Back on The Slam Wagon

Earlier this month, I visited the StAnza poetry festival in St Andrews. On previous visits, I’ve stayed overnight to allow me to visit the poetry slam, which finishes around midnight. This time, because of other commitments, I missed out on what’s normally one of my highlights.

Nonetheless, I did manage to take part in a smaller-scale slam on Saturday just gone and at a more local venue. Unusually, this was hosted and judged by comedians rather than poets, which lent the evening more of a cabaret vibe.

I’d half-forgotten I’d been invited to perform there, so I spent much of Saturday trying to re-learn a poem I’d written about three years ago. But as each performer would be invited to perform at least twice, I had to accommodate for that too.

Plan B was to find a short poem that I could remember, or at least improvise with.

Plan A was more of a risk, but also what I ended up doing. During the first round, I would write clerihews about the performers and the judges, and perform it as my second poem. It’s something I’ve done before at poetry events, but never competitively. Just as actors often take improv classes to improve their skills, I think writers can benefit from timed exercises.

Ultimately, I didn’t go through to the third round. I don’t know how that would have gone anyway, as I’d created a lighthearted atmosphere with my first two pieces, then my third one would have signalled a definite change of mood.

The top honour went deservedly to someone who’d won the StAnza slam just one week before.

Note to Self – Don’t Call This Entry ‘A Walk Down Memory Lane’

Yesterday, a pal had planned to come and visit me, but she had to call off through ill-health. I used the time instead to go for a long walk, which ended up being more than 11 miles.

I’ve always found walking to be useful for sorting out ideas, but when wandering around certain areas, I also remember fragments of what happened there. Sometimes it’s a conversation with a primary school teacher, or where I first heard a certain song, or a memory of what the place formally looked like. There’s even an area of town I associate with Moby-Dick because I regularly read it on the bus while travelling through.

As I talk about all these memories, it also strikes me that while they’re reasonably interesting snippets, few of them hold enough substance to be an anecdote in their own right.

That’s one of the key differences between nostalgia and memoir. Nostalgia can be as simple as a reminiscence about a happy time, whereas memoir typically tells a story.

One of my favourite memoirs is Toast by Nigel Slater, where each vignette is titled as the food he was eating or cooking at that period in his life. All the stories are strong enough to be self-contained while still sticking to the subject.

That’s not to say my wandering memories are completely useless. If I were in a writing class, and the prompt warranted it, I could pick one of these as a starting point for a poem or a fictional story, just not a biographical one.

The Acronym and the Mnemonic

Sometimes I think I know English grammar inside and out. Other times, I stumble upon an aide memoire I’ve never heard of.

I was writing a story where I kept typing ‘Thamos’ in error instead of ‘Thomas’. Out of interest, I looked up ‘Thamos’ as I was sure there was someone with that name. There was: it was an 18th-century play called Thamos, King of Egypt.

However, the top search result defined it as an acronym for remembering conjuctive adverbs, namely ‘Therefore’, ‘However’, ‘Also’, ‘Meanwhile’, and ‘Otherwise’. The last letter of ‘THAMOs’ is in lowercase and seems intended simply to create a word.

I’ve no idea whether the folks at NoRedInk invented this acronym, but it was news to me. They also go on to give two others: ‘FANBOYS’ is for coordinating conjunctions while ‘SWABIs’ is for subordinating conjunctions.

This started me thinking about acronyms and mnemonics as a memory aid. I’m somewhat ambivalent about them. If carefully crafted, they do their intended jobs.

One that sticks out from high school Chemistry is ‘OILRIG’, meaning ‘Oxidisation is loss, reduction is gain.’ This works well because the initial letters always spell out a sentence with the words in the correct order.

But supposing you wanted to remember something in a non-linear order. Before Pluto was reclassified, you could recite the names of the bodies in our solar system with ‘My Very Easy Method Just Speeds Up Naming Planets’.

This is great if you wish to name them all, but supposing you wanted to check the order of Uranus and Neptune, it would take a few seconds to find your place, even starting from the beginning.

Another weakness with this type of mnemonic is that you still need to remember the word that each initial letter stands for.

There are better methods. A classic one is the the method of loci – sometimes called a memory palace – using spatial awareness for easier recall. Here’s an academic description by the US National Library of Medicine.

This system is used extensively by Tony Buzan in his educational books. I read one of his publications when I was younger, and it’s a robust method that allows recall of items in any order, but I never persisted with it.

At present, I have no practical use for acronyms like ‘THAMOs’, ‘SWABIs’, or ‘FANBOYS’. However, I am amazed I’ve reached degree-level English without ever encourtering them, and I’m sure they’ll be of use to someone.

The Geography of Biography

I wrote the first draft of this entry in Camperdown Park in Dundee.

It’s a place I visited many times when I was young, often for the playpark or the boating lake, or sometimes the zoo. Its 400 acres leaves plenty of room for a large expanse of grass and – until last year – a golf course. But I chose to sit beside the duck pond, tucked away between the trees.

It’s hard not to compare my memory of Camperdown from childhood to how it currently appears. On the whole, the whole area is recognisably the same, although some parts don’t appear quite as massive now. I do feel the playpark has suffered from the loss of the pirate-ship climbing frames, even if the new modern equipment is less of a death-trap.

The chances are that most people reading this won’t know where this park is or my connection with it, and frankly, won’t care. Yet memoir and biography are two genres that consistently sell well, so it must be possible to draw the reader into someone else’s nostalgia.

In my experience, the key is to give as much context and description as possible, and tell it as if it were a fiction story.

In this case, I might expand upon specific memories, like playing a golf game on my GameBoy near the duck pond or becoming annoyed with somebody who deliberately splashed me on the boating lake. I’d also look a little wider, perhaps that a school friend lived nearby or how we’d often visit the Little Chef while in the area.

Even when writing fiction, I find it useful to base made-up places on real ones, as it helps to keep the description consistent. If I ever need to set a story in a zoo or on a climbing frame shaped like a pirate ship, I know where I’ll use as a model.

The Responsibility of Memoir

Last week, my cousin brought a photograph to my attention. A friend from Gowriehill Primary School had posted online our year 5 class picture, dating from the early 1990s.

Although I hadn’t seen it in years, I remembered most of my classmates’ names, not to mention a number of memories that came flooding back. I recall how the older pupils would act as servers for the younger ones in the lunch hall, or how we would be allowed on the football pitch only on non-rainy days, or the poster telling us not to tip skipfuls of rubbish in public places – as if a ten-year-old could do that.

But when writing about people who are still alive, where does an an anecdote become an invasion of privacy?

It’s probably safe to tell you that Steven Narey was considered the fastest runner in our year, or that at one point we had two Kenneth Sampsons in the same class. By contrast, Mrs Towell probably wouldn’t be happy with my personal view that she looked and acted like Sylvia ‘Bodybag’ Hollamby from Bad Girls.

In some types of memoir, such as those by TV personalities, it’s almost expected that the writer will drop in some juicy gossip about their contemporaries. But there is always the risk of legal action if they go too far.

Last month, Edward Snowdon and his publisher were sued by the US Department of Justice because they didn’t submit the text for approval. However, a comparable British case in 1988 was rejected by senior judges, so the spy Peter Wright could safely publish his memoir Spycatcher.

In 2016, The Huffington Post published a useful guide to avoiding a lawsuit, with five pointers to avoid or stave off trouble at the earliest opportunity. So if I ever want to write a candid account of life at Gowriehill, I’ll do my best to avoid seeing Mrs Towell in court.

I’m With You In Rockland.

WordPress informs me that I’ve been writing on this site for exactly a year now. Thank you very much for joining me over the last twelve months. I’d like to start today with a little more recent history.

Two weeks ago, I watched a TED lecture about the techniques anyone can use to improve their powers of recall. It seems that humans are kitted out with excellent spacial and visual memory, and it’s much easier to remember something when it’s associated with a journey or the layout of a building. TED lectures themselves are traditionally delivered without notes.

You might remember that I discussed plausible and implausible coincidences, but it so happens that I was walking home that evening when I decided to listen to Allen Ginsberg‘s iconic poem Howl for the first time. His recordings are available on Spotify.

I’ve read it several times but that is the first and only occasion I’ve heard the recording so far. Yet a fortnight on, I can recall the journey.

Allen Ginsberg cropped
Allen Ginsberg (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I remember where I was when
I heard the best minds of his
generation destroyed by madness.
I remember where I was when
the saintly motorcyclists appeared.
I remember where I was when
Moloch! appeared over and over.
I remember where I was when
I was with him in Rockland.

One piece of advice often given to writers is to keep a notepad by the bed for good ideas. I’ve done this for years and I can still count on one hand how many flashes of inspiration I’ve had at 2am. What works for me is being active, particularly going for a walk.

I think the spatial memory concept is part of the reason why walking works wonders for ideas. As you amble, the brain is observing everything around you, which makes associations and triggers off memories. Please do ask for a second opinion about that theory from someone who’s qualified in these matters.

One of the great elements of being a poet – or indeed a prose writer – is that you aren’t normally expected to memorise your work. A rock musician doesn’t look at the chords as he’s performing to Wembley Stadium, a dancer on the West End stage doesn’t refer to the steps in her hand, but a poet is permitted to read from the page.

I have seen poetry recalled successfully from memory many times, but the occasion that stands out most was Alan Bissett. He not only performed two or three pages of a play without prompting, but acted out both parts by just the tone of his voice. Last place goes to Labour Party leader Ed Milliband MP, who forgot to mention immigration or the deficit in a recent speech.

I know only one of my poems by heart, but it’s the manageable length of eight lines with eight syllables each. My longest poem is a 120-line free verse piece called Anatomy of a Party.

In the first draft of this post, the last sentence of that last paragraph was, I could, and probably should, learn it using the Memory Palace technique as described in the TED talk, but there seems little point as I’d usually have it in front of me. But then I took a second thought. There’s an event on Friday where I plan to read Anatomy of a Party and two much shorter pieces, time permitting. I wonder whether I could memorise one of the shorter pieces for that day.

I offer no guarantees, but I think I’ll make an attempt. I’ll report back next Monday.