Redrafting the Unredraftable

Exactly six years ago, I made the first draft of a poem called Sir Madam. The gender identity of the main character is undefined, and the narrative takes a condensed look at this person’s life, culminating in an incident that happens on a train.

This is the only one of my pieces I’ve been genuinely scared to perform, fearing I’d hit the wrong wording, tone or point of view. However, it’s become a piece that I’ve performed at slams and other gigs, and it does receive a positive reaction.

Until a few weeks ago, the text seemed set in stone, but the title started bothering me. Not only has terminology has moved on in the last six years, I now felt the character needed to be given a name, and that name is Shannon, so the title has also been revised.

I also took the opportunity to rearrange and redraft the rest of the text. Although I’ve been writing poetry for nearly a decade now, I still made a rookie mistake on Sunday when I started redrafting just before a gig, held online by Poets, Prattlers and Pandemonialists. I thought once I’d shuffled around a few lines, that would be it, but it still didn’t look how I wanted it.

As my turn rapidly approached, I decided to read out something else. Besides, the tone of Shannon might have brought down the light mood of the room. But I will return to the piece and I will redraft it to my liking once more.

How The Live Scene is Doing

This entry serves as a kind of companion piece to last week, where I talked about still being able to hold the open-mike night Hotchpotch.

It did indeed go ahead, but with substantially reduced attendance. On any other night, we can normally welcome upwards of 30 people in the room, with more than half of the attendees taking a turn on stage. But last week, we saw less than ten readers.

To be fair, a few of them had called off in advance because they were either away for Christmas or didn’t want to catch anything before seeing relatives, so we made the best of it. Dispensing with the timer, anyone who wanted to read was allowed two turns, with a drinks break in the middle. I’d encouraged the absentees to come instead to the virtual version that Sunday, called Hotchpotch Beyond.

But a smaller pub attendance didn’t translate to a larger online presence. There, we welcomed two genuine readers – one Scottish, another from Russia – while two troublemakers were booted out and reported to Zoom. In November, the Beyond event had to be abandoned altogether because only one other person turned up.

Yesterday morning, I made an executive decision to suspend Beyond, and I told the pub regulars before the wider membership. Nonetheless, our previous online presence has shown we’ve been able to reach an otherwise untapped market.

I can’t stress enough that it’s never the fault of the audience if they don’t turn up. It’s up to me as an organiser to attract attendees, and to show them a good time once they’re through the door, so it’s us who needs to adapt. It’s a much bigger question how we’re going to adapt to reach that otherwise untapped market, but it’s one that we’ll work on.

Changing Times and a Change of Time

I’ve left it until the last minute to write this entry. It’s not entirely because I’ve been busy – although that’s a factor – but because I wanted to hear the announcement today from the Scottish First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon.

Tomorrow is the next instalment of my open-mike evening Hotchpotch, and it was expected that new restrictions would be brought in today on account of the Omicron variant of COVID-19. Happily, nothing in the announcement affects our ability to hold the event tomorrow, even if more members might choose instead to attend our virtual event on Sunday.

Last week, we were also able to run a new version of our gameshow The Literal Flow Test, involving Christmas-themed topics, as part of a wider programme of events. I might come back to this topic in a future week as there’s a story to be told there as well.

The one event that isn’t back in person is National Novel Writing Month (NaNo). As that organisation has a largely top-down approach, all the regions in the world have been advised not to meet except online, even if our local authorities allow it. Which brings me to a point about the timing of my weekly blog posts.

When I started writing this blog, I was able to update regularly at 5pm on a Monday. This evolved into 6pm on a Tuesday, and that lands squarely during the NaNo meetings. That used to make sense because I would talk to people around a table while using my PC to type the entry.

Because I’m now using my PC to talk to members and write at the same time, it’s not so simple. As such, from next week, I’ll be updating this blog at 8pm on a Tuesday. The time is still subject to a trial run, but expect my entries to appear a couple of hours later.

Murder, She Implied

Turn on the TV any given afternoon, and chances are you’ll find what may be termed a cosy crime drama, from Quincy ME via Midsomer Murders to the relatively recent The Doctor Blake Mysteries.

Yet despite the deaths that are central to the storylines, they remain PG-rated, and would never be categorised alongside – for example – NCIS or Criminal Minds. So why is this?

The answer lies in what’s portrayed onstage and offstage. Whereas CSI can show graphic violence or injuries front and centre, the most you’ll see in Murder She Wrote is a dead body slumped over a desk with no visible blood.

Offstage events are an underrated tool in a writer’s arsenal. They can help to further the plot without slowing it down.

Let’s say a character has a meeting to discuss the details of a project. Rather than writing page upon page of negotiation, it can be more effective to show the person going into the meeting at the end of one chapter, then summarising to someone else over coffee in a subsequent chapter.

Some publishers even ask that certain themes are kept offstage. The fiction guidelines for The People’s Friend require that themes such as divorce are kept away from the main narrative.

Cleaning Up This Town

Regular readers will know that I run Hotchpotch, an open-mike night for writers rather than musicians. Over the last 18 months, we’ve been holding it online and experimenting with different formats.

Last week, it was confirmed that we were able to go back to our previous venue. For the foreseeable future, however, it won’t be as simple as just turning up with a microphone and some poetry.

The main health hotspot is the microphone itself, which can be shared by between ten and 20 people of an evening, and can therefore pick up a lot of bacteria.

As such, I’ve bought 400 disposable covers for the top. After every reader, the surface will be wiped down and a new cover applied. Because I address the audience for a few seconds after each speaker, I’ve also cut down on cleaning by buying a headset microphone for my own use. There will also be the option for readers not to use the sound system at all.

This is what 400 disposable microphone covers look like.

That, however, only caters for the people who come along to the pub. We’ve seen a thirst over the last 18 months to participate from outside our home city. For many, it was inconvenient or impossible to travel into Dundee, while others weren’t able to navigate the stairs in the venue, or are not ready to mix until the public health threat passes.

In response, we’re trialling an online edition called Hotchpotch Beyond. This works the same way, with the sole exception that priority will be given to those who weren’t at the in-person version. The trial will last for three months to gauge interest.

To join in either of these events, Hotchpotch is on Wednesday 15 September at 7pm in the Hunter S Thompson pub, while Hotchpotch Beyond is on Sunday 19 September at 7pm on Zoom.

Back to Making Plans

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been invited to meetings with people in different parts of the literary scene.

The first of these was a pal from the Scottish Book Trust. He and his colleagues are trying to set up a professional spoken word organisation in Scotland that’s similar to Apples & Snakes in England.

As my own events have been passion projects rather than for profit, I was limited in how much I could contribute directly. However, I was able to point him towards others in and around Dundee who more readily fitted the bill.

In the other meeting, I was part of a group of performers and producers. The plan is to hold a Fringe-style programme of events in Dundee in September, and I liked the organiser’s attitude, particularly towards audience safety.

Before this opportunity came up, I’d already been devising a stage show for people accustomed to live performance. I didn’t expect to have just a month and a half to put it together, however, so the next few weeks are going to be intense.

Making Trade-Offs to Keep an Event Running

Yesterday saw another edition of Hotchpotch Presents… on Zoom. We had a marvellous time, and with a relatively small group, so it felt more intimate.

This format is based upon the in-person writers’ open-mike night I would otherwise run, simply called Hotchpotch, with the difference that the line-up is decided in advance, rather than improvised on the night. In my own experience, our free-and-easy vibe has worked in person, but it’s proved necessary to have an established running order for our online events.

This format has evolved over the last 15 months as a result of the trade-offs we’ve had to consider.

Hotchpotch Presents… currently happens once a quarter. What’s great is that it always evokes a colloborative spirit, shown last night when audience members volunteered to perform in place of absent readers. On the other side of the coin, these events are also more difficult to arrange, and I know some members avoid chatting online outside of work as they do it so often during the day.

In the other months, we use YouTube, where – by contrast – members can submit in their own time with less pressure to perform, and it’s far easier to compile a playlist than to control a gathering. However, you also lose that community spirit.

All being well with the easing of restrictions, the plan is to hold the next Hotchpotch as a live event over the next few months. Failing that, we’ll revert to Presents… as a plan B in September.

But that easing also brings its trade-offs. Members have become accustomed to being able to view the event without having to physcially be in Dundee, which is ideal for those unable to travel or navigate the stairs down to the pub basement.

But one question is: the pub is traditionally a self-enclosed space, so will other members be willing to read if strangers are listening over the Internet? Even if we do it that way, will the technical side become needlessly complicated?

However, one factor will help in the decision-making process. I like to keep a ‘cabinet office’ of trusted members who can offer advire. We have a group chat that currently contains 18 regulars.

Since any decisions made about the group will also affect their experience, I know that if we can come to a consensus about a given issue, then it’s probably the right path to take.

Watching What You Wouldn’t Normally Watch

Not far from where I live is the Dundee Repertory Theatre, known locally as simply the Rep. The programme is a mixture of classic plays, contemporary works and local interest productions that appeal largely to a Scottish audience.

There was a time when I’d go there with my theatre buddy to see just about everything in the programme, but that hasn’t been possible for some time. Recently, however, the theatre has started the Rep Studios streaming service.

The first play to be streamed, Smile, is one of those local interest productions, about the football manager Jim McLean.

The tickets sold by Rep Studios are all timed like stage shows, usually for 2pm and 7pm, and that led me to think I’d be seeing a live performance transmitted from the theatre. Instead, the show is pre-recorded. I know this because I logged in early, expecting to see a countdown clock, yet it started straight away.

I’d waited until the last few days of its run because while I’d like the service to succeed, sport is not an area of interest to me. In fact, I didn’t mention it to my theatre buddy either as I knew she would feel the same. Ultimately, I’m glad I watched it, although I didn’t find it outstanding and I probably wouldn’t seek out a re-run.

The first time I encountered a streaming theatre production was not at home, but in a cinema, maybe seven or eight years ago. This was a National Theatre production – probably Shakespeare – and it was broadcast live.

Yet I felt a distinct vibe that they didn’t much like doing it this way. For a start, they could charge twice as much for an in-person performance, and the audience would have the draw of seeing Benedict Cumberbatch or Daniel Radcliffe live on stage.

The economics of this likely tell a different story. Cinemagoers were charged perhaps half as much as the theatre audience, with the trade-off that more than twice as many people could potentially see the play without any more performances being staged. I imagine the actors received extra pay for the broadcasts, although such transactions are typically kept confidential.

I’m going to keep an eye on how Rep Streaming emerges and evolves, and I look forward to the day I can next to my theatre buddy again.

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.

It’ll Be Alright on the Night

On Thursday, I was invited to take part in a video project called 12 Days of Gratitude.

This initiative was started by Darryl Gaffney du Plooy who runs a cafe and a community hub. His intention is to make a compilation of a dozen poems to be published over Christmas, all following the theme of gratitude.

We filmed my piece at a public amphitheatre. Even though I was still performing to a microphone and a camera, just as I could at home, it was a joy to have someone present to witness it. There’s even a sweet spot in the arena that’s difficult to pinpoint, but when it’s found, it noticably amplifies your voice.

Unlike most live performances, there was an opportunity to record the poem as many times as we liked. This was almost exclusively for technical reasons because I didn’t fluff my lines too much.

I look forward to seeing what happens with this project, especially as I don’t yet know where the gratidude of the other 11 poets will be directed.