Reaction … Times

Two of the biggest stories of last month were the Orlando shooting and the UK’s exit from the European Union. In their individual ways, they’ve brought responses from writers and poets trying to process the news. Brian Bilston is a prominent example: he usually has a verse within a day or two that reacts to the issue in hand.

However, there is sometimes a balance to be struck between capturing the immediate mood and waiting to see the aftermath of the event. The former can be excellent for capturing the raw emotion upon hearing the news; yet the latter can become a carefully constructed piece that comments on what happened next and whether or not correct actions were taken.

Let’s take the EU exit as an example. If you penned a piece on 24 June, it might talk about David Cameron’s resignation and the sterling exchange rate hitting such a low, and it would almost certainly have an emotional resonance but only a few details of the bigger picture. Conversely, if you wrote that piece tonight, it’s possible to include something about the legal wrangling and the resignations, but it could potentially lose its immediacy.

There’s also the trap of writing about something is a massive story right now but will potentially be forgotten or overtaken by other developments. We all remember issues like Bill Clinton’s affair, Section 28, and the millennium bug, but none of these cases hold currency now. It’s a personal view, but if the background of a work needs to be explained before it’s read, I don’t consider it successful.

Emergency exit sign used in the European Union...
Emergency exit sign. There’s not much more I can say about this. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There’s no easy way to swerve these problems. The best advice I can offer is to write it when you feel ready. With Orlando, the shooting seemed rather abstract and far away at first, but I went to a vigil on the following Tuesday. I intended to stay only five minutes, then leave. I ended up staying a lot longer, and only a day or two later was I able to formulate a poetic response to the events.

The quest for immediacy is aided by the advances in communication over the last few decades to the extent that non-journalists can report on events if they happen to be in the vicinity. But there is a movement that wants to recapture the benefit of hindsight. Delayed Gratification isn’t interested in stories newer than three months. The magazine likes to look back and examine what happened in detail when the breath has gone cold. Considering the quoted praise from other news agencies, it looks like they’re onto a winner with this business model.

And I wonder whether we can use this approach for fiction? Might there be a gap in the market for a magazine that prints creative responses to world events three months on? It seems an ideal length of time to me: enough for the writer to construct and edit a decent-sized piece, but not so long that it’s completely out of the public’s consciousness. If there’s anyone who seriously thinks this is a good idea, let’s talk.

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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.