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.

From our Correspondents

I started this blog in October 2013 with no real expectation of gaining an regular audience. As I mentioned at the time, it was done as an experiment to make me write more regularly.

Over time, the number of people reading it has steadily increased. Any given week, I can bank on between 4 to 6 people pressing the Like button, and they are all appreciated.

Every so often, I’ll receive replies to my entries. Most often, it’s from my pal Webgirluk, whom I’ve known for nearly two decades from LiveJournal. Then last week, I found a comment from someone I met at a poetry workshop a few years back.

This started me thinking how bad I am at reading others’ entries. I have followed a lot of people over the last eight years, but I rarely have a chance to read their words, let alone comment on them.

I spend a lot of time speaking to writers and organising events, and I wish I could say I’d make the time to read the words of my WordPress contacts, but I can’t make that promise. The best I can offer is that I know they’ll always be there for when it’s possible to read them.

Finding a Suitable Writing Spot

One of my favourite places to write is a particular McDonald’s restaurant, especially on a Saturday morning.

There’s no obvious reason why it should be this way. The place is on an industrial estate with a view onto dull buildings and a car park, yet if I go there on any given Saturday morning, I’ll come away with something written or redrafted. Perhaps it’s by association; I used to live almost across the road and it was the most convenient venue that wasn’t home.

I haven’t been there recently because of local restrictions. For weeks upon weeks, pubs were closed in Scotland, while restaruants and cafes were only allowed to offer a takeaway service. During this time, I discovered I was craving somewhere to write that wasn’t at home.

I’ve found I’m able to batter through a lot of work in pubs on a Monday or a Tuesday. While writing and editing this entry, I’ve taken advantage of a quiet pub and a bus journey. I will be back to McDonald’s in the future, but not just yet.

Additionally, I’ve discovered I don’t much like writing outside. It’s not just that the sun makes it difficult to read the laptop screen, or rain makes it impossible to use paper, but I don’t find it very productive nor satisfying and I don’t know the reason. That said, I still find that going for a walk is good for genetrating ideas or consolidating existing notions.

Now it’s possible to go to many places again, I hope it’ll do wonders for increasing my output.

Coffee and Cosy Poetry

On Saturday evening, I attended my first poetry writing group in person for many months, held in the Blend Coffee Lounge in Dundee.

I first learnt about this directly from the café, as they asked me to pass it on to any writers who might be interested. They were also hosting separate art and craft events at the same time.

The intention here was to write what was described as ‘cosy’ poetry. Rebecca Baird read us some Wendy Cope and similar poets, then invited us to pen our own verses, mimicking the style of what we’d heard.

When I started writing about a decade ago, this is exactly the type of class I would take part in. Just as actors often attend improv groups to sharpen their reflexes, I highly recommend writers find a circle where you’re given a few words or a scenario and are asked to write a poem or a passage inspired by what you’ve heard.

In this case, I wrote for a solid 10 minutes, making each line of the piece begin with first words of the previous line. I haven’t been in a flow like that for a long time and I think I can edit that piece so to make it even better.

As yet, I don’t know when or if there will be another one of these, but I’m looking forward to taking part again.

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.

Back in the Writing Saddle

The last week has proved to be quite a productive one, even if my pieces were inspired more by deadlines than by the need to express my thoughts.

For starters, my poetry circle is compiling an anthology to mark the 250th birthday of Sir Walter Scott. My original plan was to copy selected lines from the Mark Twain book Life on the Mississippi, in which he levels a number of criticisms at Scott, and create a poem from those. It wasn’t happening that way, but I was able to write a shorter verse during a bus journey.

I also have a pal who runs the writing podcast Story Circle Jerk. Unfortunately, the latest episode has been held up with technical problems, so Kai asked previous guests to submit readings of original flash fiction to appear in a future one. I actually submitted two pieces, allowing the host to choose: an old piece that was revamped for the occasion, and a new one inspired by the title of the podcast.

Finally, I’ve been working on a longer-form piece since last year. It’s not ready to be shown to the public at this stage, but the feedback I’ve received from the other website users has been encouraging. I’d posted a one-off short story, never expecting it to spawn no less than seven sequels, with another one in the pipeline. My current thoughts are to draw them together into a single 15,000-word volume.

On top of this, I’m once again starting to see writer pals getting published, being booked for events, launching pamphlets, &c. It even turns out I know someone involved in Life & Rhymes, which won a BAFTA on Sunday. I feel all this energy starting to rub off on me, and I hope I can sustain it and create something useful with it.

Building an Archive

Just before I settled down to write this, I spotted I’ve published exactly 400 blog entries since beginning in 2013.

On the one hand, that’s not surprising as it equates to approximately one post per week, yet it’s still a powerful demonstration of how regular and consistent writing can help to build a useful archive.

Let’s take my own work as an example. In the folders containing my poetry and short stories, I have more than 320 distinct pieces. I also like to keep revisions, so many of them house multiple copies showing the evolution of each piece: some complete and others abandoned.

If you’re a new writer, I strongly advise you to keep all your work, even if you don’t like it at the time. If there’s one lesson I’ve learnt from a decade of writing, it’s that some pieces need to be left in a drawer for a while and looked at again with fresh eyes.

Last year, I tasted this from the other side when I started taking art lessons last year. One recurring problem – especially at the beginning – was when I knew something was wrong with my drawing, but I didn’t know how to fix it. Perhaps one day I’ll be able to go back and see what’s wrong.

I’ve also had a hand in creating an archive of other people’s work.

Since March of last year, my open-mike night Hotchpotch has maintained a YouTube account in lieu of live events. I was initially disappointed that we receive perhaps five submissions per month compared to the 25 or so who would perform in person. But those small contributions each month have steadily built up to a library of 73 videos at last count.

When people now ask what our event is like, we can now direct them towards that page. For that reason, I’m keen to maintain it even once we can meet up again.

Finding Poetry from Odd Sources

Poets are often characterised as agonising for hours over a single word or phrase, or even a punctuation mark. Yet sometimes, the source material arrives almost wholesale and just needs a little packaging. This is the art of found poetry.

In 2003, the journalist Hart Seely wrote a piece for the Slate website in which he took chunks of speeches by Donald Rumsfeld, who was then the US Secretary of Defense, and turned them into short verses. The phrase ‘There are known knowns,’ caught the imagination of the public for a brief time.

Sometimes the phrase is just a single line that the poet then expands into a further thought. Some years ago, Luke Wright took a quote by Boris Johnson and turned it into a piece called Once You Clear the Bodies. In this instance, a lot has been added to that one line in a satirical manner.

Away from politics, a classic source of material is the shipping forecast, issued by the Met Office. Looking at any given part of it, there are no wasted words; even a phrase like ‘gale force 8’ often has ‘force’ removed to increase its brevity. The forecast is also broadcast on BBC Radio 4, always at a moderate pace, which is easily parroted and parodied.

If you’re dabbling in found poetry, always be careful not to steal someone’s work outright. The examples above use politicians’ statements and public weather reports, so they’ll generally be safe to use.

But simply adding line breaks to work that’s already creative, such as a novel or a film script, is unlikely to be considered fair use. In short: have fun but be cautious.

Style Counsel

Every so often, I find I naturally lean towards writing in a certain style. There was a long while where I was churning out poems in triolet form, then I went through a clerihew period, and a time of short free-verse work.

At the moment, I’m drawn towards producing longer and more wistful pieces, as demonstrated in last week’s entry with a video of a recent poem called The Living Ghosts. With a running time of more than two minutes, it’s the longest poem I’ve produced for some time.

Sometimes there will be a trigger for writing in a particular manner, but often there isn’t anything specific.

I find that if you have such an impetus, the best way to deal with it is to run with it. I have a spot at an open-mike on Sunday, and I want to produce something original, so I’ll be letting that wistfulness come out before it turns into another style.

Hearing Yourself Back

Over approximately a ten-year period, I volunteered at three different radio stations. The first was a student station at the University of the West of Scotland, which overlapped with my second, a community station in Govan. These gigs were then followed by an eight-year stint on hospital radio in Dundee.

During this time, I became so accustomed to hearing recordings of my work that I can’t recall the last time it bothered me. As such, I often forget that many people don’t like listening to themselves.

The main reason I gave up the hospital radio was to focus on writing, but the ability to play back your own recordings is definitely a transferable skill. I also have a camcorder, and I used to ask someone to film my live performances so I could learn from them.

During this last year of online gigs, going on camera has become almost the only way to perform to a live audience. Here’s one that’s been submitted to Poets, Prattlers, and Pandemonialists for an event tonight:

Submission to Poets, Prattlers, and Pandemonialists for an event tonight.

When I look at that, I can see it’s not very well framed, and there are a few pauses towards the end as the last few lines were improvised. However, the sound is nice and loud, so it’s good enough for the purposes of the event.