Writing to My Influences: Six Months On

Earlier this year, I wrote a letter to Kazuo Ishiguro after reading his book Never Let Me Go. It was necessary to use pen and paper because his publisher didn’t provide an e-mail address. I enjoyed the process so much that it sparked off a project to write to 10 other people who have influenced me.

Six months have now passed since that project. I haven’t received a response from any of them, but I didn’t ask for one; I merely wanted to express my thoughts on their work. At least I can be reasonably certain the letters did reach their respective destinations as none have been returned to sender.

English: The first U.S. aerogram, then called ...
English: The first U.S. aerogram, then called a air letter, the modern transformation of the letter sheet. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I have no plans to repeat this project, but if I did, I’m uncertain whether I would do anything differently.

The most difficult letters were to Jasper Carrott and Billy Joel because they were childhood influences rather than current ones. Yet I’m glad I did because, as 2016 has shown, nobody will be around forever. Conversely, I fear I might have scared off Andrea Gibson as that ran to four handwritten A5 pages. Given another chance, I might have boiled it down to its essentials, and I acknowledged this point within the letter itself.

There is one side benefit. To carry out the project, I needed suitable writing paper so I bought a notepad with tear-out pages. On the odd occasion when I’ve needed to write other letters and notes over the last six months, it’s been ideal.

I do quite often write on paper even if I’m not composing a letter. This entry, for instance, began life as handwriting in a notebook; I wasn’t in a hurry and it’s more portable than a laptop, plus it slows down your thoughts to the speed of the pencil. When it’s finally put on computer, it undergoes its first edit. If you’re accustomed to using a computer, I recommend the method.


Speak now, or forever hold your piece.

Last week, a friend asked me to give him feedback on a piece he’d written and performed to camera. As he’s not yet ready to go public with it, let’s call him Jack.

I would have given him honest feedback if it had been no good; I don’t think it helps to give praise unduly. I listened to it a few times to determine whether it stood up to repeated listenings, and to listen carefully to the words and their meanings. I concluded it was almost ready for a live audience, and I gave him tips about how it might be improved.

It’s hard to define performance poetry. Some pieces work equally as well on the page as on the stage. Spoken word also falls somewhere between rap and stand-up comedy. Rap generally relies on wordplay and repetition, while stand-up is often infused with the comic’s personal experience, and both elements can be present in performance poetry.

While I don’t have a catch-all answer, there were three elements in Jack’s piece that – in my opinion – made it suitable for performance.

Firstly, he started with a strong image and good use of internal alliteration. The first line alone revolved around ‘L’ and ‘T’ sounds. As we moved on, we began to hear more alliteration, plus complex and slant rhymes.

English: Eminem performing at the DJ hero part...
English: Eminem performing at the DJ hero party with D12 on June 1, 2009 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A great example comes from the Eminem track Stan. This video starts at lines where the rapper has stacked up the ‘ee’ sounds of ‘dream’, ‘sleep’ and ‘scream’, but the piece as a whole is largely lines of a regular length with an often-slant AABB rhyme scheme. You can see this when the lyrics are written on the page.

Secondly, Jack took his opening lines and repeated them near the end, although not verbatim. This type of repetition can be vital tool in performance, as it helps to cement ideas in the mind of the audience.

More regular repetition can be used to create an onomatopoeic effect, but be sure to do it consciously, as random repetition can sometimes feel as though the poet is trying to pad out the words. I can think of two great examples. The first piece is safe for work: Francesca Beard with The Fluffy Song, with a reputation helps bring out the voice of the eponymous dog. The second piece is decidedly NSFW: John Cooper Clarke performing Evidently Chickentown, where the swearing lends the effect of a hen clucking.

Thirdly, Jack’s voice in the video infused the piece with a different slant benefit had been read on the page. It wasn’t in his normal register, but reminded me of Murray Lachlan Young: rich and defined with an intentionally snobbish undercurrent.

Of course, anyone who reads a performance piece will bring something to it. Andrea Gibson is quite the opposite of Young, packing a lot into a poem and rattling through it with barely any time for breath. There’s no wrong way of performing, as long as you aren’t forcing yourself to do something unnatural.

When Jack is ready to go public with his work, I’ll post it here and I’m sure you’ll see what I mean.