en-dash (–), and the third is an em-dash (—). For the purposes of this entry, we’ll ignore the underscore (_) as this is used only for computer programming and other specialist purposes. Now let’s look at how these three marks are used.

Hyphen (-)

A hyphen connects two words or two parts of words together, and touches the letters on either side. It’s done to avoid ambiguity or to suggest a certain pronounciation.

Consider how, ‘I re-sent your e-mail’ communicates something very different from ‘I resent your e-mail.’

You might also note that ‘e-mail’ is hyphenated here, indicating that the stress should be placed on the first syllable. The more common form these days is ’email’, but modern readers understand the pronounciation without the hyphen as a guide.

A hyphen can also be used to show a range; eg, ‘The Hundred Years’ War: 1337-1453′.

En-dash (–)

This takes its name from the width of the letter ‘n’ in the first printing presses, although the width varies on modern machines, and it has several uses.

It can be used as an alternative to the hyphen to show a range; eg, ‘Normal core body temperature: 97–99˚F’. But that’s the only crossover in usage.

On this blog, I frequently use the en-dash in place of brackets – to interrupt one thought with another – and you can easily find them in previous entries. In this case, the dash doesn’t touch the letters that surround it.

You don’t even need to come back to the original thought, as an en-dash will quite happily take the reader in a different direction – and leave them there.

Em-dash (—)

The em-dash takes its name from the width of a letter ‘m’. Like the en-dash, this punctuation breaks up a sentence, but with more urgency.

Recently, I wrote in a comment, ‘There were two blunders—sorry, happy accidents—in the pictures below.’ I could have used en-dashes there, but this construction implies a slightly frantic energy. The em-dash always touches the letters that surround it.

Unlike the en-dash, however, this punctuation mark isn’t suitable for showing a range.

The Grammar Spammer

Every week, Grammarly sends me an e-mail, showering me with praise about how well I’ve written that week. I’ve been using the software for more than four years; it even works in addition to the auto-correct in Microsoft Word and Firefox. As such, the company has collected a lot of data about how I type.

In yesterday’s bulletin, it was noted that I was: more productive than 94% of other users. more accurate than 83%, and using more unique words than 92% of folks.

It also notes my top three mistakes, which are usually minor matters involving punctuation. For example, Grammarly doesn’t favour an Oxford comma as much as I do; conversely, I don’t like the software’s style of writing ‘3 PM’ rather than ‘3pm’.

Which brings me to an important point that software can miss certain errors. Depending on the construction of the sentence, ‘from’ might be interchangeable with ‘form’, when only one is correct.

My best advice on the matter, which I repeat often, is to read out loud what you’ve written to see whether it flows and makes sense. If you don’t have the privacy to do that, a decent substitute is to find text-to-speech software and listen through headphones. If it detects a word out of place, it’ll be obvious when it’s read out.

Either way, spelling and grammar checkers should be used as a safety net rather than an authority, however much praise they heap onto their users.

Footnote to Poettiquette

After last week’s entry about poets attempting to add me on Facebook without permission, a pal commented underneath asking my reasons for not wanting friend requests there. What was intended to be a two-line answer turned into more of an essay. So breaking away from our usual theme of prose and poetry, here it is presented as a footnote to that entry.

In mid-March of last year, just before the virus took a grip, I removed someone from my Facebook friends list. I couldn’t recall the last time we’d spoken, and I wasn’t particularly engaged in what he was posting; I suspect one of us had added the other after a gig.

Within maybe a couple of hours, he’d sent a message asking, ‘Why did you unfriend me?’ which went into the Requests section of Messenger so I was able to ignore it. He then found one of my few public posts and left a comment that he was ‘genuinely concerned’ about me. I told him I was fine, thank you, and left it there. He promptly asked me again why I’d removed him.

When you take someone off your list, Facebook doesn’t tell the other party, so he either must have been checking manually or using third-party software. Either way, I was previously indifferent about the guy; now, I found him creepy. I talked to some other pals about what to do and I ended up hitting the good old Block button.

That’s an extreme example, but it put other contacts under the spotlight. There had always been that contingent who, for example, jumped at every dog whistle in the news or parroted what they’d heard without knowing what they were talking about. There was also a contingent of people who would be a great laugh in real life, then act like an idiot online.

Then when the virus hit, these small and manageable annoyances amplified to a level where I couldn’t tolerate them, particularly those spreading medical misinformation, knowingly or not.

And that’s how and when my no-nonsense policy started. I made a decision to reject all friend requests, placing a clear note in my public profile, which either hasn’t been read or has been ignored many times. Either way, I don’t feel bad about declining, as the warning is there.

I specifically pick on Facebook here. I’ve been using the Internet since 1995, back when it was a lawless place – literally, in a number of ways. The relatively small group of users were expected to make connections across the miles.

Facebook was probably the first site to group users geographically and to restrict access from those outside that group. This made it much harder to cultivate a friends list, so you were effectively stuck with those also in your area. No other major site, as far as I’m aware, ever had that restriction.

That policy has eased off over the years to the extent where you can follow someone without being friends, or be friends and mute their posts, yet there is still an unwritten expectation of mutual following. There are many philosophies on the matter, but in my own view, I don’t want to be friends with someone if I wouldn’t read their updates.

That’s not to say people can’t be friends with me at all. For a start, they’re welcome and encouraged to follow the Hotchpotch open-mike page, which is designed to be public. Folks can also find me (and Hotchpotch) on Twitter, but there should be no expectation of mutual following.

Poettiquette

I was invited to take part in a poetry reading on Sunday night, spanning not only the UK but other countries in the Anglosphere.

This was a mammoth four-hour stint, even with a time limit of ten minutes per poet, plus just one five-minute break. My spot was halfway through, but I stayed the whole time because I wanted to listen to the rest of them, most of whom were event hosts like me.

I performed one serious piece and two humorous. Although there was no audible feedback, I could see some of the faces in the crowd and read comments in the chat box. The set seemed to go down well.

At that point, I received a friend request on Facebook. I was glad that someone enjoyed my work enough to make that request. Furthermore, I’d been in a planning group with some of the other performers, so we were acquainted already.

It must also be stated that the public part of my profile clearly states ‘Not open to friend requests’, yet as of Monday morning, I had four requests waiting. One of them sent me a message acknowledging that he’d seen my profile, and was basically trying his luck. I admire his gumption, but I told him he could either follow my Hotchpotch open-mike page or my Twitter account instead.

On the back of this, it occurred to me that when people perform at my events, they might also have the same view, and a lot of folk don’t feel comfortable telling someone to back off. To this end, I’ve added a disclaimer to the open-mike. It’s likely I’ll tinker with the exact wording, but the spirit will be reinforced in event promotions:

Unless consent has been given, the host and contributors are not open to friend requests.

This alone is unlikely to stop the issue; three people have either not read my profile or wilfully ignored it. However, it acts as a pre-emptive reminder to keep some distance from those who don’t want to interact so closely with others.

&

In last week’s entry, we looked at handwriting recognition software. If you read the text in the scanned picture, you might have seen I used the ‘&’ symbol instead of ‘and’.

When writing by hand, I do this regularly, barely thinking about it, whereas I would always type out ‘and’ in full. The only time it’s come to my attention is when I’ve been transcribing my notebooks.

Last week, I spotted a video from one of my favourite content producers on YouTube: Tom Scott. He makes short educational films about a range of subjects, from elevators to nuclear waste to computer programming.

This one was about the letters in the English alphabet that have been either merged or separated over the last thousand years. The ‘&’ symbol once came straight after Z in the alphabet, and he explains more below:

Video by Tom Scott about the evolution of the English alphabet.

Oddly enough, I always spell out ‘the’ in full, even although its frequency could justify shortening to ‘th’ or even ‘t’. In 2013, an Australian restaurant owner tried to invent a new symbol for ‘the’, but eight years on, it’s safe to say it hasn’t caught on.

Yes We Scan

On this blog a couple of weeks ago, I talked about starting my yearly Fun a Day project. I’m drawing pictures inspired by the years around the Millennium, then publishing each day’s output on my old blog.

However, my that’s only one part of the story. My main activities can be roughly equally divided into:

  • Producing the drawings
  • Writing in my logbook by hand
  • Scanning the above documents to publish them online.

In previous years, the logbook would be displayed on a table at the exhibition, so there was no need to transcribe it. This time, it’s looking likely that we’ll need to exhibit online again, so I’ve been typing up my words in plain text to make them readable to others.

I soon found it was time-consuming to type up each day’s entry, so I wondered whether there might be a way to use automatic handwriting recognition. There is, and I already had the means of doing it.

Google Drive has a function that turns your phone camera into a scanner. The resulting PDF file can then be opened by Google Docs as text.

Logbook entry dated 12 Jan 2021 being scanned by Google Drive.

Some correction is always necessary, to a greater or a lesser extent, but most errors can be cleared up by using a spell-checker. Even a bad scan is marginally quicker to fix than typing the whole entry from scratch.

I don’t think I’m going to use this technology day-to-day, though. When I write by hand, I normally copy it into the computer by hand so I can make revisions on the fly. For a job that needs to be done quickly, however, it’s a great solution.

Who Took the Slam Title?

Back in March 2020, I was fortunate to be able to take part in the poetry slam at the StAnza festival in St Andrews before live events were halted later in the month.

In a typical year, there are several such slams throughout Scotland. The winner of each is allowed to compete in the Scottish Slam Championships in Glasgow the following January, and that winner competes for the world crown.

As there were insufficient live events this year, the Scottish Slam instead took place online over the space of a week, with the top three highest-scoring poets competing against each other in the final on Saturday just gone. Jenny Foulds became the victor.

The dozen or so poets are called to the stage in a random order and allowed up to three minutes to read a piece. In the second round, the poets are called up in reverse order, under what the organisers call Glasgow Rules. This not only allows the poet to impress the judges twice, but is said to avoid the phenomenon of ‘score creep’. This happens where the judges’ frame of reference changes during the contest and the points they award either increase or decrease.

In this instance, the two judges could award a score out of 30 per poem, so our final marks were out of 120. I scored 77, or roughly 19 points per judge per poem. It’s not a terrible mark, but I can hold my hands up and say my heart wasn’t entirely in it.

Part of it was the lack of a stage and the unspoken feedback that is felt from an audience. I tried to compensate for this by using a headset with a long cable and standing back as I performed, almost as if there were a crowd there. But I was otherwise occupied in the days leading up to it, and I picked my poems less than 24 hours in advance. I didn’t have the time to read them out again and again, adding or omitting words as I went.

There’s no guarantee that a good edit or a decent rehearsal would have increased my score. Maybe my work simply wasn’t to the taste of the judges; maybe one or both of them didn’t like that I ran well short of the three available minutes.

However, I would have felt happier if I’d known I’d put in my best performance – and there’s still plenty of time to practice until next year.

Bringing Back a Bygone Blog

Every January, I take part in a project called Fun a Day Dundee, which encourages artists to be creative throughout January. Most years, I have an idea what I’m going to do; this year, by contrast, I didn’t.

I have a tradition of keeping a handwritten logbook each year, which visitors are able to inspect at a weekend exhibition. With less than 5 hours until January 1st, I found an old notebook and began my log, and as I was writing, an idea began to form.

On the assumption that public events will still not permitted in two to three months’ time, I wanted to present my scans of my drawings and the logbook online. Instagram is the go-to site for many participants because it’s perfect for photos, and I’ll still be using it. Yet it’s not geared towards long-form explanations, which this project needs, so I set about looking for a secondary site.

The solution was to resurrect my old LiveJournal account, just for January. Recycling is one of my major recurring themes in Fun a Day, so reusing that page is very much in the same scope. When you visit it via the URL www.ladygavgav.com, it’s been set up to show only the Fun a Day posts.

I first used LiveJournal in the early 2000s, which in turn has inspired my Fun a Day art to be themed around Millennium nostalgia and pop culture as I remember it. The interface to post a new entry hadn’t been updated by the time I jumped ship to WordPress in 2013, but I was pleased to find it’s now more user-friendly, especially when embedding pictures.

Now I have a course of action, we now begin the real challenge of finding the time and motivation to update that site every day this month.