Public Liability

I’m watching the acclaimed TV series The West Wing at the moment. The characters frequently have to change their plans or meet earlier deadlines at short notice. Similarly, I’ve recently had to make tough decisions about what to tell an audience.

A week ago, I attended a poetry event called Interconnected Issues jointly run by the University of Dundee’s LGBT+ Society, Feminist Society, and Mental Health Society. I expected simply to be a punter watching a line-up of poets, but the organiser called on people to stand up and read. Regular readers know I’m a big fan of performing my work, so I didn’t wish to pass up the opportunity. On the other hand, I hadn’t prepared anything, plus I’d already finished a red wine and my first rule is never to drink before a performance.

With encouragement from my friend Ana Hine, I stood up to read Sir Madam. Although it fitted the theme of the evening, I was scared to read this one because it tells the life story of a character who is either intersex or transgender – it isn’t made explicit. As I’m neither of these, I was worried that an LGBT audience might take offence at my portrayal.

However, I’d tested it out at last year’s Dundee Literary Festival where it received a positive response from the general public. If there was any anger at Interconnected Issues, I didn’t hear it. Encouraged by this, I cobbled together three other pieces that were not as risky to be read later that evening. One was from memory, one was a draft from a notebook, and one was read hipster-like from a phone screen.

As I’d already broken my no-alcohol rule, I decided to order another wine. This led to me peppering the rest of my performance with a little more personal detail than I intended, albeit related to the content of the poems. Yet it’s also rewarding to leave yourself figuratively exposed on stage and let it be infused into your work. I’ve heard it described as making the personal into the political.

Dundee Contemporary Arts, Dundee, UK
Dundee Contemporary Arts, Dundee, UK (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The first time I heard that phrase was at a weekend poetry workshop in Edinburgh. On the final day, I climbed Arthur’s Seat to watch the sunrise and came down with the idea for a short poem about a character on a cliff who intends to jump but changes their plans when they’re captivated by the sunrise.

I was looking for a title and I’d just heard about the suicide prevention charity The Semicolon Project, so it was named Semicolon. In a poignant parallel, it was reported last week that its founder Amy Bleuel had died.

I have no mental health conditions myself, but Semicolon is one of a few pieces where I’ve found the subject creeping into the narrative, particularly where I’m looking in from the outside. In February, for instance, I took part in a Q&A with Dundee Contemporary Arts after making a poetic response to one of the artworks on display.

My piece, called Surprise Attack, had already been written. The artwork was a pastiche of the Commando comic books but with Army mental health policy in place of the dialogue. Studying the pastiche helped me to finalise my poem after well over a year of redrafting.

I’m finally pleased with Surprise Attack, while I believe Sir Madam needs more testing, Yet both pieces have shown me that a little personal exposure can bring a rich reward.

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The element of

Last week, we lost one of the most flamboyant and enigmatic musicians of our generation. Yet you never hear David Bowie described as a 70s star or as retro; he managed to remain relevant throughout his 50-year career.

One way he achieved this was the use of surprise, from the Ziggy Stardust look, to Jareth In Labyrinth, to setting up an ISP in 1998. And that’s something other writers and poets can learn from.

Prior to 1992, PD James was known for writing detective novels. She was 72 when she published her only science fiction work, The Children of Men, earning positive reviews from many corners. Similarly, you would expect something funny from Clive James, but his poetry collection Sentenced to Life is thoughtful and poignant.

So how does a writer deliver something unexpected? It might be as simple as writing a short story when you usually pen poetry, or as radical as having a section of your novel made into an animated video.

Either way, the idea must still come naturally. If you’re writing poetry on a subject when you’d really rather be adapting it for the stage, it’ll be obvious your heart isn’t in it. It’s a good idea to revisit an idea that hasn’t worked its current form and see where it can be adapted to another, or experiment with different ways of creating ideas.

When I have the beginnings of an idea, for Screenshot from DCAexample, I like to go for a long walk and turn over the idea in my head before putting anything down on paper. Yet when I was asked to respond to an exhibition at Dundee Contemporary Arts in October, I had no ideas, not even the beginning of one. Instead, I sat on the yoga mats provided as part of the exhibition with a notepad and told myself I was staying until I put something down.

The result (pictured) was a visual response with a wire basket and 100 googly eyes. It was unusual and untested for me, as I’ve had no art training – and to my friends who know this, it was most definitely a Continue reading “The element of”

Quick on the Draw.

I’m pleased to report that I’ve been asked to respond to the Jim Campbell exhibition currently showing at Dundee Contemporary Arts. Until now, only other artists had been invited to do this, but there will also be poets and prose writers this time. The event takes place on Thursday the 15th, 7pm, Gallery 1; tickets are free of charge.

Something that fascinates me about the creative arts is the ability for writers and artists to respond to each other through their work, often very quickly. A recent example is how cartoonists around the world reacted to the Charlie Hebdo shootings. I’ve previously taken inspiration from the Michael Brown riots in November. In the BBC News report, there was a snippet of a police officer shouting, “Stop trying to turn over the vehicle immediately,” through a megaphone. I responded with a 340-word piece, but only to that fragment of speech, not to the rest of the events in Ferguson.

But it doesn’t always take tragedy to provoke a response. In 2000, Tony Blair lifted his arm at the end of a speech and inadvertently revealed a sweaty armpit. A day or two later, a deodorant company used the image in a press advert.

(((Echo))) at Dundee Contemporary Arts

This isn’t the first time I’ve responded to an art exhibition, although I wasn’t asked to do so last time – I was simply inspired. A friend’s solo show opened on a Friday in summer 2013. By the time I caught the bus home, I was beginning to develop the idea. I spent the weekend typing it up and changing the names to ensure it was definitely fictionalised, and I sent it to her on the Monday.

On Thursday, it’ll be a different type of response. I’ve spent weeks working on it and had time to explore different options such as using props. All I need to do now is keep rehearsing so the response is as fluent as I can make it. Next week, I’ll be offering click save draft my best tips about public speaking.

How Low Can You Go?

Until 25 January 2015, Dundee Contemporary Arts are showing an exhibition by time-based artist Jim Campbell. Whereas a TV or computer screen has a resolution up to about two million pixels, he uses software to reduce the quality of a normal video to no more than around 1000 pixels. The viewer is expected to fill in the gaps; fortunately most viewers are particularly good at this.

Imagine all the triangles…

Look at the graphic on the right, for instance. There are only three small black circles with notches cut out of them, but your brain imagines a large white triangle just from the information it’s given.

Using this principle, his work Home Movies 1040-3 presents amateur footage so the figures are recognisable as people, but the faces are deliberately obscured. Tilted Plane gives the impression of birds or bats flapping overhead by lightbulbs momentarily switching off in sequence. Meanwhile in Gallery 2, pulsating lights reflect the emotion behind the fragments of text displayed around the walls, and those fragments tell a story.

Telling a tale in just a few words is a long-established challenge among writers. One of the most famous examples is attributed to Ernest Hemingway: For sale: baby shoes, never worn. The reader must infer what happened to the baby and why the shoes are being sold. With the advent of SMS and then Twitter, limits of 140 to 160 characters are also popular. My very first writing prize was a £20 Odeon voucher for the following: “Get down from there,” said his mum. For the first time in his life, he listened to her, the noose tightening around his neck as he jumped.

Even with slightly longer works, pulling back the word count or simplifying the action can make for a better story, as the reader has to do some of the work. In one case, I’d written a 1000-word story starting with a man being woken up by a noisy neighbour, him going to the door to investigate and finding the police there, then the police interviewing the woman and her son. The first two thirds of the story just weren’t working, so I eventually removed them. The result was a much tighter story that made the twist ending more shocking as we didn’t see the events leading up to it.

And with all that in mind, I’m going to shorten this entry by letting it end abru