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.

It’s Fun to Stay at the ALCS.

Some time ago, On the advice of Writing Magazine, I joined the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society (ALCS). If you’ve ever had an article, script or book published, or if you’ve made a contribution to a book, this not-for-profit organisation collects and pays the secondary royalties. Two-thirds of the money is generated by photocopying, scanning and digital copying.

English: A small, much used Xerox photocopier ...
English: A small, much used Xerox photocopier in the library of GlenOak High School in Canton, Ohio, USA. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Lifetime membership of the ALCS costs a one-off fee of £36, but you don’t have to pay anything upfront as it’s deducted from your royalty payments. Likewise, you won’t pay anything if they don’t collect any money for you.

The payments are sent out twice a year, and the March one arrived last week. I was surprised to find I was in profit from the three works I’d registered up to that point.

I debated whether or not to reveal the actual figure. I’ve decided to do so on this occasion by way of encouraging others to register. After the £36 fee was deducted, I was left with £84.12. This isn’t a massive sum, but it’s money that would otherwise have been given to someone else or never have been paid. By contrast, The Purple Spotlights EP has only earned me a total of £7.10 from sales, most of that from the first month after release.

I therefore urge you to join the ALCS today and potentially start receiving those missing payments for your work.

The Stories of Secession

In 2014, there was a referendum on whether Scotland should be an independent country, in which 55% of the voters wanted to remain part of the UK. Over the last week, the issue has again raised its head.

Image of Scotland in the UK
Image of Scotland in the UK (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

At almost every literary event I attended ahead of the poll, I found the issue raised again and again in prose and poetry. Some of what I heard was heavy-handed polemic, while others crafted nuanced satires of the situation.

Regardless of quality, though, it encouraged all sorts of people to express their views through the spoken word and to believe that others might be influenced by their writings.

In my experience, much of the creative work was pro-independence. Such was the mood in the country that the National Collective sprung up, bringing together different types of artist to campaign for a Yes vote under one umbrella.

So the prose and poetry that stems from a potential second referendum will likely be even more passionate: from Yes voters who’ve been granted a second chance and from No supporters who believe the question was settled in 2014.

And further to my last entry, the 18-to-22 age group was considered to be the most apathetic generation when I first attended university in 2002. Maybe it was because we had a Labour government back then; maybe it was because George W Bush hadn’t yet invaded Iraq.

Whatever the reason, the situation today couldn’t be more different. Some of the most active campaigners are those of college age, and I barely go a week without seeing a university literary event responding to current affairs.

Let’s see what happens next.

Looking Forward, Not Back

At Christmas, BBC Four broadcast the last stand-up show by Bob Monkhouse before his death in 2003.

He was already one of my favourite comedians, but my respect for him increased as it became clear he liked to look to the next generation as well as his own. At one point, he made a complimentary reference to The League of Gentlemen. The invited audience at the gig included comics such as Mark Steel and Jon Culshaw, who were both breaking into television at the time.

Franciabigio's Portrait of a Young Man writing
Franciabigio’s Portrait of a Young Man writing (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As I only began writing when I was nearly 27, I’ve frequently met others who are younger but had been expressing themselves that way since they could hold a pen. In 2016, I completed a Masters degree. I found most of my classmates were in their early to mid-20s, so up to ten years younger than me.

Yet the work they produced was often outstanding, even from those who hadn’t completed an ordinary English degree: some created elaborate fantasy worlds, others wrote short pieces with incredible punch. My favourite writer in the class would produce prose and poetry on themes such as feminism or family. These themes wouldn’t normally excite me, but she’d been writing for a long time and had personal experiences to draw upon. Shortly before we graduated, I told her how much I enjoyed her work.

Incidentally, the course leaders’ personal library was stocked with at least as many contemporary books as classics, partly because they were sent for the student magazine to review.

Last week, I was invited to operate the microphone for a group of 14- and 15-year-old writers as part of Dundee Women’s Festival. The girls – and one boy – read stories written by themselves and their friends. Despite their age, what struck me were the heavy topics they chose to cover: suicide, kidnap, the care system, and so forth. I do think many of the stories needed redrafting and editing, but each had potential and none of them shied away from speaking to the audience.

As some writers age, they declare that anything written after a certain year is rubbish, often without so much as looking at it. Conversely, I’m excited about the authors of the future. Of course it’s important to look back at the classics, but times change and I’m satisfied there are young folk out there ready to document that new world through their storytelling.

Slam

For a few years now, I’ve been going to the StAnza poetry festival in St Andrews. On Saturday, I was invited to compete in the Slam, hosted by Paula Varjack. Although I’d applied some time ago, I was only told that week I’d been granted a place.

There are a few simple rules:

  • The running order is drawn from a hat.
  • In round one, everyone is allowed to read a poem for up to two minutes. You’ll be stopped if you run over.
  • In round two, after the interval, the top four scorers from round one are given 2½ minutes each to read another poem.
  • The 2017 Slam Champion is crowned.

    English: Textbox at the Casa Encendida (2008) ...
    English: Textbox at the Casa Encendida (2008) – Textbox is a performance space for spoken word poetry and literature. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The first poem was always going to be Crossing the Road, published last year; it’s punchy and takes less than a minute to perform. The strength of this Slam is that there’s no ‘house style’, so the contenders spoke on subjects as diverse as ageing, love, insomnia and contemporary politics. Just about everyone put in a sterling performance, including the other first-timers, and I thought I made a good job of mine.

The exact number of points given by the judges were not revealed, but five people progressed to round 2 because two contenders had scored exactly the same, none of which where me. The ultimate victor was Kevin Mclean, who goes on to compete in the Scottish Slam.

I’m not disheartened by my placing. I’m accustomed to performing in front of large audiences, but not with a competitive element. So what I want to do now is sharpen my skills even more by studying what other poets do and how they appeal to the audience.

Elsewhere at the festival, I witnessed excellent performances from Jackie Kay and Sarah Howe, and I chatted to the latter for a while. I also bought Paula Varjack’s book, and filmed performances from poets inspired by looking around St Andrews.

Your Weekly Writing Update by Grammarly

A few weeks ago, I started a subscription to Grammarly.  As I sometimes churn out my writing work quickly, especially blog posts, it’s a useful tool to pick up any spelling or grammar errors that creep in.

There’s already a proprietary checker in Microsoft Word, and it’s possible to download browser extensions that perform a similar function. But Grammarly software is consistent in Word, in your browser, and anywhere else you type on your computer. It doesn’t, however, seem to be available for mobile devices.

Every week, I’m sent a summary of how well or badly I’ve performed in my spelling and grammar. Here are selected stats from 06 February to 12 February.

  • You wrote more words than 96% of Grammarly users did.
  • You were more accurate than 82% of Grammarly users.
  • You have a larger vocabulary than 97% of Grammarly users.

So far, I feel like a latter-day Shakespeare. However, it’s not all happy news:

Top 3 grammar mistakes

1. Missing comma in compound sentence: 44 mistakes.
2. Incorrect use of comma: 15 mistakes
3. Missing comma(s) with interrupter: 10 mistakes

Grammarly and I can’t seem to come to an agreement on this issue.

Sometimes it allows the use of the Oxford comma in a list, but sometimes I’m told to take it out. Similarly, I’m often shouted at for placing a comma before and in a sentence, but it’s occasionally required to stay in.

I’ve also discovered a problem with the verb form in the following sentence:

  • The audience here tends to be corporations.

I’m advised this isn’t correct:

tends

So I duly drop the final letter to make the verb agree with the plural subject corporations. Then I’m told:

tend

Now the verb form is incorrect because it doesn’t agree with the singular audience. And so we go around in a loop. There is a facility to add custom spellings or to ignore a suggestion, but no way to let the software learn your writing style or to flag up false positives.

Ultimately, the writer has to determine whether the words that are written, or the way in which they’re written, are suitable for the intended purpose. Grammarly is a tool that uses algorithms to apply the conventional rules of English; it’s not a textbook that must be followed precisely.

Further to Last February

Exactly 12 months ago, I was given a chance to attend a masterclass at the Scottish Poetry Library in Edinburgh.

Performance poet Francesca Beard led the weekend class, with the aim of helping the participants form a full-length spoken-word show. Like many performers, she believes revealing part of your inner self on stage – or indeed on a page – makes for compelling work.

One year on, I’ve completed a few projects as a result of that fabulous weekend:

The Purple Spotlights EP

Before I had enough material for a full-length show, I did have enough poetry for a four-track EP.

I chose three existing pieces around the theme of friendship. Additionally, I wrote Seven Months especially for the release, which takes more than five minutes to perform. In print, that would be too long for most magazines, but ideal for audio.

The recording process taught me a little about performance and a lot about packaging my work for an audience who aren’t in front of me.
The EP was released in April 2016 and is available on Amazon, iTunes and Spotify, plus many other outlets.

Scottish Poetry Library, Crichton's Close, Can...
Scottish Poetry Library, Crichton’s Close, Canongate, Edinburgh Designed by Malcolm Fraser Architects, frequented by many excellent writers. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Crossing the Road

On the second day of the masterclass, Beard asked us to identify the subject or theme we were scared to write about. Then she asked us to write about it, and I did. We all did.

This gave me the confidence to interest the publisher in a previously-written work called Crossing the Road that deals directly with my bisexuality. It was then included in the Aiblins: New Scottish Political Poetry anthology; the first publication I approached. I was pleased to be invited back to Edinburgh, then to Aberdeen, for the launches.

I felt this poem would have more impact if it weren’t read from a sheet of paper, so I committed it to memory. From that point on, I’ve tried to do the same with all my performed work.

Sir Madam

Over the weekend, I became acquainted with the other participants, and I remain friends with most of them. One introduced me to the intense and angry work of Andrea Gibson and, by coincidence, I happened upon the Kate Tempest poem The Woman the Boy Became.

These influences helped me to shape an idea I’d had for years, but hadn’t been able to commit to paper. Sir Madam is a character who identifies as somewhere between male and female. Owing to the subject matter, I was particularly nervous about performing it. However, I received several positive comments afterwards, some from quarters I hadn’t expected.

Jennifer Goldman’s Electric Scream

The main aim of the workshop was to form a full-length spoken-word show. I’ve used some of the techniques taught to write a series of monologues that I’m seeking to turn into a one-hour play.

That isn’t finished yet, but it might not exist at all if it hadn’t been for that weekend with Francesca Beard.